Preparing for Battle as a No-Budget Filmmaker

Not A Professional

It should be stated  that while I write about my pre-production planning, I am not a professional. At all. In fact the thought of it scares me, as since my previous post (which was over two weeks ago) Grim has lit up a fire underneath the press here in Wales; from a local radio station interview to newspaper articles around the area. It then moved to the interwebs where we have had numerous online articles posted about us, some sites that I actually regularly visit, and now this week we’ve been featured in the Welsh national newspaper.

The next step up would to be on the evening news program. I’m scared because I am not a professional but everyone seems to see this dramatic web series with high production value. When in fact,  I am a filmmaker that uses the resources I have around me; old pieces of plastic or scrap wood, all would be added to my arsenal. Nevertheless these DIY methods have got me a festival appearance in a foreign country, so there’s something I’m doing right… I hope. The pre-production planning I write about will be from this viewpoint; the non-professional way; the no-budget way where the little guy stands with his DSLR and giant dream.

Planning 

We’re going to fast forward 2 years from my previous blog post now to spring 2012. There has been numerous rewrites of the script, countless recasts and even one botched attempt at filming the series with no budget, at all. From this experience, I can say planning has become my number one priority.

There is a high chance that a no-budget filmmaker will have 3 things — a DSLR, a pirated copy of Adobe’s software, and an overall amount of knowledge of special effects from Video Copilot.  When you start the film you start at the very bottom, once your cast has been cast, locations found and it comes to the end of your pre-production as a no-budget filmmaker you may have noticed you have solely inherited these responsibilities:

1. Producer.
2. Director.
3. Writer.
4. Cinematographer.
5. Editor.
6. Actor (Let’s be honest if you’re doing all these roles you’re going to have a cameo too.)

Most short films on YouTube if you watch till the end a number of these credits come up next to the channel owner’s name. I was in this position. Grim was built from the ground up, being a DIY/no-budget project (it still is, we just have better DIY materials). The project was too big for me to fulfil all those roles to the highest standards. I needed a talented crew. However there was still a problem. Despite being surrounded by talented individuals in film school, nobody was able to donate as much time as I could. They were willing to operate the sound and camera assist when they were free but they weren’t able to devote months to create Grim’s art direction, hours locked away in the editing suite or spend the summer holidays carrying around a 9ft DIY timber track and dolly. I’m sure if I were able to hand out paycheques, even of the smallest amount, I would have someone to fill these roles. But, I was not able to hand out paycheques.

Rehearsing

Therefore, despite Grim’s growing enormity I still fell into the position of filling most of the production roles myself. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to direct the actors and keep an eye on camera focus at the same time; therefore everything was going to have to be rehearsed, down to the smallest detail. I’ve always been a big believer of improvisation and originally I had planned to give my actors as much of it as they wanted. I was going to give them a scene objective and let them play around with the script, as long as they hit a key few lines which progressed the scene I didn’t really mind. Now everything will be rehearsed down to a T!

I think for us no-budget/DIY filmmakers rehearsing in the pre-production stage is a 100% must. We pretty much can’t afford to do multiple takes. We don’t have stacks upon stacks of batteries; if it rains in the middle of nowhere we can’t run under the provided shelter, when our delicate LED lights start to lose power that’s the end of our light source.  Low budget filmmaking is hard and making an entire web series on one is close to impossible. Rehearsals are key. Filmmaking is team based but not everyone has a team. If your actors have been rehearsing for months to the point where the scene is perfect, then when it comes to the day of shooting, all you have to do is set up and press record, to some extent.

There’s a website DIYSucks  and the owner has stated that.

“DIY filmmaking literally does suck. Let me tell you about my experience producing “Quality of Life”. Each day, I worked each day, I worked a full-time day job and then put in 4 – 8 hours more on the film at night. I still declared personal bankruptcy during pre-production. Then I was fired from my job for focusing on the film too much instead of my work. My girlfriend nearly left me since she never saw me. My friends stopped returning my calls for fear I’d ask for favours for the film. And in the end, the entire “indiewood” film industry basically ignored us. Sundance, the speciality distributors, the major indie film press outlets and of course just about anyone with money couldn’t be bothered. And that was all before we decided to self-distribute the movie and things really got rough. So listen up: DIY filmmaking is not for the faint of heart. It sucks.”

I’m not too sure why his experience was so bad but with rehearsals a lot of stress can be eliminated.

In a few weeks time, we’re essentially going to be doing a dress rehearsal at a few locations without the major set elements and with temporary costumes. Our crew is essentially 3 people big. 4 on a good day. We all have multiple roles and because of this when we turn up at location all we want to do is press record and that’s it.

