Cinematography on the Cheap

Recently I was invited to help teach cinematography on a budget for my local library’s film maker club. I figured, why not share the love here?

So, congrats — you’re embarking on your first or fortieth short film production. Unfortunately, you don’t have much money to put into it. How can you personally go cheap without sacrificing all your production value?

In this Medium post, Lance Adams figures short films cost approximately $500-1000 per minute. That’s a lotta moolah.

Keep in mind, if you’re producing your short film, you need to budget money for food and snacks for your crew, props, locations, equipment, crew, actors, gas money, etc. There’s a lot of costs associated with even the cheapest of short films.

You can also check out this article on the biggest issues when budgeting a short film.

For the sake of this blog post, we’re going to look strictly at the cinematography side. Maybe a friend has asked you to be the DP on their short film, or maybe you’re trying to do your own film on the cheap. Here are some choices that will have less of an impact on your bottom line.

Shooting a Budget Friendly Script

Aim for a short script (emphasis on short, 5-10 pages max) that has few actors, few locations, and even less in the way of special or visual effects. Less is more in this case, and limiting yourself with these parameters will make it more likely that you succeed in shooting this short film on a tiny budget.

The Camera

Panasonic Lumix GH5

Oh, so you want to shoot your short film on a RED Gemini 5K? That’s nice. That’ll also be around $1200/day. Without a lens.

I recommend shooting on smaller, more compact cameras for the no-budget short. DSLR’s are highly popular, but if you have access to a Blackmagic –that’s cool too. If you don’t have a DSLR, they’re a fairly cheap rental on a service like Sharegrid. For a good comparison, a Panasonic GH5 (DSLR) is about $80 to rent…per week ( via LensRentals.com). Big difference from that RED, huh?

There’s quite a few people out there doing some cool things with their iPhones too. For that type of shooting, download the app Filmic Pro (available for iOS or Andriod). It’s $15 and from what I hear, well worth the money. The app gives you full manual controls over your phone’s camera, enhancing your ability to shoot more cinematically.

Use What You Have

Lay out all the equipment you have right now. Camera, lenses, accessories, lighting. This is where you’ll start. Don’t have pro video gear? Start getting creative. Your household lamps can double as practical lighting in that bedroom scene. That tripod could turn into a dolly if you put it on wheels.

I’ve been asked a couple times how I achieved a particular “dolly” shot inside of a car. There was no room for a dolly or a slider for that matter, so I placed my Sony A7s camera on a roll of duct tape I had in the car and pushed it on the center console to get a nice dolly effect on the back seat of the car. Get creative!*

*Safely, of course.

Lighting Options

\I said LIGHTING not lightning. Don’t light your sets with a Faraday cage experiment, so help me God…

You better light those scenes so you can see what’s going on! Bad lighting will ruin good cinematography.

Earlier I mentioned “practicals,” which in this case would be lights that exist in the world of your film. That might be a lamp in a bedroom scene or the ceiling fixture in a kitchen. That’s a good start but you’re probably going to want to work a little more light in, or creatively block light for some “negative fill.”

Image from Premium Beat’s article: Lighting a Scene Solely with Practicals

As far as inexpensive, semi-professional lighting is concerned, I’d say invest in a couple of reasonably priced LED panels.

These LED light panels can be found on Amazon.

I bought two Neewer 480s and one 660 (pictured above) from Amazon, and I’ve used them on multiple film shoots. Lightweight, dimmable and ranging in color temp from 3200 to 5600K, these light panels are a life saver.

I also have a few of these itty bitty LED lights that might be meant for product photography, but have come in handy in a pinch when a large light can’t fit somewhere.

Manipulate your lights with gels (if not color-adjustable already) and use bounce and reflectors to direct the light where it needs to go. Use dark fabric such as duvetyne or something way cheaper to eliminate light where you don’t need it.

I could go more in depth on the practical ways to light or shoot on the cheap, but I think you get the idea. If there’s anything you’d like me to explore further in a future blog post — just let me know! I’m happy to help.

In the meantime, check out this YouTube playlist I made of tips/tricks for doing cinematography on the cheap:

Networking in the Digital Age

Earlier this year I borrowed a book on networking from the local library. Build Your Dream Network by J. Kelly Hoey was not likely to help me much in my business, and I knew this going in. The film industry is less about LinkedIn and corporate ladders as it is about building a reel and meeting people who want to hire you again. Reading this book was slow going–

–and then the pandemic hit. Suddenly a book on networking just seemed ironic when everyone was stuck at home and every gig and job for the year was cancelled.

Thanks to a very generous library return policy, I finally finished this book and wanted to share some insights on networking as it applies to working in film.

