Sounds like a loaded title, doesn’t it? While you can’t just look at a list or guidebook to learn everything you need to know to get started in filmmaking, there are a ton of tips you can follow so that you don’t majorly fuck up your very first feature or microbudget film. More and more budding filmmakers like you that are coming to the forefront of our industry and you know what? You are going to bring fresh, innovative, unbelievable ideas to the table. And, they’ll be able to make those ideas come to life. The problem is that unless you are a rich trust fund kid or really connected – you won’t be working with much of a budget; but that’s ok because if you’re willing to work virtually every role, work 20 hours a day and jimmy rig some shitty rigs that work, you might just knock this out of the park. Our tips will help you get your film ready from pre-production to post, will help you to feel more confident in your work, and could very well get you noticed for an awesome job. Let’s get to it!
So you’re about to go on an epic filmmaking journey; and every good journey needs a gameplan. This is what we call pre-production. Pre-production is the planning process behind getting a film off the ground; you know … before you hit record! Having a great idea and pushing ahead with full force is all well and good, but without the proper pre-production necessities in place, you’re setting yourself up for a lot more work, and raising your chances of fucking things up. So, what are some things you can focus on during this phase?
Set a Realistic Budget
As a new filmmaker you’re going to be faced with two options – budgeting for a movie you WANT to make, or budget for the movie that you CAN make. Now, I’m not saying you should avoid pursuing funding for your million dollar space-opera; but what I am saying is that every single minute you spend trying to raise cash for “the next Avatar” is one less minute you spend making a movie. Be realistic with how much money you have access to, and budget like you won’t get funding, grants or handouts from your great aunt Norma. Never go into debt on your first film because in the end, it will probably be shit anyways. (It’s ok … they get better)
Now, your budget dictates everything in your film – from the talent you can work with to the picture profile you will be shoot. It’s best to be realistic with your line items and avoid unnecessary extra costs; Do you really need a 15 person wardrobe team? Do you really need 8k footage? Maaaybe not.
If microbudget filmmaking is a journey … then don’t plan on a three night bender in Vegas; or rather, try to avoid a complicated, expensive production. It’s best to have an amazing concept that utilizes a small number of actors and an even smaller amount of locations. This is important for two reasons. Working on a small budget film lowers the risk of losing it all if your film goes to piss. Also, it is a big amount of work for beginners to manage a team and protect the creative vision of a film. Everybody wants to flex their creative muscle but never thinks about how much you need to know about being a manager. You’re not jockeying a Starbucks … you’re the captain of a film crew. This is real shit. Second, you’re likely going to have very limited time and resources to make your film come to life, so make sure you don’t get too ambitious and underestimate what you can get done.
You could have a poorly-shot, poorly-lit, fifty shades of messed up shit film on your hands, and if you have a solid script? There’s a good chance people will look past most of that. On the other hand, you could have everything perfectly in place, but with a bollocks screenplay, you’ll get nothing but eye rolls and an audience that doesn’t want to watch another second of what’s going on. Find a story that you really connect with, and one that will work with your creative vision.
Once you do find or write that script, make it your best friend. Seriously, have coffee together. Mark it up and turn it into your vision for the film – that includes beats and turns, small nuances for scenes, and everything in between. Words and actions written on a page are great, but it’s up to you to breathe life into them. Once you’ve done that, go back and rewrite it again. Now that you’ve done several rewrites, it’s time join a local screenwriting group, such as We Make Movies or We Make Movies Canada and get the opinion of fellow screenwriters. It’s amazing how getting outside perspective on your screenplay can help flesh out elements that need some tweaking, and realize new creative ideas. The best part of joining a screenwriting group is that they’ll often help you get your script in front of actors for a live read. You’d be surprised at how much you may want to tweak a script once you’ve heard it read live by someone other than yourself. Lastly … writing should never be complete until you’ve finished shooting. There is always room for improvement and you will constantly need to make revisions on the fly.
