Saturday, December 26, 2009

All teched out.

I run into people all the time who want to talk gear. Most often I am loath to talk to people about gear because really there are SO many viable approaches to shooting and recording, it almost doesn't matter how it gets done, as long as it gets done right. Also, everyone works differently and has different methods of shooting and treating footage in post, so it almost doesn't even matter which camera you're using as long as it's a reasonable choice and a camera made in the last 3 to 5 years or so.

That said, I'd like to lay out some thoughts about gear and shooting and recording on a budget.

Recording sound

Some folks still believe that you need to shoot double system sound - recording audio to a separate deck using a slate or a smart slate and syncing your footage in post. There ARE advantages to recording audio this way, the main advantage being the ability to record more than 2 isolated channels of audio as opposed to the only 2 channels most cameras allow.

Seeing as how even prosumer cameras allow for capture of better than "CD quality sound" (16 bit at 48 kHz) with 2 separate channels of audio, I see little advantage to recording to a separate deck that probably offers the same sound quality (depending upon mic preamp circuitry), UNLESS more separate channels of audio are required.

I have managed to shoot multiple feature length films recording audio with the camera and have yet to see any major issues that don't have to do with 2 channels vs. 4 or more channels. And even then, with a little finesse and forethought, it's possible to get by with only 2 channels of audio depending upon your needs. Obviously, if you have a group of characters with dialog in the same scene, you very well might have a very real need to have and use 4 channels of audio.

Barring poor mic choices, and poor technique, it IS very possible to achieve very, very good audio by plugging microphones directly into a camera and in any case, you certainly should use the best mics possible and try (and I mean REALLY try) to record the cleanest location audio you can manage (trust me, you'll understand why this is SO important when faced with the prospect of ADR, foley, and sound sweetening).

Recording picture

With regard to digital formats, at this point there's very little point to shooting on any format other than HD. I haven't shot much in the past 2 years that didn't originate as HD. It's almost just as easy to shoot and post in HD as it is in any standard definition format, so why bother?

I'd say every pro and prosumer camera made by major camera manufacturers are ALL capable of providing footage suitable for just about any end use. People will always have their own preferences, just as they do for cars, food, women/men, beer, etc. The old adage - "It ain't what you got that counts. It's how you use it," is worth noting here because of course when it comes to gear, how you use something very much should have some bearing on what you use.

There are generally preferred prosumer camera models for use in various things depending upon which manufacturer has a successful, proven design on the market at any given point in time. The Canon XL1 and Sony VX2000 were essentially the camera of choice for a number of years until the Sony PD150 was released and then Panasonic released the DVX100.

Panasonic had a very significant hold on the prosumer market with the HVX200 sometime after Sony sold many FX1 and Z1 models, and then Canon responded with the XH series, using the same imaging chips as the Canon XLH1, all while JVC continued to develop and improve their HD series.

I've used all of these prosumer camera models and I can tell you, there are no significant differences between them in regard to the quality of footage they make.

In the pro camera category, it's the same deal - apples and oranges. None are awful and none are significantly better than any other. And despite what the prevailing tech-mania of an era dictates (hello, Red cult!), I have yet to hear an audience watch a film in a theater or on DVD and remark - "That would have been SO much better if it had been shot on _______ camera."

It really just depends on how you use it and what you do with it...

... and what you are going to do with the footage.

When thinking about what camera to use, I'd start with thinking about what you want to end up with and work backwards. Are you shooting a short film that will only live on DVD? Are you shooting a low budget commercial that will be broadcast or will only live online? Is there ANY chance (greater than somewhat likely) that you will need to project the work in a theater?

Owning a camera is great because you can act on any whim, you can avoid the time (you don't get paid for) having to pickup and drop off a rented package, and you can rent it out when it's not in use. How many people ran out and bought the Red camera because it was SO cheap. It's gotten to the point now where everyone and his brother owns a Red package so it's essentially more attractive to rent a Red package now than to buy one (as tempting as it may be to just buy it).

But then, is it really worth the expense when you're shooting for a small screen? When you can approximate the look of Red, Panasonic or Sony 2/3" chip cameras with less than $10K of camera, IS it worth it to rent or buy the pro cameras? Especially when it's such a long shot that a narrative film will ever need to live on the big screen.