I’m also keeping in mind the quarantine aspect of our current situation. Going to any sort of networking or meet-and-greet event is currently out. Stay socially responsible and do make your connections from home while things are still slow and social gatherings are not possible.

Networking in General

Networking is defined as “the action or process of interacting with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts.”

Making connections is how you get jobs. Sure, you can get gigs by applying to online job postings, but if you’re a freelancer, much of your work will be through repeat hiring by people who like you and projects that received your name as a recommendation. Expanding your network is a way to get some sense of job security. The stronger your network, the more likely you will work. See what I did there?

Also, networking should be considered an ongoing process. It’s not just something you do until you get the first job, or for the first year of your career — it’s continuous. Contacts come and go and production companies can move. You don’t want all your eggs in one basket.

I also highly recommend having some sort of network in place before you move to a new place. Reach out to some folks in the area you want to live, ask questions, put examples of your work out there. You’ll be more established than if you go in blind.

My Networking Experience

When I first moved to Georgia, I spent the first few months living off my savings and reaching out to as many people as I could. I also went to some networking events with varying degrees of success.

Most of my connections were made through Facebook groups. Thanks to Atlanta Film Community’s bi-weekly “Self Promotion Posts,” I was noticed by a local DP and director, both of whom have continued to hire me on their projects.

Networking is connecting through shared stories and experiences. Its building a human connection, not simply stating a need to be filled (or, in the case of startups, a check to be written).” – J. Kelly Hoey

I’ve connected with other people by seeing their online presence on social media, reaching out and having a chat, exchanging resumes and reels.

One sound designer I networked with put up a self promotion post on a general film page. I saw it, looked at his work and contacted him. After seeing his quality of work and interacting online, I knew he’d be a talent to have on set. After our first film together, I continued to recommend him for numerous jobs, and he’s done the same for me.

A fellow camera assistant posted about wanting to connect with like-minds in Atlanta. I reached out, and we’ve both recommended each other for jobs. She even had me over at a dinner party (ahem, in January, pre-COVID) where I was able to connect with even more people.

You should be getting the sense that networking is not about saying “hire me,” it’s about developing a relationship and mutual respect with another person. This should be done delicately. Don’t spam post anywhere, don’t eek out desperation, and know the right time to send an unsolicited message to someone you don’t yet know. You should know when the time is right.

Reach out to people you admire, whose work you appreciate. Check out someone’s work on Instagram, Twitter feed or their website and demo reel. Send them a quick message if you like their work. It means a lot. That might even open up a dialogue, but you shouldn’t try to force someone to hire you.

Thanks to these weird times we live in, the latest film festival to show my short The Road Less Traveled — Cat Fly Film Festival of Asheville, NC — held an online streamed event. I reached out to two people — one in Atlanta who I hadn’t met before, and the director of the film I liked the most in the festival By Sunrise, a superbly done short horror film. Thanks to interacting at this streamed film festival, I made excellent connections I may be working with in the future.

Networking fails

Build Your Dream Network also had some great pointers on how not to network.

One such piece of advice is very sound: don’t just reach out to someone when they’ve landed a big job or coveted position.

“But,” you argue, “Didn’t you just say to reach out to people whose work you admire?”

Sure! But did you establish a relationship with someone, only to ghost them until that success and it looked like you could get something out of it? Don’t be selfish. Keep up on your contacts, check in with the people you like and recommend people for jobs. It’s all good relationship fodder.

Now, you can say “congrats!” to them if you feel necessary, but if that’s the only time you’ve contacted the person, the contact might be too little too late — at least according to J. Kelly Hoey’s book.

I’m proud of my friends and colleagues when they post their successes, and I try to do my part by sharing what they want shared, supporting a fundraising campaign or posting when they’re going to do a livestream or a radio interview. It means a lot to have that kind of support.

Conclusion

If you have a garden, do you only water it when the tomatoes are ripe? Think of that daily watering and maintenance as a way you should approach building your network. In the film industry we meet scores of new people at every job — you don’t want your name to disappear in a thrown away call sheet.

So, while things are still slow, this is your time to reach out to people, make those connections, and maybe polish all your public profiles and make sure things are up to date. You’ll want to hit the ground running when production starts back up.

Reading List: Screenwriting

Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book Outliers: Secrets of Success in order to become an expert in anything, you need 10,000 hours of practice. That is also true for screenwriters and film makers.

I am of the belief that if you want to be good at something, you’re constantly working to enhance your knowledge, hone your craft and try new things.

When I interact with young screenwriters, I find myself recommending the same reading material over and over again, so my next logical step was to list them here.

The Short Screenplay: Your Short Film from Concept to Production

Before you run, you must walk.

Before you write a feature, I highly recommend you write a short film.

