September 19, 2017
now on demand

How We Hacked Production to Make a Full-Scale Spy Thriller for $100K

Negative
These non-traditional production techniques could benefit a shoot of any sized budget.

[Editor's Note: No Film School asked Joshua Caldwell to share the story behind his film 'Negative', available now on Digital HD and OnDemand.]

After making my first feature film Layover for $6000, I went on to direct a series for Hulu and my second feature film for Paramount and Studio 71. While both projects were step up from Layover budget-wise, I found myself surprisingly constricted. Even though I had 150x the budget I did on Layover, I was only given 15 shooting days on the Hulu series for 150 pages of material and 12 days (!) on the feature. I’m used to shooting fast and I definitely made it work to get the projects in the can, but it seemed like the wrong way to make a film.

It felt like we were taking a $10 million model of filmmaking and applying it to a project with a fraction of that budget. Instead of cutting down on crew or trailers or all the things that don’t show up on screen, we cut down on production days and therefore on the time to shoot and get great material.

“If you passed us by while we were shooting, you probably wouldn’t even know we were making a movie.”

Some directors can make this work for them with great results, but I’ve learned it’s not conducive to my process and I found myself asking, “What’s the point?” Everything feels like it gets reduced to the lowest common denominator and the opportunity for discovery and consideration goes away. The chance to capture something unique and special disappears because your only goal is to “get something shot.”

With my new film Negative, I was really curious if we could do something with a similar approach to Layover but with more money. Essentially, could that model be scaled up?

Finding the funding balance

Negative was ambitious to say the least—a spy thriller set on the road between Los Angeles and Phoenix with a sizable fight scene, a major shootout sequence, tons of scenes in moving cars, and practical locations galore. To pull it off, I wanted enough money to be able to actually make the film but little enough money that the company providing the funding would be okay just leaving me alone. I wanted the complete creative freedom to make the movie I wanted to make the way I wanted to make it. We were fortunate to find a willing partner in MarVista Entertainment, who agreed to provide us with the budget and leave us alone while we made the film.

Now that we had the money, to echo the words of my producer William Borthwick, “How the hell are we going to make this film for $100,000?”

It still all starts with the script

In my previous article about producing Layover I wrote:

Whether you’re writing a no-budget feature or a massive $100 million blockbuster, every film needs a story. And to a large degree, that story can be told in a multitude of ways. It’s something I’ve developed called ‘Modular Storytelling.’ That is, the story is the story, whether I have $1000 or $200 million. What changes is how I execute the story.

That still holds true. Negative was written by Adam Gaines, and we worked together on the development to ensure that we could both pull off what he was writing and not have him feel like he had to restrict himself too much. I knew we could pull off a solid fight scene, so we wrote one in. I knew we could pull off a contained shootout, so we wrote one in.

Negative
'Negative'

We kept our locations nondescript and generic like a motel, an apartment, a house in Phoenix. Places like this are cheap and a dime a dozen. We stayed away from anything that would be expensive to rent or acquire.

I also knew that we couldn't do a Bourne film on this budget. I was really interested in making a jazzy, desert noir film with thrilling elements. It was going to be character-based and dialog-heavy.

In a normal spy movie, the move from Los Angeles to Phoenix would happen in a cut. But for our film, I was curious about what these characters did for the ten hours it would take to get there. What did they talk about? How did that relationship develop? How did it change by the time they got to Phoenix? I remember my original pitch to Adam was “I want to do It Happened One Night as a spy thriller and without the romance.”

Adam was the perfect guy for this because he’s got a great ear for unique dialogue and relationships. Yet, because of his work on The Bridge, I knew he could go dark and violent.

Minimal production footprint = freedom

For about 60% of production, our crew consisted of three people: myself (as the director, director of photography, and camera operator), my producer Will Borthwick (helping to wrangle, put up lights, slate, whatever was needed), and a sound recordist.

