Saturday, November 3, 2012

Timesavers on Shoot Days

Whether you're trying to make up time, or just want to maximize what time you do have, there are some tricks you can employ that won't detract from your scenes while allowing you more of that precious time you can never have enough of:


One thing that always seems to be lacking in low budget films is *coverage*. Generally, you shoot your masters and then your medium shots, and then of course you run out of time for closeups. This happens more often than not, but the smart thing to do is allow time for closeups and cutaways for only select scenes and not every scene. Then you can plan on not shooting closeups and cutaways for certain scenes and allowing for this ahead of time.

For example, say you're shooting dirty single closeups each of two characters talking and if they have any business out of frame, like if one hands something to the other - you need to see that object. You can tell something was exchanged, but it's out of frame and since you're planning on not shooting any cutaways - you have the actor work the object into the frame like this.

A good actor should be able to pull this off so it doesn't look unnatural and if you plan on not devoting time for cutaways for every setup you shoot, you can shoot them when they're really important to have (and you'll have the time to execute them properly).

Adapt your formula for shooting scenes to the time you have available

Instead of using the standard technique of shooting scenes as master shot then medium shots then coverage, plan on shooting only the framings that you know you'll need. Yes, this cuts down on options in post, but when time is limited, this can be a lifesaver. The age-old practice of shooting master/medium/coverage is somewhat ideal when you have the luxury of time, but a more contemporary approach is to know exactly what you'll need prior to shoot days.

Many directors come to the table and ask for everything they can get their hands on when it comes to shots and takes, but when you know you'll be limited on time and possibly takes of exhausting scenes, then you have to be smart and think ahead.

Shoot with Multiple Cameras

Action scenes are generally shot with multiple cameras placed at different angles to the action, but it has become more the norm to shoot non-action scenes with multiple cameras especially on certain episodic TV shows which have horrendous shoot schedules each day not to mention TV shows shot in studios where there are generally 3 cameras on rolling pedestals working concurrently. 

Shooting dialogue scenes with (for example) two cameras means you can capture more in less time and it especially means your actors won't become drained after acting out the same scene 20 times (or more) for all your camera shots. 

Once a scene is lit, it's lit, and placing a second camera somewhere out of the frame of the first camera is relatively painless. It could be a camera with a long lens for shooting those hard to get cutaways, or it could just be a medium shot while the first camera is shooting a wide master. 

Another aspect of rolling on scenes with 2 cameras is - continuity. If you can absolutely guarantee more takes that have continuity, it'll mean less time in post-production editing around continuity errors (like an actor using their right hand in some takes and left hand in others - it happens).

Record Wild Sound Dialog

When you have actors giving dialog in wide shots, or in shots where their faces or mouths are not visible and these setups also present issues with micing, just forego micing for anything but reference audio and record their lines wild.

Say you have an actor running through the woods in the distance, or an actor with dialog but their face offscreen, or an actor in a car shot as an exterior - skip the hassle of micing them, because it's going to save you a lot of time and you'll get better audio quality anyway by recording their lines wild in a controlled environment.

Another example would be - you're shooting a scene in a practical location and there's some horrendous noise that you can't control, but you have to shoot the scene then and there. What do you do? You can get creative with how the scene is show so that recording wild dialog later can work, OR...

Looping Dialog

This technique of recording pristine dialogue after scenes are shot, in a studio environment, is a standard practice in "Hollywood." It's called "ADR" which means "Automated Dialog Replacement." 

Generally, good location audio is recorded as scenes are shot, and then after the scenes are edited together, the actors (or completely different voice talent) are brought in to "loop" or re-record the dialog. What they do is watch the scene played on a large screen and they vocalize the dialog which is then recorded for insertion into the edit. 

But isn't this time consuming? Yes it is. But when you weigh the time and expense involved with shoot days as time X crew + gear + recording acceptable audio, it very well can be far less time (and money) consuming. 

If you just cannot record acceptable audio on location (for whatever reason), consider looping and if you need to plan on it, plan on it well ahead of time if you can (because your actors need to be available for it).

©2012 Chris Santucci

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Content is King

If you haven't heard it yet, a hundred times, it's a good thing you're hearing it now - because it's SO true and it's important to heed this oft repeated phrase.

