5 Fundamentals That Helped Me Make My Feature By Myself
Let us help you make your own movie.
First off, this is a follow-up to the Op-Ed I wrote for No Film School a few days ago that you all made amazingly successful: My Wife and I Made a 3000 Shot Feature Film By Ourselves (And You Can Too).
The response to that has been astounding, so thank you to all of you for reading it, sharing it, commenting, checking out (and even pledging to) the Kickstarter, watching the trailer on my YouTube channel, subscribing, emailing me with your encouragement, and just plain being awesome. I love you all for it!
Understandably, people want more information, so this follow up is all about giving a more in-depth look into my method and our film’s production. This article assumes that you’ve already read the previous one. If you haven’t, the previous one can get you up to speed on what my wife and I did in making this feature ourselves.
This second piece is a deeper dive into the details. Specifically, the gear we used, the budget, and the fundamentals we used that you can use to start your own feature film ASAP!
I hope thousands of filmmakers will read this article, and at least one person will use this as the first step toward taking action and making their own entire feature film!
It gives me goosebumps just thinking about everything you can achieve if you just keep reading, and then decide to act! I can’t wait to see your film!
You can do this!
My first bit of advice, though:
Be a maniac.
“Good films can be made only by a crew of dedicated maniacs.” — David Lean
As I begin to write this, it is 2:12 AM on the west coast, and I’m on my third all-nighter in four nights. It’s funny how the Kickstarter campaign for your feature film being in its final two days, and being a few thousand dollars short of its funding goal, motivates you to lose some sleep. (By the way, you can view my Kickstarter here and take a look at the nifty rewards available to those who do end up backing the cause that steals my sleep).
Bottom line: I’m a maniac. Proudly.
And as David Lean said, only maniacs can make good films.
But I also believe that, as they say, “We all go a little mad sometimes,” and that I can teach you to find and utilize your inner maniac—because only when the maniac is free, will you be able to make a feature film of your own.
And you can make your own feature film. You can start today. And in this article, I’m going to show you how.
I didn’t make my feature film, Dangerous to Know so that I could keep the secret formula for "how you make a feature film that looks like it cost $65 million dollars, but was actually shot on a nano-budget" all to myself.
I did it because my background as an information technology expert and futurist led me to see what established, big-budget production companies hadn’t seen—an opportunity—and I took it.
Like you, I just wanted a chance, and like you, the odds of me getting it just weren’t good enough. I had the chance to make my own luck, though, and now I’m going to share that chance with you.
Mike Flanagan (The Director of The Haunting of Hill House, amongst a lot of other great work) backed my Kickstarter in its second week and wrote Jenny and I a truly beautiful and inspiring message. I won’t share it all here (although I read it live for the first time during a YouTube video that’s on my channel, so you can check that out) He wrote something that really struck a chord with me:
“Very much looking forward to seeing the movie! My best to all of you guys, it's so cool to see someone chasing their dream so passionately. That really is the most important thing. If you keep that attitude up, no matter how it goes for this campaign, or for this movie, you'll succeed in the end. It's tough, because the industry is designed to make you feel crazy and delusional, and all of that... so keep it up. Don't quit, ever....
Best of luck to you guys, and sometime down the line, when it all works out and you're more established in the industry, be sure to pay it forward.”
How beautifully written is that? We didn’t know Mike before this, had never spoken to him or met him, and we still haven’t met him in person. He backed us and wrote to us because he’d done a Kickstarter when he was getting started on his first feature film, Absentia, and so he knows how inhumanly hard this is. Getting people to care enough to support a film made by someone they’ve never heard of isn’t easy. But he knows—he feels empathy—and empathy is what makes someone a great writer and a great storyteller... you have to think about other people besides yourself—really consider other people’s circumstances and feelings and be fascinated by them and inspired by them. Mike is a great filmmaker because Mike is truly a good person.
Even in his final line, he’s thinking of others—not just Jenny and I—but of the people, we might inspire someday when he says, “...sometime down the line when it all works out, and you’re more established in the industry, be sure to pay it forward.” Pay it forward.
He’s thinking about you.
