Monday, April 12, 2010
Making A (Science Fiction) Movie On A Shoestring: Where Can You Cut Corners?
I've had lots of occasion to grapple with these questions during my time in film school, and I've learned the hard way that the less money you have to spend, the harder you have to work to make it effective. The mantra you should be thinking about is, "You get what you pay for."
Where to spend:
Director of Photography:
If you're a beginning filmmaker, chances are you don't have as firm a grasp on cinematography as you would want. I'm not saying that to be dismissive or rude, I'm saying that as a compliment to talented cinematographers, because it's a very specific skill set. A good DP will come to your project with a willingness to help you execute your vision, but also a viewpoint of their own, so they'll be able to make suggestions you might not have thought of to bring out the story better.
Yes, you can use a student DP and I know three amazingly talented student DPs that I would hire in a heartbeat for any project, no questions asked. But this is a place where using someone with great experience and knowledge will elevate your film and educate you as a filmmaker. Total win-win situation.
You want to use the best camera you can afford. Yes, your story is the most important thing. Yes, the crew and the talent you bring together to bring that story to life are extremely important.
But don't cheap out on the camera in favor of any item on the "save" list. Because the better camera you have, the better the picture will look with the poor lighting you're probably going to be working with, and the less the audience will have to strain to suspend its disbelief.
It's not a perfect world. Audiences only have so much tolerance for grainy, ill-defined images, even if there's a great script. Film is a visual medium. Make sure your visuals are as top notch as they can be.
And some people disagree with me here, but if you have the cash to spend, there's still nothing that quite beats the look of real film, except perhaps the Red . Digital is good, and it has its own look to it. So really think about that choice and what look is best for your story.
You might have some issues with George Lucas these days, but his insistence that sound is a fundamental part of the filmmaking experience is absolutely right. So please take this from somebody who has learned the hard way time and time again: get good sound equipment and somebody who knows how to use it. Or, get a good sound mixer/recordist and ask them what they'll need to supplement their own equipment.
Your script can be amazing, but if nobody can hear it, it doesn't matter. Sound is not as easy as you think. A good sound person is like a good DP — they'll elevate your project and help you learn how to make your own vision even better.
Somebody on Twitter asked me the other day how important a script supervisor was to a low-budget indie project. Now, as a script supervisor, I'm obviously biased, but as I told them, it's MORE important the lower your budget and the more your constraints. The less budget you have, the more prone you are to cut corners and the likelier you are to have mistakes creep in. The more disorganized you get, the more hurried you become. Your script supervisor's job is more than just maintaining continuity (thought that's a large part of it) but also to help you make sure you've shot everything you want to get, that there are plenty of accurate script notes for the editor, that everything will cut together properly in the end... the list goes on and on.
To learn more about what a script/continuity supervisor does, "That Continuity Guy" has a wonderful section called Continuity 101.
Even if you find somebody willing to work for free or a very low rate, you should be willing to pay a "kit rental" fee to help them offset the cost of their consumables (binders, paper, pencils, etc) and the tools they provide to do their job (digital cameras, printers, laptops, scanners, etc.)
In one of my first film classes, a working professional came in to give a talk to the class. He told us that there was one golden rule of filmmaking, never to be broken:
Always feed your crew.
I'm going to say it one more time so you realize how important this is:
ALWAYS feed your crew.
Film sets are strenuous places, and the people who are working for you are working hard and doing it all for the glory of the director's vision, maybe it's because they believe in the project, or maybe they just need the work. But no matter what, they deserve to eat.
If you're shooting in the morning, have coffee (and maybe juice for people like me who don't drink coffee). Have lots of water available, because it gets really hot under the lights and because you don't want people dehydrated and sick. Have snacks for people to munch on.
But the big thing: if you're shooting for more than a couple hours, have a meal. If you're shooting for more than twelve hours, have two meals. Ordering up enough pizzas to feed everyone is perfectly acceptable, that's pretty much the standard on student shoots. But feed your crew. If you don't, it is a one way ticket to grumpy workers, sluggish movement, and bad performances. The simple act of making sure people have food will work wonders, and let you get away with low, low budgets on everything else including their paychecks.
On the bubble:
If you're shooting mostly outdoors, you can probably get by with very minimal lighting equipment just to diffuse or bounce the sunlight the way you want it.
If you're shooting inside, you might be able to get by with lamps and the lights in the space. But you probably will need at least one lighting kit. Lighting is so key that it's hard for me to say you don't need much of it, but a good DP will be able to help you find ways to light your scene without costing you a fortune. This is a case where the amount you'll need to spend on lights is directly related to how good your DP and your camera are.
Having a professional take care of your color correction and sound mix are just good ideas. You can learn it and do it yourself in a pinch — most people I know do. But in the end, there's just no substitute for somebody who has real talent and skill making sure your final visual and sound are downright perfect. Sometimes, you can enter contests and festivals with your almost-finished film where you can win money specifically for these finishing tasks.
Where to save:
I should probably duck and hide on this one. But there are just so many wonderful, talented actors out there that are looking for experience and as long as you feed them (see above) they'll come out and give you a damn good performance. Put out a casting call and you'll be surprised at what you get. I'm talking professionals, too — not just casting your friends in the part because they'll do it for free.