Too many lo/no budget filmmakers get WAY too tied up obsessing over gear, especially camera gear that they just don't produce much. The more you produce, the better, because you'll just get better at it and you'll have more opportunities to succeed.

A reasonable level of quality I'd suggest is sufficient and agonizing over one camera over another that might offer a 3% better level of quality is just a complete waste of time in my opinion.

Most lo/no budget filmmakers shoot their films with cameras they own and with cameras these days coming out like every year and a half, it's easy to understand how those of us who own what we shoot with would want to maybe step up to the newest, latest camera.

Don't wait - just shoot.

That's how I would respond to the trepidation of filmmakers who wonder if they should wait for the latest camera gear because as I mentioned, you're not exactly going to realize a major difference in quality with the next generation of camera. If you're looking into a much higher caliber of camera however, that's a different deal.

That said, I'd recommend not getting tied up too much with camera choices since there are many other aspects of a potential film that will result in a higher quality film. There are bloggers who over-analyze cameras to the point of distraction when in the end, as I mentioned, you might be comparing 2 cameras that are nearly identical in what they can deliver.

There are slews of posts in online forums from wannabe filmmakers asking which camera they should use when really, it's nearly irrelevant unless you're talking about a comparison between a recent camera model and one from 5 years ago.

In the end, an audience only cares about the story and a seamless viewing experience, so I'd recommend delivering that, because nobody and I mean NO-body will care about how sharp and saturated your 4K footage is, if the story doesn't grab them, or if the actors are flat, or if your sound design is distracting, or if etc.

The goal with what gear you use should be to provide a functional level of usability and quality to allow for a seamless movie experience for an audience. The film is not so much dependent upon which $3,000. camera you use as it is about the gear and the techniques you use not distracting from the story. I've seen quite a few no/lo budget films that I felt were wholly compelling which employed no special techniques or equipment and so their success depended much less on gear choices as on the aspects I mentioned, like story, performances, and production design.

Start with a great story, cast the best actors you can, understand directing them, find the best locations you can, and just ensure good sound and picture. The simplest thing you'll have to do is shoot scenes, or it should be.

©2012 Chris Santucci

Monday, September 10, 2012

Ideas that are worth developing into stories.

If you have an idea for a film story and it takes you longer than say, 2 or 3 sentences to sum up on paper, consider doing something different. In my experience, a convoluted narrative is best left to those with the ability to pull it off.

The term "high concept" means an idea that is very simple and can be summed up in very few words. This is what you should consider when on a limited budget.

Don't think of it as formulaic, but rather - "focused."

Having a basic premise does not mean your story has to be "basic." You can have a distinct premise with which to base your story on and all it means is, you have a sun for your planetary story elements to revolve around.

Here are some examples of successful "high concept" Indie films that were possible on small budgets:

The Man From Earth
Another Earth
Buffalo '66
The Blair Witch Project
Lost in Translation
Reservoir Dogs  

Your characters can be complicated and have depth, sure, but try and keep your story well-defined, interesting, and entertaining and you just might have something.

©2012 Chris Santucci 

Monday, June 18, 2012

Letter to film school wannabe.

This is an email I sent to a former crew member I used on a feature film who was considering attending film school. My perspective on spending time and money on a degree in filmmaking is pretty well illustrated here and my points should be considered by anyone looking into attending film school:

In regards to that UCLA program, I could see it maybe being of some benefit to already working producers but I can tell you from experience, I've never met a working producer who went to "producer school."

It's not like there are help wanted ads for producers and if you finish at UB and then go to UCLA for another 2 years, you'll still have almost no practical experience in the field of producing and will have to start at the bottom - as a PA most likely. It's not like you'll get hired to produce because you have a masters degree in producing and little work experience.

And, you'll never learn more at a school than you could working in the industry in less time, while getting paid, and making valuable contacts.

I once had the good fortune of working as a coordinator with a friend who was the local PM on a huge Goodyear job in the mid '90's that was about maybe 2 weeks of work total and was easily the best education I ever had in production.

The producer busted balls and put us through a crash course in producing - real world-style.

That's just one example of the education that is possible while working and it's possible to gain all kinds of expertise after working on a few jobs.

