The official poster for my upcoming short film Hangry has been released. I’m currently in post-production and will be delivering a rough cut to the Memphis Film Prize on June 12. If Hangry is selected to the Top 10, it will screen along with the other nine finalists during the first weekend of August. In the meantime, be sure to Follow on Twitter and Like the official Facebook page to stay up to date.
You want to make a short film, so, you text a few friends and ask for their help. Then, you reach out to others in your network to see who might be interested and slowly start to build your team.
But did you know that HOW you go about building your cast and crew will have either a positive or negative impact on the overall production experience AND the final film?
Let’s say that when you first contact people you simply ask, “Hey, want to help me make a film?” and they say “Yes.” Then you approach 10-20 more people with the same pitch and they all say “Yes.” At this point you’re feeling pretty good. You have enough hands on set to help out with everything you’ll need during production.
When everyone arrives on set for the first day of filming no one is EXACTLY sure what they’re supposed to be doing, what they were supposed to bring, who they’re supposed to be helping, and what their essential function is. You have enough people on set to get the job done, but confusion reigns because specifics are unclear. This can affect morale, slow the shoot down, and ultimately compromise the production quality of the final film.
Now, imagine you build your volunteer crew another way? Instead of asking, “Do you want to help?” say this, “I’m producing a short film and we really need someone who can oversee continuity. Can you do that for us?”
Give EVERYONE a specific job to do, so he/she will know exactly what to prepare for, what to bring, and what to do while on set.
The number of pre-production meetings you schedule should be in direct proportion to the scope and complexity of the shoot. You don’t need to meet every single day (Remember, these are people volunteering for your film, so be respectful of their time), but you do need to meet to review on going action items and to ensure every one is on the same page. For my latest short film Hangry, I met with my crew four times prior to the shoot.
PROVIDE A SHOT LIST AND PRODUCTION SCHEDULE
The crew likes to know what’s going on so they have an idea of what they’re working toward and what needs to be accomplished each day. Take the time to make a shot list and production schedule and distribute both to your crew.
Set aside time for a tech scout with your key department heads. This will give them the opportunity to see the space and ask any logistical questions pertinent to the shoot, like where to load in and store gear, what’s allowed/not allowed while in the space, where will all departments set up, etc?
Just because you may be working on a no-budget short doesn’t mean that the set can’t be (or shouldn’t be) professional. Everyone’s experience while on set will be much more positive if you go about preparing the right way.
Have any thoughts to add? Leave them in the Comments.
Right now I’m in pre-production on a new short film that I’ll be directing for The Memphis Film Prize. Hangry is a comedy about one elderly man’s attempt to right a lunchtime wrong. The shoot is scheduled for May 4-5 in Collierville, TN. In addition to an actor to play the main role of The Reverend, I will need extras to portray staff and residents of the nursing home location. If you would like to participate, please use the sign up link below or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I had an opportunity to attend this month’s Shoot & Splice, a monthly filmmaker forum presented by IndieMemphis and Crosstown Arts. The guest speaker was cinematographer Gabe Mayhan, whose reel includes shorts, features, documentaries, and broadcast projects. During a Q&A session, Gabe showed samples of his work while discussing his approach and thought process on each project. Here are some of the takeaways from his presentation that hopefully will help you on your next film project.
FILMMAKING IS COLLABORATIVE - There are many people on set who all contribute to the final product. Gabe was quick to point out how he couldn’t have done his job properly without a solid production designer who made sure that each set felt authentic.
HAVE CONVERSATIONS WITH THE DIRECTOR EARLY IN THE PROCESS - Go through the script with the director. Get an idea of his/her vision. Gabe pointed out that with the feature Antiquities, the director wanted the entire film to “feel like Grandma’s pillow.” That led to a very warm look overall. It also meant that Gabe couldn’t rely on the existing fluorescent lighting at the antique store location. He needed practicals to motivate his tungsten approach. And so he discussed his needs with the production designer (see #1 above) and they were able to secure low-hanging tungsten fixtures and add them to the set (see image below).
DIAGRAM EACH SET UP - Gabe admitted that this technique doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s something he does for each project. He will go through the shot list and plot a diagram for each camera set up, noting the placement of actors, the camera, and all G&E. That way, on the day of the shoot, there will be no questions as to what gear is coming off the truck. Gabe noted that for low-budget indie features, you will be working on a tight schedule (somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-25 days; sometimes 10-12) and diagramming each shot in pre-production will save the crew a lot of time on set.
EYE LINE SAYS A LOT ABOUT CHARACTER AND RELATIONSHIPS - For Antiquities, Gabe kept the main character’s eye line very close to camera, but always kept the eye lines of other characters further away from camera. Although it drove the Script Supervisor crazy, Gabe said this was a conscious choice on his part to subtly bring the viewer more into the main character’s head space. If you want to read more about eye line in the context of documentary filmmaking, read this post.
USE MORE WIDE ANGLE LENSES - Gabe said that he rarely shoots on a lens longer than 40mm. He touted the benefits of using wide angle lenses, like how they can help the cinematographer create great reveal shots (For an example, see the shot at 7:23 below). Wide angle lenses are also great for establishing spacial relationships between characters and communicating a sense of place. They put the viewer directly in the world that the characters inhabit.
CONSIDER SCREEN SIZE WHEN USING CLOSE-UPS - With today’s digital distribution models, people are watching more films on their personal devices, meaning that filmmakers can get away with super tight close-ups. However, if your film screens at a theater, bear in mind that a close-up that looked good on a TV or tablet might feel uncomfortable to an audience on a 50 ft. screen. Therefore, consider how your film will primarily be viewed when making your shot list and frame accordingly.
USE TECHNOLOGY TO YOUR ADVANTAGE - Apps like Helios are invaluable tools for predicting where the sun will be at any given time of the day. This will help not only your exterior setups, but also interiors where outdoor lighting is an important element in the scene.
Overall, it was an excellent Q&A session with a lot of valuable information for current and aspiring cinematographers.