Filmmaking 101: Every Shot Answers a Question

A quick editing tip I sometimes find useful when I’m stuck trying to decide how to edit a scene: Sometimes it’s helpful to think of every shot as answering a question set up by the previous shot.

A simple example: let’s say you have a character who is surprised by something unexpected, and you need to decide whether to show the character’s surprise first and then cut to the thing she sees, or the other way around, show the unexpected thing first and then the character’s reaction to it.

In such a situation, try asking yourself which question you want the audience to ask: What is the character seeing that caused her reaction? Or, how is the character going to react when she sees it? This should help clarify the solution for you.

In The Art of Dreaming, when Maya wakes up and finds The Insect Queen in the room with her, I realized I wanted neither. I realized I wanted the audience to see at the exact moment that Maya does, so I cut to the shot of The Insect Queen on the exact frame that Maya’s eyeline lands on her.



Kim Production Diary: 5 Steps to Writing a Business Plan

Kim Production Diary

We’ve finished writing our business plan for Kim, the last step before we can seriously begin fundraising. It was an interesting process, and it forced us to think through 5 basic aspects of our production.

The first was figuring out how to define the film, and how to talk about it in a way that is both true to our vision and compelling enough to get people as excited about it as we are.

Practicing the “elevator pitch” with anyone willing to listen was really important, until the pitch was refined to a point where most people react to it with an enthusiastic “that sounds like a great film!”

The best bits of advice we found for this were: “describe in one sentence your story, and the twist that makes it different,” and “when you touch their hearts, they’ll open their checkbook.” We had to learn to describe our film succinctly in a way that is emotionally moving.

The second thing we had to work through for the business plan was a thorough and realistic budget for the film. To talk about that in detail would probably take a few blog posts, much more space than I have here today.

The third thing was to look at other similar films and see how they did financially. We looked at low-budget psychological science fiction films, that played down action and violence, as well as films that were more artistically oriented and films that played with the conflict of reality and fantasy. While this can’t give us any guarantee how Kim will perform, it can at least show us how it might do.

Fourth was to research and understand film marketing, and all the opportunities and challenges facing independent filmmakers today. We worked to identify our films assets – its strengths and the things that make it unique, then how to identify audiences that value those assets, and then how to contact and communicate with those audiences.

And fifth, was to look at the distribution options available for independent films. This proved the trickiest part, because it’s the thing most likely to change in the 12-18 months between now and when post-production is finished. We made an inventory of all the current distribution options, everything from VHX to Vimeo-on-Demand to iTunes to Tugg, to traditional theatrical distributors. We’ll have to continue monitoring and researching all options over the next year so we’ll be prepared when the film is finished and ready for release.

I hope you found this quick overview of our process for writing a business plan interesting, and helpful if you’re working on your own film. For us, it’s on to raising the money to make Kim, More on that as the process proceeds.



Rebel Seed’s Film Insights Podcast

I just found a great podcast for independent filmmakers: Rebel Seed.

Their Film Insights series features really amazing advice on marketing, fundraising, and distribution for indie films. It’s all very specific and very practical. I’m finding these podcasts extremely useful as we ramp up for production on Kim. Knowledge is power.

http://www.rebelseedfilms.com/rebelseedpodcast/



Kim Production Diary: Making a Budget, Fundraising and Business Plans

Kim Production Diary

Been crunching numbers lately, but before I go on, I’ll define a few terms for those unfamiliar with the intricacies of film production.

Pre-production is the time spent preparing the film before the actual shoot, this includes writing the script, hiring the crew, auditioning, casting, and rehearsing the actors, finding locations, rasing money, and whatever preparations we need for the camera crew and the art, props and sets.

Production is the time when the cameras are rolling and we’re shooting the picture.

Post-Production is everything that happens after the shoot. Editing, composing the music, doing the sound design and sound editing, festival submissions, marketing, and distribution of the final film, etc.