A short film can range anywhere from 1 min to 45 or so, but usually around 5-10 mins is the common format that can find itself programmed into film festivals. That’s the sweet spot, so you might want to look in that range specifically.

Find it here.

Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need

Often touted as the “Bible of Screenwriting,” Save the Cat! is a famous book on the craft. This book takes a more Hollywood approach to screenwriting that’s beneficial for those wanting to understand the formula of most popular films.

From the initial idea, to creating a beat sheet to marketing your script, Save the Cat! is a great resource to dive into.

the book’s strength lies in its foundation of the formula of story arcs and organizational tools such as the beat sheet, so this is definitely a book you should check out.

Find the book here.

Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 Ways to Make it Great

I always send this book recommendation with the disclaimer “This is by no means a commentary on your script!”

This book is broken up into digestible chunks that go into details on common problems and how to fix them. This book explores structure, the nitty gritty of story and other details that might have been missed during your first draft, such as a deep B story or multi-faceted characters.

Find it here.

Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box

This is the book for any sort of TV writing. Here you learn about the particular format of broadcast television writing. TV writing is a different game than writing a feature by a long shot, as it pertains to act breaks, teasers, tags, and how to best tell a joke (the funny word comes last!).

This book also has a meaty section on agents, navigating the world of spec script writing and pitching.

Find it here.

Honorable Mentions:

All of my links in this post go to Amazon pages, however you may find cheaper copies by perusing AbeBooks.com, Alibris.com and BetterWorldBooks.com or even eBay.

Designing Impressive Long Takes and Oners

The mark of a good director and cinematographer duo is telling a story clearly through the images that appear on a screen. The great ones find a way to go above and beyond.

One particular shot that separates the women from the girls is the “oner” or “one shot” take. The camera follows the action for a long period of time. Often this can be on a Steadicam, but you might find a fantastic oner accomplished handheld, on a dolly, or on a camera crane. Usually these are dynamic moving shots that change framing and action before your eyes, whereas a normal setup would be to edit a series of shots together.

It’s harder to do things this way, and so the oner must be deliberate and planned to perfection. It’s something you might want to try in your next film.

The best way to design something complicated is to study those that came before you. Here I’ve given four examples of incredible oners that I admire and I know you will too.

The Haunting of Hill House Season 1 Episode 6 “Two Storms

A large chunk of Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House Episode 6 is a 17 minute long oner that spans huge passes of time, flashbacks, special effects and more. It’s an incredibly complicated task that helped tell this unique story.

Part of what makes this scene so surreal is the fact that it doesn’t break away, doesn’t give a respite from following each character around during this pivotal storm. This genius choreography couldn’t have been pulled off without careful timing and a large well-rehearsed crew and cast.

You can watch the whole episode on Netflix, but you also can get the idea from this clip:

Also worthy of watching is this Making Of Featurette, which shows some of the ways this complicated long shot was choreographed:

Children of Men (2006)

The car scene. Not only is this a long take, it’s fraught with anxiety, showing different views out the windows of the car, placing the viewer in with the passengers of the vehicle. The drama unfolds in real-time, starting off with an innocuous car ride and conversation, escalating into a mad dash away from a hoard of crazy people attacking the car’s occupants.

The way they filmed this scene is actually pretty incredible and technical. At about 1 minute into this featurette, they discuss this particular scene. They used the Sparrowhead Doggie cam, a camera suspended inside the car on a track. The car was also specially designed for this scene. The driver is not actually driving it — there’s a man in front of the car low to the ground who is actually doing the driving. They don’t show it here, but they actually had seats that folded out of the way so the camera could get past the actors. 

Birdman

Now this one gets an honorable mention because the whole movie is structured like it takes place in one long take. There are a number of hidden cuts that make this possible, but there are certainly a number of true long takes. You experience in real time Riggan getting stuck outside the playhouse during the performance and having to navigate a busy Times Square in his tighty whities.

At about 45 seconds into this video, you see a grip positioning a silk in order to adjust the lighting on the actors faces on the fly. The whole movie had to be choreographed with the actors and crew in this way in order to avoid setting up classic lighting scenarios and keep things on the move.

Baby Driver (2017)

It’s Bank Robbery: The Musical but oh so much more. I recently re-watched this movie and I’m telling you — if you haven’t seen it yet, there’s no time like the present.

Baby Driver‘s premise is genius — Baby has tinnitus from a car accident, so he’s constantly playing music through his headphones to drown out the ringing in his ears. That sets the soundtrack to which all the action happens throughout the movie. The car chases, bank robbery, shootouts — everything has been meticulously choreographed and timed to fit the music of the scene.

