Thursday, November 25, 2010


When producing a low budget film effort, it sometimes becomes necessary to find creative ways to stretch your budget. This can sometimes involve making hard decisions about what to spend the money on and what not to spend the money on. Sometimes it can involve asking for donated goods or services. Sometimes it can involve begging, borrowing, or yeah, even stealing.

The Crew

When you need to somehow find crew to work for less than half what they'd normally get (for example), you have to think about how you and/or your film project is going to appeal to them if you're going to get them to say "OK, I'll do it."

When it comes to budgeting, I always like to start at the top, with the "hard expenses" that you know you'll have to pay. If you absolutely must have 3 key crew who you know will only work for a certain amount, and this creates a major imbalance in your preferred expenditures, then it's time to get creative.

Once you've determined who you really must pay to fill certain positions, then you can start deciding who exactly you can book (for example) as PA's who are capable (and willing) to possibly help out in the art department, wardrobe department, grip/electric department, etc. Then you can start deciding how great the food really needs to be or if you can get food donated. Then you can start looking for any and all ways to cut corners to make up for the dollar amounts you know you have to spend.

Sometimes offering a certain credit can help attract a crucial crew member, even if it's a fake credit. I once asked a Line Producer who wanted me to shoot stills on a feature and had very little to pay if she could get me an "Additional Photography" or "2nd Unit DP" credit because I AM a DP and having a "Still Photographer" credit would do little for me professionally.  She was a little shocked and couldn't figure out how it was in any way doable that I'd get a credit for something I didn't do. Because she lacked imagination and initiative, never offered anything beyond the pittance she had, I never worked on the project. Her loss, believe me.

You have to use your head a little and possibly do some research to find out how you can appeal to a potential crew member (or just ask) especially if they work a lot and don't need the low rate you might have to pay.

The Cast

Actors want to act. Period. They live for it. They want good roles that will allow them to stretch and show themselves off. Anything that can help them get to the next level will always be considered by an actor and/or their agent (or manager). In the absence of pay or enough pay, you have to sell them on the script, the director, the DP, and whatever else you can.

If there's potential for an actor to come away with some great material for their reel regardless of the prospect that the film ever does anything, that's something.

If the actor is interested in exploring new territory with respect to the role, the style of film, the other cast, or even the locations - that's something.

They know there's no guarantee that an Indie will ever be seen by more than a hundred people (if that), so there's gotta be something besides a naive hope that the film will blow up at Sundance. Certainly having a great script can help attract cast members. Having a great director and a great DP can help also, but in the absence of a great script, a great director will only attract potential cast if the director has a good reputation and has finished films in distribution.

Another approach is to have a cast member work on the crew. I shot and produced a feature length film once and we managed to have some of the cast do double duty as cast AND crew and they seemed quite happy about it. This way, in cases where you are paying low rates, you can possibly get certain cast because they're getting paid twice (to act and work as crew). Obviously this wouldn't work that well with principal cast, but it's entirely manageable with talent who act in a handful of scenes, and if they're very into the project - it gets them closer to it.

Remember, your best asset (in all respects) in the absence of cash is - a great script.

The Gear

You can always ask for a "deal." I know I've mentioned this before, but it's customary for a rental house to give you a cost that is merely a starting point. You can negotiate, always. It's not as if you have nowhere else to go to rent gear (hopefully).

Any way you can "bundle" crew with gear is helpful as it opens the door for more money for the crew if they can rent gear to the project as well as work on it. Always check with crew about what gear they own since as long as you DO need to rent gear, it may as well come from hired crew.

In some instances, it's not out of the question to ask if any of the gear owning crew can include certain pieces of gear. Also, deals can be made with crew that could make their involvement more alluring to them.

On the very first feature length film I shot, I asked for a certain amount to be paid to me plus 2 lenses for my Canon XL1 camera, plus I asked them to hire my gaffer. They met almost all my terms and I walked away with a wide angle lens after the project was through. In that instance it was to the advantage of the project to have this purchased lens anyway, so think about these kinds of arrangements in terms of how it could benefit the film as well as the crew member being negotiated with.

The Locations

Sometimes a property owner or business owner will be excited just to be part of a film project, sometimes they really won't care one way or the other. You have to keep in mind when approaching these people that their priority is maintaining their property and/or running their business. Your hopes and dreams and aspirations don't figure into their accounting, so you have to (again) think about what would make their involvement alluring to them in the absence of cold hard cashola.

