Want the REAL guide to filmmaking for beginners? Then this is that video. No shopping guide, no links to buy anything, just the raw truth:
I’ve made too many blunders for my own good, as far as filmmaking is concerned. So this wisdom is from experience, one that hurt!
The Most Important and Least Important thing necessary
You need a camera, just as you need pants. But it’s not the most important thing. In fact, of all the critical things you need to make a movie, the camera is last on the list. When you’ve got everything else, then you can think about the camera.
And money is definitely the most important thing, regardless of budget. Without it you can’t get started. I have an article on Wolfcrow that goes into detail about how to make money, check it out. For this article I’m assuming you managed to beg, borrow or earn enough money to get started.
The difference between a filmmaking guide and a shopping guide is, in the shopping guide they just want to sell you products. But that’s not how it works. People’s needs are so different one set of products will never satisfy everyone, or even a majority of people. There’s a place for a race car guide, for sure, but it’s not in the beginners guide to driving. So whatever money you have, don’t spend the smallest decimal until you have finished this article.
1 Most important thing: Time
The most important thing you need is time. To get the same quality as what money can provide, you need time. Back in 2004 I was an assistant director in the world of commercials. It is a high-pressure world, where deadlines are always yesterday, clients change things all the time, expectations are nothing short of world class. The number one technique for solving problems in that pressure cooker situation was to throw money at it. We need a yellow bus tomorrow morning at eight, and it’s 7pm today. What do you do? Pay someone whatever they ask so you have it. Want a huge star for your commercial? Pay them. Want the best DP? Pay them. The answer is always pay pay pay.
In the world of low budget filmmaking, the last thing you want to do, or can do, is pay. To afford things you can’t afford you need to get creative. To attract the best people, you need to talk to a lot of people. This takes time. Need a yellow bus but don’t have money? Then give yourself a few weeks to find a yellow bus. Whatever you do, don’t underestimate the time required to arrange for things.
Don’t underestimate the time required to arrange for things.
How many days would it take you to find a yellow bus? Think about it. Think of all the elements in your movie, the actors, the props, that stunt, the special costume, the full moon, editing, color grading, everything. Make a list. You can’t do anything until you know how long it’ll take you to get all of that, if you can at all. If you don’t have money for a dolly but are building it yourself how much time will that take? If you give yourself too little time you won’t get things done. And they will just pile up to the point it will drown your movie. Please allow yourself lots of time. If you don’t, you’ll spend the same amount of time later anyway, recovering from your debacle.
Give yourself options. Choices. A major film studio with a production team, art direction team and prop team can locate a few yellow buses in a couple of hours, so the director can pick and choose the best one. When it will take you an entire month just to find one bus, and you have no backup plan in case it doesn’t work out, you’re setting yourself up for disaster. And if the bus is easily replaceable for a truck, let’s say, then why on earth did you put it in the script, and why did you just waste a month looking for something that wasn’t critical? Screenwriters are taught to avoid things that cannot be practically accomplished.
Even before you start meeting people make the list and honestly figure out what you can really achieve – no wishful thinking, no assumptions. Be hard on yourself.
Make the list and honestly figure out what you can really achieve – no wishful thinking, no assumptions.
This actually happened in the only feature film I’ve ever made, called The Impossible Murder. This was back in 2008. It’s an intricate locked room murder mystery where the geometry of the house was important to the actual crime itself. My grandmother had given me permission to shoot in our family home so I was banking on that. By the time I made my money and got everything together a couple of years had passed and she was a lot older and I realized I couldn’t shoot there because it would inconvenience her. That just never occurred to me. Not only did it take a long time to find a replacement house but it was nothing like our home, and it created problems I was never able to solve. It was too late. The point is, even with a done deal, it’s never a done deal. So if there’s something huge in your script that you don’t have a replacement for, then you’d better have a plan B.
When you’re inexperienced you can’t be expected to know how much time things will really take. One great way to solve this problem is let an experienced production manager or art director or producer look at your script. You can buy them lunch, or pay them for a day. If they see you are sincere and you respect their time, they will tell you like it is, and all you have to do is put your preconceived bullshit aside.