I've worked on a LOT of reality TV shows and almost every PM and coordinator and producer in that realm all started out as PAs, except for some upper level types who were already attorneys (who sucked at producing anyway). I've worked as a PA on jobs for Snickers, Wendys, Channellock Tools, Eastman Kodak, HSBC Bank, Servicemaster, etc, etc., and I never had more than a 2 year degree (in an unrelated field) and some minimal prior experience. Now, here I've produced 4 feature length films, a shitload of commercials, and I coordinated on 2 - 1 Million dollar features - and I haven't been even TRYING to get work producing.

School and more school is great if you want to either teach or if you want to be a career student, but in the film/television industry it's essentially still only going to get your foot in the door as a PA anyway. Do you really want to spend 6 years in school and then still start out as a PA and have to pay back student loans while working part time as a PA?

I mean, you can do what you want, but nothing works better than working in the biz if you want to climb the ladder and learn and make money.

©2012 Chris Santucci

Sunday, June 17, 2012

A word on locations...

Some observations and rules I've come to know in the past 20 years regarding working in "practical locations.":

Respect the property

This is the cardinal rule of working at locations. "Practical locations" are those that function as spaces people normally use on a daily basis - like apartments, stores, homes, etc.

Keep in mind, you're there for a relatively short while and you'll be working at an accelerated rate compared to the people who normally live or work there. You are working against the clock and there's much pressure to complete the work in a finite period of time. You'll be getting tired. You'll be moving heavy and sometimes unwieldy equipment around. You'll be distracted. You'll be agitated at times.

Be aware of the condition of the property and act accordingly. If you had a bunch of people over to your place for a party, you wouldn't like it if people dropped stuff on the floor, made a mess, and scratched your furniture. Abusing the goodwill of whomever is allowing you to use their property as a shooting location will close the door for future use by you and any other filmmakers, not to mention damage that comes out of your budget.

Be extra nice and cover your ass

You'd be surprised (I've been - multiple times) at how two-faced people can be who are charged with overseeing the property you're using as a shooting location while you're there. What I mean is, you might think everything is copacetic all the while you're working and then find out later someone there had an issue with you, your crew, or something you or they did or didn't do.

Always, always, always, ASK to move or change anything at the location.

Always make it clear the full extent of what you would like to do with respect to moving, removing, modifying, or altering in any way any architectural element, appliance, piece of furniture, paint finish, foliage, landscaping, etc., preferably before you book the location, but, there certainly will be times when it isn't possible to foretell everything you might end up wanting to do with respect to the location.

Of course you want to be 100% up front about your intentions with the property, but when you have to rely on a lackey (for permission) who's been entrusted to oversee the property on your shoot day, beware, and do not leave garbage there when you leave - even if they say it's ok (trust me.)

And even if you smile like maniac, and ask, and say thank you, and everything is returned to normal before or after you leave, be aware that someone (more likely an employee) may very well complain about something. Some people thrive on drama and will nitpick about something, so the one underlying thing you must stick to is returning the property to it's original condition either before you leave or soon after (depending on your arrangement.)

Don't say anything derogatory about the property

This goes for everyone on the crew. People chit-chat while waiting for other departments to complete work, so make sure nobody comments on the quality of the paint finish, the ugly curtains, the drywall finishing, or the sickly cat that lives in the house.

Pissing off or offending a property owner is not a good idea for obvious reasons. Be sensitive. 

Be aware of noise when loading in/wrapping out

More often than not, you'll be loading into a location early in the day. It may be a weekend day and if that's the case, it means people will most likely be sleeping when you're unloading trucks and moving gear, props, scenery, wardrobe, etc., into a space.

Be considerate and think about other people outside your little world.

Follow up

Make sure any lingering business with respect to the condition of the location is addressed in a timely manner. If something needs to be painted, painted back, repaired, replaced, cleaned, etc., make sure it happens - at least soon after you're done using the location. Leaving a mess at the location is a really bad idea even if you're running behind on your shoot schedule. The property owner/manager doesn't care about your shoot schedule, they just want their property to be returned to normal when you're done.

I've been turned down by property managers without so much as ever having met them based on their experiences with other filmmakers. Don't screw it up for the rest of us. Take care of business and make sure the property manager is satisfied with the condition of the property after you leave.

©2012 Chris Santucci

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It ain't Sundance, but...

