Surviving Your Directorial Debut

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

Making a feature film is way different from making a short. Making your first feature film is going to be one of the most stressful things you have ever done. No .. it will be the most stressful thing you have ever done. So you damn well better take care of yourself physically and psychologically.

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.

The Process

It pays to keep calm. 
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.

Staying Organized

Let's face it, you may not be the “organized type.” But you can still make a movie. Your gut will tell you to “wing it” and just feel your way through. That is the classic formula for failure.
Film is not a medium that lends itself to muddling through. Micro-budget film requires more organization, not less. Disorganization is a huge money pit.
If you are smart, you will inventory your weaknesses and get them covered. Do not try to be all things. Stick to the parts of moviemaking that you're actually good at, and get others to function in your areas of weakness. Do this deliberately. This is actually the core of your organization strategy.

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.

Get Computerized

Each software package has it's own interface and work flow. Find the one that works best with your brain, or with the brain of the person you put in charge of this stuff.
Chimpanzee is made for low budget filmmakers 


As a beginner, you will want to check out Chimpanzee from Jungle Software. Seriously. It's a reasonably priced application designed specifically for low-budget film makers. It comes with modules that help you do various things. Tasks are color-coded by time of day for the shot, and once you get used to it, you can quickly find what you're looking for. There is strong psychological evidence that color-coding helps creative people who are less than well organized.

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.

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!

Hot Budget Logo 

Hot Budget

This is an AICP (Association of Independent Commercial Producers) budget program. Don't let that stop you. So it's set up for producing commercials? Big deal. Many people have adapted it for documentaries, industrial films and small features. You should be able to use a little mental elbow grease to adapt Hot Budget to your microbudget film production. Download it and check it out.
Another great cloud based system.  


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, 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.

The cloud can be your friend 


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.

If you are going to be a successful director, you have to be articulate. If you're not by now…you're already in trouble. Improving your communication skills will help your entire life.

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.


Apple iPad Pro vs Microsoft Surface Pro: The Battle for Your Briefcase

iPad Pro vs Surface Pro

It had been obvious for a while, but Apple's iPad Pro launch event today made it abundantly clear that the new oversized iPad is gunning directly for Microsoft's Surface Pro. With Apple's new Smart Keyboard attached, the new iPad Pro even looks just like a Surface Pro. And with pricing starting at $799, Apple is angling to match the competition dollar for dollar. If you're thinking about buying a big, powerful tablet to carry with you on your next project, consider these key points of comparison.

1) Nobody will want a $799 iPad Pro. 
Sure, the iPad Pro starts at a relatively wallet-friendly $800 bucks, but take another look at the configuration. The low-end model has just 32 GB of storage on board. Cloud-connected workflow or not, you're going to want to keep at least some of your media on local storage alongside all your apps, and 32 GB isn't going to go very far when you start talking about editing 4K video, as Apple's Phil Schiller did today. The 64 GB on the entry-level Surface Pro 3 is less of an insult to content creators. Go a little upmarket, and the Surface Pro 3 starts to look more attractive. A 128 GB Surface Pro 3 with keyboard and stylus runs $1,029, compared to $1,348 for an iPad Pro with keyboard and Pencil. Advantage: Microsoft.


2) Drawing could be a dealmaker. 
Seriously. Steve Jobs disdained the lowly stylus, but many people working in design, digital painting, and other fields need stylus support. It seems like the Apple Pencil's close integration with Apple's iOS could deliver a truly superior drawing experience on the iPad, that would be a meaningful advantage for a lot of creative pros. Advantage: Apple. 

3) Size matters.
The iPad Pro is thinner and lighter than the Surface Pro 3, which becomes important in a device you're planning to haul around on set or on location all day long. At 0.27 inches thick (vs. 0.36 inches) and 1.57 pounds (vs. 1.76 pounds), the difference doesn't amount to much. But throw in a slightly bigger screen (12.9 inches vs. 12) and higher resolution (2732×2048 vs. 2160×1440) and Apple has Microsoft beat on that score for now. Advantage: Apple.


4) Microsoft makes the next move.
The iPad Pro won't ship until November, which gives Microsoft sufficient time to work on its head-to-head strategy, announcing the Surface Pro 4 and making any pricing adjustments that it deems advantageous. Microsoft will no doubt be looking to give its Surface as many competitive advantages as possible. Advantage: Microsoft. 

We'll call it a draw, at least based on what we know right now. Apple has a chance to make a big impression with performance and usability — or to end up playing catch-up with Microsoft, who did after all get to this market first.

