We’ve seen a lot of movie formats come and
go over the years and we’ve found ways to get the most
out of each format with the least amount of expense. When we
started making movies as teenagers in the 1960s, you’d
find us animating GI Joes and clay with hand-wound, 8mm cameras.
Super8 and sound arrived in the 1970s and we made some of the
first features in that format. We moved to 3/4” U-matic
videocassettes for feature moviemaking in the 1980s, and by
the 1990s we’d graduated to 16mm for two critically praised
features, Resident Alien and Beyond Bob. For
our most recent feature, Grown Men, we joined the digital
revolution. Our experience on this production—and on six
features in other formats—taught us that with any new
format, you can always combine lessons from the past with technological
improvements to use the new format to the fullest, while still
keeping your costs down. How do you turn an idea and a screenplay
into a digital movie? While we recommend that you thoroughly
research movie production before you start, here, in our view,
are the key steps to getting it done right.
Think you have a screenplay ready to go? Think
again. The availability of low-cost equipment has inspired too
many digital moviemakers to start rolling tape with mediocre
scripts. And poor scripts rarely make good movies. For an independent
digital feature to make its mark, the script needs to be pushed
to the highest level of quality.
Spend time making sure you have a strong story
with interesting characters, surprising twists and some memorable
scenes. It’s the story—not the format—that will keep the audience
in their seats. Four writers spent over a year crafting the
five stories in Grown Men. Each draft got us closer to
a compelling and emotionally satisfying script.
Also, keep in mind that your script needs to fit
your budget. Trying to produce a big-buck screenplay on a tiny
digital budget is like squeezing into your swimsuit from junior
high school. You may be able to do it, but it’s not going to
And, speaking of budget: you don’t have to spend
money on any fancy scriptwriting/formatting/doctor program.
Any decent word processing program will do the job and save
you some cash for later on.
You’ll want the best possible actors, because
they’ll make your script and your movie even better. Attend
local stage plays and contact talent agents to find the best
performers in your area.
You can also put an ad in the newspaper and hold
open auditions. Be sure to give the performers time to read
the script before auditioning, so you’ll see their best work.
It’s a good idea to videotape the auditions, then
make your decisions based on your reactions to the tape and
not to what you saw during the audition. Some performers are
great in a live situation, but don’t come to life on tape. And
some performers who don’t seem to be doing much during the audition
may blow you away when you see them on tape.
Also, when you choose your cast, be sure to let
them know up front about any sensitive scenes, such as nudity
or extreme violence.
|Peter Moore and Susan Vee in Grown
To find a good crew, get recommendations from
other producers—particularly to find out who the team players
are out there. Because you may be paying little or nothing,
look for crew members who are ready to move up a level, such
as a boom operator who’s ready to be a sound operator. These
people will work hard when given the rare opportunity to work
on a feature.
If you plan to show your movie beyond your living
room, there are two business issues to consider: liability and
If someone is injured or something is damaged
during production, you may be liable to pay for it through insurance
or out of your pocket. If you form a business or nonprofit corporation,
then the corporation is liable, offering you some personal protection.
To sell your finished movie, you need to clearly
establish ownership by yourself or your corporation from the
start. Otherwise, when a distributor wants to buy the movie,
you have to quickly negotiate the sale with 30 people who have
a stake in it.
You’ll also need rights to use the work and performances
of all your cast, crew and extras. And you’ll need permission
to show any locations that aren’t public property. Do this by
having cast, crew and property owners sign release forms giving
you those rights.
This is probably a good time to remind you not
to use copyrighted music or issues/48/images unless you want to spend
the time and considerable expense to obtain clearance for them
should you land a distribution deal. This includes copyrighted
issues/48/images that appear in the background, such as posters on walls
and issues/48/images on televisions.
In Grown Men, we had a scene in a bar that
sported multiple TV monitors throughout the space. We couldn’t
afford to pay for the copyrighted issues/48/images that broadcast and
cable TV were providing, and we didn’t want to leave the sets
blank during the scenes, so we concocted a novel and legal solution:
We popped in tapes from our past movies and ran those on the
screens. They provided issues/48/images for the TVs in the background
and didn’t cost us a dime!
|This kitchen location was part of a building
that yielded over a dozen locations on Grown Men; Hollywood
make-up artist Crist Ballas went low-budget for Grown Men;
Peter Moore, Matthew Anderson, Tom Poole and David Fields
in Grown Men.
Publicity and Distribution
Those involved in independent productions usually
plan publicity and distribution as an afterthought. Take time
to shoot some publicity stills on your most photogenic shoot
day. You can stage shots that will be hard to recreate later.
Before you start production, think about what
the selling points are for a distributor: a unique location,
a celebrity, a first of its kind fill-in-the-blank. If you can’t
think of any selling points, create some.
Production Format and Editing
Picking a tape format and editing system can lead
to lengthy technical debates. We’ve had them ourselves. Let
us cut to the chase for you: the three most economical and widely
used digital tape formats are DV, DV Cam and DVCPro.
The only real differences are tape speed and how
sound is managed. Otherwise, all three record issues/48/images using the
same technical specifications, and there is good equipment to
shoot each format. We’ve used all three, and where the rubber
meets the road, the only important difference is price.
You also need to honestly assess your production
and budget to decide if your finished movie should be transferred
to film. Be brutally honest, because this is expensive and few
independent movies go beyond video distribution. If film is
a must, consider shooting in the European PAL television format,
which is 25 frames per second (fps), or the 24p format, which
is 24 fps with progressive scan. These formats allow for a cleaner
transfer to 24fps film, but sound sync, equipment availability
and transfer to NTSC video can be problematic. Consult with
experienced moviemakers and labs before going this route.
