Tip of the Day: When in Doubt, Say Something

By Greg Pak
If you know what you want but you’re not getting it, say something. If you think something’s wrong and haven’t said anything, say something. This applies to everything you do as a filmmaker — with the possible exception of working with actors, where a little more subtlety may apply. But if you’re looking at something your DP has lit and you think it looks too contrasty, you’re probably right and if you say nothing you’ll end up kicking yourself when you see the dailies. Or if you’re at the lab looking at your print and there’s a weird white spot in the middle of one of the frames, make some noise — make them put your negative up on the rewind table and remove that little piece of tape that’s somehow made its way onto the emulsion.

Equipment Specifics: The Sony VX-1000

By Greg Pak

 
The Sony VX-1000 is a great three chip MiniDV camcorder which I’ve used to shoot “Asian Pride Porn,” “The Informed Consent Zone,” and Keiko Ibi’s Oscar-winning documentary, “The Personals: Improvisations on Romance in the Golden Years.”
    I recommend the VX-1000 highly for low-budget productions. But no piece of equipment is perfect. Read on for a few of the VX-1000’s features and foibles.

 
Features

 
Great image quality
The VX-1000 is a three chip MiniDV camcorder. Many cheaper MiniDV camcorders are one chip — resulting in less-vibrant images, particularly in lower light situations.
    Compared to Hi8, which used to be the standard for no-budget documentary filmmakers, the VX-1000 is incredible. When footage is viewed side by side, BetaSP looks better than MiniDV. But when material is well-lit and well-shot, most people can’t distinguish MiniDV footage shot with the VX-1000 from BetaSP footage.
    However, it’s worth noting that although it’s much better than Hi8 cameras, the VX-1000 by no means can handle high contrast images and blown-out backgrounds as well as DVCAM or BetaSP cameras. Careful lighting, as always, is the key to success here.

 
Color viewfinder
Some video pros hate color viewfinders, but I like ’em a lot, particularly when shooting documentary. First, I know immediately if my color balance is off. Second, color affects framing — for example, if I’m looking through a black and white viewfinder, I might not notice a flourescent yellow sticker in the background of a shot. That sticker might end up being extremely distracting. With a color viewfinder, I notice distracting things immediately and frame accordingly.
    In addition, I prefer the VX-1000’s color monitor to that of its chief competitor, the Canon XL-1. The Canon monitor has a slight orange or rose tinge to it, which is distracting to me.

 
Manual control of focus, sound and exposure
The VX-1000 has fairly easy-to-manipulate manual controls for focus, exposure and sound. This is critical for quality shooting. But see below for the foibles of the VX-1000’s controls…

 
Easy to find filters
The lens of the VX-1000 accomodates 52mm filters, which are easily found at photographic stores. For “Asian Pride Porn,” I used a ProMist 3 filter to give that cheesy soft glow to the fake porn scenes. Cheap and effective. Other camcorders with smaller lens rings are more difficult to equip with cheap filters.

 
Foibles

 
Fragile mini audio input socket
Like most consumer camcorders, the VX-1000 has a much-too-fragile mini socket for audio input. With frequent use, this socket can get damaged, resulting in sound cutting in and out. Two solutions:
1. Buy a little black box with two XLR inputs to screw into the bottom of the VX-1000. The box has a little mini audio plug which fits into the input socket of the camera. Any tugging on cords thus pulls on the box itself, not the mini plug on the camera. The box isn’t cheap — around $200. It’s available at B&H Photo.
2. Use a piece of tape or hair tie to attach your mini-to-XLR cord to the handle on the top of the camera. Then any tugging on the cords pulls at the handle to the camera, not the fragile mini plug.

