It Doesn't Take a Neurosurgeon: How to Make a Film

Filmmaking is not glorious or fun. It is tedious, aggravating, and slow work, full of compromises and disappointments. But, contrary to popular notions, pretty much anyone can do it. You don't need to go to film school. You don't need to mortgage, or even own, a house. And you don't need to know Harvey Keitel. If you can scrape together a couple thousand bucks (sometimes all it takes is several hundred), and find some collaborators who know their way around cameras, lights, and sound -- or who are willing to learn quickly -- you're pretty much on your way to creating a piece of American independent cinema. And like most American independent cinema, it probably won't be very exciting to an audience. But who makes films for audiences, anyway?This is about you and your urgent need for artistic expression via photographs shown in rapid succession; your need to document what you see and show it to all your friends so they can feel even worse about their collective failure to do their own film projects; your need to show off the pop culture references that give you insight into our modern times. You don't need any kind of special talent or badge of approval -- hell you don't even need a script (Godard never used one). What you do need is an owner/operator.DON'T KNOW WHAT I WANT, BUT I KNOW HOW TO GET ITAn owner/ operator is a man or woman who owns a camera and knows how to use it. In the land of low budgets, 16mm camera owner/operators aren't hard to track down. There are bulletin boards at arts centers filled with phone numbers and resources. Go to local filmmakers' nights at screening rooms and movie buff hutches and, even if you hate it, schmooze. Throw a rock and you'll hit someone who owns a camera, has no place to aim it, and is willing to cut a financially feasible deal to make your movie happen.Owner/operators should be afforded respect because they have had the gumption to study their craft and the brains to buy a little equity in it. They will be your friend and guide, and you will owe them a great deal. There are endless aesthetic and practical variables to consider before even choosing a format. This is also why it's important to ally yourself early with someone who knows cameras, before you go shopping. Otherwise you could end up with a F4S with a booster when what you needed was an MD-12. For example, if you intend your film to be blown up into 35mm and shown in theaters, or even to be put on video in rectangular letterbox format, Super 16mm affords 40 percent more of the negative picture in expanding the frame than regular 16mm. It also costs more to have it blown up. If you're looking for a 16mm print or a regular square video, Super 16mm is unnecessary. It's all a question of what you intend and what you can afford. You must know in advance of shooting, in any case, and an operator can be your interpreter as you decide.They will tell you what a time code is and when you only have an hour before the shooting day is over. They will navigate you through the almost-impossible byways of technical mumbo-jumbo that bedevil even the most earnest would-be novice filmmaker. If you can't find an owner/operator in person, check out the classified ads in local papers and in Movie Maker magazine -- it may be pompous and glossy, but it is read by tons of starving filmmakers bent on finding local work to build their reel and feed their kids.The main benefit of the owner/operator, above and beyond the fact that he or she will steer you down the crooked road of competency, is this: 16mm movie cameras cost between $450 and $1000 per day to rent, depending on how fancy you get. Simple and amazingly complex packages are available from several local businesses, with slightly varying rates and extras to aid you. Every frill -- time codes to aid in the synchronizing of sound to picture, video monitors to see what you're doing, batteries, even lenses -- comes with a price tag. Deals can be made with most stores, based on length of rental and such, but the bottom line is that even a short film made on rented equipment will cost thousands of dollars before post-production work is completed. And frankly, who has that kind of money to throw around on art? Learn to charm people who own things you need. That is the first step to economical filmmaking.EMBRACE YOUR IGNORANCEIf you are to get anywhere -- and this includes out the door of the rental office -- you will need this skill: the art of acting like you know what the hell someone is talking about when they say "F4S with the motor drive" or "Matter box and ball focus" or "A/B roll." Only people who know how to make movies know what these things truly mean, and they often rattle off technical terms by the dozen. You can't get the simplest information about cameras without being made to feel very stupid. You will be made aware of a whole world of things you don't know a whit about. This is always a good lesson. This is also why it's important to ally yourself with someone who knows cameras before you go shopping.You will still need to ask the businesses what they have to offer, and for how much. The main thing to do is nod while you try to