I've been working on this piece for a while. It turns out a lot of people go into film production thinking it's going to be a piece of cake, or feeling they know what they're up against. For a first time filmmaker, trust me … you don't, and it isn't.
Some of the biggest challenges are psychological, and they come from several directions. First is dealing with organization. Microbudget films require very strict organization and scheduling. There is no budget for screw ups. But perhaps your biggest difficulty will be yourself: dealing with your stress, and dealing with your crew and their stress. Fortunately, I'm also a psychologist and had a private practice: The Aspen Stress Management Clinic. I learned a lot there, and I'm going to share some valuable tips on how to survive the filmmaking process emotionally.
Your First Feature
When things seem really tough, remember that 85-year-old Clint Eastwood still directs amazing movies. If he can do it at that age, you can do it. Right? But you will have to be mentally prepared, and that means doing your homework so you can go through the process without cutting too many corners.
Sure, you'll have to find ways to shoot on the cheap. You'll have to keep locations to a minimum, and you'll have to skimp on crew and cast wages, using friends and family where you can. But you'll need a few pros on your team. And you really, really need to follow the time-honored process of filmmaking, step by step. Yes, you can be creative, but you still have to see to it that each step is completed in an organized way. Disorganization is a large source of stress that must be avoided.
The reason I'm emphasizing this is that I've chatted with a number of young filmmakers in forums and on Facebook. It is amazing how many of them feel that they can shoot from the hip without a schedule. No shot breakdown, no scene analysis. Too many are driven by the more glamorous aspects of filmmaking and have little or no interest in the actual tasks involved, like budgeting and scheduling.
But the reason you do those things is to keep your film under control. Shooting it just because it feels right is going to cost you way more, and you'll end up with an inferior product. I don't care how creative or talented you think you are, filmmaking is a process, and you have to embrace the whole package.
There are an infinite number of ways to complete the process, but they all involve breaking down the tasks, costing them out, listing needed resources from people to equipment to places, organizing your shots, and managing your crew in an effective way. My suggestions are garnered from people who have tried it the other way and failed, but got smart and did it properly. Please don't let us hear: “But doing all this organization bullshit will stanch my creativity!” If that is the case, you're in the wrong business.
For example, I've seen a creative but disorganized director hire a co-director who was more OCD and technical than he. That can be a wise move. Neither of you are likely to create a five-star movie on your own, but together, if you communicate, who knows? Working as a team can generate its own stress, and communication issues have to be resolved up front if possible. I'll address these shortly.
Are you good with software? If not, find someone who is. There are great software packages available to help you keep your production organized. You may have heard of some of them. Here are some you should at least be familiar with, and you should be using one or more of them to keep things organized. If you're not good with software and not known to be organized, get help.
The Budget module helps you design budgets, build breakdown sheets, manage cast and crew, and generate call sheets, prop lists by scene, shot lists and storyboards. With it, you can import your script from one of the screenwriting apps and start applying various templates that help you link up the script with various schedule elements, cast, crew, locations, props etc. For example, you can hit a key and send a shooting schedule to an actor with her call times, locations, wardrobe and personal props. It automatically generates the reports you'll need to stay on top of things. I recommend having someone more organized than you help you set up Chimpanzee and keep it updated. Later on, you may graduate to Gorilla, which is meant for higher-budget productions, but I recommend starting here. Here is a brief video overview of the package: https://vimeo.com/70731313
Note: avoid Movie Magic. It's long in the tooth, has not been updated properly and is designed for bigger movies anyway.
And if you don't want to come up with the $129 for Chimpanzee, take a look at Hot Budget from ReelGrok. It's free!
This is a free cloud based production document management package that helps you keep all the scattered pieces of your production documents in one place, with an interface that helps you find what you need when you need it. It has excellent script management tools, security procedures, analysis tool and email distribution tools. You upload your script and Scenechronize uses an intelligent agent to create instant breakdowns. The documents are beautifully formatted. You just right-click on them and save them as PDF files. Any way you look at it, this is going to save you time and money getting set up. It also uses color-coding to help you quickly find what you're looking for.
There are $75 and $150 upgrades for special versions including Team Scheduling and Shorts production. It's all from ease.com, where you'll find several other more-than-basic applications for payroll and accounting and multi-project management … but those are not really what you're interested in.
Another cloud based system is Celtx, where you write your script, and do your breakdowns, schedules and budget all in one environment. It has the advantage of working with mobile apps for iPhone and Android.
There are others, and you can find them on your own. Just be aware that help orgainzing your film project is available in the form of cleverly designed software. It really does simplify the process and help keep you sane. But still, if you're going to be directing, you should consider hiring or conning someone into giving you a hand with it.
Your support group
If you are to survive the process, you will need a friends-and-family support group — people who believe in your project and won't belittle you for being so stupid as to want to make a movie. It is wise to set up this support group deliberately, letting it's members know what to expect. A big chunk of that is “the unexpected.” Explain to them that you will need them be honest with your and help keep you on track. There are many distractions while making a movie, but you have to keep your eye on the task ahead. Your support group an help you do that.
Treat your support group well, don't yell at them, and don't show anger when they tell you the truth about how they feel about your last shot. Ask them for specifics. Don't accept, ”Well I didn't like that last shot, it was too dark for me.” Ask them for details about what turned them off. You don't have to listen to them, but you need to understand their reaction. Others are likely to respond in the same way.
