Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The 2nd Unit

By Anant Mathur (January 26, 2011)

Many of you're probably unaware but most films have a first and second unit when they're being filmed. The second unit is a team that shoots secondary or minor scenes for a film. The second unit is dissimilar to first unit since they shoots the scenes involving the lead actors. Second unit typically film inserts, cutaways, establishing shots and close-ups. Large productions tend to have several second units which are never referred to as third or fourth unit, but are know as “additional second units." The second unit has its own director and cinematographer.

For example, in the Lord of the Rings trilogy there were as many as 3 second units. The directors of these units are known as second unit director and/or additional unit director. Because of the number of extras involved in LOTR and limited time to shoot all the scenes, director Peter Jackson, delegated several scenes to second and additional second unit directors. Jackson had storyboards of the scenes drawn up and explained to the unit directors how he wanted each scene shot then the unit directors went to their crew and filmed the sequences accordingly.

Second units allow a film's director and lead actors to work efficiently and more cost effectively, by filming only what is required of them. In addition to inserts, cutaways, establishing shots and close-ups, second units also shoot in locations that are too expensive or dangerous to send the first unit. Many times this also involves stunts and scenes with body doubles, and makes continuity between the two units' work challenging. Sometimes the editor overseas the second unit when they're filming inserts because he knows exactly what shots are need for continuity.

Second unit director is stepping stone for aspiring directors to gain experience, and is considered above the post of assistant director. Second unit directors who have gone on to become fully-fledged film directors include Barry Sonnenfeld (The Addams Family), John Glen (On Her Majesty's Secret Service), and Ron Shelton (Bull Durham).

In action films, the job of stunt coordinator is sometimes combined with  second unit director as second units oversee many dialogue-free scenes with stunts and special effects. Some second unit directors make it their careers. An excellent example is Michael D. Moore, who shot the desert chase sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark and has worked on more than sixty films, including The Man Who Would Be King, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

© Anant Mathur. All Rights Reserved.

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