I'm putting this at the top of the list though because if you can afford to pay your actors, you really should. They're bringing your vision to life, and they're the public face of your story. But there are a lot of actors just looking for good stories to perform, and if you treat them well they'll give you something amazing.
You can find a lot of locations that are happy to let you film just so they can get their logo in the film, or see their name in the credits. Think about how to dress spaces to make them look different from what they are if you need to. (Try to avoid having your starship's engineering room look like a beer brewery, for example.) But feel free to make your friend's apartment look like three different houses with careful camera angles and decoration.
Your local film office might have a directory on their webpage of locations that are willing to let film crews in, though some of them might have a rental fee. But if you explain your project and they like it, they might be willing to work that out as well. Think about what you can offer the place in exchange. But make absolutely sure that no matter where you go or how much you paid them that you treat the place with respect and restore it to 100% when you're done. If you damage it, offer to fix it or pay for the repair. If you spill something, clean it up.
You can practically throw a rock and hit somebody that will be a production assistant. Don't get me wrong, a good PA is worth their weight in gold, but at the same time, a lot of people are just looking to get credits to their name and get some experience. If you just need somebody to fetch coffee and empty trash cans, get one of your friends to help. If you want somebody that is working with the camera crew, see if your local university has a film program and ask them how to post a listing to their students. My school has a listserv where volunteer jobs are posted all the time.
If you hire a good DP and sound mixer, then they might be able to help you fill out your crew with students from local film programs, or other locals that aren't as expensive because they're just getting started. I hate to say it, but media jobs are scarce right now so posting on Craigslist should get you plenty of responses from people who want the work to keep their skills sharp. Just be aware that the more inexperienced your crew, the longer your shoot is going to take, and the more of an ordeal it is going to be. Your camera crew especially shouldn't be all newbies, because the DP doesn't have time to explain what a c-stand is (if you can afford c-stands).
Like other jobs on the list, you can probably find somebody who is looking to start in the business and is willing to work for cheap on Craigslist or the like. But it's in your best interest to make sure you have at least somebody on the set to help the actors not just look their best, but look like normal human beings. Cameras have a way of making normal, healthy skin look weird in one way or another. Like script supervisors, it's polite to pay for their consumables and kits.
Special effects makeup is trickier. You can do a surprising amount of stuff yourself if you study up, or get somebody vaguely knowledgeable. But the materials are more expensive, and unless you intentionally want it to look bad (which is a valid style) it might be best to get somebody with experience.
When you're hiring your actors, ask if they would mind wearing their own clothes for your shoot. Depending on the style of the project or the style of the character, that might not be possible, but for most things it's pretty easy. But always ask politely, and if they don't want to, respect their wishes.
BUT, if you do use their stuff, make sure that you take care of their clothing and reimburse them for any and all damage that happens during the course of the shoot .
If you're doing something that requires a particular style of costume or period, there are a lot of ways to borrow things. Maybe a local shop or clothing designer is looking for some advertisement (seriously, offering ads and exposure is always good). Ask local theatres and university performing arts departments if they might be willing to loan costumes.
You'd be amazed the weird and fun things your friends might have in their basements and garages. For a one-act play I directed, it called for all kinds of weird props like a steering wheel, a huge empty picture frame, a nightstick, and a head of lettuce. The only thing I didn't find in my parent's basement was the head of lettuce.
While you might want to avoid a situation where you use a razor as a communicator, at the same time props can be almost anything if you paint them or change them properly. I know you've probably sat and watched sci-fi series and movies and tried to figure out what some of their props actually were, so apply that kind of thinking. If you need help coming up with ways to create props cheaply and well, make friends with some cosplayers. They also could help on the costuming end of things.
Editing software is another case of "you get what you pay for." If you really want to edit like the pros and do the absolute best post-production job that you can do, you want Avid Media Composer. Only slightly behind is Final Cut Pro. As much as people love to praise it for being such a cheap option, it still has a very hefty price tag (especially if you don't own a Mac and have to buy one of those). But in the end, if you're editing this piece yourself, you might not even know how to use the best features on those programs anyway, so why pay for them if you aren't going to use them?
There are several cheaper options, like Pinnacle Studio, which I haven't used myself, but I've used a similar product by the same company and liked it. Lifehacker has a rundown of some of the options that are out there.
But I'll tell you right now, that you shouldn't use Windows Movie Maker. When it comes to real editing, it's junk. You can string together your home movies using it, sure. But film editing? Never. Most people with any experience editing feel similarly about iMovie, but it does the job, just not in a very pleasing way once you're used to real programs like FCP and Avid.
There are a lot of local bands and musicians online that will work for free just for the exposure. It's a marketing tool for them, and you just have to dig and find them. There's also some surprisingly good music for low prices on sites like iStock. But don't use copyrighted music if you can help it, because its way more trouble than its worth and it means that you'll be in trouble if you want to submit your film to festivals or charge at screenings. Even YouTube could take it down if you use music without permission. It's dumb to risk it if you don't have to.
And last word of advice: please be prepared for your budget to disappear when you're not looking. Even the most well intentioned people end up spending money in places they never expected. So maybe you should only max out one credit card, so you have another to buy last minute props and set dressing.