I consider casting to be more important than the script. Film school after film school and book after book will tell you to get the script right first, and they’re right. But only if you are on a properly produced film with a decent budget. When you are assured those things, then the script easily becomes the most important thing.
On the other hand, for a beginner filmmaker, the script can become deadly. You can be so blinded to the script you ignore the deficiencies of your production. And let’s not kid ourselves, we all think our scripts are good, but look around you. Most scripts aren’t. I’m proud of my locked room script, it took me a year just to solve my own puzzle. But I was so blinded to that effort I missed other major problems with the script. Today, if there’s anything interesting about the movie, it’s the actors. That cool movie I had in my head never happened. Here’s a quote for you:
A great script is worthless without a team to make it happen.
Maybe your script is good, but you are going to make a lot of compromises with locations, props and so on due to budget and lack of experience. You need something going for you, and good actors are like anchors.
Finding the right actor is critical. Most people watch movies for the actors. You see your favorite actor on the poster or thumbnail and you’ll click. People have so much media to consume today the traditional feature film is falling in priority by the day. So even if you don’t have a huge name-actor, the least you can do is get the right actor.
A great actor can make a dull scene interesting. A camera-friendly face will keep your audience watching instead of tuning out. And when you don’t have a lot of money, you need to spend a lot of time casting. Don’t confirm the dates of production until you have your actors on board. Of course, you don’t have the right to string along anybody either. Part of being a filmmaker is to motivate and excite everyone else, even if things are crumbling around you.
Locations contribute greatly to production values. When Steven Spielberg starts a movie, do you think he starts with which camera he should pick? Or what about Roger Deakins? He spends endless hours discussing locations and color with the production designer. A major influence on a DP’s work is the quality of the production design. The problem for indie filmmakers is, there isn’t any money for production design.
Most indie feature films don’t have an art department or a prop department. That’s fine, but that doesn’t mean those things are not relevant anymore. You’d better have a great location. The trick most directors recommend is to find a location that’s about 80% there. The setting, the furniture, the space, even some props. It should all exist already. If it’s real it will look real. If you go to a film studio a readymade set will never look right, so you need to spend a lot of time finding the perfect location. You need time to give yourself options, negotiate and come up with solutions to practical problems like ambient noise, sunlight, toilets, a place where people can eat and take rest during breaks, parking space and so on. The list is endless. If the walls need painting but you can’t afford to hire painters, then you might need to paint yourself. You can’t cast or write or plan your movie while you’re painting, so that’s extra time you have to account for.
Notice something? Numbers three and four are actors and location, production design and costumes. Guess what? Those are the things in front of your camera. If you don’t have what’s in front of your camera, you have no right to turn on your camera. What’s that expensive camera doing there anyway if you’re going to point it at crap? It will still look like crap, just with more dynamic range. The crap will look clearer. Do you think an Arri Alexa will make a poor location look good? People think a camera is a substitute for production values. I did too, it’s one of the biggest misconceptions in our industry.
If you don’t have what’s in front of your camera, you have no right to turn on your camera. A camera is not a substitute for poor locations.
If you want a reality check just study your favorite director or cinematographer. Unless they are trying to sell you some product through a sponsorship, they won’t even bother with the camera until what’s supposed to be in front of the camera is ready.
5 Your Crew
If you manage to cast a good actor chances are he or she is also busy with other projects. They didn’t get good by sitting at home and dreaming. You need to make the most of their time during production, which means you want to be shooting as much as possible. To do this you need a crew that will take care of all the jobs that otherwise will slow you down.
E.g., somebody has to manage the catering. If you can’t afford a caterer, and you decide to hand it off to a production assistant or worse, an assistant director, you’ll realize very soon they won’t do it well. It’s not their fault. Catering is a specialist job. Production assistants are not caterers, nor do they want to be. You can’t ask people to do things they don’t want to do. If you signed up to be a DP you don’t want to spend time washing a car for the shot or unpacking the camera or setting up lightstands and laying down cable. You need all that time finding great shots. If your crew is distracted they can’t do their job.