I got word recently that a short I shot last year with Aaron Doolittle, "A Five Minute Warning" got accepted into two film festivals.

 I wrote of my method for working out lighting, production design, and shot ideas with a small scale set and 12" action figures a while back on here.

I especially like the idea that the festivals are outside of my sphere of influence as it's just plain nice to get some form of validation from strangers.

 If you're anywhere near Cleveland on Friday the 18th of May, check it out:

 If you're in or near Pittsburgh on June 2nd or 3rd, check it out there:

And if you see me there, ask me to buy you a beer and I will ;-)

 ©2012 Chris Santucci

Friday, February 17, 2012

Cyber-Begging for Cinema

I may be in the minority, but I'm not terribly crazy about the concept of "crowd funding" independent films. I've heard some pretty impassioned and thoughtful arguments in favor of it, but I believe there are reasons why independent wannabe filmmakers have to turn to cyber-begging to finance their dreams.

If you don't have the juice to finance or to find actual financing for your film - you beg for money.

If you don't have the discipline to work on your film a little at a time and pay for it yourself - you beg for money.

That said, not having the discipline OR the juice does not bode well for the wannabe filmmaker in terms of their eventual filmmaking success.

Films are made for audiences. If your "mass commissioned" crowd-funded film is intended for a very small audience comprised partially of those who are paying for it, that's fine.

I'm still of the mind however, that movies are intended for mass audiences. And as such, since movies are monumental group efforts that take many months to complete, their production should be approached like a business operation - not an art project.

When someone donates money to you, your mindset is wholly different than if you worked for a few years to save money. I'm sorry, but as grateful and well meaning as you might be for donations - you just don't approach a project the same way as if you worked for the funds you'd be spending on your film, OR, have to be accountable in some way.

Case in point:

Once upon a time there was a first time writer/director who managed to write a decent feature length script and convince a number of people to finance his film. This first-timer put zero of his own assets into the project and had nothing to show other than his script when he set out to raise funds.

Jump to 6 or 7 years later and we SEE this person as having spent almost 2 million dollars of other people's money and still not come close to finishing his first feature film.

Is this an isolated example? I don't think so. Certainly the streets are littered with reels and reels of film that was facilitated by well-to-do friends of first time maverick filmmakers who only talked the talk. Have there been crowd-funded films that were accepted into the Sundance Film Festival? Sure. And there will probably be more.

However, I know from experience that when you work for what you have, you approach how you live life a lot differently.

Case in point:

How many heirs manage to contribute anything meaningful to their communities or culture in general? Or even develop any substantial character themselves?

If you want to ruin a person, give them the means so they never have to work a day in their life.

When you spend your own time working for your own money, and you intend to finance your own film with your own money, there is no guarantee of success, but, you WILL (unless you're just reckless), consider things differently.

All this begs the question "Don't you normally spend other people's money even in the case of studio films?" The answer to that is - yes, but when you're spending investment money, there's a wholly different relationship between the producer and the financiers which makes you as the producer accountable for what and how you're spending.

It's this built-in accountability that affects your approach as a filmmaker I believe.

You are not undertaking an experiment so much in that case as if you got donations to spend. There's a bit more urgency to succeed in the case of spending the money you worked for. When you know it'll take you a year or more to have that amount of money again, you WILL think a little differently about what your doing with respect to the film's production. When you know that you could have bought a house instead, oh yeah, you WILL approach the project differently. When you have a family and you're spending money on a film that you can't spend on them, yes indeed, the urgency to succeed is wholly different as in the case of spending donations.

Watch how someone treats a car that they saved up for over time as opposed to someone who had a car given to them.

Are my analogies apropos? Human nature is human nature, so I'd say they are, but please do point out to me the first crowd-funded feature to get the top prize at Sundance or Cannes, because I really want to see that one.

©2012 Chris Santucci

Monday, January 30, 2012

Storytelling Vs. Filmmaking

I know what your thinking.

How are these two things not synonymous. And yet, in SO many cases, films end up being quasi-stories at best, featuring excellent cinematography, sound, and etc., but too much activity and not nearly enough action.

Yes, a screenplay is merely a literary basis for an audio/visual experience, but, if the story that the screenplay is based on doesn't make people say "I really want to see that movie," - you are missing something.

