Making the Film - Quick Start Guide To Filmmaking

Last updated: 31-Jan-04

INTRODUCTION

Welcome to the Quick-Start Guide to Film-Making. If you are a regular person with no formal training in the art and science of filmmaking but want to either make a film, or have an idea made into a film by someone else, then you've come to the right place. In the next few minutes I will tell you everything you need to know in order to be ready to start thinking seriously about making movies using the digital medium. This guide is only partially complete, and will continue to be updated as I gain further experience. At present I have built the guide to extend to making and producing a film. Once I have gained more experience, I will extend it to 'selling' a film as well.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided in this guide is provided freely and with good intention. I will not accept any blame or responsibility for actions of readers on their productions which may result in undesirable consequences.


CONTENTS


Two Paths

If you are someone who has a great idea for a film, but doesn't know where to go from there, you have two main avenues available to you. Firstly, you can learn about digital moviemaking, and make the film yourself. My guide will show you how to do this. If, on the other hand, you are only interested in writing scripts, and don't want to be involved with shooting the film, your best bet is to go the script route.


Path 1: Write The Script

Read as many of your favourite scripts as you possibly can, then get hold of a really good script writing book. I recommend Writing Scripts Hollywood Will Love by Katherine Atwell Herbert. It may sound like a gimmicky title, but this woman works as a script analyst and has lots of valuable insider information to share. Once you know all the theory (treatments, three-act structure, etc), you simply sit down and write your script! Here is a realy cool resource to get you started!

Once you have a first draft, continue to rework and redraft the film until you feel you have something that could be successfully made into a film. This is one of the hardest parts of filmmaking, because it involves being honest with yourself and learning to take criticism from the people you show your script to. Even if you have to throw the entire first draft away and start again, do it!! If you are having writer's block, don't try and force the idea; I find that brainstorming with other film enthusiasts can help ideas flow. I also find that sometimes putting on inspiring film soundtracks in the background helps.

When you have your finished script, you can either go through the traditional route of finding an agent, blah, blah, blah, or you can fasttrack the script to some of the top people in the industry by taking it to the pitching competition run by Raindance. Raindance are a UK-based organisation that are dedicated to fostering new film talent in the independant community. They will even date your copyrighted script for you incase someone else tries to pass it off as theirs. The pitching competition is called 'LIVE AMMO' and gives all entrants a 5 minute slot to pitch their script. If any of the panel like your film, they will ask to read your script. If they like your script, your idea could be on the way to being made.

If you are unsuccessful at raindance, and can handle not having your film made on 35mm film with Hollywood money, you could always submit it to the screenwriters section of shootingpeople.org. It could be picked up there by a producer looking for a good script. If this happens it may be shot on digital on a low-budget, but that's not a bad thing and is better than your script sitting and gathering dust! There is a competition that runs in the US for both directors and writers called Project Green Light. The winners get to have their script made into a film by Miramax. Actually, there are lots of script writing competitions and websites. A simple search of google will provide you with these. For further advice and inspiration, check out this interview with British TV writer, Jeff Povey.

So there you have it - that's one way of getting your film made. The other way is to make it yourself ... read on:


Path Two: Make The Film Yourself

This step involves a little more work, as you'll have to write the script, and then go through all the pre-production, casting, shooting, and post-production yourself. Still, it's not rocket science. In fact, it's darned good fun.

For crewing and casting your film, take advantage of shootingpeople.org. Because there are so many people out there who want to get paid work in the industry, but need experience first, you'll find that places like shootingpeople.org are overflowing with talent. You'll even get to meet top calibur actors who have rubbed shoulders with the elite. I had one actor apply for a role in my film who had previously been in the Colin Farrell/Bruce Willis movie Hart's War. Another director I know had his special effects done by an artist who had worked on Lord Of The Rings. It is common practice to pay cast and crew's travel expenses and food, and provide everyone who worked on your film with a complimentary copy of the finished DVD/VHS for their showreel and viewing pleasure.