I've shot narrative films on the HVX200A that have been and will be projected on screens in theaters and I can tell you, from what I have seen, the stuff looks really good. And I'm about as picky as a person can get when it comes to the quality of the footage. In fact, I watched a feature length film I shot on Super 16 film that was scanned and finished digitally, projected from a standard definition DVD (in a state of the art theater) and it looked nowhere near as good as a short I shot on the HVX200A projected (also) from a standard definition DVD.

Yes, it's nice to have 2/3" imaging chips and not have to deal with a lens adapter, and yes there IS a noticeable difference in footage made on the full raster chips of an HDX900 which looks WAY better than footage made on a pixel-shifting HVX200A with 1/3" imaging chips.

But -

Will anyone (besides other tech-savvy people) really notice?

Will your clients notice? (They'll only notice the camera, but just throw a big mattebox on the thing and go!)

How is the footage being handled in post?

How adept is the DP with lighting and camera work?

Can you rent exactly what you need for each job anyway?

Are people in your market into "tech-fashion" trends?

Are you only shooting for broadcast or web?

©2009 Chris Santucci

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Advice for Directors (part 2)

Working with actors

In the low budget Indie realm of filmmaking, we're generally working with theater actors or moderately experienced film actors. Sometimes we try and make do with novice actors. Sometimes we believe that our dentist would be great at playing a dentist or our mechanic would be great at playing a mechanic.

And sometimes, we put non-actors in front of the camera.

I've seen non-actors work out exceptionally well with rehearsal time, some coaching, and good direction and I've seen experienced actors struggle with weak material and lack of direction, depicting characters that an audience did not like and did not care about.

I've also see the "sure thing" non-actor who was cast in a role identical to what they really are in real life, fail.

No matter what you end up doing in regard to casting, make sure your cast has a thorough understanding of the character they are playing, the scene they're in, and if needed, the story itself. Also, be hyper-aware that when asking for additional takes of a scene,  you indicate to the cast that you want them to repeat what they just did, or that you want something different. Actors really need to know if they are on the right track with regard to HOW they are portraying a character in a scene.

If a director just keeps saying "OK, lets go again," with no indication to the cast that he either A) Loves what they are doing, or, B) Wants something different, then the actors can become apathetic and/or unsure that they are doing the right things in a scene.


One big thing I've noticed is that non-actors tend to be very unaware (go figure) of blocking. When a non-actor is struggling to just act (saying their lines believably) they seem to lose site of blocking and of course tend to already not have an understanding of how to "play to the camera." This can be very frustrating to a DP who may compensate by repeatedly moving camera rather than to heap more things (to remember) upon the poor non-actor.

Using non-actors limits not only believability of their character but it can also severely limit what you can do with respect to blocking and shot choices. Frustration can ensue when asking even an experienced actor to do too much in a scene but of course with enough time on set for rehearsal, these things can be worked out.

Make sure your non-actors have their lines memorized. I've seen (many times) actors show up on shoot days without having memorized their lines. Have your AD monitor non-actors and verify that they are in fact going to be prepared.

If you have access to suitable cast who may be inexperienced, it may be worthwhile to hire an acting coach to get them up to speed with regard to technique. Unless someone completely lacks any aptitude for acting at all, I've found that a few hours with a good acting coach can help a cast member immensely. This is particularly true of commercial actors (who may be former models) who essentially do little more than smile, recite lines, and walk around on camera. 

Experienced Actors

Working with experienced actors can be a joy as this is where the material comes to life and when the added dimension of having another head bring more to the role is realized. One thing I've seen with some directors is they lose site (if they even had it) of the option for improv when working with actors who may have this ability. Unless there are very specific reasons for having every single line in a scene said by an actor, I believe there's a lot to be gained by allowing an actor to be loose with the dialog.

Sometimes this approach works and sometimes it doesn't, but I've seen potential portrayals by actors stifled when writer/directors insisted upon strict adherence to the script when I felt it wasn't necessary. I'd rather have a more believable portrayal that still sticks to the essence of the scene than an actor who delivers at maybe 80% because the writing is awkward or the actor (for whatever reason) has a hard time remembering the lines.

Another thing to keep in mind when working with experienced actors is they are very aware of their physical image. They are used to seeing themselves on screen, so they have an acute awareness of their flaws and almost always want to look good on camera. This can be problematic when an actor is playing a role that requires them to not look particularly "good".

