A Film is Born Three Times: Pt. 2 Production

“A film is born three times. First in the writing of the script, once again in the shooting, and finally in the editing.”

Robert Bresson, French film maker.

Part 2 of 3. Read Part 1 on Re-writing here.

You’ve written the script. You’ve done the pre-production. You have your shotlist in hand and you’re ready to shoot. Surely, you have an image of what your film is going to look like in your head. The thing is — it’s really hard to make that a reality.

Once you’ve made your first or even fourteenth film, isn’t part of you a little disappointed it doesn’t look exactly how you pictured it? No? Just me, okay.

There’s a number of factors that go into why your film will change during production. Let’s go over a few reasons:

  • casting
  • location
  • equipment

Casting

You and a friend are prepping for a film competition and it’s the night before your first shoot day. You’ve got your gear and props, your script finalized, your cast set and call sheets sent out. Now all you need is–

Oh wait, your lead actor just quit. Now it’s 11pm at night and you’re supposed to be filming a mere 10 hours from now.

This is exactly what happened to Desiree and I when we were prepping our Mystery Box Film Challenge short. Our lead actor was cast via the film commission in Philly, and he decided at 11pm the night before the shoot that he wasn’t going to drive to Northeast Pennsylvania to do the short. Because he’d have to get up early. I can’t even make this up. The actor had the script and knew where he’d be filming for days in advance, and chose literally the 11th hour to change his mind.

Desiree and I very calmly… went into panic mode. After a moment of us going “literally, WTF” we contacted everyone we knew in the local film community, and the search was on. Friends contacted friends until we connected with a guy named Joe, who was more than happy to help us. He turned out to be a great actor, a better choice than we originally had, and our short film continued as scheduled.

Especially in the case of short films and volunteer projects, you could lose people at the last minute. The goal is to have a network you can turn to in order to fill in the gaps. Or start getting creative with the cast you already have.

Location

When I originally wrote The Road Less Traveled, I had envisioned a cat and mouse chase inside a literal slaughterhouse. Instead, we ended up in an antique barn, which I ended up liking so much more.

Sometimes your limitations on location will be budget related. You intended on x but had money for y (or z was free).

Weather, too, can play a part. If originally your location was going to be outdoors and a storm blows through, you might have to re-evaluate and see if you can film an indoor scene instead.

My thesis film, Routine Procedures took place in a crater….but since that’s impossible to create on no budget, we filmed in a sand pit used by construction. We filmed on days they weren’t out scooping the sand. A unique feature was that a lot of it was flooded, so we needed to purchase a canoe to get to the optimal location.

Equipment

You’ve got everything planned. Absolutely nothing could go wrong.

You get the idea now, right?

You don’t have enough batteries to continuously shoot. Your media fails. Your stabilizer isn’t stabilizing. Your mattebox donut has ripped and too much light is now hitting the filter.

This is one example where we had to replace a piece of equipment with something unexpected. The rubber “donut” that goes from the mattebox to the lens had torn, and too much light was hitting the filters. We replaced it with an old school mousepad with a hole cut in it. It worked great! Plus I ended up seeing this kittycat mouse pad on the next project I worked with this DP so obviously it made an impression.

Film sets are Murphy’s Law Incarnate. You need to be able to roll with the punches.

The following scenarios have happened to me or someone I know:

  • the DP underestimated how much media we’d need to record on and nobody media managed even after I pointed out we were going to run out of cards. The last scene of the day was filmed shooting one line of dialogue at a time on the last two minutes of card space.
  • Your wireless follow focus has lost signal and has some issue that can’t be solved, so you pull it off the barrel of the lens and pull focus by hand (like the pioneers did!)
  • The director suddenly wants a Steadicam-like shot without there being a budget or an actual Steadicam around. You see a rolling desk chair and get some ideas…

Don’t let an equipment malfunction limit your ability to shoot your film. There’s often a way around it if you take a moment to look at your options.

A Steadicam setup I did years ago for someone’s crowdfund campaign. The camera was way too light for the Steadicam, so I bongo tied a few 5lb ankle weights on there to compensate.