If you really are against writing a script, you can even get ready made scripts from shootingpeople.org. There are lots of websites that exist to let you find cast and crew (spotlight, mandy, etc). If you are American, I recommend that you check out the following article which explains how to get actors on a low budget. In my experience, you shouldn't have to sign contracts and legal documents with actors and crew if it is a short film, as it is unlikely to be commercial. Stay away from 'deferred payment' schemes, and things like that. If you go for a big feature film, sign something so that everyone is in on the project as a profit share in addition to their travel and food. At this point it may be worth speaking to an entertainment lawyer. If you do a profit share, it is up to you how you split the profit, but make sure everyone is 100% aware of the split and make sure they are happy with this. For the film, PI, director Darren Aronofsky got paid the same as the grips and the tea-girl. You're all in it together, just remember that!


Pre-Production

Before you worry about crewing your film, however, there is the small matter of the pre-production. You have a great script and now you must work on turning it into a film. Here the most important thing is: PLAN PLAN PLAN!!! One mistake I made was selecting my locations without consulting a sound recordist. It doesn't help when you are trying to shoot a dialogue scene in an alleged deserted town but you happen to be beside a busy motorway! You can probably select locations without a sound recordist, but if you do it is not simply a question of going to the location at the time you plan to shoot and seeing if it sounds OKAY. This is another one of those moments where you must be completely honest with yourself for the sake of your film. Spend some serious time there and listen for things like trains and planes. Planes were the biggest problem for me when I shot Mnemosyne in the summer of 2003.

When you have your locations sussed, it might be a good idea to contact the council to see if they plan to do any roadworks/construction during your shooting schedule. For Mnemosyne, we used the very centre of Letchworth town for a scene. I got some of it shot. I then planned to shoot the next bit the weekend after. Big mistake! The council ripped up the road where we shot - there was rubble and machinery everywhere. Even if they don't rip up roads, etc, they might still cause noise pollution close to your film, so it's worth checking.

The shooting schedule is more tricky, because sometimes the people working on your film might have 9-5 jobs and only be available on weekends. In my experience, it is better to just shoot the thing in a block of days, because if you dot the production about over weekends it will lose impetus. If your script is that good, people will take some days holiday off their jobs to work on the film. You could always shoot on the weekend and then part of the week. It all depends on how much there is to shoot, and how much coverage you want to get. Then, of course, there is the darned weather!!!

When you have a shooting schedule together, it is inevitable that it will not stay on course if you have never worked with a crew before. I learned the hard way (angry actors due to trial-and-error scheduling), but by the end of the shoot, we were pretty much minute-for-minute in sync with the schedule. Some tips I would give for the pre-production phase are:

  • Make the first shot that you film a simple one. The first shot always seems to take the longest so don't make it complicated. This is because you and your crew will be working together for the first time, and it takes time for a team to gel and become used to each other.
  • Start as early as possible. You may think you are being Mr Nice Guy by letting everyone have a lay-in, but this can only lead to overruns, and an angry crew. They are professionals so if you ask them to turn up at 8am, they will!
  • Block off each day's shoot into a series of camera-setups, and associated shot numbers.
  • Give yourself triple the time you think you will need for each camera set-up.
  • Schedule in sizeable breaks.
  • Storyboard the film by photographing each shot, then drawing the characters in using a paint-package. I did this (have a look) and it was extremely helpful to the cameraman and DoP (Director of Photography). Not only that, but it allows everyone to virtually see the film before you even begin shooting it.

Once you have a storyboard, a complete shot list, a shooting schedule, and good, reliable locations, you are ready to cast and crew your film. When you post your advert, state the name of your production company (You don't actually have to own a company - but it is more professional to have a 'name' which you operate under), a contact name and number, a location, an overview of the schedule, whether it is paid work or not (in most cases not), what the actors can expect (profit share, copy of film, reimbursement for travel+food, etc), and a desription of the characters (gender, height, age, traits, personality, etc). You will then receive a few mails back from actors who think they fit one of the listed characters. They may enclose a CV, or a link to a web-enabled CV, normally with a photo. If you think they sound right, send them the script. If they like it, they'll write back and put themselves forward for casting.

