Need Advice on Indie Filmmaking? Learn From the Grand Masters

Film is a collaborative art and, fortunately for independent filmmakers, a whole host of movie magicians have shared top tips to adopt as part of your crew’s filmmaking practice. As an independent filmmaker you should be open to advice from everyone with solid film production experience and these guys certainly have that.

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Ranging from the valuable insight of Quentin Tarantino to the maverick genius of Orson Welles, here is a collection of helpful guidance provided by gifted filmmakers that went their own way rather than that of the studios. Watch the videos, soak up the advice and implement their tips and insights while you dive headfirst into starting your own film career.

Tarantino on: Scripting a Movie

Nailing the script before setting up your camera is good advice from anyone, but when it happens to be Quentin Tarantino, one of the best in the business, it’s solid gold. Here QT talks about writing the script as a finished piece of literature in its own right that should compel the writer to then adapt it into something special for the screen.

(Click below to open the video in a new tab)

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Burns on: the Creative Freedom of Microbudget Filmmaking

Independent filmmakers often find it a struggle to secure funding. However, as Edward Burns discusses in this interview, working on a microbudget can also gift you unparalleled creative freedom and help you steer clear of that dreaded word COMPROMISE.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and directors with modest budgets are often encouraged to be more creative when striving to get their vision up on the screen.

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What Scorsese Says…?

Few film directors have created a body of work as rich and varied as Martin Scorsese. When he started out after graduating from NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Scorsese developed his style independently from the studios and his early flair and encyclopaedic knowledge of film history continues to shape his oeuvre. Here he discusses Story vs. Plot with Jon Favreau. Do you agree with the brows from the Bronx?

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Kevin Smith: Cult Cutting Methods

One of the most distinct independent voices in recent years, Kevin Smith has always been forthcoming when it comes to sharing tips with fellow filmmakers. The director has great advice on editing: start the process while shooting, as it saves money and time and enables you to notice when you need to capture a quick pick up shot:

Whenever I’m not shooting, I’m in the editing room with my footage. While the crew is taking 15 minutes to an hour to set up the next shot, I’m behind the Avid, putting the flick together.”

Watch the interview with Smith below for more helpful guidance on indie distribution:

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Orson Welles: The Master Speaks

No director has had the complete artistic control that Welles enjoyed on Citizen Kane. However, he was increasingly marginalised by the studios and forced to find his own funding for the independently made films he directed later in his career.

“I started at the top and worked my way down”, Welles would later say. Nevertheless, his maverick stance and body of work continue to inspire filmmakers. In these two films, Welles underlines the importance of actors and fostering a close knit filmmaking family:

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Feel Inspired?

Good luck with your own film project. If you need further inspiration, watch this magnificent montage of filmmakers urging future generations to get up and go for it. That means you, by the way. There has never been a better time for creative people to band together, share their ideas and turn their dream of making a film into reality.

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Failing Before You’ve Begun: The Five Mistakes EVERY Novice Director Will Wrestle With October 21, 2013DirectingZeke Iddon

Last week we covered a heavily theory-based topic – the importance of accuracy when crafting a movie. This week, we’ll be having a look at some of the most fundamental flaws which can sneak into a project early on and culminate in disaster further down the road.

Filmmaking, like any other artistic endeavor, requires some trial-and-error, and there will always be some bumps along the road. You can make the process go more smoothly, though, by learning from other people’s mistakes. The fewer of these newbie errors you make, the faster you can get on the road to becoming a successful filmmaker.

Not Putting Enough Effort into Casting

When you’re first starting out, it can be difficult to find exceptional talent. Your limited budget and connections can make your pool of actors rather small, and a protracted casting call can be frustrating. It’s easy to feel complacent and assume that whatever talent you can find is the best you’re going to get.

Don’t give up so soon, though. Exceptional acting will make or break a film. Put in as much effort as you need in order to find the perfect actor, or at least one you can coach into the role.

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While you’re at it, be sure to pick a cast and crew that you don’t mind spending time with. For the duration of filming, you’ll be seeing these people more than your own family, and any differences in personality or work habits will quickly get blown out of proportion. In some cases it’s best to pick people who you get along well with and can train or coach rather than professionals who you don’t get along with.

Not Allowing Adequate Time for Rehearsal

Whether you’re working with amateur actors or seasoned veterans, rehearsals are important.

Play an active role in these. Don’t just hand the script over and assume that your actors will be on the same page as you.

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You’ll want to use the rehearsal time to coach your actors, listen to their concerns and ensure that everyone shares the same vision for the film. It’s better to get everything in place before the cameras start rolling; a rehearsal is going to be less stressful than shooting multiple takes, and you won’t end up with a Kubrick-esque reputation for harassing your cast.

Not Delegating Important Tasks

Budget concerns can make a DIY approach to filmmaking very attractive. Indeed, it’s a good idea to learn as much as you can about every aspect of movie-making. But just because you know a lot about the way movies are made doesn’t mean that you need to do every job yourself. Spreading yourself too thin or trying to wear too many hats sets you up for failure. Since you won’t be able to devote full attention to all of these jobs, you’re doomed to produce mediocre results – or at least drive yourself crazy trying to be perfect.

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Find a few trustworthy, talented people to take over some tasks for you. Not only will this free up your own time, it’ll also give you valuable input from people who can actually help make your movie better. A good assistant director or script supervisor will save your ass and your movie on multiple occasions.

Trying to Shoot Beyond Budget

Ambitious scripts almost always sound better on paper. Once it comes time to actually shoot the film, you’ll start running into problems – especially budgetary concerns.

