Director's Notes - Directly from the "From Script to Screen" seminar (check out "Tom's Blog" page for more notes)
Do it right first.
Making a film - any film - will require a lot of patience, a lot of perserverance and a lot of attention to detail. The best advice I can give first time filmmakers is to do it right first. Taking "shortcuts" often results in much more work down the road. For example, hiring or engaging a script supervisor in the short run might increase your total budget a bit right from the start but will save you tons of time as you move from the shooting to the editing process. Try not to cut corners to save a nickel and end up spending many times that nickle in the long run. You'll thank yourself at the end of the process.
Making an independent film without the backing or support of a studio is perhaps one of the most difficult things an artist can attempt. Filmmaking is often a huge collaborative effort and requires that the person at the helm understand the process inside and out. Coordinating a team of crew members and actors, sets and locations, meals and craft services, contracts and permissions (and that's just scratching the surface) is not for the faint of heart.
This new page is a compilation of my "Director's Notes" and will be added to on a regular basis. These notes are from a variety of programs I offer and will also be in my upcoming book about making an independent film.
I hope you enjoy them. (The newest posting will always be at the top)
One-Man-Band Shooters Tip.
This is a post for the “one-man band” videographer shooting a play or other theatrical production that has an established series of entrances and exits.
I shoot these kinds of events all the time and I typically do it as a single operator with two cameras. I like to have the capability of being able to edit a nice, clean, multi-angle version of the production so I do this very simple trick.
When I go to watch the dress rehearsal and familiarize myself with the show, I also record the entire event with a wide shot camera which will catch all the entrances and exits. Then I go home and watch the taped event with a digital audio recorder in hand. I “narrate” the entrances and exits and note when I should be shooting full screen or a tight single, two-shot, three-shot or small grouping. I will go so far as to describe action on stage as it happens in my wide shot video.
When I go to shoot the actual production on subsequent nights, I plug one audio recorder earbud into my ear inside the headphones I use to monitor the live or house sound for the event. I start the playback on my audio recorder about 5 or 10 seconds in advance of the actual event so I can hear myself explaining the action that will be occurring on stage (based on the recording from the dress rehearsal). A technical note - I also know how to fast forward or pause my digital audio playback in the event the live show I am recording lags behind a bit or is moving more quickly than the dress rehearsal did.
In essence, my audio recording is serving as my “director” as I shoot the live event. As long as the pacing stays the same (or relatively close), I know, from watching and recording the show just the one time, when events on stage will be happening. Of course, I also go back as many times as is required to get a good recording of the event. I do this as much for the performers as I do for myself as I want them to have the best record of the best overall performance they offer. The bonus is that it also gives me a chance to learn the show more completely each time I shoot it. I use this technique when shooting plays as well as dance and music recitals.
It works like a charm and I save a ton on extra camera ops. And in most cases, all I really need is two cameras - one for following the important action and the other (the wide shot) as my “go to” camera in the event I miss something happening elsewhere on stage.
No Pay But Credit and Copy.
A lot of first films are made as a “no-pay, IMDB credit and copy” experience. There is nothing wrong with this. We all have to start somewhere. However, it’s really important for the no-pay filmmaker to follow the “rules” of filmmaking. There is a common misconception that a no-budget film allows you to get away with a lot of shortcuts. You really shouldn’t. Even with a low or no-budget indie film, the extent of your preparation will be reflected in how smoothly your days go and how well you stay on schedule.
Sometimes the more money there is available for a film, the more waste there is. Conversely, the less money, the less waste as long as you, as the producer, are very well organized and ready to go. Follow all the steps just like you were making a bigger, financed film.
For most people agreeing to work on a no-pay film, it’s going to be a learning experience more than anything. Show your cast and crew that you respect them by taking the time to figure out how to make the film correctly and ensure that the learning experience is valuable for everyone on the set.
