It seems to have been quite some time since the last blog I've posted on here. Well, I've been busy around these parts as well as off of the internets. But here I am now to impart some wisdom and/or warning about the process of shooting an indie film. This time, we tackle Feature Creep.
One of the phrases I’ve begun to be afraid of reflexively, like some sort of inverse-Pavlovian response, is the phrase my director seems to say at least five times each shoot, “We’ll fix it in post.” Fight scene not quite fluid enough? Grenade didn’t land where it was supposed to? Natural scenery not staying still when you wished it would? Fence not the right color or in the wrong position? “We’ll fix it in post.”
Oh lord how I have come to fear these words. I realize that every picture is going to require some editing. After all, the necessary music and explosions are not going to insert themselves into the story, and I don’t believe any of the actors in this film have actual superpowers, so there are some things that will have to be added with the use of editing software to avoid real-life injury, death and/or lawsuits. In my opinion, the more you can secure and shoot well while shooting, the less you have to edit. The less you have to edit in post-production (the “Post” that gets thrown around in filmmaking lingo), the more it’ll come off as authentic, or at least not-fake.
For example: During one action scene we shot, the end result was that two characters had to die, there had to be a grenade exploding, and I had to somehow carry a cane and a grenade (just a prop, not a real one) that the bad guy throws while trying to get rid of it at the same time. I suggested an easy way to fix this scenario: One shot of me throwing the grenade away, another shot of me whacking the guy in the head, a third shot of the bad guy revealing he had a second grenade hidden in his jacket (making the prop grenade reappear), then a fourth shot of the other character throwing himself on it to save me.
However, the director wanted to do it his way: shots of me running out of the room, tossing the grenade at a tree without looking, smacking the bad guy with the cane, looking back at the explosion and then running over to see the damage. Also, shots where the second character yells at me for doing something stupid, blows up, and then I try to raise him up as he gives me his deathbed speech. It just feels like plot-induced stupidity, but it is the director’s call in the end. So we shot it his way.
And that leads me to another point: When the director tried to force humor into some situations. Like one scene where the hero’s roommate accidentally leads the blindfolded hero into a table where he bumps his nads. Despite said table being a little too far away from the eventual destination outside. Luckily, we were able to talk the director down from that ledge.
There are moments where humor develops organically, where “serious” stories can have moments of comedy in them. Like the scenes where the hero’s overconfidence leads to getting his ass kicked or his roommate decides to fuck with him. And then there are moments where filming the bloopers is integrated into the shoot instead of something funny that happens by mistake. If you aren’t shooting a comedic story, then those parts become a lot less funny when they come off as forced. And it makes me wonder in random moments if we are shooting a film that is going to be intentionally bad or campy as hell.
This is known in other circles as “feature creep.” Whether you are developing video games, movies or other products, this is always a danger that lurks in the background. Feature creep is where someone at the top has some other ideas for the project while it’s in production. And then those ideas lead to other interesting little odds and ends that sound cool or interesting. And those odds and ends suddenly require more time and effort than you’re already putting in to be integrated into the project.
Suddenly, you find that you’ve grafted a serious murder mystery in the middle of your stoner comedy, or an epic RPG battle system in the middle of your educational video game about teaching kids to eat healthy fruits. The budget is almost gone, the deadline is in a week, and all you have to show for it is a half-finished monstrosity that no one wants instead of a smaller, finished product you could have sold to an audience. It’s akin to trying to sell a kitty-puppy hybrid: By themselves, they look cute and shower you with love and affection when you dedicate a little time each day to their welfare. When you sew one half of each animal together and try to convince someone to buy it, not only does the abomination have little chance of surviving, but the townspeople will bring out the torches and pitchforks and burn your house down with you inside.
The “too long didn’t read” version of this blog: Avoid thinking that just because you can edit something in later, or that it sounds cool at the time, that it can be shoehorned into your project. It’s one thing if the humor or the script evolves organically over the course of the shoot. After all, the script is not a suicide pact—and if it is you should seriously consider getting a lawyer to read that movie contract before you sign it. However, not everything is going to fit with the tone of your movie, and adding in the wrong things will only annoy or turn off your potential audience.