One of the absolute best skills you can have as a film maker is problem solving. If you can be adaptable, creative and a team player, you can find a way around your problem and into a solution.

Screenwriting Basics #5: Scene Description

I want to spend time showing examples, so very quickly here’s what goes into scene description (also called action lines):

Elements of Scene Description:

  • tells you what the characters are doing in the scene
  • describes the setting
  • details what can be seen or heard in the scene
  • sets tone and pacing or rhythm that informs the edit
  • uses ALL CAPS to highlight important things (use sparingly)
  • avoids camera direction (don’t use “the camera dollies in…”)

We’re going to look at pages from three very different scripts: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018) by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, Zodiac (2007) by James Vanderbilt, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) by William Goldman

Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse (2018)

This animated film balances humor, pathos and a coming-of-age story in a superhero origin film. It is excellent, and for that matter, so is the script.

Into the Spider-verse has a narrative told through a comic book filter, and for that reason the script has to show this comic flair as clearly as possible. That includes scripting out the comic thought bubbles and things that appear across the screen. Note that the pivotal moment “EVERYONE KNOWS” is played up for comic relief — the script has it appear in giant letters behind Miles, the last period landing with a resounding note.

Later in the script, when Miles is trying to help Peter B Parker hack into a computer they have to work around the Head Scientist Olivia Octavius. This fun exchange happens:

That “organize your desktop, lady!” line got big laughs in the theater, and that’s partly because of how starkly we’re shown the “BAFFLING DESKTOP FULL OF FILES” right before that. So relatable. If that moment hadn’t been scripted out, it wouldn’t have played to such laughs.

Zodiac (2007)

Lots of good feelings from the first example. Let’s go down a darker path.

Writing horror, thriller, suspense… they come with other challenges. How can you communicate that a scene is scary? Get out this page from Zodiac, the movie based on the real story of the Zodiac Killer.

Look at how the car following Darlene and Mike, soon-to-be-victims, is characterized. Like a hungry lion. It’s not literal, and yet it works to get the point across.

What was interesting when I looked up this example was the fact that the script I lfound and the resulting film were very different scenes. In the script, this car has been following Darlene and Mike for miles, resulting in a car chase and eventual car trouble. In the movie, things are quite innocent until the killer’s car pulls up behind them.

An early draft could look totally different from what you eventually see on screen. Why this car chase scene was skipped over was possibly two-fold — the car chase scene took too long and detracted from the rest of the movie, and possibly because it wasn’t true to what really happened. This is a real killer this movie is based on, so some attempt at reality should be made.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969)

In the opening of this Western, we’re introduced to our main character Butch Cassidy. The scene descriptions give us a good idea of what type of man he is and how he should be portrayed.

William Goldman is a very well known screenwriter, and he could get away with some tricks that you probably shouldn’t do in your first scripts. For one, he’s scripting out a lot of stuff that cannot be seen, like how Butch speaks and that he’s been a leader of men all his life. For the most part, if you can’t see or hear it, you should think twice about writing it in your action lines.

The format is also a little off from the norm, or at least what we see today. A MAN is separated from the rest of the description. This could be very intentional rhythm illustrated for the scene, having the director and actor take their time letting this introduction play out before the camera. Nowadays, write the subject in the same paragraph. William Goldman can do all this. We can’t. Yet.

I also want to note Goldman’s use of “CUT TO:” between each segment here. This is a stylistic choice — it’s not necessary. Sometimes this can give a sense of pacing. Personally I find script pages to be prime real estate — I might need to hit very specific page counts and I find the CUT TO unnecessary because…well, what else are you going to do? If you’re jumping to another scene, you’re gonna cut.

Sources:

The Magic Bullet: Action Lines – ScriptMag.com

5 Ways to Write More Effective Scene Description – The Script Lab

Screenwriting Basics #4: Dialogue

One way to get me interested in your script: Have really compelling, interesting, and/or funny dialogue.

Writing dialogue is hard. Heck, writing at all is hard. It takes years of study — reading everything you can get your hands on, practicing at your craft, sucking at the first few scripts you try, doing better with each draft and receiving constructive criticism that leads you down the right path.

