Wanna be a filmmaker? Just grab your DV camera and start shooting, right? Well, if you want to produce something more professional than a glorified "home video," it's not that simple.
After a decade of marketing, producing corporate videos and commercials, I was ready to make the leap into narrative filmmaking. With today's technology, all I had to do was grab a camera and go, right? Um, no.
If your end game, like mine, is to create a "calling card"--that is, a short film to introduce yourself to the film industry or impress investors--you'll need something more professional.
First, you'll need a script. Don't know much about screenwriting? There are lots of books on the subject, including the definitive tome, Bob McKee's Story (Charlie Kaufman fans will remember the McKee "character" from Adaptation).
If you're serious about this whole filmmaking thing, it pays to invest in screenwriting software such as industry-standard Final Draft (though some of you are capable of jerry-rigging your own using Unix, I'm sure).
As the whole wide world of possibilities spreads out before you like a newly paved highway, how do you know what to write about? Since you're probably financing your short film, presumably you would like to keep your budget as low as possible (unless you're an Olsen twin); accordingly, force yourself to write something that can be shot in as few locations as possible (for example, one) with as few actors as possible (for example, two).
Keep in mind, even actors who will work for free must be fed, housed (depending on the location), miked (as in, wireless or boom), and in need of hair and makeup.
As I thought about viable short film subjects, I had just moved my 86-year-old grandmother from the home she shared with my grandfather for 30-plus years into a "retirement village" one long, looooong weekend and was struck by the realization that this could be a great premise for a short film fraught with dramatic tension.
And so, the 22-page script for our short film, "All You Need," was born. (Keep in mind that one script page equals approximately one minute of screen time.) My cowriter/director/producer, Wayne Boyer (who is also my husband), rewrote the script, collapsing the timeline and increasing the tension.
We presented the script to my writers' group for feedback (and to anyone who would read it), and you should do this too. (Learn to detach yourself from the sting of criticism by accepting the fact that it will only help make your script stronger.) After about four months of revision, we figured we were ready for preproduction.
Three major areas comprise preproduction: hiring your crew (and finding equipment), casting your actors (and rehearsing), and securing locations (and dressing the sets).
But before you go on a mad hiring spree, you need to prepare a shooting schedule, script breakdown, and budget. As you probably know, films are not shot in chronological sequence, so a shooting schedule of which scenes will be shot at which locations on what days is an absolute necessity.
A script "breakdown" is a list of all script "elements," including cast, crew, locations, sets, props, and so on. And the budget is how much all of it is going to cost.
The best guide to preparing these documents is the Independent Filmmakers' Manual. In addition to these documents, the manual includes samples of cast and crew "deal memos," releases, and contracts.
So, you've got your script, shooting schedule, breakdown, and budget, and your credit card is at the ready.
Typically, as director, your DP (director of photography) will be your first hire unless you intend to shoot the project yourself. Divvying up directing duties with Wayne, he was in charge of "look and feel" while I was responsible for working with actors. Therefore, he hired our DP, who, in turn, recruited our gaffer and sound designer.
(For a basic breakdown of who does what on a movie set, read Career Opportunities in the Film Industry.)
We found our DP through a web site of Northern California film professionals called reeldirectory.com; you might try local film societies or universities, or even run classified ads in your local alternative weekly newspaper.
We knew we wanted to shoot DV and had already borrowed the Canon XL2, but our DP preferred the Panasonic DVX100a with 24P capability (24 frames per second being the frame speed that mostly closely approximates the look and feel of film). Generally speaking, the camera you choose will be based on some combination of your DP's preference, availability, and budget.
We rounded out our crew with a production assistant, a hair and makeup artist, and a script supervisor, who ensures the "continuity" of your film (and who makes extensive notes for the editor). A word to the wise: with everything else on your plate as director and, probably, coproducer, do not try to do script supervision yourself.
With our crew assembled, we turned our attention to the cast. The best way to find local actors is through a local actors' theatre or repertory theatre. Not only are these great resources for finding actors, but they also serve as comfortable, professional audition spaces.
We held our auditions at the Sonoma County Repertory Theatre. Typically, there are magazines and web sites where casting notices can be posted to get the word out to your local acting community. Your first audition may be "open," (that is, open to all interested actors), followed by "call backs" for the strongest candidates.
If you post your casting notice on a web site, ask actors to email you for sides. "Sides" are scenes from your script the actor will read during the audition, generally anywhere from one to three pages long. Also, have copies of sides available at the audition. It's usually best to arrange for another actor to read with auditioning actors (don't try to do it yourself).
This is where our borrowed Canon camera came in handy. We brought it to the auditions and immediately got a sense of who could "play to the camera" and who had no clue about film acting. Be sure to watch your audition tapes before making any final casting decisions. An actor who may appear too "subtle" on stage during the audition may, in fact, display quite a range of emotion on camera.
