Panasonic Gh4

Filmmaking 201

 

I guess filmmaking 101 is the usual info that helps people get started in making films. Like what lenses to buy, or how to balance aperture, ISO, and exposure. Filmmaking 201 encompasses more advanced topics like picture profiles, workflow, stabilization techniques, and lighting. Oh, and special effects of course. To be honest, I randomly decided to make this resource page so it might be a bit jumbled and unorganized. The Film Look page is geared more towards the look of things and is a bit more thought out, hopefully filmmaking 201 will fill in some important aspects of filmmaking I may have skipped in my film look discussion. This page isn’t intended to be detailed or overly advanced. For that type of content, I suggest you read my DSLR Film Theory posts, my Tests and Comparisons posts, and my Film Look page.

I think a good place to start out as a filmmaking is knowing where you stand. Ask yourself, how much capital and how much labor do you have at your disposal. If you are an adult with a full time job and family, you probably have a good amount of disposable income (capital), but not a lot of time (labor). If you are under 25 you likely have a good amount of free time, but are short on money. A cool thing to do is to figure out how much capital and labor you have at your disposal. Here is an example list of what I am talking about, I hope you make your own list:

    • Capital I already own:
      • DSLR
      • Wide angle lens
      • Medium angle lens
      • A crappy tripod and ball head
      • 2 year old computer
      • A car
    • Capital I might have access to:
      • $1,500 cash that I don’t know what to do with
      • Several filmmaking friends who have their own gear
      • Cool local filming locations
      • University or high school equipment (free)
      • Rented equipment (paid)
    • Labor:
      • Me
      • My friends
      • My family
      • Other random people that make up my filmmaking posse

The key is painting a realistic picture. Many people run a one man filmmaking show. They go solo to random places, shoot footage or make video tests, come home, edit, and upload.  If that is you, then you don’t need too much gear because you run a pretty simple gig and won’t be able to manage a ton of gear anyway. But lets say you have a couple of actors at your disposal and are friends with fellow filmmakers. Now you are able to take on more ambitious projects. By including fellow filmmakers on your team you have access to their capital as well as their labor. Luckily for me I have two brothers. I force one into acting for my films, and the other is a hobby photographer so I have access to all his gear. And of course I am not a freeloading leech; I pay my brothers by allowing them to hear my wise words while we work on film projects.

Compiling a list like the one above is essential for planning out your filming future. It helps you figure out what you should spend your money on, and whether or not you will have the time and energy to use such gear. In order to make this analysis, I suggest making a table. Lets call this table “Stuff I May or May Not Need”. For example:

Item Replaceability Estimated Usage My Need
Telephoto lens High/Medium Low Low
Battery grip Low High High
Better tripod Low Very High Very High
Anamorphic lens Medium Medium Medium/Low
Shotgun mic Very Low Medium High
Audio recorder Very Low High Very High
Green screen Medium/Low Low Low
Steadicam Medium/Low Medium Low
Assault rifle prop None Medium High

Interpreting the above table is quite simple. Replaceability (not sure if this is a word) signifies how easy it is to come up with an alternative to the item. For example, instead of using a telephoto lens, you can crop your video in post, get closer to you subject, or get a cheap 2x teleconverter. In other words, you could get by with using your medium length lenses. On the flip side, if you need an assault rifle prop, you need an assault rifle prop and there are no alternatives other than 3D compositing which is a way bigger pain in the ass than paying $30 on Amazon for an airsoft assault rifle. Estimated usage is strait forward. Ask yourself how often you will use the item you desire. Finally, by figuring out the replaceability factor and your projected usage, you can estimate how bad you truly need that particular item.

In my opinion, you can’t go wrong by spending big bucks on a tripod/head combo and audio set up. Having a good tripod/head combo allows for low stress camera operation. Paying for audio equipment means you are boosting production value by adding the most important element in filmmaking; sound. Everything else, for the most part, you can get by without spending too much.

Anyway, it’s up to you to figure out what you need and what you don’t need. Make sure to allocate your money towards gear that gets used often and gear that adds production value. Rail systems, matte boxes, optical viewfinders and external LCD monitors, are all luxury items that are not high on the priority list if you are trying to take your filmmaking to the next level. I would save those items for last and instead invest my primary funds towards a tripod and good fluid head, a couple of decent lenses, a stabilization system, a good computer, software, and audio equipment. After you have these items you can focus on anamorphic lenses, focus systems, and lighting. After that, buy whatever the hell you want. For a way more detailed discussion about film gear, check out my gear buying guide.

