The BIG Picture: How Field Notes & Hot Sheets Can Help Track and Sharpen Your Story Skills

•Non-scripted production means anything can happen at anytime…capture the action with these production tips
•Field Notes & Hot Sheets are “un-scripted” staples, we give a step-by-step process to mastering each one
•These production tips also provide a snapshot of the day to the entire production, thus giving you a competitive edge
•A listing of apps that will help you get the job done even faster

Here at MoreMentum, one of the things that we pride ourselves on is sharing helpful production tips.

We post blogs on numerous subjects, ranging from entertainment job sites, terms and definitions to in-depth interviews.

Today, we’re once again sharing in-depth, insider information. This time, we are giving step-by-step instructions and production tips in the realm of non-scripted/reality television.

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Reality can mean a lot of things…not just your favorite binge-worthy, non-scripted shows.

If you’re shooting a documentary, web series, or any other type of short-form content, it may fall under the realm of non-scripted. For that very reason, this blog will help you tremendously during your on-set production day.  Plus, it’ll make the best use of your time throughout the entire production. 

So what’s the secret?  Field Notes and Hot Sheets.

Field Notes and Hot Sheets, they are the stark reality of non-scripted production. They are much valued production tips and skills that every non-scripted/reality producer needs to master.

Why? Because they make the actual “making of…” a heck of a lot easier.

These necessary production tips sound like a sort of shorthand or note taking, which they are. After all, you’re simply writing and summarizing the day’s events. However, that “ease” requires precision, because many people will rely on your reporting of the day’s events.

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PRODUCTION TIPS THAT MATTER FIRST AND FOREMOST: THE PEOPLE

I was recently hired as a Supervising Producer on a show and my main responsibility was to oversee the producers. My job was to give them whatever information or production tips they needed in order to complete their daily tasks. These tasks start with pre-production and span through the post production process.

A job such as Supervising Producer also means working closely with the Executive Producer to assist in plotting out the day-to-day operations and expectations of the production/network.

But it’s more than just expectations that I manage.

The job of any good producer is to keep morale and workflow at a happy maximum. That’s where production tips and treating people like people go hand-in-hand. If you want people to deliver their best, give them the tools, respect and appreciation to help them do so.

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Back to Hot Sheets and Field Notes…

My comfort and confidence levels were high because I knew that my years of experience showed throughout my body of work.

But that notion came to an abrupt halt when I was asked to give up my Supervising Producer position to work as a Story Producer instead.

Beads of sweat began to appear on my brow because I knew this would entail writing Field Notes and Hot Sheets, which are typically required as a Story Producer.

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MoreMentum Entertainment Co-Founder, Kukhautusha Croom

WHY YOU MAY ALREADY BE A SOLID STORY PRODUCER

I had never really worked as a Story Producer. However, I felt confident in the sudden job switch because I had previously worked as a Producer, Supervising Producer, and even Executive Producer. [I break down all the terms below.]

So, here I am working on a show as a Story Producer who was expected to take expert “Field Notes” and write piping hot “Hot Sheets”.

I thought I would fail miserably at both.

It reminded me of that joke that I once heard Arsenio Hall tell on his old late night show. He said, “I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, but nobody told me it was a train.”

Before I let that notion derail my own capabilities, my Executive Producer did express his confidence in me as a Story Producer. Luckily, I was wrong; and he was right. After one day of writing Field Notes and Hot Sheets, I was told I had expertly done my newfound job.

Now, I want to give you that same boost of confidence, because being a “good producer” (whether Field, Story or Post) comes down to being a good storyteller. Really, that’s all it takes and also recognizing when a captivating story unfolds right before your very eyes and then knowing how to best capture that moment/action.

THE “REALITY” OF REALITY PRODUCTION: THE IMPORTANCE OF DOCUMENTING ACTION

“Reality” is a broad term that is used interchangeably with non-scripted production. This includes: docu-series (Deadliest Catch, Pawn Stars); the closely related docu-soap arena (The Real Housewives franchise, Love & Hip Hop); elimination reality (Big Brother, The Amazing Race); dating shows (The Bachelor, The Bachelorette), make-over/renovation (HGTV/DIY networks); and game shows (The Price is Right, Wheel of Fortune).

