March 9, 2013

5 Potential Obstacles That Actually Helped Oscar-Nominated 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' Succeed

Beasts of the Southern Wild is one beast of a movie. Produced by a bunch of old buddies that formed the loose collective Court 13 (which also produced Death to the Tinman), and directed by Behn Zeitlin, the film demonstrates the potential of independent films, as well as revealing its influence on audiences today. In the IFP Q&A video embedded below, the producers of the film go into detail explaining just how demanding and ambitious every phase of production was, and how the team managed to come out the other side with the movie we see today. Based on that video, we've got a list of five potential obstacles that could have derailed the film, but actually ended up working in its favor.

Half of the nominations for the Big Eight awards at the Oscars were for independent films, and half of those nominations went to Beasts: Best Picture, Best Director for Behn Zeitlin, Best Actress for Quvenzhané Wallis, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Lucy Alibar and Behn Zeitlin. After watching the video, all I could think about was, "How on Earth did this film that used to be a short film that used to be a play, which was wrought with so many challenges and setbacks, rise up and attain such success?" Then, it became clear that it was the challenges and setbacks themselves that helped this fantasy drama about a strong little girl named Hushpuppy earn its success. So, based on the filmmakers' accounts, here's a list of five potential obstacles that ended up working in the film's favor:

1. It's an indie film.

Right out of the gate, being an independent production imposes several challenges. Not only do they not have the financial backing from a major production studio -- and the access to top of the line equipment and resources that they offer -- but they incur all of the risk. If the project "fails" (read: loses money or doesn't gain publicity and/or awards), then all of that weight and responsibility falls on the filmmakers themselves. For Beasts, the not-for-profit production company Cinereach struck a deal with the filmmakers to fund the movie. Being an indie film also allowed the filmmakers much more creative freedom than your typical studio film, and thanks to Cinereach, they were allowed to make exactly the film they wanted to make.

2. It was Zeitlin's first feature.

It's a pretty safe assumption to think that most filmmakers hit their stride later on in their careers. Not everybody can step onto the scene with Citizen Kane like Orson Welles, but not having fans or a previous body of feature work means there are no expectations. Beasts benefitted from this scenario by pushing the limits with every facet of the story and production. While many filmmakers don't quite make it work on their first feature, Zeitlin not only succeeded at the box office, with over $12.6 million gross (and that's just domestic), but the film was nominated for four Oscars. You can't spell success without the and the two s's from Oscars -- the o, a, and can be used to spell oar -- the oar they used to row their way into history perhaps.

3. They had a budget of $1.5 million.

Now, not having a Hollywood budget doesn't count a project out of being great or successful, but it surely makes it more difficult when you're trying to make a film like Beasts. Having a smaller budget means forgoing a lot of the comforts bigger productions can afford. The producers for Beasts shared how they used students from the senior class of AAU (Academy of Art University) to do their visual effects for free. Maybe less than ideal, but personally, I'd be elated if students from AAU worked on any of my projects, because -- did you see the aurochs in the film? He also talked about wages, but didn't elaborate much on the details other than stating that some of the people who worked on the film did so for free. Furthermore, almost everyone who worked on Beasts lived in less than ideal conditions. Producer Josh Penn commented on this in the video when he talked about calling people to be on the crew:

It was literally every single phone call was us being like, "So, we're making this crazy thing in the bayou. We want you to move down there for four months. You're going to get paid very little. It's going to be very long days, very long hours, housing's going to be a little weird, but it's going to be an adventure."

This passion and dedication clearly shows through to the final film. A movie like Beasts of the Southern Wild is full of heart because it's being made for the love of the project -- something that can't always be said for productions with plenty of money to spend.

