HOW TO BECOME A FILMMAKER WITHOUT HAVING A TRUST FUND
By Doug Morris
“The hardest thing about working with
super low budgets is having to wear multiple hats:
Shooting, producing, gaffing, craft services.
Hats off to you if you can do it.”
– Ricky Bird
LET’S START WITH A COUPLE OF QUESTIONS:
1. WHICH COMES FIRST, YOUR FUNDING OR YOUR VISION?
2. AND WHAT STORY DO YOU REALLY NEED TO TELL?
Making a decent film requires the filmmaker to function at the highest artistic and creative levels, whether it’s as the scriptwriter, director, camera operator, gaffer, editor, or all of the above: A filmmaker may even end up performing as an actor in his or her own production!
However, if you are that filmmaker, the buck stops with you – and it can’t start up again without a really good script, without a compelling story that engages your viewer with an over arching vision to help them understand and believe wherever it is you want to take them, no matter how fantastic the trip.
As is often said about scripts: “If it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage.”
Your story is the primary wedge into the viewer’s psyche so it’s something worth defending at all costs. After all, your story is the only reason anybody would want to spend time watching whatever it is you’ve got to say, be it a film, a non-profit or corporate video, a TV series, even a: 30 TV spot. They all share similar production elements and processes – so let’s just refer to them all as “films” and leave it at that.
A great place to begin to better your scriptwriting efforts might be to pick up your own copy of Robert McKee’s highly regarded book on writing screenplays:
“In STORY, McKee expands on the concepts
he teaches in his legendary 3-day seminars —
considered a rite of passage for writers —
providing readers with the most comprehensive,
integrated explanation of the craft of writing
for the page, stage, and screen.”
And as Geoffrey Rush, Oscar-winning actor of; “Shine;” “Pirates of the Caribbean;” and “The King’s Speech” said of the book, “McKee gives the writer a very liberating set of guidelines.”
Whether or not you choose to read McKee’s or any book on screenwriting, don’t forget that your story is the only reason anybody will be watching.
“My low-budget films, more than anything, taught me that
you’ve got to create cool, likable characters and great stories because,
if you don’t, it doesn’t matter how cool it might look –
no one is going to care about it.”
– James Wan
THE BUDGET & YOUR PRODUCTION FOOTPRINT
While your story may be the binding agent in the filmmaker/viewer relationship, business economics are hard-nosed realities and the pixels won’t budge without a budget. Please keep in mind this is not a tutorial on budgeting but rather a handful of observations and links to some production resources.
But if there’s one thing a tight budget does affect it’s going to be your crew size. And that’s not just a term limited to the number of crewmembers on set, times the number of production days each will be needed. Your budget must also cover the entire pre-pro, casting, wardrobe, locations, music licensing, camera rentals, craft services, out-the-door editorial and film distribution costs, as well.
Before you even think of making a film you need to know how to create and stick with a budget. And while there are many film budgeting software programs available for purchase, (Movie Magic Budgeting, Showbiz Budgeting, and EP Budgeting,) you can start for free with a common sense approach provided by StudioBinder.
Take a look at their Table of Contents and see if their film budget breakdown might work for you.
- Phases of the Budget
- Film Budget Breakdowns
- Film Budget Accounts
- Budget and Prep Days
- Kit Fees
- Overtime Costs
- Allow for Pick-Up Days
- Have a Contingency Plan
- Budget for Loss and Damages
- Production Insurance
- Errors and Omissions
- Using Film Budget Software
- Sample Film Budgets
- Adjust for Reality
You can learn more about their template at the StudioBinder website:
With the combined cost of pre-pro, production and editorial, a lot of money can be absorbed by a production. And please remember, everyone on your payroll must be accounted for and contracted fairly when you plan and budget your film. Stiffing people who’ve faithfully served your production is strictly taboo! Don’t ever do it.
As you can see, there’s a lot to consider once you put on your producer hat and start calculating the time and expense of every aspect of your film’s production. You’ll need to learn budgeting however because, unless you do have a trust fund and can afford to hire an experienced film producer, that’s your only way forward.
DOCUMENTARY: THE POOR STEPCHILD OF FILM
Producing a compelling documentary can be as wonderful and as rewarding an experience as any. And while they are certainly among the most important, documentaries are also often the most underfunded productions in the film industry.
The key to making successful documentaries is to embrace only those projects you can commit yourself to seeing through in spite of your budget limitations.
Obviously you must scale your labor of love to whatever amount of money you have to spend but in most cases, with super low budgets, it becomes important, even critical, that you use your noggin and think creatively to get more bangs for your bucks.