For the other 40%, we’d scale up the crew as needed, sometimes adding a gaffer to make it four crew members. On big days, we’d have a stunt coordinator, stunt doubles, special FX make-up, an armorer, two gaffers/grips, and maybe a PA. I think that was as big as we got.

Instead of having a costume designer on set every day, we had Amanda Riley pre-design the wardrobe and then made the actors responsible for bringing it to set. Day players were asked to bring selections and then we just picked out looks on set. We had no production designer because we picked locations that were already dressed perfectly. Actors did their own makeup (if they even needed it).

We shot the film using as much available light (either natural or artificial) as possible, only supplementing what was already there. The biggest light we used was an ARRI 650. We never had any trucks or any trailers. In fact, if you passed us by while we were shooting, you probably wouldn’t even know we were making a movie. Our footprint was that light.

“We could get into a place, shoot really quickly and then get out before people even noticed us.”

What this all adds up to is freedom. We were never restricted in any way with what we were shooting. We could move easily and change locations if we needed to. We could get into a place, shoot really quickly and then get out before people even noticed us. Businesses let us use their locations cheaply because we were able to come in with a couple of people and we’d be done in a few hours without disrupting their business. I was able to shoot 360 degrees because we never had a base camp or equipment that got in the way.

By having a small production footprint, we were able to be nimble, quick on our feet, and take advantage of situations that would have been impossible with a large crew. We were able to wrap well ahead of a normal twelve-hour day, often shooting only eight or ten hours at most.

And yes, for those wondering, we did pay our cast and crew.

Negative
Behind the scenes of 'Negative'

Minimal production footprint = a longer schedule

Because so many of our days involved only a couple of people (including actors) and no extraneous equipment or vehicles, we could largely shoot whenever we wanted and weren’t restricted to a typical production schedule. Essentially, we traded a lot of people and stuff sitting around for time. And time is the most precious and valuable thing on a film set.

Our choices allowed us to have a production schedule of thirty-eight days on Negative, spread out over the course of six months. What this gave us was: time with our actors to really craft and capture great performances, a chance to try things, do a lot of takes, get a lot of coverage, and explore and discover the performance.

This timeline also gave us the chance to capture scope by shooting in a lot of different locations, to do a road trip to actually shoot our characters in Phoenix, and to find the perfect locations. It gave us time to make sure we could capture all the practical driving scenes in the best way possible. And it meant that after a big sequence, we could step back for a few days, recharge our batteries, and be ready for the next one two weeks later.

“Never once did I end a day feeling like we hadn’t had the time to ‘get it.’”

Never once did I end a day feeling like we hadn’t had the time to “get it.” Never once did I feel like we really didn’t have the time to do what we needed to make the scene work. Never once was I worried we wouldn’t be able to pull it off. That’s the benefit of a longer schedule.

All we had to trade for this luxury was extraneous crew and trailers and trucks that were unnecessary anyway. That seems to be a totally worthwhile trade.

Decide where your resources need to go

Rather than spending the bulk of our funds on the shoots overall, we decided to put most of our resources into a couple of set pieces: a fight scene and a shootout sequence that occur in the third act. A stunt coordinator, stunt doubles, rehearsals, an armorer, the cost of weapons and blanks, permits, police, and location rentals ended up being our most expensive set pieces.

We made the deliberate choice to spend as little as possible on the majority of the film which resulted in us being able to really give those scenes the resources they needed.

Negative
'Negative'

Trust the camera’s capabilities

One of the reasons why I wanted to DP the film myself is that I needed to try out an approach to the cinematography that I felt would result in us moving faster and giving us more time to capture more takes, rather than more time lighting. The approach is in fact very simple: bumping the ISO.

I really believe that with today’s cameras, we can safely shoot well beyond 3200 ISO while accepting a minimal amount of noise. It might not work for every film, but I know it would work for mine. I felt strongly that we could step into a practically lit location that was too dim at 3200 ISO but was perfect at 5000 ISO with only a china ball or key light for our actor.