 
Dropout problems as camera ages
After three years or so, the VX-1000 seems subsceptible to misalignment of the recording head which results in discontinuity of timecode and possible digital distortion of images. This happened a few months ago to the camera we used to shoot “The Personals.” When I played footage shot with the camera back on a different deck, the image would break into scattered squares along the right hand side of the screen. When played back with the VX-1000 itself, the images looked fine. Different technicians had different explanations — the most plausible was that the record head was out of alignment. The solution was to dub all of the affected material from the camera to a MiniDV deck.
    I’ve seen the problem in one other VX-1000 of a similar age and seen postings on message boards from people with the same problem. My advice? Don’t buy an old camera. And test any camera you rent or borrow before you do any serious shooting.

 
You have to keep your eye pressed to the viewfinder to see the whole frame
Many cameras have a switch which shifts the optics of the viewfinder so that the operator can hold his or her head a few feet back but still see the whole frame in the viewfinder. The VX-1000, alas, does not have this feature. Most of the time, it’s not an issue. But if you’re stuck shooting a long speech or lecture, for example, it’s nice to be able to sit back from time to time.

 
Problems with exposure controls
It’s fairly easy to adjust exposure while shooting with the VX-1000, which is good. But the dial works in clicks, which is bad. The result is that instead of an imperceptible, smooth transition from F2 to F5.6, for example, you click through a half dozen levels of brightness. Most viewers don’t notice, but it’s ugly.

 
Problems with sound controls
The VX-1000 has a button which allows you to set a sound recording level. But it’s not an easy thing to manipulate when you’re actually shooting. So when shooting documentary, I usually use the auto-level setting, which works fairly well. When shooting fiction, I usually preset the audio level and don’t mess with it during takes. The more expensive and effective solution would be to rent a mixer which the sound recordist would use to control sound levels more precisely. But thus far I’ve managed to get away with using the strategies above.
    One warning — if you’re using the auto-level setting for sound recording, you’ll notice annoying increases in room tone sound when your subject fall silent. This is because the machine is doing its job, raising the level of its recording to record whatever sound is in the room. The solution is to preset the audio level before the take.

 

Grants: Overview

By Greg Pak

 
Since shorts and independent documentaries are seldom profitable undertakings, very few businesses will invest in them. However, dozens of organizations give grants to film and video projects each year.

 

Grantwriting Pointers &#124 Grantmaking organizations
Case Study: “Mouse” application for the Texas Filmmakers Production Fund


 

Grantwriting Pointers
Good grantwriting takes diligence and practice. I offer four pieces of general advice:

Research the organization making the grant
Just as different film festivals have different preferences, different grantmaking organizations have different missions. Do some research, and, if you’re lucky, you may find a perfect fit for your project. At the very least, you should avoid wasting time writing grants for organizations which will have no interest in your film. If the group specializes in experimental films, maybe you shouldn’t submit your Hollywood calling card.

 
Follow the guidelines
Read the grant application guidelines and give them exactly what they want, in the format and length requested. Don’t toss in extra material — a tired reader could easily get annoyed and toss out your whole application.

 
Be as straightforward and clear as possible
Murky, vague, pretentious writing will kill you. The reader making the first cut in the judging process is probably lying in bed the night before his or her deadline eagerly looking for an excuse not to finish reading your application. If you bore or confuse this person, you are lost. Be clear and concise.
 
Try, try again
If you don’t get it this year, apply next year for completion funding. And apply the year after that with your next project. I applied everywhere with “Fighting Grandpa” — I got almost nothing. But at least one of the organizations has subsequently given me money for “Brother Killer Wolf.” Even if you don’t get the grant this year, you may have made a good impression. Follow up on it!


 

Grantmaking Organizations
The following are just a few of the organizations to which I have applied over the years. The list is by no means comprehensive — I’ll add more names soon. In the meantime, get a copy of the Independent (published by the
AIVF) and check the listings in the back for upcoming deadlines.
Texas Filmmakers’ Production Fund
National Asian American Telecommunications Association
Studio Film & Tape Roy W. Dean Film Grant
Creative Capital


 

Film Festival Strategies

By Greg Pak

 
So you’ve finished your short and want to show the world.
 
