Sigma & Slamdance are making a home for micro-budget filmmakers in Los Angeles.
Last Saturday a couple hundred filmmakers filled the halls of Sigma's Burbank offices to attend a free special event. The first of its kind between the popular lens-maker Sigma and the Slamdance Film Festival, the event's panels and workshops ranged from screenwriting advice to lighting techniques, post-audio collaboration, DIY distribution and even legal advice. Here are our takeaways from the all-day free event.
Whether pitching to your friends, family, or a room of executives, the rules are the same. Producer and distributor Adam Leipzig and Script Reader Consultant Beverly Neufield offered sage advice from their long careers.
1. "Know what the character wants in the first 30 seconds."
If a pitch goes on too long without understanding the motivation for the main character, this would be described as a fatal error, according to Leipzig and Neufield. Get that information out at the top of the pitch; don't bury the lede.
2. "Have passion and know your role."
Are you pitching your project to direct, to star, to produce? Make sure you bring that information in with the pitch and the confidence and justifications for why you are pitching this project for yourself to work on.
3. "Lose the garbage words."
Garbage words, as defined by producer Adam Leipzig, are any words that don't add to your pitch. These are "ums" and "y'knows" and "okays."
4. "Always be ready."
In this business, you never know when you're going to be across the dinner table from someone when they ask about your project. Adam Leipzig hinted at substantive anecdotes from his career as a producer, distributor and executive in which always being ready really made the difference.
Cinematography / Lighting
Early in the day, Digital Sputnik gave an overview of their latest LED lighting fixtures. On a panel composed of Elle Schneider (Attention! Soldier Productions) Graham Sheldon and Vance Burberry (DP, Blackmagic Design) and moderated by Alex Ferrari (Indiefilm Hustle), indie cinematographers weighed in on some more pragmatic advice. Later in a breakdown session in the Sigma warehouse, Vance Burberry lead students through a lighting workshop, going over the basics of light shaping on three dimensional objects.
5. "Whatever gets it done is the right way."
Pragmatism often rules the film set, and just because there are established rules doesn't mean you can't bend them, especially when time gets tight. These DPs cited still acknowledging the usefulness of certain things getting gaff-taped to the ceiling in a pinch.
6. "Get it right in the camera."
Despite many useful modern tools and techniques that can make the cinematographer's job faster and easier, that doesn't mean to leave everything to post. Don't not light a scene because your exposure is correct, make sure you're using the lighting to tell the story. By the same token, using glass filtration in front of your lens is better than producing those effects in post-production.
7. "A filter in post is not the same as a filter in camera."
When using a glass filter in front of (or behind) your lens, the photons hitting the sensor are actually rearranged by the glass. Therefore the physics of how light is hitting your sensor is different than applying softening in post-production. Vance Burberry went into depth on filtration and gave some old-school tips: Polarizers can be tough on skin tones and are not recommended for close-ups because sometimes strange things can happen to skin tones. A Christian Dior #2 stocking in black or beige can also be stretched over the rear lens element, fixed with clear nail varnish, for a luxurious softening effect (and, with black, only 1/3 stop loss).
8. "Know what post can do for you — and what it can't."
Knowing the limitations of each camera and having knowledge of color correction and post-production can be invaluable when making lighting decisions on set. As Graham Sheldon said it, as the Director of Photography you are the "keeper of the image," and this often means even getting involved in the color process after you've shot a film (even if you don't get paid!) to ensure that the integrity of the images are upheld in post-production.
9. "Your beside manner is your greatest asset."
There's plenty of talent in the competitive world of filmmaking, especially in Los Angeles, but your attitude and approach to your work on set is what will set you apart. If you're fiddling with a light fixture when the actor is clearly ready to give a performance, perhaps getting out of the way is the best thing you can do. "Don't get in the way of the story," these panelists agreed.
On this panel was a discussion between filmmakers and their post-sound team, specifically between sound designers, music supervisors and re-recording mixers. Panelists: Ceiri Torjussen (Composer, All Creatures Here Below), Aidan Reynolds (Sound Re-Recording Mixer, Hedge, East of the River), Bill Waterson (Director, Dave Made a Maze), Ugo Derouard (Sound Designer, Dave Made a Maze).
10. "Hire good production sound people."
In micro-budget or independent work, time works against you more than money. If post-production sound engineers don't have to spend time fixing your audio, they can spend more time on the creative. If you are in a situation while shooting, make sure the priority is on getting clean dialogue — the rest can be replaced later (and is even fun to replace later!).
11. "Lock picture — and mean it."
Post-sound on a film can only begin after picture is locked (or at the very least, locked on a first reel or two), and any small editorial change made after picture lock can be very time consuming and downright annoying to fix. Even if you change something by 4 frames it will throw off the entire post-sound pipeline. Lock your picture and don't unlock it.