At this stage of Pre-production, Leeah and I have been working to finalize our Budget, Fundraising Plan and Business Plan, three essentials for proceeding with the production. With these three key components, we’re trying to answer these questions:

The Fundraising Plan: how are we going to raise the money for Kim?

The Budget: How are we going to spend the money once we get it?

The Business Plan: How are we planning to make the money back once the film is made?

Investors and funders will certainly want to see the Budget and Business Plans before they contribute money, but they’ll probably also be interested in seeing the Fundraising plan to make sure that our plans are solid and we’ll be able to raise the rest of the money for the production.

As we finish up the Budget, some of the issues we’re facing are trying to nail down the locations and the costs for the locations, deciding the size of the crew we’ll need on set as well as the length of the shoot, and deciding how many paid pre-production days we’ll have for the actors, the art department, and camera crew. We also need to include money in the busget for post-production or be forced into a second round of funding after the film is shot, as well as a little extra contingency money for unforeseen emergencies (usually about 10% of the budget).

Our Production Consultant, Jenna Payne, has been invaluable to the process, providing us much needed insight and guidance as we nail down the numbers. With her experience and expertise, she’s helped us cut expenses and helped us stay realistic in terms of what things will actually cost.



Filmmaking Resources Update

I haven’t updated the site for a while with any new resources for Independent Filmmakers. Here are some interesting sites and articles I’ve come across recently.

First off, here’s any amazing interview with Morrie Warshawski, author of Shaking the Money Tree: How to Get Grants and Donations for Film and Video, on raising money for the arts, with a focus on independent films. It’s a little dated on internet stuff, but solid on the timeless aspects of fundraising.

Interview with Morrie Warshawski

Here’s some great advice on how to find name actors for low budget films.

13 Ways to Cast A-list Actors in Mcrobudget Films

Next up, is Film Freeway, a site filmmakers can use to submit to film Festivals. Created as an alternative to Without a Box, Film Freeway is always free for filmmakers (no added fees added to the festival submissions fee) and it has HD online screeners, unlike Without A Box whose online screeners look terrible.

Film Freeway

I linked to this in an earlier post, but it’s worth repeating. It’s an article detailing how Tangerine, a hit at Sundance this year, was shot on the iPhone 5s. It’s essential that independent filmmakers start thinking creatively about how to save money and use their resources wisely.

How One of the Best Films at Sundance was Shot Using and iPhone 5s

Finally, here are some great tips from Mark and Jay Duplass for low budget filmmakers. I love their emphasis on the 250K film, both to retain control and to make sure your money is being used wisely.

This Is How You Do It: 10 Filmmaking Tips from Mark and Jay Duplass



Kim Production Diary 1

Kim Production DiaryAn ongoing series chronicling the production (pre, shoot, and post) of our new movie Kim.

This is the first post in what will be an ongoing diary of the production of our new movie, Kim, from pre-production, through the shoot and post-production.

We’re very much at the beginning of the pre-production stage right now, so it’s a perfect time to start a production journal. We’ve got our script, an 80-page feature. We’ve assembled a great team: myself (Bob) as Writer/Director, Producer Leeah Odom, Composer Lenny Gonzalez, Cinematographer Matthew Boyd, and Production Designer Elle Kunnos de Voss.

We have a website for the film that we will continue to develop as the production evolves.

Producer Leeah Odom and I are having weekly meetings either by phone or in person to discuss the film, review the previous week’s accomplishments, and set goals for the next week,

At this point, we’ve identified four key areas that we need to focus on.

1. Finalizing our budget and business plan, so we can start up our fundraising push.

2. Finding a location for the shoot.

3. Beginning to search for and audition the cast.

4. Create awareness and buzz about the project.

More on each of these as the weeks go by. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy these insights and behind the scenes peek at the nuts and bolts of film production.



A Nonprofit Model for Independent Films?

Nick Toti has an interesting article over at Indiewire.com suggesting that independent filmmakers should start using a nonprofit model to raise money for their projects. When I first transitioned from experimental dance-theater to filmmaking, I was struck how films had developed a different funding model from the other arts. Whereas most arts groups fund themselves as Nonprofit Organizations (501(c)(3) status under the IRS code), films have historically been funded as for-profit ventures.

