October 28, 2015

7 Directing Tips From A First Time Feature Director

HERE ALONE, a post apocalpytic horror thriller Kickstarter feature film starring Lucy Walters, Gina Piersanti and Adam David Thompson
Preparing to make your first feature film is like preparing to have your first kid. You can read the books, take the classes, and learn to breathe, but when it comes time to deliver, you're never actually ready.

Rod Blackhurst knows this firsthand (the "making your first feature film" part, not the "delivering your first baby" part), and now that he's in the midst of a Kickstarter campaign for his first feature, HERE ALONE, Rod has decided to offer up some of tips and lessons he learned from his first feature production.


As a director I've spent years gathering and storing knowledge, anticipating the day when I could make my first feature film. Over a decade ago, I applied and was rejected -- from NYU, AFI, and Columbia film schools (I was rejected twice from NYU). Since then, I've been working my way through the film industry from the ground up (production assistant, editor, camera assistant, cinematographer, just to name a few) gaining more know-how and ideas of what to and not-to do. This past June, the day I was anticipating finally came and I was able to direct my first feature film, a post-apocalyptic horror thriller film titled, HERE ALONE. I also produced the film along with David Ebeltoft, who wrote the script, and Noah Lang.

While I have learned a lot since being rejected from film school, to the time of this post, I feel that the following 6 'things' helped me not only launch my first feature, but carried me through (relatively unscathed) the production period and into post.  

Produce Your First Feature

Before HERE ALONE David Ebeltoft and I spent five years trying to find producers for two other feature films, including NORTH, a film we co-wrote with our friend Elgin James. Even though NORTH was a 2013 finalist for a SFFS/KRF grant and Elgin a Sundance Lab and Festival alum (and respected writer/director to-boot) we still couldn't find a producer. During those years, 99% of our e-mails and phone calls went unanswered. We don't know why. It just seems to be the modus operandi in the film industry when you're an outsider trying to bang down the barriers to entry. It was frustrating being unable to find any Producers who could or would take on our films, but those frustrating years also taught us key-aspects of producing a film; budgeting, scheduling, casting practices, and papering a film from scratch. After a while, we found that we were becoming adept (or at least passable) producers ourselves, so we decided to do what every crazy director/writer duo who think they're passable producers should do; launch our first feature ourselves.

As David wrote in an earlier post, 5 Essential Tips on Making an Indie Film in Your BackyardHERE ALONE was designed around the physical production strengths of a small community. David's script also played to my strengths as a visual storyteller and was designed to be manageable for us (remember, first-time producers). We only had 4 roles, 6 locations, and largely day light exteriors, simplifying our physical production and equipment needs. In short, HERE ALONE was practical for our production level and allowed us to ambitiously schedule a 20-day shoot spread out over 2 seasons (16 shooting days in June, 4 shooting days this coming December). That practicality also allowed us to craft a budget that complimented what we were able to raise as first time filmmakers (in financiers eyes: untested).

Storyboard Your Entire Film

Five months before we started principle photography I sat down and made a detailed shot list for all 211 scenes. I cannot express how helpful this process was. First off, I became intimately familiar with every detail and clue buried in the script, even the ones that the most thorough director may forget about or overlook. Then based on my shot list, I storyboarded all 211 scenes. Don't be afraid to do this even if you're not a good illustrator. I'm not a good illustrator, but as you can see in the side-by-side comparison below, the information and process is more important than whether or not your drawings look like a graphic novel or stick figures drawn by a 4th grader (okay, 2nd grader). We then sent my shot list and my, ahem, storyboards, to an illustrator we hired to make them much sexier.

HERE ALONE, a post apocalpytic horror thriller Kickstarter feature film starring Lucy Walters, Gina Piersanti and Adam David Thompson
Rod's 'drawings' on the left, Storyboard Artist Erik Korsgaard's drawings on the right

When it came to shooting, we had the now-sexy storyboards for each day's scenes printed out and taped onto large foam-core boards (in the order that day was scheduled) for every crew member to see. These storyboard boards helped everyone quickly visualize exactly what we needed to accomplish that day and provided valuable information to department heads. For the Production Designer, roughly how much of this set will we see and need to dress, for the HMU head, how tight will our framing be so that we only need to work on what's on screen, etc.

HERE ALONE, a post apocalpytic horror thriller Kickstarter feature film starring Lucy Walters, Gina Piersanti and Adam David Thompson
Costume Designer Brooke Bennett and Director Rod Blackhurst talk about the storyboards for the day.Credit: Trevor Eiler

While we ran out of time in pre-production, our original plan was to create an animatic for our entire film based off of the storyboards. We also wanted to record the audio of a table read and then edit an animatic version of the entire film, complete with temp music cues. Next time!