A weak cast can kill a film. Weak direction can kill a film. Low production value can kill a film. Poor cinematography can even kill a film. But if the story is not there, then you have nothing. Nothing.

And when you have "nothing," all hope is lost. No amount of magical filmmaking alchemy can save you, sorry to say. It's not somehow just going to magically come together on shoot days and in the editing process if it's not already on the page.

Trust me on this, I've personally seen a dozen or so Indie efforts fail because of execution of a film based on a weak script. I'm talking about money and time and much effort wasted over many years on feature length films that completely failed at what they were meant for - film festival inclusion.

I've seen many beginner writer/directors hold to the paranoia that if they let people read their masterpiece screenplay, someone will steal their ideas. Nobody wants to steal your snappy banter and I can pretty much guarantee you, your story has been told before, so don't get uptight about letting people peer into the chest of priceless Krugerrands that is your script.

If someone steals your script and they manage to make a shitload of money, which is a long shot, you can sue them. So, there IS that.

I believe that many beginner filmmakers are so enamored of the filmmaking process that they overlook the most crucial aspect of all and forge ahead into production. Don't get me wrong, I love the process of shooting scenes and editing. But when you edit scenes together and find out once and for all that the stuff is just not all that compelling (time and time again), it changes your perspective completely. This has happened to me, so take my word for it - concentrate on crafting an amazing script.

Filmmakers spend hours and hours agonizing over what equipment to use and what technique to employ while the script never gets re-written. While the script never gets multiple table reads. While the script never gets critical feedback from multiple sources.

Nobody will care how sharp or well lit your footage is if the story has no direction and nothing particularly compelling happens. Nobody will care how much time and effort you put into your film because ALL they see is what's on the screen. Your friends and relatives will watch it (once) and will be polite about it, but in the end all you have on your hands is an ugly baby.

An ugly baby may be beautiful to you, but to the world, it's awkward and something they'd rather not have to deal with.

©2012 Chris Santucci

Friday, January 6, 2012

On Being Professional

Even if you aren't a bona fide "professional," as-in - You get *paid* to do a specific thing and that's all you do for a living, you still can (and should) adopt a professional approach for maximum success.

Whether you're a weekend hobbyist or serious amateur or whether you just hope to make a film someday, keeping a professional demeanor and operating in a professional manner will only make things easier and will give people you deal with confidence that you're serious and not going to waste their time (or worse).

Be clear in your communication.

Whether it's face to face, phone, email, texting - whatever - don't be a putz. Communicate your thoughts effectively and efficiently. Try to edit too much extraneous blather and tangents. Watch the tangents. Be direct and get across what it is you need to get across.

I have worked with people who are poor communicators and I myself have had to struggle with saying the right things in the right way, so I know it can be a hurdle more for some than others. That said, if you truly want to be viewed as being professional - learn how to communicate. Take some time and learn how to organize your thoughts, words, and speech.

Some people like to preface everything they say with a "build-up." It's tedious and time consuming and generally unnecessary. If you start off by beating around the bush, people may become impatient or they may think you're trying to put something over on them, or they may develop a perception that you are unsure of yourself and your mission.

Another thing I see often are people who expect others to understand 100% of what they're saying when they only provide 10% of the information. People don't read minds.

Take your time, figure it out, write it down and rehearse if you have to - but present yourself when you can be reasonably clear and concise while also being personable and polite.

Be responsive.

When taking part in any ongoing communication pertaining to work projects you MUST be responsive. Generally, this means email communications because that's the predominate method of "talk" these days.

People know you're on a computer (or smartphone) on a daily basis, so you can look like a real douchebag if someone is waiting for you to respond to an email (or text), and not getting a response while it's obvious that you're screwing around on Facebook all day and night.

Avoiding questions or people just because you don't feel like dealing with them is a bad idea because it can offend people and can limit resources and options in the future when they decide to reciprocate and not return your calls.

During any ongoing communications related to an ongoing project or job, you MUST be responsive because people wait for answers before answering other people or before making moves. Not giving a timely response these days, is essentially inexcusable in my opinion what with phones in everyone's pocket that are email capable.