So you’ve spent a whole year writing and refining your script and now you’re ready to start shooting. Hold up! You better slow it down a bit and work on your storyboard. A great storyboard helps you plot out every creative decision in advance of going to camera. When working on a storyboard, you not only want to figure out blocking and composition, but also things like the lenses you want to use, important props, and any special transitions you want to make. You pretty much want to ensure that your storyboard incorporates every single creative decision you can make in advance. On larger budget productions, you may be able to rely on different units to help you figure this out, but as an micro-budget filmmaker, you’re likely going to be responsible for doing all of this on your own, so grab a Redbull and get comfortable with your storyboard.
Now it’s time to break down your film into a shot list. I like to refer to these as a shit list because I hate doing them, but hey … they’re vital! A shot list is a document that describes all of the shots to be filmed during principal photography. There isn’t a set format for the shot list, but you want to create a grid that denotes certain elements like the Shot number (Start at 1 and go up), the location, the shot type, the camera angle, the camera movement and a brief description of the shot that includes your subject, action lighting, props and other important elements. It’s important to note that your shots are not in order of filming. This comes later on. Oh which reminds me … you’re gonna’ need a shoot schedule.
Do you like complicated schedules that require constant tweaking and practically are useless on set? Then boy do I have a job for you! Time to make your shoot schedule. The shoot schedule is one of the most critical documents for your film. The schedule tells your crew what scenes you are shooting, who is needed, where to be, when it’s happening and most importantly … when lunch is. A large part of determining your shoot schedule will be going through your epic shot list and breaking down your scenes in order of filming. Once that is complete, you need to look at the resources you have and determine how to make it all come together.
When it comes to creating a shoot schedule, there are as many formats online as there are templates. I suggest you look a few up on the internet and see which works best for you. In terms of scheduling your day, it is important to set realistic deadlines for your team (DOP, wardrobe, etc.) and allow for a bit of extra buffer time. The unexpected will always arise. It’s also vital that you prioritize important coverage. Chances are you won’t be able to get every shot you want in a day. Figure out in advance what is most important, what you can spend extra time on, and what can be cut if necessary.
I’m going to go off course a bit here and make an important note; When it comes to a shoot schedule, you’ve gotta’ roll with the punches on shoot day. There are always going to be split decisions to make and issues that affect your scheduling. I learned this first-hand last summer when I was shooting a series of commercials that involved a team of 28 people and several celebrities.We went through about 25 versions of the shoot schedule and got final sign off at midnight …six hours before the shoot. When we tiredly arrived on set ready to shoot – a million different small issues happened. We were squeezed for time, the studio gave us the wrong location, the loading dock was taken, catering wasn’t available, talent arrived late and we didn’t have a steamer on-set. It caused a few grey hairs but taught me one thing … flexibility. Just because you have a piece of paper in your hand doesn’t make it set in stone. Be flexible, and not in the “I do hot yoga each day” sense.
Always have a Clothing Steamer
Captain. If there is one thing you can’t forget on your mission, it’s a clothing steamer. Just trust me on this one.
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The First Time Your Crew Meets …. Shouldn’t be at the Shoot
It sounds like common sense, but some of the best films I have worked on have fallen apart due to a lack of communication between departments. It is important to hold regular meetings with your team; even if it only consists of you, a random stranger you found on the street and your grandmother’s cat. Communication between team members before going to camera is critical; your wardrobe assistant may choose to save time stitching in the fine neckline patterns on that 18th century Caraco of yours unless your DOP let’s them know their plan to do a an ultra tight shots on their chin. Also, please don’t ask how I know what a Caraco is.
Prop Yourself up With a Prop List
The props requested by both the designer and director are managed through the use of a prop list. The prop list should have every prop named as well as listing any details the properties director requires to track the prop and keep as information about it’s use or look. The prop list is important in helping your art team know all the vital details for each prop needed in your film; from the color you want to the dialogue you want written on a letter or document. Given that you are working on a microbudget short/feature; it’s a good idea to also include a list of graphic design elements you need for the film as well. These can be things such as text message graphics, fake food labels or internet browser mockups.
Keep Your Crew Lean
The script may be one of the most important things you need to get started, but a stellar crew is going to work hard to give it depth and meaning. You can’t do it all on your own, so it’s time to check the ego, and designated jobs where they need to be. With that said, you don’t often need as many people as you think. Some of my short films were shot with crews of five or fewer – and the indie films that I have witnessed go through the most turbulence are ones that had large, unmanageable crews. Having a large team can be a benefit when you have a budget and resources to keep track of them, but for the frugal filmmaker, it can be a burden as you deal with having to schedule, feed, pay and manage them. Keep your production lean with as few people as you can.