Find Your Tribe

Elgin James (see above) once described filmmaking as a battlefield. On that battlefield imagine you're stuck in a foxhole, surviving the worst that trench-warfare can dish out.

Who do you want to be stuck in a foxhole with? Who do you want next to you when the enemies howitzer's fire 24-7, you're running low on sleep, hungry, and there's 6 inches of mud inside your boots (did we mention that it rained sideways 50% of the time on set)? Who do you trust to have your back? Who is there to make sure that every inhabitant in that foxhole survives the fight, and isn't just there for themselves? Who is going to stay cool under pressure?

This may go without saying, but surround yourself with people you trust. Surround yourself with like-minded, egoless, and selfless collaborators. HERE ALONE was successful because our foxhole was full of folks I trusted and who were concerned with the story being told and the bigger picture; how do we tell this story on time, on schedule, and on budget.

Every film needs -- a multitasker that will show up, wear several hats, and is unafraid of changing dynamics and circumstances. Find them, empower them, and never go to set without them.

Let Every Scene Go Thirty Seconds Longer

We needed to shoot 5 to 6 pages a day (instead of the recommended 4). Because of that high page count we didn't have the luxury of doing many takes, especially when scenes required shooting coverage. While I was able to do it some of the time, I wished I would've let every scene develop for thirty seconds past the final words scripted. When I was able to have those 30 seconds, we discovered these 'little moments' that brought magic and well-deserved realism to a scene. In those moments I was able to let go and trust my lovely actors, giving them free reign as vehicles for their characters. Those 30 seconds showed me, time and time again, why I wanted to work with them in the first place.

Shoot A Silent Master

If you have the time, shoot the master of your scene without any dialogue. Ask your actors to physically move through the scene, without saying a word, without moving their mouths. This exercise will show you what's most important physically in the scene AND it might give you some of those wonderful quiet moments that you need in your edit.  

Find the Fearless Multitasker and Empower Them

One week before the start of principle photography we called my friend in Seattle, Trevor Eiler, and asked him if he'd like to spend a month in western New York as our Set Photographer. The previous summer Trevor had quit his job as a creative director in advertising to spend a month traveling around the world helping me rebrand Airbnb. So while I knew Trevor would be down for the last minute adventure what I didn't know was how invaluable he would quickly be to the production.

The day he landed Trevor (remember, our Set Photographer) began helping our one-man Art Team/Production Designer Rob Ebeltoft to finish building a set. A few days later, our now Art Department Assistant/Set Photographer segued into another role as our 1st AD that due to some tough circumstances had became vacant. I need to note that Trevor had never been an Assistant Director before, yet he was fearless. On day one, when the camera rolled and the rain poured, our 1st AD/Art Department Assist/Set Photographer kept our set running and somehow, still found time to take amazing photographs.

Every film needs someone like Trevor, a multitasker that will show up, wear several hats, and is unafraid of changing dynamics and circumstances. Find them, empower them, and never go to set without them.

Share The Spoils with that Tribe

HERE ALONE is a low budget film with (what we think) is high production value. The reason it looks the way it does is because our crewmembers, who worked far below their normal rates, did it out of love for the project. They believed in the narrative and they believe in me, even before they saw what we were capable of. We felt it important to reward this belief from the get-go and give our key collaborators points-on-the-backend (a percentage of potential profits) for their hard work. This tactic is sometimes referred to the Duplass Brothers Model'. Jay Duplass muses that if you create a scenario where you have a wildly successful film, and have rewarded all those that worked on it for below a standard day rate with back end points, those folks will all want to work with you next time as they all shared in it's wild success (ergo, spoils). While we recognized that independent films rarely make a lot of money, should HERE ALONE find financial success we believed it was important to give the crew, that worked tirelessly to help create it, a piece of that success.

Ask Me Anything

For those of you who have read through my rambling nonsense to this point - I'd like to open up the floor and take your questions in the comments field below. Next week I'll answer as many of them as I can and hopefully provide a few more insight into the tricks of the trade.


Rod Blackhurst is the director of the 2012 SXSW short film WOULD YOU, staring Dave Franco and Chris Mintz-Plasse, the Funny or Die Exclusives GO F*CK YOURSELF and YOU'RE SO HOT PART DEUX, and the Vimeo Staff Picks ALONE TIMEEARLY INNINGS, and LIFE. He is now running a Kickstarter campaign for his post apocalyptic horror thriller HERE ALONE.      