I arranged two casting days using a friend's flat in London, and my own flat in Letchworth. Always try and make it somewhere where the actors can get to quite easily and without too much expense, as producers never fund travel to auditions (otherwise we'd all be broke). I never actually interviewed my crew in person. I spoke to them all on the phone (one person I hired just from e-mail conversations). For casting I provided a web page with details of how to get to the casting. Here is the actual casting web page I made.

I have provided a few 'best practices' when it comes to casting. They are:

  • Send the script ahead of time
  • Give thorough and helpful directions to the auditions
  • Provide as many contact details as you can
  • Consider allowing the actors to choose a reading segment from the film that they feel will help them perform best
  • Have refreshments on hand (tea, coffee, etc)
  • Give actors an opportunity to bring showreels, etc
  • Ensure actors are relaxed and comfortable
  • Ask their permission to film them during the audition
  • If you have permission, do an IDENT (They introduce themselves plus their character)
  • Be honest about the limitations of the project
  • Ask them about their thoughts on the character they will play
  • Explain why the project might benefit them
  • Check actors availability for when you plan to shoot
  • Give them an opportunity to ask questions
  • Remember actors don't like directors who are arrogant/condescending
  • Let the actors know when they can expect to hear from you

Once you have made a decision, inform your first choices that they have been cast. Do not send out any rejection letters until you have had acceptance letters/e-mails from them. At this point, try and be as helpful as you can to the actors who did not get the parts. Actors appreciate honest responses about why they did not get the part. Some people do not even send rejection letters. That must be pretty awful, so if you can make the effort to tell them why, it will help them a lot. Also, if someone came in at second place for a role, make sure you tell them that and possibly enquire if they woul be interested in understudying the role (Sometimes people will drop out at the last minute for paid work). One other thing - I don't deal with agencies - I've never had a bad experience with one simply because I ignore their mails. It's up to you if you accept cast members from agencies, but remember it is another layer that could cause complications down the line.

The final thing I should mention on this pre-production section is insurance. It's up to you if you operate without insurance, and for a short film, sometimes not having insurance could be a risk worth taking. But for a feature film, ensure that you have got proper production insurance. This will cover you for accidents, equipments, etc.


Crew

Before I launch into my production section, here's a little about the crew you might require for a low-budget film:

EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, PRODUCER, WRITER, DIRECTOR AND EDITOR

For a low budget film, all of these are normally you! You financed the film and are the top dog (Executive Producer), you will plan and oversee the production (Producer). You wrote the film (Writer) and will direct it (Director) and most likely edit it too (Editor), although you can post on shootingpeople.org for producers, editors, writers, etc.

For my film I had two additional producers come in. These were my good friends Hakan Besim and Stuart Folley. They helped not only with the planning and location scouting, but also with the production itself.

DIRECTOR OF PHOTOGRAPHY

This person works with the director to make sure that, visually, the film meets the director's vision. The DoP will light the sets and help with camera-setup and even camera-work. Everything they do comes down to making the film feel a certain way. They will make numerous suggestions on how the set can be lit but will first want you to 'walk them' through the action so they can decide how to best set up the lights to do things like cast appropriate shadows or produce effects appropriate to the atmosphere the director wishes to convey. On my film my DoP used 3 redheads, 2 lilliputs and natural light in order to produce the mood I wanted.

SOUND RECORDIST

This chap, who normally brings his own earphones, will monitor the recording of the sound, whether it is directly into the camcorder, or into a minidisc or DAT. They will make recommendations on what kinds of microphones they require, but ultimately your budget and flexibility will decide that. My Sound Recordist used a Seinheisser ME66/67 microphone and a DAT machine. In most circumstances, you, the producer, will have to rent a DAT machine as the sound recordist may not own one. DAT machines have an in-built pre-amp which means you can crank up the sound if it is too weak.