When it takes someone 3 full days to respond to a simple query about their availability for work, I'd say that's inexcusable. Sorry - it just is. If you sit on the toilet for 2 minutes anytime in those 3 days, you have the ability to respond. These things are a given by now.

When a simple query about anything doesn't warrant at the very least a simple and direct response especially from someone you had a prior successful working relationship with, I'd say that's inexcusable.

Always, always, always, respond to emails that have attachments. Generally these are in relation to a "job" or a project and it's customary to, at the very least respond, letting the other party know you received the attachment.

Don't leave people hanging. Online communications are not infallible. A simple "got it" response to an email at the very least is a necessity.

Don't be annoying.

This is a grey area, but seriously, try and be observant in order to determine whether you continually lose people's attention, or make people withdraw, or cause people to cut short their interaction with you (or worse - avoid you completely).

Some people talk too much. Some people go off on tangents consistently, some people have ticks or mannerisms that put people off.

Pay attention and make adjustments.

Be responsible.

Integrity is doing what you say you'll do and owning up to the results of your actions. Nobody wants to deal with someone who is always screwing up, but what's worse is blaming others for your shortcomings or failures.

Being wrong is ok. Everyone makes mistakes on occasion. We're not machines. Anyone who can't relate to humanness is not someone you want to deal with and it's not someone you want to be.

Following through on promises and at the very least making best efforts to complete tasks to the best of your ability is essentially the bedrock of what you are in a work environment. Some things can be excused, but laziness and deception are generally not tolerated, and too much talk and not enough action even if you're a good ass-kisser, will piss off co-workers.

Be a mensch. Get it done. Don't be a bigmouth.

Don't waste people's time.

Being organized is the best way to not waste people's time. When you don't think enough of your craft and others you deal with while making things happen, it will show as wasted time.

Unless you're doing a project on Jupiter and a sudden acid tornado blows in, you have NO excuse for not being prepared.

It's a pretty simple exercise to sit alone, maybe with a pen and and some paper, and map out, plan, and consider all aspects of whatever it is you want to do. If you need help with this exercise - get help.

Maybe you want to present yourself to a community as a potential facet of film projects. Maybe you want to solicit the help of potential unpaid crew. Maybe you want to ask a property owner for permission to film on their property.

KNOW what you need. KNOW what you have. KNOW how it (whatever it is) needs to happen. BE organized.

Be Prepared.

Do everything in your power to know your craft and don't go into a project blind with regard to particulars. If you're hired or asked to be involved with a project, ask the questions you need to in order to do your job effectively without having to figure it out while on the job.

If you're going to be working under certain conditions, you need to know what those conditions will be. If you're going to be working with equipment that's different from what you're used to - research the gear before you work with it. If you have to drive to a remote location for the work, make sure you know where exactly you're going and how you're getting there well BEFORE you start driving.

Being prepared shows you actually care about what you're doing, who you're doing it for, and the others you're working with.

Pay people and get paid.

The foundation of all personal and professional relationships is trust and "the exchange." You exchange something for something else.

Obviously this is a grey area when it comes to hobbyists and amateurs. Regardless, consider what you get when paying someone as opposed to not paying someone:

When you pay someone, you get an employee, not someone who's only doing you a favor. Someone doing you a favor can come and go as per their schedule. They can show up late and they can leave early.

When you pay someone, there's a definite expectation that they'll show up and that the work will get done.

When you're a professional, you get paid. The relationship of "work for pay" is as old as the hills and is essentially what makes the world go around. Expecting to get paid for work is normal and the grey areas generally involve workers on the bottom rungs of the career ladder.

With low budget stuff, there are no rules as it all depends on what deals can be made, but again - the concept of "employee" Vs. "friend doing a favor" should always be considered because in my experience, delays and conflict can arise from unpaid crew working on films.

In the no-budget realm, people trade time for time and more than likely keep a mental accounting of what's received and what's owed. When you're not spending money, anything goes, but when you have a quality project, I'd recommend raising money and spending it on the film.

Spending money means you have more of an investment in the project and that says something to those of whom you ask to be involved. The old adage "money talks and bullshit walks" should always be considered, lest you be viewed as a rank amateur.

Starting out as an amateur is fine obviously, but still not paying or being paid after a number of years marks you as a hobbyist, so consider the stigma associated with being one.

©2012 Chris Santucci