Friday, March 27, 2009

Filmmaking 102 -- The Basics

Since starting this blog in January, I've had close to a dozen private requests (and one public request) for information on filmmaking.

As I have written, directed and produced films, I can at least provide a personal (and biased) perspective on the artform and business.

Let's begin with the artform. The basics of the artform.

I was a teenager in the 70's.

I learned the technical side of filmmaking with a Chinon Super-8 camera. There were no video cameras for home use in those days.

The Kodacolor cartridges that I loaded into my camera allowed me to shoot three minutes and twenty seconds of silent film footage at 18 fps.

I had to be economical with what I shot because one cartridge cost me approximately $8.

My first five or six films, which usually starred my brother or best friend, Andrew Best, were one reelers, and were edited in-camera.

Methusarla, Guardian of Hell is the first film I ever made -- at age 14. I had never shot a single foot of film before. As you can see, it is pretty amateurish. The exposure was set on "Auto", so it see-saws all over the place, the focus is iffy, and some of the shots run way too long.

But making this film was a massive learning curve for me, and when it was done and screened, I was a much better filmmaker going into my next production.

I opted not to make sound films because I didn't like the tinny quality of the recording mechanism.

Editing in-camera meant not doing any post-production -- at all! I shot exactly what I thought I needed and would have to predict the best moment to end or start the shot. What was shot was what was screened. It was a grueling way to learn, but it gave me iron discipline. I could not fuck up a single shot.

I think The Walker, an extra short short film that starred my brother Colin, is a more successful example of in-camera cutting. Shooting the action and violence in this way was so nerve-racking because many of the thrusts and stabs and reactions only needed to be half a second or a second long. I had to cue the actor, roll for a second, click off. I'm surprised it turned out at all.

After a couple dozen short films, cutting in-camera became second nature. This quite ridiculous process left me no room for error. There were no second takes. Each take was the only take. There were no master shots to fall back on. There was no other coverage whatsoever.

What it did was get me to focus on what was necessary, which is essential when shooting a scene.

I did not buy a splicer or viewer until a year or two after I started making movies. By then I'd made about thirty one-reelers (these films, made between the ages of 14 and 17, are the ones on this blog).

This formal period of home movie making gave me skills that I still use today. I don't shoot massive amounts of film, tape, or solid state memory, because of my training in economic shooting. I learned how to visualize the the shot I wanted and get it without too much fuss.

Black Rock was the last of my in-camera editing jobs.

This period was my film school. I learned composition, which came pretty naturally, exposure, screen direction, and staging action.

I didn't learn how to write good scripts, and I didn't learn how to work with actors.

I wasn't ready to deal with real actors yet.

Filmmaking in my teenage years was about loving the process of creation. It still is, of course, but there are also other realities that one must face.

I made all these films without distribution, financing, script revisions, pitching, or the headaches associated with delivering finished "product" to distributors.

I learned The Basics:

1) Be clear with actors. Leave nothing to chance when you are staging action.

2) Vary your compositions and cut on the action, not before it, not after it.

3) Pay close attention to physical rises and falls in movement, and use those movements to establish rhythm within scenes.

4) Get a grip on screen direction, and understand the concept of "crossing the line"; you can break the "rules" deliberately (for effect) if you comprehend why they're there in the first place.

5) Feed everybody well, whether you're paying them or not paying them.

6) If you're making no budget films, find locations where you will not be hassled by members of the public; a carefully chosen location raises your production values.

7) Don't be a dictator or an arrogant asshole director; show your crew and cast respect, and thank them at the end of each day.

8) If you don't know what you're doing, you're unprepared, and should have delayed shooting.

9) Filmmaking is scripting, shooting, and editing; each stage can drastically change your movie.

10) If you have to overdirect your actors, you've cast the wrong people; cast people whose talent you respect.

Next -- Distribution


  1. This is awesome advice for any filmmaker. Starting as you have - like I did, it's amazing how accessible movie making has become. Not just from the production view point, but also reaching a global audience.

  2. Thank you FS, and, yes, it is true how accessible moviemaking has become. That doesn't believe anybody is making money at it, though. That's still to be sorted generally.

    I'm posting about distribution next (what little I know).

  3. in hindsight, recognizing your instincts for framing, editing and being able to rally a group of friends into doing things they often had no talent for, is a pleasant reminder this career path was inevitable.

    i cut my teeth using a borrowed 8mm vid cam in high school and also cut everything in camera. to get me and friends out of writing mid-term essays, i talked my english teachers into letting us adapt/modernize the source material (macbeth/canterbury tales/etc) to video. it was a blast for all of us and we couldn't wait for the next production.

    ironically film school seemed to dull my instincts and it took some time after graduating to unlearn a lot of the bull$hit i was taught.

    great post. and great films (i especially liked the annihilator). one of these days i'll try to get my betamax tape full of my first movies digitized.

  4. Next up, distribution--aka yet another post about rape!

  5. Wow. What a great post! It's definitely full of a lot of useful advice. Thanks for sharing this with us. I hope you've been enjoying your weekend.

  6. Kotto -- yeah, it was inevitable. Not sure if that's good or bad.That's a nice plan to avoid essays, Kotto.

    I think film school takes a lot of fun out of the process because it tries intellectualizing something that is very instinctual.

    Glad you enjoy "Annihilator"


    Definitely some raping going on in distribution. The trick is to avoid bending over in the first place... or only bend when you trust the people in the room.

  7. I don't have filmmaking aspirations myself, but I think it's wonderfully unselfish of you to share your own experiences with eager strangers. Your opinions and advice are very succinct, without any hint of pretension.

    Your "Apostles of Pulp" is just a veritable maze garden of breathtaking imagery and sensory delights.
    In other words, fucking awesome.