FILMMAKING: Your First Movie Shoot
What You Thought and What Really Happens
During the second week of May, 2012, I finished a short film called “The Farm.” By finished I mean uploaded a burned DVD of the completed film for manufacturing of DVD’s to be marketed. This is a project that began just over a year ago with Ghost Walk Productions. I spent the last 5 months editing it in my spare time.
This blog post is to give some insight from an aspiring filmmaker about the perspectives and perceptions before making your first film and after making your first film. I hope a lot of people just starting out will be able to benefit from this.
First, I want everyone to know my background before taking on making a film. I wanted to be a filmmaker since I was 13. However, I met my wife at age 19, got married young, and went to work supporting our family. This caused the idea of being a filmmaker to be more of a dream than an active pursuit, but my interest in the subject caused me to research filmmaking my entire life. I studied films from a student’s perspective rather than from an audience member’s perspective, read books and magazine articles, watched interviews and “making of” documentaries, and more. By the age of 35 I felt I had a pretty good grasp of how it went, what was involved, and how to do it. I started on “The Farm” just before my 47th birthday.
For “The Farm” I was to be the Director of Photography, Videographer, and Editor. I had purchased a camera 5 years earlier and learned how to use it, an editing program, and I had even shot a scene for a short film of my own that I was working on when the opportunity to be involved in “The Farm” came up. The film was originally going to be a 5 to 10 minute micro film, but like EVERYTHING else involved with the project it ballooned into something much bigger. In the end the film is 42 minutes.
We had never held an audition before but we went about it very organized and it went well. I wrote a blog about that experience already. You can find that posted 3-25-11 so I won’t bother rehashing that here. With this successful experience we were expecting the rest of the shoot to go well.
With the location of the shoot being at least 2 ½ hours away from where everyone was located this brought up the reality of putting up the actors and crew in a motel. Sometimes some of the crew volunteered to pay for their own rooms. This was a big help, but also there were times when 5 or 6 rooms had to be paid for from the project money. Well, there really was no project money. This was being done on the fly. We did have a fundraiser application where people could contribute, and two crowd funding attempts netted nothing. This film was made by those who believed in it and every single one involved volunteered their time.
Research vs. Reality
Though I was as thorough as I could be, from what I knew, about all the considerations in shooting a movie it cannot account for everything. Just as in learning any subject, nothing beats experience. You have to face it. No matter how many books you read, how many interviews you read, and how many people you speak with before making your first film, there are nuances which you will not be prepared for.
I read nothing and heard in no interviews the amount of time required to set up a shooting set. You will hear some say it took a while, or it went well because of good planning, but no one actually says “in minutes” how long it took them, especially after arriving somewhere you’ve never been, don’t know, and how everyone else is going to react. I’m here to tell you it takes 5 times longer than you think, at least for this first time.
You learn you are not going to be able to put your lights where you had planned on due to nuances in the room you were not aware of. With the lights in the new location you will not get the look you were expecting. You spend a lot of time relocating the lights to provide light you like for the look you want, while keeping the lights out of the shot, out of the actor’s way, without burning the boom operator, and without making unwanted shadows. Ok, now you’ve got the lights set. How’s the rest of the room?
I will admit, I was pretty concerned on my first day as Director because there were SO MANY people depending on me. As Director and Editor, everyone’s work would mean nothing if I did not come through with interesting camera movements, angles, and well edited scenes. Now I was going to set up my first set in a strange place to shoot the first scene in my first movie. No pressure…right! I have no experienced lighting personnel, though the Producer, Rocky Karlage, is a professional Photographer. I was lucky to at least have that and he was a big help.
You don’t want to do too many takes and make yourself look unprofessional. You want to do more than one take to allow for thoughts you or someone else may get that improves the scene. Somewhere in the middle is the happy medium. Also, I was sure to inform my actors that the reason for doing additional takes may not necessarily be because of something they did. These can be things such as my framing of the shot was not to my liking for one reason or another. Perhaps the mic came into frame. Someone on the set may have made an inconvenient noise. Something off set may have interrupted the shot (passing cars, dogs, neighbors, etc.). And of course, an actor may have said a line incorrectly, sneezed when it would be a bad thing to do, stumbled when you don’t want the character to stumble, forget a line, come into the scene at the wrong time, or any other myriad of alternate realities from the one you were hoping for. Yes, not as easy as you thought, eh?