Never Trust a Hollywood Crew to do an Indie Crew’s Job
Sounds like bad advice right? If you can get a high-end commercial director to shoot your commercial – then why not? Well for starters, you need a cast and crew who understand your budget and understand that indie filmmaking requires being resourceful. The world’s best DOP won’t be much help to your micro-budget film if their only way to fix a problem is to ‘throw more money at it’. You are going to want to find resourceful, creative team members who understand the constraints of working on a tight budget and are capable of macgyvering the shittiest of rigs that work for your project. In need of inspiration? Say no more!
It’s nice to have someone fill every necessary role but I often find you can get away with a crew of six people when you’re on a budget:
- 1st AC
Of course it is great to fill in other important roles as grip and electric, DIT and more, but if you are truly embracing the spirit if indie filmmaking, find a small team of people who can roll up their sleeves and work multiple roles.
Find a Great DOP
As an indie film director, your best friend on-set is a great DOP that you can work well with. I’m a big fan of DOP’s who have their own gear; because they own the equipment, chances are they are know it inside and out … this can save you a ton of time on set It’s will save you from potentially wasting time on-set trying to avoid the complications of having to schedule complicated equipment pickups and returns. May as well give that extra money to a crew member than a rental house.
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Casting comes down to Chemistry:
If I had one critical piece of advice in this department, it is to trust your gut an ensure that your characters have screen chemistry.Back in 2009 I made a giant steaming pile of shit called Dinner Date (sorry Don! I love you). It was a dating show TV pilot that, as you could guess, involved a blind date and cooking dinner. The two main characters were great on their own rights but had no screen chemistry. The whole show just felt awkward, and we were laughed out of every station that looked at our demo.
Choose Your Approach
As you get nearer to filming and you have everything in place, it’s important to choose an overall ‘style’ for your film. How do you want to shoot it? It should look like the same film, through and through, so settling in on an aesthetic beforehand can really set you up for a lot less work later on. Now, you’re ready to dive in!
Don’t be a Dick-tator
It is important that your team knows you are in charge, but create an atmosphere that encourages them to bring new and creative ideas to the table. Chances are your DOP will have some great camera and movements. Be open. A great director maintains the vision of the project and inspires their team to operate at their full creative potential.
Sniff Out Locations
This section is so god damn important, we thought we’d do a fancy bulleted section. There are a ton of things you should consider when scouting out your locations. Here are a few of them!
- Take location stills.
- Note all sources of daylight, permanenet and existing lighting.
- Note all practical lights and the feasibility of adding practicals.
- Take note of the number and size (in amps) of circuits.
- Note the location of the breaker box (or, if you’re really unlucky, the fuse box).
- On what floor of the building is your location situated? If it’s not the ground floor, get a new location.
- Is the floor smooth and level?
- Measure the dimensions (in square feet, length and width) of the interior space and exterior spaces, if necessary.
- How long you would have to make a cable run from a generator?
- How close to the site can you park the equipment trucks?
- Note the availability and safety, bathroom and parking for the cast and crew.
- Note how far the cast and crew will have to travel to get to the location.
- Determine compass orientation of the exterior of the structure.
- Determine the location of sunrise and sunset
- Determine compass point location of windows on the interior for exterior lighting sources.
- Note any changes to the set you will need the Art Department to take care of.
- Determine the need for any permits.
- Take note of any other special problems or circumstances.
So, you’re ready to start shooting. Congrats! If there is one solid piece of advice you can use to jump into each day, it’s to trust your goddamn gut. Maybe have a redbull first, and then trust your gut. There’s a good chance you have a lot of shooting that needs to be crammed into a short amount of time and it’s going to be hell. Things will fall apart here and there, so remember your old friend James at Broken Slate when it does: “The only way to learn how to put out a fire is to be thrown into one”. Grab your fire extinguisher and get cracking.