“I pushed that camera to its limits, shooting at 6400, 8000, 10000 and even higher ISOs.”

I shot on the Canon C100mkII for its low-light sensitivity and the fact that I owned one, so it would always be available to me. And even though it only shot in 1080p I was okay with that. For one, we were going to finish in 1080p anyway and second, I knew that, by maintaining a 1080p workflow, I could easily integrate that into the post system I owned. (If you have a system that can handle 4K then, by all means, go for it.) I’m also a huge fan of Canon’s color science and thought that it, along with the LUT I chose to use, looked really great in natural light.

I pushed that camera to its limits, shooting at 6400, 8000, 10000 and even higher ISOs. And when that camera couldn’t go high enough, I looked to another Canon camera for help.

The shootout sequence at the end of the film was supposed to take place in the desert at night and I knew I couldn’t get away with the ol’ 10K-a-mile-away situation. I wasn’t going to have a big crew and a lot of lights so I needed a camera that could see in the dark.

'Negative'
Behind the scenes of 'Negative'

Because of my relationship with Canon, I was able to use the new ME-20F-SH camera, which has a max ISO of 4.5 million. It’s unusable at that setting but I found that I could safely shoot at 25,000 and even 100,000 ISO and use a small amount of lighting to achieve the effect I wanted. Thus, I was able to shoot a ten-page sequence with a lot of moving parts (stunts, blank fire weapons, lots of real estate to cover) in two nights with a small crew.

I couldn’t be happier with the look of the film and I think it proves that it’s time to trust the capabilities of the cameras we have today in an effort to give yourself more freedom to get better material.

Words for any filmmaker

Whatever your ultimate opinion of the film is, my goal in this post was to suggest a different way of thinking about production. Maybe you don’t actually need a whole lot of money and a big crew and a ton of equipment. Maybe you can make your film despite your limited resources. I hope that Negative proves the point.      

Your Comment

32 Comments

The third article in a row that I like very much! More of stuff like this, please!!!

September 19, 2017 at 5:23PM, Edited September 19, 5:24PM

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Really appreciate the kind words, thank you!

September 19, 2017 at 8:53PM

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Joshua Caldwell
Director / Writer / Producer
150

I must thank you :-) You're welcome Joshua!

September 20, 2017 at 12:41AM

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A great read! I have been doing a similar form of shooting recently and it is nice to another filmmaker embracing the idea that less is more. I also find that less crew = less distraction for the actors allowing them to be more present during the filming.

September 19, 2017 at 8:44PM

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Thanks! I totally agree. I think my point is there are a lot of different ways to make films and to make different types of films but for the most part, only one way is every really taught or talked about. Often with indie films, so much of your money goes into things that aren't on screen and may not actually be necessary.

September 19, 2017 at 8:54PM, Edited September 19, 8:54PM

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Joshua Caldwell
Director / Writer / Producer
150

I love your comment in the article about never feeling rushed to a shot. You were able to capture exactly what you wanted and never compromised. That is truly rare! I think that better performances are what gives films their magic and being rushed always seems to suck those special moments from the set. The new technology really is creating different ways of filming. I had a friend in the industry tell me that I needed to have a minimum of 7 crew members to get anything of quality. But, pairing down to the bare minimum is the only way I could every know what I could do without... and the answer is, I can do without a lot. Hat tip to you for completing this feature film on such a limited budget! Nice work.

September 19, 2017 at 9:29PM

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Great article. I am in the midst of reading scripts and looking for my next project. I got the Canon C200 and with the right material, looking to make it shine. You're POV is very insightful. Thank you.

Wes Woodland
Str8Up Studios

PS: if you have recommendations on writer groups, I'd love your advice.

