Ten Tips to Indie Filmmaking
COW Library : Indie Film & Documentary : Rick Castañeda : Ten Tips to Indie Filmmaking
That is the reason I'm often tempted to lie and say that we shot our film, Cement Suitcase, on the Red, or perhaps the Alexa, or some other sexy camera. But in truth, the technology of making movies is coming down so quickly in price that it will soon be comparable to purchasing paper and a pencil.
When I tell people that we actually shot the film on the Canon 7D, I often see a flinch of disdain. "Oh," they seem to be saying, "You're one of those." Even though this camera was used on Oscar-nominated Black Swan, it doesn't get a lot of professional respect.
What I should really tell people when they ask, is that we shot on the Jeffrey Waldron. Your choice of cinematographer is more important by far than his or her equipment. We probably could have given Jeff a cardboard box with a hole in it, and he would have created something beautiful. (Immediately after shooting our film he was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for Cinematography.)
But that is just a preface. This is Creative COW, after all, and if I said I didn't care about the cameras, or the equipment, or the software, I'd be a boldfaced liar. I love all the tools.
We are craftsmen, and we love the hammers and chisels of our trade. But let's not forget that they are the means, not the ends, and that if we can't get our hands on the best paints, we'll raid a burned-out campfire and produce some charcoals! Here are ten tips to making a film:
ONE: KNOW EVERYTHING
It is not necessary for a director to know every single facet of filmmaking, but I believe it is truly beneficial. I have been employed as an editor, photographer, director, writer, producer, motion graphics artist, and post-supervisor. I even interned at a radio station once, in order to learn more about sound.
Knowing everything is a complete impossibility. And you shouldn't be trying to do all the jobs yourself – your film will suffer for it. But if you have a little experience in each area, it will help you communicate to the artisans who are much better at that craft than you are.
TWO: PLAN YOUR WORKFLOW BEFORE YOU SHOOT ONE FRAME
As we have been shooting with the Canon 7D quite often, we had developed a pretty great workflow for shooting, transcoding to Prores, and using Plural Eyes with Final Cut 7 to sync all the sound (which was recorded separately from picture, into a TASCAM multitrack recorder).
Working with filmmakers who are very adept at both production and post is very beneficial. As I was also going to be the editor of the film, I knew exactly which shots I could cut if time was running out on set. Our DIT (Digital Imaging Technician), the guy who was unloading all the data cards out of the camera, was also a man who knew post, and our boom op/sound mixer, Lawrence Everson, was also going to be our post sound designer.
What does this mean? It means there was no clumsy hand-off from production to post. Every clip was labeled and organized exactly as it should have been, and our sound designer had a real head start, as he had heard everything we recorded on set. He even spent an extra day driving around recording wild sounds, like the sounds of a car engine, because he knew he would need them later on down the line.
THREE: REMEMBER TO TEST THAT WORKFLOW
I thought I had a pretty good workflow for post. But it's always important to make sure.
For every take, we recorded about 6 tracks of sound. One boom track, generally 2-3 lav tracks (one on our main actor, and one or two on whoever he was talking with), and one stereo track of camera sound. I knew that the sound the camera recorded would be mostly unusable, but I wanted to keep it all the way throughout the process just in case, as it would serve as a guide track in case anything went wrong.
For ease of editing, I wanted more than just merged video & audio tracks in Final Cut. I wanted the video intrinsically tied with the audio. Since we'd have to transcode all the media anyway, it wouldn't add any degradation. So what we did was export Prores QuickTime clips of each take, with 6 tracks of audio exported right along with it. It added quite a bit of work at the beginning of the editing process, but I can tell you that editing the entire feature film was an incredibly smooth process because of it.
First thing I did once we came up with this process was to edit a scene using it, and export that as an OMF for Lawrence, our sound editor. Sure enough, it turned out that the sound I had attached to the QuickTime clips came through perfectly, but wasn't referenced – in ProTools it had the same exact filename as the QuickTime (which were named for the scene and take).
For example, if Lawrence wanted to find a similar take, he'd have a hard time finding the original audio take, and have to look it up in an excel spreadsheet where we had everything listed out. So, because we had tested the workflow right at the beginning, we were able to add the sound take filename # to the QuickTime filenames, and everything was very easily referenced. Our sound editor was super happy that we had tested this out, and it ended up saving him probably days or weeks of work.
