March 12, 2011

Fifteen Things to Prepare for when Making a Film

This is a guest post by filmmaker William Speruzzi.

1. Use SAG talent (if you can) – If the budget can take the hit, go for people who have experience and know how to conduct themselves on a set, rehearse, etc. It will save you time and aggravation in the end. The last thing you want to do is teach someone how to act while you're making your film. If you can’t go this way, get non-union but make sure all the talent is non-union. If you have a cast of ten actors and one actor is SAG then you still have to become a SAG signatory. An audience can forgive a scene that’s shot a little too dark but they will never believe a film that has poor acting.

2. Cast with a pro – Again, if you can afford it, cast with a casting agent. It definitely doesn’t have to go this way but if you are going union get someone who has a pipeline to that water supply.

3. Date the DP – When looking for a DP look at it like you are searching for the perfect mate. Can you agree on a similar style of filmmaking? Bring them into your world. Show them the script, storyboards, photography, art books that reflect what you’re trying to capture. Is this a person you can confide in for the next X amount of weeks? If a DP says you can’t do that shot and doesn’t give you an alternative, get rid of him/her. The last thing you want is someone who is going to shoot down your ideas. Know what you want and bring as much information to the table to see what the DP thinks of your ideas.

4. Let someone else supervise the script – You have enough on your mind, you could use someone else to help worry about continuity.

5. Snap, Crackle, Pop – Make sure the sound person checks and field-tests the equipment before using it for your film. If there is something wrong you really don’t want to find this out when you’ve wrapped and you are looking and “listening” to the footage.

6. Timetables and momentum – When you are prepping for your shoot arrange to have it done within a period of time. Meaning, people get busy and if you have them locked up for three consecutive weekends for your film, try with all your power to finish it within those three weekends. Cast and crew are already setting up their next job when they are done with yours.

7. Psychology rules – Try to understand everyone before you go into your project. There are so many personalities on a film set, if time allows take the time to find out who you are working with. Is this person upbeat? Is this person cranky? In the 25th hour do you really want someone who is petty or incompetent?

8. Call in back up – For every choice you make whether it is about location, an actor, or a camera, have two other go to choices in an emergency.

9. Time is of the essence – Time is not just money, it is gold. See the next point:

10. The script isn’t the only thing made out of paper – When writing your short script write it to budget. If you have $500 to make a film don’t write a scene with car interiors, twenty SAG extras and a trained llama.

11. The three "R"s – Read, Research, Review. Be the absolute expert on making your film before you decide on shooting format. It’s an overwhelming task but the more you know, the better off you are. Read articles on filmmaking. Ask those who have done what you are about to do. Go over it all and use what applies to your film.

12. Signs are everywhere – On a limited budget you might have to make compromises with some crew members, but don’t hire if you have second thoughts. If they show up an hour late or not at all without a courtesy call, bad sign no matter how good they are. This behavior will continue in one form or another throughout your production. Make sure they are serious about working on your film. Let them know up front what they are in for with regards to money or other challenges. There are hundreds of talented people working on films, get the best you can afford on yours.

13. Know your limitations – You can’t exploit your resources if you don’t know what they are. If you are limited by budget, understand fully what that means for your film.

14. Thanks are in order – Filmmaking is hard on everyone, especially during production. Tempers can run high and patience can become a luxury. Delegate with authority but respect is key in all situations. Thank your cast and crew for being part of your dream, especially in the case where money is thin -- which is always.

15. Finish the film – Find a way to make this happen -- no matter what.


William Speruzzi has worked in film and commercial production and post-production for such clients as HBO, MTV, Sacchi & Sacchi and Panasonic. In 2005 he wrote and directed the short film from his original script The Face of the Earth that was a Quarterfinalist in the CineStory Screenwriting Awards 2003 Short Category. His screenplay Dyre Avenue about an aging cab driver working as a drug courier for a corrupt NYPD officer was in the BlueCat Screenwriting 2007 Competition Top Ten Percent. William has worked professionally as an editor under his own banner cutting shorts, industrials, commercials, and promos. Since then he has written Every Dog’s Day, a feature length screenplay about a desperate father, a lost son and a rabid dog.

This post originally appeared in a slightly different form on William's site This Savage Art.