Check out the “coffee run” scene from early in the movie to see the level of choreography that went into the scene. Not only do the Steadicam operator and Ansel Elgort walk perfectly timed, the action also lines up with key bits of set design — watch for the trumpet and certain bits of graffiti and poster designs that link up with lyrics in the music.

Look at the graffiti that says “Right” at 0:32 and 2:31 you’ll see they added in the lyrics “Shake, shake, shake” and several new lyrics on that wall during the shot. Excellent details.

Kidding Season 1 Episode 3 (2018)

Check out this incredible scene from the Showtime series Kidding.

This scene shows how the character Shaina is inspired by a show and how her life dramatically changes in a shifting scene that transcends time.

This is some incredible behind the scenes here because you can see just how the crew choreographed and shifted the scene from the drab, dreary beginning to a lavish apartment by the end of the scene. Watch and listen to the careful choreography dictated by either the 1st AD or coordinator.

6 Types of One-Take Shots

For some more examples, and descriptions of specific oners (the establishing long take, the exposition, the tracking long take, the fake long take) check out Aputure’s video with Ted Sim and cinematographer Emma Kragen.

 

The Artist’s Achilles Heel: Imposter Syndrome

“I’m not good enough for this job. At some point, someone will find out that I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t deserve this.”

If you’ve found yourself saying something like the above to yourself, you may be suffering from Imposter Syndrome, a rather nasty form of self doubt that plagues anyone… including writers, actors and filmmakers.

“The imposter syndrome is a psychological term referring to a pattern of behavior where people doubt their accomplishments and have a persistent, often internalized fear of being exposed as a fraud,” Megan Dalla-Camina writes in an article for Psychology Today.

This also presents itself as social anxiety, valuing your work less and frankly just believing you’ve only gotten where you are as an artist by luck.

Imposter Syndrome is present in people who consider themselves perfectionists, who strive to know every detail on a topic before they feel they can be an expert, or those who try above and beyond to make up for perceived shortcomings.

Famous people you would never expect have suffered from self doubt and full blown imposter syndrome. This massive list includes the likes of Serena Williams, David Bowie, Tina Fey, Lady Gaga and Tom freakin’ Hanks.

Maya Angelou said, “I have written 11 books, but each time I think, ‘uh oh, they’re going to find me out now. I’ve run a game on everybody, and they’re going to find me out.’ ”

Natalie Portman said in a 2015 Harvard commencement speech, “Today, I feel much like I did when I came to Harvard Yard as a freshman in 1999. I felt like there had been some mistake, that I wasn’t smart enough to be in this company, and that every time I opened my mouth I would have to prove that I wasn’t just a dumb actress.”

How to Deal with Imposter Syndrome

As an artist, you can start by more openly sharing your work, and keeping track of personal accomplishments. Did you win an award for a piece of writing, or learn a new technique during your last film production? Know that art is a continuing education. If you practice it, you get better. And so will your feelings of self doubt, as long as you don’t let those feelings control you. 

Acknowledge the existence of imposter syndrome when it rears its ugly head, then find a way to reframe it. Knowing that other people in your position are no more capable than you helps. It’s also important to value constructive criticism and not take it too personally. Someone who can learn and grow from constructive criticism becomes a better artist, especially when they know who is a good judge for that sort of thing.

If you feel lacking in some area then practice that skill, study that subject and get legitimately better at what you want to be good at. The point is not to overcompensate and obsess, but to level up your skills and eliminate doubt.

You can also talk over these feelings with a trusted friend. Friends are great at reminding you of your best traits when you can’t see them yourself. Just know that if you need to delve deeper, it’s time to explore that with a psychologist.

 

Sources:

The Reality of Imposter Syndrome – Psychology Today

Yes, Imposter Syndrome is Real. Here’s How to Deal with it – Time.com

8 Ways to Overcome Imposter Syndrome as an Artist – Artwork Archive

12 Leaders, Celebrities and Entrepreneurs Who Have Struggled with Imposter Syndrome

5 Reasons For and Against Volunteering on a Film

On your usual search for gigs and opportunities in the film industry, you might come across more than a few posts like this:

“Looking for camera operator. No budget, sorry, but we’ve got a great project!”

“Student film in need of actors. Unpaid. Copy/meal/credit.”

Depending on what stage you are in your film career, you might consider working free gigs. The thing is, not all these opportunities are created equally. Here’s a quick guide on how to decide whether to volunteer on someone’s set.

Why you might want to volunteer:

experience

  1. Completely new to film industry.
  2. Trying to move up a position.
  3. Working for a friend.
  4. It’s a good project.
  5. You need it for your reel.

If you’ve never worked on a film set before, volunteering on a few productions might be a good idea. You’ll get the experience you need while having less pressure since you’re not technically any sort of employee. Plus it’s very difficult to get yourself noticed as a production assistant in a very competitive job market without prior experience and/or a contact on the production.