BOOM SWINGER

The boom swinger is not always required unless there is a lot of shots where different people are speaking. Normally a sound recordist can swing with slow paced dialogue himself. If this happens, have someone use an agreed signal so he knows where to swing the boom next.

CAMERA OPERATOR

I am the kind of director that loves to do this myself, and when I am absolutely unable to do this I have my DoP step in. For exteriors I had a special cameraman do this work. For interiors, the role was shared between myself and the DoP. I guess it all depends on how much interaction you are going to be doing with your actors, and, of course, how many cameras you have on set. For some shots, there is no replacing a good cameraman.

GAFFERS

The DoP may require someone to help them set the lights up, and move things around for them. The Gaffer will normally do things like gaffer-tape blackout card to windows and clip gels to lights. On my set this role was always filled by someone else. Either I would do it, or the sound recordist or another producer would step in. I enjoy working in small teams where everyone is busy and energised.

DRIVERS

If you are going to be transporting a lot of crew and equipment about, always make sure you have a car or two! On my film, this role was filled by either actors, producers or friends.

MAKE-UP

Remember that it is a good idea for all actors to wear a base, even if they are not going to have any fake blood, etc. Otherwise they will appear hideos under the powerful lighting. If there is going to be no special make-up, learn how to apply base yourself.

STILLS PHOTOGRAPHER

Some directors do this themselves. These guys get good behind the scenes photographs as well as production photographs. The production photographs are to be used in the press pack for your film, so normally the actors pose after the action for these and pretend they are still in action.

PRODUCTION ASSISTANT

Person who claps the clapperboard and does general work that needs doing - a real workhorse. Gaffer can do this too!

THE ULTIMATE SKELETON CREW

Ultimately, I have found the smallest crew that you can shoot with is:

  • Director
  • DoP experienced in camera operation
  • Sound Recordist
  • Gaffer
  • PA

When the film is at a rough-cut stage, you will need to recruit the services of the following crew. I recommend recruiting them as early as possible - i.e. in the pre-production phase:

  • Sound Design and Foley
  • Composer

Some sound recordists do the whole lot! Most composers on shootingpeople.org will work in exchange for a credit.

You could shoot without a crew like Robert Rodriguez did when he made El Mariachi, but digital is less forgiving than film. It's possible: move the lights around yourself until it looks good. Record the sound and dialogue afterwards using the camcorder sound as a guide-track. Shane Carruth (Winner of Grand Jury Prize at Sundance 2004 for PRIMER) taught himself how to DoP out of books and trial and error. yep, it's definitely possible, but a big, big risk.

Apparently you are supposed to have someone on set who has a recognised qualification in Health and Safety up to a certain level (which may vary from country to country). It's up to you what you do here. I know I wouldn't want to abandon, or postpone my film just because I couldn't get someone of that description to be on set every day. Would you? I find common sense prevails in certain situations where following some 'rule' is the status quo.


Production

Okay - so we get to the big day. If this is your first time with a crew, you will struggle. It can be a little overwhelming. It's like when you first start filming in public - you'll feel awkward and not want to be there. But after you gain some experience, members of the public won't even phase you - and in just the same way, experience on set will ease you into working with the team.

Here are some pointers for production:

  • Remember that first shot - keep it simple
  • Keep lots of refreshments on hand - it might be a good idea to buy lots of sandwiches, chocolate bars, cans of drink, etc and put them in a big cardboard box for people to access.
  • Remember to find out what people like - some people are vegetarians, for example.
  • Have regular breaks, but do not break up the impetus of the shoot. Consult the crew - they might be willing to get a few more shots done before a break. I had a break after each camera set-up. The lights are so intense, that when you turn them off to change set-up, everyone will need to have a breather.
  • Stick to the shot list. Don't get distracted.
  • Do not use 'auto' settings for exposure, focus, etc. Your Cameraman and.or DoP will set these. There is nothing more embaressing than having the autofocus jump all over the place in a scene.