Wes Craven, 1939-2015

Genre film lost one of its icons over the weekend with the passing of Wes Craven at the age of 76. Craven didn't limit himself to horror — he directed Meryl Streep in the inspirational Music of the Heart and made the thriller Red Eye with Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy — but he was best known for scary movies that left a big mark on Hollywood. Craven has plenty of worthwhile films on his resume, but he made three megahits in three different decades, each of which by itself could have been a career-defining moment. Fortunately for moviegoers, Craven was intent on reinventing himself instead of simply working the same material over and over.

Last House on the Left

Last House on the Left (1972)
Championed by Roger Ebert as "a tough, bitter little sleeper of a movie," Last House on the Left was written and directed by Craven and shot in 1971 on a budget of about $90,000. A grindhouse-style thriller with grueling scenes of sexual violence and a graphic revenge plot, it was actually (and improbably!) inspired by an Ingmar Bergman film, The Virgin Spring. That mix of the arthouse and the grindhouse was key to Craven's sensibility. He held a master's degree in philosophy and writing from Johns Hopkins University and was a college professor before he became a filmmaker. Quite difficult to watch and subject to censorship in many countries, Last House on the Left nonetheless set a high bar for exploitation films that its numerous brutal imitators failed to clear.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Craven worked with the template created by John Carpenter in Halloween — a basically realistic portrait of the American suburbs, with a murderous interloper — but pushed it further. Working with a budget of between $1.1 million and $1.8 million (depending on which source you believe), Craven told the story of a killer who stalks his victims and strikes in their dreams, rather than in the bigger world outside. Blurring the distinction between dreams and reality put a creepy spin on the slasher tale. Craven gave Johnny Depp his first screen role in this film and, of course, Robert Englund's performance as the genuinely nasty Freddy Krueger proved iconic.


Scream (1996)
Of all the Elm Street sequels, the only one directed by Craven — 1994's Wes Craven's New Nightmare — is by far the best. Its playful take on the film series (Craven appears on-screen as himself) reads now as a trial run for the massively successful Scream franchise. Scream was actually written by Kevin Williamson, but the material was right in Craven's wheelhouse. He had made a career out of turning the horror genre inside out, and Scream promised to require a deft balancing act between a funny teen comedy and a scary slasher movie. In Craven's hands, it worked. Scream generated huge box-office results and set a template for a new generation of snarky, self-aware youth-oriented horror to follow (including an MTV series of the same title that has its first season finale tomorrow night).

Out of all his contemporaries in the genre — George Romero, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and more — only Craven managed to remain a hugely successful force at the mainstream box office in the 1990s and beyond. His last film as director, Scream 4, was released in 2011. Horror fans will miss him badly.

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Legendary Jerry Lewis Debacle The Day the Clown Cried May Yet Screen


Film buffs agree—Jerry Lewis's 1972 Holocaust film The Day the Clown Cried may be the worst film ever made. That's a qualified "may be," though, since nobody has actually seen the film. That's why it fascinates, all these years later—its reputation for terribleness, coupled with the idea that it will never see the light of day.

But now, buried deep within a routine film festival report in the Los Angeles Times, there is word that the film still exists, and that its camera negative is in good hands. It is, apparently, at the Library of Congress, which has agreed not to screen it "for at least 10 years." Does that mean we'll finally see it in 2025? Who knows? But it's by far the most encouraging sign to date that this weird little piece of film history may finally hit a movie screen.

With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself. But seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object. This was a perfect object. This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is. "Oh My God!" — that's all you can say.
— Harry Shearer, quoted in Spy magazine's still-definitive 1992 piece on the film

What's the big deal with The Day the Clown Cried? As the title may clue you in, it's not the kind of lightweight romp that Lewis was known for. Conceived by Joan O'Brien (a publicist who had worked for Ronald Reagan, Elvis Presley, and Mario Lanza) and co-screenwriter with Los Angeles TV critic Charles Denton, the script was rewritten by Lewis to make the lead character more sympathetic (and more of an alter-ego for Lewis himself). That might have been a bad idea, given that the story is about Helmut, a German circus clown (played by Lewis) who, imprisoned by the Nazis after mocking Hitler, is employed to entertain Jewish children on their way to the gas chambers.

If you're having a hard time believing that such a film was scripted, let alone shot, you can actually read the script online.

It was a rough shoot, with money drying up partway through and Lewis financing it out of his own pockets. The project's legal status was murky. There was no money to finish the film after the shoot. The screenwriters, unhappy with Lewis's changes to the script, reportedly blocked the film's release, saying Lewis's option on the material had expired before production began. The film has only been seen by a precious few insiders as a rough cut, though Lewis himself has expressed interest, in rare comments on the matter, in finally allowing the film to be shown in some form.

