I’ve been working on film sets for 22 years. I’ve worked as a director, cinematographer, production designer, producer, actor, camera assistant, and production assistant. I’ve worked on big budget projects like Carlito’s Way. I’ve worked on movies-of-the-week like Terror In The Towers. And, I’ve worked on student films and independents. In total, I’ve probably worked on about sixty sets, many my own, many belonging to someone else. And, as a rental company manager for three years, I’ve rented to an additional forty productions. Through all these productions, I’ve seen the following common mistakes.
MISTAKE #1: HURRY UP AND SHOOT
Most filmmakers misidentify production as the most important phase in making a movie. I see it in rental customers, my film students and many of my friends. It’s tattooed on their forehead: “camera = filmmaking.” This mantra is the #1 reason most movies stink.
Have you conducted camera tests in your sets? Have you tested to see how the colors of a location will be reproduced on your camera? Have you taken stills of your actors in costume? Have you thought out every element of production design, from hairstyles to props? Have you allowed your sound recordist to practice recording audio on location? Have you pre-planned the logistics for each location, including parking plans, traffic plans and identified a backup set in case of inclement weather?
If you answered no to any of these questions, you need to seriously consider that you have not put enough emphasis on pre-production. And, these questions only hint at how massive pre-production should be. I cannot envision making a great short film without at least three months of pre-production. And, I need a year of pre-production for any feature project. Yes, holding a camera in your hands is sexy…but real filmmaking begins during pre-pro. The longer pre-production is, the better your movie will be.
MISTAKE #2: RENTING TOO MUCH GEAR
Usually, this error is born from an inexperienced production team relying on an inexperienced cinematographer to decide what gear is needed for a project. I call this Gizmo X Syndrome. It sounds something like this. “Listen, I’ve been a DP on four shorts at Full Sail. And without Gizmo X we cannot achieve that effect.”
You, the storyteller, desperately want the effect (rain, dust, volumetric lighting, a particular camera angle, etc.) and are therefore convinced that spending more money on expensive gear is your only solution. Trust me when I say this…every filmmaking challenge has more than one solution.
I wanted a tremendous amount of volumetric lighting in A Lonely Place For Dying (also known as god light on most film sets). I wanted thick god rays to stream through windows and doors. The first cinematographer I interviewed insisted that god rays cannot be achieved with anything less than a 10K HMI. I hope that DP sits down and watches our movie, because we achieved the effect with lights as small as 200 watts. Sometimes, we achieved it with natural light. The solution is rather simple…particulate matter is far more important in determining volumetric lighting than the amount or intensity of the light. A simple fog machine and a 5K tungsten will produce massive god rays at a fraction of the price suggested by the cinematographer who insisted a 10K HMI was our only solution.
What this demonstrates is a consistent pattern I’ve seen on most film sets. There is an emphasis on renting expensive gear because no one knows what they’re doing…the producers have never used the gear, the director just wants to tell a story, the cinematographer is in over their head, the production crew is brand new…and everyone believes that if lots of expensive equipment is readily available they’ll be able to replicate the quality they see in expensive Hollywood movies.
The intent is pure, but it stems from insecurity, inexperience and laziness. And, this affects far more than low budget projects. A big budget TV series recently rented a red package from my rental company. The first time they called they said they wanted “A basic red package for a simple two day shoot.” Sounds reasonable. I gave them a quote and told them we’d have to subrent from some Los Angeles vendors but it would be easy to meet their needs…
…then, the DP took them for a ride. He insisted on 16 cases of camera gear. Much of it was redundant. Honestly, does anyone need two tripods? By the time the list was done five camera houses were supplying all the equipment. All of it had to be overnighted from Los Angeles to Albuquerque. The Red One ended up being the least expensive item on the list. And, with each item the DP was screaming at the producers “Without Gizmo X I cannot possibly do this shoot.”