Here is an equipment list that you should consult before going on set:

  • Camera(s)
  • Camera Batteries (Fully Charged) + charger
  • Leads to plug camera(s) into power sockets
  • Boom Pole
  • Boom Mic, with accessories
  • Relevant sound recording device + leads + accessories
  • Sound Capture Device (E.G. DAT Machine) Batteries (Fully Charged) + charger
  • Gaffer Tape
  • Scissors
  • White Balance Card/Paper
  • Extension Cables
  • Lighting Gels, Diffusion Materials and Black Card
  • Crocodile Clips (for clipping gels, diffusion material to lights)
  • Industrial Gloves (so you don't burn yourself moving lights)
  • Box of food and refreshments
  • Chalk and a Clapperboard
  • Box of DV Tapes
  • Box of minidisc/DAT tapes (assuming you use either)
  • Mobile Phones with numbers of local taxi firms - just remember to keep them switched off during takes

Previous to a day's shoot, you should have discussed with your DoP and cameraman the various set-ups you want to shoot. When you arrive on an interior location, you normaly follow the following process:

  1. The Crew move all unnecessary furniture, etc out of the location, or to a safe place inside the location that will not obstruct the cast and crew.
  2. The DoP and Gaffer begin setting up lights. Any extra work the DoP wants done is then carried out by the gaffer, such as gaffer-taping black card over windows. This is done so that changes in natural light cannot obstruct the continuity of the shots in your film. If your shots are supposed to have daylight in them, the DoP will probably use a powerful light and some blue gels to simulate it. They will give you a list of things they need in advance after discussing your storyboard with you. I was asked to provide blue gels, diffusion material, some reflectors (a cheap relector can be cardboard with tin-foil glued to it), and a flag (used for blocking out light - a cheap way to make one is a large chunk of hardboard painted black).
  3. When the set is lit, the director will walk the actors through the action. You will normally do a few dry runs and mould the performances as you go. The Sound Recordist will also record approximately 60 seconds of general background ambience which can then be used to make the editing between dialogue seemless and fill in gaps between dialogue. This is called a Buzz Track.
  4. When you are ready to do a take, firstly ensure all the cast and crew are aware you are going for a take and are 100% sure of their job during the take.
  5. Before any action, you instruct the cameras and sound to roll. Your DoP/Cameraman and Sound Recordist will both then acknowledge that cameras and sound are rolling. At this point, the Production Assistant (PA) will move into shot with the clapperboard clearly readable, and read out the scene number, shot number and take number, and then clap the clapperboard. It is then down to you to shout action. Wait at least 5 seconds after the clap before you do so. There are a number of different types of actions that could occur. For example, camera action, background action and main action (involving actors). If the shot begins with a slow pan inside a packed basketball stadium, and ends on two people in the foreground commenting on the performance, then you firstly shout 'background action' to ensure that the crowd and players are doing what they are supposed to do (cheer, wave arms, play ball, etc). Then you would shout 'camera action' to begin the pan. When the two foreground actors are in frame, simply shout 'action' and they will begin as directed.
  6. If any of your actors make mistakes during their action, try and get them to pick-up their lines, as it saves having to do another take. Also, if an actor makes a mistake at the beginning or middle of a take, you will lose all the rest of a potentially good take if you shout 'cut'. Simply inform them of the mistake, then get them to continue. This will happen when there is bad sound too. The sound recordist will tell everyone to halt if there is an unwanted noise being picked up on his earphones.
  7. When the take is complete, simply shout 'cut'. If you did not get a clap at the beginning, then tell the actors to halt action, and then get the PA to come into shot and clap, then shout cut. Some people hold the clapper board upside down for the clap when doing claps at the end of a take. Let the DV tape run at least 5 seconds after the actions has halted before you shout 'cut'.
  8. Your sound recordist will have a sound log, which they will fill out to say which takes had clean sound, and which ones had problems. All a log really needs to tell you is the shot number, take number, and description. It is desirable that the same should be done for the picture. When I filmed Mnemosyne, sometimes a bird would come into shot at the end of a take, so the camerman would make a note of this. It's good to know things like this, as the rest of the take was clean and could be used in editing.
  9. It's up to you how many takes you go for. I like to have at least two good takes before I move to the next shot.