I’m thinking about you too, whoever you are, reading this article, right now, wherever you may be. I really care about you. I want you to be a great filmmaker. I want to see your film! You’re the one I’m paying it forward to... and I’m not waiting until I’m more established. I’m doing it right now.
And then, sometime down the line, when it all works out, and you’re more established...
Well, you know the rest. ;)
Boiling Filmmaking Down to the Fundamentals
I explained how I came to my eureka realizations in the previous article, so I won’t spend time going over it again here, but if you didn’t read that one and you find yourself feeling a bit cynical, don’t worry! Just go back and read it, it’ll persuade you, and then you can return here for the details.
Now that you’re thinking completely differently about digital filmmaking and realize that you don’t have to spend ungodly amounts of money on renting the cameras the Hollywood studios use, you’re ready to step back and consider what elements you actually need in your film! After that, we’ll go into each one in more depth. Then you’ll have the basics you need to start planning your own feature film production!
I won’t be able to go into everything in the depth that I could with more space and another format, but there’s good news! As soon as my Kickstarter is over in two days, and assuming I’m successfully funded (still a few thousand short as I write this), I’ll be making far more detailed videos on each component of my method on my YouTube channel. I’ll be able to answer your questions there, and I’ll guide you toward the dream that is now truly within your grasp. Subscribe and hit that notification bell so that you don’t miss out! *Important note: You REALLY gotta hit that “Notify Me Every Time” bell, because only about 11% of people do, and that means they rarely get notified unless YouTube decides to notify them.
That plug out of the way...ahem...let’s rock n’ roll!
Fundamental 1: The Camera
This one is obviously pretty important, and your choice here can really impact whether or not your film will visually be a success, or if you will even be able to get the shots you need to complete the movie!
First, you're going to research and decide between a DSLR camera with specs that fit your needs, or, a cinema camera from Blackmagic Design (who are not my sponsor by the way... we like each other a lot and chat, but they’ve never given me a dime!) I personally love their pocket cameras because they’re so powerful, small, and absurdly cheap for what you get. When you buy a Pocket Cinema Camera 4K or 6K, not only do you get to film in either ProRes or Raw, but you also get their color grading, editing, sound design, and VFX software... FREE!
Do you see why I like them so much?
But as much as I love them, their new pocket cameras weren’t available when I started my film. I needed something with extraordinary low-light capability, because I wanted to film a lot of nighttime shots, but I didn’t want to go for that accepted but extremely fake-looking-Hollywood-style aesthetic. You know the one I’m talking about... when people turn out their lights to go to sleep, but their room is still bathed in blue light. Or when they’re outside, and the DP has a giant light balloon (or 2 or 5) floating above the trees while they’re simultaneously misting the hell out of the location so that the mist reflects even more light.
I have personally never seen a forest that looks like that or had to squint from “moonlight” in my eyes. It’s time for that aesthetic to die. The Sony A7sii can see better in low light than your eyes can, and that gives you the room to shoot at a high enough ISO (brightening your shots) that when you color grade them later, you can crush the dark areas to a level that looks more like what appears natural to the eye — at the same time, still balancing the need to tell a story. Basically, you can cheat a bit to make sure that objects important to the plot are still visible.
That might be enough info on cameras for a lot of you to run with and start researching for yourself. There’s more than enough that I haven’t said (and won’t have room to say in this space) for me to write an entire article on camera selection alone.
It’ll be worth the discussion because cameras truly are fundamental. Your selection can be crucial. In my case, if I hadn’t had a tip from a fan of my book series about The Sony A7sii’s lowlight capability, I might have really struggled to complete the film. Or at the very least wasted a ton of money re-booking the location to do reshoots later on) after I discovered too late that I simply didn’t have the right tool to capture what I wanted. It wasn’t realistic to run out to the store or order the right camera on Amazon because we were in such a remote location. Speaking of which...
Fundamental 2: Location(s)
You’ve got a camera... now you need somewhere to shoot. Believe it or not, a script isn’t even a true fundamental. Sometimes films are improvised, for instance, like the recent Indie success, Paris is Us. But movies always have locations.