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23 Comments

Thanks Koo!

March 12, 2011

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This is great.

Are #9 and #13 meant to be similar?

March 12, 2011

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Nope, that was my fault with the editing. Thanks for the catch; fixing now....

March 12, 2011

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

A lot of good advice here. For the level you're talking about, I might add two points in the same train of thought:

1) It's not weird or wrong at this level to pay more for the sound person than anyone else. Your DP's building a reel. The sound op has equipment and expertise, and good sound is surprisingly the thing that makes you seem most professional.

2) You can save a ton of headaches by consulting with whoever's doing post before you shoot. On this recent short, my post sound mixer, my production sound mixer, and I emailed back and forth until we had a complete game plan. It made the shoot and post-production so much faster and easier: http://vimeo.com/20561213

March 12, 2011

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Amos -- your point about the sound person (& good sound) is absolutely spot-on. Very true.

March 12, 2011

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

Absolutely important. One key example: make sure every camera is recording *some* sound. Even if you only use the sound recordist's files in the final mix (very likely), you won't be able to use auto-syncing software like PluralEyes if the camera is silent. Good dual-system audio is important, but crappy camera audio can be important too. (Sometimes, it's not even that crappy, and might be usable in a pinch.)

March 12, 2011

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Fantastic post as usual. Don't forget to include yourself in #8 unless you absolutely feel the need to direct every single scene. There's always the chance you'll eat bad chinese or a lung will spontaneously collapse (knock on wood that it won't, it's not very fun). As for #12, it doesn't matter who it is, a PA or your lead SAG actor, they can both kill morale and the day's schedule faster than you can get sound speeding.

On another note you might find useful someone emailed me this link the other day:
http://blog.chasejarvis.com/blog/2011/03/10-minute-film-school-with-robe...
Not sure why I haven't seen these Robert Rodriguez clips before. They're fantastic for young filmmakers and wish I'd seen them years ago.

March 12, 2011

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ty

Good stuff. Being prepared is invaluable. Reminds me of a post I wrote just recently http://www.jdfnet.com/2011/02/28/filmmaking-fighting-the-odds/

March 12, 2011

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That's incorrect on #1 about having a SAG actor in your production and having to go signatory. If the actor wants to violate the "Golden Rule" that's on them. That's the actors risk to take not the production company's.

I've had a SAG actor in my film and she basically said, I don't care if I break the rule.

March 13, 2011

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MadP

@MadP - That's kind of shortsighted, no?. Do you really want to set the tone for your set that you really don't care either way if your actor gets hurt professionally? In the end it is not up to them, it's your film and if you act as a producer on your film you're making these decisions. If your film gets sold or is broadcast on a network, you have to pay for that SAG actor whether it was one or fifty and you better hope you don't have fifty SAG actors working on a non-union gig if you get so lucky and sell your film. It doesn't just go away because you didn't pay them up front.

March 15, 2011

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It's the responsibility of the production to post in the audition announcement that the production is non-union and make this clear in all documentation that the actors sign.

Please don't give the impression that filmmakers that want to produce a $10,000 budgeted non-union film have to do background checks on actors in the event that one of them is secretly SAG waiting to bamboozle them so they can't sell their film.

If a SAG actor wants to work on my film and violate their agreement with SAG I'm not going to prevent them from working. MANY filmmakers do the same without issues.

If/when the film gets sold it doesn't magically get turned into Union product and all the SAG actors get paid for their work as if it had been union the whole time.

March 15, 2011

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Madp

"If/when the film gets sold it doesn’t magically get turned into Union product and all the SAG actors get paid for their work as if it had been union the whole time."

Those are your words not mine. I never said anything about a production going union once your film sells. At the time when I wrote this post and since then SAG has introduced an Ultra-Low Budget Agreement for total budgets of less than $200,000 where you pay a $100 day rate. It would behoove filmmakers to take advantage of that. I'm not pro-SAG or anti-SAG or pro-non-union or anti-non-union. Of course, if you are going out to the woods with a micro-budget and a small crew and you want a non-trained performance from your actors, go non-union. You can do whatever you want to do, it's your film. You should just know as a filmmaker what you're stepping into if you employ union people.