4. They used all non-actors.

This is a difficult one, because some of the greatest, most revered films contain non-actors: Turtles Can Fly and Children of Heaven (two of my personal childhood favorites -- get ready for a cryfest),  Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and The Bicycle Thief (for all of my fellow 1940-1970 Euro film freaks). Beasts joins the ranks of these great films, but it's important to note how risky it is to use non-actors. Some filmmakers fear that their lack of acting experience can make the performance come off as "fake" or "forced." We can all think of several instances where this is true, but the non-actors of Beasts, especially Quvenzhané Wallis, transported us seamlessly from our sticky theater seats right into the dreamlike land of the Bathtub. The use of non-actors contributed immensely to the authenticity of the film, and allowed the audience to worry less about their suspension of disbelief -- since, of course, these are real people, and they really live in these places. There is no learning curve when your characters are the same people in real life.

5. It was shot on Super 16mm.

You know all of those scratched up educational films that smelled like vinegar that you watched in elementary school? Yeah, those were more than likely shot on 16mm film, as were many of your favorite low-budget indies from the past 30 years. Using 16mm/Super 16mm isn't really an aesthetic disadvantage, however, because films shot on the format can still look pretty darn good. Not only that, but a lot of great recent films have been shot using Super 16mm, including the 2010 Academy Award winner for Best Picture The Hurt Locker, Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler and Black Swan, and most recently Wes Anderson's Moonrise KingdomMaybe some would consider 16mm an "inferior" gauge of film, but there is no question the films mentioned above hold their own -- and it certainly gave Beasts an exceptional texture that made the fantastical world feel even more real.

Even though the filmmakers faced a number of challenges getting the film to the screen, they managed to turn them into assets that made the movie stand out -- so much so that they were able to nab four Oscar nominations.

What do you think? What other films -- like Beasts of the Southern Wild -- have actually used potential obstacles to their advantage? Are some of these things still considered disadvantages now that there are so many more resources available to independent filmmakers than ever before?

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18 Comments

I don't know about the 5th one... Man, I have enough 16mm stocks to make a short movie, but I don't have the money to the whole process. So I'll have to make a digial first just for the lack of budget.

March 9, 2013

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Rodrigo Molinsky

The fifth one is tricky, because so many amazing films have been shot using it. I mean, Aronofsky seemed to favor 16mm even back when he made 'Pi'. But, there seems to be (or seemed to be in the past) an unspoken film gauge hierarchy where 35mm is king, but nowadays a good number of filmmakers are picking up their Bolexes and shooting in Super 16. But, I'm with you Rodrigo. Digital has been my only option so far, since budgets are like unicorns in the Pacific Northwest: attainable only if you know a guy.

March 9, 2013

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V Renée

If only your average Bolex was crystal synced and we could all afford a S16 camera for a few hundred.

March 11, 2013

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Hey Rodrigo,

I'll buy it off of you.. What stocks you got? They cold stored?

March 10, 2013

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William Zullo

"The producers for Beasts shared how they used students from the senior class of AAU (Academy of Art University) to do their visual effects for free. Maybe less than ideal, but personally, I’d be elated if students from AAU worked on any of my projects"

Actually this is in fact illegal according to federal law.
Fox and other studios are being sued now because of this type of practice:
Time article on unpaid internships

You're asking students who are paying to go to school to do actual production work for free. This is not a fellow student doing their own no budget short film. This is a commercial film with a budget of 1.5 million paying a number of people working on the film but choosing specifically not to pay for the visual effects artists. The producers messed up and did not do their jobs. They should have budgeted for the visual effects correctly or redesigned shots to do what they could do with what they had.

It's one thing for people to volunteer to work for a free day on a short film but it's another to ask a visual effects artist to work for free. That single live action day could easily require weeks or even months of work from visual effects artists. This is a much different commitment.

This is just an example of taking advantage of people. So how do these types of students get work after graduating if the work is being done for free? Visual effects artists love what they do and are seldom business oriented so it's rather easy for producers to take advantage of them.