First, let’s understand what counts as bad dialogue.


*snore*

Is anyone else bored yet? I know I am. Dialogue like this, although similar to how we talk in real life, does nothing to advance a plot and frankly bores the reader into a stupor. Authentic dialogue does not mean word-for-word small talk. Authentic dialogue is more simulated reality.

Another example:

If some kid scares off some robbers with his, um, karate skills? Wouldn’t you want to see that happen?

Here’s where we remember the cardinal writing rule of Show, Don’t Tell. It’s much more interesting to see action scripted out, happening before us, than to have some character explaining it. Johnny’s dialogue here becomes an info dump — blurting out a series of events in an unnecessarily long rant. It is so dull to hear a character explain things that should have just unfolded on screen.

Another fun, yet difficult one to learn. On-the-nose dialogue.

On-the-nose dialogue is when characters say what they actually feel in the moment or describe things that are obvious. It’s the opposite of subtlety. This is where subtext comes in, and that’s a tricky subject.

Subtext is the implicit meaning of a text—the underlying message that is not explicitly stated or shown. Subtext gives the reader information about characters, plot, and the story’s context as a whole.

https://www.masterclass.com/articles/what-is-subtext-learn-the-definition-and-role-of-subtext-in-writing-plus-5-tips-to-better-incorporate-subtext-in-your-work

A character’s feelings, or even the situation at hand, can be described using visuals, settings, character body language and more to be conveyed. Sometimes, a character will say the opposite of what they mean, but we as the audience can see the truth behind it. Humans lie a lot. Your characters could too.

Yeah. Johnny isn’t happy.

Your characters can say a lot without really saying much. Trust the actors to do the acting. Body language coupled with dialogue can change an entire meaning of a line.

Great dialogue is, of course, subjective. Beauty is in the ear of the beholder. But there are a number of films out there that many folks agree has good dialogue. Check out this scene from The Shawshank Redemption. Spoilers if you haven’t seen this famous film from 1994.

“It always makes me laugh. Andy Dufresne… who crawled through a river of sh*t and came out clean.”

– Red

This scene comes at the end of the movie. Andy Dufresne has already escaped, and Morgan Freeman’s character Red laments his loss. It’s expositional. It’s telling, not showing. It shouldn’t work but it does. It wraps things up beautifully, told in the unique voice of Red.

“I’m Mad As Hell and I’m Not Gonna Take This Anymore!”

– Howard Beale

This scene from Network is a great one to study. A news anchor losing his cool on national television! But the story behind the scene is not that he’s mad about current events… it’s truly about his anger over the fact that he’s losing his job. Subtext!

“That ain’t no Etch a Sketch. This is one doodle that can’t be undid.”

– Convenience Store Clerk

I really like Juno. The characters all have very strong, individual voices. Even the bit parts, like the clerk at the convenience store, are interesting characters for an actor to play.

You want to be the type of writer who could attract someone to any part in your film, and screenwriter Diablo Cody became quite the Hollywood darling after this film premiered.

Sources:

How to Avoid Writing On The Nose Dialogue – Screencraft.org

15 Movies Screenwriters Should Watch to Study Dialogue – Screencraft.org

What is Subtext – Masterclass.com

Screenwriting Basics #3: Character

Unless you’re writing the type of artistic film where you only show time lapses of moss growing or something, you’re likely going to need characters to populate your script. They may be a hodgepodge group of high schoolers or even anthropomorphic cars.

The most important of which is your main character. And they should do more than just go through the motions.

Your main character needs to be interesting. Infuse them with details, quirks, dialogue that makes the reader, and eventually audience, enjoy going on this ride with them.

How do you do this? Start thinking details. Are they funny? Smart in a really unique way? Do they see the world in a way others do not? Do they have a personal struggle and you can’t help but root for them?

Do they have a general disdain for humanity but also the propensity for curing everyone’s ills?

Lookin’ at you, Doctor House.

You want to avoid stereotypes in your main character. Instead of having a genius doctor, you have a genius doctor who lacks a bedside manner, has a physical disability which leads him to a dependency on narcotics.

So let’s talk round vs flat characters.