Women are particularly sensitive to the potential need to have them be poorly groomed or to appear with no makeup in scenes, so be aware of this. Once makeup/hair tests are complete and you arrive at the chosen treatment of an actor, make them aware that they cannot change anything. Often, they will try to "pretty themselves up" if even a little so be prepared for this.

Some very experienced actors like to suggest ideas they may have for blocking, or variations they can provide in the way lines are said. If rehearsals were carried out as table reads only, then it's good to get input regarding blocking when on set, but some actors get a little too "involved" in the process and this can eat up time. A good director will already know what they need their cast to do but will be open to suggestions, taking advantage of good ideas when they are recognized.

©2009 Chris Santucci

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Production Value on a Budget

The age old adage "Good, cheap, fast. You can pick any two," certainly applies to Indie filmmaking.

You can make up for an absence of money (in your budget) with time.

You can make up for an absence of time (in your production schedule) with money.

Now let's talk about the "good" aspect of filmmaking...

We all want our films to be "good." That's generally a given. What makes a film good is sometimes open to interpretation - but not really.

"Production Value" is that not so little aspect of a film that lay people always seem to take notice of at least on a visceral level. We're not making films for other filmmakers, but FOR the "regular people", and these "regular people" are used to watching movies with multi-million dollar budgets, so to a large extent, that is what we (Indie filmmakers) are competing with.

There is no disclaimer at the beginning of a film that indicates the film was made with a very low budget or mentions the inexperience of the director, so you cannot expect to be cut any slack by a general audience. They don't know or care what went on behind the scenes.

I shot a feature length film once for a first time writer/director. His budget was about $10K and by the time the film was finished and had been rejected by every festival it was submitted to, he was itching to try and self distribute it. He'd invested a lot of his own money and probably some borrowed money into the production, so it's understandable that he'd want to see a return.

I told him to take a "service deal" which would yield zero return, but at least the film would be in distribution. The film would be available to the general public through the normal channels and would appear to be a success. Then at least he could move on with a first film in distribution.

I asked him why people would rather rent or buy a DVD copy of his $10,000. film with a no-name actor in the lead over a DVD copy of an $80 Million dollar film with Will Smith in the lead. I never got an answer to that question, and he's currently selling copies of his first film on his website.

I mention this fail (as I see it), because when you're competing with other films being submitted to festivals and then possibly competing for rental and/or sales, you HAVE TO consider production value especially if you have a weak script and a weak cast (a whole 'nother discussion...)

I suppose then it's possible to create another three tiered dynamic like "good, fast, cheap" using the more film specific elements "script, cast, production value," where a weakness in one aspect can be made up for by an abundance in quality of the other two.

Surprisingly, this works with studio films ALL the time since they do very well with films based on weak scripts because they have mucho production value and the best of the best in their cast.

But, what IS production value?

Production Value is really the overall quality of a film in terms of how it looks, feels, and sounds and is reflected in every aspect of the film's construction. Production value on a budget is achieved thus so:

Consider all aspects of production and make specific plans of attack.

I cannot ever stress the value of pre-production enough. I've seen SO much waste and lost opportunities on film productions based on lack of planning that it makes me want to cry. When literally 30 minutes of discussion with key crew members could save an entire days footage from being unusable, you start to get an idea of how valuable planning is.

Get great looking practical locations and/or build great looking sets.

Nothing says "cheesey" like scenes shot up against walls, in back rooms, basements, attics, or just in ugly looking spaces. You can really up the perceived value of a film by shooting in great looking locations.

Don't stretch your budget and abilities thin.

I see this ALL the time and I've never seen anyone succeed with this approach. When attempting a low budget film project, ALWAYS start with your budget, then the script, then the rest.  What I mean is, you have to tailor your script to your budget or you will fail. Period. And, if you are a beginning filmmaker, DO NOT, and I mean it, DO-NOT, attempt something that is beyond your means as a filmmaker. Keep it simple. Keep it simple. Keep it simple.

Don't start off with a budgetarily unrealistic script.

As mentioned above,  your film will suffer (or completely fail) if you approach a film production trying to squeeze a size XL film into a size S budget. You may think you can cut corners where it won't be noticed (on the screen) but this is an exercise that is best left to the professionals. Numbers don't lie and when you factor in costs and account for time, you will know what you can do and what you can't do. Your script must fit the budget. If you know you only have a certain dollar amount for production, then and only then should you consider what you can do with your budget.

Achieve great sound and cinematography.

