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Top Five Essentials for Shooting Your Indie Film

01.30.12 @ 3:12PM Tags : , ,

This is a guest post by indie filmmaker Jason Sokoloff.

Everyone wants to write and direct, but the reality is it doesn’t happen immediately. Coming out of NYU’s Graduate Film Program, I was surrounded by talented filmmakers, but, while you’re writing scripts and trying to do what you love, you have student loans to repay, rent that’s due, and health insurance would be nice. Quite simply put, you need a job – preferably with benefits. In order to pay my bills and still be active in the film community, I found my niche working as a production manager and line producer. I cannot express how important it is to work on a film set and what better way to continue growing as a filmmaker than by helping others produce and make their own films.

One valuable lesson I learned in production / post-production was working on Pawn, starring Ray Liotta, Forest Whitaker, Nikki Reed, Stephen Lang, Michael Chiklis, and more. We were shooting on the Red Epic, which captures footage at 5K, requires a DIT on set, and a ton of storage. In this world of digital cinema, it can easily become daunting and more complex than we have time to spend here. You have many options concerning, storage, transcoding raw files, Final Cut Vs Avid, post house deliverables, getting dallies, you name it… So I got on the phone with my editor, DIT, and post house rep. We explored the many options available that matched everyone’s needs (including the producers) vs. the technical realities. Having these meetings prior to principle photography allowed us to shop around for the best prices and created a workflow that saved us thousands. In the end we went with OWC Mercury Elite Pro Qx2 storage arrays (comes with a five year warranty) and used Dropbox for our dailies. Everything was mostly done online minimizing postal and delivery costs until picture wrap.

Another quick lesson I’ll share comes from working with Doug Chamberlain, the cinematographer on Maladies, starring James Franco, Catherine Keener, and David Strathairn. We had a very short schedule with only 13 days to shoot a feature. Equipped with camera packages from Panavision and donated film from Kodak, I watched the DP orchestrate a symphony of coverage utilizing two cameras. His ability combined with the collaboration of great actors and crew was a master class in cinematography. I observed the many ways you could cover scenes relatively quickly with two cameras by using a variety of different angles, lenses, and camera movements. Amazingly, we finished our days on time and had all the coverage we needed for post. The film looked beautiful as well.

Over time my work experience as a production manager and line producer proved to be invaluable. I found myself surrounded with inspiring and passionate filmmakers, actors, agents, and other talented people in the industry. I learned first-hand what it takes to get an indie film off the ground. I became proficient in overseeing films through pre-production, principle photography, and post-production, which included all of the following: creating board and budgets, running day-to-day operations, negotiating contracts, utilizing tax incentives, and dealing with vendors, payroll companies, agents, lawyers, SAG, Teamsters, IATSE, other unions, etc.

The lessons I learned, the tools I developed, and the relationships I made as a line producer and production manager were essential when the time came to make my first feature film, Love Magical (a romantic comedy), which I produced and co-directed with my friend, Justin Foran. I now know the best and most effective way of keeping the money where it belongs – on the screen.

Here is what I consider my Top Five Essentials for Shooting an Indie film:

#1) SAG and Unions

 Learn the SAGindie contracts and choose the one that works best for your film. Each contract offers many different incentives depending on your budget level. Develop relationships with the unions and reach out to them. We all dream of making big studio features and that day will come, but before Hollywood calls, the unions have contacts in place for Indies of different budget sizes. They are eager to work with new directors and help out on small films. Ultimately, you’re employing their members and building relationships, so start working with them now. On Love Magical we made our film under the Ultra-Low Budget Agreement.

#2) Collaborate With Your Department Heads

You can’t do it alone. You hired your crew based on their talent and willingness to bring your story to life. Don’t micro-manage them. They are artists just like you and given the opportunity will work harder if you make them part of the film rather than a hand for hire. On Love Magical we devised a game plan using two cameras. Similar to past films I worked on, using two cameras on Love Magical was a huge lifesaver. It allowed us to get more coverage in less time and really gave us many more options in post. Some might argue that two cameras are not ideal in every situation, but we worked out a great game plan with Michael Rossetti, our cinematographer and in the end, everyone was very pleased.