What to do? As you know, there are a few giant film festivals which everybody’s desperate to crack: Sundance, Telluride, Berlin, the New York Film Festival, Toronto, Montreal…
    Of course you should enter all of these huge film festivals, particularly if your ultimate goal is to get an agent, sell your screenplays, and make feature films. These are the festivals the big and small cheeses in the industry go to and talk about; it’s a great place to make a splash.
    BUT
    Do not agonize for more than half an hour when you get your rejection letter from Sundance. Sundance and these other giant festivals are not the be-all and end-all for independent films, particularly for shorts. Nor is getting into one of these festivals any guarantee of your film’s ultimate success — I’ve had friends who have taken their short films to Sundance and had little business result.
    There are dozens, even hundreds of decent venues for your short film. Any one of them can provide you with the exposure and contacts you’re looking for to further your career. And all of them can give you that all-important experience of seeing your film screened before an audience other than your family and friends.
    This point is worth emphasizing: you should jump on chances to screen your film not only for self-promotional purposes, but also because seeing your film screened will make you a better filmmaker.
    Furthermore, I’ve often find that excellent experiences and business contacts come from the festivals or screenings for which I’d had low expectations. More and more cities these days have tiny micro cinemas specializing in independent films and shorts — if all of your expectations have centered on Sundance, you might have ignored these venues. But screening at small local venues can be invaluable, introducing you to a community of local filmmakers, programmers, and film buffs.

 
So where should I submit my films, you ask?

 
I’d recommend reading the festival listings in “The Independent,” the magazine of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers. On the west coast, the Film Arts Foundation has a similar magazine called “Release Print” with even more extensive listings. Indiewire regularly posts festival deadlines; if you do an online search for “film festivals,” you’ll no doubt come up with many other resources.
    As you’ll quickly see, there are hundreds of festivals in the United States alone. Your next task is to decide where to send your film.
    I have a few criteria I use.

 
First, submit to the big fests.

 
You never know.

 
Second, submit to strong second-tier fests.

 
There are a number of well known festivals which, though not as huge as Sundance, are excellent places to show shorts and get a little attention. I always submit to South by Southwest, the Austin Heart of Film Festival, the Shorts International Film Festival, the Los Angeles Independent Film Festival, the AFI Festival, the Hamptons International Film Festival, Slamdance
    Clermont Ferrand, a shorts festival and market in France, is a great place to get screened — short film buyers from around the world pick up films there. And other filmmakers tell me that the Aspen Short Film Festival is an incredibly fun place to screen a film.
    For documentaries, the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, the DoubleTake Film Festival, the Yamagata Documentary Film Festival, Cinema du Reel, and the Margaret Mead Film Festival are good choices.

 
Third, places you like.

 
There are a few festivals which have shown my films in the past, which I enjoyed attending, and which I just plain like. Just because they know me is no guarantee they’ll accept my future films, but I like these folks, so I’ll always submit to festivals like Cinequest and Film Fest New Haven.

 
Fourth, the appropriate specialty festivals.

 
I always submit my film to any specialty festivals which are appropriate. Many of my films have Asian American content — I always submit them to the many excellent Asian American festivals around the country. Do some digging around and you’ll find festivals which specialize in everything from Native American films to gay and lesbian films to nature films to underground/subversive cinema to digital art to dance.
    I’ve found that some of the best festival experiences, particularly for short filmmakers, can come at these specialty festivals. These festivals often are run by idealists whose agenda is to celebrate their community and support their filmmakers. It’s a nice feeling, being celebrated and supported.
    Specific recommendations:
    If you have a gay or lesbian themed film, by all means submit it to the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival Since my short “Po Mo Knock Knock” played there, I’ve received emails or letters of interest from at least a half a dozen other interested festivals.
    I’ve had great experience at almost all of the Asian American film festivals — for contact information, visit the AsianAmericanFilm.com Filmmakers Network page.