Your Comment

23 Comments

These are some awesome tips! I especially appreciate the one regarding shooting each scene an "extra" 30-seconds. Definitely something to consider doing in the future. I have two questions:
1) What was the size of your crew?
2) If your budget only allowed for you to splurge on one thing, what would it be? (i.e. actors, location, props, gear, effects).
Thanks for the advice - excited to see the final product!

October 28, 2015 at 5:02PM

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Ryan Espinosa
Director/Editor
112

Hey there Ryan,

As Rod is on a long plane ride for the final round of shooting on a doc project he has been working on for five years, I'll answer for him (I'm one of his producers, hi Rod whenever you see this!).

We had an 18 person crew total that bumped up to 20 for our two heaviest days. 18 super rad and incredibly talented people I must add. Rockstars really.

Rod and I have talked about this a lot. With a larger budget we would've splurged on days. Hands down. Remove a bit of that time crunch anxiety, lighten our daily loads and also more chances to let shots breath for another thirty seconds (meta already).

We can't wait to show you all this film. It's gonna be rad! Follow us on facebook and check out our KSR (and share if you feel so inclined!).

Noah

October 28, 2015 at 9:12PM, Edited October 28, 9:30PM

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Noah Lang
Writer
Producer

Very impressed by the trailer. Thought it was gonna be another crappy horror/zombie movie, but no.. it didn't look cheesy at all. Good stuff.

October 28, 2015 at 5:39PM, Edited October 28, 5:39PM

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Glad you dig what we are putting down! We all were driven to make a strong character piece and narrative that wasn't defined by its genre, just elevated by the dangerous circumstances and environment they have to contend with.

We wanted to make something that someone who professes to hate horror films could love as much as someone who watches nothing except horror films.

More posts to come! Hope you'll keep reading.

October 28, 2015 at 9:33PM

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Noah Lang
Writer
Producer

Thanks for the insights, Rod! These are very helpful to me as I prepare to shoot my first feature film in the near-ish future. One thing that I'm very curious about, if you're able to say, is what was your budget? I'm always curious to see what kind of things films were able to accomplish on what budget. Also, did you budget out your film and seek a certain amount of money, or did you just sort of try to get as much as you could and then plan your film around that budget?

October 28, 2015 at 5:48PM

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David West
Filmmaker
1186

Hey David,

Great to hear from you and very cool to hear about your experiences in the trenches making films. It's certainly a battle some days.

I mentioned above that Rod is on a long flight right now so I'm speaking as his proxy for a bit.

Absolutely on the rain covering front. We kept the foam core on a C stand and just tarped it whenever the weather didn't behave. We also had them handy on our iPads and phones but there's something nice about being able to walk a few steps away from camera and wrap your head around something before posing a question, looking at the next shot instead of having to poke someone (nobody got time for that), and generally just having a feel for the day's work from a top down perspective.

With storyboards we had very little to offer but found a very enthusiastic and awesome artist who was able to work with us and our constraints. This was hugely helpful in locking in really strong keys on the crew front, was great for showing to cast during prep to understand how we wanted to execute key moments, and was especially helpful as we went out to investors and demonstrated our execution gameplan and workflow for the shoot which was pretty ambitious.

Our cast and crew were all paid day rates and had food and accommodations covered plus the very scenic 6 hour travel time from nyc. Part of how that worked I would wager is that it's fairly common to sublet apartments in NYC as a freelancer when you get an out of town shoot. Plus when you are on a shoot, you tend to save money since you are being fed and housed and are also just always busy (and usually tired) as I'm sure you can relate!

Points to us were very important as though it's a rough racket distributing a film, we worked incredibly hard on our distribution strategy from the beginning and are as invested in its success as everyone else. We also have been able to secure an awesome sales agent and are ready to hustle HERE ALONE wherever will have us. More on that to come in a future post!

As for favors, it's not an annoyance or burden for us as it feels great to bring people onto our other jobs (we freelance produce all sorts of video content) where we can give those that worked hard for us higher rates. Plus we get to work with people we trust and have a working relationship with already so there's no learning curve.

Thanks for reaching out and hope you'll check out our film!

Best,

Noah

October 28, 2015 at 9:29PM

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Noah Lang
Writer
Producer

Hey David, in my haste I didn't dummy check where I was commenting (or who I was responding to).

We unfortunately have to be clandestine about our budget right now for strategy reasons but suffice to say, it was low for a film with this level of ambition and what we all needed from it for us to warrant breaking our backs making it. And we'd do it again and hopefully will again sooner rather than later (perhaps with a slightly larger budget though!). Maybe over a beer sometime down the road I'll slip you a folded piece of paper with a number on it (or we will just reveal everything once we sell the film!).