#3) Shoot The Film You Budgeted For

Don’t try to shoot a big studio film without studio money, and don’t get hung up on what camera you’re using (35mm vs. Red, Red vs. Alexa, DSLR vs. 16mm). Be realistic and let the budget of your film dictate the camera and aesthetic you can afford. Work within those parameters and if you can’t, than rewrite a script that does. On Love Magical, we constantly collaborated with the writers looking for the most creative ways to tell our story that best fit within our budget. Even on set we were flexible if a better opportunity, location, and/or storyline revealed itself. One day in particular, we had a scheduled location move to shoot a simple scene in front of a house. Our current location offered a beautiful tennis court and much better production value. Instead of losing time with a company move, staying at our current location turned out to be a winning situation. It ultimately added value to our story and changing some dialogue improved the comedic essentials of the scene. Remember, the audience only knows what you choose to show them and telling a good STORY will always win.

#4) Don’t Be Afraid To Negotiate With Vendors

There are many friendly and great rentals houses to choose from depending on your equipment needs. Most often they are willing to negotiate. Remember, they want your business and would rather rent you equipment than have it sit on their shelves. On Love Magical, I was able to make phone calls based on the personal working relationships I had already established.

#5) Have a Post-Production Plan in Place

When making your Indie film, it’s very easy to overlook post-production as you’re filled with excitement to get out there and start shooting. But you still have to edit, sound design, mix, ADR, music, color correction, consider pick-up shots, and deliverables. Whether your plan is to raise more money via private equity, credit cards, Kickstarter, etc., make sure you reach out and call the people you wish to work with during post. They usually have insight on what you need to capture during principle photography and possibly will save you money and headaches later. On Love Magical, we lost one of our funders, but having a post-production plan in place allowed us to rework the budget and schedule and complete principle photography. Now in post, we are teaming up with Kickstarter and campaigning for support to finish our film.

An added bonus: Don’t forget to feed your crew, spend time casting the right actors (not just friends), go with the flow, and have fun. You’re a filmmaker and you’re directing a feature. Chances are if you’re not having fun, you’re probably not paying attention to the monitor and what’s going on in front of the camera. Relish the moment and keep your focus on the story and the actors, because in the end, that’s what the audience will see.


Jason Sokoloff, Producer/Co-Director of Love Magical, is currently on Kickstarter, raising funds to finish Post-Production for his film. You can see more information on the project through the links below.



We’re all here for the same reason: to better ourselves as writers, directors, cinematographers, producers, photographers... whatever our creative pursuit. Criticism is valuable as long as it is constructive, but personal attacks are grounds for deletion; you don't have to agree with us to learn something. We’re all here to help each other, so thank you for adding to the conversation!

Description image 43 COMMENTS

  • Interesting read.

  • All excellent points. I would only add one more, though I know it sounds self-serving: consult an experienced entertainment lawyer before you get underway, if only to find out if you’re on the right track, to learn what you don’t know, and (if you’ve done everything right so far) when in the process you’ll need to come back for legal help. Too many filmmakers and writers show up on my doorstep too late in the process, to find that their film is (or will be) unreleasable or their screenplay unsellable because of mistakes they made in acquiring the film rights to an underlying property, engaging the talent or others, getting releases, or dozens of other problems.

  • Thanks for the comment Peter. That is an excellent point to add. Agreed.

    Working with your attorney (Production Legal) and having all your legal agreements / contracts in place is a must. Some of those agreements / contracts include; Talent, Writer, Director, Producer, Location, and Screenplay Purchase agreement, Chain of Title, Crew deal memo, Appearance releases, LLC Operating agreement, Subscription agreement for investors and more.) Every film is different, so if you don’t know what you need, it doesn’t hurt to research and call an entertainment lawyer.

    Thanks – Jason Sokoloff

    • Jason, great article and excellent advise all around! Peter Levitan’s additional advise about consulting with an entertainment attorney FIRST is essential if a filmmaker has serious hopes to sell a film to a distributor. There are so many issues that can bite you in the butt if not considered ahead of time. I realize that if you are doing a micro-budget film, lawyers can be quite expensive. However, it is possible to find a sympathetic lawyer who may be willing to consult with you upfront and let you know all of the pitfalls and advise you on how to do the legwork yourself. If a filmmaker takes this route, I would advise having the lawyer review any important contracts. There are decent books available written by entertainment lawyers that can help with general contracts, etc. Just be aware that this approach will not offer the same thoroughness of hiring an attorney.