Some Basic Film Theory

One of the greatest pieces of advice I have ever heard is from Robert Rodriguez. He said you should learn to trust your instincts. When you imagine a film in your head and you see the shots, you may not be able to write a thesis to back up why you have gone with, say a POV, rather than a tracking mid shot from behind the actor. Hopefully you would have watched enough good movies to have filmmaking running through your blood. If this is the case, trust those instincts. Even if it means you'll make mistakes, it can only better you and your inate ability to get the right shot. That said, here ar a few basic things that you can pickup in any text on filmmaking:

  • Low shots shooting up at a character give that character a sense of being important and powerful.
  • Higher shots, shooting down onto an actor give that character a sense of being unimportant and weak.
  • If you shoot from a 90 degree angle dead onto a character's face (i.e. facing the side of the actor) the audience will not make much of an emotional connection with them. It will feel sterile and cold.
  • Bringing the camera around now, the more you move towards shooting the actor's face on, the more of an emotional connection the audience will make.
  • Likewise the closer the camera/audience is to a character, the greater the connection.
  • Scenes where emotions rise through a scene often work best starting out further away and cutting up until close ups and even extreme close ups. You can also handle the emotional charge on one character by slowly moving the camera towards them.
  • POV shots help put the audience into a character and the strongest ways of creating audience-character connections
  • Use a wide establishing shot at the beginning of each scene, so the audience has an idea of the spatial relationships between the actors and their envirnment. The only time you do not do this is when you want to portray to the audience that the characters themselves do not know where they are (e.g. beginning of 28 days later).
  • Shots from directly behind a character are another way of doing this, but allow the audience to see more.
  • Remember, films have rhythm. Imagine a frenzied dog attack scene, or a fight scene. The editing in these films will be incredibly fast paced. Now think of a scene where two people are sitting in a restaurant, getting to know each other. The cuts will tend to match the conversation. If the script dictates that an argument should occur, the speed of the editing will increase also.
  • Remember the importance of good sound and how it can add so much to a scene. Check out the hammer drop at the end of my short film Origins to see an example.
  • If you intend to cut directly from a wide to a medium, or a medium to a CU, etc, without cutting away, a good trick is to shoot them all from slightly different angles. This will help you hide any action continuity discrepancies.
  • Familiarise yourself with the "Line of action." This is an imaginary line that can be seen as a 'stage' in theatre. When you go to watch a play, think how the audience is positioned. It is always to one side of the actors. This means that if actor A stands on the left hand side of the stage, and actor B stands on the right hand side of the stage, actor A will always be looking to his right, and actor B will always be looking to his left. If this were a film, this would be valid, as any cuts to either actor would always result in them looking at each other. If you cut to actor A, jumped the line of action, then cut to actor B from the other side of the stage, you would see actor A looking right, then actor B looking right. This is an extreme example, but you would surprised how many directors have jumped the line by accident - and it causes a jolt to a lot of viewers. A more subtle example is one of my first short films - Opportunity Knocks. In this film Actor A and Actor B are talking in a hallway. Actor A and Actor B both look to their left. This is because the camera jumped the line of action. A lot of people didn't notice it, but then this is as about as subtle as breaking the rule gets. Always imagine your shots as being taken from the audience area at a play, and that will help you to avoid breaking this rule. The one exception to the rule is car scenes, as audiences have become used to the way they work (background moving to the right in one shot, and moving to the left in the next as camera jumps from one actor to another).


NEXT UPDATE - 01-DEC-04

The next update will provide information on low-budget film equipment.


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