All posts by Greg

The Filmmaking Process: A Brief Primer

By Greg Pak

 
All the talk about digital video has many people excited about the prospect of cheap filmmaking but fuzzy on the process. I hope the following will make things a little clearer, both regarding MiniDV and 16mm film projects.

 

Background &#124 Pre-Production &#124 Production &#124 Post-Production &#124 Distribution



 
Background

 
Until very recently, most low-budget filmmakers swore by 16mm film, the standard for students, documentarians, and guerilla independents like Robert Rodriguez and Ed Burns (and Wayne Wang, for that matter). Hollywood films are shot on 35 or 70mm, which means the image size of each frame of film is four to sixteen times larger than 16mm. When projected, 16mm thus tends to look grainier than 35mm. But 16mm is still beautiful — it’s film, after all, and despite the hubbub over digital video, film still provides the best range of shadows, light, and color, the best texture, the most satisfying experience.
    However, film is extremely expensive. A 400 foot, 12 minute roll of 16mm film costs about $120. To develop a roll and make either a workprint or video transfer for editing costs at least $120 more. So an hour of 16mm film (five 400 foot rolls) would cost about $1,200, not including the costs of the camera and sound equipment.
    Which is where MiniDV comes in.
    MiniDV is the digital video format revolutionizing low budget filmmaking. MiniDV cameras are typically small camcorders costing $1000 to $4000. The image they produce is comparable to what $60,000 professional video cameras provided ten years ago. The MiniDV tape is a tiny cassette, usually 60 minutes long, which costs ten to twelve bucks.
    The upshot?
    If you can borrow a MiniDV camera and microphone, you can shoot an hour of broadcast-quality footage for twelve bucks — about one percent of the cost of shooting and processing the same amount of 16mm film.
    Since other costs of production remain the same for 16mm and MiniDV projects (and a MiniDV project may eventually incur a huge tab to make a film print for festival screenings), the final budgets for 16mm and MiniDV projects may not be as radically different as the numbers above indicate. But the message is clear — MiniDV makes filmmaking much cheaper.
    MiniDV may not work for every project — some productions, particularly those involving period stories or the natural world, seem to require the texture of film. But other projects, particularly those with urban settings, seem perfect for the intimacy and vibe of digital video.
    Now. Onward to how these films and videos are made…


 
Pre-Production

 
Regardless of its budget or technological format, every film and video project requires good old fashioned preproduction.
    Preproduction includes writing and rewriting (and rewriting) the screenplay (or documentary proposal), casting and rehearsing actors (or finding and preinterviewing documentary subjects), assembling a crew, developing storyboards and a shotlist, nailing down locations, making and assembling props and costumes, arranging for transportation and food, dealing with release forms and insurance, arranging for stock purchase and equipment rentals, and (of course) raising money.
    On a large-scale film, a dozen department heads oversee a hundred crew members. On a small production like a MiniDV short, a handful of people may do everything. But for any production, it’s essential to make sure someone’s responsible for a given job and it gets done. Ideally, the producer of the film takes responsibility for all of the logistics and delegation, leaving the director free to concentrate on the creative tasks of writing and rewriting, casting and rehearsing actors, and discussing the look of the film with the cinematographer, costume designer, and art director.
    When it comes to raising money, responsibility may fall with the producer or director, depending on who initiated the project. Often an executive producer will be recruited to invest, contribute, or raise money. Sometimes executive producers have great influence on the creative content of the film — the rumor is that Steven Spielberg essentially took over “Poltergeist” from director Tobe Hooper. But other executive producers have no creative input at all. The same can be said for producers — the nature of their involvement in the creative content of the film depends upon the arrangements made with the director.
    Pre-production Article Index
    Article on Casting Techniques


