December 5, 2011

9 Basic Tips for a Smoother Indie Film Production

This is a guest post by cinematographer Angelo Lorenzo.

So there we were: my production partner rented some of our gear for a music video and roped both of us in to camera operate. The crew was made up mostly of film students still in, or just recently out of, an expedited 6 month film program. The director had bailed the night before principal photography and had left our DP in charge. Throughout the course of the two day shoot we watched the production slowly implode; not because these guys lacked knowledge or enthusiasm, but because they hadn't gained the experience to "turn the ship around" when a production starts sinking into turmoil. With this recent experience in mind, I wanted to share some advice to novice filmmakers to help their days on set go as smoothly as humanly possible. If you're battle worn then let this serve as a gut check when shooting lean.

1. You Need a Producer

I'm not talking about the guy with the gold chains and cigar "doing deals" in a Los Angeles high rise. I'm talking about a person totally available to help solve problems. A producer is there to help hire crew, wrangle in the Director if something is outside of their scope or budget, to help solve conflicts between or within departments, and to liaise with the location owners or rental houses. Larger productions have the ability to subdivide the work with a producer, a line producer, and a location manager -- but chances are an indie production will have all of these duties rolled into one.

2. You Need an Assistant Director

The assistant director position seems to be the most misunderstood or underutilized positions on a novice film crew. The best way to describe what an assistant director does is this: they make days. The assistant director keeps the crew on schedule by coordinating and applying pressure to each department. They aren't the assistant to the director or a co-director; they're divorced from the creative process and keep the technical end of a production running efficiently. While a producer may run a production as a whole, the assistant director is directly responsible for running the day-to-day. The AD is also the crew's safety officer, responsible for making sure the cast and crew are safe and doing their jobs in a safe manner. Because responsibilities are vaguely similar, on micro crews the producer could act as an assistant director. Wikipedia has an excellent article on the callouts an AD uses on set.

3. Stop Living Inside Your Head

We're creative people with active imaginations. You've been brewing this idea in your head for days, weeks, or months. You can't arrive on set with everything still in your head and expect to shoot efficiently. Whether you use full storyboards, a skeletal shot list, or something in-between you should check off your progress throughout the day.

4. Prioritize Important Coverage

When you shoot dialog, prioritize your shot list so you have your master and main reversal angles filmed first. Of course there are exceptions, but if your time is limited or you're inexperienced then this is a safety measure. Once these primary angles are shot, you can then check time and decide if you need inserts or punch-ins, or decide if it's time to move on.

5. Improve Your Reversal Angles

When shooting coverage on dialog scenes, you'll instantly improve the quality of your shots if you match the lens and camera distance on each reversal angle. This matches the size and general perspective of each actor which allows for smoother intercutting during editing. Subtle shifts in camera height can show a dominant and submissive relationship between characters (the restaurant scene between Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the film 25th Hour is an excellent example).

6. Rehearse Blocking

When you move from scene to scene, you should consider running a rehearsal on-set for blocking (an actor's movement through the scene). While full rehearsals can drain an actor emotionally before the camera rolls, a more technical rehearsal can add life and movement to a scene and help you make the final call on where the camera should be placed for coverage. Once blocking rehearsal is done, lighting can be finalized, the camera moved into position, and shooting can begin.

7. A "Get It Done" Attitude

My production partner says "Complaining is like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do but it doesn't get you anywhere." And he is completely right, even if he did kind of steal the quote from Van Wilder. It's time to buck up and film something rather than waiting for everything to fall into place perfectly. You can almost always reshoot and you'd be amazed what you can actually use in the editing room. Rarely with low budget productions will you have exactly the equipment you want, the location that looks best, and so on. If you're the director or cinematographer, having a poor attitude because of technical or location issues can affect the morale of the whole crew. If you're facing a problem, step back for two minutes and figure a "second best" solution.

8. Get Comfortable

Make sure you have plenty of water and crafty for the crew, wear good shoes, bring eye drops, and put on sunscreen on location. Remaining comfortable on set will keep you happy and less fatigued. Simple, but nothing is worse than a 12 hour day with your feet killing you because you wore cheap shoes.

9. Remain Flexible

This relates to #3 and #7. Many novice directors feel anxious when they see the discord between what they see in their head and what they see on-set. The key is to adapt to what is in front of you; happy accidents happen all the time. Remaining flexible also keeps you open to the creative input from your crew and talent. Working for an inflexible director can make the crew and talent feel oppressed and increase on-set stress.

[film crew photo by Aarah Macmillan, megaphone photo by Robert Nilsson, shoe photo by igloowhite]


Angelo Lorenzo is a Los Angeles based cinematographer and camera operator that has worked on a number of commercial, music video, and film sets. When he’s not on set, he’s readying the launch of Films For Us, a platform that allows filmmakers to sell their films and shorts while blogging and connecting with their audience.

