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.
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.
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
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 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
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
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
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
If you really are against writing
a script, you can even get ready made scripts from
There are lots of websites that exist to let
you find cast and crew
mandy, etc). If
you are American, I recommend that you check out
the following article
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!
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
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 have provided a few 'best practices' when it comes to
casting. They are:
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.
- 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
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.
Before I launch into my production section, here's
a little about the crew you might require for a low-budget
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
- DoP experienced in camera operation
- Sound Recordist
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
- Sound Design and Foley
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,
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
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.
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 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
- 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
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.
- 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'.
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
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
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
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
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
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 -
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