Top Five Essentials for Shooting Your Indie Film
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.