An example: While Katherine Bigelow was a film student she may have had a promising future but at the time she had few if any resources: And before she became lauded for her three dark feature films, “Strange Days” (1996,) “The Hurt Locker” (2009,) and “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012,) Bigelow created her first short film.
In Bigelow’s student film, “The Set Up” (1978,) two men, apparently one of them played by a young Gary Busey, fight each other viciously in a dark alley while two philosophers, Sylvère Lotringer and Marshall Blonsky, attempt to psychoanalyze and deconstruct the on-screen violence in a calm and rational voice-over.
While Bigalow still refuses to allow her student film to be released, a few years ago she spoke on a major theme of “The Set Up”:
“The piece ends with Sylvère talking about the fact that in the 1960s
you think of the enemy as outside yourself, in other words, a police officer,
the government, the system, but that’s not really the case at all,
fascism is very insidious, we reproduce it all the time.”
– Katherine Bigalow
Bigelow’s lack of production dollars was greatly offset by a highly conceptual narrative that resulted in her film being more than simply the sum of its parts.
And as a bonus, through the concept she created with its emphasis on violence, masculinity, and men expressing their physical dominance over one another, we can glean a preview of the major themes of Bigelow’s future films and a lesson in using one’s imagination to juxtapose dissimilar elements to make something entirely new and original. You don’t even need to see the film to understand the power of her idea.
Check out Bigalow as she offers some useful advice to filmmakers just starting out.
SHOOTING TV COMMERCIALS IN AD LAND
Unlike documentaries, TV advertising is often viewed as crass and overly commercial and by comparison it very often is. That said, producing TV commercials for clients and for advertising agencies could be, in many cases, a lot more lucrative than making documentaries.
Not only is the client under contract from the beginning of pre-production right through to the final cut, and you always get half of your money up front, right? There should be no negotiation on those two points. The consequences of beginning a commercial production without a signed contract and a 50% deposit can be disastrous. So, no exceptions, ever!
But regardless of how lucrative they may be, producing and directing TV advertising can be a mixed blessing. Those bigger budgets often come with a lot more strings attached. Think about it for a moment, the more a corporation’s money and reputation are on the line, the more management types you’ll find representing the client’s and the agency’s interests on set.
Oh, you can try to keep the clients entertained with a fully-stocked craft services table staffed by a couple of chatty PAs so your clients can sit around video village all day staring at their phones. That’s absolutely the best of all worlds!
But there can also be a down side to video village: It can also be a place of political intrigue, where your clients can huddle for days watching the monitor like hawks, each with the expressed purpose of finding things to prove to their bosses that they’re paying close attention looking for mistakes. Think that’s a joke?
Oftentimes these kinds of actions are carried out within earshot of their high-level corporate masters so be advised, “clients” at various levels of their corporate culture can come at you from multiple directions simultaneously: Sometimes even with conflicting direction. Yikes!
If this happens, you could find yourself on the spot to “decide” between your clients’ differing corporate visions for the production. This is a nightmare scenario and one that must be avoided if at all possible.
“But how?” You may ask. It’s simpler than you might think. If you properly covered your bases and made clear your directorial vision of the advertising campaign back when you all met in your pre-production meeting, you should be home free.
In your pre-pro you would have presented your clients, and received their approval for; your locations; casting recommendations; wardrobe; final scripts; and last but not least, your storyboards. By approving and signing off on all of your recommendations, the client foregoes any further changes or revisions.
However, if a client has a sense that they can run over you and make changes with impunity, you’ll be on that proverbial slippery slope where you could find yourself in a situation where the clients are even changing their own changes!
If that happens, you’ll be on the path to losing money before you can even start.
And last but not least, when the client or agency representative signed the contract you should have made quite clear that the budget’s bottom line was only an estimate. Right? And that any further deliverable that was not covered in the approved script and storyboard cannot be included in the production budget.
Anything added in after-the-fact, which causes your crew to spend overtime, must involve a corresponding adjustment to your fees: Those revisions to the original signed estimate are called change orders. Again, no exceptions.
Be on high alert, especially if the client throws out suggestions like “just shoot it both ways” or any idea that would result in you having to lay out more money or for your crew to spend more hours than was originally budgeted.
Your key to a smooth sail when dealing with an advertising agency client is to have all of your ducks in a row: Only then do you stand a better-than-average chance of prevailing if your vision is ever put on the spot.
A STORYBOARD SAVED MY BABY
During the Renaissance, a painting studio would have been staffed with a number of apprentice artists working under an Old Master, each performing a different task based on their demonstrated skills at performing those tasks.
Long before the final application of oil and pigment could take place, an apprentice artist would have sketched out preparatory under drawings for the painting artists to use as guides. These large, mural sized sketches were called cartoons. Don’t laugh, believe it or not that’s where we get the term we use today.