This has a lot to do with the expense of making films, of course. It takes millions of dollars to fund and market even a low budget production, whereas a few thousand dollars may go a long way toward funding a performance of a small dance company. So films have developed a system where studios fund their massive budgets from investors looking for a return on their investments and where the massive hit film can help fund the market misses.

Also, of course, the immense payback potential for a hit movie has made films an attractive prospect for many investors. And the historical predominance of films as America’s premier popular entertainment medium has also contributed to relegating most films to commercial, for-profit ventures, thought of as commerce first, and art second.

But as film production costs and marketing costs have soared, the big studios have become less and less interested in funding small, risky films that don’t have the chance of a big payoff. They’re more interested in tent pole pictures and franchises that have a bigger likelihood of being a financial success.

And having a for-profit model for filmmaking has meant that individual filmmkakers generally can’t sustain a career if they don’t consistently make a profit in the market place with their films, a burden that nonprofit arts groups don’t necessarily face. Very few Performance Arts groups could survive if they had to rely on ticket sales for income (including such mainstream civic bulwarks as world-class symphonies, ballet, and opera companies in major cities). Tax-exempt donations have been crucial to the survival of arts in the U.S.

What will it take to allow filmmakers to successfully move to non-profit model? Even with the inexpensiveness of digital production, it can still take a couple of hundred thousand dollars to produce even a micro-budget feature film, still a daunting amount of money to raise.

I’ve long been an advocate of re-thinking our aesthetics to move away from the mainstream Hollywood aesthetics of films, to produce movies that are both less expensive to make and more personal. For those growing up now with an iPhone in their pocket, this is happening quite naturally. This is a very exciting time to be a filmmaker, but we must rise to the challenge of seeing art and the world in new ways, and not simply repeating tired (and expensive) styles, genres and working models.

If we can do that, the time might be right for some filmmakers, like most other artists in our culture, to turn to Nonprofit Organizations for funding. This could mean an individual forming a Nonprofit for his or her own work, but more likely a production company setting itself up as a Nonprofit. Alternatively, films productions could raise money through another Nonprofit that acts as an umbrella agency, (called Fiscal Sponsorship). Currently, Fractured Atlas offers that service for filmmakers.

Of course, this doesn’t eliminate the need for hard work, dedication, and perseverance. That will always be necessary.

Why Nonprofits are the Future of Indie Film

Film As Cheap As a Pencil and Paper

How One of the Best Films at Sundance was Shot Using and iPhone 5s

The Feature Film That Blew Everyone Away at Sundance Was Shot on an iPhone 5s

Fractured Atlas



Startup Film School Podcast

I’ve come across a wonderful new podcast series presented by Stacey Parks, whose website Independent Film Blog I mentioned in an earlier post.

It’s called Startup Film School, and it’s basically a primer on film financing, distribution, and marketing. These podcasts are simply amazing! All independent filmmakers should listen to them.

The podcasts teach through interviews with independent filmmakers, so you get to see actual success stories and learn what works in the real world. It covers everything from developing a business plan, to how filmmakers use The American Film Market, to how one filmmaker made a feature film for $500.

Stacey’s main focus is encouraging independent filmmakers to make movies that make money, so they can have sustained careers. One episode covers in depth the “5 Steps to Getting Your Script Market Ready.” Here’s she’s not talking about making the most commercial movie ever, but how to make your film attractive to people who might actually finance it. She covers these steps in an interview with filmmaker Brooks Elms so you can see how it works in an actual film in production.

5 Steps to Getting Your Script Market Ready

1. Do Your Research. Find out how similar films have done financially so you can have a realistic idea of what your film can do in the market place.

2. Develop a Budget and a Business Plan. How much will your film cost to make and how do you plan to make that money back (knowing, of course, that all filmmaking is a risky venture)?