Time, and How it Hates You
You need to work out all of the time you will need in Pre-Production. You need to consider everything you can including actor’s schedules, realities of the property’s owner, weather, and more. We went on estimations which were lacking in their scope, shall we say? In the end, we ran out of time to shoot the entire script and the Producer (who wrote the script) and I had to pare it down to what we absolutely had to have in order to have a complete story. This creates a situation where you have to settle for less than what you were expecting, and that hurts because what you were expecting was great.
Shooting far from where everyone was located was a detriment. There were about 2 ½ hours of travel time for everyone to get there and then to drive home at the end of the weekend. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you are going to have shooting marathons it is long times of sitting in a car that are no fun. I recommend getting cast, and if possible, crew, that are local to where you are going to be shooting. This removes a stress created and makes the shoot go smoother. Ninety-five percent of our cast and crew were great and dealt with the travel time. I couldn’t have hoped for more, but I would make sure to eliminate that as much as possible in the future. If you are doing a shoot over the course of a week then everyone would probably be fine being put up in a hotel for that long, as opposed to having to drive long distances more than once.
One shot that we did took about 45 minutes to set up but is only about 5 seconds on screen. It is a really cool shot though and adds to the feel of the scene, so it was worth it. Unfortunately, while you are taking this kind of time to set up shots you are creating “hurry up and wait” moments for your actors. Actors are used to this, but they still don’t like it. That’s understandable. I am not saying that you should eliminate those really cool shots, I am just saying be aware of the time that setting up shots takes and be mindful of the affect on your actors. Apologize for the inconvenience and find some way to make light of the situation to help take the edge off a little bit. Like I said, experienced actors are used to those hurry up and wait moments, but you have to realize that it has an affect on their preparedness and you should help them deal with that in preparation of the shot when you are finally ready for the actors to come on set. Some actors are fine with the process and it becomes a non-issue. I was fortunate to have some of these actors.
Time goes by fast while working on the computer, and while setting up and shooting scenes. After you’ve shot a few scenes you find suddenly you are late for lunch. Everyone gets hungry while stressing out over remembering lines, blocking, doing make-up, arranging sets, and on and on and a hungry cast/crew is a grumpy cast/crew. Find a good ending point to take a break and get everyone fed. The first 4 hours will go by in only an hour and a half.
Editing and Your Day Job
If you are like me you have a “regular job” that pays the bills, and you have your dream filmmaking job. If you own a house that creates more time that is stolen from the time you need to edit while you maintain that. This film was only 42 minutes long but it took me 5 ½ months to edit. Basically, I could work on it from about 8-10 at night to midnight, and sometimes until 1 and 3 in the morning, while getting up for work at 6:45 AM. A few nights I was awake all night while trying to meet the deadline. Being up for 40 hours is no fun but you find it is happening before you know it.
Burning the wick at both ends like this is detrimental to your health. Sleep deprivation causes toxins to build up in your body. I was having heart palpitations from wondering how I was going to shoot 3 weekends worth of scenes in 1 weekend. All this stress can interfere with your day job. You need to find a way to manage the stress and your time. When you go to bed, stop thinking about the movie and how you are going to edit that next scene. You are in bed because now your job is to sleep! If you are not sleeping you are not getting done what you need to get done. Remember that. There’s no reason to feel guilty because you are not thinking about the movie while lying in bed.
This is not all I have to say about the subject of making your first movie, but it is already far longer than most posts on here. I hope this post was able to give you some useful insight and brought some things to light that you had not thought of before. Your first shoot will not go as you expect, but it WILL be your most educational shoot. You will learn on every shoot, but that first one is a doosey!
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