It's unclear what may have transpired behind the scenes to free up the original negative, which was said to have been kept in Stockholm for decades as security by a company still owed money on the film. Jerry Lewis is 89 years old now; perhaps he figures that in another 10 years he'll either be gone from this world or simply beyond caring what anyone thinks of his most controversial film. Either way, the prospect is tantalizing for movie buffs. Who can resist being able to finally, after more than 40 years of pure speculation, have an informed opinion about one of the most notorious films ever made?

Grab your Audience on a Microbudget: Posters, Trailers, and Opening Titles

An outstanding low budget movie poster

For a microbudget film, your poster and trailer will be your main selling tools. A professional look is important for credibility and a good flow is necessary to keep people watching. After studying hundreds of trailers and talking with people in the business, I've condensed my observations into a few simple rules. Mind you, rules are made to be broken—but only when you know what you're doing. Intelligent rule-breaking is something I approve of, but these will get you started. The big key is that you have to be creative. To that end, I offer some suggestions on creativity, a subject with which I am highly familiar, having taught classes in creativity here and abroad.

The Poster

Posters used to be paper. They were placed on billboards and street corners and bus stops. Trailers used to be seen as pre-show entertainment in movie theaters. Now they are everywhere on the web. Anybody, anywhere can see your trailer if you promote it well. Your poster will pop up on Google images over and over if you get it out there.

Your movie poster must be designed to accomplish two things: first, to impress potential sales agents and distributors; and second, to sell tickets. These go hand in hand. A good design will accomplish both things—so focus on selling tickets.


To do that you have to make your images compelling and fit the feel and mood of your movie. (See the Sinister poster above for an excellent example of a mood-setting image.) Never promise anything not delivered by your film. And, perhaps most of all, hire a professional to create your poster. They will give it a look and quality you are unlikely to be able to produce on your own. You should, however, be able to critique their work and hone their output to your needs.

To that end, here are a few rules that I suggest you follow.

Know what movie posters look like. They have a general form (by genre) and you will do best to stick with that while contributing your own creativity.

Consider using photos, but pro poster designs usually involve a professional artist who paints the lead characters in an idealized way (see the Maggie poster above). You can achieve something similar at far lower cost by using auto-paint tools in Corel Painter, Adobe Photoshop or any of the sketch programs available for free or a few dollars on iPad or Android.

Here is an example done in Photoshop merely applying the “Cutout” filter. An easy photoshop adjustement 
That said, focus on the story, not the stars. Your key actors are most likely unknowns, so don't spotlight them on the poster as if they were major stars. It's tacky. Don't promise their names on the poster, just in the credits.

Low Budget film poster done well.

Find the main theme of your story and create something evocative based on that. Use bold strokes and keep the title large. Back in the 60s, they went overboard with that. Just use good taste.  

There is evidence that the best movie posters today are fairly simple, not cluttered with text. For most movies, few colors and clean lines will serve you well. 

Genre is important. Each genre has a general style of poster. I know your movie crosses genres, but if you don't pick one an run with it, you'll confuse audiences. If it's drama with horror, I'd go with horror because it's better defined.

Remember your movie poster will do best when it is art that sells. You want it to grab attention, hold it, and cause the viewer to investigate. If possible, tell them where they can find the movie. Today, that may not be at the local theater. It could be Netflix.

Hire a professional graphic designer to do the job. Seriously. Give them credit and pay them well.

Make your Photoshopping invisible. Here are two really bad supposedly pro movie posters, one for Bangkok Dangerous and one for Heavy Petting. They are so poorly Photoshopped that I can't believe they were released.
One Really Bad Movie Poster! This could have been a good poster 

This one could have been a good poster …

Make sure your poster helps tell the story. Here's one that is scary to look at. Venus is a heartwarming movie with brilliant performances. This poster will make you think it's about zombies. The photoshop eyes on O'Toole are just wrong. Really bad Poster 

That's a really bad poster.

The Trailer

Here are my nutshell rules for creating a trailer for your movie.