      • This is absolutely right. at our indie production company, we often joke that the two most important people in the credits are our lawyer and our accountant. A good film/tv accountant can be absolutely life saving, specially if you are in a country (like Canada) where some funding programs and financing option require a lot of financial paperwork… and the lawyer… well let’s just say we make a lot of feature documentaries, and if you have a lot of pictures, having a good lawyer is not even an “option” it’s an absolute necessity!

      • Finding a good lawyer can be a daunting task on indie film, especially a micro-budget feature.

        On a micro budget feature, you’re probably not going to have the right amount of money to afford your attorney, but there are many lawyers out there sympathetic towards the arts. Similar to approaching an actor, send the attorney your script and see if they’re interested in your film. Everyone is always looking for a great story. Ask for a meeting or consultation by phone. You can offer them points in your film or even a co-producer credit.

        There is “Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts” where people have had success.

        Don’t forget to ask your friends too. Chances are they know someone who knows someone, who knows… You get the idea.

        If you can’t find an entertainment attorney, you can also consider hiring an attorney who is looking to move over into entertainment law. I have done this before and it worked out great. We both learned together and the attorney probably paid more attention to detail, being that it was his first film. All lawyers have an understanding of reading contracts / agreements and interpreting the legal words on a page.

        Obviously every film is different with many documents to review, but the same way you found your DP, cast, locations, etc., you will have to spend the time finding your attorney. Yes it is very important and is a personal relationship that will carry over way after your film is completed.

        Lastly…If you don’t really understand the legal contract needed to make your film, team up with a good line producer. I leaned from my predecessors. Hope this helps.

        Thanks – Jason Sokoloff


  • “Relish the moment and keep your focus on the story and the actors, because in the end, that’s what the audience will see.” Thank you Jason, for reminding us all about how, in the end, this is most all of what really matters. – José Angel Santana

  • real cool post!

  • Im sorry I jump in with this off topic question but I need some advice. I recently bought myself a new Canon Eos Rebel T2i to star working on short movies, or clips, to practice and improve my skills. I love it in everyway, but recently I also found out that the GoPro HEro2 gives excellent results too. Can someone please tell me that I didnt went the wrong way by buying my canon camera? As you may had notice, im very insecure with this kind of decicions. Thanks in advance!

    • Magic Lantern, 50mm 1.4, Rode Mic, (1) 32 SD + (1) 16 SD, and a Manfrotto 561BHDV. Amazing things can be made with that combination. Throw an H4N in the mix, and a 501 head on a nice and solid pair of sticks, and a wide lens and you’ll be in great shape. Go film something (whether you have the kit or not) and enjoy the ability to put out a beautiful rendition of your story for a measly price.

      • Chris the manfrotto you mentioned is just like a normal tripod or what does it has that makes you recomend it? and do you know the estimated price of it?

      • Also, when I look at the prices of things, I curse myself for being born in Argentina lol

    • You most definitely didn’t go the wrong way. The GoPro is a cool little camera, but it’s not even comparable to that of the T2i, T3i, 60D, 7D, or 5D. The GoPro isn’t going to make you a short film the way a DSLR will. You’re good… now just start shooting some stuff, and HAVE FUN.

    • Thanks a lot to both for your answers, I feel better now. At the moment im adapting a musical theather script to a movie, and I cant wait to shtar shooting but I have a lot of work in front of me first. Again thank you so much!

      • You made the right choice. The t2i is a far more complex camera, it’s closer to a big movie camera than the GoPro is. Of course, the GoPro can do stuff that you wouldn’t do with the t2i, like some stuntwork. But if you don’t need something specifically for sports, the t2i is the way to go.

        (En argentino: la Canon es mucha más cámara. Listo.)

  • William Derp on 01.31.12 @ 3:45AM

    I lost both respect for you and interest in this article after reading the words “romantic comedy”… tisk tisk tisk…

    • William,

      Totally respect your taste in film. As a line producer and production manger I have worked on films of different genres, but I truly believe a good story will always win with the audience. Check out the link and watch the Kickstarter video for our film “LOVE MAGICAL”. Enjoy.