Your Comment

33 Comments

Great list! I would say though that the 1st AD isn't always the safety officer, that task can also be done by the Key Grip.

December 5, 2011

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Kevin,

While that isn't the norm, I can see the logic in it especially if there are really complicated rigging or scaffolding setups.

December 5, 2011

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Angelo

Yeah, typically in scenarios where there are things "overhead" I've seen the Key Grip been charged with the task to ensure that the set is safe to step onto. Gravity being such a downer and all ;)

December 5, 2011

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Nice job on this article, can't wait to check out Films For Us, sounds very cool. Keep on keepin' on Angelo!

December 5, 2011

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Good Tips Angelo. Indie shooting is all about being quick, efficient and organized. Having a talented, experienced 1st AD do your day breakdown based on the script/shotlist(#3) that you've given them is by far the best thing you can have on set to help things go smoothly and keep you focused on the creative side of things. They'll help you with #4 and #6, and should come with #7 making #9 a breeze.

More from a producing angle I might add that shooting with a shooting ratio/budget, even when working digital (though obviously not as strict) will really help your director stay focused on getting 'er done and not spend the whole morning working on getting absolutely every angle covered with perfect takes for only one scene. It happens way too often on novice shoots (I've done it myself). Stick to the shooting budget, move on when you have to, and trust your editor to make it work.

December 5, 2011

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MRH

Good point, shooting ratios are very necessary still. Even if they aren't from a practicle, "burning footage" standpoint, they definitely keep the shoot focused.

December 5, 2011

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number 8 and 9 specifically remind me of my shooting my first short as a director.
great list!

December 5, 2011

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Baldvin

This was really helpful. Trust me I took notes, because not matter how good you get, you never know everything. Thank you for the post.

December 5, 2011

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Ty Stone

The 1st AD is the Producers representative on the set. His job is to keep the production on time and on budget.

A true story: Director can't make up his mind what he wants to do or how to do it. 1st AD tells him he has 1:00 to roll the camera, Director starts to throw a fit, 1st AD looks at his watch and then tells Director that he has :45 as he walks away. BTW we were rolling in :45 :) This was a medium budget film with all known SAG actors

December 5, 2011

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c.d.embrey

This is EXACTLY the type of post I come to this website to read. Well done, more of these please!

December 5, 2011

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Chateau

This is a damn well done list! Thank you for this, man.

December 6, 2011

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Kahl everytime I see you, it's on Shane's blog! Lol

December 7, 2011

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I'm going by nature and grace. this is kind irrelevant. #terrencemalick
http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/ladderinc/present-stories-of-everyda...

December 6, 2011

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Andy

this is kind of* #really. you don't need money. i just have crew and cast from everywhere. malick style. #nature. sorry.

December 6, 2011

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Andy

#1 is the truth of indie filmmaking in words! being the producer, author and director in one person, makes you go crazy...

December 6, 2011

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Dennis

The Producer thing is so important. It's worth saying that they should be more experienced than you too, if at all possible.

December 6, 2011

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charlie chaplin did it. with technology today, it's pretty much going to be the golden age if we're inclined to the story, and have equal part grace and nature. check out my kickstarter please. all my friends are poor!

December 7, 2011

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Andy

Andy,

I've looked at your Kickstarter page and I have a few criticisms of it that will, hopefully, get you to think of your project in a more pragmatic way.

1. $6,000 funds what exactly? You're buying your kit for around $3,000 (you also need a Rode NTG-2 or other shotgun mic, or a lav set to mix in with the Zoom's stereo mic) and roughly $2-3k left which might get you two additional states beyond your home state?

2. Including travel time, food, and lodging I'm thinking per-state is going to run you $1,000 and take three days a piece -- this doesn't include staying in a hotel every night either. You're looking at a full budget, and this is a rough estimate, of $70k-80k which includes a bit of overage if you can't find a story right away in a state or because of weather delays.

If I donate on Kickstarter and my perk is a copy of the finished product, I don't know how/if you're funding the remainder of the money to complete it.

3. If on Vimeo you have a video called "Present's 1st Interview" then why is it not on your Kickstarter page? Are you going to lead the interview? Are you going to cut the interview down from 5 mins?

4. Speaking of length, if each story is ~2 usable minutes and you have a little filler and transition, you're looking at a 2 hour film. Can you lead an interview so it can be distilled down to two minutes?

I think you're setting yourself up for failure because the task is so monolithic and unwieldy. If you live in Colorado, why not do a version specific to your state? You may even be able to get a state art grant to pay for your equipment upgrade, or get sponsored by local businesses.

December 7, 2011

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Angelo

Great article. I think that one important issue you touched was #4. We do need to prioritize our shot list, but when you do, make sure to keep punch-ins and similarly angled shots in a sequence, because going back and forth through the reversal angles might drive your DoP nuts and put your AD's teeth in your neck. The reason is because when we reverse the angles the light setup might need to be adjusted or completely changed which can take from 5 to 40 minutes or more and you don't want your crew to redo this work for each single shot.

