Making It – Without Hollywood

This past December I visited Los Angeles for the first time, and the trip proved all the hype about relocating to LA to make it as a filmmaker rings true… in some regard. Making it work outside of LA though, that’s also not so-far-fetched either in 2019.

We all tend to identify LA as the city of stars. There’s Rodeo Drive. The major studios and agencies. The Staples Center with Jack and Snoop. Hollywood Boulevard. Even the Hollywood Sign for crying out loud!

And if you’ve never been to LA, yes, it is all that and more.

Be weary, however, of the superficial glare that is sure to smear the eye of most of today’s millennial pool of hopeful business owners and influencers. The itch for a following will surely drag you down, which is why focusing on an area of emphasis is an important first step.

ARE YOU A WRITER, DIRECTOR, PRODUCER, ACTOR, OR ALL OF THE ABOVE?

Most people nowadays want to make videos for a viewing audience that will gain a following or just to have something to post on the Internet. Regardless, there are stages to every piece of content.

And it all starts with a writer.

During the 2013 Oscars, a beautiful young lady — whose name is escaping me right now — stood at the microphone to present the award for Best Screenplay. In her opening speech she said, “Writers, we know you are the backbone of this industry, and without you, the movies we see would never be made.”

That quote stuck with me and inspired me to become a screenwriter, but it didn’t just happen over night.

It took me countless hours researching screenwriters of the past and present. Studying different types of screenplays. From teleplays to feature films, formatting to how to write a treatment, character development to natural dialogue and character voice — and that’s just to name a few topics of research over the past six years. So if you’r’e looking to be an overnight Aaron Sorkin, it’s possible… but good luck, partner. You’re gonna need it.

Being a good writer either comes natural or takes routine. If it comes natural, figuring out the next project is never an issue because your mind doesn’t stop finding new ideas from every day life. If you’re on the other end of the spectrum where writing requires you being strapped to a keyboard, but you’re a natural born leader keen on video production, then directing or producing may be your calling.

Hollywood has a special place carved in studios for producers and directors alike. Both titles will give you direct access to studio executives, and a lot of money if you know how to curate a good film.

Where the two areas of expertise differ is that the producer usually runs the show and organizes everything or everyone during pre and post production while the director reigns over the production set and final cut of the film. The only thing more sought out by Hollywood execs than a good director is a good, young writer and director. Being a dual-gun holder at their disposal only increases your worth when you get compared to the other big shots down the line.

Simply put, if you plan to write your own movies and increase your chances of seeing them play out on the big screen exactly how you put it to paper, then channel your inner Billy Walsh and go for it! Agents and execs for the big studios and networks will savor any and every opportunity to lock down a writer/director with a promising future.

Producers are also extremely vital to every production process. They can range from an executive producer (the guy with deep pockets) to associate producers who literally just stand in and oversee what’s going on when the studio head can’t make it. The latter is what most aspiring producers envision to be. You know, the fast-talking, well-connected magic makers who seek cast and crew, set schedules, and ultimately culminate the project from script to film.

If neither a writer, director, or producer are up your alley but you want to make it in the film industry, give acting a try.

Acting is probably the most relative skill any Joe Shmo off the street can pick up or do. The craft depends on a fearless approach when it comes to being on camera and pretending, which is personified by social media influencers all over the world on a day-to-day basis.

In addition to the paid camera time, it’s no secret acting also can provide fame. If you don’t mind paparazzi and the occasional stalker, then going into acting for the fame is all for you. Just be warned — If you’re in it for the fame, you should probably reconsider your career path.

Working in the film industry can consist of a wide variety of jobs including all of the roles mentioned so far, and also for anyone with just general interest in creating. There are a multitude of jobs for animation artists, graphic designers, editors, builders, carpenters, landscapers, pretty much any workmanship you can think of can be used in a movie production. So if you haven’t already, reflect on your strengths and weaknesses and focus on whatever burning passion inspired you to make movies.

THE POWER OF THE INTERNET

Back in the old days, like in the 90s, aspiring filmmakers of the time did not have the same resources we have in modern times. And this is because of one thing and one thing only — the Internet.

The Internet has evolved from the size of a box car to a handheld device we can’t sustain life without. With all the different apps to network and socialize with friends, family, and strangers near, far, and in between — the Internet is the single most useful tool for any aspiring filmmaker based outside of LA.