3. Put a Team Together. If you approach investors as a writer/director working alone your project is not going to be that attractive. But if you put together a team with an experienced Producer, DP, Casting Director, etc. you’re going to make your project more attractive.

4. Put Together a Cast with some Marketable Talent.

5. Develop a Pitch, with Compelling, Professional Visuals.

The podcast goes into much more detail about all of these steps. Check it out, and the rest of Stacey’s podcasts, right now!

Startup Film School.



Production 101: 5 Directing Tips From An Editor

I’m writing some posts offering tips to filmmakers from the perspective of an editor.

Today I want to talk about a few things directors should keep in mind. I’m going to avoid basic concepts like the 180-Degree Rule that are taught to every beginning filmmaker (and can be violated these days as audiences get more sophisticated, if done smartly).

1. Give the Editor Something to Cut Away To.

I’m a big fan of the single take scene. If you have the time and money to make sure you get one or two perfect takes, or if the single take is essential to the aesthetic of the scene, that’s great. But in general, it’s important to give the editor as many option as possible. Especially in low-budget and independent filmmaking, where you might not have time to persist until you get that one perfect take, it’s dangerous to shoot an entire scene expecting it to be a single continuous take in the edit. If there’s a problem with the performance or a camera mistake that wasn’t noticed on the set, or even if you just change your mind in the edit, you may be stuck with no good options. Even if it’s just the proverbial cat in the window, give the editor the ability to piece together a scene from different takes.

The basic idea is that you want to have as many options in post as possible, given constraints of time and budget.

2. Don’t Yell “Cut” Too Quickly.

I once edited a film where one non-professional actor consistently broke character the instant the last line of dialogue was finished, looking at the camera, or smiling nervously, or just relaxing his pose. This made it hell too edit. You should always give yourself a little time after the last line to smooth transitions to the next scene or the next shot, in case it’s needed.

But there’s another reason to keep the camera rolling after the dialogue is completed. Good actors know how to stay in character until they hear “cut.” If you keep the camera running after the prepared conversation or action is over, you can sometimes find amazing moments of vulnerability and honesty. These little moments, when the actor doesn’t have anything rehearsed but hasn’t “broken” the scene, can yield gems that raise the emotional resonance of a scene. In the same way, those moment at the beginning of the take, after the camera starts rolling but before the action starts, can yield beautiful, even profound moments.

Don’t miss out on these opportunities to add richness and depth to your actor’s performances.

3. Make Sure Someone is Acting as Script Supervisor.

The Script Supervisor plays an important role that’s often neglected on low budget productions. The Script Supervisor does more than just check for continuity problems (which hand the actor is holding the cup with, whether a door is open or closed in each shot). The Script Supervisor also keeps careful track of each line of dialogue and which angle it’s been shot from. I once edited a scene where two characters moved with complex blocking throughout the room. On set, the crew lost track of things, and a crucial line by the lead actress was never shot with the camera pointing directly at her, so we had to use a shot of the back of her head for that line. We made it work, but an attentive Script Supervisor would have caught this on set and made sure the shot was gotten.

On low budget films, you don’t always have the luxury to have someone on set who’s sole function is Script Supervisor, but it’s important to assign someone this task and make sure they know how to do it. And it shouldn’t be the Director or Cinematographer. They have way too many other things on their plate to do this well.

4. Learn to Communicate Your Ideas, Then Trust Your Editor.

I’ve sometimes worked with inexperienced directors who insisted they wanted to “sit it on every editing session.” I usually decline this type of job.

Inexperienced directors who want to do this either don’t trust their editors and want their editors to simply be their hands running the editing software, or they haven’t thought through their ideas for the film well enough to articulate them to the editor.

Having two people in the room also means every decision will have to be discussed, argued over, decided jointly, even the simplest decisions that were going to be made one way regardless. This will more than double the amount of time it takes for the edit.

The better course of action is to hire an experienced and creative editor whom you trust, communicate as precisely and articulately as you can your vision for the film, and then let the editor work through to a rough cut. Once the rough cut is done, you can productively work as closely with the editor as you want, either through notes, or by sitting in on the sessions.

