Category Archives: Micro budget

My Chat with a Lo-Fi-Sci-Fi Duo

Ghosts with Shit Jobs movie poster

During the shoot, I had one free day so while the rest of the team worked hard on set I took the opportunity to interview the people behind the lo-fi-sci-fi film Ghosts With Shit Jobs. I was really excited to meet these guys because a) they’re also from Toronto, and b) I had seen what they did with a $4,000 feature production budget and a huge amount of passion.

I met with Jim Munroe and Anthony Cortese who make up part of their production company No Media Kings. Jim, an avocate for DIY media and a well published sci-fi novelist, is behind the film’s concept and script. Anthony is a producer on the film and the long-time partner of Jim. They both took part in the film’s direction as it has several storylines directed by different people.

Jim and Anthony have worked on several short films together and one feature film in 2007 called Infest Wisely, which was made with a mere $700 production budget, but none have seen the response that Ghosts with Shit Jobs generated.

Here’s the synopsis of Ghosts With Shit Jobs:
“The film is set in the future, jobs still suck — but in whole new ways. By 2040, the economy has flipped and North Americans are a cheap labor pool for wealthy Asian markets. A Chinese documentary show focuses on the “ghosts” (Cantonese slang for white people) unlucky enough to have been born into the slums of Toronto in a special report that translates as “Ghosts With Shit Jobs.”

The film follows the story of several relatable characters; including a baby-robot-making couple and two brothers with family issues looking for rare giant mutant spider silk. It’s a non-traditional sci-fi in the very best of ways. See the trailer HERE.

The film premiered in Toronto to a packed house at the Royal Cinema and is making its way across the globe in various festivals and invited screenings, including Berlin, London, Poland and at MIT in Boston. It should also be noted that the film won the “Best Feature Award” from the SCI-FI-LONDON Film Festival. The Grid wrote an article on the movie with Jim’s tips on low-budget filmmaking, and as Jim explains, “…the writer really got the spirit of the thing, with phrases like ‘happiness is the only real currency exchanged on an all-volunteer set.'” Volunteer indeed. This feature was made on a mere $4,000 production budget. When I asked if that was the planned budget from day one, Jim answered, “Well, the goal was to spend nothing.”

They got permits and insurance on the city locations as there are many recognizable scenes in downtown Toronto, including Young-Dundas Square, but all the other locations are favours from friends of the director/producers. The actors were auditioned, but the crew was volunteer. Jim preferred that if some crew were working for free, then everyone needs to work for free. This ensured there was no resentment, but rather a unifying love for the project. Of course he would prefer to be able to pay all involved, but he claims that the best part of making this film was the collaboration of the whole cast and crew; the magic that is created when people with no ego and solid focus come together to tell a story.

When asked what’s next, Anthony said he’s nudging Jim to get another project brewing (Jim is the writer and idea generator). I found out that Jim prefers to work a feature with a clear beginning and end rather than a never-ending web-series, and the genre of his next film won’t be too far off from his six published books and two feature films already under his belt. They are committed to unifying the film community by collaborating with other likeminded filmmakers (like us at Dangerous Dust Productions) and screening other filmmakers’ shorts before their films. In fact, exciting news is that they are planning a 48 Hour Film Festival August 17 – 19, 2012!

As an actor, I can only hope that people like Jim and Anthony will continue to make these fascinating projects a reality, and that these lo-fi-sci-fi films will continue to grow in popularity, not only on the web, but perhaps even in the “not-so-mainstream.”

Take a look if you’d like to find out more about Ghosts With Shit Jobs:
Ghosts With Shit Jobs production blog

The Little Movie about the Movie:

— Freya

(Image)

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Filed under Great directors, Micro budget, Science Fiction

Watching Our Footage PLUS An Out Take

Watching footage to “check the gate” and make sure we got the shot.

Photo by SHARON MENDONCA

Kathryn and I began the process last night of systematically watching our dailies – all the footage shot on any given day – to decide which takes were the strongest (or, sometimes, which parts of particular takes were strongest so that we can combine them as cut between different angles). It had been just over a week and, to be honest, I was glad to have the distance before trying to approach the footage with a critical eye – distance gives you… distance. I was also dreading it. I mean, what if it sucked? What if we didn’t get the performances we want/need to make a good film? What if…what if… You get the picture.

Not to worry, dear reader, the footage looked better than I could have hoped for. I mean, it has been compressed into low res files to upload it to our Vimeo account (god love the interweb) so that we could share the dailies with Greg Ng, our editor in Richmond, BC. As a result the edges were fuzzy and there are lots of jpeg artefacts that are unpleasant to watch. But the composition, lighting and focus were quite lovely. I’m going to start asking for a commission for all the free advertising that I’m giving to Alex Lisman, our Director of Photography, but he’s done some lovely work with very limited resources and he did it from day one.