The Slate is Important
The slate is important. In fact, the slate is probably more important than most of your PA’s. Just the way we are under the gun while shooting, assistant editors and editors are similarly rushed in creating rough cuts. The clearer you can be in identifying takes the easier their life will be-and that translates into fewer crabby editors. Here are a few tips:
- Make the Slate big in frame
- write legibly, make sure the Slate is in frame for all cameras
- Hold the slate with one hand and close the clapper with the other. (This keeps the slate still while the clapper is in motion)
- Hit the clapper louder for wider shots and softer for closeups so you don’t spook your talent.
- Make sure camera’s are speeding
Rehearse your blocking
You don’t necessarily have to do a full rehearsal before rolling camera, but doing a basic rehearsal blocking can add life and movement to a scene that you didn’t previously see. Maybe there is some interesting light coming through the window that your characters can dodge in and out of? Who knows?
Set Markers for Your Actors
Setting marks for your actors is one of the easiest ways to ensure that everyone is on the same page. It helps make sure that not only is the blocking correct, but that the camera team knows exactly what’s going on and they can get proper focus. There are many different ways to actually set these marks for the actor.
A good resource for this is video below. Watch it. Memorize it. Watch it again and then make your DOP watch it too:
Mark your Takes:
I know it sounds like common sense; but when the house is burning down and you are running out of time – marking the good takes often gets delegated to ‘we’ll watch it in post’. Wether you are shooting for three days, or thirty – make sure to mark the good takes and have someone taking script notes; else your editor will cometh from his cave and scorn you.
Shoot and Shoot Again
Think you’ve got the perfect shot? Great. Do it again. You’ll be happy to have multiple takes in post-production that you can pick and choose from. Even if you think something is perfect on the first take, you may catch something later on you want to use. You don’t have to get excessive with your shots, but a small handful of the same scene will save you a lot of stress later.
Don’t Shoot it All
I know, I’m quite an asshole for saying this just after telling you to shoot and shoot again – but don’t burn time getting every possible angle and piece of coverage you can. This is one of the biggest pitfalls of young directors and can leave you out of shoot time and piecing together an incomplete film in the edit suite. Make sure your shots are thoroughly planned and stick to your shoot schedule. Trust your DOP when (s)he says you’re good to move on to the next scene.
Keep Your Days Realistic
Actors and crews alike expect long days of shooting on set. But, there comes a point where everyone is tired and thinks you are a dick for reshooting that take for the fifteenth time. You’re not immune to it, and neither are your actors. You’ll have an instinct for the moment things start hitting a wall, and you shouldn’t force anyone (including yourself) to go past that on any particular day. If you do, you’re likely to get less creative shots, less enthusiastic acting, and less productivity. Give yourself, and everyone on your team some rest, so you can start each day refreshed and creatively sound.
Loosen Your Schedule
Make sure your schedule is as loose as your ex. Try to plan for at least one extra day of shooting, just in case anything goes wrong (and it will) throughout the initial process. If you’ve booked two weeks, go for 15 days instead, etc. Everyone will feel less pressure, and if you get a little extra shooting time, you can pat yourself on the back; and if you don’t need that extra day … throw a party!
Did you make it through alive? Great! Now it’s time to edit. Hopefully you followed the tips above and your film isn’t a steaming pile of crap. Aside from spending hours searching through them, giddily applauding your own work, it’s time to make something of this movie, and that happens in post-production. Post can be intimidating for some filmmakers, especially when they’re starting out, because it’s a slow process. When you’re shooting, there’s a lot of action happening right in front of you, all at once. Post-production tends to be more tedious and time consuming, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s hard. Your edits should be a reflection of the story you first saw in your head when checking out the script, and your signature finishing touches should be professional, but should also let viewers know this is your movie, so it should show off your signature style.
If you have the time and budget consider hiring different people to do different jobs. Hiring a sound editor, picture editor, etc., can be extremely helpful in crafting a highly polished final product. In the likely event that you don’t have the budget for it, find yourself an all-around editor that can get most of the work done and outsource the bits they can’t take care of. If all your post budget allows for is coffee, then you may have to take on the edit yourself. Post-production can be a calm and intimate experience so don’t shy away from rolling up your sleeves in the edit suite. The worst that could happen is that you have to hand it over to someone more experienced to recut. Tackle it slowly and with purpose … just make sure you have the time to get it done. Here’s a rough breakdown of the steps you’ll be taking to bring your edit to life.