This should be obvious, but it’s worth the walkthrough. You have to consider a lot of factors when location scouting and eventually choosing your locations. By the time you’re picking them, I’d strongly suggest having that aforementioned script. However, it doesn’t have to be locked down tight. On Dangerous to Know, for instance, I wrote a full script before I had the cabin location that would become the most important one in the film. An attic in the original script became a basement when it looked like we had our location secured, but after that cabin unexpectedly fell through, we were very fortunate to find another one of equal beauty, and the basement in the script morphed into both a loft and a hayloft.
The above example illustrates that, on a nano or no-budget film, you need to be flexible enough to allow for the environment that you’re able to secure to become part of your story.
Jenny and I did a walkthrough of the cabin (which we simply found on Airbnb, by the way) and captured some film so that we could show it to the actors before we started shooting. I rewrote those large portions of the script to take that new environment into account, and I used it to lock down sequences that I could now visualize in my mind. This is how I began pre-vis, which, for me, is just watching the movie unfold in my imagination. I take into consideration each shot as I tell the story in my mind. That way, by the time I’m filming, I know exactly where to put the camera.
Side note: if you’re not great at visualizing, you need to work on it!
I discovered during the filming process that a lot of people don’t possess the ability to visualize a scene, even if it’s described to them in detail or if they’ve read it in a script. This is really crucial for a director to learn, so make sure you take the time to close your eyes and visualize everything you’re going to shoot beforehand.
I wouldn’t waste too much time storyboarding though... I did that for the first third of the film until I realized that no matter how much I tried to explain a scene to someone, I'd always end up just having to re-explain it when we were about to start filming. I was really happy to abandon having to draw every shot beforehand... time-consuming and way overrated.
Fundamental 3 — Actors
At least in narrative filmmaking, you’re going to need actors. They’re the most expensive part of most studio films and for a good reason! Because their talent is otherworldly, and they’re irreplaceable!
Haha... just kidding.
Actors are human beings, are fallible like us, but they are also really fun (when you choose wisely), and they’re an important part of filmmaking. There are three points I’d like to make here for your “no-budget” film!
First, there are tons of actors in any major city that would pretty much run down their grandmother for a chance to be a lead in an indie film! (I promise, Andrew Robert Wilson did not do this, haha... but would he have, if I asked him to? Hmmm).
Again, just kidding!
Like you, actors just want a chance. It’s incredibly hard for them to breakthrough, as established actors get all the best parts, and there isn’t much an actor can do to prove that they deserve a leading role without some luck being involved.
From a casting agent’s perspective, why take a chance on an actor who doesn’t have a proven track record in television shows or films when there is someone who looks similar, would fit the part, and who they know they can rely on? Studios and production companies want to mitigate risks... and that means odds are not in the favor of actors getting their “big break.”
So even if actors don’t think that your film is going to have much of a chance, they’ll be insanely enthusiastic and optimistic because you’re at least giving them a chance to be on camera lot, doing what they love and proving what they can do. They may be thinking that they can, at the very least, use the footage to score more film roles later on.
You need to exploit that enthusiasm and energy, especially in the early going, because, when the production starts, and you’re working the long hours that it takes to get the shots you need to make the film live up to your high standards, you’re the one who is going to have to fight through the fatigue and keep everyone else’s spirits up.
So let them carry you a little in the early days.
Second, and this one is a doozy, actors may seem incredible to you because you’ve watched them in films and seen only their best takes. They’ve been color graded, their pimples have been digitally eradicated, a great composer has put an astounding score into their scenes, and they’ve been lovingly filmed by a professional cinematographer—no wonder they seem perfect!
But the truth is, when you’re on set and see them performing a dialogue sequence, it really doesn’t look or sound very dazzling. And I’m not talking about my actors.
No, this goes for the biggest names around.
I actually didn’t learn this until I saw some behind the scenes footage from The Social Network. I saw a group of award-winning actors struggling to find their rhythm together in a complex dialogue scene, which I’m sure was filmed at least dozens of times by director, David Fincher.
When I saw that, it made me feel so much more comfortable when I was filming scenes with my own actors. If you don’t believe me, just think about it: can you really not remember a single time that you saw an actor in one film where she was outstanding, but then saw her in another and she looked incredibly awkward? You might have blamed the director in that instance and the reason that your blame went to the director is that you’ve seen the same actor appear extraordinarily talented in another project.