We designed the film with a number in mind and the line budget reflected what we knew we could do it for. It was certainly a struggle at times (you could always use another twenty bucks) but it was crucial to us to stay lean and nimble as we want to position the film with the best opportunity to recoup the budget for the investors who have gotten us this far. If we hadn't been able to raise what we did, cameras would not have rolled is the short answer!

October 28, 2015 at 9:41PM

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Noah Lang
Writer
Producer

30 seconds past cut idea is great! I often cut too soon making edits tough. The idea of a silent master is good. Work out the blocking and get more coverage. I storyboard scenes the week before shooting but I've often thought doing the whole movie would be a good idea.
Why did you spend money having your storyboards illustrated by a professional? did this help?
In a rainy environment it helps to put the storyboard images in plastic in a binder. poster boards like yours would've blown over and got soaked on my shoots. A small binder was easy to work with.
How did you manage to get a cast and crew to take time off from work for a solid 20 days?
With Space Trucker Bruce ( https://youtu.be/kcOaAqGBWLo ) and my current project Hidden Spaceship I work around people's schedules shooting evenings and weekends when people have time. I can't miss work for a month and have money to finance my movies or pay the bills.
Points of profit seem like a good idea as long as you clarify that there probably won't be any profit.
I like hiring friends and using my son as crew. They have fun on a movie shoot without me worrying about them working for less than normal rates. I don't need a bunch of favors to repay. I don't have time for that.

October 28, 2015 at 7:37PM

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Anton Doiron
Creator/Filmmaker
592

I learned the "don't cut too soon" lesson very early in my filmmaking attempts. I shot for 3 years with a hacked GH2, and one of the only real quirks to the hack was that it took a second or two to actually start recording after hitting "record", and whenever you hit "record" again to stop recording you'd lose the last second or two of footage. Looking at it now, it seems ridiculous to think that I'd almost immediately after I got the shot I wanted, but as I'm the one operating the camera and the one who editing the footage later, it was easy for me to think, "Oh, I'll cut right here!" and stop the camera rolling before I'd even said cut. Needless to say, it only took me a few screwed up shots to learn that I need to ALWAYS let the camera keep rolling. I can't think of many situations where I'd let it roll a full 30 seconds as I almost always cut on action and keep my shots pretty short, but I definitely make sure start rolling and stop rolling a good 5-10 seconds before and after my shots.

October 28, 2015 at 8:06PM

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David West
Filmmaker
1186

Hey Anton, I realized I responded to the wrong commenter. I responded above to David by mistake (damn iPhone!).

October 28, 2015 at 9:35PM

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Noah Lang
Writer
Producer

Thanks for the reply. I figured out where it was in the comments.

October 29, 2015 at 7:16PM

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Anton Doiron
Creator/Filmmaker
592

Hi,
As a student filmmaker n with a very low experience in the field compared to you guys I just wanted few tips. Influenced by Freddie Wong (youtuber), I m planning to start a YouTube season of episodes on an awesome si-fi story I'd written but I don't want to spoil my story with the amateur quality of cinematic look. Although I know vfx till an extent n we've a basic props to begin with, but never had gone for something so awesome. Totally nervous. And the most important- we don't have that one multi-tasking guy.
I have a dozen of things to ask but I understand nobody has a time to answer them all. Would love your help in anyway possible.
Loved ur trailor, n for sure gonna share.

Thanks.

October 29, 2015 at 11:26AM

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Ankit Bhardwaj
Film-maker
74

Do the best with what you have and don't worry too much if the cinematic quality is less than you imagine. Maybe stay away from complicated shots requiring cranes or professional Steadicam work. Lighting can make things look cinematic but it requires time and practice. Go watch Film Riot for lots of tips on getting cinematic looks for not much money. shoot in 24fps, use a camera with high dynamic range to get the film look like a Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera used off Ebay to save money. Become that Multi-tasking guy.

October 29, 2015 at 3:10PM

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Anton Doiron
Creator/Filmmaker
592

Wow! This does look amazing and it really looks like you've elevated the genre with some deep characterizations and intriguing storyline. I truly think you'll do well with this project.

Such a common question, but what did you shoot on? I know you mention having used a hacked GH2 years ago, but wondering what the current camera is. I fully realize that the manipulation of light and understanding of good cinematography is paramount no matter what camera, but I am plugging away with some scenes for my own feature using a GH4 with V-log, and hope it can create a professional look.