The short answer is: if your film makes money and you employ SAG actors you need to come clean with the union. If you don't think that will catch up with you, go for it.

If you ever do a union production across the board you should test your theory of how non-reactionary unions are by not hiring Teamsters,. See how that works out for you.

March 16, 2011

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Correction: substitute "non-reactionary" with "passive." My mistake.

March 16, 2011

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really neat stuff. Thanks!

March 13, 2011

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Josue

Seriously though! I NEED the trained llama!

...But really, great post. Thanks alot!

March 17, 2011

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Zach Ataiyan

Great article,
good comments about the DP.
I made a feature last summer and had a great DP who made shots look amazing, and had a can do attitude.
So when he said we shouldn't do something I knew I could trust his call.

A big one I see constantly is no budget directors expecting everyone to put their life on hold and take three weeks off work to come shoot their big project. Many directors lose sight of the fact that their project is their baby and not everyone elses.
Actors have to eat and pay rent, it's crazy to call them unprofessional because their not willing to quit their job for your $4000 feature.

As for SAG actors, I've worked on a few professional sets in very minor roles and seen some extremely disappointing
behavior from union actors (showing up late to set no even having a clue what your lines are....), assuming they will act professorially and are talented just because their in the union is a big assumption to make.

I've worked with lots of non union actors who are great actors, team players and nice people, the real importance is having a solid casting director.

Good stuff though

Rob

March 17, 2011

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Rob

Great article, Thank you. William

March 17, 2011

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So this is a good article, with a lot of useful intel for indie producers - thanks for that. That being said, need to point out that the author's first point about being a SAG signatory warrants a long, hard look, especially in the context of indie film.

It's necessary to understand what SAG is, what they do and the environment in which they exist. If I were a working actor (or any other crew member), I'd absolutely want a union to back me when dealing with the studio system. Studio producers and executives are constantly pushing limits of what they can get away with. These people are rough traders, plain and simple, and a union is the only thing standing between you and them. The studio/union relationship has been the worst kind of long-term abusive relationship since its first day of existence.

But say I'm an indie producer, who's borrowed $25K from the grandparents to make my film. Comparing a microbudget indie to a $40M studio feature is like comparing an F1 to a Honda - are both cars, but each has its own purpose and context. But SAG, or any other union, doesn't distinguish between the two. My $25K feature may have different terms, but will have the same legal requirements as a $40M feature. A car's a car, right?

SAG offers several agreements for low budget/experimental films, with a variety of terms, which the SAGIndie folks make look very attractive. You can work with SAG actors, but pay them $100/day or in some cases less. And to some degree, they are attractive, as long as you understand the contract.

But the devil is in the details, and that may sound like hyperbole, but it's kinda not. You won't find the actual contract terms on SAGIndie or their sample contracts. You only find out the real deal once the paperwork plops on your desk. SAG is fully aware that nearly all lo/no budgets will never see a penny come back to the production, but they're more than ready in case yours is the .001 percent that earns.

Insurance/workman's comp, pension contributions from the GROSS, distribution rights, deposit - there are a lot of things you need to know before you go booking SAG actors. It's very possible to get into a lot of financial trouble supporting a union contract, and this can spell serious trouble for a microbudget. And so you're scratching equipment, wardrobe, locations, shooting days, etc., so you can afford it. It's absolutely critical to get accurate information, and make sure you can financially support it. Bottom line is, make sure you know what you're signing up for.

All this puts actors in a difficult position, too. They spend years of trial and tribulation and FINALLY join the union. But they're not getting union parts (just being union doesn't make it any easier to get cast.) The parts they are being offered are low paid or free non union films, but now they have to turn those down, or go Financial Core. (A union member can, in fact, declare FiCore status, and their union -despite rumors and threats to the contrary- cannot terminate their membership, but merely relegate them to second-class citizenship.) Or, more commonly, indie producers avoid union actors entirely, which sucks for both.

Speaking of actors, the OP's assertion that union actors are somehow higher quality is not only a profoundly untrue statement (also propagated by SAG), but a great disservice to actors. This rigid, clubhouse attitude is the antithesis of creativity, free expression and developing craft - it's everything that independent film is not. Visit acting schools and regional theaters around the country to see how much amazing talent there is out there. Meet them. Cast them. Go make brilliant art.