But the above example doesn’t jive with another belief you have probably had; that if you see an unknown in a bad movie, and he or she seems like a bad actor, it's their own fault. If you tell someone about the movie and they ask you what made it terrible, you’ll likely say, among the litany of offenses, that the acting stunk.
And this leaves us with only one, inescapable conclusion: Whether an actor seems good or bad has at least as much to do with the director as with the actor themselves.
Still don’t believe me? Maybe you’ll believe Hitchcock then. Watch this interview clip for a beautiful example of what I mean (but I don’t endorse his “actors should be treated like cattle” mantra—haha, even if it is kinda funny.) The clip starts at the cattle joke, but once he gets serious at about 4:30, it’s truly insightful.
The craft of acting had been demystified for me, and as long as I was getting the shots that I knew I needed, with a take that blew me away from each actor, I knew I was going to be okay because there’s so much you can do to build the performance you want in editing.
And last, and this is one that might be controversial, I highly recommend that you cast yourself in your own film.
I know, I know. If you’re like me, you’re thinking: “That would be so narcissistic and self-serving, and I don’t want to be one of those directors who give themselves cameos, etc etc,” but...
Here’s the thing: If you act in your own movie, which is likely going to have a pretty small cast, you’re going have at least one actor that you absolutely do not have to worry about. He or she will be on time, know their lines, and passionately care about the project itself. Plus, they’ll have unlimited sympathy for the plight of the director. And when you’re a director, having an actor that you trust that is always on set is a godsend.
However, I don’t want to imply that filming with my method is perfect or that I’ve solved every filmmaking problem because I certainly haven’t. My method makes filmmaking accessible, but you still can’t control other people’s behaviors or circumstances. Actors are human beings, and they can suffer from exhaustion, or emotional issues stemming from events in their personal lives. I experienced what it’s like to have to let an actor go, and it’s not fun. In fact, that’s the only reason I cast myself at all—it was to save a shooting block for which we’d paid for the location and scheduled to shoot the part that would ultimately have to be played by me. We couldn’t find another actor who could get to our remote location in time, so I had to take on the part and become an actor to save my own movie.
It turned out to be one of the greatest gifts of fate to happen during the entire production. I truly enjoyed acting—I loved the way it amplified my ability to control another aspect of the storytelling. The story tweaks that were required to explain my age difference from the other actor even led to a far deeper level of the story for me to discover and opened up the world of Dangerous to Know in ways that I couldn’t have expected for the sequels. There was literally no downside!
Fundamental 4 — Sound Design
Sound design is crucial! If you’re using my method, you don’t necessarily have to do everything yourself (even though Jenny and I did) but you do need to become an accredited-level sound designer (and again, Jenny and I did.)
This one is actually pretty cut and dry. We simply took the course included in the Introduction to Fairlight Audio Post with DaVinci Resolve 15 (The Blackmagic Design Learning Series) ebook. If you have DaVinci Resolve (it’s cheap or free if you select a Black Magic camera) then you have access to professional sound design software. If you prefer a different professional software, just find the equivalent course material and then take the course. It’s not easy, but it’s also not rocket science, and after a few days, you’ll already be pretty good.
When Jenny and I did the sound design for Dangerous to Know, all we could think about was sound. You’ll experience the same thing—it’s a beautiful thing, but you’ll have so much sympathy for your sound designer and the plights they go through as they work magic to fix the rough sound. I’m sure they’ll love that you can swap hilarious war stories, like discovering that your actor has a tendency to click their mouth during takes because the saliva pools in the back of their mouth and every time they start a word with the letter ‘S’ it hilariously pops in a way that really catches the microphone but wasn’t that noticeable in real life.
That’s a true story, by the way. It took several days to fix that. The joy.
One area we didn’t compromise on was our main recording microphone. We bought the Sennheiser MKH416 Shotgun Mic. It’s industry standard, and I didn’t want to take chances. Remember, bad sound design could bring down what otherwise would have been a great film.