 
Production

 
Production refers to the actual shooting of the film. For a feature film, production can involve a crew of hundreds. For a MiniDV short, the essential players are a producer, a director, a cinematographer, and a sound person.
    The producer, as in preproduction, deals with logistics and makes sure everything runs smoothly. An assistant director may assume the role of clock-watcher and schedule-keeper on set.
    The director works with actors (or documentary subjects), the cinematographer, and other creative crew members to get what he or she wants.
    The cinematographer sets the lights and operates the camera. With a larger crew, gaffers set the lights under the cinematographer’s direction and grips tote things around (for example, laying the tracks which support the camera for moving shots). The cinematographer may also work with a separate camera operator. On a MiniDV short, the cinematographer usually operates the camera him or herself.
    The sound person is responsible for sound recording (no surprise there). On a film shoot, the sound recordist operates a tape recorder while a boom operator follows the performers with a microphone at the end of a long boom pole. On a typical MiniDV short, sound is recorded by the video camera — no separate tape recorder is necessary. A single sound person may be all that’s required — he or she operates the boom.
    Depending on the project, other crew members may be needed. A few production assistants always come in handy to hold the stray reflector card, ask passersby to stop for a moment during takes, and make the food & coffee runs. A props or costumes heavy shoot may require a prop or costume master; an on-the-fly documentary may need an additional assistant producer to get subjects to sign release forms.
    Production Article Index
    Article on the Bare Bones Production Kit


 
Post Production

 
Post production involves editing, which always takes longer than the actual shooting time; it’s when all of the pieces of the film really come together.
    For years, it was easy to shoot cheaply on video but extremely expensive to edit on a professional digital editing system. But now MiniDV shorts can edited on home computers using software like Adobe Premiere or Apple’s Final Cut Pro. It’s still expensive, but to own a system now costs $6000 rather than $60,000.
    Post production involves several stages — first, viewing and logging the raw footage or dailies and making selects of good takes. Second, putting together a roughcut which contains all of the selected takes in the right order. Third, refining that rough cut bit by bit to create a fine cut, complete with music, sound effects, titles, and any fades and dissolves.
    On a larger film production, a sound mix would be conducted at a profession facility to combine all of the tracks of sound which have been edited. For a low budget MiniDV short, it’s usually adequate to mix the tracks using the software built into the home editing system.
    For a film production destined to finish as a film print (rather than just a video master), the original negative must ultimately be cut and prints struck.
    A director may edit him or herself, or may hire an editor. It’s usually smart for directors to screen cuts of their films often during the editing process — the more they get reactions from live audiences, the better they can determine what’s working and what’s not.
    Post Production Article Index


 
Distribution

 
So the test screenings are over; the picture is locked; the titles and music are perfect — the project is done! Now the work of getting it out to the world begins.
    Different short filmmakers have different objectives for their films. Many, if not most, hope to use their shorts as calling cards to get an agent, a producer, a three picture deal. The typical route is to submit the production to film festivals — Sundance, Telluride, Toronto, Berlin, and Cannes are among the huge ones, although there are literally hundreds of great festivals and screening venues around the world.
    The costs of distribution are considerable. Screening tapes cost $5 apiece. Each festival entry is $20 to $40. The costs of stills, press kits, and postage add up. It’s easy to spend $1000 to properly promote a MiniDV film which cost only $500 to make.
    Many festivals will screen video. For these fests, the digital filmmaker need never actually make a film — the project remains on video, dubbed from MiniDV to a format such as BetaSP for screening. But many festivals require film prints, which means a digital filmmaker must pony up the big bucks for a video to film transfer. This can cost thousands of dollars — often more than the cost of production.
    Other excellent venues of distribution exist — many filmmakers are putting their projects online using streaming video technology such as QuickTime or Real Video. It’s a great way to immediately get the project out there, but it can be hard to get traffic to a new site without advertising or publicity. Established sites like AtomFilms acquire shorts for online distribution, which ensures a larger audience. But for all the hype, few filmmakers get paid anything for putting their work online.
    To make a little income, filmmakers with appropriate projects may contract with an educational distributor (like NAATA, for Asian American films, or Filmakers Library) to sell their films to schools and libraries. Filmmakers may also license their films for television broadcast — a number of PBS stations and cable channels acquire shorts. Perhaps the most lucrative venue is the world television market — distributors sell primarily to European television, which programs a large number of shorts each year.
    In the end, it’s a miracle if a short film ever makes its money back. But many excellent venues exist for filmmakers and audiences to come together. With enough effort, filmmakers with good films eventually find appreciative audiences — which, of course, is the whole point of making films in the first place.
    Distribution Article Index

