INTRODUCTION & PRE-PRODUCTION

INTRODUCTION

Well, I’ve just embarked on the production of my first no/low budget feature, and figured it might not be a bad idea to document a few things here. I’d originally intended to start this before production began, but things got kind of hectic between pre-production on the feature and the actual day job, so this opening entry will probably be a fairly lengthy combination of Introduction and discussion about Pre-Production.

Away we go…

WHO IS THIS GUY?

My name’s Pat Gallagher, and I live in Canberra, Australia. I’ve been a television cameraman/editor for almost twenty years – nine years shooting and editing news for regional television, and the last ten years working for the Broadcasting section of the Australian Parliament (For the Americans among you, think C-Span)

This sort of shooting hasn’t always been creatively rewarding, so over the past few years, as the digital video age came of age, I started putting together my own kit and producing some short films – see here. Some of them even started getting accepted to festivals and picking up the occasional prize.

 

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

In 2006 I entered a feature script called “Whispers & Bones”, a supernatural thriller, into the second season of the Australian version of Project Greenlight, where the overall winner receives a one million dollar budget to produce their film. Out of the initial 750 entries, my screenplay made it through to the Top 16 Finalists before being eliminated. Figuring that this was a reasonable indication that the script didn’t totally suck, I started looking at whether I could shoot it myself as a low/no budget production.

But I soon realised it couldn’t be done. It was the sort of script that needed some sort of money behind it to be producable.

So I set out to write another supernatural thriller, keeping the low budget in mind. The result was “Dark Souls”. Most of the action takes place in private homes, or places like coffee shops and bookshops where we have a chance of getting locations easily and cheaply.

Part of being a Project Greenlight finalist was the requirement to shoot a three minute scene from my screenplay. I shot using a cast of local actors. I was impressed with their performances, and since we wouldn’t get a chance to do the full feature of “Whispers & Bones” together (this time around), I deliberately wrote the lead roles in “Dark Souls” with these actors in mind. It made both writing the characters and casting the film a lot easier.

I used any overtime money I earned, plus money from doing the occasional shoot for local theatre companies, into the budget for the film. Also, I had been collecting comic books for more than twenty five years, and decided it was time to put large chunks of my several thousand comics up for auction on Ebay.

So, a few months back, I was finally in a position where I felt I could put “Dark Souls” into Pre-Production.

 

PRE-PRODUCTION

Let me start by saying that I’m a total newbie when it comes to putting together a feature film. But I’ve read the books, like “The Guerilla Filmmaker’s Handbook”, and surfed the forums, such as “Indieclub” and “DVInfo”, and figured I had enough information as a starting point.

So all the stuff you read here is going to be the techniques I’ve adapted from these sources. The way I end up doing things may not be Industry Standard, but it’s the way that they work for me.

THE SCRIPT
This is the starting point for everything to come. As I said, “Dark Souls” was intentionally written to be shootable for next to nothing. Part of this was writing for locations I knew I had a good chance of getting, and avoiding big expensive stunts, effects and set pieces. The hook for this film would (hopefully) be the use of mood and suspense to create the required scares.

Since I’ve been a wannabe script writer for some time, a few years back I shelled out for a 2nd hand copy of Final Draft 5, the screenplay formatting software. It makes the mechanical aspect of screenwriting a lot easier. I think it’s up to version 7 or 8 now, but I’ve never felt the need to upgrade, as 5 suits my purposes just fine.

You don’t have to have Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter though. There are free templates available for Microsoft Word on the web, as well as a couple of freeware programmes.

“Dark Souls” was initially written over a period of about three months, with tweaks and alterations still going on even as we start shooting.

Once the script is in place, you can move on to the next stages of pre-production…

SCENE BREAKDOWNS & SCHEDULING
There’s software out there, such as Movie Magic Scheduling, or Gorilla, which can make this process a lot easier. But it can still be done using Word or Excel.

Basically, breaking down the script requires you to make a breakdown sheet for each scene in your film. In individual categories, you list what’s required for each scene in areas such as Characters, Props, Locations, Makeup, etc. This way you’ll know exactly what and who is required for each shooting day.