While there is, undoubtedly, a natural skill and talent inherent in directing actors, there is also much to be learned. One of the best resources is Judith Weston's book, Directing Actors. (Judith also teaches workshops and seminars.) Using many of Judith's techniques, I "broke down" the script and spent three weeks rehearsing our actors.
Concurrent with casting and rehearsing, we began scouting locations, looking for a furnished apartment that could pass for a "retirement village." With very few furnished apartments available in Sonoma County, Wayne seized upon the idea of shooting our short film at our house. I agreed that it would make the shoot much easier, giving me ample time to "dress the set" before shooting started.
In order to make our rather spacious living room, with modern ceiling fan and brick fireplace, look more like a one-bedroom retirement apartment, Wayne built two "walls" (using set flats) that blocked visual access to the fireplace and stairwell; he painted and finished the walls just like our real walls.
Recognizing that a 78-year-old woman would probably not have the mishmash of Pottery Barn furniture we have amassed over the years, I recruited my friend (and O'Reilly graphic designer) Margaret Wylie to help with set design. We scoured the local Salvation Army and bought a cozy little recliner, coffee table, floor lamp, and end table for less than $100--it was July 4th weekend and everything was 50 percent off!
Since the lead character is moving her mother into this apartment, we got lots of moving boxes and "packed up" much of our house. With the crew hired, cast assembled, sets complete, and catering arranged, we were ready to shoot.
Our 22-page script was slated to shoot in four, 12-hour days (from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. each day). Even though this was our first narrative project, Wayne and I felt remarkably relaxed and totally prepared on the morning of our first shoot day.
We made sure we had sufficient tape stock, Polaroid™ film (for the script supervisor to document costumes and set), and plenty of coffee and M & M's™ (fuel of the filmmaking gods). In addition to rehearsing, Wayne had prepared some "video storyboards" with our DP and knew exactly what coverage we needed for each scene.
"Coverage" refers to the various angles you need of each scene in order to give the editor enough to work with. For example, you might want a wide, establishing shot of each scene, plus close-ups of each actor, as well as some doubles (two-shots) and shots of a "medium" flavor. The best book on the "how and why" of camera set-ups and composition is Steve Katz's Film Directing Shot by Shot.
Typically, as director, you'll watch the scenes on the video monitor and indicate the "circle takes" (preferred takes) to the script supervisor. After setting up the shot with the DP, your job as director is to ensure the integrity of the interaction between actors. Does the scene feel forced? Is an actor anticipating his or her lines rather than responding to the other actor "in the moment"?
Luckily, we had cast absolutely phenomenal actors who were able to nail their scenes in two to three takes. We also limited our "degree of difficulty" by keeping the camera fairly stationary. We had very few mishaps with our lights and wireless mikes and were therefore able to "wrap" (finish principal photography) a half-day ahead of schedule. Hallelujah!
We made a set of "clones" before handing over the camera masters to our editor. You will probably need a fairly professional film lab for this (ours was in San Francisco).
Our editor, Thomas Harrigan, cut our project using Final Cut Express on his home system (he is also a studio editor). Referencing the time code from the original digital video tapes, he first imported all the circle takes (using a Fire Wire drive) and put together a very "rough assemblage."
The purpose of the rough cut is for the director to see how the script was "covered" and get a general idea of how the story is coming together. After viewing the first cut, we all agreed that we could have gotten more coverage of a medium variety but, all in all, were thrilled with what we saw in the story and performances.
The sound at this stage was muffled here and there, with "pops" from the wireless mikes that would be cleaned up during our final sound mix (using Apple's Cinema Pro Tools). After two weeks of refining the rough cut, we felt we were at final cut and ready to lay in temp music.
There are many film composers out there who would love to work on your short or feature film project for practically nothing. Again, try local clubs, music conservatories, universities, or classified ads in alternative weekly newspapers.
We had our hearts set on the music of an artist named Patty Griffin, who had greatly inspired us while we were writing the script (and whose music is so brilliant, you should rush right out and buy all her CDs).
So, we took a chance, laid down our temp music cues, and managed to get a copy of the DVD to Patty during her concert here in the Bay Area. Then, we followed up with Patty's manager regarding "festival clearance" of Patty's songs. Festival clearance means we would have permission to use Patty's music only during festival screenings and couldn't, for example, make copies of the DVD for sale.
In addition to a screening at our son's school for cast, crew, friends, and family, we have just begun submitting the film to several film festivals. Each festival has a different "programming philosophy," so, before submitting your film, you should understand how you can benefit from acceptance--sort of like choosing a college.
Yes, everyone wants to go to Harvard (and be accepted at Sundance), but what about that great, little liberal arts college upstate or that local film festival where your chances of acceptance are much improved?
Whatever your festival strategy, remember, the short film is a calling card, so be sure to have your feature project (script, budget/breakdown, and business plan) ready to show to all interested parties should you get accepted to the festivals of your choice.
Whew! That's how we "just did it." (We're now prepping our feature film, slated to shoot next June.) And if we did it, you can, too!