This is how Rick labeled this picture for us: "Director Rick pointing like a director." Assistant Director John Ross and DP Jeffrey Waldron look on in the background. All photos by Scottie Minshall.
FOUR: KEEP YOUR FCP PROJECT FILE UNDER 100MB!
Until this film, the longest project I'd ever worked on was about 30 minutes long, and I had never ever had any problems with a Final Cut 7 project getting too bloated.
But after editing this film for a while, not only did the project take about 10 minutes to open, but it would often crash in the middle of a session. Turns out, our .fcp file had grown to over 200mb in size! This is apparently a big no-no. I ended up having to carve out the old sequences and leave them behind. They were still in another FCP project file that I could access if I wanted, but it made everything WAY faster, and after that it hardly ever crashed.
FIVE: KNOW HOW TO GET YOUR EDITING FILE INTO AFTER EFFECTS
Let's face it, in this digital age, you're probably going to need titles, or VFX, or screen replacements, or graphics in your film. Make sure you know how you're going to get your film out of your editing software and into your graphics software. Sure, you can export it, but I feel that is clumsy, and if you ever need to add a frame on the head or the tail of a shot, you have to start all over.
It's much better to translate the sequence somehow, if you can. If you're editing in Premiere, and need to take it into After Effects, this is as easy as going into AE and choosing "Import Premiere Pro Project." However, we were editing on Final Cut.
Lucky for us, since Premiere was so eager to steal business from Apple, they have made it very easy to translate a FCP project into a Premiere project via XML export. And from there, it's easy to go from Premiere to After Effects, as stated above. It's still a bit clumsy, but now in AE you have film handles, and you're still referencing the actual media, and not an exported copy, so potential degradation is nonexistent. Voilà!
SIX: WHAT'S YOUR FINAL MASTER GOING TO BE? WHY?
You should be able to answer this question before you start shooting. True, the digital landscape is changing so fast that by the time you finish your movie, the answer to this question might totally have changed. But you should have a good idea going in. For us it was a ProRes 422HQ QuickTime file. Let me tell you why.
ProRes, as far as I know, is still the de facto archiving and editing format for independent features. Primarily, I am guessing, this is because of Apple. But I have found Prores to be extremely robust, and haven't seen anything yet that is as widely accepted and respected. ProRes 422HQ was the codec required by our VOD delivery company, the file they translated for 10 different VOD platforms, including iTunes, Amazon, and Netflix.
Truth be told, our film was edited as ProRes 422 (not HQ). I did a lot of reading right before we transcoded, and because our film was shot on the Canon 7D in h.264, there just was not enough information in the files to require 422 HQ. So I transcoded all the clips to ProRes 422, saved a bit of hard drive space, and presumably a bit of RAM.
"Carthenge," as seen in Cement Suitcase
SEVEN: MAKE YOUR OWN DCP
When we started filming Cement Suitcase – heck, even after we finished editing – I had no idea what a DCP was. It stands for Digital Cinema Package, and it's the six digital files you need in order to play your movie on a digital server, which is how most movies are projected these days. A DCP of your film, when you start playing theaters, is going to be your best friend.
In the past, if you shot your film digitally and wanted to show it in a theater, you'd either have to have it transferred onto film (prohibitively expensive) or compress it to a DVD (which, assuming you shot 1080p, cuts the quality of your film by 75%).
For the ten film festivals that Cement Suitcase has screened, I've found that most of them have requested either DCP's or Blu-rays. Blu-ray is a good alternative, but you are still compressing your film, and it still has to be read by a laser in a machine with moving parts.
When you screen your film with a DCP, it is robust. You are screening it the exact same way that big films, like Iron Man 3, are screened. I asked a projectionist if he's ever seen a DCP fail, and he said he's heard of it happening before, but has never seen it personally. "If there's anything wrong with it, the system spits it out pretty quick. Once it passes the system check, I've never seen it fail."
And best part is, if you are somewhat technical, you can make it yourself! Here are a few links that show you how:
If it sounds too complicated, you can find someone that will do it for you, usually for about $1000-2500. But the problem with that is, if you have to add credits to the film, or take out that stock footage you couldn't get the rights to (which happened to us), now you've got to spend another grand in order to redo it.
Many film festivals, once accepted, will also let you test out your DCP's with them. This is important! The first time I made a DCP, I didn't realize the filenames on the image sequence all had to be the same number of characters (long story), so what ended up happening is that the movie started in the middle, and then later on cut to the beginning. You wouldn't want this happening in front of a live audience, with no way to correct.
