Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Filmmaking 104 - Shoot and Cut

In the 70's, professional quality film production was the domain of the well endowed (financially).

If you wanted to shoot on 16mm or 35mm, you paid handsomely for the privilege...or slept your way to success.

As a teenager, my only option was Super-8.

I bought a Chinon camera for $120 and purchased three minutes and twenty seconds of film stock at eight bucks a pop.

My part time job burning fries and squirting special sauce at McDonald's ("...the time to lean is the time to clean...") provided budget enough for six reels of film a month.

The Golden Arches financed my early "epics"

I edited in-camera at first, then moved on to a simple viewer and Hervic splicer for editing.

Jump forward to 2009 and, oh boy!, you guys and gals have sure got it good. At least technically.

Now you can shoot 'til the cows come home on tape or practice film stock discipline with P2 cards. The cards are still so damn expensive that they force you to shoot at a moderate ratio (unless you're handsomely funded, of course, and you've got a killer workflow going on); that's great training for bigger productions.

But what I thought I'd talk about briefly here is filmmaking on shoe strings. It's likely you'll be starting out with next to no budget. Or one equivalent to a shoe string, at least, which is little better than nothing at all.

Things are at a stage where you can purchase a digital camera that produces damn superb images that won't deteriorate terribly if you load them into a film recorder and produce a 35mm print.

Most digitally shot work won't end up on 35mm, but it's comforting to know that the resolution is there to do bump it up if necessary.

To produce low budget shorts or feature films, you will need a camera, memory cards or tapes, a solid tripod (Cartoni is a good one @ $1500)), a shotgun microphone such as a the Sennheiser 416 ($1000+), or the more economical Audio Technica shotgun mic ($550). You will also need lighting and reflectors. Never shoot outside without foam core reflectors (which you can make) or the type that can be unfolded (Flexfills).

I'd throw in a modest dolly with twelve feet of track, too; it makes a huge difference to the "look".

Camera choices are wide open. You have Sony, Canon, Panasonic, JVC, RED, and more.

You also have a variety of recording formats and a multitude of codecs. The Sony EX1/Ex3 ($5500 - $8000) gives you great pictures and records on SxS cards. The Panasonic AG-HVX200 (around $5000) is a great camera that allows you to shoot SD (Standard Def) on tape, and HD on P2 cards. P2 card media is expensive, but that will change shortly.
I'm in no position to recommend any one brand of camera; that part is up to you. But it's worth considering issues such as whether you want a camera that allows you to mount your own 35mm still camera lenses on it, or whether you're happy with the manufacturer's zoom. At minimum, go with a camera that has proper audio jacks, is weighted comfortably on your shoulder or in your hand for off-the-sticks shooting, and has a codec that is friendly with editing systems such as Final Cut Pro, Avid, and Premier.

You do need to pay upwards of $3500 for a decent camera. Anything less (generally speaking) will not deliver what you expect, which is high quality.
For editing, I prefer Macs, and I prefer Final Cut Pro (FCP 6 is the latest). That's just a personal choice. There's not a right or wrong configuration. Whatever works for ya.

Right now you can snag an Apple Mac Desktop Computer Workstation for around $4500.
You won't go wrong with a 2.93GHz 8-core system with the Intel Xeon chip, 2 GB (2x1GB) RAM, ATI Radeon HD 2600 XT 256MB Graphics, Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard.

It's a start.

Other helpful software: Photoshop, Illustrator, Dreamweaver, Poser, Shade.

FCP comes with Motion, Soundtrack and Compressor, of course.

It's a given that all this is useless is you're not working from a script that has been rewritten and rewritten until it shines with potential.

Before you start shooting, get to know your camera, the lenses and establish workflow that works for you. Keep in mind that when exposing your digital images (always exposure manually), always underexpose (to what degree varies). You'll have to play around with this, but such is the nature of the medium's electronics. Only shoot when you are happy with the tests you have done. You don't want to be experimenting and testing with real actors DURING your shoot.

As for shooting, what can I tell you?

Only this: If you have time, get as much coverage as possible. Plan your shots carefully. Rehearse for the actors and for the camera. If you are determined to cover an entire scene in one amazing, ground-breaking, never-been-done-before shot, still get some "safe" coverage when you're done. Don't argue! The problem with single take shots is they leave you with no room to play if they aren't quite working. You can turn them into a series of jump cuts, of course, but that mightn't be in keeping with the rest of your film's cutting style. Extra coverage gives you options in the edit suite. Great inspiration on the set isn't always so great when you get to the edit.

One man who didn't believe in coverage.

Never shoot just one shot for a scene. Always shoot an alternative. Give yourself an "out" if your grand plan fucks up. You'll look like a pro, and, most importantly, you'll save the skin of your movie.

Now more than ever, it is a great time to make your own movies, and it's heartening to know that you can produce stuff that can stand alongside the best.

Oh, yeah, and if you're planning a Wobble Cam feature film, please kill yourself, and save us the nausea.


  1. Muchos Gracias, Phantom; excellent rundown, valuable information, well presented and accessible, not to mention timely.

    Looking forward with great anticipation to a tutorial on the importance of audio (oft overlooked) and the pitfalls, as well as sound design/effects and music.

  2. I think THE RED is where it's at. Thanks for posting!

  3. mandingo -- Will definitely do a post on sound, although I am more familar with picture production that sound production. Sound is 50% of the process, so it's an obligatory area. Perhaps I'll just mention the pitfalls and process of working with a composer. That I've done. I am only a basic sound mixer, though.


    FS -- The Red is an amazing camera. The main reason I didn't focus too heavily on it is that my post was aimed at folks with a sub-10K camera budget. Of course, when Red comes out with Scarlet, or an equivalent, it'll be in the sub-10K range. Right now, with full accessories, you're looking at $25-40K for a Red set-up. Still an incredible value considering the camera's capabilities.

    My jaw dropped a couple of months ago when they posted pics of the 20+K sensors in their future arsenal.