If any member of your above the line team have skills that could be suggested as a benefit to those in control of the location(s) you need, then that's something to consider. If one of you is capable of designing or building websites, has access to potential customers, or in any way has some capability to promote, market, or advertise for these property or business owners, then you have some leverage.

Anytime you can trade even labor for the favor of use of a location for a film, do it. Say an apartment building manager has a bunch of garbage in the storage area and you have access to a truck and 3 or 4 people - there you go. I traded photography once to a friend of mine who let us shoot a feature length film in the newly redone apartment she was trying to rent. It may mean a little time and effort spent on your part (as a producer) and whoever else you can pull into it, but in most cases when you're short on funds, time is something you probably have to spare.

The Food

I've always been a little shocked at how easy it's been for some to get food from restaurants for film projects. There are slews of restaurants around (preferably mom and pop operations) and all you have to do is ask. If you can promise a set amount of money for a set amount of food, that's a guarantee of certain income to them. Even if you seek a discount.

One thing that helps is if you are getting press or plan to and you can mention the restaurant on the radio (or TV) whenever possible. Producing films in small cities generally allows for easier access to press who see a film project as something glamorous especially if they normally report on fires, weather, dog shows, or petty crime.

One other approach which may or may not work is to pay a certain amount to each crew member and tell them they're on their own for working meals. On commercial projects sometimes a crew, if in an area that's populated with restaurants or food shops,  might be allowed to just walk away and fend for themselves.

Providing working meals to a crew opens up all kinds of logistical considerations that need to be weighed. If your craft service (you DO have craft service, right??!) is very good, then the working meals could be merely some form of sandwich food or some similar takeout food (Chinese, etc.)

Otherwise, catering services can get pricey, but you could try and enlist the help of any person sympathetic to the project who might have some spare time (parent, grand-parent, etc.) to produce decent working meals.

Work any and all connections in order to leverage what little you have to get what you need and use your imagination and some creativity in coming up with alternate ways to gain what you need to get a film made.

©2010 Chris Santucci

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Beware of the video gurus.

When it comes to gear, it can be difficult to determine which tools are best for one's use especially when considering a purchase with limited funds. Some could have a certain amount to spend on a piece of gear and then would have to live with that purchase for many years, so the impetus in cases like that are always on - what's the best choice when there are multiple valid choices?

Using online forums like DVXuser can be invaluable in gleaning actual user feedback of a chosen piece of gear. I've learned a great deal about certain pieces of gear and technique from such online forums and try to share what I know and have learned on my own in the process.

In fact, I've always sought out actual user feedback as opposed to "reviews" created by supposed "experts" who more often than not are being paid to write or appear in online videos reviewing video equipment. Without naming names, I'm sure anyone who has spent some time online researching on forums and blogs has come across posts and blogs attributed to these tech gurus.

These tech gurus generally run online forums (or are moderators) where most of their "helpful" replies to posts have to do with buying something or have to do with one particular manufacturers products. Some run blogs that not only feature ads for certain manufacturers but they also tend to push said manufacturer's gear heavily.

I'm not about to begrudge anyone trying to make a living, but you have to be able to discriminate when considering the validity of suggestions regarding gear made by XYZ, Co. and the value of opinions about that gear voiced by someone being paid by XYZ, Co.

Consider the following passages taken from an almost 7,000 word "review" posted online for the Panasonic AF100, dated October 20, 2010:

"I've decided that the Panasonic AG-AF101 film-like HD camcorder is absolutely, unequivocally the all-new independent low-budget filmmakers weapon of choice"

"it’s the camcorder filmmakers have been waiting on for 20 years."

"In fact it’s the camcorder we’ve ALL been waiting for"

"It would appear that the world jumped on the 5D MK2 for video for one reason and one reason only; shallow depth-of-field; that’s it."

"The AG-AF101 is a serious digital SLR killer."

"the AG-AF101 is quite simply one of the best HD camcorders I’ve seen in many years."

"it is totally revolutionary,"

"this camcorder is totally freaking awesome."

"The AG-AF101 has a beautiful large 4/3rd MOS sensor that is virtually the same size as a 35mm film camera; this should mean the picture quality produced by it should be absolutely breathtaking,"

"the image quality was/is absolutely hideous, full of aliasing, artefacts and other retarded gremlins due to the line-skipping technology (and a bloody crude technology it is too) and lack of optical video low-pass filtering. Did I mention the unusable ‘form factor’ of DSLRs yet?"

"the days of DSLRs are well and truly over"

"The Panasonic AG-AF101 is quite simply revolutionary."