I just spent a day producing a live, one-time special event. I had a crew of two camera ops. I also operated a camera as well as presenting 24 short film clips via Apple's Keynote presentation program that I had worked on for roughly six weeks. The day of the event (which kicked off at 6:00 p.m. and went for six hours) started for me early in the morning the day before. And yet, when it was time for the MacBook to fire up and the cameras to roll, I wished I had had more time to prepare. No matter how much time you have to get ready, it's almost never enough. My point? Don't dally when you are producing an event, especially if you are relying on other people to do their jobs properly in a timely manner. Sometimes that just doesn't happen. Plan your day(s) carefully and factor in extra time (if you can do so). Oh, and one other thing - when it comes off without a hitch, it's incredibly satisfying. Don't forget to enjoy that moment.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow - is the location. Good luck finding it.
As a PM, PC, AD or just a person who is sending set or location directions to cast and crew, make sure you provide directions which are easy to understand. Include information like the actual address, turn-to-turn mileage numbers, prominent landmarks (if they will be helpful) and any road construction issues that might be encountered. Also, please check the address to make sure that it can be found using a GPS device (and if it is not detectable via GPS, let your team know that).
Follow the Rules Until You Can Break the Rules
I mentioned reading the work of other screenwriters in preparation for writing your own screenplay. Accepted formatting conventions change slightly over the years but the basics remain the same. As you read the screenplays of other writers, you will discover that they may have used techniques that may now be out of favor. Keep in mind that once you are a successful screenwriter with work that has been produced, you will have a lot more leeway to write the way you want to write. Until then, try to stick with the current, accepted "rules" of screenwriting so as not to give readers or producers a reason to pass on your work. Also remember, for every "rule", there are exceptions and there is nothing to say that you might sneak in the door by taking some big writing risks. But in general, I believe you would be better served to stick with what is working currently until you're on the "inside".
No Garbage Bags
It's always nice when an actor gets booked on a shoot and is asked to provide sizes or to arrive in advance of the actual shoot for a costume fitting. However, many shoots do not supply wardrobe for the actors and it is incumbent upon the actors to bring their own wardrobe.
If you are ever asked to do this, here are a couple of tips...
1) Make sure your clothes are clean, fresh and pressed.
2) Bring your clothing options in a garment bag or suitcase that will not wrinkle your clothes. (I have actually had actors bring their wardrobe in a garbage bag - believe it or not. That's not professional and it's definitely NOT a good idea).
3) Bring plenty of options and when I say "plenty", I don't mean 2 pairs of pants, two shirts or blouses and only the shoes you wear to the set. Of course, your wardrobe will be dependent on the role you will be playing and you will likely get some guidance from someone at the company hiring you. Still, within the parameters provided to you by the company, bring PLENTY of options - 6 or 7 shirts in a variety of colors and styles, an equal number of pants, skirts or dresses, several belt and shoe options, sweaters, some tee-shirts if appropriate, sport coats, blazers or suit coats - again with a nice variety of colors and styles. You will end up bringing a lot of clothing but when I am the director, I absolutely LOVE the actor who brings me a ton of options that I can play with, especially since I can almost guarantee that at least one actor on the set is going to arrive with not much more than the shirt on his back.
Cell Phones Are Essential
It's important to not only check your emails for messages from your contact on your gig (AD, production coordinator or production secretary, etc.) but also to make sure your contact has your cellphone number in the event of a truly last minute change. Equally as important, you should have your contact's cellphone number in case you are somehow unavoidably detained. It's all about effective and efficient communication.
Check Your Email Regularly
You've booked a commercial, an industrial video or a role in a film. Congratulations! Over the next few days, I'm going to post some recommendations to make your gig go more smoothly.
Today's tip... If you are communicating with the commercial producer via email, be sure to check your email frequently up until the time you leave for the shoot. There may be a last minute change that comes to you in an email. Also, it's very important to reply to every email you receive so your contact on the shoot knows you got the message.
It's the Same, Only Different
There are feature films, shorts, industrials, music videos, commercials and instructionals. There are narratives and documentaries, live action and animated. Docudramas and reality projects. There are ultra-low budget films and big, bloated tent pole blockbusters. And they will all benefit from the same sort of careful planning and preparation I am writing about in my blog posts. The degree of prep is going to vary depending on the size and scope of your project but by approaching all your work in a similar fashion, I believe that you will increase the chances of successfully completing your film (and not being completely crazy at the end of it all).