With just a quick Google search, you can find the contact information of literary managers, producers seeking scripts, agents in need of clients, and what you can submit to catch the eye of representation. And it doesn’t stop there. If you scour Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter for industry connects, you’re sure to also find whomever you’re looking for if you look hard enough.

Of course, not all representation will be easy to get ahold of without a foot already in the door or via a silver lining like IMDBpro.

IMDB is known for its database of film reviews, casts and crews, and other movie-related quick facts about almost every movie ever made. In addition to all of that though, the site also offers a “pro” account that comes at a discounted rate if you are an Amazon Prime customer. The pro account gives you direct access to the contact information of agents, agencies, producers, production companies, actors, actresses, writers for both TV and film, and even social media influencers as well.

So if you’re unsure of where to invest your time and money when it comes to gathering information about industry people that would actually be worth while, IMDBpro and social media are my go-to contact havens I would highly recommend checking out.

Film festival and screenplay competition sites are also great online resources available to the non-LA-er.

There are different ways to enter the festivals, but the most seamless entry method is through Without A Box or Film Freeway. These two platforms serve as a database for upcoming festivals that accept original and spec material from individuals looking to showcase their work beyond the local realm, and whom also may be looking to break into the industry from the outside in.

If you’re just getting your feet wet and have a minimal budget, I recommend entering local or lower tier festivals as a start. Once you’ve got a project that is the second-coming of Reservoir Dogs or The Sixth Sense, aim for bigger festivals that offer international exposure or are Oscar-qualifiers to increase your chances of rubbing shoulders with representation that would be interested in investing in what you have to offer.

Not to mention, the entry fees for film festivals are dependent on how early you submit your project, which can help you with setting deadlines. But don’t jump at the bit for every festival you see out there. Some festivals are scams designed to steal your money or identity, which is why it’s important to do your research through Without A Box or Film Freeway to get an idea of what the festival is all about.

But if you’re still hesitant on showcasing your work in a festival after all research is complete — well, what are you waiting for? Get your feet wet on the film festival circuit and make it happen!

IN SUMMARY

Regardless of your motivation for film, the idea of living in LA to make a career out of being a filmmaker is turning into an after-thought with each passing day. There are ample opportunities to be innovative in your marketing approach due to the accessibility granted to all of us in today’s digital age. This in turn makes breaking into Hollywood as an outsider much more likely than ever before.

So while my trip to LA this past Winter was everything I thought it would be and more, the visit ultimately encouraged me to defeat the odds and to continue my upstart based outside of LA. Of course, it is too far fetched to assume one can break into Hollywood without getting to know someone with direct access to the higher-ups who run the town, but the days of soliciting your query letters and standing outside of Warner Bros in hopes of finding representation are nearing an inevitable end.

The film industry is ever-changing just like any other industry, and if you’re truly dedicated to your craft, your time will come no matter where you are or how you market yourself.

A Guide To Low Budget Filmmaking: Part II

Making a film is no easy task and it sure is an expensive venture, but many budget friendly options exist for us abundantly hopeful millennials trying to produce an independently financed project.

A week ago I posted a blog titled A Guide To Low Budget Filmmaking: Part I in which I touched on the different factors that make up a production budget and some tips on how to plan for producing a low budget film. Now I will go over the countless equipment options available for anyone looking to get the most out of their gear without using up their entire bank account.

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First and foremost, when it comes to production equipment I highly recommend renting equipment over buying, especially when you’re working with a constrained budget. So although I will touch on the “what if’s” of purchasing equipment, I do not recommend spending thousands of dollars on equipment unless you are a working professional in the industry or plan to be a DP.

But this is a guide to low budget filmmaking, so let’s start with the most obvious option for anyone reading this post – renting equipment.

RENTING

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After you have put together your script, figured out all the necessary planning, and confirmed a passionate cast and crew to embark on this journey with, you are ready to choose your equipment.

Again, I highly recommend seeking a rental company to get your gear and here is why.

My first gig, if you will, was an internship as a production assistant with a production company based out of Florida. The company was started out of the CEO’s living room. So although by the time I came along they were already producing content for international companies, the majority of the business came from the equipment and space my internship offered its clients. In the production room they had all types of gear from multiple continuous lighting setups to high quality professional cameras – all of which was rented.

The point is: you will make and save more money renting than you would purchasing your core pieces. Period.

Now that you are convinced renting equipment is the better option (and if you still aren’t, oh well), it’s time to choose who or where you will be renting from. There are varying options available depending on where you are located. But I am small town guy.

Since starting my filmmaking adventures I have lived in BFE, West Virginia and currently reside in the vibrant city of Tampa, Florida.