Or maybe you’re already working on films, but you’ve really like to level up your skills. Maybe you’re a well-practiced 2nd AC looking to move up to 1st. Volunteering as a 1st on a project is helpful. Again, less pressure, but gaining experience.

Most of us are pretty cool for working on a friend’s project. Plus it’s a small world and people tend to like to do each other favors like this.

#4 and 5 go hand in hand. If this project looks like a good quality project, plus you’d like to add it to your reel? You’re still benefitting.

Why you shouldn’t volunteer:

exposure meme

  1. You have plenty of experience.
  2. The project sounds like a hot mess.
  3. The project asks above and beyond what they should get for free.
  4. Particular skills required. (Examples: DP must have drone/Steadicam. An actor needs to do a nude scene or stunts).
  5. “It’s only going to take four hours!” Trust me — it won’t.

You need to value yourself enough to be paid for your skills. You don’t need to do someone’s project “for exposure” especially since exposure means hardly anything. Anyone asking you to do something for exposure should be treated with caution.

A feature shooting in 4 days? All overnights? The previous crew bailed? The job poster is nasty about the unpaid situation IN the job post? These are all red flags and indicate a project best worth avoiding.

A project asking for an inordinate amount of equipment — a DP with a specific camera and lighting package, a specific drone – are also ones I say to avoid. I also keep seeing posts asking for makeup artists for free. Makeup artists are using up their materials to do your project. They at the very least need a kit fee to cover expendables.

Maybe it’s a gig that’s mashing too many jobs rolled into one (Camera PA/Media Manager). This happens on paid gigs too, which can still be a problem.

I’ve worked on enough films that I can tell you if a project says they only need you for a handful of hours…it’s likely not true, or they grossly underestimated how long it takes to put together a shoot. Always figure a 12 hour day in.

In Conclusion

Working for free is your decision. If you think it will benefit you in the long run with experience on a new skill or you want to help somebody out — that’s great. Not volunteering is also your decision. Weigh your pros and cons list on each unpaid gig you see and make the smartest decision for you.

The Dragon Prince: Beautiful story, Problematic Production

I’m always late to get into the newest Netflix trends. My latest acquisition, The Dragon Prince, I binged all three seasons over New Years. I loved the series, and I had to talk about it.

Got halfway through Ep 1 of Wakfu. Not the same. Nice try, Netflix.

The Dragon Prince is a beautiful and dark fantasy epic. Two human princes and a Moonshadow elf must bring the young dragon princeling to his mother in the land of Xadia in order to end the war between their peoples. They face all sorts of death-defying odds and fun magic adventures with a healthy dose of humor.

What’s great is it’s incredibly diverse cast. Women are portrayed alongside men in combat. General Amaya is mute, and communicates only with sign language. There’s several LGBT characters and it’s not made a big deal of. There’s also wonderful themes of finding yourself and helping others at any cost.

TDP reminds me of one of the best animation series I’ve ever watched — Avatar: The Last Airbender. In fact they share some crew, including a voice actor and the head writer on ATLA Aaron Ehasz, who is showrunner for The Dragon Prince.

Unfortunately, after I tweeted my love to the two people on Twitter who see my posts, I uncovered the controversy associated with the showrunner, and why there likely won’t be a Season 4. Several women accused Aaron Ehasz of misogynistic behavior.

After the trailer for Season 3 dropped in November 2019, several women started talking about their problems with the company.

Lulu Younes said she needed to leave the company for her own mental and emotional health:

Danika Harrod, the former Head of Community Development at Wonderstorm (TDP production company), also said her experience was “painful” and what she witnessed drove her to leave the company. “It was just so much shutting women down, not taking women seriously, not listening to women, firing a woman and then shit talking herHarrod stated on her Twitter account.

At least three women left the company. Soon to be followed by co-producer of TDP Giancarlo Volpe, though it isn’t clear if it’s in relation to the allegations. 

Then there’s this thread by Diandra @Work (@MesaanaSedai) who worked with Aaron — this time at Riot games. As an editor, she was in charge of making sure the narrative of what they were producing was consistent. Instead, according to her, Ehasz usurped her job and make it a team activity, all while treating her as a personal assistant.

Her experience is worth noting, as it corroborates the other women’s accounts.

ehasz response
The comments on Ehasz’s response were a mix split between indignation that he avoided the allegations to promote his own company, to people claiming they’d never believe the women. “If they have proof, awesome, but I’m not going to believe the rumor mill on social media,” one commenter stated. “Word of mouth is not proof, sorry. Camera footage from the offices is proof. Text messages or emails are proof.”