Feeding Your Crew - the Real Reasons
Filmmakers are control freaks - get used to it. In a recent blog post, I wrote about feeding my cast and crew. Although this idea applies to a variety of different projects, in this particular post I was talking about a film set and a 10 to 12 hour shoot day.
So why is it so important to feed my cast and crew? When I hire cast and crew for something like this, those professionals become my responsibility for the time they are on my set and I have to keep them happy, fed and on the set (rather than hopping into their car to go get Big Macs, donuts or other meals that have a high potential of making them sleepy midway through the afternoon). I want my team energized, rested and ready to go when the time comes.
Also, imagine what might happen if I let my actors or crew leave the set for lunch and something unexpected occurs... they have a car accident or get stuck on the highway for two hours in a traffic jam. In addition to the potential for human suffering, this sort of event could shut down a production (see "Safety Concerns - IMPORTANT STUFF" and "Guerrilla Filmmaking - Is It Worth the Risk?").
My cast and crew arrive on the set and do not leave until they are released at the end of the day. As the filmmaker, you need to take control of the entire situation.
By the way, when I am working on a film, the talent is not just the team of performers but also the DP, the AD, the gaffer and boom operator, the hair and makeup person, and any other member of the crew. Crew talent doesn't necessarily get all the attention for their work. In fact, the less obvious the camera work, makeup, hair, sound and set management is, the better they are all doing their job. (Wednesday, July 9, 2014)
Guerrilla Filmmaking - Is It Worth the Risk?
Let's revisit the July 3rd post (Safety Concerns - IMPORTANT STUFF) again because there are more lessons to learn from this.
The news yesterday was that the director, Randall Miller; the producer, Jody Savin; and even the executive producer, Jay Sedrish, for the Greg Allman biopic, "Midnight Rider", have been arrested and charged with involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespassing.
Even though this particular film does not seem to be, at its base, a "guerrilla" film, it brings to mind this idea that making films without following the rules is somehow more exciting or romantic than making a standard "by-the-book" film. And look - I get it. Everyone has done something that goes against the rules and it can be exciting. But when you have millions (or even thousands or just hundreds) of dollars resting on the decisions you make and, even more importantly - in fact, of the utmost importance - you have the lives and safety of your cast and crew relying on your smart and reasoned decision-making, you MUST make the RIGHT DECISIONS.
Accidents happen. Mishaps occur. Unexpected things arise all the time. So, as a producer mounting a film project, you have to anticipate every possible problem and solve each before they occur.
Getting permits to shoot legally on a property that isn't yours is boring and "by-the-book" and maybe it means you're no longer a guerrilla filmmaker. However, knowing all the ins and outs of the location at which you plan to shoot is just smart filmmaking even though it's not necessarily "exciting". And the up-side is that your shoot is much more likely to go off without a hitch and you limit the chances that someone will be injured or killed.
As boring as obtaining permits can be, imagine how excruciatingly boring having sufficient and appropriate insurance is going to be. Or hiring qualified security for an exposed public location. Or arranging for a paramedic or EMT to be present on a potentially dangerous set. But that's your job as a producer. Own it or don't but if you decide to ignore those important questions and issues, you may expose your crew, your cast and yourself to unreasonable and dangerous risk. (Tuesday, July 8, 2014)
Want to be a screenwriter? So does every valet parker, waitress and movie theater popcorn pusher in LA. What are you doing to become one? For starters, you should be writing - every day. Make it part of your routine. Second, you should learn HOW to write in proper screenplay format.
I also recommend obtaining screenplays for your favorite movies. Get them in "Screenplay" format and not reprinted in a non-industry way) and read them. Watch the movie from which the screenplay was made and follow along as the movie unfolds. See how the writer "designs" the page.