A brief discussion of the technical side of your production, from camera choice, lighting practices and post-production procedure (grading, conforming, etc.) would be greatly appreciated, if not asking too much. I just find that you have created a wonderfully cinematic looking film and am always hoping to learn from those that can do so on a minimal budget. Thank you, and continued success!

October 29, 2015 at 12:37PM

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Grant Vetters
Director
74

Thanks for sharing, Rod! It's always encouraging to hear from other directors and filmmakers that they are always learning, no matter how much experience they have. I've directed a couple short films and both times most of the people I've worked with are friends who don't necessarily do anything in the film industry but are just passionate about the arts and creativity. So it was cool hearing you talk about finding people who you want to be in the trenches with.

I don't have acting experience, and I've just learned directing from working on sets and just doing it on my own projects. What advice would you give on directing the actors or any resources that you could point me towards?

October 29, 2015 at 6:14PM

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Hi!

Great article, and super cool trailer!

The question I have is in regard to your section about storyboarding.

I recently completed directing a short film, and I started the project similar to you - storyboarded everything down to a T, with the hope of laying out all the images in premiere with the dialogue and music to "see" how my film would look.
However, as soon as I started filming I was so impressed by the actors' work that I ended up only looking at the storyboards directly before a scene. I would find the most interesting angle, use it as my master, and then gain coverage depending on how much time my A.D would allow me. Of course any important shots I would reference (for example your close up of the rifle shown in your storyboard), but for the most part I found by not squeezing my actors into a box they would come up with stuff more natural than it appeared in my head (got me thinking when you were writing about leaving them 30 seconds after the scene technically ended).

Anyways - after my long rant - I was wondering your thoughts about this. Do you think it's more important to have total control of a scene as a director, or to plan one or two specific angles, and then just see where the scene takes itself (to an extent).

And thanks for all the advice as well! Glad things are working out for you and your team!

October 29, 2015 at 6:36PM

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Nicholas Paddison
Writer & Director
81

Hey Rod & Noah,

Freaking great job guys!!! So you said you had 18, sometimes 20 crew. I'm shooting my first feature in spring, something I've tried to make for years now, and I'm just at a point where I'm gonna shoot the thing and that's that. Money will be set aside for post-production crew.

Question is, if it really came down to it, and you could only have 3-5 people on your crew, what would be their primary roles? Obviously everyone would have to wear 75 different hats, but primary roles...in other words, one guy would have to have experience as a cinematographer and one lady would have to have experience in set design...etc

and also...catering is taken care of.

Thanks, and I wish you both the best success! Again, looks great.

October 29, 2015 at 9:34PM, Edited October 29, 9:42PM

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Brad Bingham
Actor/Writer/Filmmaker
109

hello Ryan, in the first time , sorry for my bad Inglés to Improve That triying :) i am a " beginner flimmaker " i made ​​a few short flims , and i keep learning for each one. i shoot everything , whit my 700d canon, ( used pro lens ) the result of image its ok but not great,you recommend rent a better cam? (RED FS5 etc ) or you think its not that Important for the end results (in the beginner ofc) thank you very much for your time :)

October 30, 2015 at 8:48PM

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chico.slim
film student
72

Hi Rod, loved your article. I was wondering, with the extra 30seconds would you tell your actors that we were going to let that happen or just let the camera roll and hope that they would stay in character? Also during your silent master,would you have their lines being read off camera to help the actors know where they were in the scene?

October 30, 2015 at 10:53PM

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Ryan Butler
Director
81

...

November 4, 2015 at 5:27PM

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Ryan Butler
Director
81

great article man, thanks for sharing.

I was just wondering whats your take on working with no actors for a short film when there's not a lot of lines in the script. Will it affect the film or will it benefit from it? also, I don't know if you have the experience of working with live fire, but if you do, would you care to share some tips or hints to do so?

November 1, 2015 at 11:46AM

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Naendous
Director / Screenwriter
81

Good luck on your feature, very tight and creatively done trailer. Looking forward to seeing the end product. Editing and music placement is amazing, especially the last few seconds. The images are beautiful, lots of movement in every frame. What camera and lens package are you using, also I'm assuming the trailer is colorized. Did you edit down and color yourself to conserve costs, or are you allowing someone else too?

November 1, 2015 at 10:16PM

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Theo Lavizzo
Writer / Visual Story Teller
81

Nice directing tips for a beginner to enhance his direction and get a perfect desired shot. Checkout trick to Make Single Name ID on Facebook Account.

September 10, 2017 at 11:58AM

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