You are ready to dive in good for you. Let us take a moment and make sure you have all your ducks in a row. Or at least these seven ducks. Remember it is a creative process and making mistakes and learning from them is how you evolve as a filmmaker, or as a person more importantly. But there are some very common mistakes that many of us have made when starting out and there is no reason at all that you should repeat them. The following seven you could treat as a checklist.
• WEAK STORY
When starting out one of the most daunting tasks is actually writing the script. It’s like climbing a mountain and when you get to the top and look down and catch your breath, the feeling is Euphoric. You cannot stop there. You need to go through several more revisions before you start shooting. Organize readings of the script, record them and listen back. Do not be a part of the readings just observe, it will become painfully obvious what is working and what is not. Do not be afraid to go back in and rearrange and delete. Trim the Fat. Once you have your beginning, middle, and end maybe you delete the beginning and start from the middle. Or go backward. Start late and end early is some good advice I was given.
• NO MOVEMENT
Walking and talking. More often than not in a script, two characters are talking and moving the story along or developing character by sitting down and talking. They are at a restaurant, coffee shop or sitting on a couch or in an apartment. Get those shots moving. Instead or two characters talking in the coffee shop film them walking and talking on their way to the coffee shop. If two women are sitting on a couch talking and one is trying to cheer up the other. Move them off the couch and into the bedroom where one is trying on clothes and the other is adjusting collars and buttoning buttons as they speak. Do you get the idea?
• BAD CASTING
You can use your friends and family but that rarely works out well. There are plenty of actors out there and you should always do a proper casting. If you live in a major city it’s not a problem, put out a notice, arrange a room and have someone help you run the auditions. Record everyone, on your phone, is fine. With low or no pay you will most likely need to see a lot of people one out of twenty that you would even consider is normal. That number might even be higher. It is part of the process. If you live in a more remote area, find a local community theatre or a school drama program and approach those actors. The process of casting also helps with mistake number one “weak story” you will hear your words over and over in ways you didn’t even imagine. Most will make you cringe but some light a fire.
• POOR SOUND QUALITY
You imagine your story in your mind’s eye but what do you hear? Most likely you did not. When shooting if the director of photography does not shoot what you imagined you can correct that simply by communicating what you had imagined seeing. While your face is glued to the monitor make sure you have headphones on and are hearing the sound that is being recorded. Or better yet have a designated sound person. Bad sound can sink an entire production. It is essential the actors can be heard clearly with no interfering sounds. Record dialogue with an external microphone, not the built-in camera mic. If you do not have the budget or manpower make sure you have a quality shotgun mic attached to your camera. The best option is a dedicated sound recordist who is booming the actors and using lavs. Try and avoid noisy outdoor locations and no matter how perfect a take is if a plane flies over or firetruck races by you must reshoot. When inside all air conditioners and buzzing appliances must be turned off. And last if it’s a party scene in the background record it with no music and the background people pretending to talk. Sound effects and music can be added later.
• LOW LIGHTING
Much like sound, a dedicated person is ideal but most likely you’ll be relying on your cinematographer in a low budget scenario. So try and get that person help. Just a volunteer to help them move lights around so they can monitor the camera. And speaking of lights moving around, you are going to need lights. Unless your entire project takes place outdoors in the daytime, which is not a bad idea, by the way. Many cameras now can handle low light but the cost is a grainy, muddy image. Which is fine if that’s your aesthetic but it will not play well if the rest of your project is a solid well-lit resolution. If you are on your own take the time to learn what the light meters in the camera are telling you. To keep it simple, shoot some test shots of your location and play them back on a monitor. If it is too dark… increase your light. These days it is better to shoot well lit with a neutral even lighting and add shadows and hues in post.
• UNLICENSED MUSIC
This one might be obvious to you but it is surprising how many people just use popular music in their projects. if you are making a film to never post online or show in a festival that you plan to just show in the basement to your parents you can go ahead and score your film with your favorite Jay Z tracks. But if that is not the case you need to have the rights to the music you use. There are many options and some are free. You can have someone create original music for you. If that is not an option there are many basic loop programs now where you can create your own music. There are affordable options, if you search Royalty Free Music you can find plenty of sites that offer tracks for around twenty dollars. It is tempting to use a powerful beloved track of music to add weight to a moment but, don’t do it.
• WHITE WALLS
So many low budget or first-time productions take place in someone involved in the productions apartment. And there are white walls everywhere. It is just uninteresting and looks bad. It communicates nothing. Every frame of your production should be moving the story forward. Big white walls tell the viewer nothing. The only thing worse than white walls are those giant eastern tapestries or large colored scarves that are hung on the wall to hide said white walls. Do some production design. Paint the walls a color, hang some art that is suggestive. Find a location with a hoarder quality. Lots of shelves and nooks and crannies filled with stuff is always good. But don’t try and recreate that, on a budget, it never works. Find a location that’s already cluttered. Minimal works too. A solid colored wall says a lot more than a white apartment wall.
I did not mention cinematography because while it is paramount when shooting, all your attention will be on the monitor. If a shot is not working visually it will be hard for you to move past that, and hopefully, you will correct it. But if the sound is not being monitored or your actors are blowing it in front of the ugly poorly lit white walls, you could have avoided that. As I mentioned at the start you learn by doing but, these are seven things that a lot of us learned the hard way and there is certainly no reason at all for you to repeat them.
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