Also, you would do yourself a great favor by investing in an amazing ccreenwriter resourse, "The Screenwriter's Bible", by David Trottier (http://www.keepwriting.com/). It's full of samples, tips and "rules" for writing your screenplay in the proper format. It's WELL WORTH the investment. (Monday, July 7, 2014)
Step One: Getting Started
I'm working on a comedy short that I plan to shoot in late August / early September. As I have mentioned in this blog before, there are hundreds of steps that must be completed in order to have a successful shoot. I will comment on each of those steps as I move through the process over the next couple of months.
Step one: I have to have my screenplay in good shape before I start my breakdown. I'm going to discuss it with my writing partner. We'll go in and tighten up all our scenes and make sure our jokes are all current and all still work. We will cut out the fat and make sure we're starting all our scenes as late as possible and getting out of them as soon as we can.
In the meantime, one of the producers will start investigating funding sources and start to build a plan to find money - maybe private investors, maybe family members, maybe a crowdsourcing site.
It's all very exciting. (Saturday, July 5, 2014)
Happy Birthday, United States. Many happy returns.
Earlier today, I posted an update for my upcoming seminar and accidentally posted the wrong month (June instead of July).
That was bad (and could have made readers think that they had missed the seminar). I didn't notice it.
A friend noticed it and sent me a message about it. I looked and couldn't find the typo. I wrote back to him. He sent me a screen shot.
STILL couldn't find it.
He sent me ANOTHER screenshot with the error circled in red and an arrow pointing to it. I FINALLY saw it.
My point? As the writers, we are often so close to what we have written that we don't see the mistakes or automatically gloss over things like missing words. The best way to fight this is to have someone else proof your work (and only once. They may fall into that same dilemma on a subsequent read). Develop a nice cadre of "readers" you can trust and who have an understanding of proper grammar and punctuation and entice them to read your work. It's worth the pizza or six pack to have them as part of your support system. (July 4th, 2014)
Based on the recent news about the death of a production assistant on the Allman Brothers biopic and the involuntary manslaughter charges filed against the producers and director (which could result in a ten year prison sentence), now is a good time to mention this.
As a producer or director of a film, you are responsible for the safety of your cast and crew from the time they step onto the set until the time they leave.
You can't have too many safety checks. You can't ask too many questions regarding all aspects of the shoot. You need to know about every potential safety issue that could affect the lives of your cast and crew.
In addition, although insurance is often overlooked, especially in first films or indie films, you MUST make arrangements for coverage to protect everyone and every location in your project (workers comp, medical, E&O, et al).
Do your due diligence and protect your team, your project and yourself. (July 3, 2014)
Investing In Your Career
When considering classes, seminars or training, don't look at the expenditure of money as a "payment". Look at it as an investment.
It is exactly that.
Just like going to college or a trade school, you are making an investment in your career. It doesn't matter if it's a class like my upcoming "From Script to Screen", an acting class or a workshop to learn the nuts and bolts of filmmaking equipment, they are all investments (and tax deductible). Stop hesitating and get started on learning the craft from the pros. (Saturday, June 28, 2014)
Sure, It's a Brilliant Scene But What if it Doesn't Fit?
William Goldman (screenwriter of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", "Marathon Man", "The Princess Bride") once famously said that, as a screenwriter, you must occasionally "murder your darlings". You may have written a brilliant scene or some scintillating dialogue but if what you wrote does not move your story forward or serve the greater good of the screenplay, you may have to eliminate it. "Murdering your darlings" is a difficult thing to do but it might just improve your screenplay. (Saturday, June 21, 2014)
How Do You Eat an Elephant?
There are thousands of little things that need to be done in the process of making a film - writing, formatting, scheduling, budgeting, casting, scouting, crewing, managing a set, feeding your crew, getting releases, maintaining appropriate insurance, protecting cast and crew, transporting cast and crew, editing, sweetening, conforming, scoring, submitting, promoting, negotiating - and that's just the beginning.
Don't try to eat the filmmaking elephant all in one bite. Take your time, do your research, be thorough, be concise, check and recheck and double check.