  1. Make your trailer honest. Don't overhype or underhype your film. If you rev up audiences and they are let down by the film, you will pay on your next outing.
  2. Give a concise teaser about your story, or at least a feel for what your movie is about.
  3. Don't give the story away. Entice, but don't inform to much.
  4. Make it visually interesting. Here you have to be creative.
  5. Only mention the most key people in the trailer and save the all the executive producers and other key people for the title sequence in your film.
  6. Your trailer is a synopsis of your story. Compile some of your best shots. Highlight your intense performance moments and your beautiful golden-hour photography.
  7. If you have movie reviews from your festival showings, now may be the time to present them.
  8. Pay attention to genre conventions so that you appeal to the right audience.
  9. Consider hiring a narrator with a great voice. They are available online.
  10. Your trailers should usually not exceed 2'30" in length
  11. Keep it moving. A boring trailer will kill your movie. It needs beat. Hard to explain, but every great trailer moves with it's own rhythmic flow. emphasized by the music and dialog.
  12. Make your trailer with full cinematic quality indicative of the film itself.

Bridge to Terabithia is a nice-looking trailer. It's just entirely misleading about what the movie is about. It is painted as a light enchanting fantasy, but the actual movie is very dark. 

And here is one of my favorite recent trailers. After seeing it I had to go see the movie.

In Filmmaker magazine, Stephen Garrett has written an excellent and detailed overview of the trailer design process.

The Title Sequence

Some people think you should do the bare minimum with your opening titles because they feel the movie should speak for itself. To an extent, I agree. However, if you have the skills—even minimal skills in Adobe After Effects and other film editing software—you can create an interesting title sequence that will pull your audience into the story. I recommend doing that if you can. I also recommend keeping your opening credits very short. People want to get into the movie. In fact, I recommend interspersing opening credits with setup action when possible. The key is to keep them interesting and get past them quickly. Save most of your credits for the end.

Here are my rules for title sequences.

  1. The order of mentioning people in your opening sequence is not set in stone. Unless you have contractual obligations or union mandates (unlikely in a microbudget film), you can be creative. Many great films open with just the title and save the rest for the end titles. But there is a famous story about George Lucas getting fined a quarter of a million bucks for failing to place director Irving Kershner's credit at the head of The Empire Strikes Back, saving all credits for the end titles. Lucas quit the DGA over this dispute. So be aware of your obligations.
  2. To keep things moving, you can pop up credits unobtrusively throughout the movie's opening if you like. You can even start them five minutes in and string them slowly out with brief pop-ups through the next 5 minutes.
  3. The first thing you should display is the film's title, of course. Don't be shy. Use big letters or some interesting convention like handwritten titles or animated titles. Just use good genre sense so that the title goes with the genre.
  4. Next you should do a brief mention, one at a time, of your main cast. Your stars. Since they are probably unknowns, you don't want to hype them too much. Audiences can tell when you're trying too hard to look bigger than you are. They don't like it. Just keep it professional
  5. If you have some cameos by name actors, which is fairly common these days, add a credit reading something like “With Freeman Slaughter as Prince Kalifa.” If you have a name actor with a decent part, but not a starring roll, just list them as your final cast member in slightly larger text: “And William Shackmier as Don Diego”
  6. A very quick mention of your writer, story source (based on…), casting director, composer, production designer, wardrobe, etc., as you feel you need it. You won't have a lot of these.
  7. If you have more than one role, don't mention yourself. Just give yourself the director's title and be happy with it. Otherwise, you can end up looking very high-school.
  8. Usually the director's name comes last. You should time it so that the movie really gets going after we see that name. What works nicely is to have the director's name and then a sudden jolt into critical action that leads us into the story.
  9. You can have dialog over the titles. This is getting fairly popular. You'll even see black screens, or just a tiny light or vague movement beneath lead-in dialog. The videogame Alien Isolation opens with the familiar voice of Ripley over credits with some simple abstract light effects in the background. It is very effective.
  10. Most of all, be tastefully creative. Don't go crazy. Audiences in general don't react well to over-the-top stuff or pretentious presentations. More about creativity next.

Coming Up with Creative Ideas
If you just sit down and try to be creative, you may very well suffer brain-freeze. Creativity demands a free flow of ideas without filters. Our whole lives, we are taught to filter our thinking processes to keep them as conventional as possible. Some individuals never take well to the process and tend to think “outside the box.” Most of us are at least halfway in the box. That keeps us from coming up with unique and interesting visual ideas. There are several exercises we can all do to flex our creative muscles. My old friend E. Paul Torrance developed the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. He is known as the Father of Modern Creativity. Paul talked with me about stretching our creative capacity by exercising. For example he said: “Okay, Peter, how many uses can you think of for a match box?” My mind froze. All I could think of was to put matches in and to save razor blades in. Paul said he had some people come up with literally hundreds of uses. I felt like a failure and that didn't help. The idea is to relax as much as possible and let your mind run on without filters. Fellow creativity explorer J. P. Gilford came up with the alternate uses test that Paul had challenged me with.