Having said all that, this movie is still technically in production, so there’s still a chance that some of the stupid jokes we shot will either be cut or slid into “Extra Material” on the DVD. But I can’t help but feel that some scenes are suffering from a bit of mood whiplash, where the character has plot-induced stupidity in one scene and then a dramatic yelling scene, and just a couple scenes later. I just hope that all the fixing it in post works as advertised.
If you want to see more stuff I’ve been doing around the Whiskey sites for the time being:
It occurred to me that I haven't posted one of these in a couple of weeks. Been busy, but then again when haven't we been busy right? Aside from actually shooting this movie, and dealing with the High Holidays, and one professor who may or may not be going senile as we speak, and editing that podcast a handful of folks listen to over at Anime Vice, and various other odds and ends...I've had time to write this blog, but have not actually done so. Might as well do it while my brain wishes for a distraction from something slightly more productive.
In this one, I'll talk about fight scenes.
Honestly, if I were you, just starting out, just making a little short film, I would avoid doing a fight scene if I could help it. A good-looking hand-to-hand fight scene is difficult to set up and pull off. You have to find a balance between the practical moves and the flashy moves that look cool, you have to make sure your fighters are trained enough to sell the hits as real while not actually hurting each other too much, and you need people to learn how to take a fall correctly. Unless you are very lucky, you will have to do multiple takes of one fight scene to make it look just right, and each take will slowly wear down your actor's body. If you have the budget or can locate a willing body double, then great. But chances are you (the one reading this) don't have the time or budget for a stunt-person, so you'll just need the actor to work on it.
We've shot at least three "fight" scenes and three "training" scenes so far. Sometimes they overlap, but the point is that my character is...not very skilled at combat. He makes up for it with superpowers and heroic resolve, sure, but I still have to sell the fight to the audience. And so I've had to take a dive, while not looking as if I'm diving. I'm being thrown, punched, strangled, chopped, twisted around, and overall fake-beaten up. The actual pain is pretty minimal, but I have to keep selling it as if it is 10x worse.
At one point I've had to roll on pavement after being thrown by an enemy, and I kind of froze because as embarrassing as it sounds, I just forgot how to roll forward. The ukemi is one of the first things they teach you in judo, jiu-jutsu, aikido, and various other martial arts. And I just plain...forgot. Might've been the fear of rolling on pavement, or it might've been that it wasn't quite necessary in my later taekwando lessons (insert comments about McDojo here) and I just never did it. But we found a way to deal with it so I landed on some pillows. My back still felt sore the next morning though, when we had to shoot multiple takes of me rolling on that ground on top of the other parts of that fight scene.
In another shot when I'm being thrown by an enemy, I had to dive without looking like I was diving into a couch. That must have taken 8 takes before the director was satisfied and we moved to the next shot.
It's one thing to ask a trained fighter or martial artist to take a dive. It's another thing to ask someone with less training to take a dive but also make it look real, and on top of that make sure not to hurt the opponent too much. But still, I managed to do a pretty good job with what I did remember.
Okay, fine. I won't stop you. In fact, I encourage you to do so if you think it'll add a little spice to your movie. But assuming that you are just a budding indie movie creator, you need to run down the checklist of things.
Are my actors currently trained in any form of combat or martial arts?
How much pain are they willing to take?
Are there going to be weapons involved, and if so what kind?
Point one will save you a lot of headaches down the road. If you plan to have fight scenes that involve close range combat, ask the potential actors when casting if they have any sort of training. Whether they've been training in stage combat or have had some judo lessons recently, it helps. This way you can mold those scenes around their styles, instead of forcing the actors to adapt to your own.
Point two is crucial. If you're going to have a 40 year old man in a fight scene, he's probably not going to last as long as someone half his age. When shaping the fight scene, keep in mind the things your actors either cannot or will not do, and try to avoid making them do these things.
Point three adds a whole other dimension to your fight scene. Human strength usually will crumple under a solid wooden stick being swung at high speed. One guy skilled in martial arts tried to block a large wooden paddle with his bare feet as it was being swung at him, and even with his skills he could not do it without some measure of pain.