But that’s the thing about workplace sexism and gaslighting — it’s not something that’s often handily encapsulated in an email or text message. It’s an employer or employee acting in the way that these women described — not respecting them or their jobs and treating them a particular way because of their gender.

This inherent disbelief of women’s experiences is the very reason why they don’t come forward on these allegations in the first place. They’re afraid they won’t be able to work again. Television is a flighty career path — cross the wrong person and you find you never work again.

A company — and the product it creates whether it be a TV series or video game — benefits greatly when you bring a variety of voices to the table. That’s why seeing this kind of controversy associated with a piece of media I really enjoyed is so upsetting. It’s why seeing articles like this after the #MeToo movement is head-smacking-against-the-desk frustrating.

I may be slow on the uptake when it comes to watching the latest Netflix craze, but the powers that be are incredibly slow in treating their women employees as equals — and that needs to change.

The Dragon Prince is still a beautiful series, worthy of being made an example of for its incredible characters and deep world building, though the real stories behind the scene do negatively color my experience. Luckily the women who had to leave the company found good jobs, but the problem of gaslighting still persists. Let this be a two-fold lesson: How to write a good series …and how to treat your employees as people.

Sources:

 

Making the No Budget Horror Film

Around 2016, I approached Lindsay Barrasse and David Corigliano of Voyager Video  with a script I wanted to shoot.

The project was the short horror film The Road Less Traveled, and after a couple years of pre-production, re-writes, rescheduling, etc — we brought it to reality. Not just that, it’s also been accepted to over 20 film festivals and won 3 awards: Best Suspense at Con Carolinas Film Festival, Best in Show at the Sands Film Festival and Best Director at the Highlands Film Festival.

rlt poster

 

Genius poster design by Des Z Graphics. You can see more of her work here.

Here I will go over the basics of putting together the no-budget short film so you can apply similar principles to your own film making exploits.

I’m keeping some details vague because I want you to see this film at a screening without being spoiled.

Script

Even a short film needs a good script. The Road Less Traveled (originally Hunted and something a little more spoilery) went through about 15 total drafts.

The Road Less Traveled versionsAround 15 drafts in 3 different screenwriting programs

I wrote the very first, very rough draft in 2014 while I was still at SCAD. In it, a girl named Mia is abandoned at a bar by her friends, and is captured by two bad men in a badass car for nefarious purposes.

I had my dear friend Masha T. Jones, a fantastic writer, critique the first early drafts. She gave me great pointers. Eventually the story shaped into what it needed to be for me to present it to Lindsay to direct.

With Lindsay’s creative mind attached, we added a scene with a gas station attendant to set up our story’s main antagonist, Clyde.

Thanks to the helpful critiques of my fellow creatives, the script morphed from a thing with too many locations and characters to a road movie with a new destination. And that destination came about because of location issues.

Locations

When RLT was submitted to Screencraft’s Short Film Production Fund Contest, we were in the running for a 10K budget, but only managed the semi-finals. We could no longer afford to rent the slaughterhouse location we originally envisioned. After several location scouting days driving around rural Northeast Pennsylvania, Lindsay quite by accident found a client who said he had an old creepy barn he’d be willing to let us shoot in. Ronald Augelli of We Talk Shirty invited us to his property to check out the place, and after I took some location pics, we knew we found the right place where Clyde might take his victim.

The Crew

The core crew consisted of myself, Lindsay Barrasse, David Corigliano and Desiree Zielinski. We all wore multiple hats.

We all worked on separate aspects during pre-production. Lindsay and Dave were the producing team, bringing all the elements together. Desiree was off doing amazing production design, I built the monster.

The reason this all worked was because we’ve all worked with each other before, multiple times. But we also broke up the filming into reasonable chunks and worked around people’s schedules.

The best piece of advice to keep a crew happy? Make sure they’re fed. Lindsay and I split up craft services duties — we always tried to have coffee and snacks and beverages on set at all times. At the end of two major shoot days I bought everyone dinner at a local diner. A fed crew is a happy crew.

Practical Effects

We did not have the budget to hire someone to do VFX. That left one avenue for production — all practical effects.

Our fog machine broke the day we needed it, so we ended up asking Dave — such a sport — to vape-pen throughout a scene outdoors at night so we could get that lovely texture in the air. (Don’t do this, just get another fog machine!)

Our monster at the end of the story? I’ve been asked at several screenings how I did the VFX on that. There wasn’t any. That monster was created through several awkward trips to Jo-Ann’s Fabric and Michaels in Dickson City. I actually put some detail into it — moving mouth and eyes, realistic teeth and claws — but it looked a little goofy so I told Lindsay, “Let’s make sure we only see this thing in silhouette.” Sometimes the Jaws approach is best when you don’t have a professional making your monster.

