How Working on a Hollywood Blockbuster Helped Me Make a Proof of Concept

'MANHUNT'Credit: Jack Martin
Here's some impactful advice to get your first project off the ground. 

I was the eighth person hired onto Warner Bros. Godzilla vs. Kong production, just weeks before shooting my short MANHUNT. Witnessing how a big blockbuster film was constructed from the ground up was a dream come true. I finally had a chance to see through the looking glass at what goes into making a high-profile film that's part of an iconic franchise. 

I worked for eight months as a production assistant on the Warner Bros. film, during which I saw everything from pre-vis work to concept art pitches. Along the way, I picked up a handful of important tips from the amazing crew I befriended, and the advice is worth sharing. Dig into it below.

Pre-prep the prep

There’s a reason why big-budget films can spend years in research and development before ever getting into pre-production. Once you’re in production and even pre-pro, there’s no looking back. Any major changes are generally reserved for reshoots, which most indie and short films don’t budget.

That’s why when writing a script it’s wise, if you're also the director, to start visualizing the film. Scour image references online, look at concept art, create audio playlists, research locations on vacation rentals, search for props on auction websites—do it all!

For MANHUNT, I spent months researching movies, concept art, gadgets, costumes, you name it. It’s all about putting the pieces together, one by one, as early as possible. Because once the ball gets rolling, it's not as easy to change things, especially on a tight budget. 

'MANHUNT' was shot using the ARRI AlexaCredit: Jack Martin

Every shot counts

On MANHUNT, we had 100 visual effects across 60 different shots. And our budget? $1K.

I learned I had to cut down on some shots that didn’t absolutely need visual effects and focused on ones that purely pushed the story forward. How did I get these incredible artists to do so much with so little? Time.

You either have time or money, usually never both.

It was the locations supervisor on Godzilla vs. Kong who taught me this. 

For MANHUNT, we had little money but a boatload of time. I reached out to friends, cold contacted artists via Upwork and Art Station, and looked for anyone who was as passionate about this story as I was. Then, I told them it had to be a side hustle. A casual fun hobby to work on while they paid the bills elsewhere.

In total the film cost $18K from prep to final online release. I know, it seems like a lot, but it's nothing compared to blockbuster standards. This is where creative compromises come in.

When you can, go practical

While Godzilla vs. Kong relies on visual effects to visually detail scenes, production does so much work in the set designs to help blur the lines between reality and what's created in post.

One of our biggest challenges on MANHUNT was the blizzard. Many people said to cut it, and I’m all for compromises, but this was not one I was willing to make. I knew in order to achieve the big blockbuster feel on a small budget, I needed to give the film scope and scale in a creative way. 

Snow is instantly cinematic and sets a mood, like the world has been cocooned in a cozy snowglobe. Rather than relying solely on VFX, we lugged two large snow machines up the mountain and covered as much ground as we could with fake snow. While half the film’s shots are VFX snow, most people won't be able to tell the difference. The key is always a blend of the two.

Things will go wrong

While blockbusters like Godzilla vs. Kong have hundreds of experienced people at the ready to fix problems, all you might have shooting your short are the handful of people as passionate as you.

Also… insurance. Don’t make a movie without insurance.

MANHUNT felt like a testament to Murphy’s Law. One of our actors missed their flight, we fell hours behind schedule, my shot list was thrown out, SFX props malfunctioned and were completely cut from the short, we lost radio signal between our locations, and even had our grip truck crash. Weather can be dreadful sometimes, but the key thing is we were prepared for the worst, thanks to my producer Neil Cerullo.

So make sure your project has a good producer. 

The truth is, on shooting days, things can change. Sometimes drastically. And you need to be ready to pivot. Since you have a film to shoot and a day to make, rain or shine, you have to do it. Even if you pre-prep the prep, things can go wrong.

Dir. Jack Martin and castCredit: Jack Martin

It takes a village

The best stories I have from working on Godzilla vs. Kong are the conversations I had with the crew. The producers, locations, stunts, art—they are all creative people just like us who are willing to share their stories and experiences once they get to know you. When you find yourself on set, find those moments during downtime to see what you can learn. They can teach you a lot. 

Constructing my crew was greatly inspired by those very professionals. Bringing on incredibly talented people, like our cinematographer Sam Davis or Christina Gonzales to design the sound, was all about finding people with whom you can collaborate and respect on a professional level. You cannot make a movie alone.

Even as the writer or director, especially on big-budget films, you’re just a vital piece of a much larger puzzle. The only way to get through it is together.

Don’t wait to get the right amount of money or gear

MANHUNT was the first film I ever directed that was shot on an ARRI Alexa and ARRI Master Anamorphic lenses rented from Brainbox Cameras. I designed MANHUNT based on the style of movie I wanted to execute yet recognized my limitations.

Rather than using explosions or action sequences to give the story scale, I focused on suspense with very little dialogue. This simple yet effective storytelling tool challenged my abilities as a director to engage the audience in a worthwhile experience.

I know $18k may sound like a lot of money, but you can still get creative with far less. Use actors you know, gear you have, locations you can control, and you’re already miles ahead. Start small, focus on story and character, and execute only what’s absolutely necessary.

Also, keeping a shorter runtime of five minutes or less doesn’t hurt.

Have any tips yourself? Share them in the comments below.      

You can check out my other work on my website

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2 Comments

You might've learned about the prep that goes into working on blockbusters but that has nothing to do with actually making a good short film.

It was shot fine but that's about it. Nothing the little girl did made sense. Holding up the toy gun when she saw the criminal was the most predictable, silly thing for her to do. How did she know to go get the alcohol and give it to him? Why didn't she just run away?

Also setting the story in the "future" so that you can have a contrived reason for the security system and the game system to be the same was laughable. Very silly for the girl to shut down the security system of the entire house so that she can turn off the parental lock in the game. Also just absurd the escaped convict sees the house has a security system and thinks that he can punch the input pad and that will shut off the security system entirely. Isn't this the future? Wouldn't he know that you can't do that?

Next time work on making the setup of your story and characters far less contrived. Audiences can easily see through things like that. Good luck.

March 30, 2021 at 9:25AM

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I agree. There's an epidemic of contrived, nonsensical filmmaking going on in the US and it needs to stop. Hollywood keeps making movies with too much focus on CGI and color grading and too little effort spent on compelling characters in interesting situations. Unfortunately, this short made those same mistakes.

April 21, 2021 at 12:01PM, Edited April 21, 12:01PM

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