If you are going to do a fight scene, especially with actors who have little-to-no experience in doing any fighting, then set aside a few days to give them some basic training in fighting techniques. Simple things like jabs, crosses and hooks, maybe even a simple hip throw from judo. You want the fight scene to look good, make sure the actors know the basics of how to fight. Let them discover their limits. Then use the setting to provide context for how you'll be choreographing it. The fight scenes will go a lot smoother if you know an expert with an idea of what the fuck they are doing.
In Student Seven (another project I worked on, more on that later), our director found a young man who was studying various martial arts in school, and with his help they found a badass instructor. Not only did the two of them hold imporomptu fight training sessions with the main cast, but they also lent their expertise to the fight scenes, transforming them from amateur affairs into something a bit more epic. If you have a martial arts program near you, seek out an instructor there, try and learn from him. If you can convince him to train your actors for free, even better!
...or failing all that, you could just use the modern-day Hollywood version of a fight scene: Lots of quick cuts and close-up shots so no one knows what the hell is actually happening other than various arms being thrown around.
A grandmaster of Aikido once said that (I'm paraphrasing here) the important thing about studying martial arts is that when you attack someone with your hands or with a melee weapon, you must look into the enemy's eyes and ask yourself if you truly wish to harm him before you strike him down. This form of attack, you have the chance to pull back at the last second if you decide not to kill him, and you truly see their emotions on their face. With a gun, there is no second chance. You pull the trigger, the bullet cannot be told to go back in the chamber, and the enemy will most likely die if the aim is correct. Plus, you don't even have to look directly at them, as many modern-day weapons can kill from incredible distances.
My point is that yes, people do use guns in modern and future settings, but for all the bitching I've done about fight scenes above, a well done fight scene will usually come off a lot greater than a gunfighting scene. If you do have the time to pull one off, I highly suggest you add it into your movie, but only if you've got the "plot" and "setting" and "character development" down first. Otherwise, just go for a romantic comedy. Then you'll have to set it between two kung-fu masters trying to win the same girl's heart in the Forbidden Palace back in ancient China. PM me and I'll send you my pitch about that one.
[Next time: Part V--Mission Creep]
Thanks to Sparklykiss and the lovely folks of the “Pass The Whiskey” Podcast for their shoutout about this blog. Though I am glad they were willing to plug the kickstarter campaign, it came a bit too late, as the Kickstarter campaign has officially failed. This doesn’t mean the movie is dead, but that we’re just going to be working on the shoestring budget as before. The extra budget would have been nice, but we’re just going to use what we’ve got, just as James planned before he ever heard of Kickstarter (or I hope he planned it, anyway).
However, the kickstarter thing is just a means to an end. Marketing in my opinion is pretty low on the priorities list regarding the actual production of the movie. At least, that was my opinion going into this thing. However, maybe this is a “NO DUH” moment, but I’m starting to think that it should be a lot higher of a priority before and after the production.
Okay, that wasn’t the exact quote, but it was the gist of what the director told me. One of those nights when we were going back to rest for the next day, I was talking about ways to get the word out about the Kickstarter campaign and the movie in general. I was a bit shocked when I heard that they hadn’t really made any moves outside of posting it on their Facebook walls, where anyone can just click “Like” and not feel obligated to care anymore.
What were my ideas for the marketing? They were ones I heard from friends in the biz. From blogs by people who have done this shit before. I even sent them a few links. But to me it feels like they did the bare minimum, passing the buck to me when I made the suggestions. These were simple: Get a pitch together. Reach out to the community. Start talking to people who just might be willing to donate time/money/effort to the project but knew practically nothing about it at the moment.
The marketing should not, cannot be a thing to worry about only after the movie is done. Steps must also be taken before shooting, especially if you want people and money that you don’t have on hand. By working on your pitch, shrinking down the hook of your premise to a handful of sentences at most, you can sell it to people who haven’t heard of you or your movie idea.
If you are working on a shoestring budget, then chances are you want to work with people in places that will cost you the least amount of money (as in, “none”) and travel time. And on top of that, there’s a small chance that your city/state/province has some sort of committee or department dedicated to attracting small filmmakers to shoot things around their location. If you’re very lucky, you might be able to get them to toss a grant your way. At the very least, you can make some contacts and get suggestions for locales to shoot scenes in if you don’t have them already.