Remember, slow and steady wins the race (and completes the film). (Friday, June 20, 2014)
The Filmmaker Workout
Get in shape. Once you start the process of making your first film, you are going to be working long hours, dealing with a lot of people AND a lot of little problems. Being in good physical condition is going to help a lot. Of course there are plenty of filmmakers who aren't in the best of shape and they get their films done just fine. But why take the chance? Get on a decent, healthy diet and some sort of exercise program. You want your film to look as good as possible. Why not start out by looking as good as you can possibly look? (Thursday, June 19, 2014)
Introduction to Due Diligence
Do your Due Diligence. By this I mean cross all your "t"s and dot all your "i"s.
Independent filmmaking is a minefield of minutia and, unfortunately, the one thing you forget to do could be the one thing that trips you up.
Get all your permissions, have all your releases signed and GET INSURANCE. It's all a pain but it's all totally necessary. (Wednesday, June 18, 2014)
Filmmaker or Control Freak - or Both
Being a filmmaker (producer, director - whichever term you like to use) requires that you be a bit of a control freak. There are so many threads that go into making a film and if you aren't controlling all of them, you are headed for disaster. From a carefully crafted story to obtaining all your documentation to providing good eats on the set, you have to control it all. The result will be a project you can be proud of - and then you can go out and try to sell it. (Monday, June 16, 2014)
No, MY Dad is the Best
Have a great Father's Day.
Knowing What You are Talking About
Each area of specialization on a film project has its own vocabulary. As a filmmaker, although it is not necessary to know, for example, how to change a lighting element in an HMI or the mechanics of being an excellent focus puller, you must know the basics - you must understand what people are talking about. So, in the above example, you should know what an HMI is and why it is used... you should know what a focus puller does and why he positions himself where he does.
Knowing the difference between a stinger and a mult, understanding the reasons why proper screenplay formatting is so important, knowing what to do at an audition when the CD says, "Slate"... this is all part of the vocabulary of film and you have to know this stuff if you want to call yourself a filmmaker. (Friday, June 13, 2014)
Aesthetics of Screenplay
Knowing how to "craft" a screenplay is just as important as your initial roadmap. "Crafting" involves concepts like writing down the page, understanding and utilizing negative or white space on your individual pages, and writing in the active present tense.
If you don't know what those terms mean, you'd be better served to learn that BEFORE you start writing. (Thursday, June 12, 2014)
No One Really Writes a Screenplay in Five Days
When planning to write a screenplay, you should start with a roadmap of some kind - a beat sheet or an outline. You need something to lead you through your inciting incident, your plot points, your challenging-to-write second act and, of course, your resolution.
Keep in mind that screenplays typically don't get written overnight or in a week or a month.
You'll write, you'll rewrite, and then you'll put it away for a while so that when you go back for yet another draft, you can read the manuscript with "fresh eyes".
Patience is truly a virtue when writing a screenplay. (Wednesday, June 11, 2014)
Food and Snacks
Feeding your cast and crew properly, on time and providing them with a nice variety of not just meals but delicious and healthy craft services will go a long way towards keeping everyone happy. And believe me, a happy crew makes for a happy director and eventually leads to a better final outcome. (Tuesday, June 10, 2014)
The First Shot
The first shot on any film production is very important. It can help set the tone for the rest of the production and you can get things off on the right foot by doing one simple thing - if at all possible, plan for your first shot to be an easy shot. One that you can get in one or two takes (and preferably one). Going from "Action" to "Cut" to "Print. Let's move on" gives your cast and crew a sense of accomplishment right off the bat and it feels good, especially since we all know the rest of the shoot won't likely be so easy. (Monday, June 9, 2014)
Take a Day Off.
Give yourself a day off during the week if your budget can afford it. I get it - sometimes you have to work a seven day week due to actor or scheduling issues but, if you can, take one day off a week to decompress, get away from the set and breathe. You, your cast and your crew will be back at it again on Monday but I recommend giving everyone a day to relax (and Sunday is a nice day to do that). (Sunday, June 8, 2014)