Equipment

I was luckier than most, because Voyager Video is a full on production company. Lindsay and Dave came complete with lighting and sound gear. We used my Sony A7S and one of their cameras along with basic light panels.

BTS RLT 3

Scheduling and Problem Solving

Our biggest hurdle was probably scheduling. This short film, though only about 11 minutes long, took us about 2 years to produce. That was because 1. we were shooting at the tail end of fall when the leaves are giving up the ghost. and 2. we had to work around everyone’s schedules.

The caveat of filming and asking everyone to work for free is you need to be very reasonable with their time. Everyone had work, different projects, plays and events to be a part of that couldn’t be put on hold for this film. So we filmed it in pieces when we could get people together. We literally had to stop filming at one point because it snowed soon after.

Some of the drone flying shots were done by Jonathan Edwards in January. Let me tell you, driving a ’67 Impala with NO HEAT in the buttcrack of winter is not fun. I was wearing a heavy winter jacket, a blanket, and several conveniently placed Hot Hands to keep me from freezing while I drove the car.

Separating that filming time caused other unique issues. One, Casey Thomas, our Clyde, misplaced his trademark green jacket before we were done with it, so we replaced it with another, similar looking one. Camille’s (Mia) red dress got a rip from running around a previous shoot day, so we avoided seeing that part of her dress the next time. Camille had also gotten an extremely different haircut, so the hair you see in the final moments of the film is actually some faux extensions she added back in. Movie magic!

1967 Impala at NEPA FFThe Impala visited the Northeast Pennsylvania Film Festival earlier this year.

Working with an antique car means you might have some surprises, as I did when I tried driving it to set one day and it petered out on a hill. I became a bit of an amateur mechanic that day, sleuthing what the problem might be. Water in the gas? Bad connection somewhere? When my Dad returned from vacation we found it was power related and replaced the alternator, spark plugs and spark plug wires. After a little tuning, it ran fine.

Plan for any and every eventuality on your own film — and you’ll still be surprised by something. It happens on every set, but being able to work around small issues will be pivotal in making your own short film happen.

Film Festivals

We submitted to very specific film festivals. We picked genre specific film festivals and festivals connected to conventions. Since our subject was horror, and we had a geeky Supernatural homage in there, that was our best bet.

Upcoming Screenings for The Road Less Traveled

NEPA horror film festival other posterOctober 13th – Dickson City, PA
  • October 13, 2019 — NEPA Horror Film Festival

It’s at a drive-in movie theater! The Road Less Traveled will be screening during the local films block. You can also see Enoch, a film I did the Steadicam work on. Tickets for the film fest are $10 online, and $14 at the gate.

See our event page here.

sick chick flicksOctober 12th – Cary NC
  • October 12, 2019 — Sick Chick Flicks Film Festival in Cary, NC.

Let us know if you can make it! Passes start from $20. See details on the website.

See our event page here.

  • October 13 – The Hobnobben Film Festival in Fort Wayne, IN.

See the film festival site for tickets and schedule here.

pa indie shorts.jpg

  • November 2, 2019 — Pennsylvania Indie Shorts Film Festival at Pocono Cinema and Cultural Center in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.

An internationally curated short film festival, right in East Stroudsburg. Say hi to my alma mater ESU for me!

  • November 19-22 – The Great Northern Creative Expo at The Media Factory Kirkham Street Preston, Lancashire PR1 2XY (The UK).

See our event page here.

You can follow our ongoing journey at our Facebook page.

Find us on Instagram: theroadlesstraveledfilm

Grab the Audience’s Attention: Opening Shots

When my DP Tery Wilson told me a particular Steadicam shot she wanted in the feature film we worked on, it struck me as important. And important it was. “This,” she said, “Is the beginning shot of the whole movie.” No pressure!

It struck me how big and weighty the first scene — and really the first shot — in a movie is. It sets up story, character and tone. It has to hold your attention from one moment to the next. The first minutes of a film are prime real estate. If you’re not hooked, you might bail. Next movie on Netflix. Next attempt at entertainment.

We are far too impatient as a modern audience to sit around for setup that takes too long.

Pace is influential here as well. Although It Follows is similar in structure to an old school horror movie — slow mounting dread throughout the story — it gets to the meat of the matter right away. That’s something I always thought the old horror movies back in the day had trouble with.

The screenwriter has to catch the attention of the first reader through to the first audience who see the film and can recommend it to their friends.

Having a bombastic beginning also relates to my earlier post about title sequences. You don’t always see flashy title sequences in movies but when you do, you better believe they are doing an important job. You can see that post on title sequences here.