      Thanks – Jason Sokoloff


      • It has been my impression that vast majority of indie, no-budget and ultra-low budget independent filmmakers tend to make horrors. I guess, the reasons are fairly obvious: there is a devoted audience to the genre, they’re very forgiving, as long as you give them a few pretty girls and plenty of blood/gore, and for a filmmaker, it is fun to make, since you don’t need to deal with the issues of serious dramatic acting, multi-layered characters, plausible and engaging storyline, etc. So, when I read about a filmmaker doing a romcom, I have to give him all the credit I can for tackling a very tricky genre. Comedy requires abundance of talent and experience for both writer, director, as well as actors. Lack of comedic timing and delivery cannot be fixed in the post. Romcom, while commercially popular, doesn’t get all that much artistic respect, and is more often just dismissed flat-out. However, it requires extreme precision in its execution. You will see very few independent romcoms; relative to the number of horrors (and even action pictures), they barely exist.

        Anyone with some experience in filmmaking business will know that it’s all about a good story. And while special and visual effects can compensate a good deal for the lack of a good story (in a horror or an action), they won’t do anything for a romedy, where dialogue and story make it or break it alone.

        A minor pet peeve of mine: principal photography (not principle; it’s a different word, with different meaning).

  • A very good and encouraging article, Jason. I’m an indie filmmaker based out of Baltimore, MD and currently grasping with making my first indie feature film. This article is right on the mark and gave me much encouragement.

    • Thanks Armando. Very much appreciated.

      I have never made in film in Baltimore, but having visit, I always thought the city offered a lot of good production value… I look forward to leaning more about your film.

      -Jason Sokoloff


  • Film Executive on 02.1.12 @ 12:24AM

    I would like to say, ” What a GREAT article” you are VERY Talented !!

  • I don’t agree with the first point being essential, SAG and Unions, with the assumption that you’re shooting a micro budget indie film. If you’re shooting with a $50,000+ budget, then maybe. The paper work/rules are ridiculous (you’ll need a dedicated person), it’s simply not worth it for SAG. Getting a non union DP might be challenging, but getting quality actors without SAG is not.

    • Dmulnar

      I have done a micro budget before with SAG actors. I used the SAG Ultra Low Budget Agreement. One of the great things about SAG ULB, is that it allows you to work with SAG and NON SAG actors. Yes, there is a lot of paper work, but after you have done it once, its fairly easy moving forward.

      In the end you have to make the film that works for you, but if you can afford it, I don’t see why you should limit yourself to finding the best talent whether that includes SAG or NON SAG actors.


      -Jason Sokoloff


      • Because SAG actors typically aren’t any better than what you can get from a University or ones that have not been forced into SAG yet.

        Unless you are getting a “name actor” a beginning/novice filmmaker has more important things to worry about… On top of that, if you’re eyeing a particular SAG actor/actress, they usually will be willing to either go Ficor or break their agreement so they can “work”.

      • Don’t over-simplify working with a SAG agreement. They’re con-artists. They forced my production to pay OT my actors didn’t earn and pay them for days they didn’t work on top of a refundable deposit they never refunded and a ridiculously high pension contribution they failed to tell me about initially. On top of that when we went for home video distribution, all the actors had to sign a paper agreeing to upgrade the contract and two of them refused. The union wouldn’t allow it and now our film is stuck on the shelf. Once you produce a film under the union umbrella, don’t expect to have any say on where it goes because those fuckers own the film.

  • Great article!

  • Nice post! I wish that more people gained experience in other (especially organizing) positions. I recently worked with a director that saw nothing but his “vision” – I get goose bumps from the word now. He knew nothing about call sheets, working conditions, or what people’s jobs were.
    I personally have worked as a PA and now an AD, and the contacts you make are invaluable. I got all the equipment sponsored for my last short.
    Even if you’re unable to work in film full time before you launch your own directing career, consider lending a hand in whatever position on student or unpaid indie films. This is how I met a producer who recently got me a project funded, with exposure on TV. All because I invested 2 days to help a friend out. True story.

  • well, I actually missed the whole time management stuff.
    For me its an essential factor wich works in favor and disadvantage for independent filmakers.
    On one hand, it allows greater flexibility in comparison to high budget productions (and can help a lot minimize expense), on the other, we can see a lot of them fail without any.

    but still, for such an small overview, there are some nice, interesting points.