"the AG-AF101 now gives us that last missing piece of the jigsaw; total depth-of-field control combined with interchangeable lenses, with that cinematic look that we have all been waiting for."

"With the price in mind I simply have to give the AG-AF101 a massive recommendation with 5 out of 5 stars."


Now... those of us with a functioning BS detector, will see this "review" for what it is - an advertisement. Rife with hyperbole, it's an obvious propaganda piece deliberately aimed at the DSLR user market. It's debatable whether or not the writer of this piece is any kind of expert as there seems to be no substantial industry credits available online or substantial examples of work available online.

In the case of unreleased equipment, it's impossible to really make a determination as to the quality or suitability of a piece of gear. In those cases, many people wait to see what the eventual user feedback is before making a decision to purchase, well enough AFTER an item is available to purchase. Certainly hype can be built up in support of a soon to be released piece of gear and the more naive of us might buy into it and put down a deposit or pre-order something essentially sight unseen.

I'd suggest being smart and efficient and using gear that other people are using with success. It's far less a gamble to use what's being used than it is to take chances that something nobody else has yet will work for you. Seek out the word on the street when it comes to gear when you're considering purchases and take "reviews" written by the gurus with a grain of salt.

These are my favorite sources of consumer/user feedback on gear:

©2010 Chris Santucci

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Cinematography - Doing more with less

I shot a feature length film back in May with almost no crew and maybe a few hundred dollars worth of lighting equipment. Almost all of the setups were day interiors and night interiors and I used ambient daylight and/or daylight compact fluorescent bulbs, always with the daylight white balance preset set on the camera.

Here are a small group of still images shot on the set:

I remember going into the project I was thinking about how little equipment I could get away with using and as it turned out, my one and only full time crew member got sick 2 days into shooting and was gone for the first week. So there I was almost completely on my own with a camera on my shoulder, having to set the boom mic and move lighting around and kind of loving not having to deal with a lot of gear.

There's a lot to be said for "minimal," and I recommend highly going minimal when possible. Not only does it free you up, but it takes a lot of load off of a minimal (or non-existent) crew.

I recently worked on a commercial shoot with 2 camera operators using available light for exteriors and minimal fluorescent light added to interior setups, and not having to deal with a lot of film lighting surely allowed for more footage and more time actually rolling.

Obviously, the downside is possibly less stylistically involved work, and that's probably the main trade-off - either "nicer" looking shots OR more footage. I suppose it all depends on what you need but I have managed to do more with less more often than not so maybe I'm biased.

With today's light sensitive, large sensor cameras with fast lenses, it's entirely possible to be stylistic and get suitable coverage with minimal added lighting, reflectors, and of course flags and teasers to control ambient light. You have to remember, with regard to lighting, it's not always about what you add, but often - what you take away.

Consider a day interior.

You have hours of ample ambient daylight at your disposal, so with the right choice of curtains, blinds, shears, or whatever window covering you want, you can control that light to the point where you ARE actually lighting with it rather than trying to compete with it using low powered fixtures (if on a budget).

This commercial was shot using ambient daylight, two 1200 HMI fixtures, and 2 fluorescent fixtures. There was a large bay window just behind camera facing the child talent that was completely covered with black cloth. Otherwise, we let all the rest of the ambient light work for us and we shot all day.

©2010 Chris Santucci

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Why you're not a director

Your favorite film is 20 years old and you don't watch more than one or two movies per week.

You finance and distribute your own films because nobody else will and your films don't sell or get accepted into film festivals.

You have a "better" way to approach filmmaking even though you don't understand the long established methods of filmmaking.

You don't know how to effectively communicate with a cast and crew.

You surround yourself with yes-men and people less experienced than you.

You have a very poor grasp of the visual aspects of storytelling in film.

You almost always defer to your own ego over the good of the film in almost every instance.

You've never been paid to direct anything.

©2010 Chris Santucci

Friday, May 7, 2010

How to get it done (part 2)

If you manage to get to the point of having a well thought out screenplay that you bounced off more people for feedback than a half dozen close friends and family. If you have a script breakdown, shooting script, and well thought out budget. If you have funds in the bank, then you can (if you're ready to devote yourself for at least a year to the film) strike out and make a film.

At the very least, hire an experienced Line Producer to counsel you on the steps to take, possibly the people to hire, and the pitfalls to avoid in making a film (like not having insurance). You'd be best served to hire a producer IF you have something in the form of a screenplay that many regard as compelling and likely to make a great film.