As a writer/producer/director, you will have blind spots. If your ego keeps you from listening to more objective minds, then your picture is likely to be awful and fail and you will have deserved that. That said, remember that you are the creative force. Though you listen and evaluate the opinions of others, you still have to make your own decisions on how you proceed. It's rough, and you're likely to make some serious mistakes. Budget for it … mentally, physically and financially. It's a cosmic irony that the lowest-budget films require the most talent and efficiency to pull off. Big-budget studio films are typically rife with waste and excess, as well as ego control issues, but it all works out in the end. You can't afford that system. The thing that will keep you on track will be communication with your cast and crew.
Communicating is an art. We all do it every day, but most of us do it badly. One of the most destructive things on a set is a director who uses too many generic terms and avoids specifics, hoping someone else will fill in the blanks for him. You've all heard it. “Pull up the light on the thing. You know what I mean.” “No, what?” “You know. The watchacawlit.” It seems like a joke, but it happens all the time.
Another problem is not finishing an idea. People often think far ahead of what they are saying. They half-finish words or leave out words, and they are not at all aware of it, yet you are missing a third of what they are trying to convey.
But most of all, only a small percentage of communication is contained in the words spoken. The nuance is in the body language and use of voice. It's called non-verbal communication, and it's very important. Most of us are completely unaware of our non-verbal messages.
Believe it or not, there are books on the subject, training courses and articulation coaches. Before you direct, find out if you are a decent communicator. It's complicated. How you use your voice, how you treat your crew, and how you state your message all enter in. Here is a free video that will get you thinking. You'll see that these skills will help you at every turn, from selling your ideas to selling your picture. Here are six skills that will vastly improve your communication.
Lower your Stress
Believe it or not, you can actually do something about your stress. It's not rocket science. Stress eats up a neurotransmitter called serotonin. When your serotonin levels drop below a certain point, depression sets in. When that happens, it gets progressively harder to focus. So here are six simple things you can do to relive your stress.
1. Strenuous exercise. Handball, running, tennis, racquetball, mountain climbing or hiking. This kind of activity actually builds up your serotonin levels while burning off stress.
2. Get sleep. Insomnia is common among filmmakers. It's not good. I use OTC melatonin to get me started sleeping, but talk with your doctor. Avoid prescription meds if you can. Melatonin works great for me, but they say it can give some people a headache. I'm not prescribing it, just sayin': get some damn sleep.
3. Meditation. I'm a bit obsessive, so meditation for me was once nearly impossible. That's where you clear your mind of all thought. I can now do it in the snap of a finger. So Google methods of meditation. It lowers stress and increases serotonin. I started with the "falling leaves" meditation. It's fairly easy. Instead of pushing all thoughts out of your head – very hard to do if your are compulsive – you acknowledge each thought, attach it to a leaf and let it blow away. Start by picturing a fall tree with golden leaves. Calm your mind as best you can, and then wait for the first thought. Give it a name and say it in your head three times as the leaf spirals away in the breeze. For example, I hear a truck passing and it distracts me. I attach the sound to a leaf in my mind and say “truck, truck, truck” as I visualize the leaf blowing away. Other forms are less work, but you have to work up to them. Just make meditation a part of your routine. It is not religious in any way.
4. Compartmentalize. Learn to leave work at work and keep home your sanctuary. Do not edit your script at the dinner table. Make a place to work and keep it away from your regular living space. I have an office with a door I can close. I mentally shut out the world when I close that door from the inside. I mentally shut out the film when I close the door from the outside.
5. Learn about interpolated activities.When you reach a block point or your breaking point, stop, no matter how tight the deadline, and find an activity that is as opposite as your work as you can. For example, I always have a hobby of the month. It keeps me sane. I'll be working on my blog post and hit a wall. So I go up to my scent lab and work on a new, signature scent for a male cologne. I have made dozens. Great snob appeal too. An attractive woman says “I love your cologne.” And I say, “Oh thank you, it's one of my creations.”
6. There are other things you can do, but make it a priority to understand yourself and how you react to stress. Take precautions and warn people around you, if necessary. Part of your job is to help them keep their stress levels under control.
Following up on my last post, here is an excellent Photoshop tutorial on creating cinematic images for your movie posters. It's full of great ideas. Use some or all of them to create your iconic image.
I'm working on several projects for this blog pertaining to microbudget film making. For one I'm still talking with successful low budget producers/directors, asking them to share with us what pitfalls, tips and tricks they've discovered.
I've also joined a stock footage group online to see if I can gather enough decent footage to create a compelling into. I intent to steal ideas from some of the best movie and TV intros, like True Detective and Justified. Normally, you would capture short clips live and then integrate them into your title sequence. Developing this sequence can be very expensive if you work with a professional studio. So you want to learn how, or have a friend lean how and DIY. I discovered many things. One is that these groups have you pay a certain amount per month for free access to their video library, many of which now include 4K clips. But there are interesting problems as well as advantages. I'll talk all about them, most likely in my next post.
Wishing all a happy and productive fall. Get out there and shoot some awesome reference footage. You never know where you'll use it.