September 20, 2017 at 1:05AM

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Wes Woodland
Filmmaker / Preditor
4

I've been wanting to get my hands on the C200 so consider me jealous. As for material, at such a low-budget level finding stuff is hard. People just aren't writing low-budget films, you know? So, you have to find a writer you like (someone who can do dialogue really well) and develop something out with them. Or write it yourself.

I have the same problem -- looking for stuff that can be shot on a low-budget and it ain't easy. I've yet to find something that really stands out quality wise, so development has been the way to go for me.

Don't know many writer groups. Where are you located?

September 20, 2017 at 8:17AM

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Joshua Caldwell
Director / Writer / Producer
150

You are absolutely dead on when it comes to the iso. I don't know what school of thoughts or arrogant elitists out there think that film has and should always have a perfect clean look.

As a Cinematographer it drives me insane that people don't get that film cameras had noise back in the day and nobody cared.

I kind of laugh at myself cause in the editing world I see post processing bringing that grain right back into RED footage... wouldn't you then want to take less light then? You know instead of spending hours on building and breaking what could be a much quicker.

September 20, 2017 at 7:03AM, Edited September 20, 7:13AM

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Kyle Dockum
Videographer and Editor
631

I understand in it certain contexts, like when you have a seven week production schedule but when you're only given 15 days, why spent such a significant amount of time lightining when you don't have to. I've found myself compromised on time to get great performances because so much time has to be devoted to lightning.

Meanwhile, audiences do not care about a little bit of noise in the image. If you've got a engaging story and compelling characters, they'll let a little bit of noise slide (or not even notice it at all).

Also, I've always told people to go back and watch some Cassavettes' films. His work is full of really heavy film grain and it doesn't seem to bother anyone. I know digital noise and film grain are a little different but so what?

Appreciate the support and kind words.

September 20, 2017 at 8:20AM

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Joshua Caldwell
Director / Writer / Producer
150

Thanks for the great advice, pretty inspired to make my own $10,000 feature film :)

September 20, 2017 at 9:42AM

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Kyle Dockum
Videographer and Editor
631

So, how can we see the film? I did not see any links to where it can be watched in the article.

September 20, 2017 at 12:02PM, Edited September 20, 12:02PM

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It's available on iTunes, Amazon, OnDemand and more! http://gwi.io/NegativeMovie

September 20, 2017 at 4:11PM, Edited September 20, 4:11PM

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Joshua Caldwell
Director / Writer / Producer
150

Having worked on shoots with lots of people, or not enough and killing yourself with long days and too much work... me personally, I would of added 2 grips and 2 PA's. One of the things I like to do is while shooting one setup, have the "extra" crew either taking down the previous setup, or setting up the next shot. I agree that with higher ISOs the new good cameras can considerably reduce lighting setups. A couple LED lights - panel, lensed arrays, fresnel can easily run on a single 20A circuit, a vehicle 2kw inverter or even battery power. very liberating to be able to put a couple battery power lights up with a decent hr of run time per battery. I also like using passive lighting control - bounce cards even in the dark can kick just that little bit of light you need to get a face to pop in the shot, or sometimes hanging solids to gets some modeling out of flat light. to do that though, you do need a couple people to work efficiently.

that said I shot this short with 3 person crew of me as dir / dp, a grip / sound person, and set decorator / prop master over a weekend. Got lucky in getting amazing fall colors and real rain that fit the mood perfectly. In fact in the end scene I started to set up a silk & some lights, and had an ephinay : just turn up the ISO on my at the time C100mk1 and found I had the look I wanted with just a little bit of fill. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ngY7iGbVI-A

September 20, 2017 at 2:50PM

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Steve Oakley
DP • Audio Mixer • Colorist • VFX Artist
462

Articles like this are why I love No Film School. Thank you, Joshua! Truly an inspiring and informative read.

September 20, 2017 at 7:17PM, Edited September 20, 7:17PM

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David West
Filmmaker
1254

Thanks for the kind words. Hope it helps in some way on your future projects!

