I have been lucky to work on many films and it has provided me a great opportunity to witness many of the do’s and don’ts of film production. I’ve really started thinking about this more and more as we develop my film “Seven Days ‘Till Midnight” and begin to roll into preproduction. This list of general and technical filmmaking tips is purely a rule book based on my experiences and opinion that apply to all levels of filmmaking. Give it a read and let me know what you think. If you can think of something to add, be sure to comment below…
General Filmmaking Tips
Not everyone is everything
I’m guilty of this one. I’ve worked as a DP for a number of years now and as I moved into Producing & Directing, it has been increasing more difficult for me to let go of that position but the reality is I need that collaboration and input from a DP who is managing the visual aspect of the film. It took a lot for me to realize that it doesn’t silence my visual input and in many ways it strengthens my ability to capture the strongest visuals possible. The same is true for every other position on a film set. Often, out of a desire to save money, people will take on multiple roles and sometimes that is necessary but be honest with what your strengths and weaknesses are. If you are horrible at finances, don’t try to act as your own UPM/Line Producer. If you have to take multiple roles, be sure to allow enough time to properly prepare every aspect of your responsibilities.
Find your team. You have to have people to bounce ideas off of and you need to trust those who you bring into the project. Disagreements are going to happen but filmmaking is collaboration and a good filmmaker will always listen to those who feel strongly in disagreement with you. If you look back at the more successful filmmakers of the past, one common thing you see is that there is always a group of people who surrounded them and supported them throughout different periods of their career.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew
If you are shooting a micro budget film, plan around what you have. If you are shooting a low-budget film, be realistic about what you can afford.
Don’t promise anything you can’t deliver
Don’t promise a release date if you don’t have a distributor. It makes you look like an idiot when the date keeps getting pushed farther and farther down the road AND never promise a theatrical release. The likely hood that your film is going to be released in theaters is very low. With all the films I have done, only 5 films have been in theaters, only 2 of those were in more than 50 theaters at any give time and only 1 of those was a nationwide release theatrically. As an indie filmmaker you are only as good as your reputation allows and becoming known as a bullshitter is way to common and stereotypical of bad filmmakers.
Treat everyone with respect
Be humble. You need everyone in your cast and crew. In fact, you need them more than they need you. Respect goes a long way and the more you respect them, the more your cast and crew will be willing to do for you. It’s true whether you are paying them union rates or they are volunteers. A simple “thank you” or compliment will deliver more in reward than you can imagine.
Be honest & upfront
I’ve been hearing a lot lately about micro budget filmmakers doing casting calls that don’t indicate pay rates, are slow to respond and in general treating actors with great disrespect. If your film is paying, state what the base rate is, if it is not paying just say so. How can you expect someone to jump on board and be a part of your team if the initial message is muddy and unclear? If you agree to a flat rate for a service, be clear about when that payment will be made. Don’t leave the actor, crew member or vendor guessing. It does nothing but create tension in a relationship and adds stress to an already stressful environment.
Hire Professional Actors
There is absolutely no reason not to sign with SAG/AFTRA. It doesn’t matter what your budget is, the SAG agreements are very reasonable when it comes to rates and it doesn’t restrict who you can use. If you desperately want a non-union actor and you are a signatory to a Low budget agreement, it’s very easy to fill out the Taft-Hartly form. If your budget is under $200K, it’s even easier than that. As for the argument that it adds too much paper work, that’s just lazy. It’s not complicated and the fact is that it’s a lot more complicated to explain to your investors why a film is unsuccessful due to the fact that it is full of mediocre performances and no distributor will pick your film up.
Be realistic about your schedule
Most Studio films aim to shoot around 2 – 2 4/8 pages a day. A good average in my opinion is around 4 pages per day. Be realistic about the amount of locations you can move to in a day, the amount of material you can successfully shoot enough coverage of and always remember that you and your crew need to sleep. Anything beyond a 12 hour day is too much, period.
Filmmaking Tips for the Technically minded
Cameras don’t automatically guarantee the quality
We have finally reached a point where any camera on the market, when in the hands of a professional cinematographer, can produce great imagery but in the hands of an amateur, a great camera can look like yesterdays lunch. Get the camera you can afford and find a competent DP with credits that look good to shot your film. This is not the position to hire the kid fresh out of film school. I wish we would go back to the days of apprenticeships as what is currently being taught in film schools is pathetic. If a person has not been shooting next to a good DP for a good number of years or have a substantial reel, they have no business being the DP of a film. The same goes for your Gaffer, Key Grip, Sound Mixer etc. The only way to learn the craft of filmmaking is to learn from those who do it, not from a book and defiantly not from a professor in a university who talks a good game but hasn’t worked professionally in 10 years if ever. (Just being honest)
Prioritize the lighting, cinematography and sound
If you want people to watch your film and pay you for that privilege, it better not look like a home movie. On top of that, you are going to need film festivals and others in the film industry to promote your film for you if you ever hope to gain any traction. Unfortunately we live in a superficial society and asking your audience to see beyond the bad lighting, uninspiring composition, stagnate editing and horrible audio is like asking a frat boy to see beyond the sea of coeds for the smart, intelligent, slightly overweight girl in the back of the bar. It’s not going to happen.
Don’t ever use the “Natural Light” excuse
On a number of occasions, I’ve talked with filmmakers who pitch the idea of shooting with “Natural Light” as if it adds some element of legitimacy to the visual style of a film. Lets be honest, it’s just a cheap and lazy way of making a film. Reality TV is full of crappy imagery and tons of people watch it but that doesn’t translate into narrative filmmaking all that well. Even well produced “Found Footage” films are lit. Stop trying to sound cutting edge when all you are being is cheap and lazy.
Probably one of the greatest filmmaking tips I can give is this… Lighting doesn’t have to be expensive but you do need to spend money on it. Whether you build DIY lighting like I suggest at http://suttlefilm.com/category/diy-gear/ or go over to ebay and buy some of the older tungsten units from Arri, Mole or the off brand lighting companies, you need to think about how light affects your story. It’s a critical part of any film.
Editing can not be a learning experience, you only have one shot
If you don’t feel completely confident in your editorial ability, find someone better than you to edit your project. It’s not as much about the technical abilities as it is about having that layer of collaboration to filter through and craft the strongest film possible. If you want to edit the film for budgetary reasons or purely out of convince, fine, but be sure to bring that circle of collaborators around often and truly consider their input. Just because someone disagrees with you and you are positive how you cut a scene is exactly how you envisioned it, that doesn’t mean the viewer can connect with it any better than your collaborators. Plus, exploring different options is a sure-fire way of finding hidden gems within an edit.