Monday, February 7, 2011

Short or Feature?

In any filmmaker's career (or impending career), the question of which to produce - a short or a feature, almost always rears its ugly and pragmatic head.

Do you step up the the challenge of pulling off a completed feature length film and possibly become the darling of the Sundance Film Festival? Or, do you create a much more modest and less glamorous short film, which is generally looked at sideways by most except those in the filmmaking world?

What's the purpose of the film? - you have to ask.


Do you want or need a vehicle with which to demonstrate your brilliance to the world? Then the answer is easy - produce a short. You can maximize your budget and retain far more production value with a shorter film. That's just some simple math there. Stretching a budget to accommodate 90 minutes of screen time is crazy unless you're an experienced filmmaker and you have a decent budget.

A smartly prepped short produced for $20K can look and feel like a studio film if you're careful.


Are you on fire to write, direct, produce, and (possibly) star (umkaaayyy) in your own film? Then you definitely need to produce a feature length film, and preferably one of at least 2 hours in duration, but don't hesitate to go for 3 hours, because nothing says "I am God's gift to cinema" - like a 2+ hour film (especially a first film). Good luck!


Is there a story you just HAVE TO tell through cinematic means? If so, you have to consider how much of a budget you have and whether or not this story can be told in a short. I'd say, let the story dictate the film length if it's about passion and find a way to finance the film, even if it takes 5 years to produce a little at a time.


Nobody has any business producing a feature (or features) until they've produced a "successful" short film. Anyone serious about filmmaking will produce shorts, and I mean *many shorts* before embarking upon the monumental task of feature length film production.

Capturing and keeping a mass audiences attention for 90 minutes is best left to professionals and YOU are not a "professional" if you've never produced a film before, let alone a film that had any significant degree of success.

©2011 Chris Santucci

Friday, February 4, 2011

Set Etiquette

Getting a film done, as in - shot, is greatly dependent upon a crew functioning efficiently as a cohesive unit. Otherwise, time is wasted, confusion ensues, feelings become hurt, and films become compromised or worse - unfinished.

Some of us who work in film, liken film production to a military operation during war time (not to in any way diminish that activity). When you're prepping every day for a month and then shooting every day for a month, all the while working long hours, putting fires out every day, eating-maybe, going to the bathroom-maybe, all the while maintaining a narrow focus on one thing - getting the film made, that's when it feels like you're fighting a war.

When producing a low budget Indie, it becomes even more crucial to be as efficient as possible because both time AND money are limited. When a large budget exists, money can be thrown at problems and that almost always solves problems quickly.

However, whether producing a large budget studio film OR a micro budget Indie film - efficiency is key and part of being efficient means operating on set on shoot days in a reasonable and sensible manner.

Observe and follow the chain of command

The director is at the top, most often along with the producer(s). The director, depending upon the project, (but ideally) should deal with department heads only (key crew), not those of the crew working under the keys.

Department heads delegate to and oversee what crew in their department are doing and they work directly with other department heads as well as the director and producer(s).

When I'm on a set as a DP, I almost always try to go through the AD when I need something to happen, unless what I'm doing is directly related to grip/electric or has to do with what's in the frame I'm shooting. As a producer, I tend to deal with department heads and let them interface with their 2nds and 3rds.

Avoid chit-chat

This is a pet peeve of mine, so I'll try not to rant about it. While on set, there are moments of pause that take place at which point friendly crew tend to get carried away with small talk, banter, or comparing iPhone apps with each other. Socializing on a set during a shoot day should be curtailed. If caught in conversation with a crew member, keep your eyes on the ball at the very least and don't be afraid to just walk away if you feel like you're not doing your job.

I've been on sets where the conversation level in the room became deafening while I struggled to deal with lighting problems which is an indicator of too many people not paying attention because for one - the noise level makes it hard to communicate and two - the crew should be aware.

Pay attention

Always, always, always, keep your eyes and ears open and stick to the task at hand. Wandering off to smoke a butt, staring at the monitor while the camera rolls (unless that's your job), screwing around on your smart phone, or just plain NOT paying attention is not good.

An ideal situation would be that you're watching and/or listening to the degree that you can anticipate what needs to happen so that you're already thinking about ways to make that thing happen when it's called for.

"That's not my job"

There are very good reasons for crew on a film to have titles. A title defines what your job is. It creates boundaries and indicates to everyone what you do and what you don't do. When these definitions exist, then it becomes much easier to cover all the bases on a film production and ensure that the business at hand will be dealt with.

Also, I've been on sets where we'd have a crew member who also worked and was experienced in - other things, and have seen people overstep their boundaries. It's not uncommon for people in film production to work professionally as (for example) a camera operator/sound mixer/script supervisor (believe it or not). The key thing in these cases is - who is hired to do what?

I was DP on a film once with a script supervisor who kept interjecting opinion about lighting, camera staging, and shot setups. Needless to say, I had to point out to the script supervisor that I was the DP. I had to point out to the director that I was the DP. I ended up quitting because - when you hire a DP, you let the DP do the job of a DP.

Use "production speech"

Use short phrases, and speak briefly without interjecting too much in the way of superfluous verbiage. You can always spot a seasoned production crew person on a set because they speak in short, concise sentences. "Production speech" is about using the least amount of words possible to get the idea across. There are times to elaborate or pontificate, but when in shoot mode - keep it short and to the point.

Be like The Borg

All those in a given department, ideally, should know where each other are at all times and what they're doing. If leaving the set to use the bathroom, or for any reason - tell whoever is nearest to you (in your department), or (better) call it out over the radio. When someone on the crew asks for something that your department is in control of (a prop from off set, wardrobe item, set piece, piece of gear, etc.) the person who is closest to it usually responds first on the radio (or verbally sans radio if that works) that they're on it, OR the department head might dictate who does what ("No, Jimmy, you stay there and keep painting. We need to shoot on that set soon. I'll have Jane bring that thing to the set even though she's further away.")

In other words - function as a single unit.

Own up to your mistakes

It's important to just own up to mistakes right away because it cuts down on guesswork while trying to alleviate a potential recurring problem. And it also helps people determine potential issues regarding the integrity of the set, gear, and the crew.

Stay in your department

If someone outside your department asks you to do something, even as a favor, beware. As mentioned, unless it's been established that certain people on the crew can swing and/or pitch in whenever necessary, stay on your mission IN your department ("Sorry, I can't help you. I'm on a mission right now.")

One very crucial aspect of having people stick to certain tasks is, they then have intimate knowledge of the status of those tasks. Things can become very confused on a set and time can be wasted if someone either tries to "help out" or someone thinks they still need to see to something that was already taken care of.

Be nice

Film production is hard enough without having to deal with drama and petty bullshit. Generally, in my experience, film crew all tend to get along for the most part because they all share a common goal while working on a project. Personality conflicts, stress, or just general tension can be hard to avoid during production hours especially when the crew aren't sleeping enough.

Try to keep a general vibe of "nice" while on a project. Please, thank you, and you're welcome, are ALL great policies and if you sense a major issue with another personality that you might have to work closely with, think about avoiding the project completely.


©2011 Chris Santucci