How a film looks and sounds is huge, although it will not make up for a weak cast. It can however in my opinion partially make up for a weak script. Beyond just well thought out and compelling cinematography, there are tricks that can be employed that can boost how a film looks. Smooth, moving camera shots and great lighting can go a long way towards separating your film from every other hand held camcorder Indie. 

Sound, or more correctly - sound design, similarly will distance a film from the standard camcorder fare. Not only will recording quiet location dialogue (not easy in practical locations) help you immensely, but creating depth with foley and a real film score will push you way ahead of films that lack these elements.

Get a great looking (and sounding) cast.

The look of your film is what hits a viewer first and most often. Great looking locations shot at the right times of day that are lit well and photographed well are all as important as the faces and bodies and voices that populate your film. If you cannot afford "name" talent, at least try and cast good looking people. And by "good looking" I don't mean models, but I do mean, yes, good looking. Nobody wants to pay to look at ugly, shiny, faces for 90 minutes in a movie. Sorry to say, but that's just the way it is.  Unless you're making a film about ugly people, seriously consider the physical attributes of your potential cast, especially with a feature length film.

Having a great looking cast may sound superficial, but if you doubt this approach, take a look at successful actors and take a look at money making films. I hate to say it, but those of us who aren't gifted in the looks department do much better behind the camera than in front of the camera. 

Also, don't underestimate the value of good vocal quality with respect to actors. This is huge. Good vocal quality is essential in not only hearing dialog but also staying interested in hearing what a character says. Having to listen to characters mumble or fail to enunciate is a drag and will force a viewer to lose interest. And again, if you listen to the voices of successful actors, you will probably notice that they all enunciate clearly and have very good vocal instruments.

©2009 Chris Santucci

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Advice for Directors (part 1)

Don't think you need to do everything yourself.

I know, I know, I know. If you want something done right, do it yourself. Right? Sure, if you're doing ONE thing. If you think nobody else can do it (whatever) right, you have a problem. If you have a limited budget or are stretching what you do have, think about which key people you really need to pay depending upon what aspects of the film need the most attention (art direction, sound, continuity, etc.)

Noob filmmakers and directors all seem to have the same delusion that they need to oversee every single aspect of production. This is unfortunate and a major mistake since it really takes away from what the director should be doing (directing) and if you are a beginner in the craft of directing/filmmaking, that's not good.

Know what you absolutely need.

When you head into battle on shoot days and people are dropping balls and the shit is hitting the fan, you really need to know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, what you need to get out of your actors to make the story work. Feature length films are always a mess in terms of intention vs. reality.

When your practical effects take 3 times longer to set up and then they still don't work, then what?

When your lead actor was out drinking all night and can't remember his lines, then what?

When you get hammered by an unexpected storm of biblical proportions, then what?

Plan B, that's what. Always have a Plan B which is merely a minimalist approach that allows you to have the shots for the scene for the film that will work on an acceptable level. The key thing is getting the film finished, so be ultra aware that the ever present beasty called compromise will be nipping at your heals every single day. Be ready for it or you lose.

Be a great communicator.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? It's not. Part of the gig is to understand how to communicate your expectations to other people. Especially the actors. As a director, you need to be able to interface with your production staff, (generally only the key crew) and your actors. You, as the director have the film in your head. You've already seen the film - in your head.

When execution time comes, you need to extract what's in your head and format it for the fine folks who will execute the production of the film, or all will be lost. If your key crew need to keep asking you what you want and how you want it (or worse, have to guess), you are in trouble because you are not only wasting time, but there's an obvious gap in communications that could lead to the old compromise monster eating your film.

It's uber importante to sit down with your keys and go over each and every scene in the script to address all aspects of shooting the scenes, well before principal photography starts.

While on the set during shoot days, you have to speak in such a way that the people you're speaking to (actors & crew) can understand you the first time and need minimal clarification OR you will waste time and will become burned out.


Make sure you have some consistency when speaking about characters on set (to your DP, sound mixer, wardrobe, etc.) Use NAMES, not "the guy" or "the girl." Be very direct, illustrative, and don't waste time. Be very, very clear with your key staff and key crew and try to make sure they understand what you are telling them at all times and above all, do not make your key people guess at what you want, ever.

©2009 Chris Santucci

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Behold, the Only Thing Greater Than Yourself.