I've been burned by unions as well as film studios, but will work with both again. It's an essential requirement of working in this industry to be willing to tolerate the usury and profound unfairness of it. But with diligence and homework, you can protect yourself from the worst of it.

• Read the fine print! Don't deal with these people (and don't sign ANYTHING) without first consulting a lawyer. Think about it - it's you and your micro-budget against organizations with decades of experience and entire law firms on retainer. They will bully you into doing what they want - so have someone in your corner. It's not personal, it's just how they play.

• Don't assume anything, especially that someone is on your side or wants to help you, even after friendly conversations, verbal agreement, specific or otherwise. Don't assume that they're intending to play fair with you. Unions, including SAG, are absolutely notorious for half truths, full lies and everything in between. Unions can be trusted to do one thing only - what's best for them and their membership. There are many harsh realities in the film business - this goes in that file.

• As a producer or director of the project, your responsibility is to do the best thing for your film. Sign a union contract if it's the best thing for your film based on your own judgement, not someone else's. I'm not advocating demonizing or shunning film unions, only learning the facts and know what you're dealing with. You're an independent filmmaker - be independent!

Good luck and make killer movies!

March 18, 2011

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Ross

Thanks for the great insights, Ross. I've worked with SAG before and I will agree that the parts of the contract that deals with pension contributions, etc. can certainly be eye-opening. This is not a situation to gloss over the fine print, although if you're serving as writer/director/shooter/producer, it can certainly be tempting to do so...

March 24, 2011

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Ryan Koo
Founder
Writer/Director

Thanks Rob and Ross for an excellent clear-minded addition to the post. My opinion about using a union actor was more about having options even with a low budget. Read everything carefully absolutely goes without saying.

March 18, 2011

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One more concern about the SAG debate.

William has forgotten, like many Americans do, that the Internet, and film making are both international. SAG are an American union, though they are trying to force other countries on board. I would not touch SAG talent outside USA because SAG does not have the best interests of non American based actors in mind.

March 18, 2011

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Bunny

Interesting and down to earth comments. I've been in the FILM business professionally for 41 years (35/16mm) and of late, I've been shooting some projects with the Canon D5 just to get more comfortable with Digital Technology. Some of the problems I've encountered with new Filmmakers are: 1- Over ambition, and this has a lot to do with point #10..beside the trained Llama, don't use children, dogs or schedule 90 % of the film at night. Just because you can crank up the ISO to 6400 don't think that you don't need lights unless you want the footage to look like crap. Also, just because you saw something you liked on a $100 million movie don't even think of repeating it on your 5k opus 2- The Geico school of filmmaking, that is.." filmmaking is so easy.. a caveman can do it". Digital has started a very positive revolution, but, at the same time a lot of imcompetence, just because you can press the record button, edit on your laptop and upload to You Tube the same day, doesn't make you a filmmaker. Filmmaking is a craft and I feel that some of that craft is rapidly disappearing for the sake of expediency. After 40 years and about $65 million worth of TV commercials for international brands, documentaries and 4 independent features, I still shiver at the idea of calling myself a filmmaker. I feel I am still learning the process. As for one comment...I am not doing these recent digital things to build up a demo and act like a Prima Donna, specially on a $10k film. I don't need that kind of demo. I am working with a young director who consults every step and every scene with me and I try to do my best with very little equipment. Experience and talent still counts..I think. If we can't afford 2 18k HMIs (with a generator) to kick lighting through windows, I'd figure a way to make the scene smaller and somehow make it work, but don't tell me that you want to film a scene with 8 blocks of Main St. in the backgorund at night with no lights and a crew of 3. I'll tell you where to go.

March 19, 2011

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Luis DP

I don't want to drone on because I think this thread has pretty much exhausted itself, I just want to clarify something. The original post was meant to share some observations about my experience on a short film I made. Other filmmakers may take away different things from their own films. It was just a bullet point representation of mine and not to be misconstrued as law and definitely not to be an interpretation of the many permutations of a union contract, SAG or otherwise. Please just take this humble post for what it is, a recount of my experience and what I took away from that experience.

March 24, 2011

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