If you use lavalier mics, make sure you check to see if they’re visible on camera under the actor’s clothing. Bulges under an actor’s shirt, for instance, can be a real headache in post if you try to digitally remove them.
We redid the majority of our dialogue in ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement) in the second bedroom of our apartment. We had some sound-dampening foam on the walls, had the actors watch their performance, then had them match their lip movements as they slightly modified their pitch so that we could build the perfect performance.
Jenny and I rebuilt most of the sound in the movie, actually, which is an enormous amount of work. It’s not necessary for most productions, as you can record on-the-day sound that can be cleaned up and would suffice. I wanted the sound design to be as incredible as possible, and I am proud to say that the 5.1 Dolby Surround that the movie will be delivered in, is truly excellent.
You can achieve this too. And it's worth it.
Fundamental 5 — Music
If you read the first article, you already know the story behind the composition of our musical score. It’s pretty trippy.
This is the one fundamental that I’m not sure everyone can do. Full disclosure: I’m a bit of a freak.
Other than being in my school choir in the first grade, I really had no musical experience, so the fact that I could immediately play music on a keyboard is surprising to me.
What wasn’t surprising was that the technology to do what I did was all there. I knew the music composition software had to be pretty incredible, and I was delighted by what I found when I dove into it.
I’ll go into this in further detail in a YouTube video that will be specifically about the music.
But for now, here is what I can share with you.
The keyboard I used was in the Logic Remote app on my iPad Pro, which was wirelessly connected to my iMac. I composed everything in Logic Pro X, and used a number of plugins. I literally had no limit to what I could do, and that’s reflected in the musical score. I could achieve cinematic, orchestral music, tuning each instrument in an orchestra I could build.
But there’s also gritty industrial, slick neon synth, or dark, layered, moody underscore, and I could even place my music in 3D space, moving it to highlight a theme or create a sensation. One example that people will need to see it in a theater to experience, is a scene in which the music is actually the sound of a recording of a merry-go-round that is detuned until it sounds like a jet engine from hell, and then I literally span the music around the audience, so that it gives the sensation of spinning, leaving the viewer feeling exactly like the characters in the scene.
All of this requires a deeper dive, which I'll get up one day!
I’ve been receiving a lot of questions about the budget, so I know this is an area of intense interest, and that a lot of filmmakers want to know if what I’ve done is truly accessible to them.
That was my oversight. I assumed the explanation of which equipment I used would make the budget range obvious, but a fair amount of readers seemed to get caught up on my history as a best-selling author and made some assumptions that I must’ve, therefore, hired more help, or paid some vast sum somewhere to make this possible, etc.
I’m here to set your mind at ease. I really did hold the camera and shoot every shot in the movie in which I wasn’t the one on screen. My wife was responsible for shooting everything in which I was on screen unless it was a tripod set up. There were no secret professional cinematographers, and I truly take it as a huge compliment that anyone could even think so. It’s really flattering.
As for my income, being a bestseller is different since the Kindle came along. I’ve had great months and months where I made way less than someone working minimum wage. And I mean way less! Over the last two years, I haven’t cracked $1k a month in income, and I’m not kidding. Most of those months, I didn’t even crack $500.
The only time I ever had money was, briefly, after I paid off my student loan and could save a bit from my ebooks. I sell my ebooks typically for $2.99 to stay competitive and get about $2 for a sale. So yes, over the 8 years since I first became a bestseller, I’ve sold somewhere in the neighborhood of a million copies, though a huge sum of those came during 99 cent bargain days, in which case I only receive 35 cents per copy.
I can’t complain. I’ve met so many incredible people, had phenomenal experiences, but I’ve never had $100K in my bank account, and I had nowhere near that much when I started filming.
It was terrifying for me, because, at the time, our book sales were really up and down. Sometimes they’d be up because we’d had a great promotion on a site, and we became more visible on the “popularity” algorithm on Amazon. But the popularity always fades quickly, and you have to plan your next promotion fast. There’s no safety net on Amazon—if you drop off the front two pages (the top 24 books in sci-fi out of the more than 50,000 in the category) you can’t make a livable income. I’m incredibly lucky and grateful to my fans that kept me there so long.