Non-linear editing systems, like tape formats,
have advocates and sales publicity. Three popular full-feature
systems at the low end of the pocketbook are: Adobe Premiere
($600), Apple Final Cut Pro ($1,000) and Avid Xpress DV ($1,700).
All have similar capabilities but slightly different styles,
and they offer image correction and sound controls. Considering
that great films like Lawrence of Arabia were edited
with only cuts and dissolves, any of these systems can do the
If even these systems are beyond your budget,
cuts-and-dissolves editing can be done with Apple iMovie ($50),
AIST Movie DV Suite ($70), MGI VideoWave ($100) and many other
simple non-linear editors. These systems typically don’t have
advanced sound controls, but you can get free ProTools audio
editing software at http://www.digidesign.com/ptfree to fill
And, if you have no desire to edit your movie
yourself, keep in mind that you can save the cost of an editing
system by getting someone else to do it for you. The low cost
and availability of non-linear systems means that there are
lots of folks out there; you just need to find someone with
the right skills and sensibility to do the job.
So, how do you choose an editor? On one of our
earlier features, we gave the same scene to three different
editors and asked them to take a crack at it. The editor we
ultimately worked with was the one who gave us the scene we
expected, but with a little something unexpected.
Before you shoot, thoroughly rehearse all the
key scenes with the primary cast members. This will save a lot
of time on the set and provide the cast an opportunity to create
stronger, deeper performances.
We shot Grown Men on weekends, and found
that rehearsals on weeknights really sped up the shooting process,
sometimes allowing us to burn through 20 pages of script per
weekend. The rehearsals provided the time to really discuss
character issues, answer questions and refine blocking for each
of the scenes—things that are hard to do in the midst of a full
day of shooting.
If your schedule allows for it, bring your DV
camera to the rehearsals and shoot each scene from a couple
angles. Then, on your non-linear editing system, you can make
yourself a rough edit of each scene before it’s shot. Sure,
the lighting and the sound won’t be any good, but it will give
you a better idea of what you’ll need to shoot when you get
Try to combine your locations for each day’s shooting
into one tight area. The less you pack and move, the more time
you have to shoot scenes. One office complex we used in Grown
Men yielded over a dozen locations that appear throughout
the movie: the building gave us a restaurant exterior and kitchen,
high-rise apartment building locations, a parking ramp, a jail,
a loading dock, two offices and a conference room—all within
a stone’s throw of each other.
When you and your DP inspect locations, find all
the power outlets and the circuit breakers or fuse box. When
the power goes out in the middle of a shot, you’ll know how
to get it back on quickly.
If you’re shooting an outdoor location at night
and you find that the sun is coming up, get all the shots that
face east done first.
Then, if the sun starts to come up during other shots, you can
use flags to block the sun and keep shooting… at least for
Finally, it’s common courtesy to leave a location
the way you found it. Or, to paraphrase an old camping expression,
“Take only digital photos, and leave nothing but footprints
(and hardly any of those).”
Sound (and Camera)
It’s easier than ever to create great looking
shots for your movie: the cameras are smarter, the lights are
lighter and a good monitor shows you exactly what you’re getting
without waiting for dailies. But while you’re lavishing your
attention on getting the shot, don’t forget you also need to
get clean, usable sound.
Start thinking about sound when you scout locations.
How noisy is the space? Does it sound like it’s next door to
the Jackhammer-of-the-Year competition? Can you control the
sound? (That is, can you shut off that noisy refrigerator while
Most digital cameras have built-in microphones,
but for high-quality sound, upgrade to a small mixer and a good
boom microphone and pole. Give your sound person some practice
time before the shoot.
The digital format is unforgiving of loud sounds
that peak the camcorder’s meter. They turn into unusable crackles.
If your mixer has a 1 kilohertz tone set at 0 decibels (db),
then the camcorder audio should be set at -12db or even -20db.
If you don’t have tone for audio setup, just make sure sound
levels never hit the top of the meter.
Tip: Remember that noisy refrigerator that
you turned off (and forgot to turn on again)? Next time, put
your car keys in it. You may leave without turning it back on,
but you won’t get far!
While some established moviemakers have done amazing
things with extended takes, when you’re starting out it’s best
to give yourself options for the editing room. Shoot reaction
shots, close-ups and over-the-shoulder shots so you have some
choices for later. They may not seem necessary when you’re shooting,
but you’ll thank yourself during editing when you have something
to cut to.
It seems like a small detail, but don’t think
that you can do without food on your set. An army marches on
its stomach, and you’ll be amazed at what a well-fed crew can
To save money, plan your shooting schedule so
that the least number of people are around for meals. Avoid
hosting a group of extras over a meal break, and be sure to
approach local restaurants about providing free or ultra-cheap
food for your shoots in exchange for screen credit. Making a
few phone calls can save you a bundle. Sure, many establishments
will say ‘no,’ but you only need one ‘yes.’ Which leads us to…
This is no time to be shy. No matter if this is
your first or fiftieth movie, there are people out there who
know more than you do or have services that can help your movie.
It’s always wise to ask their advice or call in a favor. Keep
this attitude throughout the process, from sending your script
out for feedback to asking if a composer has a student who wants
experience scoring your movie.
On Grown Men, we asked Hollywood make-up
artist Crist Ballas if he had any apprentices who would like
to work on a fantasy sequence. He looked at the script, liked
what he saw and said he’d do it himself.
We asked for free hotel rooms, airline tickets,
valuable props, rental cars, locations, food and advice. Some
people said no, but many said yes. And they wouldn’t have said
yes if we didn’t ask.
Is that all? Hardly. But those are the key issues.
Add them to a great idea, mix in a lot of moxie and countless
hours of pre-production, production and post-production, and
before you know it you’ll have your first digital feature in
the can. And then you’ll be ready to start your second. MM