Ideally, you want to be able to hire someone to do this marketing thing for you, but of course with most indie projects that don’t even have five figures to throw around that won’t be an option. So the next step is to find someone who is comfortable with talking to people, someone a little more extroverted than myself with a bigger network of friends online and in real life. Get that person to evangelize for your project, spread the word to their network and feed them the occasional dollop of information to keep them sated and wanting more.
Also, look for blogs and magazines and other media outlets that cater to your specific niche or locale. Emphasize in your pitch what matters to their audience, and if you pull it off then you will have a lot more people who may be intrigued enough to support your project.
While you’re at it, start a blog or a website for your own project. Seed out some behind the scenes photos or anecdotes. I’m not asking to air out dirty laundry or the plot of the movie, but just a few outtakes or shots of actors doing things off set can have a disarming affect (in my opinion) on some of the skeptics.
It would be wonderful if we could get all that done before and during production, wouldn’t it? It probably doesn’t even take that much time when you think about it.
You know what I did so far to advance that goal? I called up a guy from our state’s local film board/committee/whatever. After playing phone tag for about a week, he couldn’t offer me much more than a tax break, and even then that was only if our project spent at least half-a-million dollars and 50% of our shooting in the state (the former we do not have). So I might have gained a contact, but he couldn’t offer us much in the way of tangible support.
I’ve also been told that we do have a domain name saved up, but the page is completely blank. One idea was to use it as the personal blog of a character from the movie, speaking in his voice. That is still pending at the moment.
Hell, I offered to put up fliers for a scene where we needed extras, but many times when I brought the idea up to James, he insisted that he could take care of it, despite the fact that there was more than one time where we had people who flaked out on us and no Plan B for replacing them.
If there’s been any attempt to reach out to local media or blogs beyond this little series of mine, I have not heard of it. And I don’t think that’s going to help when we begin submitting this thing to various festivals without some form of an audience or hype behind it. Then again, it’s possible that I’m completely wrong, that I am just overthinking this stuff, that the marketing side will be handled after the production is over, and that it will be easier to sell outsiders on a finished product than the mere promise of one. After all, I’m just the lead actor, not the producer. It ain’t my role.
And yet I can’t shake the feeling that maybe if we had done at least some of those things, our kickstarter wouldn’t have failed as badly as it did.
Hello folks. In Part I I talked about the things that led to this project turning into the movie, the difficulty with recruiting people, and the frustration I felt with parts of the process of getting people interested in the project both in and out of the crew. Now in Part II, we explore some things that went wrong. The Kickstarter campaign has about three days to go at time of writing, and a couple of others have decided to add their contributions since my last post. It may be a lost cause at this point, but if you can, please donate. If the drive fails, then you get your money back. If it succeeds, then we get some extra money to spend on the project and you can get a nice little bonus incentive out of the deal.
Anyways, here's Part 2 of my ongoing blog series about what to do and what not to do when making an indie film.
Considering that the original apartment we were using for the hero's home was gone due to the original director moving to Texas, I offered to call up some people I knew in College Park to see if they wouldn't mind lending us their pad for a few days of shooting. I managed to find one guy who might have been interested in doing so...I say "might have," because by the time I told James, he had already made a decision. His girlfriend Shana (serving as crew and other emotional support) knew some folks close to home in a suburb who went to a school, and their apartment would work for the purposes of the movie.
However, I was told that we would have to trek up to a suburb just outside Reading, PA to get there. About a three-and-a-half hour drive through Labor Day weekend traffic to reach the location despite the fact that I had just found someone in College Park who might have been willing to do it. On the other hand, James and Shana were willing to provide food, a place to sleep, and even gas cards for the trip home, a luxury that plenty of ultra-low budget features (that I know of) often don't have. So I loaded up a minivan with a few things, including some clothes to change into, and hit the road, not stopping until I found the apartment, and the place where Shana had family willing to put up with us for a few days. It was a nice touch, and maybe this wasn't so bad after all.
I should've guessed that the invisible auditor in the sky was going to start slapping us with violating Murphy's Law the moment that thought passed through my brain.