September 20, 2017 at 9:59PM

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Joshua Caldwell
Director / Writer / Producer
150

Did you have a problem with operating the camera and being able to direct? I feel like something has to get compromised if you are watching framing, performance, and focus on top of moving the camera. Did you have to shoot more takes than normal to compensate?

September 21, 2017 at 11:15PM

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Tony Clifford
Director/Screenwriter
180

Over the years, I've found that I both performance and camera operation go hand in hand for me. I find myself closer and more watchful of the performances when operating and also feel that I can enhance the performance with the operation. I'm so tuned in with the actor as a director that it allows me to take chances and move with them as an operator. So, I've realized it goes hand in hand. I feel comfortable enough now that we didn't really blow any takes. Also, honestly, the actors are so good (I think) that I don't find myself having to do much on set. Its a lot of small fine-tuning. It works for me in the way it might not work for others.

September 22, 2017 at 8:30AM

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Joshua Caldwell
Director / Writer / Producer
150

https://petapixel.com/2016/07/18/check-legendary-nasa-f0-7-lens-frakenca...

How was your experience and product different than this?

September 22, 2017 at 3:24PM

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Keating Willcox
video maker
1

I only wish I had those lenses (although the thing you're always fighting with a wide open lens is the super shallow depth of field).

As for the end product, no way am I ever going to be in Kubrick's league, so I can't even pretend to try.

:-)

September 22, 2017 at 6:39PM

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Joshua Caldwell
Director / Writer / Producer
150

2 key questions to this IMO.

1. You owned the camera you used so that took down principle photography costs. I would wonder what that would've done to your costs in 6 months of shooting. I'm curious about that.
2. You own a post-production studio or so I read. Post is cost heavy, so not sure who did the editing, color correction, sound design, composer work, and such. That is a huge cost for indie filmmakers like myself.

I would wonder how that fits in with the 100k you got. That said, all of this is wonderful because it's all about taking "what resources do I have", "what can I write to utilize those resources to their potential" and make a movie that you can do your own way. I have bookmarked this for sure just was curious about costs.

P.S. I LOVED that you were the DP and director. That note is going to sit in my head for awhile and I'm a producer!

September 22, 2017 at 7:25PM

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Kelly Raymer
Producer
6

Hey Kelly,

So, 1) yes, if we would've had to rent a camera over the course of those six months it would have been A) expensive and 2) a pain (because sometimes we would decide to just go and shoot something). Hard to say but honestly, cameras are becoming so inexpensive these days, it's more and more likely that either you or someone you know owns a decent camera.

2) I don't own a studio, I just have editing software and have resources for post. So, we edited this on FCP 7 (the last project I will edit on that system). All post crew were paid (thought a a favor rate, rather than their full rate, but the favor rate is something I've earned from them over years of doing projects). Our post budget on this film was $25,000. So, we shot the film for $75,000 and then post costs were $25K. Color correction was done via DaVinci Resolve (a free program, though we paid the colorist). We paid our editor. Our biggest costs were sound and music but they're so important to the end product, it's worth it.

So, yes, post can cost money but we did factor that into the budget.

September 24, 2017 at 8:30AM

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Joshua Caldwell
Director / Writer / Producer
150

I would be very interested to know which lenses and which lut were used for the project.
As a C100 owner i´m always curious about that.

I guess you constantly used the Shogun to be able to record at least ProRes HQ right?

Very great and interesting article!

September 23, 2017 at 7:38AM, Edited September 23, 7:40AM

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Lars Traffas
Filmmaker & Editor
17

We used the Shogun to get ProRes HQ 4:2:2 at (sort of) 10-bit vs the 4:2:0 8-bit you get with internal recording.

