Test-Shoot Rehearsals on Video

By Greg Pak
When I’m shooting fiction, I always try to have my cinematographer come to a rehearsal (ideally on location) with a video camera to shoot some of the set ups we’ve discussed. This way, before the shoot, we have a chance to see what we’re talking about regarding camera movement and frame.
Test shooting rehearsals on video also gives the D.P. and director a chance to find new and better camera angles for scenes based on how the actors are moving in the locations. Always good to do this ahead of time — saves some scrambling on the actual set.

Let’s Talk About Frame

By Greg Pak
Talk with your D.P. in exact terms about frame — for example, when shooting 16mm, specify that all important information should be within the TV safe lines. Otherwise, you may end up with an image that’s beautifully framed for film projection but looks cramped when transferred to video.
Also, make sure you know that you and your D.P. are thinking the same thing when you use certain terms — one person’s close up is another person’s medium shot.

Keep Working that Film

By Greg Pak
Keep in mind that getting distribution for a short film is a fine and excellent thing, but if you want the film to sell, you still have to work it. An educational distributor, for example, will send out a catalog which will include a photo and description of your film. And you’ll appear in the distributor’s website. But buyers have dozens or even hundreds of other films to choose from — in the same catalog, even.
To maximize your film’s selling potential, make cards or flyers which include your distributors’ contact information. Hand them out or at least put ’em on the counters and tables whenever your film screens at a festival. If there’s an educator at that screening who teaches in a field pertaining to your film’s subject matter, he or she is a great target for a sale. But if you don’t put a flyer out there, he or she will have no idea how to find you.

Get a Website

By Greg Pak
Admittedly, merely having a website will not instantly result in millions of people clamoring for your film. But it’s an essential part of your promotion strategy. At the very least, being online makes it possible for interested people to find you and your films and distributors easily.
A website can also save you some grief and postage — when a festival calls you at the last minute wanting your bio or film synopsis, rather than faxing the material, you can say, “It’s all on my website!” I’ve even had a film festival in Japan pull my mugshot from my website, which easily saved me twenty bucks in international Fed Ex fees.
A good website also generates credibility. In college, friends used to claim they’d get at least a half-a-letter increase in their grades when they laser printed their papers. A clean, attractive website provides the same kind of clout — you look like a professional! an artist! an up-and-comer! — even if you live in a garret, work in a copy shop, and eat canned soup every night for dinner.
You may think it’s too expensive to get a website. But if you’re online, you probably already have one. AOL provides 2mb of free space per screen name for personal websites; most other ISPs have similar deals. If you have a free weekend, you can easily learn basic HTML and get some info online.
Now to make the site look great and possess all of the clean design saavy that makes for a painless and pleasurable surfing experience, you may need to invest more time and money or hire a designer. Yes, it could cost you anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand bucks. But you just blew twenty thousand on your film and a thousand just on festival entries — you’re gonna stop now?

Get Half Your Money Up Front

By Greg Pak
For anyone making money freelancing, I highly recommend getting half of your money up front. Here are two practical reasons why:
First, last minute schedule changes can ruin you. If you commit to a project, blocking out time and turning down other work, you could lose everything if the shoot is postponed or cancelled. If you’ve gotten half of the money up front, at least you’ll have something.
Second, if you finish a job without getting paid, you might never get paid. It’s not unheard of for independent producers to run over budget and out of money. Again, if you get half of your money up front, at least you’ll have something.
There will always be situations which will preclude your getting your money up front — maybe the production is being funded by a grant which has been awarded, but the check hasn’t yet arrived. If you know and trust the producer, you’ll probably accept the job and hope for the best. But if at all possible, get your deposit as soon as you can. Even trustworthly people and good friends can have their productions fall apart — and you don’t want to take the fall when it happens.
Incidentally, I’d argue that this is a good policy for producers as well as freelancers. If you want to make a career as a filmmaker, clean payment arrangements are critical for keeping collaborators happy and maintaining good vibes within your filmmaking community.

Respond Immediately to the Press

By Greg Pak
If you’re lucky enough to get a call or an email from a reporter, respond IMMEDIATELY. Reporters often call at the last minute, on the eve of their deadlines. If you don’t get back to them right away, they’ll find someone else and file their articles without you.
On two different occasions in recent months, I’ve delayed a day or two in responding to calls or emails. And by then, the reporters’ deadlines had passed and they no longer needed my quotes.
Of course I had no time to deal with the requests the instant they came in, but I should have made the time. Being quoted in an article won’t lead to instantaneous fame and glory, but it may toss a few more people to your website or to your distributors. In short, publicity is good, and it’s dumb to miss opportunities to grab some.

Manic Depression Is Normal

By Greg Pak
If today you feel like a moron, relax — tomorrow you’ll feel like a genius. And vice versa.
The nature of the filmmaking process forces most filmmakers into an only-sometimes-managable haze of manic-depression. Because there are so many factors depending on so many people which affect the success and failure of a film, at any given instant you may feel like Kurosawa’s reincarnation or a just another Ed Wood wannabe.
One example: You’re supposed to be shooting the big sunlit beach scene. It’s raining. You feel like a moron. Ten minutes later, the sun shines gloriously; you’re touched by God.
Another example: You’re making a documentary, shooting on film, and your rolls keep running out the instant your subjects reach those emotionally gripping parts of their stories. You feel like a failure. But two years later, when you’ve finished the piece, you see that the lack of picture forced you to find other photographs, footage, and images to use over the voiceover — which has resulted in a far subtler and more affecting film. You feel like a genius.
These ups and downs are normal. Get used to ’em.

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


 

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