Everyone needs to start somewhere and it could be argued that your first feature length film is more of a learning experience than anything else. Hopefully a filmmaker making a first feature film would have numerous short films behind them before embarking upon production of a feature.

That said, why not make your first film a great film? Why throw caution to the wind and ride on hope that there might be enough people in the world who think exactly like you do? 

The sad truth (to a lot of artsy types) is that films are NOT made for the filmmaker. Sorry, but...

You don't make a film for yourself. 

I mean, you CAN make a film for yourself, but, you better be paying actors and crew and for locations and feeding everyone and for everything else. Because if you ask people to work for free or for low pay and you think you're making the film to satisfy yourself, you probably won't be making many more films.

Before setting out on the long and arduous path of warfare that is "making a movie," you HAVE TO ask yourself one very important question:

Who am I making this film for?

Before you spend months of your life (and a crew's life) prepping a feature. Before you spend a year shooting and post producing a feature. Before you alienate hordes of people and piss off your family. Before you spend a lot of someone's money. Before you jeopardize your health and mental well being. Before you spend a year or more trying to get your film into festivals, consider the one and only thing that should drive every single decision you ever make regarding the film:

The audience.

YOU, as a filmmaker, whether you're a director or a director/DP, or a producer, need to ALWAYS consider the audience because it is they whom you are making the film for. YOU work for the audience. Consider that the audience is your boss and you need to satisfy them at all costs or lose your job (meaning never make a film again or at least for a long time).

Here's a list of who your audience most definitely is not:
  • Your friends.
  • Your family.
  • Your co-workers.
  • 300 people who share your passion for some arcane subject matter.
WHO your audience is is something you need to identify well before you find or write a script for a film. I know it might take some or all of the artistry, sense of adventure, or coolness out of the process of filmmaking, but if that's what you're into and you think I'm being silly, seriously consider taking up painting, sculpture, or basket weaving, and give up on the idea of making movies.

There are already slews of filmmakers who make films for themselves. The job market is already saturated with ego-blinded, ignorant unemployed filmmakers, so why join the ranks of the unemployed if you don't have to?

Making a successful film is not unlike choosing a career path in that you start with a natural interest or even a passion for something, you then get educated, then get a job, ultimately then becoming an active, profitable member of society doing a job that you love. 

As a filmmaker or hopeful filmmaker, you cannot let your ego or your ignorance get in the way of The Film because if you do, a prospective audience will not like you or your film and that's a bad thing because you NEED the audience like a fish needs water. Think of the audience as oxygen. Think of the audience as food. Think of the audience as your very future, because as a filmmaker, without an audience for your film, you have no future, you have no life, you have nothing. 

After deciding: I will make a movie.

Determine: WHO will I make a movie for?

Go down to the local costume store, buy an owl costume, go home and put it on and then stand in front of a mirror and ask yourself WHO - over and over again. Do it! I'm serious. You'll thank me later.

Once you determine who the (hopeful) audience is, you then have the most valuable tool possible to use in making a film because you can base every single decision you make for the film on the perceived needs and desires of that audience. How easy would it be to make a film for ONE person who was paying for it and for whom you could identify their exact needs and desires? 

So, WHO is the audience? Is it your peers? If so, then you are in the unique position of having intimate knowledge of what your audience likes and hence can act on those likes with more authority. Is your prospective audience older, more well-to-do upper class people? Do they even watch movies? Maybe not. Is it young teens? If so, you better understand their unique and ever changing sensibilities. Is the audience EVERYONE? That makes it easy. Not.

Sure a wide audience is ideal for a film. It means mucho sales and rentals IF you manage to make an awesome film (that gets distribution, that doesn't have to compete with other similar films), but, it means your film needs to meet the needs and desires of the broadest spectrum of a population and that generally means you will be competing with studio films with movie stars in their casts and very multi-million dollar budgets because that's what the mainstream is used to.

Good luck with that.

The wide audience means "mainstream" and the mainstream is used to watching 80 Million dollar movies. Do you really think you can compete with an 80 Million dollar movie? It's not impossible to do. It's been done. But if you're shooting for a wide audience and you fail in making a film that a wide audience likes, you might not have ANY audience at all for the film.

So, identify an audience based on either a handful of scripts or script ideas you might have OR identify an audience based on whichever cross section of society you feel you can relate to the best. Either way, make sure you have an intimate knowledge of what they like and go out and make them a great film. 

©2009 Chris Santucci