So, you want to make a movie? Are you sure? You’d better be. Filmmaking is an epic quest filled with adventure, pain and madness. Whether you like it or not, your life will change. You’ll make significant discoveries. You’ll be challenged, and exposed to public criticism. Whether your film turns out to be good, bad, or ugly; brace yourself for impact. This ride’s a life changer.
Here’s the good news! Have you ever pulled out your smart phone and recorded anything? If you upload that footage to your PC, edit it, and post it to YouTube—guess what! You’re a filmmaker. Yes, it’s that simple. The industry has evolved so quickly that making movies is accessible to everyone. You can easily attain affordable equipment, from digital cameras comparable to 35 mm film quality, to user friendly editing software. The beginning filmmaker of today can do anything. And believe it or not, do it well.
Okay, so you’re pumped for the challenge. You have access to some badass equipment. What next? Most indie filmmaking starts with an idea. You might have a story that’s been stuck with you since childhood. Maybe you had a deep, impactful experience that taught you an appreciation of life. Perhaps a perspective of the world that is unique, revolutionary and will reach people’s hearts. Better yet, that day you witnessed a legion of two-headed leprechauns and must warn the world of their imminent invasion. Whatever your reason, the stronger it resonates within, the more motivation you’ll have to complete this epic endeavor. Trust me, you’ll need it.
You now have your idea and your resolve. Hopefully you’ve stocked up on plenty of pharmaceuticals. It’s time to enter the realm of what film professionals call Development. It doesn’t matter how good your idea is, if your film doesn’t have an audience, it won’t be successful. Who is your audience? Will there be a demand for your film? Development gives you the opportunity to determine the magnitude of your project. Is this something you’re going to try and market yourself? Will you be pitching to film studios or contacting a film distributor? Can you attract named talent? You have many questions to answer before your next step. The answers will define the expectations of your upcoming adventure. If this film is anything more than a pet project, defining market strategy and target audience are musts.
Okay, let’s peek deeper into the rabbit hole. At this point, the filmmaking process is usually broken into three major categories: Pre-Production, Production, and Post-Production. For now, let’s assume Development is done. The idea has been written into a script. You’ve either mortgaged your home or your friend’s home. If you were fortunate or business-minded, you leveraged the blood, sweat, and tears of the gods and actually got financing. Either way, this probably involved goat blood, a strange pentagram drawn on your kitchen floor, some matches, and perhaps a strange mixture of chemicals. For the sake of this article, we’ll bypass that slippery slope, and assume you secured money.
Now you’re ready to dive into pre-production. It’s vital that you do the right work in this stage. The list is extensive: drawing up budget, hiring crew, casting actors, storyboarding, lighting design, and more. Picking the right crew can be just as important, if not more, than picking the right cast. These people will practically be family for months. Many hours are spent with the creative team, planning the look and feel of each moment within your film. Every piece of planning has impact. Does the wardrobe bring out the metaphors contained within the script? Do the camera framing, lens choices, and movement capture the psychological impact? Are your locations unique and fitting to the setting? Do the set and props add to the feel of your images? The creative team must understand the overall vision, so that their choices accentuate and complement each other. Volumes are written on how visual and audible choices impact your film. This kind of preparation involves hours and hours of work. Be prepared to put on your big boy/girl pants and act like an adult. It sucks, I know.
It’s been a tough road already. Your spouse is getting ready to leave you, but hey, you’ve done your work. You planned out all those hundreds of details down to how Sally’s hair will represent her internal turmoil. You’ve sat with your cinematographer for hours. You’ve determined the emotionally distant Dave will never have the camera in an extreme close up, so that the audience will never see deep into his eyes. You’re still alive, right? Good because the fun’s just beginning.
Now you step into the trenches. It’s production time baby. Filming starts on Monday. Crew is scheduled to arrive at 6:00 a.m., cast at 7:00. You’re ready to hear the word “action” at 7:30, and then something much different happens. Several unexpected adjustments change the morning plan. The crew is learning to communicate with each other. Then, of course, the cast needs a few blocking rehearsals or “takes” to get comfortable. You look at the clock. Wow, where’s the time gone? It’s 11:00 A.M. But wait! We only have two setups in the can. We were scheduled to have six. And crap, reality steps in–first day over schedule by three hours. Then the second day comes, and the third. Due to budget, we’re shooting six days a week for a month. It’s time to test your mettle, my friend, and that flask of Jameson that’s been hiding in your coat. This is where the importance of hiring for more than just talent comes in. Endurance is a vital quality on set. If your crew is amazing but lacks endurance, this will be a long ride. By the second week of filming, everyone becomes zombies. If you’re lucky– or more importantly, have hired the right people–they will be productive, non-flesh-eating zombies.
If you survive this and it can be a big if, you’ll reach Post-Production (Post.) Post makes me want to eat my own vomit. In Production, you have the advantage in that everyone relies on each other to get their job done and get every shot “in the can.” It’s a collaborative and motivating energy that pushes everyone through the exhaustion. In Post, you lose that motivating energy. Your Post engineers are stuck in rooms, often by themselves, with no team energy to motivate and inspire. As a creator/director, this is where you sometimes choose between calling your editor for the fifteenth time or putting one bullet in a gun and spinning the chamber. Good luck, my friends!
Let’s talk about a less depressing subject–releasing your film to the world. Okay, you got me. This is still another soul-draining adventure. Educating yourself on all the aspects of movie distribution can be time-intensive and actually wasteful. The traditional distribution models are changing, collapsing, and evolving. Distribution is in a transitional world. No one knows the landscape of the future. Traditional models are in flux. The rules and assumptions of how you get your work seen are breaking down. The gatekeepers are leaving their gates. The old ways are crumbling. What’s this mean? It means you make it up as you go! Understanding the principles, instead of the rules will help you forge this new world to your will.
I’ve vented long enough, my friends, but we’ve only basic aspects of the filmmaking process. It’s about as high level as I can make it. What are the takeaways? Make sure you have realistic expectations. No one wins an Oscar on their first film. Okay, so maybe a couple win Oscars on their first go. Making beautiful movies is the same as learning a trade. It takes years to become a master carpenter, welder, or sculptor. The Assistant Director of the first film I worked on told me, “Making a film is like going to war.” Those words always stuck. Even though I was only an actor, I witnessed so many moving pieces. It was intimidating. Recognize that it will take years to become a master visual storyteller. It’s only your first battle. Don’t blow your load.
What you can learn about yourself in this process is incredible. You will be exhausted, broke, at your wits end. Your limits will be tested. And if you remain true to yourself, you’ll become stronger, faster, better. Your next film will be significantly different. You’ll have learned when and where you can cut corners. More importantly, you’ll learn if you truly have the desire to be a filmmaker. Do you still love the medium? Would you do it again if you had to go through the same experiences? You sold your soul on the first film. Are you willing to sell someone else’s to do it again? If you can answer these questions with a ‘yes’ then you’re obviously off your rocker.
I like you already.