And it’s the first day’s shooting so we only saw Manuel Rodriguez-Saenz, our lead, and Dalal Badr, who plays his dearly departed wife. As we watched we were reminded that the first shot on the first day was a scene with them dancing in their living room with Viviana (Dalal’s character) singing a nursery rhyme/love song to Santiago (Manuel’s character). They had met perhaps 20 minutes before shooting this scene, in the context of the furnace room, I mean, dressing room in the basement of our location. They immediately were able to generate romantic sparks somehow. In the middle of the song they began to kiss and you could feel the passion between them. It was as though we were ghosts who they couldn’t see. Such good acting is always a miracle to me. It was also funny to watch because Kathryn and I had just finished watching Almodóvar’s sci-fi melodrama from last year The Skin I Wear with Antonio Banderas. ABNY has a certain kinship to that film in terms of a number of scientific themes, though our film is a comedy, which is why we wanted to watch it. Well, other than the fact that Almodóvar is a brilliant filmmaker. After watching the film itself (a weird and wonderful journey into Almodóvar’s obsessions) we watched the special features that had behind the scenes footage of the film being shot, of Almodóvar working with the cast, etc. He, of course, is a genius and a veteran filmmaker, but I think we felt a connection to his process, seeing those scenes being shot, though I was a bit surprised at how detailed was his work with the actors. He said the lines with them, directing them as to specifically how he wanted them delivered (of course, these are excerpts and those moments may have been the exception – but I have heard he likes to shape, at that level of detail, the performances of the actors). Our attitude, after blocking for camera, etc. was to let the actors follow their instincts and perform it how they had interpreted it – unless they had questions – and then refine and clarify where necessary and request variety in performance whenever there was time. Perhaps we’re too anarchist but I think that we felt that people are professionals – not just the actors, the other departments too – they need to be allowed to do their job and discover new possibilities and meanings. Our job, as directors, was to keep in mind the overall vision and try to facilitate the harmony of the different elements towards that common goal. Not that there is any one “correct” method – every director has a different method (and, no, I’m not comparing “our” method to someone of Almodóvar’s calibre, just musing on approach) – though I think that at our level (i.e. our first feature film) more humility is in order viz the production than for a veteran director.

Back to the dailies. In general directors watch their dailies from the day before at the beginning of the day, while the first shot is being set up and while the talent are in with make-up and wardrobe. So, why have we waited so long to do this process? First off, we did watch some of the footage at the end of the day – but in the face of exhaustion and an early start the next day (and a three-year old who rightfully expected some attention, food, and a bedtime story from her parents) it wasn’t systematic. In the mornings it simply wasn’t possible. First off we were in our house and were often trying to get Beatrice (our daughter) fed and dressed and out the door for 8:30 (crew generally arrived at 7am to start set-up). That was our childcare reality. One of us would focus on childcare and one of us would focus on getting the first shot ready, etc. Cast would arrive at 8am and be ready (in theory) to shoot around 8:45, though in reality it was generally 9:15 or 9:30 before we got the first shot off. In between there was more than enough for the directors to do to fill the time, including reviewing our plan for the day, discussing different performances we wanted to get from different actors, etc. Besides which, our computers were often being used to deal with data management and weren’t available. Such is the reality of a microbudget film. But it is also freeing. We didn’t have the kind of hourly expenses – whether we were shooting or not – of a typical feature film, even a low budget one. There were no lighting rentals, grip trucks, trailers for talent and make-up, et al. In fact, we had no rentals at all (other than a car for one day). So the clock wasn’t our enemy in the same way. And, to be honest, I don’t relish the idea of working 14 hour days. I don’t see how that is conducive to the making of good art. Even 12 hour days are not appealing to me. We worked over one weekend, which was gruelling, but not as difficult as going four weeks without seeing my kid because I leave before she gets up and return after she’s gone to bed. My brain also shuts down after about ten hours – creatively anyway.

Our goal now is to watch at least one day per day while Greg re-organizes and prepares the files for editing in Adobe Premiere, before sending a hard drive back to us. One of the brilliant things about Premiere (I’ve never used it but Kathryn uses Lightroom for still photographs) is that you work on proxy images and the software simply saves a project file that doesn’t include the footage itself but references the edits. It means that once we have a clone of Greg’s hard drive with all the organized files, he can send us a small project file via e-mail and when we open Premiere on our end, it can reconnect to the footage on our hard drive and let us see the work he has done. I’m looking forward to the first assembly!

Now, for a little treat, here’s an outtake from the first day. I’ll try to put one up every day after we view the dailies. Let me just say that no one ruins a pair of pants like Manu.

Manu splits his pants from Shawn Whitney on Vimeo.

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Filed under About BNY, Micro budget, Post Production, Production Diary, Uncategorized

After Production: Wrapping Out

Some of the stuff we decided to sell after the shoot

BY SHAWN WHITNEY

If you’re a first time filmmaker, you’re probably going to be like us and not think about wrapping out production. Oh, I knew in my head that this would come but I wasn’t thinking about it until we hit it. It’s not surprising: we’ve just been through 12 days of intense filming, the euphoria has ebbed and the hangover from the final day’s wrap party has finally subsided. We’re ready to move into post-production with our editor.

Not so fast. Production ain’t over just because the camera’s stopped rolling.

Especially if you’ve used free crew you can expect that lots of things will be left incomplete. They’ve given you the gift of their time and commitment for two or three weeks but it’s hard to sustain that for the paperwork, file prep, etc. – the boring stuff. People need to return to their jobs, move on to other projects, etc.

Not you, oh intrepid filmmaker.

If you know this in advance you won’t be as freaked out and stressed as if it hits you as a surprise that you’re going to end up being the janitor of sorts – cleaning up after the wedding and putting out the trash. Remember, this is your film and your project – you wrote it, directed it, maybe co-produced it. You will be with it through post-production, scoring, mixing, etc. And you will then send your baby out into the world of festivals (if that’s the route you choose to go), screening events, online distribution, etc. Your crew were mostly only with you for the production and the premiere (we are trying to include as many crew and cast as are interested in the pre-release marketing phase of the film also, which I’ll come to in future posts).