All of these types of productions have one thing in common, action. And in order to “document” that action and summarize the daily goings-on, this is where “Field Notes” and “Hot Sheets” can come into play.

HOW FIELD NOTES & HOT SHEETS SAVE TIME

Field Notes and Hot Sheets give a daily, “colorful” briefing of what happened, whom it involved, and how it may tie into something that transpired the previous day. (The “why”, whether it’s conflict-based or not, might be revealed that day, or play out through the course of a season’s taping.) You never know where the day’s action may lead, which is why Field Notes and Hot Sheets are essential in non-scripted production.

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The backlot of Paramount pictures.

Think of Field Notes and Hot Sheets as those index cards that you use when plotting out a screenplay or novel. These notes allow you – at a glance – to find out what happened that day, without having to scroll through possibly hours of footage.

In other words, Field Notes and Hot Sheets can be a huge time-saver.

Plus, they’re a great way of quickly communicating with your team of how certain situations and storylines are playing out and give a vivid portrayal without stopping down production. Typically, these Field Notes and Hot Sheets are sent after a shoot wraps for the day. That way, production or the “story team” knows how to follow-up on that day’s events and dispatch your future assignments.

WHO BENEFITS FROM EFFECTIVE FIELD NOTES & HOT SHEETS

Many non-scripted/reality TV productions contain “story teams” or “story departments”, like we mention above, and these individuals work alongside the various show producers.

There are many types of producers and each title comes with its own set of responsibilities. All of them are integral to the final product. Let’s break each position down:

An “Executive Producer” (“EP”) supervises a production on behalf of the network, production company, or investor. They also make sure that projects maintain their creative integrity.

A “Line Producer” manages the budget and ensures that the project is completed on time and within budget. So, as the story unfolds in the field, your Field  Notes and Hot Sheets may play a critical role in budgeting additional shoots.

A “Story Producer” works mainly in reality television and is responsible for crafting a storyline by producing the talent before and during production. This type of producer also works alongside an editor in order to create a compelling storyline using the source footage of that day’s shoot. Sometimes a Story Producer is assigned a “story station”, which is usually a desktop computer with editing software. This is where the Story Producer literally start assembling the raw footage into a string-out AKA rough-cut.

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A rough cut, as it goes through the edit process

Essentially, this is the bare-bones of the story, but it’s a solid foundation for the editor to build upon. These string outs/rough cuts are assembled (if you’re lucky) with the help of transcripts.

Side note: Transcription services are essential when dealing with large volumes of footage, so don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. If you meet opposition, expect to log long hours, and be sure to put in for your much deserved over-time. Working long stretches of hours is, unfortunately, not uncommon in reality television. It’s important to note that this can sometimes be in violation of federal labor laws.

Story Producing is where taking effective “Field Notes” and writing compelling “Hot Sheets” not only comes in handy, but is also a requirement for being a good, consistently in-demand Story Producer.

PRODUCTION TIPS ON CLEAR, CONCISE AND COMPELLING STORY PRODUCING THROUGH FIELD NOTES & HOT SHEETS

Now, let’s first walk through the process of taking great Field Notes.

1) FIELD NOTES: THE FULL BREAKDOWN

Again, Field Notes are actual notes that are taken during that day’s shoot and they reflect any pertinent details of the shoot. For instance, if something funny, dramatic, or interesting happens between the show’s characters or behind the scenes, those details are captured in the Field Notes.

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The EP, studio executives and production professionals, heavily relies upon this detailed chart because it gives a play-by-play snapshot (via time codes and written notes). This snapshot provides the action that takes place from the beginning of the shoot to the very end.

Before you start taking notes, make sure that the time on your watch and the camera’s time code are in sync. This is often referred to as “time of day” and can be accomplished by setting your camera to “free run”. Free run will display time code in military time. This will ensure that your Field Notes reflect the correct time. Now, you’re ready for camera “speed”! You should try and make entries every few minutes.

Yes, it’s a tedious process, and you have to focus and listen closely to what’s being shot; but trust me, having meticulous and organized field notes will help you quickly find specific shots. This set of production tips will be a welcome relief during post, while also giving you more time to concentrate on building a great story.

