Every year tens of thousands of artists embark upon the task of making an indie film. Why not? It’s a glamorous industry full of celebrities, studio deals, exotic locations and big paydays. At least that’s what the “how to” books claim. Film analysts at Variety, Filmmaker Magazine, Moviemaker Magazine and Written By all agree on one point – 2010 will signal Hollywood’s largest influx of do-it-yourselfers. Technology makes it relatively simple to shoot, cut and distribute a film (see How to get an indie film on iTunes). Unfortunately, the staff members at Film Independent and IFP agree on one thing: most beginning filmmakers will do it wrong from the start.
The Hollywood media has painted a rosy picture of crowded sets full of buzzing machinery, wardrobe carts, shouting artists and smiling actors. Filmmaker books follow in these footsteps, urging new filmmakers to feed of the energy of a large set when making their first movie. What’s not discussed is the cost associated with having large sets, the trauma of managing the personalities of fifty people, and the tribulation of fighting tooth and nail to finish a film when:
1) money is running out
2) it’s late and everyone is tired
3) Money is running out
4) you really don’t know what you’re doing, and
5) your check bounced.
There are too many potential problems to list when it comes to studio films. Universal, Sony, Paramount, etc have safeguards for the headaches that often accompany film production — i.e. fat wallets; but what about the independent filmmaker? An indie filmmaker shooting a traditional low budget (or no budget) film cannot afford the luxury of delays, expensive ancillary equipment, or even people. Yet, book after book and article after article teaches them to crew up with a large staff. And by “large”, I don’t mean 50 people. By “large” I mean crews larger than three people, including the filmmaker. Let me explain.
Technology today is leaps and bounds above the technology of the nineties. Cameras and sound equipment are better, lighter and easier to use. Old technology required filmmakers to hire highly trained editors, camera operators and lighting experts to operate equipment. Today’s technology allows one man to virtually do all these things. Filmmaker Monty Ross sums it up in a video conducted by IFMTTV. He very succinctly says that in 1999 he had to hire five people for even a small film shoot. Now he can do it all himself or with the help of inexperienced beginners (i.e.interns).
In 2004 I made a feature film titled, “Sex, Shoes & Unicorns.” For the film I wrote, shot, lit, set dressed, was key costumer, edited, sound mixed, and secured all the locations. I also did the contract paperwork between shots. In 2005 I shot a film called, “Nanny and the Professional” and repeated the duties described above. I only used two lights for each scene. It was hard work but it can be done.
Below is a list of positions typically associated with film shoots. I will describe each position and then tell you how to cross that position off your call sheets.
A producer does just that – produces things. When you’re putting the project together the producer produces the money, the crew, the equipment, etc. Anyone who has an essential part in making the project happen can be, and will probably want to be, called a producer. Cross them off your list because you are the producer. You are the one who will assemble a team, find the money, find actors and make sure the project gets finished.
The director is the eye of the audience. A movie is a story told in moving pictures, and the director decides which pictures will best communicate the story to the audience. Cross this title off your crew call sheet. You will direct your first film. You don’t need to know fancy directing words or lingo. All you have to do is convey the vision in your mind to the actors. Since you are also the producer you are in charge. People will listen to you.
Assistant Directors (ADs)
Usually there are four: the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and AD-in-training (TAD). General belief is that without at least a First AD the director will go crazy. Don’t believe the hype. If you plan in advance, shoot with a small cast and crew there will be no need for a First AD. You won’t be able to sit on your bottom barking orders. You’ll actually have to work, but it’s one less person to have to explain things to.
Director of Photography (DP/DOP)
Also called cinematographers, DPs are experts on the media you’re shooting on (film, digital video, etc.) and the camera you’re shooting with. They know how to light a scene to match the mood, set up the camera to match the director’s vision and basically make the thing look good. You don’t need a DP because you will be shooting your film as well. You know how you want each scene to look based on the vision in your mind. It’s not hard to learn the very simple three-point lighting technique and what yellowish and bluish light connote to the audience. Read a book, and then discard 90% of what it says. The 10% you keep will be enough to light and shoot your first film.
Well what can I say? You’ll be operating the camera as well. Buy a camera, borrow a camera or rent a camera and then use it. Take it out into the field and test the different settings. If you stick the three standards, establishing shot, medium shots and close ups and take the camera off the sticks (tripod) you get all the footage you’ll need. Experiment with dirty singles and over the shoulder shots for point-of-views (POV).