Here’s a bit of what to expect and how to approach it to keep your sanity.

1)   Expect a lot of fiddly little bits of BS that have to be dealt with and don’t be surprised when there are.

2)   Remember: your crew was free or cheap. Savour the contribution that they gave to your film don’t begrudge that their contribution came to an end before you would have liked in an ideal world (i.e. one in which you could pay them so that they would stick around and could pay their bills).

3)   Data file management is an excruciatingly boring, time intensive and absolutely necessary task. It’s also fraught with lots of potential pitfalls – especially if you’re not using (i.e. paying) professional data wranglers and assistant editors. We had troubles with our hard drive docks and we had confusions about the file organization system, et al. It happens. And each day’s worth of footage took basically a day to file, rename, synchronize the sound to it, and put it on a timeline for ease of use by our editor. That didn’t even include outputting ProRes format files, which would have added days (weeks?) to the process. What’s the upshot? Martha, our on-set data wrangler, had to return to her job and there were at least four days remaining of syncing sound to video and creating FCP timelines with the synced files organized. I work from home where I read a lot of scripts so I can do a lot of the work while I’m doing my paid job. You may not be so lucky if you have leftover data wrangling. Expect this to take days and days of tedious work if you’re not lucky enough to have it go completely smoothly during production. Give in to it, think of it as meditation and try not to lose your temper (I confess that I punched my monitor ever so lightly yesterday because the syncing process puts so much demand on my processor that I couldn’t do anything on my laptop when I needed to).

4)   Paperwork – yes, I mentioned this before and yes it never ends. Expect to be missing contracts for ACTRA (if you went with union actors as we did) and deal memos, that you’ll have location agreements to get signed and music licensing that needs to be worked out. We also have some photo clearances to deal with because we used an actor’s headshots and the headshot photographer may not have licensed the actor to use them in a film.

5)   Returning equipment. Some stuff may be rented (we didn’t rent anything – one less thing to deal with) or borrowed from family and friends and needs to be returned. You’ll be surprised at how many places you got gear from. We have lenses from three different friends, one camera body, plus a bunch of gear – lights, tripod, gels – that Alex, our DP, brought to the shoot.

6)   Selling Gear. Part of the reason that we didn’t rent gear was because we figured that it was cheaper to buy stuff and then sell it afterwards, even at a loss. Well, now you will have to take photos of the gear and post it on Craigslist, Kijiji and eBay. So far we’ve sold our three piece lighting kit plus extra CFL bulbs as well as one of our spare HDD docks. But we have to sell our shoulder rigs, on camera monitor, a 28 mm lens, and more (we will post all this stuff for sale on the blog in the next couple of days.) It’s extra work but probably will end up saving us thousands of dollars. And we can buy new gear the next shoot again – since it’s probably going to be at least a year between this shoot and the next, why keep the same stuff around gathering dust?)

7)   Thank you notes to everyone. Hey, people volunteered their time, the least you can do is write them a little note thanking them for their hard work. It’s also just nice – the art of thank you letters has been lost (by everyone except Kathryn’s family who write thank you letters for everything). I used to be skeptical but people really appreciate it – take the hour or so to do this, especially if you want to work with these crew members again (people remember being appreciated just like they remember good food). We also thanked our cast and even the actors who came out to audition but whom we didn’t end up hiring.

8)   Keep up the momentum. If crew and/or cast were enthusiastic about the shoot and the film project, invite them to your next production meeting to help out with the marketing work during the post-production phase. Audience building can never start too soon.

9)   Organize a proper wrap party once everything is squared away. It takes a village to raise a film, and villages need celebrations when they reach milestones. If you’ve managed to shoot a feature film on next to no money, that’s a very big milestone.

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Filed under About BNY, Micro budget, Production Diary

EPILOGUE: Lessons In Microbudget Filmmaking, Part 2

Michelle Koerssen (left), our 2nd AD converses with our fearless Production Manager, Dagny Thompson.

Photo by Sharon Mendonca

BY SHAWN WHITNEY

Excuse me if the post below is a little delirious. It’s late and I’ve been working on this as I sync sound to video in order to get clean files to our editor. My brain has gone numb, even using PluralEyes, a program that does the synching, mostly, automatically.

Making a feature film is an intense process for everyone involved for different reasons. You, as a producer, will have to juggle an enormous number of responsibilities to make sure that the organizational side of the shoot comes together to allow the art side to function. Hopefully you’ve also been involved in the art side – story editing the script during development and pre-production, discussing the shot list with the director, conversing with the department heads during the shoot to see how things are going, etc. Below are some of the things we learned as producers from shooting ABNY. The list is rather long but the thing is that it’s not even a full list. These are just the top 15 or so that came to mind as I sat down to write this.

1)   Make sure you have a producer or production manager on set. If you are a producer-director you definitely don’t want to be worrying about location permits and whether there’s enough coffee for the crew when your DP wants to discuss your shot list and your actors are ready to block. You need someone reliable and organized. We had a fabulous production manager who couldn’t be on set every day but, in her place, we had an equally fabulous on-set coordinator who also made sure that everyone was fed with great lunches and snacks. We never worried about the behind the scenes details during the shoot. Those details can break you. A separate producer or production manager can also discipline you if you’re the director/producer – you are always tempted to spend “just a little bit more” for that gadget or light or gel or… The PM or producer must know when to say no firmly to the director.