12. "Watch your film without sound before picture locking."
Sometimes you temp audio or music lead to editorial choices that won't make sense when you have to replace or remove them. Everyone on the panel agreed with director Bill Waterson when he advised filmmakers to watch their cut with the sound off (more than once!) to smooth out any editorial choices that don't work entirely on their own.
Panelists Mercedes Cooper (ARRAY), Joshua Edwards (Pierce Law Group), Allison Amon (Bullitt) and John Charles Meyer (Producer, Dave Made a Maze) got into a heated conversation about the state of distribution and the opportunities available to independent filmmakers in 2019. The consensus: hard work and determination can get you there.
13. "Keep your emails short and funny."
When sharing your finished work (Mercedes Cooper warned inexperienced filmmakers to not send your script to a distributor, it just looks bad), even veteran distributors admitted that a short and funny email ("the funnier the better") gets their attention.
14. "Have a plan and don't ask for permission."
Echoing the words of Steven Soderbergh, the panelists asked filmmakers to be tenacious. You have to make your film distribution happen, nobody is going to give it to you. Often becoming your own distributor can be more effective than going with a distributor that puts out 50 films a year. "If you think about it," John Charles Meyer noted, "a distributor that puts out 50 films a year is only going to give you their undivided attention for one week." With services like Distribber, filmmakers can go direct to most platforms without handing extra cash over to a middleman.
15. "Make everything as much as an event as you can."
Producer John Charles Meyer points out the impact you can have on your own distribution, citing a self-made theatrical run for his Slamdance film Dave Made a Maze. Get in touch with theaters and ask if they will book your film, even offer them a 40/60 split if it sweetens the deal for them. Meyer himself booked 18 theaters along the west coast, bought a cheap Southwest ticket and rented a car and went on tour with the film weeks prior to their distributor's theatrical window. In his self-made theatrical window, Meyer sold $8,000 of tickets, netting him about $3,000. Compared to his distributor's theatrical run of 40 theaters and a net of $0, this was a successful experiment and one he urged others to consider.
Meet the Audience
We talked to a few of the attendees of the Sigma+Slamdance Burbank event to get their thoughts and takeaways on the day.
John Charter (Director, Remission)
A Slamdance alum with his creature-short film Remission, John found out about the event through a Slamdance email.
- Favorite Panel: Sound Mixing: Dos and Don'ts. "They really dug deep into some of the things to consider. One thing I learned today is that when you collaborate with a sound mixer you might not get the full story of what they prefer in terms of how you deliver the finished product before they bring it into ProTools. For example when you export as .AAF from Premiere a lot of stuff might not make it."
- Favorite Discovery: The new Digital Sputnik Voyager light tube with pixel specific adjustability with video input for [lighting] emulation. For something accessible on a smaller budget I thought that was pretty fascinating."
- Current Project: Working on another film in the creature-film world, but more miniatures. It's an anthology piece and in the same space as Remission, which is playing this Tuesday the 14th, 8PM at Arclight Hollywood as part of the Slamdance Cinema Club.
Hayk Matevosyan (Director, Voces en Silencio)
An Armenian American director and artist, Hayk found the event through Instagram.
Favorite Panel: Pitch Workshop. "You've got to put emotion into your pitch. You have to care about your story as you're pitching if you want the other person to care."
Favorite Discovery: "If you go to these kind of events you meet some really cool people, get good food and drinks. There was a lot of stuff to absorb."
Current project: "I just finished and released a short I made in Peru with Herzog, and I am finishing another short I made under the mentorship of Bela Tarr, which will premiere in Locarno Film Festival this year."
Ryan Bergez (Director, Bummed)
Seeking distribution with his micro-budget feature Bummed, Ryan was encouraged by his wife (who got an email about it) to attend the event.
Favorite Panel: Find Your Audience: Shorts & Features. "The distribution panel was really interesting. It's really inspiring. It's been good to meet everyone, and it's good to see filmmakers here, tangibly, instead of online. I would definitely come again and again to one of these incredible free events."
Favorite Discovery: Legal Advice Corner. "I learned a lot, it was great. I wrote down everything David Pierce said. I asked about incorporating the title of your film and how long you need to keep it for. [David Pierce] said you need to keep your LLC for as long as revenue is coming in from your project or you are expecting revenue to come in. That was information I couldn't find anywhere online."
Current Project: "Seeking ways to distribute our micro-budget film entitled Bummed."
This one-off event was very well put together by Sigma and Slamdance, offered a wide range of panels and workshops, and promoted an inclusive, positive and educational environment. Independent filmmaking is hard enough and these kind of free resources are a welcome addition to the Los Angeles community. Let's just hope they do more.