Similarly, we can think of storyboards serving metaphorically as the under drawings of a film, with the director and DP who actually shoot the film, representing the Old Master applying the colorful layers of paint and texture that provide the finished painting with its final look.
In case you haven’t seen or worked with a storyboard yet, it’s an illustrated, pre-visualization guide much like a comic strip: A hand drawn version of the film showing its many scenes and sequences. It serves as a common vision for all stakeholders in the production process so everyone can be on the same page and at one with the director’s vision.
Providing storyboards is an effective way for the client, producer, director and the rest of the production team to communicate on set. It’s also another tool to help a producer plan and budget his or her production.
Note that there are different storyboard styles, each with its own purpose.
For example, if you’re boarding for a film where your only audience is the director, the DP and your production crews – who will use the storyboard as a guide to the filmmaking process – you are free to create a loose, sketchy style of storyboard, showing only character, expression, action and motion in an annotated style with little in the way of embellishment or detail.
“The only parameters are their imaginations.
It’s my job to get what’s inside the director’s head onto the paper.
It’s not my job to create the shots.
It’s my job to interpret their language into a visual language.
So that when everyone walks on the set they’re making the same movie.
They’re not all ‘imagining’ what’s going on.”
– J. Todd Anderson
Conversely, if the target of your storyboard is an advertising agency and/or its client, and the goal is to sell a concept or idea to secure production funding, the storyboards should probably have a more finished and polished sheen.
In such cases, style boards, color palettes and competent draughtsmanship matter more than screen action and camera directions. The more professional the storyboard looks the better as it will be seen as mirroring the presentation standards of the advertising industry and the corporate world in general.
A professionally rendered storyboard can also telegraph the level of final production value that your clients may be anticipating.
While storyboarding a documentary is often an unnecessary step, especially since it can add a burden to an already challenged production budget, storyboards are invaluable tools when it comes to producing commercials, films, animations, action sequences and special effects productions.
J. Todd Anderson has created storyboards for many different film directors over the years, however he is best known for having created most of the storyboards for the Coen Brothers’ films including “No Country For Old Men” (2007.)
Creating a storyboard for a full-length feature film can take an Anderson a month or two but these are not simply static images. Good storyboard sketches for filmmaking have their own visual language and style relating to action and the movement of objects, characters and the camera. Regarding certain types of motions Anderson explains one aspect of his approach:
“Anything or anyone coming in or out of a frame
is usually done with a black arrow:
That way you know instantly that it’s ‘an action.’
Any scene with a big, white arrow is generally
‘the movement of the camera.’”
J. Todd Anderson
You can watch as J. Todd Anderson presents a storyboard to a BBC camera crew while simultaneously sketching the scenes. In the video, he is filmed storyboarding his own arrival for the interview and making suggestions such as camera angles and sound effect notes on the side.
6-MINUTE SPEED COURSE STORYBOARDING –
WITH COEN BROTHERS’ ARTIST J. TODD ANDERSON
But the Coen Brothers are far from alone in their use of storyboards. In order to get his vision across to his collaborators, Stanley Kubrick made small, thumbnail sketches to illustrate his ideas. In most cases he would get these converted into more comprehensive storyboards, especially for special effects heavy productions such as “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968.) In some cases, Kubrick would draw directly onto photographs.
Alfred Hitchcock was famous in his younger days for rendering his own, detailed storyboards with notes for his camera operators. Later in life Hitch hired professional illustrators to create his storyboards, which remained essential production tools throughout his long storytelling career.
On the other hand, Francis Ford Coppola created his own unique pre-visualization method for keeping his production tracking with the original vision for the film.
Prior to filming “The Godfather” (1972,) Coppola had the entire Mario Puzo book disassembled, then reassembled into a new form where each of the novel’s individual pages was centered into a large, white matte board cut out so that the pages could be read from both sides, exactly like the pages of the book, but with much wider margins.
On the broad margins of each panel, which Coppola attempted to film in sequence as much as possible, he made his own production notes and sketches that referenced Puzo’s words in the center field of every page. That approach bound Coppola’s production to Puzo’s novel and served as his touchstone keeping it faithful to the original material throughout production.
Whatever approach you choose, the more time and energy you can spend planning and avoiding potential production pitfalls by investing in budgeting templates and pre-visualization techniques the better your outcomes will be.
We’ll close with a couple of sage thoughts from one of our greatest film directors on the value of being prepared.
“If you can develop a kind of
generalized approach to problem solving,
it’s surprising how it helps you in anything.”
“By being prepared you can save time, money
and your reputation while filming.”
All the best to you in your future film endeavors!