Art Direction/Production Design

I think pre-production planning can only go so far on a no-budget/DIY film. You can do all you like to prevent something from breaking or going wrong, but if the microphone breaks on the day of the shoot it’s not as if we can tell the runner to fetch another. We’re buggered if anything breaks. But there is something that you can plan out that a lot of no budget shorts miss. The art direction (or production design) is a crucial component that no-budget filmmakers often overlook and it’s something we here on Grim can’t stop planning.

Art direction is whatever is in the frame, the world of the film. It has been put there in that very specific way by the production design team; the production designer is one of the key members responsible for the overall look of the film. Now your brother Ben who is holding the boom mic isn’t going to be any good for this and neither is Uncle Phil who’s going to be operating the DIY timber jib while you awkwardly try to pull focus. This job is likely going to end up back to you so add this one to your list of credentials.

So why is it so important for us no-budget filmmakers to plan the production design and why have I put so much time and effort into it for Grim? It’s highly unlikely that we (as no-budget filmmakers) are going to have some extravagant Tim Burton-esque set, or a gritty period drama scene in the streets of 18th century London. However production design allows you to use the world inside of that frame to establish the tone of the film and amplify the story.

So you have an awesome actor that you found online that’s going to work for free for show reel footage. Your brother Ben and Uncle Phil are here. The script has been looked over by your old English teacher which was given the go ahead and you’re filming in your own kitchen. It sounds like the making of a great YouTube short film. What has been missed is the production design. We’re not talking about giant wrought iron gates or all the bells and whistles of a space command centre. I’m talking about simple elements such as design of the wallpaper, the shape of the sofa, how many horizontal lines the window has, the colours, the hues, the saturation of objects in that room, all these little trinkets (when studied carefully) can help you as a no-budget/DIY filmmaker tell a better and more fulfilling story. It also allows your cinematographer, which is likely to be you too, to place the camera wherever he wants to on the set, rather than having to avoid the pink children’s wallpaper off to the right that will spoil the illusion the house isn’t really a house in WWII. You will always be immersed in your world of the story.

While planning our art direction we weren’t afraid of borrowing other styles in the process of creating our own. If you watch Kirby Ferguson’s ‘Everything is a Remix’ you’ll see that nobody else has been afraid of borrowing styles either.

As stated in the previous blog post, while writing the series my love of Tolkien and G.R.R. Martin played a massive part in creating the fictional universe. It seemed only rational to accompany the story with the visuals. We tried for months to imitate the styles, the colour of Peter Jackson’s Lord of The Rings and HBO’s Game of Thrones. But nothing we did got us even close. Of course we’re shooting on a $2000 DSLR. And unlike LOTR, we did not have $281,000,000 to spend with crew of 500 behind us. But as most no-budget/DIY filmmakers would do, we just turned up at the location and shot the scene on the fly. We had not realised the production design helps to tell the story. When we realised what could be achieved with thorough planning, the design elements were changed, locations were switched or rearranged and we finally started to see the style emerge.

While it isn’t a direct copy of the style, by trying to recreate the visual imagery in Lord of The Rings it brought us to our own colour scheme and style.

Effects planning

I live in Wales. If you’re not familiar with Wales, there is a lot of countryside and it rains a lot. Perfect for Grim. Surprisingly, despite being set in a fictional world, we won’t be doing that much visual effects work. I have to walk past a castle to go to the local convenience store and in the woods near me there’s an old 16th century ruin from an old water mill. One may expect to see a great knight standing on the ruins of his old castle, but here in Wales it’s not uncommon to see this.

Photo courtesy of James Jones

Towering bridges scour the landscape and history lies beneath your feet at every turn. Of course the town and city are never far away. But if carefully manipulated you can create your own Middle Earth. We’ll be adding a few touches here and there, such as dust particles, snow and removing some unwanted elements but we really want to keep this all in camera. However one thing to take into consideration when planning special effects is motion tracking. I’ve spent hours on After Effects manually tracking parts of the face or an element of the background as they’re not clear enough for the software to pick up. We have all seen how motion capture is done in the features. Well the technique we can use doesn’t differ that much. In this video by Luke Neumann he talks about the best way to motion track the face using a simple marker pen. It makes life that little bit more easy when it comes to post production.

Hopefully from my experience of failing many times, when you set out for your next no-budget/DIY shoot you’ll overcome some of the pitfalls I fell into.

If you wish to see Grim: A Tale of Death become a reality, the campaign is still running at this moment in time.

In my next post I’ll be discussing on how my cast and crew are all from a 2 mile radius and couldn’t be more happier to give up their free time.

Lewis McGregor is a young, ambitious filmmaker who has taken a break from studies at the International Film School of Wales to produce his magnum opus. Learn more about the project by clicking here.

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