Friday, October 17, 2014

Five Lessons from Making a Short Film

A few weeks ago I shot a short film called Microbe. It is a sci-fi/thriller story about three astronauts who struggle to survive after an alien microbe turns one of them homicidal.

I had several reasons for tackling this film. First, I want to get into directing and need a sample to show people. Second, I want to change my “brand” and start doing more science fiction. Third, I wanted to learn some of the latest film technology. I studied production in film school, but the process of filmmaking has changed greatly since then. I pushed myself with what I’m attempting. We’re using green screen, CGI, wirework stunts, and we even shot in 3D (or “stereo” as the pros call it).

We had a great time on set – I had a fantastic cast and crew – and I have learned a bunch. Now we’re moving into post-production. I thought I’d share some of the lessons I’ve learned so far about this process.

1. Make sure you actually have what you think you have before you start. I had a few problems with people offering something for the film (money, their services, free use of equipment or facilities) only to pull it back before we started. Similarly, sometimes people would say they could do something for a certain budget, only to come back later and say they needed more money – after I’d already committed to using them.

Once you start spending money on a film, it’s pretty hard not to keep going until it’s done. Not finishing means you lose everything invested to that point. So when the budget goes up, you have little choice but opening up your wallet. The more you can lock down everything, in as clear and firm terms as possible, before you actually hit the “go” button, the better. Of course filmmaking is a chaotic endeavor, so you should always have contingency of 10% in your budget.

2. Good collaborators are critical. Get people who know their jobs and listen to them. As I said, I had a great cast and crew. There was a point where we finished a shot, the actors and I stepped off the set, and I just watched the crew work. The art department was bringing in a set wall while the camera team laid dolly track, the gaffer set up lights and the grip set up C-stands. It should have been chaos – everyone running into everyone else – but instead it was like a beautiful choreographed ballet. I realized this was a century of Hollywood figuring out how to make films distilled into my well-trained crew.

Filmmaking is complex and you can’t know everything – especially on a shoot as complicated as mine. I had to rely on my stereographer to ensure the 3D was working, my VFX Supervisor to confirm the shots fit what he needed, and tons of other people to do their jobs so I could focus on the staging and acting. Especially valuable was my script supervisor making sure we got each piece we needed and that it would all cut together.

3. Take the big swing. It’s the only way to get noticed, and it makes people excited to get involved. Okay, I don’t know for sure yet that this will pay off. But my theory here is that there are tens of thousands of short films made every year. If you want someone to pay attention, you have to do something different, something interesting. So I took a big swing with a very ambitious project.

What I did find was that people were very excited to get involved. For some it was an opportunity for them to experiment with certain technology (particularly 3D for many of my crew). And it was just more fun than doing another short film shot in someone’s apartment. I was pleased to see people using the breaks in production to take pictures of themselves in the cool set my production designer constructed. And that kind of excitement helps get everyone through the long days.

4. Preparation is critical. Do and plan as much in advance as you can. Especially with complex effects, it was critical to have a carefully planned shot list and storyboards so we could figure out where to put the camera. We were constructing shots from multiple elements, so we needed to be sure everything fit together, and that we didn’t forget to shoot a particular element.

Production is chaotic – and things will go wrong. Preparation allows you to adapt and prioritize so you get what you need. One place I fell down in this regard was costuming. We didn’t do fittings with the cast in advance. Fortunately, the costumes fit them well, but we should have checked them with the harnesses for the wirework. The costumes didn’t cover the harnesses properly, forcing some creative nipping and tucking on set, and extra work for the visual effects guys who will have to digitally smooth the clothing. There was no need for this trouble – we could have tested all this in advance.

5. All jobs, and all parts of the process matter. The costuming issue was a good example. I didn’t think the costumes would be a big deal so I didn’t really pay attention to them. But a film is only great if no part fails. One bad performance can ruin a film. So can a bad score, or bad cinematography, or bad effects, or bad editing. To succeed you need everything to be good. That’s why making a great film is so hard. Fortunately, the costuming issues on our shoot were minor and fixable!

If you’d like to see more about Microbe, check the Facebook page and/or website.

As I said, I’m now in post-production on the film. We have created a Kickstarter campaign to help us pay for equipment, facilities, etc. that we need to finish. I hope you’ll check it out and consider backing us!

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