Ingest, Transcode and Logging:
The very first step is to meticulously organize your footage on to a hard drive and create multipe on-site and off-site backups. This protects you data from any unintended hardware malfunctions or accidental deletion. I find the magic number of backups to request from your production is three; one copy stored on-site, one copy stored off-site and one copy you can send to your Aunt Connie. It’s time to tell her to shut it with all that “you’ll never make it in the film world” crap!
Similar to the way we talk, video files come in all different types of languages. Although any particular language works well for communication, sometimes you need a translator to make sure everyone is speaking the same dialect. This is called transcoding – a process where you ‘convert’ all of the footage so that it conforms to one universal standard.
Video logging is a process in which video footage is watched and labeled according to its content. Loggers go through the video material, labeling it according to its contents with metadata. This data is then available during editing, making the editing more efficient.
Assembly and Rough Cut
Assembly is the first stage of the editing process. Using the paper edit as a road map, the footage from your shoot is organized into scenes (usually be an assistant editor). Then, all scenes are assembled roughly, with the editor’s choice on takes.
The assembled video is reviewed internally and scenes/dialogue are removed in order to get the film to an appropriate length and/or based on what works and doesn’t work. Graphic sequences, music and story-critical sound effects are added as well. At this stage, the video is considered to be a ‘rough cut’.
Once multiple sets of revisions have been made, all changes to the edit have been approved, and you, our humble director are happy – the video is considered to be in “picture lock”. It’s time to get your film into the finishing stages of the project.
Killer robots that shoot lasers out of their eyes are the key component of your film. Now it’s time to make them happen. Let’s hope you have the budget to do this, or that you know a killer robot IRL (which in that case – send me their info please). Time to do some compositing and visual effects. After picture lock is obtained a VFX editor (or team) adds in CGI elements, removes green screens, composites shots and other stunning visual effects. Think of this stage as the practiced ‘slight of hand’ in a magic trick, where the editor creates the illusion of reality for your viewers.
Colour correction is the when an editor matches the multiple video clips in an edit to a standard that would be an accurate portrayal of how it would look if viewed from the human eye. It’s about balancing out your colors, making the whites actually appear white, and the blacks actually appear black, and that everything in between is nice and even.
Now that picture is locked, it’s time to get to colour grading. Color is the bass guitarist of your film – although it may be taken for granted and overlooked; it contributes a great deal to storytelling and emotion. The theory behind this could be an article in itself, in fact … it IS an article that you can read right here. (button – The Role of Color in Storytelling.). Color should accent the mood and atmosphere of your scene; and what makes it complicated is that there really is no set of rules to follow – color is subjective. It comes down to the thing you’ve been doing all along – trusting your gut and make sure that the grade fits your particular scene. For example, you might want to hold off on that dark blue CSI style grade for a scene that depicts two star-crossed lovers reuniting after a long time being apart or warm …. That is unless … she’s got a hidden knife ready to stab our dear Romeo.
Hopefully you’ll have a dedicated colorist to help you with this, but if not, there are a ton of tools and tutorials for pros and hobbyists alike. You’d be best to work in a program such as Davinci Resolve, but even Premiere has the all new Lumeteri Panel which can produce some pretty astounding results.
Audio post production is the general term for all stages of production happening during the completion of a master audio track. It involves, sound design, sound editing, audio mixing, and the addition of effects. Basically we make the video sound really good, and ensure the levels are properly set to adhere to broadcast and digital guidelines.
Have Fun and Don’t Be Afraid to Fuck it Up!
Remeber Dinner Date? Guess what? Yeah I fucked it up. I didn’t die. I wasn’t banned from making films and my next attempt at film was way better. It’s called learning from your mistakes and they’re bound to happen. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. These are ok. The only thing that you can’t do is keep making the same one. That’s called being stupid. So go out. Have some fun and enjoy filmmaking; and for the love of god … throw a god damn party for your crew when the film is complete! They deserve it.
Have questions about starting out in filmmaking?
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