5 Things I Learned While Shooting My Low Budget Short Film
Over the past few years I've been doing a lot of work on other people's video projects, and this past spring I quit my day job and started freelancing. While this has all been great for my reel, my resume, learning new skills, and cementing already learned knowledge through hands on experience, it meant I had to put my own film projects on the back burner. But eventually I reached a point where I felt it had been far too long since I worked on one of my own films. It was time to utilize the abundant knowledge and resources on No Film School and other filmmaking sites and to collaborate with my talented friends. It was time for a project that would force me to stretch myself and grow as a filmmaker. It was time to make Fugue, a project I'm running a Kickstarter for. Here's what I learned from the process that started with preproduction and culminated with the first shoot earlier this month:
1. Do the Budget Yourself
On small indie projects, everyone in the crew usually ends up wearing a variety of hats. Of the various roles I took on, the one that I found to be particularly instructive was that of the Unit Production Manager; that crew member who -- among other things -- writes up the budget. I had never had to do this previously, mainly because my previous projects were small enough in scope that they didn't warrant writing up a budget or because I was working on someone else's project and that aspect of the production was already being taken care of. And let's face it, it's not the most enjoyable thing in the world to have to sit down with a spreadsheet program and face the financial realities of your film project. But for Fugue, I would be hiring actors, renting equipment, buying props and wardrobe, and having certain props and costume elements fabricated. I had to bite the bullet and write a budget, and I'm glad I did. Doing research on all the various elements in my film and giving them concrete dollar amounts was invaluable to gauging my total costs for each shoot date and figuring out ways of lowering them. And of course, doing this was pretty much essential for running my Kickstarter campaign.
2. Always Have a Back-up Plan
If you've ever organized shoot dates, you know that no matter what plans you've made, you're going to encounter Murphy's Law to some extent. So it's important to have a back-up plan for as many aspects of the production as possible. For instance, I originally planned to split up the shots each day so there was an even mix of difficult and easy set-ups. But a couple of days before the shoot my special effects artist and co-director informed me that she could only be on set for half of the 2nd day due to work, so I rearranged the shooting schedule accordingly, but it wouldn't be the last time I had to do so. Inclement weather, traffic delays, and minor prop issues had me rearranging the shooting schedule throughout the weekend, but no matter what came up I had an idea of what to do next to keep the shoot running smoothly.
3. Make Sure You Communicate Your Visuals Properly
This might seem like a no-brainer, but on a lot of indie film projects I've worked on, things like storyboards and production art tend to fall by the wayside. Sometimes this is fine, and a shot list combined with instructions from the director will suffice, but if you're a relatively introverted creative type like myself and have a specific visual in mind, then this is something you need to be sure to remind yourself of during preproduction.
In my case, I told my storyboard artist and special effects artist that in one sequence in the film, one of the characters was going to have the head of a mackerel. However, I didn't go into too much detail beyond that description. What happened is that my storyboard artist drew the fish head facing upward and not forward, and my special effects artist's rough sculpt of the mask had eyes that were too small and next to each other, instead of large and on either side of the head. This wasn't what I wanted, but this wasn't the fault of the artists. Rather, this is the result that came from me not communicating the visual clearly. Once I described the fish head boy in more detail, the illustrator drew a great storyboard panel that the special effects artist could then use as a guide for her sculpt. The result was delightfully creepy.
4. Raise Your Production Value on the Cheap
There are a lot of great posts on No Film School about making low-cost DIY versions of expensive equipment, but there are some things that cannot be easily fabricated from materials bought at a hardware store and put together during a long afternoon (or weekend). For Fugue, I wanted to rent a full steadicam rig as there were a lot of shots on the beach that followed the characters around, and I wanted them to have a smooth dreamy feel rather than the shakiness that's more indicative of a documentary look. But renting can come with its own issues, such as required proof of insurance and/or huge credit or debit card holds to cover the entire cost of the rented item in case it's damaged. But unlike a lot of places that rent film equipment, BorrowLenses has a system that's great for low-budget filmmakers.
After selecting the items and rental period I wanted on their website, I had the option of either having the rig delivered to my house or shipped to one of their regional pick-up sites. Each of these options is a nice convenience, but the former would've cost me four times as much as the latter, so I opted to pick up. Most importantly, BorrowLenses does not charge a deposit for a majority of their equipment, so I didn't have to worry about having that extra cash in my account for the rental when I placed my order. Altogether, I spent a little over $250 to rent the rig for a week, which gave me and the DP time to practice using it before the long weekend shoot. Not too shabby.
5. Learn to Let Go
Back in June I entered my script in a contest that a local DP was running. The prize was the DP's services and equipment (which included a sweet Scarlet kit among other goodies) for free for two consecutive shoot days. As it turned out, I tied for the prize, and so preproduction planning with the DP began. Due to some oddities of the local film office's rules, my film didn't qualify as a "low impact" project, which meant I would have to pay a permit fee for each shoot day and have $1 million production insurance policy. So as you might expect, I made the decision to shoot this on the down low. In addition, most of the short would be shot outside during a time of the year when daylight hours are scarce, so I needed setups to be as quick and nimble as possible without sacrificing the quality of the shots. With this in mind, I asked the DP what his minimum requirements would be for the main beach shoot. I wasn't exactly thrilled with his answer: At least 2 lighting techs, 2 AC's, a generator, a couple of HMI's, assorted grip equipment, and possibly additional grips and PA's. Not exactly the ideal setup for 1) not attracting outside attention and 2) quick shot setups. I felt like I was at an impasse: I wanted to have this talented DP shoot my film in beautiful 4K, but his requirements to do so would make completing principal photography -- to my mind -- needlessly infeasible.
At around the same time, I was helping out on my friend's feature as a DIT and PA, and I couldn't help but be inspired by witnessing the production process. The entire film was shot on multiple Canon 7D's and T2i's, and whether they were doing interior shots with lighting set-ups or guerrilla run-and-gun exterior shots, the pace of production went at a steady clip and the footage looked great. When I asked my friend about my dilemma, he suggested I forego all the additional setup and storage requirements that would come with what the DP was requesting, and that I instead shoot the film with my own camera. This helped shake me out of being stuck on the idea of needing to make my film in 4K or not at all. Or in Ze Frank's terminology, it got me off of brain crack:
(NOTE: Contains NSFW language)
Now I'm not saying you shouldn't shoot your film in 4K (or another high-end format) or have fairly involved lighting setups. If you have sufficient time, resources, and people then go for it. But don't get hung up on these things if they're going to get in the way of your film being made.
In the end I asked my friend Mark Martin to DP, since he has a good eye for shot composition and can create beautiful images with limited lighting resources. And after watching the dailies from the beach shoot, I have to say I'm happy with my decision.
But Wait There's More...
One of the reasons I love writing for No Film School is that I get to bring useful information to my fellow indie and DIY filmmakers that will help them in their creative endeavors. In that same spirit, I'm offering tutorial rewards as apart of my Kickstarter campaign, in the areas of special effects prop fabrication, illustration techniques, and low-budget cinematography. If you feel so inclined, hop over to the Kickstarter project page for Fugue and check these and other great rewards on offer.
Link: Fugue -- Kickstarter