It Follows

That first shot in It Follows is not just a great beginning, but also an example of fabulous shot design. The shot doesn’t break away into any edits as the girl runs from the house, is chased by an unseen follower, and eventually rushes away from the home.

What’s genius about this shot is how it follows the first person you see, establishing the horror element of an unrelenting terror. We first see the girl run out of the house, track alongside her as she runs down the sidewalk, then we become the mysterious follower, never taking our eyes off her until she flees the scene. This shot never stops moving, perfectly simulating the monster of the story.

The Dark Knight

You can see a fantastically simple yet effective opening shot in for The Dark Knight. It’s truly brilliant in its simplicity, as the very first shot doesn’t show any people, but succeeds in building tension and expectations of sudden violence to come.

An extreme zoom into a building as a window suddenly explodes outward tells us everything we need to know about the upcoming scene: stuff is going down, and it’s going to be shocking. The whole film is a slow boil to an epic, explosive showdown. It’s only fitting that we see that echoed in the very first, seemingly innocent cityscape shot.

And that whole bank robbery scene is so engaging that you can’t help but be hooked — ready for the ride.

Make it your goal to master creating a beginning – and especially opening shot – to your film that not only captures your audience’s attention but says something about plot and tone. You’ll be more likely to get an opportunity to make another film and then we’ll be studying your film making choices.

Common Film Job Scams and How to Avoid Them

Unfortunately, there’s plenty of people out there taking advantage of hungry film crew members looking to get work. It’s time we fully prepare our fellow film makers with the knowledge to avoid these scams like the plague.

One of the most common scams is a check cashing scam. Someone asks you to cash a check, saying you’ll get part of it and someone else gets the rest. In the film world, I’ve seen this come across as you needing to pay another crew member with the payment they send you. Jokes on you though – the check is fake and you’re out thousands of dollars. I’ve seen this scam numerous times around Georgia, but it’s definitely an international problem. It’s not exactly a Nigerian prince, but it’s still an old standby scammers use to great effect.

Then there was this story of a woman posing as various high profile female producers who lured people in all facets of production to Indonesia. The scam included real-looking wire transfers and the unwary crew member losing thousands of dollars on a movie that didn’t exist. This article from Deadline is definitely worth a read.

Deadline boiled it down to this: “If a high net worth producer with a seductive voice calls with an employment offer that seems too good to be true, it probably is not real. At the very least, people who receive such a call better contact the actual offices of that producer to find out if in fact that call was made.”

How to Spot a Scam

When you receive an e-mail or text message for a job, be careful of these common scam elements:

  • bad grammar/spelling
  • the word “kindly” – seriously it appears in a LOT of scam messages, it’s almost a meme by this point.
  • “We received your profile.” Weird wording.
  • Says your skills are highly preferred.
  • Asks for you to send your job position and resume – if your skills are highly sought after, surely they already know what you do?
  • Reply to secure your slot.
  • The message comes from a foreign company/name or a real production company whose name has been stolen to trick job seekers
  • The pay is suspiciously high for the job like $1500 for 3 days of PA work.

Examples

Here are some examples culled from members of various Atlanta film groups on Facebook, reposted with permission.

Red flags:

  • “Your swift response highly appreciated.”
  • “Your ____ skill needed.” Nobody in production talks like this.
  • Generally bad grammar.

Red flags:

  • E-mail comes from Gauri Khan, but name in the message is Blesson Oommen.
  • Asks a production assistant to “receive camera equipment.”
  • Daily rate for a PA (part-time!) listed as $500-$3800. I would PA forever if that was a real rate.
  • Exceptionally bad grammar, spelling, punctuation.

Scam 3

Red Flags:

  • Isaac Yu – common scam name.
  • Vague details “your city” and “your skillset.”

What Can You Do?

It’s pretty much the same as avoiding most scammers – be careful what information you share online. Most of these scammers appear to get your information through information you post online. I personally started getting many scam emails and texts after I posted my resume to Georgia Production Directory/Reel Scout but can also happen when you post your info anywhere online – Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.

You’ve got to self promote to get yourself out there, so don’t relegate yourself to the life of a hermit and delete your social media.

As a general rule, don’t accept random friend requests. When in doubt, send them a message.

If a scammer contacts you, ignore the email, block the phone number, etc. Post the scam on a site like Atlanta Film Industry Watch to warn your fellow filmmakers. If a company or person’s likeness is being used to sell the scam, send them a message to inform them.

If you receive a job offer that you’re just not sure about, ask them for a deal memo before moving forward and research the company. If anything seems fishy, bow out of there. Avoid anyone who is trying to send you a check in order to pay for equipment or another crew member’s rate.

Special thanks to Brittany Edwards and Ashley Nelson for allowing me to repost their scam findings. An informed film industry is a better one for sure.