Re: lens. The burning stuff scene at the beginning, the fight scene and the final shootout scene were all shot using the Canon CN-E primes. For the rest of the movie, we shot on the Rokinon cine primes and the Canon 24-105mm. Any scene where we're running around on the street or in a car, we're probably using the Canon 24-105mm because of its image stabilization. I also used a Sigma 70-200mm for a couple shot. But the bulk of it was on the Rokinon cine primes.

For the LUT, I used the one of Resolve's built in Film Look LUTs, the Kodak D60.

Thanks for the kind words!

September 24, 2017 at 8:33AM, Edited September 24, 8:37AM

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Joshua Caldwell
Director / Writer / Producer
150

Thanks a lot for your further informations of the project.
Since yet i just watched the trailer but i´m thrilled to look the whole movie to look what you pushed out of the good old C100 mkii ;-)

You didn´t used any gimbal´s or something in that way for stabilisation? Easyrigs e.g. ?

What would be interesting to know for me too is if you were constantly manually focusing or did you make use of the C100´s DPAF for some scenes?

I for myself find it a pretty handy solution for some shots.
Clearly not for every purpose, but for some it fit´s well :)

September 24, 2017 at 12:01PM

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Lars Traffas
Filmmaker & Editor
17

For one scene I used a Glidecam but didn't like it so I stopped using it (I owned the Smooth Shooter). Other than that, just a basic shoulder rig. It's pretty light with the C100mkII so no need for Easy Rigs or anything.

re: focusing. It depends. If I was on the 24-105mm I tended to use the auto focus feature if I could because we'd be so run and gun. Of course, the only problem with it is that you have to keep the subjects centered, so if I were following two people I would right the AF On/Off switch depending on what was going on.

If I were on the Rokinon lenses, I'd be manually focusing.

September 24, 2017 at 7:39PM

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Joshua Caldwell
Director / Writer / Producer
150

Joshua, I enjoyed this article and I rented Layover on iTunes tonight. Halfway through it. How did you shoot the girl's eye inside the motorcycle helmet? This is a pretty amazing film for five thousand bucks. I have seen most of the Transformers films (coz I can't hardly help my dumb self) and the last one I saw, "Revenge of the Fallen" (or as Film Crit Hulk refers to it, "ROTF(L)" ... yer $5K movie is better than Bay's $200M flick.

September 24, 2017 at 12:20AM

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Chris Tucker
amateur filmmaker
105

Hey Chris. Thanks for checking out Layover. For the helmet shot, I basically cut off half of the visor and then attached a GoPro to the helmet and fitted it in that space. I wish I could have used a camera with better for focusing capabilities (she's a little soft) but I had to go with what I had. Here's a pic of the setup:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/03cvxy205kxb48y/IMG_3613.JPG?dl=0

September 24, 2017 at 8:45AM

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Joshua Caldwell
Director / Writer / Producer
150

Also, I just noticed the iTunes review for "Layover" mistakenly links to "The Layover" with a 0% rating. Might want to jump on that.

September 24, 2017 at 1:22AM

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Chris Tucker
amateur filmmaker
105

Dude. Thanks for the heads up. Frickin' algorithms...

September 24, 2017 at 8:38AM

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Joshua Caldwell
Director / Writer / Producer
150

Fantastic. I love how the director wasn’t caught up in the current resolution war or worries about shooting on the newest tech, and was just like, “I’ve got this cam, I’m gonna make it work.”

But good lord, his other production of 150 pages in 15 days is nuts. Really shows he knows how to make things work. Me and a couple friends shot a 90 page feature this past July in 13 days, and I couldn’t even imagine moving faster than we were. Bravo to him.

October 27, 2017 at 3:51PM

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Daniel Waghorne
Cinematographer/Drone Pilot
28

My problem with this kind of filmmaking is it essentially passes the buck to the few people you rope into working for you. Having them do 3 different jobs on set is not conducive to getting top quality footage, it'll get you decent footage for cheap.

October 27, 2017 at 10:09PM

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Michael Willer
Director/Screenwriter
93