 
Fifth, places nearby or where you have friends.

 
I look for festivals I can actually attend (or which friends and family can attend). I live in New York, so I tend to submit my films to just about every venue I hear about in the five boroughs, no matter how small. As I’ve pontificated above, there are huge benefits to seeing your film in front of an audience. I’m also more likely to submit to festivals in places like Texas or the Bay Area — places I have loads of friends and family.
 
Sixth, places with prizes.

 
By Greg Pak

Whether a festival gives prizes is an important consideration, particularly if you have a film like a documentary short or an experimental film which can fit into a less competitive category.
    Here’s the way I think about it:
    The vast majority of shorts submitted to festivals are fictional narratives, dramas or comedies. So if there’s a general competition category for “Short Narrative,” the number of films competing is enormous. Now, many fewer documentary shorts and experimental shorts tend to be submitted. So if there are separate categories for experimental or documentary shorts, your statistical odds are simply better. It may seem cold and calculating, but if you’re weighing the worth of coughing up another thirty bucks for another festival entry fee, a little cold calculation may be in order.

Non-SAG, Please

By Greg Pak
Please note that this article was written in 1999 — since then, SAG has updated its contracts and to become even more friendly toward independent projects. This article is no longer up to date — filmmakers are HIGHLY recommended to contact SAG to learn about the new contracts.
There will be times when you cannot cast your micro-budgeted film properly without using SAG actors. But if you have hopes of marketing and selling your short film, I strongly urge you to use non-SAG actors if at all possible.
Here are the reasons why:
SAG, or the Screen Actors Guild, has an Experimental Film Agreement (for productions with a budget under $75,000) which many low-budget filmmakers sign in order to use SAG actors. As with all SAG contracts, the producer must adhere to SAG rules (regarding hours worked, etcetera) and must provide worker’s comp. The twist is that the Experimental Agreement allows the producer to defer salaries to actors until the film is sold.
The Experimental Agreement is a good, even generous deal, but if you’re making a short, the reality is that you’ll never make any money if you sign this contract and use SAG actors.
Here’s how it works: Say you shoot one day, with two SAG actors. You owe them about $600 each, payable upon the sale of the film. That’s $1200. Which means that when you’re offered $300 by a local PBS station to screen your film, you’re contracturally obligated to pass those dollars directly to your actors.
Here’s a real world example:

To make “Mouse,” I shot for five days with two actors. I believe the SAG rates at the time were around $575 a day with a weekly rate of $2000… So I would have owed my actors a total of $4000, had they both been SAG.
Over the past two years, I’ve sold “Mouse” to four local PBS shorts anthology series, one Japanese satellite television station, and the International Channel’s Asian American Film Festival, for a grand total of about $3750. Had my actors been SAG, I would still be paying them off and would not yet have earned a dime toward reimbursing my $8000 in production expenses.

An even more extreme example:
I have a friend who made a 30 minute film with some 20 SAG actors. His deferred SAG bill must clock in at over $100,000. His film has been very successful on the festival circuit and won a number of awards. But no one will ever pay him enough to pay off that incredible SAG bill.
Do not misconstrue this article as a diatribe against SAG: SAG is just doing its job, looking out for the pocketbook interests of its members. And for a feature film, which has the potential to make a good deal of money in distribution, the Experimental Contract represents an honest and helpful effort by SAG to make it possible for low budget filmmakers to make good films.
Furthermore, there are other SAG agreements which might be more to your liking — the Limited Exhibition Agreement has its advantages and disadvantages. Depending on your project, you might also want to look at the Low Budget Agreement, the Affirmative Action Low Budget Agreement, and the Modified Low Budget Agreement.
Finally, SAG actors are frequently excellent — you may find during casting that the perfect actor for the lead in your film is SAG.
So be it: if it makes your film a better film, cast SAG. I merely counsel filmmakers to be aware of the consequences: as soon as you cast a SAG actor in a short film, you most likely surrender any hopes of making your money back and thus inhibit your ability to distribute the project as extensively as you might like.
You make the call.
Relevant contact information:
SAG’s New York office: 1515 Broadway, 44th Floor, NYC 10036, 212-827-1510
SAG’s Los Angeles office: 5757 Wilshire Blvd., LA, CA 90036, 213-549-6828

