Second Unit Director
The second unit of a film is a crew that is responsible for shooting supplementary footage; this includes establishing shots, stunts, inserts, and cutaways. This crew is separate from the first unit, which is the team that films scenes with the leading cast. When a series of shots are deemed too expensive, dangerous, or time-consuming for the first unit to accomplish, the second unit director leads his or her team to capture the necessary scenes.
The second unit director is ultimately responsible for capturing all supplementary footage and maintaining a look that is consistent with scenes filmed by the first unit, ensuring continuity when the sequences are edited together in post-production. Quite often, frames shot by the first and second units are combined into the same sequence of the finished product. Qualities like lighting, shot framing, and other aesthetic attributes must appear seamless, even when the frames are shot weeks apart. The less that has to be fixed in post, the better. To support the second unit director, he or she will have a full complement of crew, though generally smaller.
In ideal situations, the second unit director and cinematographer will have the benefit of reviewing dailies from the first unit, examining filmed scenes that will lead in and out of the ancillary footage to be captured. This gives the crew a point of reference for ensuring that new sequences will match up with the existing scenes. However, that is not always the case. Quite often, the second unit and first unit are working simultaneously in separate locations to meet production deadlines. Therefore, communication between the second unit director and the first unit is vitally important.
In the case of shooting inserts and coverage shots, an editor may be on set to help guide the second unit director during filming. The editor knows the shots he or she needs to complete a sequence to the director’s liking, and his or her insight is valuable to the second unit.
Skills & Education
A college degree in film and television production provides a thorough education in cinematography, lighting, audio, and other technical aspects of the production process necessary for a career as a second unit director. This person does not need to be an expert in every field but should have a thorough understanding of each. Furthermore, a film degree will give you a valuable background in the art and theory of filmmaking. Courses in directing actors and performance are also beneficial in learning how to work with actors. A second unit director must be a competent leader who is able to juggle logistical concerns with ease and communicate effectively.
What to Expect
The role of a second unit director is often the last stepping stone toward the first gig as a full-fledge director. Those hired to lead the second unit will typically have spent several years as a first and second assistant director. Another path toward this career is as a stunt coordinator. In many cases, second unit crews will execute most, if not all, of the stunt and special effects sequences of a production. As such, the role of the second unit director and stunt coordinator can be combined. Notable stunt coordinators turned second unit directors include Vic Armstrong (Mission Impossible: III) and Simon Crane (X-Men: Last Stand).
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