keep up with the patter, read the Filmmaker's Encyclopedia, and, in the grand Socratic tradition, answer questions with questions. Relate all things to the picture you have in your head, embrace your ignorance, and defer to those with knowledge. You will learn names by hearing them repeatedly and by seeing them on the sides of machines you probably shouldn't touch.Film stock is relatively cheap, compared to the cameras it runs through. Four or five local businesses carry it, in many formats and for many special needs. The basic price ranges between approximately 15 and 25 cents per foot for 16mm or Super 16mm film, either black-and-white or color. As with most dry goods sold in bulk, the more you get, the cheaper it is. Cost varies with brand and vendor. Plan what you want in advance and be prepared to compromise for cost. One minute of screen time constitutes 36 feet of 16mm film. Figure you'll need between three and five times the length of your film, depending on your confidence in planning the movie's construction and in your ability to get the shots you want. So, a 20-minute short (ambitious, by the way) would be safe with 2200 feet of film on hand, and safer with 3600. Know that 16mm film will look cruder than what you're used to seeing in commercially released films, and use that in your pre-shoot decision making.SOUNDSound is another department in which the owner/operator scheme becomes a boon. Find yourself a skilled sound person who owns a ton of fancy equipment and can't wait to use it. Sound people can be found in the same places as camera folk, and are just as helpful. If you think cameras are a mother, wait until some sound person starts in with the "mag track" and "Nagra" talk. Sound mixing, briefly, is the process by which the audio portion of your film is recorded and blended together to suggest a spatial relationship between the stuff on-screen, so that one character's voice can be louder than another's, while a passing car can be even louder; sound affects the overall mood of the film in a million ways that the audience is never consciously aware of. And again, as with the camera, there are many variables involved in selecting the way you want to cover yourself. Is there dialogue? Is there a lot? Can you cheat it? Are there sound effects? The trained sound mixer knows what can and cannot be faked, and as often as not, also has his or her own equipment, which you can rent for a special "hire me and get my stuff" rate.You will need a digital audio tape (DAT) machine or 1/4-inch reel-to-reel recorder, a mixing board of some kind (home four-track machines work pretty well), and a unidirectional microphone with a boom stand. These items are available for rent at any of dozens of music and film equipment stores around town. DAT machines cost between $45 and $90 per day. Mixing boards cost anywhere from $25 (for a basic, unpowered eight-channel board) to thousands per day. Low-end microphones can be bought for anywhere between $30 and $300, and rented for $10 to $100 per day.As with film, the actual software is the least of your worries. A 1200-foot reel of 1/4" tape, which contains 32 minutes, runs $10. A one-hour DAT is about the same, and can be found in any Tower Records.Sound texture is a consideration that goes hand-in-hand with visuals. I have seen perfectly passable films made with a $30 mic and a Tascam four-track cassette recorder borrowed from a band that lived with the director. Some people don't think they do the trick. Again, what do you want, what will you accept, and what can you afford?LIGHTS (OR, "I WANT TO BE THE GAFFER!")What you need to light your film, like anything else, is a function of what your film needs. Lighting is a very delicate art, and you won't achieve what's considered acceptable brightness without shelling out for a professional light kit. You can cheat by having cheap ideas: shooting in daylight or in rooms with lots of available light. I knew a guy at NYU Film School who lit his third-year project with candles; Stanley Kubrick did that, too, in Barry Lyndon. It's complicated and takes tons of time, but light defines the visual texture of a film. It's an eloquent character. Maybe you want the shots to look too dark or too bright. A good camera operator can do amazingly ambitious things with available light. Still, it's a good idea to have an artificial light source, just in case.Many camera owners also have lights, though many don't. You can rent lights by the single bulb head or by the package. A good, modest package is the "Arri Kit," named for the Arriflex camera company. You get three different types of lamps and a bunch of junk to hold them up, diffuse their intensity, and point them the right way. This low-end kit can be rented for around $75 a day.LOCATIONS (OR, HEY, WANNA BE IN A MOVIE?)If you have a bunch of money to waste and you want to feel legitimate, you can get a permit from the city of Seattle to shoot in crowded urban areas without interference. For bolder productions, these can come in handy: the state film commission will do just about anything to accommodate what is perceived as a boon to the local economy, from shutting down bridges to offering police