Music Rights Nightmares

By Greg Pak
My two cents? Use only original music.
I’ve seen some great short films at festivals which I know I’ll never see on television — that Beatles song in the background will kill ya every time. As I’ve learned, even cutting a church hymn into your film may present a music rights nightmare and threaten your opportunity to make a sale.
In broad strokes, here’s how it works:
Scenario A: If one of your characters hums a few bars of an existing, copyrighted song, you’re legally obligated to pay the song writer (or, more commonly, the representative of the song writer or the present owner of the song) for what are called “synchronization rights” — basically the right to use the tune and lyrics.
Scenario B: If one of your characters turns on the radio and we hear the song being sung by the original artist, you have to pay both for the synchronization rights and for the rights to the performance of the song. Certain performers will cost more money — most likely, Three Dog Night’s rendition of “Joy to the World” will cost you more than Hoyt Axton’s. But the reality is that either version will cost you more than you can afford.
Here’s the real world example:

I used two church hymns in “Fighting Grandpa.” I recorded them live in my Uncle Harry’s church — thinking (like an idiot), “Oh, church music, public domain, no problem.” In the frenzy of my final month of editing, I cut in the music and did my sound mix without ever confirming whether the songs really were public domain.
Four months later, when Cinemax offered to licence the film for broadcast, I was of course thrilled. But the HBO/Cinemax contract requires (among many other things) that all of the music rights be cleared. So a long process of tracking down the owners of the songs and negotiating a price began. In the end, I paid $650 for both songs, which is on the cheap side. And since I negotiated with Cinemax for that money to be paid by them, I came out financially unscathed.
However, months later, I received an offer from an international distributor for “Fighting Grandpa.” Now I would have to get worldwide rights to the songs… A few phone calls later, I learned that I’d have to pay thousands of dollars for each song for the kinds of clearances I wanted, which was clearly impossible.
The upshot is that I’ve gotten a composer to write some original music to replace these songs and I’m remixing the music tracks. In the end, I’ll have to pay about a thousand dollars, which is less than ten thousand dollars, but which still stings. Particularly since I could have avoided the entire mess if I’d just had a composer write original music for me in the beginning.
Of course, just as there are times when the perfect actor is SAG, there will be times when the perfect music is that old Bo Diddley song… If your film absolutely depends upon it, do what must be done. Far better to have a great film everyone loves which can only play in festivals than a mediocre film which no one wants that can play anywhere.
But if you can make your film just as strong without the encumbrances of SAG actors and onerous music rights, so many more opportunities will arise.