Bare Bones Production Equipment

By Greg Pak
Much of the writing about the digital filmmaking revolution would imply that all you need to do is buy a $1000 camera and you’re in business.
Not entirely accurate.
To produce decent video, a certain minimal package of equipment and supplies must be assembled.
Here’s my take on the absolute minimum:
The Camera
You’ll find examples of successful films shot on formats as primitive as Hi8, Super VHS, even Pixelvision. But I’d recommend MiniDV, if you can afford it.
I shot Keiko Ibi’s Oscar winning doc “The Personals” with a Sony VX-1000, a three chip MiniDV camera that costs around $4000 (three chip refers to the number of computer chips in the camera, which affects its sensitivity, particularly in lowlight situations. You’ll typically read about one chip or three chip cameras — three chip is usually preferred). If $4000 is steep (and of course it is), there are a whole range of cheaper cameras in the $1000 to $3000 range.
In buying the camera, you want to make sure of a few things. First, make sure there’s a plug for an external microphone. This is vital — more on this later. Second, make sure there are easily-manipulated dials for manual focus and exposure. Auto focus and exposure may be all right in some circumstances, but you really need to have total control when you want it.
The Sound Equipment
To make decent films, you  must have a good professional sound kit, including microphone, cables, and boom.
People will forgive almost anything with picture these days — grain, jerkiness, fuzziness, etcetera. But if your sound is murky, no one will want to watch your movie. And the onboard microphone won’t cut it — you’ll end up with hollow sound and lots of incidental bumps and pops from your hands operating the camera. No, what you need is a professional mic like the Sennheiser K-6 series (something like $160 for the base and $100 to 200 for the microphone heads than screw onto it). Get a little wind screen ($25). Get a 25 foot XLR cable and a mini-to-XLR adapter. The XLR cable plugs into the mic; the mini-to-XLR adapter connects the cable to the camera.
Many people shooting mini-DV features these days record sound onto a time code DAT player rather than plugging the mikes directly into the camera. But for simpler projects, using the camera to record sound is fine. There are issues to contend with here — about whether to set the record level on the camera or let the camera automatically set the levels — but that’s for another discussion.
Regarding the boom… An actual professional boom will cost hundreds. But you can go to the Home Depot and buy one of those telescoping Alumiglass lightbulb changing things. Mine’s made by Mr. Longarm, P.O. Box 377, Greenwood MO 64034. I detached the knob & screw at the top, sawed off the screw, drilled a hole in the thing and inserted a bolt from the hardware store which was the right size to screw on the microphone shock mount.
Speaking of which, you need a shock mount. This may be hard to find cheaply… I’ve seen them for sale for around $50. Basically a shock mount is a metal frame which holds rubber bands which in turn hold your microphone. The shock mount screws onto the end of the boom and protects the mic from noise from shakes and jolts.
In an emergency, it’s possible to rig an acceptable shock mount with some rubber bands and a wire coat hanger — check out the FilmHelp DIY Shockmount article for the full scoop.
The Tripod
Sure, some projects look great when shot entirely handheld. But most films require the seamless, solid look achievable only through tripod use.
I recommend a mid range Bogen tripod with smooth, easy action. The cheap tripods used for 35mm SLR cameras are no good — not stable enough for pans & tilts. I spent about $120 for my li’l Bogen.
Lighting Equipment
You don’t necessarily need to run out and buy an Omni light kit. To get started, you can buy some $5 Photoflood light bulbs and some decent sockets or clamp lights (from your local hardware store) which will handle up to 500 watt lights. Photofloods are color balanced light bulbs which come in 250 and 500 watts. The 3200K Photofloods are white and are color balanced for tungsten film — close in color temperature to the tungsten bulbs in your home. The 5500K Photofloods are blue and are color balanced for daylight film — the light from these bulbs matches daylight, which is great if you’re shooting indoors but there’s ambient or direct sunlight coming in from windows.
Work Gloves
So you don’t burn your fingers when changing bulbs. An essential, really.
Black Wrap
Black wrap is basically black foil which film people use to wrap around the edges of lights, controlling how the light spills, etc.
Bounce Boards
Bounce boards are just white cards you can use to bounce light to fill in shadows on people’s faces. Certain art supply stores sell card that’s silver or gold on one side — can be interesting.
Gaffer Tape
Or duct tape. Be safe — tape down those cords.
All right. That’s the totally minimal production kit. Some of that you’ll need to buy; other things you could rent or borrow. In fact, most cities these days have filmmakers’ co-ops which rent cameras and equipment fairly cheaply.
Where to Shop
In New York City, I recommend the following places:
Rentals
Film & Video Arts, 817 Broadway (at 12th), 212-673-9361
HandHeld Films, 118 W. 22nd, 212-691-4898
Supplies
B&H, 420 9th Ave. (bet. 33rd and 34th), 1-800-947-9970, www.bhphoto.com
Rafik, 814 Broadway, 212-475-7884
Equipment
B&H, 420 9th Ave. (bet. 33rd and 34th), 1-800-947-9970, www.bhphoto.com
Film, Video & Sound Stock
B&H, 420 9th Ave. (bet. 33rd and 34th), 1-800-947-9970, www.bhphoto.com
Steadisystems, 30 W. 21st, 212-647-0900
Raw Stock (for 16mm recans and shortends), 212-255-0445
Film Emporium (for 16mm recans and shortends), 212-681-6922

