Independent Film Productions - Through the Swamps
COW Library : Indie Film & Documentary : Mark Maness : Independent Film Productions - Through the Swamps
In the early spring of 2006, I began pre-production on a low-budget comedy called "White Man Can't Rap." My plan was to use the vacation time I'd accrued in the middle of the summer, slack time for the three series we produce for The Outdoor Channel.
My pledge to the company was that my independent project wouldn't get in the way of our company's work, and I gave my staff the directive to speak up if they saw it affecting my job performance.
NO MONEY, NO FILM
Acquaintances of mine were the principal investors. As our projected production date approached, they both expressed concern. Neither of them had ever done anything like this before. They wanted more time to bring in other investors to reduce the individual risks, but it was time I didn't have. My busy season began by the middle of September, and I'd be out of time.
So that was that. No money, no film. The film I wanted to make was too ambitious to work with a smaller budget, and I had no time for a major fund-raising campaign. I needed another plan.
I remembered a script my partner, Randal Files, had written 10 years ago called "Birthrite," a psychological thriller set in the swamps of eastern Arkansas. It was designed to be produced on a low budget with three main characters, four very minor parts, and a minimum of locations.
We still had to find investors. Here's what you need to know: once you start down that path, you're in the world of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Before you even start, the SEC has very strict rules about what you can say and do as part of your investment pitch. Don't even think about bringing on investors without spending the money for an attorney with entertainment law experience.
When you actually make the pitch, you have to do two contradictory things. First, you need to get the investor excited about the project and explain exactly how they're going to get their money back. Second, you have to be very clear that they may never see their money again.
The first document to prepare is an investment memorandum. It includes everything about the project including your "business plan." As you'll see in templates for this that you'll find online, it's customary to include at least two statements of risk. Even starting with a template, I send my edited version to my attorney for final review.
Like most indie filmmakers, I funded part of the production. The major investor was an acquaintance who'd been following our efforts on "White Man Can't Rap" and was fascinated. As hard as it might sound to follow the federal rules for attracting and securing investors, it really can be done.
THROUGH THE SWAMPS
Serious pre-production is the only way to keep your shoot on schedule and on budget. This is even more important on a low budget, because you can't simply "extend" the schedule - ours was set at 14 days - and you can't throw money at your problems. You have to plan, plan, plan, and then plan for the problems, which never seem to march single file.
Start by securing a DP. You may be tempted to do it yourself, but directing from behind the viewfinder is not for the inexperienced or the faint of heart. It's a big plus if you or your DP is also an editor, whether they edit this project or not. Knowing when you can shoot without coverage, and knowing exactly how much coverage to shoot, is an art. It's easier to learn that art with an intimate knowledge of how shots cut together.
Be sure to schedule acting "pre-production" too. Rehearsal actually helps create realistic, natural performances. Our actors worked for 3 weeks, every single day, to get ready.
The main set was an 80 year-old shotgun cabin in the Wolf River bottoms near Rossville, Tennessee. The one we chose took two weeks of clean up, followed by a week of set dressing.
Exteriors around the cabin, and all of the chase scenes through the woods and in the swamps were lit with ambient daylight, using reflectors, overheads, and the usual equipment. Trees surrounded the cabin, so we had to carefully decide which scenes we could shoot when. Our typical day shooting exteriors was to arrive on the set before shooting light, and begin preparing to shoot as soon as the light allowed.
Lighting the cabin interior turned out to be a chore because of the small, cramped spaces. The very first interior was written as a Steadicam walk through of the whole interior, following one of the main characters. Instead of the single shot I envisioned, I had to break it into three shots to keep the lights hidden: a Lowell DV Creators 55 kit and an Arri 3 light fresnel kit.
To keep things separate from where I work, I didn't use any company equipment. The lights are mine. I'm also a Steadicam operator, and my Panasonic HVX-200 flew very well on an SK rig.
After shooting, I went to the edit suite and studied dailies, making notes about coverage or anything else needed for the next day. Then I pulled up the schedule to make adjustments based on those notes. I usually finished around 2am, then up at 4:30am to do it all again.
POST AND POST-POST
Editing began the day after production. Actually, during the viewing of the dailies during the production, if I had any question about a scene, I would rough cut a section together to make sure it was going to work. So, I guess editing actually started during the production.
After spending three weeks on a rough cut, we screened the movie for 30 people not associated with the project. I gave everyone very detailed questionnaires, because people are more likely to be candid when they're not talking to you face-to-face.
I spent another six weeks or so refining the cut before it was time to "lock picture." No more cutting. That's when audio post begins. Brian Pittman, a very talented music producer, began work on the score while I started work on the sound, starting with dialogue.
Good audio makes your budget sound much bigger than it is. Don't skimp on location sound! Taking the time to get it right will save time and money later. Of course, even the best location recordings sometimes still need ADR, known as both "automatic dialogue replacement" or "additional dialogue recording." Most lowbudget productions skip this step which is a great way to make your budget sound even lower than it was.
ADR is an art, but it's not that hard to get started. My set-up is almost laughable. I took a second monitor from my computer and ran it into my daughter's bedroom, down the hall from my edit room. I took the AT 897 mic used on production, and with c-stands, blankets, a headphone feed, I created a "recording studio."
In all, it amounted to five months of post-production work. I edited at night and on weekends to avoid affecting my day job. It actually helped my day job: I became much more efficient working with and archiving HD footage. And spending so much time at the edit console made me a better editor.
The time may come when what you're trying to do will seem insurmountable. This is when you need to tap into the passion you have to create to keep you on track. You'll get there.
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