Grants: “Mouse” Case Study

By Greg Pak
In 1997 I received my very first grant — $2,010.08 from the Texas Filmmakers’ Production Fund for the completion of my short film “Mouse.”
Background and Strategy
The TFPF specifically gives grants to Texas filmmakers. I calculated the odds were fairly good — the TFPF had $50,000 to give away, which meant that up to 25 or 30 projects might get money. And if only Texas residents could apply, the number of applications would be fairly low.
At the time, I was a Texan attending graduate school at NYU. My eligibility was a stretch, but I had a Texas driver’s license and voter registration card, and much to my delight, staff members at the TFPF told me I could apply.
The application involved a one-page project description, a budget, a timeline, a list of project personnel, a resume, the screenplay, and, since I was applying for completion funding, a VHS dub of the work-in-progress.
I figured I had certain advantages. In particular, the application materials stressed that the TFPF was looking for projects which seemed likely to be completed. I had virtually finished “Mouse” — needing only the last dollars for negative cut, answer printing, and distribution. Also, I was able to submit a work-in-progress, which (assuming it was any good) would have a greater impact than the screenplay alone.
[For an article listing the actual projects chosen, click here]
I’ve subsequently met two of the TFPF panelists — both told me they were amused by my very detailed budget and to-the-penny request of $2,010.08. The message I get is that precision is good.
Project Description
What follows in black text is the original Project Description I submitted to the TFPF for my “Mouse” application. [I’ve added comments in the blue, bracketed text.]
A 10 minute, 16mm color short film, “Mouse” tells the story of a young man trying to escape a conversation about pregnancy with his girlfriend by chasing a mouse around his apartment. [This is the simple one-line description of the film. The goal is to get the dramatic action of the film across in a single mouthful — and hopefully elicit a smile. At the very least, you want the reader to get a sense of the tone and the point of your film, answering that all-important question, “Why should I care?”]
I have several objectives in making “Mouse.” First, I want to find an entertaining way to dramatize the kind of everyday cowardice and miscommunication most of us wallow in from time to time. If couples chuckle, then get into fights after seeing the film, I think I’ll have succeeded. [The line about the couples fighting creates an image for people to latch onto. Very important, I think, particularly when writing about abstract ideas, to give people visual images or scenes to make things real.]
Second, I want to play with horror movie elements to give my domestic drama the kind of visceral impact it deserves. It’s been argued that horror movies are all about adolescent sex: our terror of our changing bodies, our fear of discovery, our dark urges toward taboo. “Mouse” plays with these terrors in miniature as our protagonist conflates his fear of the mouse with his fear of fathering a child. [This is the film theory part of the application, demonstrating that I know what I’m doing and have specific goals regarding tone and genre. It also may help set the stage for the panelists’ actual viewing of the work-in-progress.]
Finally, I want to depict Asian American characters in situations a wider audience wouldn’t immediately associate with Asian faces. As a Korean American filmmaker, I’ve made a number of films dealing with pretty obvious aspects of the Asian American experience (cross-generational conflicts and interracial dating, for example). I’ve been happy with the success of these films, but I’m also interested in giving audiences a chance to relate with Asian American characters in stories that on the surface have nothing to do with race. [Many grant-giving organizations like to support work that depicts underrepresented communities. The paragraph establishes “Mouse” as a multicultural film, and further attempts to distinguish it as a project which deals with race in an interestingly subtle way.]
A grant from the Texas Filmmakers’ Production Fund would guarantee the completion of “Mouse” post-production in time for festival submissions beginning in October, 1997. [This sentence explains how the money will be used and gets across the idea that the film actually will be completed.] My previous shorts, “Mr. Lee” and “Visiting Aunt Sue,” have done well on the festival circuit: “Mr. Lee” has won several awards, including a Student Finalist Award from the WorldFest Charleston and a Special Jury Citation from the Los Angeles Asian Pacific American Film & Video Festival. I’m hoping “Mouse” will do even better, ideally breaking into high profile venues like Sundance or the Toronto Short Film Festival. [Here I explain my goals for the project — and not-so-subtly work in reference to my previous successes at the same time.]
Final Thoughts
It’s worth noting that the project description above led to a grant from the TFPF, but failed to get me a FilmCore film grant. The lesson? Different organizations have different interests.
FilmCore supports underground, subversive work — the year I submitted “Mouse,” my friend Mike Kang won for his film “A Waiter Tomorrow,” which features a couple of sushi waiters gunning down their annoying customers. “Mouse” is positively tame in comparison.
But if I had to do it all over again, I’d still apply to both TFPF and FilmCore. You never know exactly how things will pan out — if I fit within the guidelines and have the time, I always try to submit to as many places as possible, increasing the odds that eventually I’ll get something from somewhere.

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.

Writer of over 500 comic books, including PLANET HULK, MECH CADET YU, FIREFLY, and DARTH VADER