Make sure to give yourself a week or two to make a DCP, because it's a long process.
EIGHT: A FILM IS REALLY, REALLY LONG
It sounds stupid, but this was something I totally didn't realize until we started shooting.
Since this was my first feature, all my other projects I have been able to hold perfectly inside my head before. I could visualize them from beginning to end, hold them in my hands, so to speak, and look at them from all sides, easily. This was not so with a feature.
It was because of this that I thought, like an idiot, that we would not need either a costume person or a script-supervisor. It became incredibly transparent the first day of shooting that I was wrong.
We were shooting at the house exterior of our main character, Franklin. To be efficient, and also because the outside of the house was completely different from where we were shooting the inside of the house, we were going to film every single scene in the movie where Franklin enters or exits his house.
At 10 am, I was thinking about performances, budgets, and wondering, "Does this shot look right? Does this yard look clean enough? Are we already running late? Why are we hearing Mariachi music down the street? Is that going to ruin our production sound?" At that moment, my lead actor turned to me and asked, "So what shirt should I be wearing in this scene?"
Hmm...what shirt should Franklin be wearing in scene 62? Where is he going? What day is this supposed to be? What else is he doing that day, and are these clothes appropriate for the entire day? Trying to flip through the script and figure all this out, while still meeting a very tight schedule, would have been impossible. Right on the spot we promoted one of our PA's to Script Supervisor, and made another one in charge of Wardrobe. And it made all the difference.
In my head, it was two jobs that I considered luxuries. In practice, on set, without these two people I think I would have gone insane.
NINE: EVERY STAGE OF FILMMAKING IS A CHANCE TO WRITE A BETTER FILM
When we set a date for production, I was really happy with the script. But I kept sending it out for feedback because it's best to know how the film will be critiqued as early as possible, even if you don't agree with it. A lot of the notes, I agreed with. So I was rewriting the script up until 2am the night before we began.
Some of the scenes didn't appear to have writing problems until we shot them. While rehearsing some of the scenes, I'd watch the actors and think, wow, this is really boring. How can we spice this up? Often the actors had really great suggestions to made the scene more compelling. You have to be open to that.
I didn't have issues with some scenes until the editing room. One, I thought, was too straightforward. Everyone just said exactly what they were thinking. So I decided to make both the characters seem nervous by editing it as if they were speaking over each other's lines. The result was something I was really happy with.
Some scenes didn't work, or didn't work nearly as well, without the sound design. In a climactic scene where Franklin is starting to lose it, Lawrence made the sounds warp, and migrated the dialogue away from the center speaker, where it is traditionally placed, and steered it to the surround sound speakers at the back. Then, when Franklin snaps back to consciousness, the sound all snaps back to the front of the theater. Not everyone knows what effect we're using, but everyone feels it.
Point is, every stage of production and post-production is a chance to make the movie even better. Make sure that you use all of them!
TEN: THERE IS A TRICKLE-DOWN EFFECT TO DIRECTING A FILM
This is just a basic management lesson, but as the director of an independent film, if you're happy and energetic, everyone else on the crew will be happy and energetic. If you're angry and yell a lot, it's likely that everyone else will be angry and yell a lot. If you show you're really dedicated, you will have a dedicated crew. And if you act like you're too important to take out the trash, everyone else will find things that aren't part of their jobs either.
As the director, you really set the mood of the entire shoot, so make sure it's a good one. After all, this isn't heart surgery. This is the best job in the entire world, and despite the low pay, the long hours, and the incredible stress, it should be fun, dammit.
The entire crew of Cement Suitcase.
Ten Tips to Indie Filmmaking: Rick Casteñeda
Rick Castañeda is a writer/director/producer of feature films, animations and live-action shorts, and co-founder of Psychic Bunny, a Los Angeles hybrid production, motion design, and interactive studio. His works have been around the world to festivals in Canada, Japan, and Romania, as well as festivals here in the ol' U.S. of A., such as SXSW.
He's made over 30 short films with his sketch comedy group, Six Finger Fist, earning recognition from YouTube, Crackle, and Funny or Die. Coma, Period., a 10-episode comedy webseries about a man stuck inside a coma, was given a rave review in the New York Times, and has over 1,000,000 views. He has also directed webisodes for Disney and MSN.