If you have a script that nobody gets excited about, then just consider it all an experiment and a learning experience and have a nice day :-)

Otherwise... it's time to "prep" the film. Here, is an overview:

Forms, Insurance, Releases

Whether you're under an under-the-radar production or have an LLC set up, you need to cover your ass as much as possible. This means having ALL terms spelled out and agreed to with every single person involved with your film project whether they're crew, talent, or are providing anything that falls under the heading of "intellectual property" , real property, etc.

A "deal memo" is generally used as a contract between production and the crew, while a "talent release" is used as a contract between actors and production. There are also other forms of production contracts you should use like the "property release," when using someone's property to shoot on.

Handshakes and verbal agreements work fine when you're buying a used goat, but it's in a filmmaker's best interest to have agreements in writing with every single human being directly associated with the project. If someone says something like "Oh you don't have to worry about that. You can trust me" - DON'T DO IT. Contracts, however minimal, are meant to protect both parties in a transaction. If someone you're dealing with is leery of signing one, that means there's a good chance they possibly will back out on you if they feel the need to (or worse).

Insurance is not a luxury. Keep that in mind. Even if you have an all volunteer crew and cast, if they get injured, it's on you and possibly whoever owns the property you're shooting on. If someone's property gets damaged during the course of shooting, then in most cases it comes out of the pocket of production (you).

A general liability insurance policy with workers comp (what you want as a minimum) is actually not that expensive and it can save your life. Keep in mind that "short term" policies can cost as much as a full year term.

Hire a Crew

In almost every area of the country there are people who work on films or people who do something very close to it. They may only work on commercials or industrial videos or training videos or whatever, but these people are experienced in lighting, running power, rigging, set dressing, art direction, script supervision, sound recording, shooting footage, running a set, and even producing and directing.

In the absence of having a Line Producer, generally, you'd be best served hiring an experienced Director of Photography/Cinematographer first, because they will know suitable crew to bring into the project and are generally glad to fork over names and numbers of professional crew they themselves work with.

Contact and talk to prospective crew no matter how the names come to you and determine the best configuration of crew members. Sometimes hiring people who work together all the time is a good thing and sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's advantageous to hire friends and volunteers and sometimes it's not.

It's preferred to hire department heads and then let them name the crew they want hired for their departments, keeping in mind that occasionally (especially on big jobs) a department head will sometimes try and have a friend or family member hired for non-crucial crew positions.

Scout and Secure Locations

Where to shoot scenes is almost as important as what actors are in the scenes. Putting actors into settings where the script's scenarios can be acted out for the crew to shoot is essentially the crux of what happens on shoot days. Generally a balance is sought between what would serve the script and director's vision best, cost, accessibility, security, and the holy grail of the sound mixer - quiet.

Shooting in a noisy location can wreak havoc on shoot day schedules and create additional costly and lengthy work during the post production phase to loop dialog and recreate location sound ambience.

Shooting at locations that take time to reach will eat into potential time shooting, so accessibility should not be taken lightly. Noise, accessibility, safety, security, and aesthetics are main considerations after cost.

Audition and Cast Actors

Putting a cast together with the best possible chemistry is a painstaking process and every page of your script will hinge upon performance and chemistry. The cast is what brings the script pages to life and casting choices should also rely upon potential input an actor can provide to the director in bringing more depth to a character.

Almost nothing can destroy a film more than a weak cast so you have to take time to consider casting choices carefully. Casting the best possible actors you can afford should be your goal here and you have to leave emotion out of the process as hard as that can be sometimes.

Be aware that actors tend to sometimes have delicate sensibilities when it comes to their public persona and self image. You cannot treat actors the same way you should be treating crew members.

Rent and/or Purchase Equipment

Depending upon the duration of the production, it can make more sense to purchase equipment and resell after use as opposed to renting equipment. Renting equipment almost always means having to have an insurance policy which is an expense that should be considered, but also be aware that some rental houses will sell you coverage for something like 10%.

Better deals can be had if renting as much equipment as you need from one rental house as opposed to renting various items from multiple rental houses whenever possible. Also, it's important to understand that there is almost always room to negotiate rates with rental houses and they expect it. When these companies are busy, they're less likely to go down on rental rates, but also don't rule out owner/operators who own equipment packages and have low overhead. They like to rent their gear when they're not using it.

