Friday, October 30, 2009

Filmmaker's Journey: Reflection PART 1

*Disclaimer - The opinions, experiences and beliefs you are about to read are that of a strongly independent filmmaker. If you seek technical info let me know - but it all starts with the right mindset.

It was not an easy decision to potentially give up two years of my life to make my first feature film: I had really nice 'career' opportunities knocking at my door and it seemed like I could fall gently into some secured day-to-day film industry work. On the other hand, I had a great idea and some very talented people that saw something and believed in me as much as they did the idea. Also, I had been increasing the scale of my projects over the past few years; with every short I kept raising the bar for myself (testing myself as a producer and director). All signs pointed to making the movie, or taking the plunge. It was a commitment that I could not back out on and I knew that I would become something of a one-man-army in order to finish the film. The film would be a showcasing of lessons learned, relationships formed, resources both built and acquired and finally determination. The strongest drive came from a supportive artistic family who took part in the filmmaking process -  and  of course my daughter.

Before making the film (when still in consideration), I read an interview with Francis Ford Coppola where he said the biggest boost he had as a filmmaker was having a child: taking his life and dreams more seriously. For me, my daughter represents many beautiful things, but I also realized that this project was not going to be a camera test, a 'fun' weekend shoot or anything less than a serious professional endeavor. I'm not telling you to have children - just treat what you do with the utmost respect and professionalism.

BACKGROUND ON MYSELF:  I've been making movies since I was a kid so I've learned things about storytelling over time. I've learned to envision something and try your best to recreate that vision working with other people and solving problems that arise. I've also done just about every crew position you can imagine, so I know what it's like to be in the other person's shoes. I don't have tons of money, I'm not some somebody with loaded parents or anything like that nor was I going to go so deep into debt that the movie became a 'problem'. Money has never meant 'good movie'. Creativity is the answer to not having a giant budget. Use a combination of your 'freesources' (people, places and things that you have at your finger tips) and set a budget that is manageable. For me it was under $10K. A final note - Over the years I've acquired and purchased solid gear. I've been lucky enough to be given sound equipment and lights from generous people, but I also am on the look out for the best bang for my buck so I've picked up a few useful things here and there.

BE YOUR OWN FILMMAKER - I don't personally make movies that are trying to be other movies or heavily modeled after the flavor of the month. Yes, there are influences but I strive to have my own voice - You will not see me trying to make the next Blair Witch Project or the Matrix. If you like those movies and their elements, I'm not saying too shy away from the 'found footage' angle or loose the 'bullet time', just know that people can easily tell when your biting directly from something. Be inspired, don't imitate, and do it for the sake of storytelling, don't just showcase a hot actress or some cool After Effects trickery.

Budget: $8,000 USD
Script Pages: 82pgs
Essential Hardware: Canon HV20, Letus Lens Adapter, Two Nikon Primes, BlackMagic Intensity Pro
Equipment - All of the equipment was owned by myself and the DP. We rented nothing.
Days of Shooting: 20+
Crew: 6 - 10 depending on the needs for a particular day. Sometimes 3-5 if things were small scale.

1.) BE PREPARED - Put as much time as you can into your planning. Whether it's storyboards, script breakdowns or creating a shooting schedule/shot list (or maybe doing all at one time), being organized helps out big time; even if it's so convoluted that only one or two people get it, that's better than no one at all getting anything. We never slowed down when shooting 'The Hush', we could not afford to fall behind. We had detailed lists of costumes, props, set design, effects, characters etc. for every single scene and a dedicated person or people (depending on the day) looking at all of those things. The entire movie was boarded (200+ boards) and cut together in my head before the first day of principal photography; there was also an abundance of lighting and 'look' tests completed months in advance. Plan your project! If you know that a particular scene involves complex things then plan one day for just that scene (whether it's an intricate scene with multiple actors pushing themselves to their limits or a sequence with lot's of angles).

I've been on too many sets where nobody knows what the hell to do first, including the director. Most of that precious time and energy is sucked up slowly while the director, producer and DP stand around trying to figure out what to do. The more momentum you bring to the set, the more organic and flexible you can be.

 2.) BE A STRONG LEADER - I've worked in all sorts of different jobs, the best experience was working at an auto parts store in a really rough area in my hometown of Oakland, CA. If you can stare a 200 pound man in the face while he threatens your life over a car alternator without flinching, being scared, running and hiding or getting irate yourself - then you can handle helming a film crew without being a punk or a pushover. Exercise good communication skills, that is after all how the work must get done. Try to be as clear as possible and be patient - Remember, no one can read your mind, it's part of your job on a film set to communicate. Make decisions and don't be afraid to collaborate. If you're asking your actors to get into a trunk, then make sure you can lay in a trunk.

3.) BE PASSIONATE - Be genuinely in love with your project and material. If you think it's not strong, work on it till you feel confident. If you want to do things differently, make sure your not forgetting to tell a story. Remember that passion for an artistic project can be infectious.

4.) KNOW YOUR NEEDS - My job as a producer was to make sure that I got enough to tell my story without compromising the safety and well being of those around me. Work efficiently, sometimes work quickly and other times slowly. Unless you've got money to burn or your crew doesn't mind giving you hours upon hours, you can't waste time on a set (sometimes if there has to be downtime, I'd send a few people off to the next location to start prepping). You have to get enough footage to tell your story and sometimes (especially on a low budget) that means moving very fast. Sometimes that means not having an enormous group of people on your project. Sometimes trying to fine tune a kicker light is a total waste of time. I'm IN NO WAY saying that lighting is not important. I am, however, saying that people are more likely going to dislike a movie because of terrible acting or a crappy story than they are if there's no rim light or a dim key light. If you know that you need at least 4 shots for this scene: don't waste time lighting one shot to useless perfection.

Here we walked up a rolling metal staircase and put a lightstand on it's side to get the light at the right height and angle. Then we tossed a gang of sandbags on it and used it just like that. We did not have cardellini clamps or big jumbo stands. We made due with what we had as quickly as we could. On the flip side of that: things do take time, not everything can be done super fast. You have to slow down for particular things but it's up to you and your project where to ultimately make those decisions.

5.) THE EDIT IS THE KEY - The edit of a film is wear everything really comes together. Of course you have to put 100% of your effort in everything else, but when it comes to editing: magic can occur. You can totally rewrite a story with just editing.  You could change the effect of a particular scene on an audience based on the way you cut it - things that would normally be dull can become rather interesting. Think about it: You could have shot beautiful cinematography, and pulled great performances out of actors, but if your edit of the film is bad, none of that has as strong of an impact.
I spent a month and a half on the rough cut - then I spent another 6 months refining that, cutting out 15+ minutes and tweaking actor performance choices. Editing requires a voice or language, you develop a pace or as I like to think of it... you lay down the roller coaster track. How long does the movie take to build, and is the drop able to punch enough for people to feel rewarded? Do you have lot's of ups and downs. ASK FOR FEEDBACK - Make friends with a good editor or refine your editing skills. I've cut all of my short films over the years and consider myself an efficient editor, but I still made sure I asked for a very good editor's feedback - that was crucial. Get feedback from everyone: nitpickers, Hollywood types, general movie buffs, people who don't watch a lot of movies and fellow filmmakers...

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