If you’ve ever heard the terms ‘second unit’ or ‘second unit director’ thrown around without knowing what they mean, then you have come to the right place. We will be breaking down what a second unit is, what it is used for, and what exactly the role of a second unit director entails. We’ll also conclude with some tips on how you could become a second unit director. Let’s get to it.
Second camera unit
First, let’s define Second Unit Director
Before we explain the role of the overall role of the second unit, let’s start by examining its leader, the second unit director. If any other unknown terms jump out at you while reading this article, our ultimate guide to filmmaking terminology is a helpful resource for looking them up. You can also check out our Guide to Film Crew Positions for the complete picture.
2ND UNIT DIRECTOR DEFINITION
What is a second unit director?
A 2nd unit director is in charge of a film’s secondary crew and a second camera unit that shoots scenes separately from the main unit during principal photography. The 2nd unit director works under the film’s main director and often has no involvement in the main crew. The second unit often shoots simultaneously with the main unit working on different scenes in order to save time. A single scene within a final film or television may be constructed of footage shot by both the first unit and the second unit, blended seamlessly in the edit. In Hollywood, action sequences are sometimes completely handed off to 2nd unit directors.
2nd Unit Director Overview:
- Oversees auxiliary crew
- Used in both film and television
- Often shoots overly simple or highly technical scenes
- Unit is usually tasked with shots that don't involve principal actors
There is a lot of material shot by additional units, probably more than you realize. Especially in action films where additional coverage is needed to stitch together elaborate sequences. Here is a look at a second camera unit in action on the new James Bond film.
Particularly large film shoots may have as many as three or four production units but each of these units would be referred to as an “additional second unit.” The terms “third unit” and “fourth unit” are never used, similar to how there are 2nd 2nd ADs but never 3rd ADs.
Second camera unit
Why are second units necessary?
A second unit will likely not be necessary for an indie film. But larger studio films often rely heavily on a second unit to help keep shoots on tight schedules and to keep the budget from ballooning out of control.
There may be, but not necessarily, some overlap in crew members between the main unit and the second unit depending on how scenes are scheduled and divided up between the units. Here's some BTS featuring the stunt coordinator and 2nd unit director discussing his work on Daredevil.
Second units are commonly used to capture certain types of scenes that are either deemed too dangerous, too time-consuming, or not important enough for the main unit to handle. Whether it’s right or wrong, the second camera unit is considered less valuable than much of the main unit’s crew and is sometimes paid less for their time, which helps studios keep budgets lower.
Establishing shots, aerial photography, B-roll, inserts, pickups, and cutaways are commonly handed off for the second unit to capture outside of the main unit’s production schedule. Scenes that could prove dangerous, such as stunts or pyrotechnics, are often handled by the second unit as well.
Action sequences are commonly handled in part or in full by the second unit. This is the reason why the action scenes in a film sometimes feel different in style from the surrounding scenes.
But who leads the second unit?
Second Camera Unit
What does a second unit director do?
The second unit is led by none other than the second unit director. The work done by the second unit can sometimes take on the appearance of its own smaller production within the larger project.
The second unit director works underneath the main unit director and the other above the line crew. They may also find themself with a great deal of creative control over the scenes shot by the second unit, particularly action sequences. Some main unit directors like to be heavily involved in the scenes captured by the second unit, while other directors may prefer to remain completely hands-off.
Having a second unit can allow the primary director to focus on their priorities but it also means sacrificing some creative control over the end product.
Here is John Wick director Chard Stahelski’s second-unit director reel.
Below is Atomic Blonde director David Leitch’s second-unit director reel.
In Hong Kong, where many of the best action films have been made, they have a position that essentially fills the role of the second unit director but a different title is applied to this role.
In Hong Kong, the title used is “action director.”
This division between action and the rest of a film’s dramatic scenes is nothing new in the world of filmmaking. The action director handles fights, chases, shootouts, and stunts, while the director handles all of the non-action scenes.
Second Camera Unit
How to get involved in a second unit
Getting involved in a film’s second unit is usually easier than getting involved in the first unit, aside from low-rung positions such as PA. Since the second unit is considered auxiliary, some of the positions on a second unit crew may be considered entry-level whereas those same positions may not be considered entry-level on the main unit.
Serving as a second unit director can serve as a stepping stone to becoming a fully-fledged film or television director. The average second unit director can expect to earn a $75,000 salary, with the most sought-after second unit directors making as much as $130,000 a year. Working as a second unit director can also be a way into joining the Director’s Guild, which will make finding subsequent directorial work that much easier.
Working as second unit directors was how Chad Stahelski and David Leitch received the opportunity to make John Wick and then move on to other projects. Extraction was another recent film to be directed by a filmmaker who had previously worked as a second unit director.
As with most entry-level crew positions, second-unit work can be found by networking with filmmakers, contacting your location production office, or by checking job postings on sites like Productionhub.com or Stage32.com.
How to Become a Director
If you want to get started as a director but second unit directing isn’t quite your speed, you might want to jump right into main-unit directing. It can be tricky to get started as a director with no prior experience but it is definitely possible. Read our guide to find out how.