But unless you really are an experienced filmmaker who has a mature understanding of the art of the edit – and have the budget to pay the editor to spend twice as much time getting to rough cut as you would otherwise – trust your editors to do the job you hired them for.

5. Know Your Footage.

I’ve worked with directors who, when they want a take replaced with another, will tell me exactly which take they like better. “Don’t use take 4, use take 2.” I’ve also worked with directors who’d say, “I don’t like that take, can you find a better one,” without any explanation of what they didn’t like or what they’re looking for. The first note can take me a minute or two to implement, the second might take me 25 minutes, and I still might not find something that satisfies the director. The more you know your footage the more precise you can be when giving notes.

Again, it all comes down to learning to communicating your ideas clearly and effectively.



Production 101: 5 Tips For Getting Good Sound

I thought I’d write a couple of blog posts offering tips to filmmakers from the perspective of an editor.

Today I want to talk about the importance of good sound recording.

Great sound is just as important as great cinematography. Actually, I might go further and say that great sound is more important than great cinematography.

This may seem counter-intuitive, since we’re always told film is a visual medium, but, trust me, nothing will ruin the audience’s experience faster than bad sound. If voices are muddy and conversations are hard to follow, if the sound isn’t natural and clear, the movie will seem amateurish and pull the audience out of the story.

The thing is it’s not that hard or expensive to get the sound right. Great sound recording is a lot cheaper than great cinematography, but low-budget films often skimp on even the little cost it takes to make sure the sound is done right.

1. Hire a Professional Sound Recorder

Hire someone who knows how to monitor the sound, how to set lavaliers and booms, someone who will have the confidence and experience to stop a shot if there is unwanted background noise, a plane in the distance, the beeping of a truck backing up.

2. Hire a Separate Person to Work the Boom.

Operating the boom and monitoring the recording is a two-person job. The boom operator doesn’t need to be a super-experienced professional, but does need to be someone on the ball and engaged in the work, someone who can work with your professional recorder to make sure you are getting clean dialogue recording.

It’s far more expensive to go into a studio and do ADR (Additional Dialogue Recording) in post than to pay a PA to operate the boom. It’s even more expensive to have the entire budget of the film wasted because bad sound has irreparably damaged the film.

3. Always Use Lavaliers on Noisy Locations.

You’d think this would be a given, but many low-budget productions don’t follow this absolutely essential rule. It can be very difficult, even impossible, to filter out unwanted background noise in post without the actor’s voices sounding very artificial and processed. If you are recording in a noisy location, a windy day outside, a city street, indeed anyplace except a sound stage where you have absolute control over the sonic environment, make sure you use lavaliers (body mics) if at all possible, in addition to boom mics. Don’t rely on just one or the other. Use both.

4. Don’t Record MOS (Without Sound).

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked on projects where footage was shot without sound because the director was sure on-set sound wouldn’t be needed, maybe because it was going to be part of a montage, or there would voiceover narration over it, or it would be part of a musical sequence. But you can’t always anticipate what your needs in the edit will be, and I often find myself having to fake on-set sound with foley and sound effects. A good rule of thumb is: if the camera is running, record sound too, if at all possible.

5. Don’t Forget to Record Room Tone.

Room tone is the background, ambient noise of the location: machine hums, wind in the trees, traffic from outside, whatever is going on there. It’s very important to record this for 30-60 seconds on every location. Make sure the cast and crew are quiet when recording.

Room tone can be essential in post to patch inadvertent problems in the recording. If there is unwanted background noise during the shot or some dialogue that needs to be cut, it’s easy to do if you have room tone. I’ve been in unfortunate situations where I had to manually loop a second or two or room tone taken from brief gaps between lines of dialogue because there no one recorded room tone on set. These short loops can sound very artificial and create real problems that take time and money to work out.

Realizing the importance of good sound and taking a little care and consideration for it in production can make all the difference in both the ease of post-production and the final quality of the film.



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