2)   If possible have both a 1st and 2nd AD – especially if you decide to work with union, pro talent. Then there is a lot of paperwork to fill out and keep track of. You want your 1st on top of getting the shoot as a whole moving and staying on schedule. You don’t want them getting talent to sign in and out or dealing with their requests, preparing call sheets for the next day, etc.

3)   Make sure you have a sizeable amount of petty cash for the PM or on-set coordinator or yourself to deal with whatever needs might arise.

4)   In a similar vein – assume that your budget is off on the low side by a significant amount and don’t freak out when it is. Particularly if this is your first feature film – and/or the first feature of whomever is doing your budget – they won’t know that you will have to spend $100 to buy ND filters for the matte box or $30 to buy black felt paper (roofing paper) to black out the windows when you are shooting day for night. Or how about extra bulbs for that awesome lighting kit you bought – there’s an extra $100. And you might even buy things that you don’t end up using – we paid $50 for QR Slate on the iPad thinking that it would be a very useful way to slate all our shots and add metadata to them. It didn’t work for us. That $50 is gone forever. Crew will get parking tickets – what do you say when they’ve driven in to work on your shoot for free at 6 am? (We got four parking tickets at $30 pop). What about insurance? You’re going to go over. Get used to the idea.

5)   Speaking of insurance: Get insurance. I know, insurance companies are a parasitic scab on the ass of society. I agree completely. But if you borrowed someone’s 5D Mark III or your buddy’s car and you drive the car over the camera and then, panicking about the camera, drive the car into a pole – you don’t want to be without insurance. You will also need insurance if you want to go legit and shoot on city property with permits – in Toronto you need $2 million liability, which cost us, I believe, around $500. If you use union actors (at least in Canada) you will also need to get special insurance for them, in case of injury of disfigurement (I’m not sure about the disfigurement but I can imagine that was probably covered). That was another $100 or so.

6)   While I’m on the depressing bureaucratic side of filmmaking, let’s talk paperwork. You can do everything guerilla style. Lots of people do. But know that you risk everything if you get busted by the police or a neighbor complains about that fight scene on the front lawn of your parents’ house that you keep on re-taking in order to get just the right uppercut. If you want to get permits for shooting it will mean dedicating one or two people to dealing with it. We had to go door-to-door on each street where we were shooting to get the signatures of the neighbours, agreeing that we could shoot on the street. We also had to leaflet every house on the street to let them know. We probably would have been ok with only getting one of the four permits we ultimately got (including having to re-leaflet after an exterior shoot day off of one street had to be re-scheduled due to high winds). But Dagny, our PM, felt that we should avoid the nightmare scenario where you get shut down halfway through a shoot – you have to pay all your actors and you have all that food that’s going to rot and all that borrowed equipment that you have to return at the end of the week. Can you say scenario from hell?

7)   Speaking of paperwork: if you decide to go with union actors be prepared to add substantial expenses and paperwork. In Canada you will have to incorporate, join the CMPA (the producers’ association) and pay administrative fees to both the union and the CMPA ($400 to the CMPA who do exactly diddly squat for you and probably “administer” your contract with ACTRA by having their underpaid secretarial staff drag your contract from the e-mail folder into the TIP contract folder and then release the mouse button). Incorporation alone will cost you probably $1500-$2000 (we paid about $700 because Kathryn’s father is a lawyer and did the paperwork pro bono). You will also have to deal with the added hassle (and expense) at the end of the year of filing a tax return for your corporation and – don’t forget – you must keep all of your expenses and any income or investment in your corporation separate from your personal income and expenses. As far as the government is concerned, a corporation is a legal person and therefore you are now keeping books for that “person.” I sort of get ACTRA’s insistence that production companies that hire their members under the microbudget category must join the CMPA and set up a corporation. They want to deal with professionals who won’t stiff their members. But it’s a big deterrent to using professional actors and quite intrusive – and I say this as someone who is very pro-union.

8)   Good food keeps your unpaid crew happy. No pizza and twinkies folks. That’s just wrong. These people are giving you their time for free or cheaply. Besides, high carb lunches will fill stomachs and then 45 minutes later, your crew will have a carb crash that will ruin your afternoon productivity. It’s more expensive to avoid high carb meals but it’s worth it if you want to get your days and avoid crabby, sleepy crew barking at each other or slipping off to nap.

9)   Twelve days in a row was hellish. The reason we did it was because it’s easier to get people to donate two workweeks than it is to get them to donate three. Also, we didn’t want a cast and crew of 15-20 people in our house (the primary location) for three weeks, which would have been hard on not only Kathryn and I but also on our three-year old daughter. But, next time, I’d try to shoot for 15 days with two weekends in between so that people can rest up and not burn out. That will mean budgeting at least honorariums for the crew and adding locations so that we don’t overstay our welcome in any one place. That may mean a smaller crew. This is a goal, not a principle, and I reserve the right to ignore it depending on budget.

10)                  Crew size. Not too big and not too small. If you don’t have enough people you will constantly be scrambling and your director will be moving lights instead of coming up with blocking or working with actors. We had some of that, especially when we were shooting in the cramped third floor of our house in 35 degree Celsius weather. We kept everyone out of the heatbox that we didn’t need, in order to not pass out from heat exhaustion. But it also meant we had no gaffer and no PAs. There were also times that I think we could have been smaller and nimbler. But it’s a judgment call.