  • I agree with Dmulnar. I personally would stick with non-union when I can, just to avoid legal stuff… even promising money on the back end is a headache, I’m sure. Everything else I agree with, though would like to hear an expansion on the vendor thing… need a hand with that one. Kickstarter however, didn’t work for me. Still not sure how people are able to raise funds like, nobody wanted to chip in a dollar. I think the hardest part about that is because everyone has to sign up for an account instead of paying instantly by PayPal.

    • Cal Nguyen

      In terms of expanding on the vendors…

      If you’re shooting a feature there will be equipment you need to rent. Agreed. It could be anything from grip, lights, camera, generators, tables, chairs, etc.

      Find the vendors in your area that have what you’re looking for and reach out to them. Give them a call or stop by, introduce yourself and see what they have to offer.

      What new gear do they have in stock? Learn about there insurance requirements, package deals, and services. Do they have an emergency line if something breaks down and you’re shooting on Sunday? Get a price quote from them depending on your rental needs and see how that fits into your budget. Your probably not going to get every toy you want, but perhaps you can day play some items and always negotiate. Vendors can cut deals depending on your needs and what you’re actually renting. They will also have suggestions and can even help build your rental package.

      Lastly… Depending on where you live, you might have to travel if you’re not located near a bigger city or find local film people who own their own equipment. I’ve done both, but have always been able to find good help.

      Hope this help some more.


      Jason Sokoloff


  • MARK GEORGEFF on 02.2.12 @ 7:52PM

    JASOn…thanks. More thanks. Your tips here were so on the spot! Totally agree on going with more than 1 cam if possible. Especially on a a short sched. Or even with low money. This DP sounds like the one to work with, because, outside of his talent and experience…it really is about ways of getting the goals done, even if you have to do it outside the box. Why film though? I’ll follow this 5 step plan to the letter…but just go with dig instead. Why bring on more costs associated with film and film processing? Waht we’re doing with my first feature in dev., is simply boarding a lot of the shots…putting them on the walls…and going through them:

    me, my DP, the Prod., and even the Editor for now.
    We’re also doing some still photo shoots of fight sequences and putting them up also.
    Why still photos? Can adjust all the light levels we want in this shadowy, low light type of story,
    with a big camera sensor, etc., and not have a crew, etc.

    It’s really about making as much of the movie as possible ahead of time…and
    then work backwards — because we have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t.
    Without one-third of the budget ending up on the editing room floor.

    If I’m going to pinch every penny of my own for this low, low budget deal?
    I’ll be even more responsible with someone else’s money on the next.

    Thanks again Jason.


  • Thanks, I enjoyed the article!

    On a purely technical note: you have many good outside links in this article, please set them to open a new window.

  • Thanks everyone for reading the post, your positive feedback, and additional thoughts… All are good to consider when making your film.

    Hope I answered as many questions as possible and I’ll continue to check in. As always, the best way to learn filmmaking is to go out there and make a film.

    Thank again


    Jason Sokoloff


  • Great blog guys,

    New short action film I shot on the Canon 5D & 60D, Check it out!

  • I think you over-simplify how it is working with the actor’s union SAG (now SAG-AFTRA). Their ultra-low budget agreement, like all their contracts, are a scam to the teet. They bullied my production left and right, forced us to pay actors for OT they didn’t earn and days they didn’t work. On top of that, if we get home video distribution, all the actors get more money and most importantly have to agree to it, which most of them won’t because they don’t like the final product of the film. What you fail to mention is that by producing a film under the union umbrella, that union quite literally in every sense of the word: OWNS YOUR MOVIE. You have no power if you make a film as a union signatory. I say again, you have NO POWER. You got from being an artist to being an employer who is legally obliged to do whatever the hell they demand and that’s not fair and you need to be up front and honest about that in these articles.

  • I enjoyed this post. It is very informative. I also agree with your final point about post-production. Often, film makers, Indie or otherwise tend to miss this crucial part in their plan, or get stuck when they find they have gone over budget. I find as an indie music supervisor and being a part of the music (sound) provision process in film-making that there can at times be unrealistic expectations from those who don’t plan ahead. However, each occasion I’ve been involved in did turn out to be a beneficial learning process for the filmmakers involved. They learned about the budgeting process and how to achieve and provide great (authorised) sound for a tight budget, amongst other things. Your other tips about feeding the crew and having fun demonstrate your work ethic and ideals. Great to see! Team work is a beautiful thing!
    I’ll certainly share this post.
    I look forward to reading more of your blogs.