Sound Mixer and Boom Operator.
Film cameras don’t record sound directly onto the film, but most if not all digital cameras will. Go digital. A Boom Operator positions a mic on a stick (boom) as close to the sound as possible. The sound mixer has a little box to EQ (mix) the levels. Most people will tell you to never record sound from the camera mic. I say go ahead and do it. It doesn’t hurt to have another source of audio. Many cameras like the XL2 and High Definition (HD) cameras have XLR inputs for microphones. Buy a used Rode mic off eBay or Sennheiser boom mic. Pick up a couple of wireless mics (LAVs) too. This will give you more than enough sound, but certainly test it. When worse comes to even worse, ADR the dialog that is unusable. You don’t need a studio to do ADR, just a quiet place. A Large closet with lots of clothes will work just fine. Have the actor repeat the required lines several times. With the mic close and ADR is done. Ambient sound is also necessary. It keeps the scenes from sounding hollow and empty. But ambient sound can be the traffic coming from six stories below the roof of a building. It can be the sound of kids playing in a park; it can be the light hum of machinery in the next room. Sound guys will tell you, don’t let bad sound ruin your film. Guess what, you’re not trying to win an Oscar for sound design. You simply want people to hear what the actors are saying. Speaking of sound design, you can grab lots of special effects off the Internet or record them yourself. For Broken HeartsClub I recorded the sound of a patrons dining in a restaurant, I looped it and added it into a dining scene I shot that had no ambient noise. Worked like a charm. Oh, one last thing, you can use anything to record ambient noise. A Flip Mino camera will work fine
Gaffer, Grips and Electrics
The Gaffer sets up the lights. This is the dood the DP bosses around to setup the lights to effect the director’s vision. You are the DP. You are the director. Setup your own damn lights. Forget about source lights and all that. A few practicals (household light bulbs) with lampshades or material that diffuse the light will work fine. Three-point lighting has to do with three sources of light, the KEY LIGHT, the FILL LIGHT and the BACKGROUND LIGHT. Background light can be a lamp or candles sitting on a table or mantle behind the actors. Key light is your main light source, usually angled at 45 degrees to the side and above the actor. Fill light is the light you add to “fill in” the dark spots and shadows created by the Key light.
Guess what – they manage the locations. You know your script; you know what you want to shoot so you can find your own locations. Here are some hints: find friends with apartments of houses you can use and shoot there. Shoot in your backyard. Shoot in your car driving through the city. Get up early on a Sunday morning, go into the city and shoot a scene MOS (without sound) using guerrilla filmmaking tactics. Get in, get out. Run-n-gun. Shoot it and go. Here’s a tip: go handheld and keep the camera OFF the tripod. No one will notice that you’re shooting a film. They’ll think you are a tourist.
Wardrobe, Hair and Make-Up Actors are people.
People have clothes. Ask you actors to provide their own clothes from each scene. Most actors will do this anyway. They are trained to be prepared. As for makeup, ask you actors to show up on set, “camera ready.” But bring some foundation to even out skin tones. If worse comes to worse, ask the young lady at the cosmetics counter to come help you shoot and offer to buy a lot of makeup from her (commission).
Caterer and Craft Service
These may be the most important, and definitely the most loved,people on your set. Guess what? It’s you! It’s simple to plan your shoot and take note of the local restaurants that deliver. Make sandwiches; bring fruits and veggies folks can snack on. Have treats like cookies or donuts for those with sweet tooth. Bring Red Bull or some other energy drink.
PA are like the admin assistants in the field. They are there to do whatever you ask them to do. Find one or two sturdy, thick-skinned and energetic PA’s who want to learn about multiple production fields (i.e. grip, camera, lighting, makeup). Make sure to spend time with them between scenes to discuss what’s going on. Tip: never hire a PA who has directed a film of his/her own. While you want to collaborate as much as possible, having two directors on set is usually a bad thing.
Cross these names off your crew call sheet. Now take a second look at your bottom line. For a three-day shoot you’ve just saved yourself at least $1200 per day – that’s $3600. That’s money you can use to rent a better camera, pay for a primo location or save for your second film.