11)                  Get photos of the shoot. We had Sharon Mendonca show up on several of the 12 days of shooting and get pictures from behind the scenes of cast and crew. Besides the production diary blog posts, the photos were a key element in building interest in the film. In fact, the photos have attracted as many hits as the posts themselves, if not more. They will also be useful in our electronic press kit. I only wished we’d given Sharon some direction – there’s lots of awesome pics of the cast on set but perhaps not enough of the crew, which are also important. That’s not her fault: the cast in their wardrobe and doing their thing, is inherently more interesting than the directors standing around chatting with the DP or the 1st AD. Try to have a videographer as well. We had Carlos but we weren’t paying him and he was only able to show up twice to set.

12)                  Make sure your director always gets her day. ‘Nuff said.

13)                   Start publicity as soon as possible. This is tough, especially with a microbudget that barely has the cash to make the film. But chances are you won’t sell the film to some distributor and chances are only slightly better that you’ll get into a festival like TIFF or Sundance that will improve the possibility of your selling (though, even still, only a minority of films that make it into festivals actually get picked up). That means that building buzz and getting distribution to recoup investment is up to you. Hell, that’s part of what this blog is about. It’s why we have a Facebook page and a twitter account (much neglected the last two weeks). Building an audience is a job for more than one person and it doesn’t happen overnight. We’re finding that out. And I think almost everyday: to recoup the $20K that we invested in cash into ABNY, we will have to sell about 2,000 DVDs at a $10/DVD profit. The 206 likes we presently have on our Facebook page ain’t gonna cut it. On the bright side, we have 206 likes and the film hasn’t even gone into post-production yet. Ghosts With Shit Jobs – another Toronto lo-fi sci-fi film, which is doing quite well with a movie that they made for $5,000, has just under 800 Facebook fans. I think we need to get at least several thousand Facebook fans and a similar number of Twitter followers (we have 520 right now). There will be more to come on the question of marketing and distribution as we proceed.

14)                  More paperwork (blame it on capitalism – seriously). Make sure you don’t shoot anything with copyrighted labels on it unless you get clearance first. Make sure that your locations are cleared of all recognizable brands. We needed a lot of Apple stuff in ABNY just because it was the way it was written (I’m an Apple geek, what can I say?) and we had a contact through a contact. Apple gave us clearance to use their stuff onscreen (as long as there was no nudity and no criminal acts committed using their gear). They were pretty cool about it – many companies are not. It would suck to have to throw out all the shots from your climactic scene because somebody was drinking a can of Coke and someone else was eating a Snicker’s bar. Speaking of copyright – make sure that you get clearances for music: you need a master license and a synch license, if you’re using some already composed music. If you’re having the music scored specifically for the film you need a composer’s license (I think that’s what it’s called). You can find some on the Independent Film & Video Fund website or just google them. All these things – along with location agreements and releases, etc. are must-haves if you do hope to ever sell your film to a distributor.

15)                   Keep good books, have good deal memos for crew, etc. The less ambiguity there is in your relationship with people the better. And the more clear it is how the money was spent and who gets the money if any comes in, the less likely there is to be fights and even legal disputes afterwards. Everybody wants to be cool and casual about money, especially on a shoot where you’re all focused on the art. The more this stuff is clear, accounted for and in the open, the more you can deal with the art.

16)                  Good Lord, there’s probably another dozen that come to mind. Producing a feature film is a complicated thing. Kudos to you for taking it on and being part of creating a piece of art that contributes to the betterment of humanity or something. Try to be organized and try to actually enjoy the shoot once it gets going.

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Filed under About BNY, Micro budget, Pre-production, Production Diary

EPILOGUE: Lessons In Microbudget Filmmaking, Part 1

 

Photo by SHARON MENDONCA

BY SHAWN WHITNEY

The experience of shooting A Brand New You was unbelievably fruitful not only as part of a process of producing a film but also as a learning experience for next time – and to share with others. I’ve read lots of excellent articles that offer “ten tips to shooting an indie” or “5 lessons” or “6 Essential Things…” etc. But in my experience there were more than 5 or 10 things to learn from shooting a feature film. But in the interest of not overwhelming you with too many points all together, I’ve broken up the things we learned into the producer, director & writer category that I’ll post over the next three or four days so that they are easier to digest. In many cases whether something is a lesson for a director, producer or writer is a bit arbitrary as responsibilities bleed into one another. So, if you think that I’ve put something in the wrong category, you may well be right. If you disagree or have any questions, please feel free to e-mail or leave a comment.

1)   We made a great decision to work with Alex Lisman as our DP – he has lots of experience doing run and gun doc work, producing “promo” videos for the union and student movements, including journalistic style shooting on demonstrations and picket lines, as well as the more measured pace of studio and location interviews. He is used to working with limited lighting and even more limited time. He’s also very good at very steady handheld shots. The pressure of our assistant directors to keep moving and Alex’s speed are (along with pro actors) the reasons we were able to always get our days even with a very heavy load. Make sure, if you have a short shoot, that you have a DP that can handle it. If you get someone who is used to leisurely shoots where they can finesse the lighting for hours on end you will spend your entire time fighting with your DP. I have done this, it sucks and is stressful.