Try this: get comfortable and try to clear your mind by closing your eyes and visualizing a cloud of bright color. Start at blue and let it morph to yellow then orange and red and green. It may take some time, but focus on making that happen. When you can change the cloud color at will, you are ready. Next visualize a paper clip and alternate uses for it. Don't evaluate any of your mental responses, just write them down. For example:

  1. bookmark
  2. replace screw in eyeglasses
  3. make letters with it.
  4. Clean fingernails with it
  5. push “reset” button on your computer
  6. hold papers together
  7. in-a-pinch earrings
  8. toothpick
  9. fuse substitute
  10. lock pick
  11. probe
  12. live mouse prod
  13. for scratching designs into soap
  14. for making wire sculpture
  15. puncture tool
  16. mini tube reamer
  17. keyboard cleaner (get out the crap around the keys)
  18. etc.

See how many you can come up with in exactly two minutes. Notice that some of mine are not very good ideas. They don't really make a lot of sense, but I put them down anyway. This is a form of brainstorming. I recommend you select three or four common household objects, like a marble, a pencil, or that matchbox. See how many alternate uses you can come up with in two minutes. Do this three times over three days. See if your score improves.

Once you have opened up your mind by removing filters, get together with some creative friends and start throwing ideas around. Tell everyone not to pre-judge the ideas, just throw them out there, no matter how stupid they seem.

If all goes well, ideas will begin to flow. Don't write them down. It will interrupt the flow. Instead, record the sessions on your smartphone for later analysis.

What is most likely to happen is you will get a ton of really bad Ideas and a few great ones. Do your filtering at least a day after your brainstorming sessions. Pick out the best ideas and begin refining them into visual statements.

Here is my very fast attempt at putting together a no-cost title sequence. I need about five more hours on it. This was an an hour and fifteen minutes to build the video and an hour and a half to build the audio, which is in places 15 layers deep. I hope you don't notice.

My Experiment

You can brainstorm all by yourself once you've opened up your mind. I started with a film idea concept that came to me after reading about panspermia, the idea that earth may have been seeded with life from alien spores. So I started recording as I thought of visual ideas that might express that. I had crazy ideas that would be too expensive, like an animated sequence, VFX sequences of an asteroid flying through space—well, I could actually do that myself since I have the software, equipment and background. But I wanted to keep it simple and cheap.

Narrowing It Down

I wrote down the criteria I need to use in selecting an opening sequence idea. This same process is used for the trailer, as well. After about 20 ideas were recorded, and after much pondering, I rejected 19 of them and decided to go with an abstract representation of spores evolving and throw in some other microscopic life. How to do this? Animation was out of the question. Too expensive. So I searched and found some public-domain footage of spores and other creepy microscopic life. It was pretty ugly. The spores were kind of boring, so I added a few microscopic clips that have scary, creepy-looking creatures in them. Having After Effects skills, I decided to use these clips as a basis for some AE manipulation.

Try Some Manipulation

I looked at the black-and-white footage without much hope at first. Then I started applying filters and added color. I spent about an hour experimenting with different looks. Eventually I applied Glass Filter, Find Edges, Cycorefx CC MrSmoothie, CC Blobbylize, and Color Balance, along with RE:Vision Twixtor to slow it down. The result is a highly stylized background clip against which I can play some dramatic music and pop up titles as needed. Sure, it could be better. But this is quick and free and serves my purpose. Importantly, it doesn't look too amateurish (in my biased opinion). It was originally in widescreen format, but I did the final render and screwed it up, no time for redo…you get the idea.

However you complete the work, brainstorming alone or with fellow filmmakers is always the place to start. If you know you're not creative by nature, try the exercises. If they don't help, find two or three creative people with vision who will know what looks good and can come up with some original thinking in the design


Well, we're pretty far into microbudget filmmaking and I'm hoping some of you are doing good work. I'd love to see your work when it's ready. Perhaps we can even feature some of the better ones here on my blog. We have a lot of industry readers, so you can get some nice exposure. The next blog is critical. It's about directing. I've been talking with some outstanding microbudget film makers about how they managed to film such wonderful, professional-looking movies—I'm talking movies that are getting theatrical release and film festival kudos.

I know it's hard being a filmmaker, and you often go unrewarded. It is my intent to help you get to where you need to be so you can get serious recognition as a filmmaker on a broad scale. In case you missed them, check out the archive of my earlier posts on filmmaking on a budget.


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