The shoot was a 30 second promo for the TV series. The amount of gear was roughly twice as much camera equipment as required to shoot Carlito’s Way. The producers didn’t understand production well enough to realize the DP wanted training time on the world’s best gear at the producer’s expense. One of my staff members was the DIT and he watched as some of the gear never left its cases, including the massive 18-250 mm Angenieux zoom lens, rushed at the last second from a vendor in LA at an incredibly expensive price…because, of course, the producers had been told without that lens the production would suffer.
That lense, that incredibly important lense, that lense which was never used cost 1,000 dollars in rental and shipping fees. The producers might as well have taken ten 100 dollar bills, rolled ‘em into the shape of a cigar and lit them on fire.
MISTAKE #3: RENTING TOO LITTLE GEAR
This sounds like a contradiction to #2, but it isn’t. As often as I see productions rent gear they’ll never use or expensive gear that doesn’t deliver significantly better results, I also see productions foolishly scrimp on gear absolutely necessary for their movie.
My rental house has a 14′ fully loaded 3-ton truck. Student films often rent large amounts of our gear and then rent a U-Haul because the U-Haul is cheaper than our 3-ton. But, the U-Haul has no shelves. It hasn’t been designed for production gear. The gear fills the floor of their U-Haul, leaving their truck’s upper 8 feet completely empty. The producers are paying to transport empty air. And, when they arrive on set the gear has flopped around the back because it hasn’t been secured properly. Now, the producers have damage fees to take care of.
A properly designed truck is as much a film tool as the cameras and lights. Everything is on secured shelving, making transport easy and organization a breeze. I want to walk on a truck and grab a light…I don’t want to sift through gear on the floor of the truck so I can reach the gear at the back.
This is only one of many examples. I’ve seen projects that want to rent an expensive microphone, but they want to mount it on a painter’s pole. I’ve been on sets that lug around HD monitors that don’t rent furniture blankets or a cart…and the producers are surprised that the monitor ends up damaged. The common theme seems to be “I just want the high-end stuff. Good headphones, a proper boom, furniture blankets, safety straps, label makers, gaff tape, canned air…this stuff is a waste of money. It’s just fluff. It’s just ways for a rental company to make more money off of us.”
Inevitably, these projects damage the most gear and are rarely completed. The lesson here is simple. A well-supplied movie set functions more smoothly and work is completed more efficiently. We’ll all hit a limit on what we can afford. A crew will always ask for more. But, you, the storyteller, need to know gear backwards and forewards so you know why camera tape isn’t superfluous but a 10K HMI might be. Mistake #2 & #3 are inextricably linked. And they share the same solution. Storytellers must know the tools of their craft.
Intern at a local grip & lighting house. Be a PA for free for three months. Donate your time to be around the gear you’re team will eventually use. It may not sound like showbusiness, but you need to get over the red carpet myth. This is a blue collar job. You must know gear…
…or, you can waste money, be short on critical supplies and never achieve your vision at a reasonable price because you relied on the kindness of strangers. It didn’t work for Vivien Leigh and it won’t work for you, either.
MISTAKE #4: CASTING LOCAL
I’m from Portland, Oregon. Portland loves to believe it has a vibrant theater scene. Because of this there are hundreds of actors in the Portland area…but, I had to learn the hard way that every great actor born and raised in Portland, Oregon moved away, never to return until they are already established and represented by a Los Angeles agent.
Think about it. If you were an actor, you were serious about your craft, you really wanted to earn a good living at being an actor and you had the confidence that you could compete with other actors and get the job…would you stay in a small town with nothing to offer but local TV commercials, dinner theater and the random extra job? That’s not a career. That’s a hobby. The great actors left. They moved to Los Angeles and New York. They grew tired of the limited opportunities in their home town and decided moving far away was their best shot at building a career for themselves. Someday, they’ll move back…after they’ve become famous and they no longer have to audition to get work. Until then, they know they need to be where most auditions are.
Most projects self-destruct with this single misunderstanding. They believe “actors are actors” and cast local. I’ve lived in Spokane, Seattle, Portland, Ashland, Albuquerque, San Francisco, Beijing, Chennai and Guadalajara. Not one of those cities has an indigenous acting pool capable of delivering the depth and breadth necessary for making a great movie.