2)   Limited lighting kit (mostly two or three lights) made it quick for us to set up our shots. And shooting on DSLR gave us flexibility with lighting – it may not be as sophisticated as a Hollywood film but three point lighting with a shallow depth of field and great composition can look damn sexy. Our main goal was to always have an ISO under 200 and to be careful of the fact that the Nikon D7000 has a very limited dynamic range. During the day we often put neutral density gels on the windows (bought cheaply off of eBay) to make sure that they didn’t look blown out while the interior room looked like it was in darkness.

3)   Paying for good sound was worth it: We never worried about sound and while it cost us about ten percent of our total budget, it’s less hassle than having to organize a day’s worth of ADR (which would also cost money – especially if we had to get to add in foley) and risk having terrible, echo-laden sound.

4)   Glad we used professional talent. Again, it cost money but we were able to get our shots more quickly. Even where we were so pressed for time that we, as directors, didn’t have much opportunity to work with the actors they gave solid performances.

5)   Related to the above two points: the point is not just to be cheap (which was a necessity) it is prioritizing what you spend money on given your available resources. If you don’t have the cash for sound or actors, don’t let that paralyze you, just know the consequences of that and adjust.

6)   Be as organized as you can be. Disorganization costs time and time is money (even if only in lunches and snacks to the crew). It also means that you are more likely going to get what it was that you wanted to get. We had a detailed shot list but we didn’t prepare detailed emotional arcs and potential variety in performances in advance for each scene. This was partly the result of our inexperience and partly a result of the face that we are also co-producing, which was quite demanding. We generally had time in the morning while the first shot was being set up to note the kinds of variety that we wanted to see but not always and often it felt rushed because were also revising our shot list in light of our experience of shooting in the actual location (as opposed to how we imagined it would be in our heads). Time pressure during the shoot also prevented us from doing more than getting a good shot and full coverage so that planning to capture a variety of performances was sometimes a bit utopian anyway but better to be prepared than not.

7)   Make the script the best that you can before you go to camera. Lyn Shelton may have made Humpday without a script but she also worked for six months with the actors to develop the characters’ relationships to each other so that they could improvise the scenes that she had worked out for the film. And, imho, while Humpday is an enjoyable film and, in many ways, a breakthrough, the dialogue leaves something to be desired with lots of awkward pauses in places where there shouldn’t be awkward pauses. Film isn’t real life and film dialogue shouldn’t try to emulate real life dialogue with all those pauses, filler words and sounds that bridge thoughts like “um” and “fuck.” In real life they’re natural. Onscreen, when they fill every scene, they’re brutal. Having a script is a subsidiary of the point above about being as organized as you can be. (I confess to being biased by the fact that my first calling is as a writer). On the other hand, to my mind, there’s no point in spending two years refining and re-working your script (but maybe that’s my thing). I feel like a script must, ultimately, be tested by the fire of production.

8)   To contradict myself a little bit: the script is an architectural drawing not the Holy Bible. Just like having a detailed shot list so that you have an idea what you want to get, your script provides a guide. But how the script sounds in your head or even read out loud by the actors sitting on your couch, isn’t the same as shooting it with the actors standing up and moving around. Stuff that seemed funny or sad will parse as on-the-nose or cringe-worthy. Plot points that soared on the wings of angels on the page will sink like a lead zeppelin in front of the camera. You can’t be precious about your script. We changed lots of scenes to work more effectively or fit changed circumstances.

9)   Write a detailed shot list. Throw out your detailed shot list. This will drive your 1st AD crazy (sorry, Elinor & Michelle) but when you’re shooting ten or eleven pages in a day (we had one day that was eleven and a half!) you’re going to have to make compromises. And sometimes you’ll find that a really important scene has been under-covered in your shotlist and you’ll want that extra angle or cutaway (like a close-up on what the actor is doing with their hands). Just know that if you lose time getting extra coverage on one scene, you’ll have to give it up on another. We had a few short scenes that ended up being single shots but mostly we made sure to get at least three.

10) Be polite. Thank everyone often. Tell them how much their work means to you and to the film. You had a vision for a story that you felt so compelled to tell that you’re making it into a feature film. All these other people who are working their butts off are helping you realize that vision and tell that story. Without them: no film. And you’re not even paying them (probably) or paying them very little. Be thankful for whatever they’re giving you, it’s more than you could do on your own.

11) Be nice to your actors. Perhaps this is as obvious as thanking your crew members frequently but I still read stories about directors who try to humiliate or intimidate their actors into good performances. Don’t roll your eyes when they are “insecure” or need a quiet place to prepare. The camera is an unforgiving, unblinking eye and if they give a bad performance, have a pimple or are shot from the wrong angle that makes it look like they have a double-chin, everyone who sees them in your movie will comment on it. They know it. You know it (how many times have you and your friends made jokes about how some actor looked in a film or photo?). I generally found that where an actor wasn’t giving me what I wanted it was because I wasn’t being clear enough.

12) Get your day.  You know what’s worse than not getting that awesome shot or beautiful lighting set-up or the perfect performance? Having a film that makes no sense because you only shot half the script. There’s just no way around it: shooting a microbudget feature on a limited schedule requires compromise. We dropped a couple of scenes – generally ones that involved a character getting from point A to point B – but I was very happy that we basically shot all the scenes on our schedule and even a couple extra ones (including live concert footage involving our two leads). Besides the awesome cast and crew, this was possible because we were willing to compromise and shift on the fly based upon where we were at. Having scene an amazing script basically ruined because the director failed to shoot more than two-thirds of the script and the editor didn’t have the material to cut together something coherent, I was cognizant of the importance of this throughout the shoot.