HOW TO WRITE FIELD NOTES

The most common way to take Field Notes is on a laptop computer, but you can also use a tablet, iPad, and in some cases, a cell phone. Also, don’t forget that power outlets might not be easily accessible on set or on a remote, outdoor shoot, so it’s imperative that you pack a notepad and pens as back up.

Here’s one of my biggest production tips: Don’t try to write full paragraphs of dialogue like a court stenographer. All you need to do is jot down a few distinct lines of dialogue that will give you a sense of how the story flowed throughout the shoot.

Make sure that your field notes are clear and concise and be sure to utilize keywords (i.e., “great”, “funny”, “drama”, etc.). Keywords will help you quickly pinpoint clips when reviewing footage in post.

Field Notes are a crucial part of production because they represent the written version of that day’s shoot. Most of the time, footage from the shoot won’t be immediately available for review, so the field notes will give you a jumpstart on building your scenes and overall narratives.

If your shoot utilizes multiple cameras, make sure that you assign a letter (A, B, C, etc.) to each camera so that scanning for scenes on multiple tapes will be a breeze.

Here are two templates that you can use to take field notes. Of course, you can personalize either format or create your own. Just make sure that the pertinent information is included:

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Now that you’re familiar with the overall process, here are numerous “apps” that will help you take quick, concise, and precise field notes.

PRAC “APP” PRODUCTION TIPS: APPS THAT HELP WITH FIELD NOTES

iFieldNote

This app is extremely simple to use and it’s also free. It has a straightforward approach and it even adds time of day. Once your show wraps, you’ll be able to quickly and easily email your file from the app.

Cut Notes

This is a handy app that you can download on your iPad or phone. It has a lot of preset buttons that can be synced to the timecode of your editing application.

TCode 4.5

One of the cool aspects of this app is that you can download it, try it out, and then decide if you want to purchase it. Like the others mentions, it supports timecode embedded as an audio channel of QuickTime and mp3 files.

Timecode+

This easy-to-use app was created by professional cameramen and producers for use on iPhone and iPad. It syncs to match the timecode on your camera and it has a “quick note” button above the keyboard that will help you create notes without having to type. Then, once you’re done, the app allows you to email your file as an Excel spreadsheet.

Now that you’ve mastered our production tips, being Field Notes, let’s move on to Hot Sheets.

2) HOT SHEETS: THE FULL BREAKDOWN

A Hot Sheet is a one-page summary detailing the events of that day’s shoot. It’s normally written by the Story Producer or Field Producer at the end of the shoot day and then distributed to key executives and the production team.

The Hot Sheet updates everyone on the progression and direction of the story and gives the EP and key executives an opportunity to offer their creative input as well.

When writing a Hot Sheet, it’s okay to use colorful prose, but stick to the facts of the shoot day. Don’t embellish or oversell moments that could excite the execs, but might not make the cut. Otherwise you’ll risk your own credibility.

Here’s an example of a Hot Sheet:

“FRIENDS WITH NO BENEFITS” HOT SHEET: Day One (02/04)

Summary:

Cast arrived a little late, but once shooting started, things literally fell into place; Tony was tipsy and fell over his skateboard. Janie and Carla laughed and Tony retreated to his bedroom from embarrassment.

Greg and Carla settle an old fight (established in the interview, covered by numerous reaction shots), and end up snuggling on the couch and taking selfies.

Janie went to the bedroom to check on Tony and apologize; was surprised to find Tony talking to ex on FaceTime. Janie freaked, smashed Tony’s phone against the mirror.

Carla tried to console Janie, but she wanted to be left alone. In interviews, she said that she was “tired of being Tony’s second choice.”

Overall, emotions settled by end of day and everyone seemed eager for tomorrow’s shoot.

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Ready, set, story-edit

We hope this information will help you take better Field Notes and write effective Hot Sheets. Of course, our ultimate hope with these production tips is that you become a stronger Field or Story Producer. It all adds up to strengthening your own unique voice as an effective storyteller to accurately tell the world, as you see it.

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