“A round character is deep and layered character in a story. Round characters are interesting to audiences because they feel like real people; audiences often feel invested in these characters’ goals, successes, failures, strengths, and weaknesses.”


https://www.masterclass.com/articles/round-vs-flat-characters-in-fiction

Round characters are more interesting and make your reader and audience more invested in the story.

“A flat character is a two-dimensional character lacking depth or a real personality. Usually, flat characters have just one or two perfunctory traits. Often considered “stock characters,” flat characters can often be summarized in one word (like “bully” or “love interest”) and never digress from or transcend their role.”

https://www.masterclass.com/articles/round-vs-flat-characters-in-fiction

A flat character lacks the great detail that makes a compelling character. They fall into stereotypes — the distracted professor, the overworked single mom, the ditsy cheerleader… we’ve seen these time and again. It’s fine if they populate the rest of your world a bit, but for the characters we follow? We want more.

How to write a round character:

  • Character Traits. What are their character traits, both good and bad? What is the flaw your main character possesses that might cause them grief later in the story?
  • Details. What are their likes/dislikes? What is their appearance? What sports do they play? Where do they work? You might not use all of these, but it will help you make more informed decisions on how your character will act.
  • Believability. Your main character has believable reactions to events based on their character traits. A generally mellow person won’t just blow up at a minor inconvenience. It wouldn’t fit their character. Don’t lose your reader, and later your audience, by making your character behave strangely.
  • Conflict. Give them an internal and external conflict. The main conflict may be the fate of the world ending, but the internal conflict may be a father regaining the love of his estranged daughter.
  • Dialogue. Your character has a voice, and it should be a distinct voice. If you cover up the names of all the characters in your script and read the dialogue, you should be able to tell who is speaking. Don’t let everyone sound the same.

Building a really interesting main character is one part of writing that great first script.

Sources:

https://blog.reedsy.com/round-character/

https://www.indiewire.com/2013/11/screenwriting-101-5-tips-for-writing-better-characters-into-your-screenplay-33156/

https://www.masterclass.com/articles/round-vs-flat-characters-in-fiction

Screenwriting Basics #1: Budget Friendly Screenwriting Software

This is the first in a multi-part series breaking down the screenwriting process so you can get started writing your next great idea.

First, let’s talk where you write the script. I don’t care if you start in a paper notebook or scribble outlines on napkins, at some point you’re going to have to type this into proper screenwriting format on a computer.

Professional screenwriting programs like Movie Magic Screenwriter or Final Draft are a major investment. Screenwriter 6 is currently at the sale price of $169. It’s usually $249. Final Draft 12 is on sale for $185 (again, usually $249).

That’s a hefty price tag for someone who is just starting out. Luckily, there’s some really good free and cheap options out there too:

  • YouMeScript – a Google Drive extension. Features the ability to have multiple writers working at the same time from different computers. Great for collaboration but make sure you save often. It does not automatically save for you.
  • Fade In – Fade in provides a free trial to get you started. It is only $80 for the full version.
  • Writer Duet – a Cloud based software that has a lot of nifty features. The free trial lets you write your first 3 scripts on the program for free.
  • Celtx – This used to be free but it seems it’s gone through some updates and is now $15/mo for the most basic package.

The free options are fine for when you are learning to write or if you are simply writing for your own short films, but if you decide to go big time and start submitting to agents or contests or major production houses — get Final Draft or Screenwriter. There can be little formatting issues with the free programs that the pricey programs would sort out.

Study the Craft

You can’t expect to grow as a writer unless you work at it, study it and see what’s been done before.

You can see my list of recommended screenwriting books here: Reading List: Screenwriting.

How do you expect to write a script if you don’t read them first? The following link gives resources to the best screenplays to read in each genre.

You can also check out a lot more scripts on Simply Scripts and Drew’s Script-o-Rama. Just keep in mind some are transcripts written by a fan watching a show, which makes them not worth studying. You may also have to click through a few, especially on Drew’s site — some links are broken.

“So what’s all this I hear about formatting?” We’ll talk about that in the next Screenwriting Basics post.