 

There are some other lessons that will be worth discussing after post-production but I think it’s premature to discuss them at this point. Should we have gotten more or less variety in our shots, for instance? We’ll know when we try to edit it all together. I personally don’t like a lot of “trick” shots and could only watch about fifteen minutes of Wes Anderson’s indie breakout success, Bottle Rocket. The high angle/low angle shots between the lead and his sister made me nauseous. On the other hand, we were shooting a lot in just a few rooms in one house so we did try to switch it up a bit to give us some visual variety – who knows if we did enough of this or if it will come across as contrived.

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Day 12: Taking On The Final Challenges

Photos by SHARON MENDONCA

BY SHAWN WHITNEY

There were moments in the last 12 days that I didn’t think I’d make it, to be honest. Around day 6 and day 7 I was hitting a wall of exhaustion and I heard a voice in my head tell me that I couldn’t do another 6 days, then another 5 days, then another 4. Each day it got a little quieter and by the time we only had 3 days I left I knew for certain that I (and we) would make it.

However, it was clear on the morning of our 12th day that most people were pretty thoroughly exhausted. Sometimes, when the end it closest, that is when the struggle through those final hours becomes hardest. People were showing up 15 minutes late, we were bumbling around, unable to get the first shot off. It wasn’t clear what our first scene of the day was – after we had rearranged things the night before to pick-up some scenes that were missed. Santiago arrived upstairs for the first shot in the wrong wardrobe and had to change and be re-mic’ed for sound by Zoe, which took an additional 15 minutes. By the time we took our first shot we were 90 minutes behind schedule – and Alex, our DP, was in the foulest mood I’d seen him in during the entire shoot. It felt like a gargantuan effort just to restore focus.

But – like we had done so many times before – we did refocus. And by the time lunch rolled around we had made up all of our lost time. We went into the afternoon entirely caught up with where we were meant to be and we’d even banged off a very short scene that we’d thought we were going to have to drop. With that momentum we went into the afternoon feeling positive about what we could pull off.

We didn’t take account of traffic. Murray (Clinton Lee Pontes) was traveling to set from the other side of the city and got caught in the mother of all traffic jams. It took him 2.5 hours to arrive, making him about an hour late. Again, we were scrambling. We shot what we could without him and made contingency plans for other scenes we might shoot – though we were really setting up to shoot stuff that we’d already decided to ditch. But then Clinton finally burst through the door just as we were finishing off the last of the non-Murray scenes. We quickly re-jigged our plans and not only caught up again, we shot a scene that we had cut (but which was a contentious decision because it’s a lovely, if secondary, scene) and we reshot another scene that I had been unhappy with.

It was as though the universe threw at us one final series of tests and we managed to pass all of them, finishing the day and our entire slate of scenes. It’s true that we dropped some scenes along the way – mostly just a few transitions from place to place that were unnecessary – but nothing critical got lost. Was this really possible? Did we really just shoot a feature film in 12 days? We never went beyond 10 hour days for crew and 8 hour days for cast. We managed to work in a concert scene with an awesome local indie band. And we shot a “sex scene” that didn’t make me cringe and was actually quite cute and touching. In 12 days.

I don’t know yet what our final budget will be: Dagny Thomson, our production manager, is crunching the numbers and they will change as we sell some of our gear. But my guess is that we came in below $20,000. Perhaps substantially. Nor did we go into overtime on any of our days, which ACTRA was so convinced we would do that they insisted we demonstrate the ability to cover such overtime with money in our bank account. Of course that’s not a “real” $20,000 (or whatever the number ends up being). The real number ought to include the actual value of the labour that was contributed by the entire crew. It we had paid everyone what they ought to have been paid, the budget would have been closer to $90,000-$100,000 (that’s my guess). That’s still a microbudget by definition but a rather more expensive one to personally finance, as this film has been.

At the end of the day most of us went out to a local restaurant/bar and celebrated our heroic achievement (which explains why this entry was so slow to be written) – for most of us our first feature film. People toasted and celebrated the hard work that they’d done and the awesome work, I must say. Cast and crew really felt a part of something bigger than themselves and gave an incredible amount of themselves to that artistic vision. That contribution is still a wonder to me and for it I feel a profound sense of gratitude. A Brand New You wouldn’t have been possible without them. And, as if an omen of something wonderful being born, my co-director (and wife) Kathryn Palmateer became pregnant in the weeks leading up to the production and another crew member became pregnant during the production itself.

Finally, a very special shout out to David Halls. I’ve known Dave for 5 years since I was accepted into the writers residency program at the Canadian Film Centre. He attended the year before and was asked to meet with me and talk about what I ought to expect at the CFC, etc. It’s a sort of mentoring approach that the CFC takes with new residents. We’ve kept in touch on and off over the last five years but not been close. He read an earlier post about the challenges of childcare during the shoot and offered to babysit our daughter, Bea, on the final day of the shoot when we had run out of childcare options. Because he did this both Kathryn and I were able to be on the set for the last day when we’d come to the conclusion that one of us would have to spend the day with Bea. Bea also seems to have fallen in love with “Davey” and has been asking when she will get to see him again. She was very excited to show us the wind-up sushi that Dave gave to her. Thanks, Dave!