It’s better to make an exemplary quiet film than try and fail to recreate the big Hollywood spectacle. Great dialogue is free. Smart plot twists work whatever the budget, as does choosing a script that plays to your strength as a director and the resources you have available to work with. There are plenty of sites and free tools out there to work out exactly how much capital you’re going to need, and if your current script is too ambitious, don’t be afraid to rewrite and revise until it fits your budget and your skills.

Ultimately, nobody needs to know that the movie you’re making isn’t what you always had in mind.

Not Putting as Much Effort into Sound as Picture

Every penny you save on special effects should go toward sound and lighting. These two technical aspects of filmmaking are often overlooked because, when done correctly, they’re often unnoticeable. If done wrong, however, they will tank a movie. At the end of the day, a movie can be visually stunning but ultimately unwatchable due to poor sound. Invest in high-quality sound equipment and make your job easier by reducing the amount of syncing you need to do between cameras. Also put in the effort to find a good score and sound effects to give life and depth to the film.

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Finally, the most important thing you can do to ensure a swift and painless production is to learn good time management and front-load all of your prep work. A bit of planning can really make the difference between a decent film and a truly excellent one. If you can shoot quickly and avoid wasting anyone’s time, you can get through production quickly and ensure that your cast and crew will be eager to return to work with you on future projects.

Just How Important is Realism in Cinematography Anyway?

“ As we know, there is no sound in space. In the film, we don’t do that.”
Alfonso Cuarón, director of Gravity

Accuracy is a double-edged sword in cinematography. If you’re filming or writing about subject matter that is far removed from your audience’s world – be it a Viking-era drama or an Elizabeth Taylor biopic – accuracy can lend a great deal of substance to the final product, and audiences will become more invested in it if they feel you’ve got it right.

On the other hand, it can be a millstone around your neck when you’re looking to bend facts (or even the laws of physics) in the pursuit of making an enjoyable watch.

Frankly speaking, unless you’re going balls-to-the-wall fantasy with your film right from the off, you’ll inevitably come across points at which you need to decide between sticking to realism or using a little poetic license. Often, they’re decisions that can make or break a script.

Let’s have a little look at some notable examples.

Accuracy – and Inaccuracy – Done Right

Gravity is a film which many people assumed would fail – Sandra Bullock and George Clooney acting in uncharacteristic roles with no other supporting cast, trying to do one of the hardest things in film: portraying zero gravity realistically for prolonged scenes.

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In little over a week, it’s garnered a near-perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes and broken box office records.  Part of the reason for its success is that it promises a scientifically accurate and immersive experience, and goes above and beyond this promise.

A lesser-known recent release was Europa Report, an entry into the found-footage genre that also purported to be 100% scientifically accurate. While the film itself was fairly mediocre, it did garner a lot of deserved commendation for dogmatically sticking to space realism. Not bad for a film which transported a team of humans from Earth to the surface of the Jovian moon Europa in 90 minutes without relying on faster-than-light drives or shortcutting Newtonian orbital laws.

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In both of those cases, sticking as close to accuracy as possible actually helped improve the overall experience rather than hinder it. But let’s take another sci-fi great – Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, a movie which trades scientific realism for pure entertainment.

The premise of Sunshine simply didn’t allow for accuracy. You can’t reignite a star with a neutron bomb. You wouldn’t even be able to get a spacecraft close enough to even try. But Boyle negates this becoming a problem by making the rules of his universe clear from the off – within the first five minutes, we’re simply told these things are possible and that they’re going to happen; accept them as part of the initial premise, and join the speculative fiction from there.

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It all comes down to the disparity between what you promise to your viewers and what you end up delivering. Incidentally, the third act of Sunshine nearly ruins the entire film since it randomly switches to the horror genre with no prior warning.

When Inaccuracy Bites

So being innacurate in cinematography isn’t a problem in and of itself. Only the most pedantic viewer gets hung up on Jasan Statham firing off thirty rounds from a handgun without reloading when the clip should only technically be able to hold fifteen.

Compare and contrast Sunshine with Armageddon, though. For all its mainstream charm, the latter desperately wanted to be taken seriously as a film grounded in actual science. Unfortunately, the science was so far off the mark that it was jarringly bad at times.

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An even worse example of film pretending to be one thing and actually being another comes in the form of an Animal Planet documentary entitled Mermaids: The New Evidence. Hoaxing millions of viewers, the ‘factual’ film was, in fact, entirely fictional; the result of which lost both the Discovery Channel (who also aired it as fact) and Animal Planet a heck of a lot of credibility.

In short, whether you’re striving for accuracy or not doesn’t matter. Just don’t short-change your audience.

“And Now, We’ll Saw This Beautiful Young Assistant in Half…”

The concept of ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ implies that it’s the audience’s responsibility to overlook indiscretions, shut up, and enjoy the film. While they may have the ability to do that, you shouldn’t rely on it.

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People don’t walk into a Penn & Teller show expecting them to actually catch bullets between their teeth.  They still enjoy the show regardless, because they’re familiar with the concept of a ‘magic show’ and know what to expect because of it. The reason Penn & Teller are considered master performers is that they know exactly how to bend the conventions of the craft and to what level they can do so; they’re able to take their audience on a very unpredictable ride without totally debasing the entire experience.

A good parallel in film would be the Nolan brothers. Consider how Memento broke nearly every single narrative convention but never once became internally inconsistent.

One of the root causes of so many problems in filmmaking is an inability to step outside of the project and see how things look from the viewer’s side – it sounds remarkably basic, but it’s something most amateur (and even professional) filmmakers succumb to. This skill comes over time, but until then the best rule of thumb when it comes to accuracy is letting your audience know what they can expect – and how much suspension of disbelief they’ll need to employ – within the first ten minutes of the film.