Film Job Scams and How to Avoid Them – Take Two

I’ve written about it before, and I’ll likely write about it again — there’s many people out there taking advantage of folks desperate for work, a large percentage aimed directly at those trying to break into the film industry.

I actually had to push back on publishing this blog as more and more scams were outed daily on Facebook. Here we are going to look at some examples and discuss how to tell a job offer is actually a scam.

General Advice:

  • Actors should never be charged for a role or an audition. Never.
  • Actors do not pay to be represented by a casting agency. A legit agency makes money when you book roles. There is no upfront cost.
  • Anyone: If it sounds too good to be true, it likely is.
  • Beware of jobs offering weekly rates instead of day rates.
  • Be cautious with a job that seems to put the wrong duties on a job description (like a PA being expected to run sound or do payroll).
  • Do not trust someone who tries to send you a check before you do the job.
  • Be very cautious of anyone offering a big position above or below the line without seeing if you meet qualifications (I.e. Director of Photography job being offered without them seeing your resume or reel first.)

Check Cashing Scams

One of the most common scams we see in this business is the check cashing/phishing scam. In this one, the fake job provider sends you a check BEFORE the job in order for you to purchase equipment, pay other crew, or something similar. Usually this is aimed at production assistants and people new to the industry.

Nobody will send you a check before a job and nobody will expect a PA to purchase equipment or personally pay crew. The scam only serves to empty the unwitting person’s bank account, usually of thousands of dollars.

A play on this scam was posted on a Facebook group by Randy Swieca, adding in the New Coke flavor of Bitcoin to the mix. An applicant to the job said he was sent a check in the mail and told to deposit it in his account and send bitcoin to an undisclosed location. As the Facebook poster explained, money matters are a production accountant job, not something a PA is expected to do. The would-be applicant rightfully determined it was a scam and immediately posted a warning on the group where he saw the original post.

The Trying-Too-Hard Scammer

Zach Barry posted about a scammer going by the name Ann Gendry who sent an enormous block of text via e-mail.

For your sanity, I detail the red flags in the e-mail with this bulleted list:

  • Bad grammar examples: “I will like to thank you.”
  • Claiming the job will lead to a long-term opportunity. How?
  • Production assistant job that includes A LOT of duties that aren’t typical PA duties like check processing. She claims she is doing a short documentary, so it’s hard to believe she’ll need travel booking, making/distributing copies of scripts (for a documentary, remember), getting approval of copyrighted clips/music, assisting with pilot logistics (wasn’t it a documentary a minute ago?).
  • “Run errands such as purchasing supplies, props and other necessary items for the project.” This part is the check cashing scam. They will claim you need to purchase things and you will be reimbursed or they’ll send a fake check. YOU are the one out the money.
  • “Basic wage is $900.00 first two weeks preparation period and after which you will be paid Rate: $200./10hr on set.” No. You will not. This is not normal.
  • Then my favorite, the “About Me” section. Gendry claims “I have been short movie producer director in many places in Europe…I will travel a lot, hence the reason why I need an assistant to handle affairs for me on the home front when I am away on business which is usually quite often. This position is home-based.” This is very similar to a car selling scam on Craigslist where the scammer pretends to be abroad or in the army.

The Copy/Paste Scam

I’m calling it that because I’ve seen the exact same scam e-mail with only names and titles changed. For instance:

“I’m Vincent TONG I’m a producer for Reforma films I saw your profile posted on film production directory, I want to inform you about a upcoming short film project coming up in your area Titled ( Grateful ) Start date: May ‪25-30-2020‬, pay is $1800, I’m in search for effective FIRST CAMERA ASSISTANT kindly reply with your updated resume for more information and consideration thank you.

Kind regards
Stay blessed”

Vincent TONG (make sure you shout that last name!) e-mailed me May 4 2020. But then there’s also:

This particular scam usually comes in via e-mail, though I’ve seen it in a text message before as well.