You should also give an indication of how long each scene is, in terms of script pages. The industry standard is two divide the page into 1/8’s. So a scene that doesn’t quite run 1 and a half pages is 1 & 3/8 pages, etc.

Determining the length of each scene is important when you work out your schedule. For example, on “Dark Souls” I have one full shooting day scheduled where we’ll only shoot two scenes. But those two scenes total 8 pages of script. Another shooting day, we’ll be burning through six scenes, but those scenes total less than 4 script pages.

From your breakdowns, make up a list of one line summaries in Word, showing scene number, Location and Length. This list can then be rearranged to place scenes that occur in the same location on the same shooting days, and allow you to judge if you’re going to try to bite off too much on a given day. The big budget guys use a thing called a “Strip Board” to do this, but the Word method is perfectly serviceable for the low budget shooter.

By this stage you’re probably thinking that this is a lot of hassle, that you can just wing it with deciding what to shoot. But trust me, from my own short film shoots and from helping out on others, I’ve learned that the more preparation you put into things before you get on set, the smoother everything will run once you’re there.

SHOTLISTS, STORYBOARDS & SCRIPT MARKUPS
For my shoots, there are three pieces of paperwork I put together as the director on the shoot. The first, and you would think the most obvious, is the shotlist. But you’d be surprised by how many filmmakers decide to make it up as they go along on set.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against letting inspiration strike for a cool shot that becomes obvious once you’re there, but you should walk onto the set with a definite blueprint of the coverage that will be needed for the scene. Get that in the can, then you can go for those extras.

The second thing I utilise as director is a storyboard. It doesn’t have to be a fancy, detailed work of art. I can’t draw to save my life. My storyboards basically indicate who’s in the shot, their positions, the frame size, and (fairly importantly) the screen direction that they’ll be looking in. With a number of shots to get, rarely in sequential order, it can be very easy to get confused as to where someone is meant to be looking onscreen. Work it out ahead of time with your storyboards.

The final thing, which is something I haven’t seen low budget shooters utilise very often, is the marked up script. I was taught this technique in College years ago, but have only seen it mentioned in one filmmaking book since, yet I think it’s a very important thing to do.

Basically, take a copy of the script, and for each shot you plan to do, draw a line down the page that encompasses the dialogue and/or action that the shot will cover, then just write the shot number/letter (whichever method you use) next to the line. That way you can see at a glance, and show to the cast, that “Shot 8 will go from this line of dialogue, take in all of this dialogue, and ends when this character exits”.

CASTING
If you want a decent performance, don’t cast your friends and family, unless they actually happen to be actors.

This happens to be the position I’m in. I do a lot of theatre locally, working both on and off stage, so a lot of my friends are actually actors. Makes casting a lot easier.

Local theatre groups are a good place to start for casting. The main thing to remember though, is that a good stage actor doesn’t necessarily make a good screen actor. The techniques are very different.

Ask around a bit. Some areas actually have web boards available where you can post casting notices.

MONEY
I’ve already mentioned what I did to put together the meagre funds for my shoot, so I’ve got nothing more for you there.

As far as paying cast and crew is concerned, everyone involved with “Dark Souls” is on a deferment deal.  I won’t disclose what the rates I’ve given are, but I was upfront when asking people to participate, and pointed out that indie films very rarely see much of a return, and that there was a strong likelihood that they would end up doing this project for free.

Luckily for me, they were all happy to participate despite this, as they were enthusiastic about the project. The only drawback to working this way is that I have to work around their availability. The lead actress is currently in a stage play that she was cast in before we decided on production dates, and I’ve had to put together a large-ish pool of crew that I can call on (an advantage to having been in the TV industry for so long), in case key members have paying gigs they need to do.

Rather than offer people a large sum for their total involvement, everyone is working for a certain amount per day, so that what they receive is proportional to the time spent on the production.

 

ANYWAY…

This entry has rambled on for far too long. I’ll leave this here and start work on a report on the first day of shooting (It’ll be much briefer, I promise)

 

 

 
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