When in West Virginia, the options are limited per the minimal selection of creative minds and industry-related businesses in the area. Being a Broadcast Journalism student in college, I was able to rent equipment from my university. But when I was unable to lock down gear for an extended period of time, I would seek out a fellow film club member to loan me what they could.

Down in Florida, I was able to find a reliable rental company 30 minutes from my house with just a quick Google search.

With this in mind, if you have limited production resources due to your location, there is no need to fear – you can order your gear! Most production rental places offer delivery options.

Just open up Google and have at it.

And before you go too crazy looking up the latest and greatest DSLR, it is best to do a little homework and research what specific gear you need.

GEAR

I was film equipment illiterate before I worked with my internship. Two years later, I understand the full capabilities of my camera and all the gear that I own and always compile an equipment checklist with all the gear I will need for a project before I get started. Here is a quick run-down of the essentials:

Camera – Lens – Microphone – Lighting – Stabilizer/Tri-Pod – Source Monitor – Extra Batteries.

CAMERA

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When choosing a camera be mindful of the two C’s – compatibility and capability.

I use a Panasonic Lumix GH4, the little brother to the potent GH5, and it rivals any 4K professional camera when you put a badass lens on it. For this reason, I always recommend researching all DSLR options prior to settling for a higher end professional camera.

You get the most bang for your buck with a DSLR, and your bank account will thank you in the long run when you realize you have save enough to invest in a badass lens! 

LENS

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I have learned that a good lens will make for great content, and a great lens will give you remarkable content.

No matter if you are using a DSLR or professional camera, I recommend using a prime or zoom lens depending on your camera skills or how experimental you are feeling for said project.

The difference in the two is purely a zoom lens will allow you to zoom closer to your subject without having to move the camera, whereas a prime lens requires you to move closer and manually operate the focus.

MICROPHONES

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When it comes to microphones I usually use a shotgun microphone due to its cost efficiency compared to a wireless lavalier mic.  I recommend purchasing a shotgun microphone over renting if your project calls for live audio.

Shotgun microphones provide excellent omnidirectional audio quality and can connect directly to the camera or boom pole with just a simple connection. However, their directional-specific audio focus is the one flaw of most shotgun mics.

But if you are doing any projects that require a lot of moving camera or long shots, I highly recommend a lav microphone any day of the week.

Lav microphones provide excellent quality at all times and are typically the industry standard. However I will warn you – they are expensive. I would still recommend a shotgun microphone whether you plan to rent or buy one.

LIGHTING

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Next is what makes shooting any film possible – lighting.

Lights, are first and foremost, not cheap. Doesn’t matter what kind – any continuous light source is going to cost you a pretty penny and for valid reason.

You can’t record anything without it!

In addition to this obvious fact, lighting is typically what separates novice film work from a seasoned project. If you are able to track down a nice set of LED panels or LED portrait lights, which run anywhere in the $50-150 range for a weekend rental period, that should give you the adequate artificial you need.

When lighting your scene be mindful of two aspects of the scene – subject and background. You want to make sure your subject is well-lit and the background is lit just enough to distinguish the setting or any moving pieces you want included in the scene.

Keeping a steady tone throughout the film is also key. By using tungsten or florescent filters you can dictate the mood of your project much more dramatically compared to relying heavily on the camera settings.

Most first time and inexperienced filmmakers are unaware of the power of artificial lighting. Plain and simple, artificial light will make your project noticeably better.

But before you go get yourself a budget-friendly lighting kit, I will warn you – lighting setups are tedious. Try not to spend too much time setting up your lights or you run the risk of losing your natural light, which creates the need for more artificial light.

Before you know it, you will have spent more time discussing lighting setups than you have shooting the scene.

The key to using low budget equipment is making the most out of what you have, not wasting it. Keep that in mind when you are orchestrating your lighting setup and it will make for a far more seamless part of the filmmaking process.

STABILIZERS and TRIPODS

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Another key element to a smooth production is the incorporation of a rig or stabilizer of some sort to hold the camera steady and to add variety to the angles you shoot from.

If you are reading this post, and you have not already done so, it is mandatory for any videographer to have a tripod. They are just as essential as a lens when it comes to filming.

A steady cam makes for a far more pleasurable viewing experience for all. However, not having a tripod handy will derail the quality of the final cut because unlike most production flaws you can see on camera, shaky footage is one flaw you cannot eliminate without compromising the quality of the rest of the film.