The next morning, after a nice breakfast, James got a call and was visibly exasperated. Apparently, Things Were Going Wrong. We got ourselves set up at the apartment and hours later, we started shooting a scene with an ex-cop actor as he made a show of searching the house and cuffing me at one point after an action scene takes place. It was a shame that his part got shrunk down so much in the rewrite. I honestly thought we could have used him in more than the 1-2 scenes he shows up, but it's out of my hands.
However, four different actors did not bother showing up. The woman we had (reluctantly) chosen to play the role of "Female Cop" may or may not have been fleeing police halfway across the country at the time of contact that day. Whether that was true or not, the point still stood that we weren't going to hear from her again, so James decided to step into the role of "Female Cop" for the sake of getting the scene shot and done with. Elsewhere, the actors assigned to play the role of two muggers that the hero accidentally beats up near the start were also no-shows. "Mugger #1" would be played by a kid named Alex, just like he did in the previous iteration of the script. "Mugger #2" was going to be his roommate.
The original plan was that said roommate would drive himself, Alex and another guy named Tyrone (the hero's roommate in the movie) from College Park to Reading. However, Alex's roommate decided to get shitfaced the night before, and no one was able to contact him until later that afternoon, let alone figure out where he ended up. So that effectively left both muggers and one roommate stranded in College Park, and we would not be shooting those scenes with them. I'm betting that we're going to be doing those scenes at another date, as soon as we find a second actor to play a mugger that won't screw us over.
See my Lesson #2: Get them interested in the project, don't just assume they will be. Also, Lesson #2a: When working on a big enough production like ours, the people behind the camera should not be in front of it unless you've exhausted all other options. Because even if you use them to fill a minor role, you won't get to use them again if someone else flakes out.
As for me, once the ex-cop and the director did their scene, we took a break to get some supplies and try to figure out what we could do with the people and resources we had. Eventually, we settled on doing some more shots of me doing things by myself.
One of these shots featured me running across a parking lot in cargo pants and a black hoodie in ~90F sunny weather. I must have consumed half my body weight in water that day by the time it was over. I do remember eventually collapsing on the couch for an hour in the apartment.
Lesson #4: Consistency is key during the shot. If you wore a shirt in the movie before, you better be prepared to wear that thing again, no matter how sweaty or gross it gets. And #4a: keep track of your character's wardrobe, especially if you don't happen to have a costumer or armoire in your retinue, which we didn't. Halfway through the weekend I had to borrow a washing machine just to keep the shirts in wearable condition.
Soon, it was nighttime, and I awoke. Outside, we set up a giant arm for a surprisingly tame shot of me walking down a street looking depressed. Still, we got those shots done and had some store-bought lasagna for dinner. If only I had some pictures, it was an amazing arm we set up for that one shot, and in retrospect I don't even think it was necessary. But we did it, and we could do it again if needed. There was some more stuff that happened after we packed up, but I'll get to that in another post.
The next day, after some relatively calm morning shots, we decided to take a trip up to the countryside for a training montage. A more rural, wooded area that also included a budding Christmas Tree farm. Remember what I said above about running across a parking lot in ~90F sunny weather? Well guess what, I had to keep changing in and out of three different t-shirts, with and without the hoodie, doing various shots of me running up and down a large hill so we could have the footage. As much as I might have whined about it internally, I sucked up a few deep breaths and did the best I could with the lungs I had on me.
On the bright side, we ended that particular scene with a side trip to another relative's house, where we shot a few more scenes of me doing the training montage. Afterwards, they fed us with beef brisket sandwiches. That was another particular stroke of luck I didn't expect, but I was grateful for it. We chatted with them about the project we were working on, and the aunt said I had a "voice for radio." Thank God she didn't say "face for radio," otherwise that would have been a very awkward moment.
Also during the conversation, I overheard one of the reasons I was chosen for this role: Because I supposedly had a good voice, yet looked like "normal college student" material. I guess that was a complement, but I played it off with a few laughs all the same.
[Next Time, Part III: "We Suck at Marketing"]
Pausing it here because I'm getting tired. Also, because I want to address what bits I've learned about this marketing thing in the next post. Hope you enjoyed this entry. As always, I look forward to your comments.