protection. If, however, you have a little bit of nerve, you can shoot in the city without a permit. The sense of risk and commando-style setup can even lend your production an air of romance and urgency the filmmaking process is strikingly void of most of the time.Besides, most people -- cops included -- will be so transfixed by the sight of a movie camera and actors they won't even think to tell you to move along. If they do, then go around the corner, or wait 10 minutes and go back. What the hell, you're a taxpayer. Just don't go blocking traffic.As for businesses or private homes, you usually need only ask (remember to be charming) for some time and you'll get it. The fact that everyone is fascinated by movies is a great advantage. Shops will often let you in during slow times or after-hours. Make friends with people who live in nice, well-lit apartments and include them in crowd scenes (if there are any). Be polite and take as little time as you can without rushing. Make your hosts feel like amazingly important, extra-special helpers, and they will give you their children if you ask. Just be prepared to throw around a couple of bucks for beer or meals as remuneration. Better yet, find a gopher willing to do windows, mow lawns, or chop firewood.ACTORS: PETS OR MEAT?It's impossible to give much advice about actors without making horrible generalizations about a whole artistic population. That said, unpaid actors are nightmarish beings. What kind of nightmare you choose is entirely up to you and your movie. A good rule of thumb is that your friends, even the funny ones, won't be able to reproduce humor or emotion take after take, nor will they be likely to take you seriously as any kind of authority figure when time gets tight. Stage actors can usually do those things, but might give you trouble when it comes to things like craft and character.It's important to rehearse and hone your communication for as long as you can before shooting begins. In the end, your best bet as a first-time director is to find actors who can do exactly what they're told to do, exactly how and when they're told to do it, and for dozens of times in a row. Do not be fooled by good looks; but do be willing to accept limitations as well as suggestions (if they're good).SPEAKING OF GOPHERSThe main thing you want is free labor. When you tell people you're making a film, they will want to be in it. If they can't be in it, most will still want to help out "any way" they can. Be aware that "any way" is the always the best way to help on a movie set. You will need someone to keep notes, to fetch tape, to carry boxes, to futz with hair, to kill bugs, to shoo cats, to move the camera, to ward off onlookers, and to tap dance like a monkey when the tension has mounted like sweat on a teamster's back. You don't need to pay this person; you don't need to pay anyone, for that matter. You just better damn well not be paying yourself.POST-PRODUCTION (OR WHAT TO DO WITH ALL YOUR EXTRA MONEY)Once you're finished shooting, additional money will be needed for a variety of tiresome technical things like film processing, editing, and more (like music, title design, and so forth). The cost of the processing depends directly upon what kind of film you've used and what you want it to look like. Though prices rise with the project's complexity, a good thing to know is that you can negotiate. Deals are there to be made, and usually with only superficial sacrifice (using ends of other people's reels, etc.). Talk to them. Editing is a similar situation, with prices ranging wildly with need, from tens to hundreds of dollars per hour.Keep in mind that even a short film can take days or weeks-but definitely many, many hours-to edit. There are rumors about a group which has been awarded a grant to assist in the editing of 16mm films for FREE. As always, check the bulletin boards, and talk to people at meetings.FESTIVALS, AFTER-PARTIES, WORLD-WIDE ACCLAIMThese are the barest of bones for your film production. You need a camera, film, and sound recorder. The little geegaws that lie between the lines are innumerable, and learning what you need by not having it will serve you better on subsequent productions. Still, there are some handy things to have around any place where films are to be made. Always have duct tape.Always have a tape measure. Always have a shot list. Always have a change of shirts. Always have access to a car. Always have breath mints or gum. Always have batteries. Always have a legal pad and pens. Try to have an eye-liner pencil. These things will make their worthiness known to you. Most of all, know that you will very likely fail at what you set out to do.You will wind up with a picture that looks nothing like the one in your head, and sound that makes you wonder what the hell the actors are saying, even though you wrote the script. But failure is a part of success. Even if you hate what you wind up with (and you very well might), at the end of the day, you will have done what nearly everyone you've ever met secretly wants to do: You will have made a film. Now all you need to do is find some time to edit the fucker.


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