I had a huge stroke of luck in June of 2016 because Kindle made a change to their store that allowed people with their “unlimited” subscription to read books for free, but authors were paid by page read (part of why we can’t answer the question of how many books we’ve sold anymore). It nearly doubled the income of any books that made themselves eligible for the program, and ours were, so the down months weren’t quite as bad, and the good months were twice as good. It gave us the breathing room we needed to not be stressed about money during the rest of the filming of the movie, but the tap ran dry several months later, and we’ve been living off solely that saving ever since.
You see because the movie took 3.5 years to make, I haven’t been able to complete a new book or books to stay current on the bestseller’s list. I hope to return there soon, as I was writing during all of this and have a book that’s very near completion, but I am totally tapped out. My last credit card is almost tapped out. Just like it says in my Kickstarter pitch video and in its description, everything I had gone into the movie, and then into living during the three years of post-production.
So what’s the budget?
Those numbers are usually different, depending on what you include in it, and marketing departments usually stretch the truth pretty far to find a way to grab headlines. Whether it is to show how remarkably low or high a budget is. Whatever they think will sell the movie.
In my case, if I really strip it down to the fundamentals of what I needed to make the movie, and all these numbers are in Canadian dollars, which are about 75 cents compared to an American Dollar. I would include the cost of the actors (only $100 per day) the cost of the locations, (never more than $245), the cost of the cameras we used, minus the cost recouped when we sold them afterward, the cost of the lenses, the microphone, the drone (a DJI Phantom 4, if you’re wondering) the singlet stabilizers, minus the cost of the ones we sold afterward, the rental of a few cars, and that’s really it.
It all comes out to about $20k, which converts down to about $15.5k USD.
Equipment cost shouldn’t be an impediment if you’re willing to save a bit, use a credit card, or get a bit of help from a friend or a relative. If you’re like me and you need to do it all on your own, just make your own personal budget and plan out how long it will take to save that money.
When I signed on my lead actors, they both told me right after I offered them the $100 per day, that they would’ve done it for free! That said, I’m still glad I paid them, but you can offer actors a percentage of what you’ll receive from the film’s distribution or from a distributor. I did that too. They might be happier to take that if you simply do not have any money to pay them during filming. Just make sure you treat them amazingly and feed them. They’ll probably become some of your best friends, as mine certainly have.
You can, however, also make the argument that the simple cost of living for me during the post-production should all go towards the budget. So my rent, everything I bought, including everything I ate, all of it.
In that case, it’d be about $150K, which converts to about $115K USD.
Of course, the latter methodology seems a little extreme, but you can decide based on your own situation, which analogy makes the most sense to you as you move forward with the plans for your own feature.
You can make your own feature film.
The cameras I used are no longer currently the top of the line, but they were at the time and they did the job beautifully for me. So if you can’t afford the latest and greatest, look into used offers.
Even the new iPhone 11 Pro looks to have incredible stabilization and some insane color and white balance abilities... so a stabilizer isn’t really necessary. I haven’t used it yet myself. But I’ve seen reviews, and it looks promising. I really believe it will be possible to build up a phone in the near future, with some nice mobile size lenses and an accessory that will allow you to record in ProRes, to be a pretty decent film camera (but they need to make a great lowlight sensor... I hope Apple is working on that.)
You can always sell the equipment after you’ve used it, as I did. I’ve only kept the equipment that I absolutely need for filmmaking, and don’t keep B cameras or stabilizers if I know I can’t possibly use them. I usually manage to get 80% of the cost back when I sell, and it sure takes the sting out of upgrading or temporarily owning something that you know can make your movie better.
The hardware and software is already so much better than it was for me in the spring of 2016 when I started this insane odyssey. That won’t make it easy for you, but it’ll make it easier, faster, cheaper, and, most importantly of all: accessible.
If you have more questions, subscribe to my YouTube channel and hit me up. I’d love to make more videos about all of this!
And remember! My All or Nothing Kickstarter for Dangerous to Know ends on January 14th at 4:30PM PST! Check out the rewards, grab one if you like one!
And then, after you’ve made your film, sometime down the line, when it all works out and you're more established in the industry, be sure to pay it forward...