The red flags in this “job offer” are:

  • film production directory (for some reason a lot of scams reference this vague nonexistent service)
  • Bad grammar/spelling/awkward wording from a non-English speaker
  • “Stay Blessed” and “Kind Regards” are often used to sign off on scam emails.
  • Unusually high pay for a position (especially for Production Assistant)
  • Job offers for jobs you don’t do — I’ve gotten this same one for Makeup artist.
  • Weekly or lump sums (“pay is $1800”) instead of day rates.
  • Scam emails will sometimes steal famous peoples names and production company names to try to sound legit.

Casting Scams

Alan Baltes

A community member in the Atlanta Film Production Group recently posted about Alan Baltes, a scammer who is well known for casting scams.

Alan gets his own heading because he’s made it a point to be a jerk scamming prospective actors time and time again. Baltes has previously tried to con people by pretending to cast for Jurassic Park: Dominion and sequels to Crazy Rich Asians. You can read about his exploits here in this article related to his Crazy Rich Asians scam. Now he’s focusing on John Wick 4.

Baltes claims he’s casting for movies while insisting on a $99 fee to submit, ironically to his own Cash App.

Actors — you do not PAY for casting calls or auditions.

NDA

Another similar scam popped up on a Facebook group where someone said they were asked to pay for an NDA (non-disclosure agreement). Again, that’s not a thing you pay for.

You can read further on how to avoid scams targeting actors here. And another helpful Backstage.com article on identifying scams here.

Modeling Scams

Vina Kent shared screenshots of a modeling scam that targeted her family and probably many others. Screenshots are attached and we’ll touch on a few details that mark this an obvious scam.

  • Models are asked to pick the date of the shoot
  • The locations for the job hasn’t been determined yet
  • A “modeling coach” could be provided for new models.
  • Weird hourly rates
  • A depot of $500 will be sent before the job (possible check phishing scam)
  • Weird wording/bad grammar
  • Giant block of text with no breaks

This one is clearly aiming to scam aspiring models out of their money.

So…How Can I Tell if a Job is Real?

Use your best judgement. If you’re uneasy, do your research. Google whoever is contacting you, the company, the producer, whoever you can. If someone has worked with them before, ask them before getting into a potentially dangerous situation. Keep in mind that scammers often steal the names of real production companies and producers. Chances are that Steven Spielberg won’t be contacting you personally for a production assistant gig, sorry.

Usually, legit jobs are really basic and to the point. For some reason many scammers send giant blocks of texts overexplaining everything. You could see that in the modeling scam and the email bullet point summary by Ann Gendry. They’re backpedaling. They’re trying to overwhelm you and get you to let your guard down.

Many of the gigs I’ve gotten boil down to this: “Are you available July 23-28? We need a cam op for a reality show.” I respond with my availability and then we discuss specifics like rate and job specifications.

Scammers try really hard to get your money. Don’t let ’em. Come across a scam? Feel free to post a screenshot on social media and inform your friends in the industry. A well informed community is safer because of it.

Special Thanks:

To everyone who allowed me to use screenshots and their personal interactions with the scammers to write this blog: Zach Barry, Vina Kent, Cyntoria Mccarroll, Alexandria Denise.

References:

Fake Production Assistant Listings

Crazy Rich Asians 2 Scammer Responds, Claims He’s the One That Got Scammed Movie Web

13 Signs of an Acting Scam – Backstage.com

How to Spot a Casting Scam – Backstage.com

“It’s a F–king Scam”: Beware the Hollywood Con Queen – Vanity Fair

Common Film Job Scams and How to Avoid Them – Bridget LaMonica

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:

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

Small thinking and Downsizing

I Redbox’d Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, fully expecting an unusual, indie-ish film with a decent special effects budget and commentary on human excess. What I found was a hodgepodge of themes so mashed together as to resemble a brown sludge instead of a solid idea.

It’s an intriguing concept; A scientist discovers how to shrink humans to 5 inches tall, reducing their carbon footprint. Married couple Paul (Matt Damon) and Audrey (Kristin Wiig) decide to undergo the procedure so they can have the home of their dreams, only to have Audrey leave Paul when he is shrunk first. It all kinda meanders from there.

downsizing

Downsizing touches (but doesn’t commit) on the following themes:

  1. Ecological responsibility/the Green Movement
  2. Economic/Socio-economic disparities
  3. Emotional — Paul dealing with a new life after being abandoned by Audrey
  4. Political/xenophobic

The problem with all these, albeit great thematic elements, is the fact that we bounce between them, never fully embracing enough to make a strong premise.