Many people hate actors because they see them demanding air-conditioned vanity vans and because they have three or four assistants all the time. I thought so too when I started out, but that door slammed real hard on my face. Would you prefer your actors arrirved for a take sweating and totally pissed off because of mosquito bites? Or maybe their throats are parched because they didn’t eat or drink on time. As a director it’s your prime duty to ensure actors are comfortable during the shoot, so when it’s time for the take they have no excuse but to deliver their best. Every production has a minimum amount of crew members needed to pull it off in a professional manner. When you’re a beginner, your limitations as a filmmaker will be made obvious for everyone to see. No matter how perfect you think you are, you are going to screw up. The difference is, a good crew will fill in those gaps. A poor or insufficient crew will just make the gaps seem wider.
You can talk all your way through pre-production, but the moment the first shot rolls people will know you for who you really are. And that’s okay, but if you were a prick beforehand you’re done.
Before you think about your camera, spend your money on actors and the crew.
If you have only ten thousand dollars for your entire feature film, spend the first money on the actors and crew, and give yourself time to find deals for locations and props and costumes.
Once you have a team in place, and a script in place, and all the things that is going to be in front of the camera, then it’s time to move to:
Ideally you should be thinking about distribution even before you write one page of screenplay. You need to be really practical about this or your movie will be dead even if it turns out to be good. I spent months talking to distributors and television channels hoping to get my movie shown, after it was made. By then it was too late. This was back in 2009, so there wasn’t any online option for me, except for Amazon DVD sales. I didn’t have any money left for film festivals and to be honest I wasn’t really proud of my film. I had made too many mistakes and I had spent a total of four years for earning money to writing to getting it all done. When it was finally done I just didn’t have any energy left.
Think about distribution even before you write one page of screenplay.
I smile every time I hear a budding director say he’ll make his movie in three months or whatever. I can’t convince them otherwise, directors have egos. I can’t convince you either if you’ve already decided the camera and a fast lens is more important than what’s in front of it. It’s your movie. It’s your disaster waiting to happen. Some people have to fall hard to get some sense knocked into them.
So for the sake of your own career the least you can do as a responsible filmmaker is to find out how your movie will be seen, and by whom. Discuss it with your cast and crew, don’t enter production until everyone is on the same page. If you get everyone involved there’s a good chance you can make some money back. When you have a professional crew for your movie, they’ll have connections that will help you with the marketing later. If you’re working with total newbies who have no experience or contacts, you’re on your own, and the responsibility is even greater.
7 Audio and Post Production
I club both of these together because to a beginner filmmaker these departments are invisible. It’s something that you will handle when the time comes. There are countless movies that are lost forever because there was no money left for post production. And no audience will sit through ninety minutes of poor audio. You absolutely 100% without a shadow of a doubt need a professional sound mixer on set. And not your cousin holding the boom arm, but a professional boom operator.
And please understand, post production is not just editing and a laptop, though it could be simple if your project is. I have a video on post production that will show you all the stages, check it out:
Don’t touch that post production money!
Last on the List: Your Gear
Why do I say ‘gear’ and not camera? Because there are things more important. Like lighting, like data backups, like generators or electricity, or proper bags and cases. If you have ten thousand dollars to spend on your movie and the actors, crew, locations, marketing material, post production and audio have eaten nine thousand five hundred of that, what do you do?
Easy, shoot with the cheapest camera you can lay your hands on. Or rent. Or, pay the DP so they’ll get their own gear. It’s called wet hiring. But, whatever you do, please don’t convince yourself you’re qualified to decide on a camera, especially if you don’t know how to use one. Let the DP and Sound Mixer worry about the gear. Let your crew worry about all the things you shouldn’t be doing anyway, and listen to Quentin Tarantino:
If you don’t agree feel free to go ahead and spend half your budget on a camera. I’ll tell you in advance: “I told you so.” When your movie fails you can be sure your camera will be there with you, sitting idle in the corner, because by itself it is only as useful as a brick in the wall. You will be sick of the sight of it.
Failed filmmaker’s lament: What was I thinking?!
If you’re interested in a shopping guide, then I’ve got the right one for you. The first TEN things you need to buy right now as a filmmaker.