Prepare for Human Needs

All your cast, crew, and staff have certain things in common that you will have to allow for and facilitate. They need to eat, have a place to eat, have a place to go to the bathroom, and they need to have a method of conveyance to and from locations and possibly places to park these conveyances. Also, they'll need constant drinking water for the duration of shoot days and ideally a steady supply of various snack items.

Also, keep in mind that the humans will need to be kept warm, dry, and safe.

©2010 Chris Santucci

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

How to get it done (Part 1)

Making a film is like building a house.

And it's not often you hear of someone running out to the lumber yard, buying a bunch of wood and then taking it all to an empty lot and haphazardly nailing it all together in the shape of a house.

And yet, a pretty fair approximation of this method is employed on a regular basis by filmmakers.

I've seen this happen numerous times and I've heard of it happening numerous times. Filmmakers, especially those with the "artiste" sensibilities like to believe they have something particularly unique in the way of cinema to offer the world and they often like to think they have a unique way to present it.

Of course, this approach only becomes a "danger" when investors enable it or when the filmmaker has access to funds with which to use (or should I say - waste).

Yes, it may very well be a labor of love for most if not all Indie filmmakers working in low budget ranges, but I'd recommend treating the endeavor of making a film on a budget of $1,000., $10,000., or $100,000., like a business operation. 

As a production coordinator, I spent many years helping to produce local, regional, and national television commercials and even a few films with million dollar budgets. What I became used to was accounting for time and accounting for money. As a filmmaker, the added element of creativity comes into play since YOU are not only responsible for content (story) but also executing the film's production.

The Steps You Take:


The first and most nebulous part of the process is creating or obtaining a script. This isn't necessarily something you can pin down and make fit into a set window of time. If you're writing the screenplay, you have to do what you have to do to make it as great a script as possible which could mean taking any number of steps and any number of months and years. Or...

Find a script written by a writer, which similarly may take a while and may not be as straightforward as it sounds. More often than not, especially with first time filmmakers, they slug it out trying to write a script and more often than not that script has "fail" written all over it. Sad but true.

If you aren't a writer, don't attempt to write a script. Period. Go-find-one.


With your sparkling super-awesome brand new screenplay in hand and your groundbreaking epic vision for the film, The Budget will become your bible for the film's production just as the script itself is the bible for story.

What goes hand in hand with budgeting is scheduling, which is generally the domain of a 1st AD who will create script breakdowns and a shooting script that a line producer will use in determining costs.

Budgeting is best left to professionals, (much the same as just about everything else in filmmaking), and I mean this. An experienced line producer will be able to interpret the shooting script, script breakdowns, and schedule so as to create a realistic budget and can save massive amounts of time and money down the road by establishing costs for every aspect of film production and possibly beyond.

I've seen filmmakers look at suggested costs (that made sense from a professional's standpoint), poo poo them because they looked too high, and then proceed to go out and spend 200-300% more than the initial provided numbers. 

Don't do that!

With a finished budget in hand, shooting script, and breakdowns, you are then ready to strike out and raise money (or prepare to go into debt).


This can take any number of years depending on how much you want to raise and how ass-backwards you want to proceed...

The most common mistake I see made by first time or noob filmmakers is attempting to ensure production value by asking for an unrealistic sum. Some hold to the idea that you should always ask for a higher amount because you'll probably get less anyway which will then be enough.

Maybe - maybe not.

To a large extent, your production budget will determine the structure of your production entity, whether it be an LLC, or merely an individual spending moneys collected from family and/or friends and/or your own money. By law, you need to have some form of corporate structure instituted in order to seek investors which in itself is an expense as are the services of an attorney.

When you've never made a film before or are unproven as a filmmaker, you need to (in my opinion) be modest in your approach. Once you have a success behind you, then you can proceed differently. But it's rare - very rare, that an unproven filmmaker doesn't end up financing their own first film because they cannot find investors.

Some noob filmmakers like to fantasize they can attract A-list talent which will then open the doors for financing, which will never happen unless they have ins with 1) A-list talent and/or, 2) have a screenplay that is a bona fide hot property (won competitions, fellowships, written by established screenwriter, based on topical hot subject matter, etc.)

If you have certain crucial elements that will make your film marketable (script and/or talent), then you can and should approach either film investors which means you will most likely have a line producer appointed to oversee your project so you can't go nuts and blow the investors money, or "unsophisticated" investors who would be non-film savvy folks like dentists, family/friends, or just regular people with disposable income.

Either way, prepare to spend your own money and if you're very smart about it, you will hopefully end up with a calling card film that will open doors in the future.

©2010 Chris Santucci