Dru Soo and her niece and nephew also showed up on the last day to help out as PAs and to be generally awesome and supportive. Dru has a youtube channel here of some funny stuff that you can check out.

Now comes the post-production process – editing, mixing, correcting, rearranging, scoring, and all the rest of it. It is a slower process, taking place probably over the next 4-6 months but we will keep you abreast of that process, if on a less frequent and intense basis than the last 12 days of madness. I hope you’ll continue on that journey with us.

– Shawn

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Day 11: Actors Save Directors’ Asses

Photos by SHARON MENDONCA

BY SHAWN WHITNEY

Let me just say this: Boy am I glad that we have such good actors. There are the obvious reasons why that you don’t have to make a movie to understand: you want the performance that appears on screen to be good (with “good” usually meaning naturalistic, as though they aren’t acting). But when you’re making a film you’re thinking about it on a few more levels. You want the actors to be able not only provide a compelling delivery of their lines and actions but also to be able to repeat that over multiple takes (like saying the same line at the same point in the room that they are walking across), take directions and provide alternative performances (angry vs sad, for instance) – just to name a few things that actors must keep in mind.

As a director, you are also juggling multiple, competing demands in order to get the film made during production – what should the actor wear; how is their make-up and hair to be done; what shots do you want and which ones can you sacrifice if time runs out; which scenes do you absolutely have to have and which can you lose. And you also need to know what performances you want from your actors, including alternatives. Let me just confess something at this point. Kathryn and I did a detailed, scene-by-scene shot list before we went to camera. But we hadn’t done a detailed plot of each scene in terms of the different potential emotional arcs within the scene in order to get different performances so that we would have a variety to choose from in the editing room. For one thing, as co-producers as well as co-directors, who were doing this part-time when we weren’t working at our own jobs and a being parents, we didn’t have time. But it also reflects the fact that we didn’t make it enough of a priority. Our bad.

However, to redeem us: we have spent every morning before we go to camera mapping out different potential performances that we hoped to get from our actors and how those alternatives relate to the tone of the film and the arc of the characters in question. And we know the script very well – I wrote it and Kathryn, along with the talented Larisa Gutmanis, story edited the script over the course of more than a year. We are very familiar with the emotional arcs of the characters. And we’ve done pretty well.

All that is back story to today. Today we had a 7:00am call time but Bea’s caregiver didn’t arrive till 8:30am. And we slept in till 7:00am and were rushing around trying to get Bea fed and ready to go as the crew were bustling and setting up the first shot. Chaos? Yes. I focused on Bea and Kathryn focused on getting the production moving, dealing with outstanding details, etc. But it meant that we didn’t have a chance to map out the performances we wanted to get from our actors.

And then it was hot. Oh yes. Very hot. I’m not sure how many towels we went through drying off Manuel’s face but there were a lot of them. And exhausted. It was day 11 in a row. Exhausted, hot and harried are not an awesome combination. You could see that it wasn’t just Kathryn and I who were suffering from this combined assault on our focus. Generally speaking we’ve had three or four takes per shot, rarely more than that and often less. Today we usually had at least four and often had five or six takes. We were struggling to get what we needed and the actors were struggling not to pass out. Lesser mortals would have simply collapsed.

I have no doubt that if we’d had a more detailed emotional map for the characters we would have gotten more variety in performance from the actors. No doubt. But, to return where I started, that’s why I’m relieved that we got professional, solid talent. Even when Kathryn and I lose focus, the actors are able to pull off solid performances. Some say that 8/10’s of directing takes place in the hiring and casting process. Today I was glad that we hired/cast the right people.

Perhaps the most important thing to say about today is that it was the second to last day! Tomorrow we wrap – unbelievable. When we wrapped for the day today Mark A. Brown – our main script continuity (with a noble assist by Tica Simmons on Monday & Tuesday) – went through our shooting schedule and compared it to his script to make sure that we hadn’t missed any scenes. We had and we will have to pick those up tomorrow. How did this happen? The main reason is that the script changed days before we went to camera. What’s more, poor Elinor was stuck trying to schedule the shoot with Excel, instead of proper scheduling software. Here’s a tip while we’re on the subject (in case I haven’t mentioned it before): don’t scrimp on scheduling software – it’s worth the $600 or so to give your 1st AD the right tools. Scheduling can make or break your microbudget film shoot and a feature film has a lot of scenes to coordinate with different characters, times of day, locations, etc. ABNY, for instance, has about 110 scenes and 9 characters in total. Juggling all the details is like doing an eight sided Rubik’s Cube. We were frankly lucky that Elinor was so awesome and patient.

In the end it wasn’t a huge deal but it meant we had to lose a couple of transition scenes (an actor traveling from point A to point B), creatively merge a couple of others (Kathryn still hasn’t quite surrendered the “bathtub scene” that I think we can lose) and we will move two scenes to different locations in the house so that we don’t have to dress more than two sets tomorrow. It means we will have a heavy day tomorrow but it will be a do-able one. And then… no, it ain’t over. We might not even be over production – we may discover in the process of editing the footage that we don’t have a shot or a scene that we need. Then we’ll have to shoot a pick-up day(s) to get what we need. I’m hoping that doesn’t happen. Things have gone so freakishly smooth up till now, I’m hoping that it hasn’t all been an hallucination and that the magic that we’ve been feeling is more than just a general vibe. I’m hoping that it is reflected in what we got on film, er, SD card.

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