How to Feed Your Crew

By Greg Pak
Most people working on your micro-budgeted film or video are volunteers, paid nothing for their long hours of difficult work. You must feed these folks well and regularly — otherwise everyone will justifiably hate you and you may find it difficult to recruit volunteers for your next project.
Industry standards require a full meal every six hours of shooting. In addition, you should provide a craft services table where folks can find drinks and snacks throughout the day.
A few pointers on food:

  • Get someone else to deal with food
    On tiny shoots, director/producers sometimes handle Craft Services themselves. But it’s far better to recruit someone else to do the job. Fortunately, Craft Services is something that can be done by a competent friend who has zero experience in film & video production — your brother who works for a bank can do this job.
     

  • Get decent food
    Low-budget producers often cut corners and feed people cheap pizza five days in a row. Ugh. I worked on one memorably lame shoot during which the producers set out loaves of Wonder Bread and jars of peanut butter and jelly.
    I try to feed people a little better, budgeting around $8 to $10 a person for food. In New York City, it’s usually pretty easy to find a decent take-out joint in the vicinity of the shoot. In any town, with a little research, you can find good places with affordable lunch specials. On larger shoots, it may be worth your while to hire a catering service which will bring hot meals to your set.
    For the craft services table, bagels seem to be the standard in New York. Let local tastes dictate. I usually try to have some cut vegetables and something sweet as well — cookies or donuts. Most sets provide a few kinds of soft drinks. I like to have some juice and water on set as well. And a few times a day, a production assistant gets sent on a coffee run.
     

  • Serve meals onset
    If you traipse everyone offset to a restaurant for a sit down meal, you’ll waste time getting people from place to place, waiting for people to order, and waiting for the meal to be served. It’s much better to have food brought directly to the set so everyone stays in the same place and eats at the same time.
     

  • Don’t give people too many options
    Sometimes producers let sets grind to a halt while everyone mulls over a take out menu, picking their lunches. Instead, pick three meals ahead of time — a chicken, a beef, and a vegetarian option. Then play flight attendant, asking each crew member “Chicken, beef, or vegetarian?” Saves much time.
     

  • Don’t feed people breakfast
    I always ask crew members to come to the set already having eaten breakfast. When we meet at 8 a.m., I want to start working at eight, not at nine or whenever people finish eating their food. I always have bagels, orange juice, and coffee on the set which crew can munch on as they work. But I don’t blow an hour with a sit down meal for everybody.

Shoot shorter days

By Greg Pak
Like college kids bragging about how many all-nighters they’ve pulled to finish their thesis papers, low-budget filmmakers sometimes get into stupid games of one-upsmanship about the ridiculous length of their shooting days.
Don’t go there, friends! The longer you let each shooting days become, the more mistakes your crew will make, the crankier everyone will get, and the less well you will perform as a director.
Industry standards require a minimum of ten hours “turn around time.” This means that there should be at least ten hours between the time everyone leaves the set and the minute everyone arrives onset.
I’d recommend planning for shooting days of no longer than 12 hours. Yes, you’ll save a little money on equipment rentals if you shoot three sixteen hour days rather than four twelve hour days. But the savings are deceptive — with a sixteen hour day, you’ll need to feed people dinner as well as lunch. And the cost of extra mistakes and poor performance due to exhaustion may be incalculable.
From time to time, unforseeable circumstances may force you into a sixteen hour day. So be it. But don’t let it become a habit.