What Is A….. Second Unit?

December 27, 2014

As film and TV shoots get more and more complicated, additional crew is almost always a must. With so many moving parts, how does any person, IE the director, keep everything organized?


One word: delegation.




As the scale of a shoot grows, so does the director’s dependency on the team they’ve assembled. In many cases, especially with bigger budget blockbusters, the only way to get everything filmed in the given schedule is to shoot at multiple locations at the same time. The director of course usually sticks by the principal actors but what about all the other shoots involved?


That calls for something known as a Second Unit.


In our latest installment of the What Is A….? Series, we delve into the Second Unit, the people whose job it is to pick up all of the slack on a production that the director can’t directly oversee.




While filming, a director will shoot a scene multiple times using different camera angles to get a variety of looks for a scene. Sometimes, they will shoot a scene with multiple cameras to get all of this coverage at once but on many single cam shoots, this means a new setup for each shot. The “Master Shot”, is usually a fairly wide shot that shows the entire scene with all of the actors in frame together. It shows everything that is happening within a given moment.


After this has been finished, the director then picks different angles to get different views to edit in to the master shot, including closeups of the actor’s faces and OTS or Over the shoulder shots which means one actor’s face is framed while the back of the other’s head is shown. Cutting between the master and these different angles gives each scene an energy that one long master shot may lack.


The Second Unit is commonly the team involved in shooting all of the non-principal actor footage. Once the director is satisfied that they have gotten all of the shots they need with their actors, the second unit will be called in to shoot all of the missing pieces for editing purposes. These include:


Establishing shots, or wide shots that set up where a location is in the scene. Exteriors of houses or landscapes are a great example here.

Inserts, which are shots that cover an action occurring within a master shot but emphasizing a different aspect such as a closeup of a hand reaching for something.

Cutaways, which are shots of something else within a scene to break the continuous nature of a master shot. For instance, if a character hears their alarm, there will usually be a cutaway of the clock to show what the character is reacting to.




Most of these shots don’t involve the principal actors so they can be picked up multiple times without fear of burning out the actor. On bigger productions, these can be shot while the first unit (the director with his actors) is shooting elsewhere to maximize their time and resources.


In many ways, the hardest and most important task of the Second Unit is to match the footage the First Unit is shooting so that when it is all edited together it appears seamless. The Second Unit must always be wary of what lenses, lighting and equipment it is using so that their footage matches. A lot of directors use the same team on all of their projects because they know they can trust the Second Unit Director to be very aware and conscious of this.


Working on the Second Units is also an excellent training ground for the crew to hone their skills, as they are essentially shooting the same movie and trying for the same results. A good deal of Second Unit crew from Directors on down have used their work here to springboard to being in charge of First Unit shoots themselves.




Peter Jackson, for instance, hired Andy Serkis of “Gollum” fame to be his second unit director because among so much else, he knew the look Jackson wanted and could give him exactly the same look whenever Jackson could not be present himself. Having someone in charge of the Second Unit who had been so deeply involved in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy from both an acting and technical standpoint proved a vital ingredient in creating the second cycle of movies.


The other major task often given to the Second Unit, especially on big budget films is shooting the stunts.


These setups can take hours upon hours to put together and oftentimes require very daring or dangerous techniques to film. As such, the Second Unit, working closely with the Stunt Team will usually be shooting these sequences while the First Unit shoots the actors elsewhere. In many cases, extensive rehearsals and run-throughs of each stunt will occur and if the First Unit is left waiting for the stunt team to finish their work, no film would ever be finished on time.


Shooting stunts can lead to some very innovative inventions of necessity, such as putting the camera in a harness atop the stunt person or inside of a car about to be sent flipping through the air. Though the mission is to get the shot in the best way possible, there is a lot of room for invention and imagination. Of course, safety must be paramount above all else.




With the advent of CGI, stuntwork can sometimes be done in post-production but for most action movies especially, the stunts prove crucial to the film’s success. Many actors take it as a badge of honor to do their own stunts whenever possible and it adds an element of realism when the audience can actually see a Tom Cruise or Hugh Jackman pulling off a dangerous feat themselves. They wouldn’t be able to do any of it without a great team supporting them of course.


Though they may not be involved in the glitz and glamor side of the filmmaking such as extensively working with the star actors, the Second Unit handles all of the nuts and bolts that truly makes a film complete.


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