Let’s put this another way. Let’s say you’re from Albuquerque, a city of about 650,000 people. And, you say to yourself “That’s a lot of people. Someone here must know how to act. How tough can acting be? I’m sure someone with superstar skills lives in this city. There are people who act every weekend in local productions. They get practice all the time…and practice equals experience. Not everyone who has amazing skills left this town.” Now, take the word “acting” out and put in the word “baseball.” Seriously. It’s a fair comparison. Do you think someone who can pitch 95 MPH, has a mean curve ball and can strike out the world’s best batters is playing in a weekend league at a city park in Albuquerque, New Mexico?
Of course the answer is no. If they knew they had the skill to become a major league baseball player and they had the head for the game, then they moved away. They spent years in the minors, touring from town to town. They weren’t afraid to take risks with their life. They had confidence in their skills and knew they could become a major league baseball player, despite the odds.
Acting is the same. The actors at your local theatre company mean well…but, they aren’t of the same caliber as the actors who left Colorado Springs, Spokane, Ashland, Key West or Houston and moved to Los Angeles because they believed in their skills and wanted more from their career than their home town could offer. And, those are the only actors you should be casting.
Cost is not a factor. Many local filmmakers believe the costs involved are incredibly high, but that’s simply not true. Almost all of the casting process can be done in your pajamas from your computer by using www.breakdownservices.com. If you have no budget at all, you can request actors to audition via videotape or youtube. You’ll get a lower response rate, but you’ll still get better actors than you can get in your hometown. If you have some money, you can put together a fantastic audition without leaving LAX. Budget a round trip plane ticket, stay at a hotel within walking distance of LAX, rent a conference room in that hotel and hold your audition there. Stay for three days, hold auditions for 12 hours a day and you can videotape 300 actors in person. Split the costs with another filmmaker to lower your expenses. Do whatever you can to make this stage affordable for you because this will transform your project.
Your movie can be lit poorly, be shot in boring locations, have average sound design, lack the scope or epic nature of a studio film, have a rather tepid score, have simple opening and closing credits…but, it cannot have poor acting. If the acting sucks, the project is doomed.
Even as I write this, I know I’ll convince less than 1% of the filmmakers who ever read this. This common mistake is incredibly persistent. I’ve been screaming in the wind about this problem for years. I’ve shown people receipts in an attempt to prove how inexpensive it is, but the costs are dismissed because the filmmaker doesn’t actually value this process. If one starts off with the bias that acting isn’t difficult, that locals are just as good as anyone else, that filmmaking is about camera shots, that great acting can’t be achieved by anyone but celebrity actors and therefore all unknown actors are the same then my argument will never win. What I’m suggesting is time consuming. No matter how affordable the process may be, it is far more expensive than casting locals. The cost-benefit analysis appears totally whacked.
If you are one of those people, please believe me when I say this. Acting is everything to your movie. Absolutely everything. The better the acting in your film the better your film will be. And, until you become a disciple of great actors you will never make a great movie.
I learned every one of these lessons the hard way. I rented the wrong gear. I skimped in the wrong areas. I didn’t plan enough. I cast local. But, unlike most filmmakers, I made these mistakes when I was a teenager. Because of that, I often talk about filmmakers in term of “Film Years.” Someone can be 50 but be a two year old if they only have two years of experience. Conversely, I have a 19 year old visual effects artist working on A Lonely Place For Dying…but, in film years he is seven. I’m only four years old in visual effects…he trumps my knowledge any day of the week.
I’d like to believe I can save you the pain and frustration caused by these common mistakes. But, that may not be possible. In the end, the only thing that may be possible is that you are prepared to recognize these mistakes once you commit them.
If that proves to be true, that’s an acceptable (albiet disappointing) result. If it means you make these errors on one movie instead of five, as I have done, then this article well still be worth the time and effort.
And, don’t think for a second these mistakes are the only ones. Oh, boy. I gots more to write. We’ll save the next list for another day…
Posted in A Lonely Place For Dying THE HARD WAY