The ideal thing is to have your shotlist (if you don't have one by principal photography... be worried) scheduled by the AD who has the most panoramic view of the entire production process, location limitations, crew and cast availability (the age of your actors for instance might play a big role in the order of your shots, you probably want to get done with children and seniors first). Other than that, the scheduling should be heavily based upon the DoP's inputs and estimates for each lighting set-up. By far, the tasks that take longer to be accomplished on the day is the lighting setups... your set-dressing and design is majorly done, your actors are rehearsed, what will change from shot to shot is the lighting setup more than anything else (if you are not doing Dogma or Reality style at least).

If you don't have an AD, at least try to seat and discuss each shot thoroughly with your DoP and negotiate with him the best way to run the set and shooting order in a way that meets his technical requirements and your acting performance needs. Sometimes it's just better for your actors performance when your shots are scheduled in chronological (like Biutiful http://www.ascmag.com/ac_magazine/January2011/Biutiful/page4.php), not a very affordable solution though.

December 7, 2011

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mauborba

mauborba,

You do elaborate on my point quite well. While my article is mostly a quick primer, shot planning and scheduling could easily be a series of articles on their own.

One of the better books I've seen with a sizable chunk of information in regards to the planning of blocking and camera angles comes from Film Directing Fundamentals by Nicolas T. Proferes.

In regards to your last point. If a film can't be scheduled chronologically (and most can't) then at least make it a rule to avoid cutting a single scene across multiple days. I've seen people do it and it rarely if ever works in favor of a performance.

December 7, 2011

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Angelo

Another thought on the shot list would be to eliminate coverage all together.

While this is risky, if you have directed several times before it's worth trying to shoot exactly the shots you envision instead of coverage shots that may end up never being touched.

Again, not recommended for new directors but it can help condense your shooting schedule when you know that a certain scene is only going to take x number of shots when edited as opposed to just doing your standard coverage for each scene.

December 9, 2011

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Addendum: A sound person/crew. The most important component in any video is the sound. Bad sound KILLS any pretty cinematography.

December 8, 2011

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Jonathan Grubbs

Jonathan,

This article was written with the idea someone might be running on a skeleton crew (director, camera, sound) but you do make an apt point.

Additionally, sound suffers a handicap as most low and medium budget productions rely on the editor to mix sound as well. Good field sound can go horribly wrong if mixed improperly.

December 8, 2011

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Angelo

Very good list Angelo. In my experience, you're right on all the items listed. I also agree that other topics deserve an article of their own. I second Jonathan's comment on sound. If sound isn't captured well on set, it can often be un-salvagable in post. Even on my micro (intended to be zero) budget first short, I hired a pro with pro gear for production sound. If you keep shoot days under control on these smaller projects, you can budget for this. It's not as expensive as you might think. Just to give the readers a real life example. I budgeted my shoot days down to 2, and paid $300 total for production sound. And this was for a guy that works on network TV shows here in Toronto. Not that you'll always get that deal, but there are very qualified people that aren't priced out of your reach. I can tell you this was money very well spent. As they say... at least 50% of your movie experience is sound.

December 24, 2011

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An indie movie is becoming famous here in France and internationally : Donoma. Made with only 196 $ the director, Djinn Carrenard made it without any producer and well, didn't really follow the (good) advices presented here. An US article is giving more details on this atypic indie "production:

>>> http://travissaves.blogspot.com/2011/07/donoma-200-feature-film.html

Here is the (french) web site

>>> http://www.donoma.fr/

December 26, 2011

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Alban

January 16, 2012

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Auggie

i like this site their lecture are relly helpful

October 16, 2012

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dappa p dappa

I know this if off topic but I'm looking into starting my own weblog and was curious what all is needed to get set up? I'm
assuming having a blog like yours would cost a pretty penny?
I'm not very web smart so I'm not 100% certain. Any tips or advice would be greatly appreciated. Cheers

December 8, 2012

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Good list. I'm excited to make my own film, but I don't think I have enough experience right now. Does anyone know of any ways to get hands-on experience in filmmaking in NYC? Any suggestions would be great.

May 23, 2013

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David Kagan

FilmMaking Insider Tips
This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay. Do you watch the Actor’s Studio and hang on every word they say? Go To: http://is.gd/4OTQzL

June 21, 2013

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Thank you for this introduction - really helped me get started!

June 21, 2013

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That comment about good shoes is king! I used to wear vans (terrible) and wondered how everybody else wouldn't be drained after a 12hr shoot. Got some asics and will never go back!

August 2, 2013

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KingAtRock

hi
i'm going to make a feature film but have problem with camera///so which one is best for shoot..i have 2 option first one is canon 5d mark iii and second one is canon 7d.

January 28, 2014

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Dhruv Bhatiya