Because of this, I also recommend purchasing a stabilizer of some sort even if you already have a tripod.

Stabilizers are considered any type of device that will balance the camera at whatever angle you desire without having to worry about shaky hands causing a headache in post production.

After many infuriating editing experiences due to handheld footage, I finally gave in and purchased a DJI Ronin M stabilizer. Of course, you don’t have to spend $800 on a stabilizer to ensure you shoot quality footage. There are other options.

Monopods and various types of other handheld stabilizers are out there for a lot cheaper. Regardless of how much money you plan to spend, you will need to invest in a stabilizer of some sort.

You can rent or purchase a stabilizer. How often you use a stabilizer instead of a tripod is solely up to you. But make no mistake – you will need to invest in a tripod as part of your everyday arsenal.

Stabilizers are nice, but my favorite little gadget to use in the field is a source monitor.

FIELD MONITOR

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A field monitor allows you to connect the video feed from the camera to an external monitor to view footage as it is being shot. Although a nice field monitor will only run you about $100-200, I recommend connecting your cell phone or tablet to the camera if you have a good size screen on your device.

I was turned onto the idea of having a monitor on set while working at my internship. We had a 20-inch monitor I was in charge of building whenever setups changed. The monitor connected directly to the camera, and when I was lucky enough to find a minute to chill with the producers, they would let me watch the live feed.

Setting up the monitor as a job duty was inspiring, to say the least.

Since then I have invested in a mount that will attach my cell phone to the stabilizer. The mount is convenient and using a cell phone is the best option for you if you have a large screen, but using a tablet as your field monitor will also work.

The cell phone is nice, but if you have a tablet and an extra set of hands to hold it while you are operating the camera – use the tablet.

If you have a cellular device or tablet and you haven’t taken it out to experiment as a source monitor, do yourself a favor and bring it next time. It will make shooting much easier as well as intensify the production viewing process.

What will also make shooting easier for everyone, or make you look like a complete novice if you forget them, are EXTRA BATTERIES!

EXTRA BATTERIES!

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You need these. Doesn’t matter the production schedule for the day or the type of camera you use, you are going to need at least one backup battery for all your battery-powered equipment.

And yes, you can rent these as well.

Now that you have a basic checklist to go off of when you are planning your next shoot, you should be more prepared than ever to finance the project on a budget.

AND DON’T FORGET…

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One of the most overlooked aspects of novice filmmaking is if the concept calls for a single-camera or multi-camera setup.

Just as the terms suggest, single-camera productions utilize only one camera at a time while multi-camera calls for a more than one camera at a time. Most narrative films are shot using a single camera as it allows for the setting to be anywhere you want, not just the studio.

On the other hand, your Monday-Friday sitcoms are typically shot using a multiple cameras as they are produced in a studio.

Using only one camera does make for a longer production due to the various camera angles needed for each scene. However, if you are producing a film on a low budget, you most likely will not have access to an additional camera.

Don’t fret over the limited access to only one camera. As I stated before, a good camera and a great lens will go a long way in the editing room.

In addition to the camera setup, your location selection will also be limited when on a budget.

Moving from one location to the next costs time and money. You will waste time transporting equipment and setting up at the location, and you will waste money just getting from location to location. To put it simply – if you have to leave your house, it is going to cost you.

With that in mind, keep it to one or two locations if you are on a tight schedule or are looking for a sure-fire way to save a couple dollars during production.

Another cost efficient way to carry out the project is by incorporating natural lighting over artificial lighting.

As I stated previously, artificial lighting will cost you some extra money as well as rob you of precious time. In my opinion, natural light is the best light for any project because of how the light hits your subject.

Artificial lighting can be harsh at times and a pain in the ass to get the right amount of light exactly how you want it. By way of natural light you eliminate imminent harsh lighting and give your subjects a more natural look, if you will.

To keep it short and sweet – use natural lighting whenever available and artificial lighting as a backup when you are shooting interior scenes.

Now that I have shared this information with you, do not take me for a film production wizard bestowing the ultimate guide to making the next Oscar-winning short. There are a ton of ways to go about financing, researching, and obtaining your equipment.

I hope what I have shared puts the idea of low budget filmmaking in a more realistic perspective, and at the very least has inspired you to get out there and defeat the odds.

Wayne Gretzsky said it best – “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

I look forward to seeing your film and feel free to email me at roger.turner@upstreamfilms.tv if you think of any other tricks of the trade that would help the next low budget filmmaker.

Happy filming!