From this point on there will be spoilers (including the ending)

The Green Movement

The scientists who created the process of downsizing did so in order to reduce our emissions and help save the world. The term “downsizing” comes from the idea of simplifying one’s life for overall improvement. A company may downsize to cut costs, or an individual may downsize their home to make it more manageable to take care of.

The movie also illustrates the green movement by showing the shared cars in the tiny city Paul moves in to. Everyone shares what appear to be electric cars.

By the end of the movie, 3% of the world’s population has downsized, but it’s not enough to keep the polar ice caps from melting. Too little, too late. Pun intended?

Socio-economic Disparities

The most interesting theme in the movie, from my point of view, were the socio-economic differences present among the little people.

At first it appears that mostly the middle class folks downsize because their money is worth more when they undergo the process. They can afford lavish mansions and live comfortably off their savings. Other people downsize as a personal choice, so escape their current life and have a fresh start.

Later on, we’re introduced to the lower-class (and mostly ethnic) residents of Paul’s city. These people still have to work for a living, some of them as maids to clean the rich people’s mansions and apartments. Paul is introduced to this world when he meets Vietnamese activist Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). She was shrunk against her will and now cleans apartments while hobbling on a poorly designed prosthetic leg.

hong chau

The disparity is shown in stark relief as Paul sees Ngoc’s side of town. First off, they have to take a crowded bus which takes them through the wall of the city’s enclosure and into a dismal town outside the wall. If that journey through the wall doesn’t say a lot about economic disparity, I don’t know what does.

Paul’s interaction with this woman is the heart of the story, and frankly what the story should have stuck to. It’s touching, it’s smart and it’s a logical endpoint for Paul to reach some conclusions on what he is worth. He can help these people with so many of their problems, either through his occupational therapy training or by helping them get food.

Sadly we had a few other themes to muck it all up.

Emotional

I tacked this on because it’s more of a plot point that doesn’t get resolved.

Audrey abandons Paul right after he’s downsized. This is something that is given away in the trailer, and lost a lot of emotional impact since it was not a surprise. It also felt very forced. Audrey never seemed thrilled about downsizing. Why did they go through with going to get the procedure? This is likely more a problem with the character than the story.

After that plot point (Audrey leaving) we get no payoff. Sure we see Paul mulling through life post-Audrey, but we don’t get a nice book-ending moment. He doesn’t see Audrey again, doesn’t speak to her, doesn’t really come to terms with it. We can argue that his friendship and later relationship with Ngoc serves that purpose, but I feel something was missing.

Political/Xenophobic

As soon as there’s anyone who’s different, there’s going to be people who hate them.

A man approaches Paul at his going-away party prior to downsizing. The man is noticeably annoyed, and says the little people should not benefit from the rest of the country’s taxes since they don’t pay any taxes, and that they should only have a portion of a vote when it comes to elections.

The guy is a racist jerk motif to the tee…but is he wrong?

Of course he is but part of the problem with the downsizing concept is that it’s not fully fleshed out. How is it economically viable to have these little people living off their savings for the rest of their lives? Forget the conversion rate of the tiny houses being so cheap, what about whenever they need to buy products or services outside their tiny cities? Not everything is produced in the tiny city. Their money can’t possible retain it’s inflated value in the outside world. That bottle of vodka from the trailer should be worth a million dollars!

And how are these people not paying taxes? How did that slip the government’s radar? Sure, the process was hailed as a tax write off because #greenmovement but …how?

Despite all that, and the interesting parallels with real-life xenophobia…the hatred between normals and little people is never expressed again.

Ending Thoughts

Downsizing was a mixed bag. Sure it had an interesting insights into the pros and cons of this imaginary medical procedure….but the fact that it couldn’t focus and elaborate on some key elements made it a bit of a mess.

If you are about to watch it, prepare for a slow beginning and meandering plot until Ngoc Lan Tran arrives, because she’s a wonderful addition. Maybe the story should have been more about her?