Independent directors and producers need to consider visual effects BEFORE shooting. If they get the right visual effects supervisor they can do many things relatively inexpensively or can help design the shots to get the most of the budget. The visual effects people also have to be involved in the shoot to make sure it's done correctly. But there are constantly ads on craigslist for visual effects artists to work on something that has already been shot. Do you get audio people involved after the shoot and tell them to make the poor audio you happened to record, work? And to do it for free? No.

In the end new directors and producers learn some bad lessons about what the value of artists are, what they can get away with and not learning they need to actually budget correctly.

This is type of attitude that one visual effects company tried to take advantage of:
DD plans to have students work on features

Other references:
Internships, scourge of labor market

Unpaid internships

March 9, 2013

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Scott Squires

Couldn't agree more. Especially in light on the film's relative commercial success. Are all the people who volunteered, worked for free or almost nothing being compensated now?

March 9, 2013

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David

100% agree. The film industry very much like the design industry (as you should know from experience Koo) is often run on 'volunteer' / free work, especially in the low/bottom-end indie sector. producers need to finance films economically but also ethically. students are a lot of the time in a too vulnerable and naive position to turn down a unpaid job (just for the experience) but this practice is illegal and exploitative.

March 10, 2013

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Pat

yeah, it's a shame to find out how many people that do this are actually pretty damn well off, but nonetheless the movie was pretty good

March 9, 2013

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francis

I could only get through about 30 min of the film because of the camera shake. I know it is a "technique" these days, but it was actually hurting my eyes and making me nauseated. And I even survived the beginning of Slum Dog Millionaire.

March 9, 2013

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Elliot

To be perfectly honest I would barely call 1.5 million budget a 'potential obstacle'.

inb4 hate

March 9, 2013

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Tyler

I enjoyed the film. That little girl did an amazing job and brought me to tears, I think her being a non-actor actually added some more authenticity to the movie. Though $1.5 million is not the close to Napoleon Dynite's measly $1,500 budget, it is is still small compared many major motion pictures these days.

March 9, 2013

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K

Napoleon Dynamite reportedly cost $400,000.

March 10, 2013

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avatar
Joe Marine
Editor-at-Large
Shooter/Writer/Director

There was a post here yesterday that doesn't seem to be in this section now? Was it deleted? I hope there is not some sort of censoring going on for some reason... it was a great post that raised some interesting question. I don't don't think anything should be taken off the table unless it's unwarranted-profanity...

March 10, 2013

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bwhitz

"because films shot on the format can still look pretty darn good" - Was there any doubt? I find it disturbing that people would think otherwise :)

March 11, 2013

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No doubt here, Colum :)
It should be noted, though, that 35mm has been the king of the cinematic jungle for over a hundred years, so 16mm tends to be overlooked. However, I see it as completely viable and able to stand on its own two feet.

March 13, 2013

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V Renée

I agree that BOSW was a superb film in all respects (EXCEPT for handheld shaky-artsy-style camera). However $1.5 MILLION is a helluva lot of money for an "INDIE" film. And now to hear that they didn't pay everybody? that "accommodations were shaky"? B.S., big-time.

I could make several high-quality films for that $1.5 million, and pay everyone appropriately. While Ben and the lead actors are making the red-carpet, glamorous-magazine-interview circuit, what about everybody else who worked on it? Were they on a pay-deferred basis? Was there profit-sharing? Or has production money and distribution deals been going up somebody's nose?

Free locations and handheld camera work and non-pro actors do not prove it's an "indie." Budget does. And this budget (only recently revealed) smells of something rotten.

March 14, 2013

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I agree with the above: It's a shame that some people weren't paid, or paid little, considering the budget.

What hurt BOTSW most for me was the "celebration of depravity." I wanted to root for the people of the bathtub. What would have helped is if they were relentlessly fighting for something worth saving (like culture and a decent way of living.)

In the end, they were protecting their right to wallow in the mud.

March 15, 2013

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Can't compare anything, but love this post.

March 16, 2013

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