Before I proceed, I would like to point out that I hate it when amateur films look cheap. I know, they are supposed to look fairly cheap because they are made with very low budgets! I think the cheap look is attributed to laziness, lack of tools, and lack of skills. The cheap looks is primarily a problem when people try to incorporate special effects into their films. The slew of products from Video Copilot are part of the problem. First of all, the optical flares plugin is cool, but the flares look like crap. They flat out look fake. Secondly, Element 3D seems like an interesting product but unfortunately is pretty useless if you don’t have high quality objects to use in that software. Most 3D objects made by amateurs looks very bad and should not be used in films. Finally, lots of people don’t have the editing and composting skills to make stuff look good. For instance, I once tried to make a building look like it was burning by adding some flames from the Action Essentials pack. It looked like shit! Which brings me to my main point; practice, practice, practice. If you are working in After Effects and want to make explosions, or gun shots, or whatever, make sure to practice a lot. Watch big budget Hollywood films, and try to duplicate what you see. The same goes for camera work, and audio work. Mimic what you see on the big screen, and actively pursuit improvement. Don’t just keep making short films over and over that all end up looking the same. Anyway, my point is that if you keep practicing and perfecting your technique, you will gravitate away from the cheap amateur look because you will pay attention to more detail (become less lazy), and you will improve your technical skills in editing and filming (because of all the critical analysis and repetition).

Here is some advice I hope you will follow:

  • Don’t make special effects based on what Andrew Kramer of FreddieW say/do (last I checked, lens flares don’t look like blue lasers, and bullet hits don’t create large mists of red smoke every time someone gets shot)
  • Try to make your special effects look like what you see on big budget films
  • Don’t color grade the crap out of your footage
  • Don’t make your footage look extremely low contrast and unnatural (people suffering from high dynamic range disease tend to do this)
  • Watch good movies and try to learn from the camera movements, camera angles, and lighting.

Okay, onward to actual filmmaking!

Script and Storyboard

The script and storyboard should be concrete, tangible items. Not only do you want to have things drawn and written out so that you can brainstorm your vision and idea, but you also want to encourage your teammates to digest your vision. In fact, because you are an armature filmmaker and are not an Oscar winner yet, you might actually benefit from having others weigh in on your ideas. Multiple times, my little brother has challenged my ideas in the preproduction stages of our short films. Sometimes I agree with him and rewrite, and sometimes I don’t. The key is to scrutinize and familiarize.

A big problem with many videos I see on Youtube and Vimeo is that the screenplays suck. Many of these videos suffer from over ambitious and unrealistic plots and dialogue. You need to write within your talent’s skills. What this means is that if you have a bunch of young friends who suck at acting, you should not be writing clever dialogue. In fact, you would likely be better off by forgetting about dialogue all together. Shooting films with very little dialogue makes amateur filmmaking much easier. You don’t have to worry about capturing perfect dialogue (do you have a couple of shotgun mics and a dedicated boom operator?), and your film will be less likely to suffer from cheesy dialogue.

Make sure you characters are not empty shells. If you want to tell a compelling story, you characters should be well thought out. A good way of creating your characters is trying to understand how they would react to all sorts of situations. You can make a list of character defining questions/scenarios. Here is an example list for a random male character:

  • What would he do if he was hungry and there was no food in the fridge?
  • What would he do if he saw a petty crime take place on the street?
  • What would he do if he made eye contact with an attractive female?
  • How often does he visit or communicate with his family?
  • What would he do if someone challenged him?
  • How satisfied is he with mediocrity?
  • He is handed $200, what does he spend it on?

By these types of questions you have a better understanding of who this person is. No only that, but you can sit down and discuss the traits of your character with fellow cast or crew members in an orderly fashion. You can rewrite your script over and over so that it matches your character. This process will help you achieve continuity between the characters and their dialogue. This process will also help your actors understand who they must portray. Ideally, everyone will come away with a better understanding of the characters, the script gets rewritten and improved, and everyone is on the same page (ie: there is less confusion or ambiguity).

After everyone has a solid understanding of the characters, you can reevaluate the interactions between characters within the movie. Lets assume that after analyzing your character you realize he is very antisocial and has a dark, unforgiving personality. You then look at how he interacts with other characters in the story. You notice that he seems out of character when he talks to his neighbor in his apartment building. Rather than seem uninterested and uncomfortable he seems enthusiastic and charming. This is an awful example I have come up with, but the point remains; look at your script and figure out if it all makes sense. Are your characters behaving the way they are supposed to be behaving?

The next step would be to scrutinize the story. Telling a simpler and slower story is a good way to play it safe. Many of  my favorite movies can be summarized in about 10 words. Overcomplexity requires really good writing. If you are going for a Christopher Nolan or M. Night Shyamalan plot, you better be able to make the script not suck. And if this crazy ass movie of yours has a good script, you will have your hands full when it comes to directing (ie: lots of opportunities to butcher your film). I think an easier route is to take something simple and make it interesting.

Making stuff interesting, is a challenge. I find that when I watch movies that revolve around a big idea or stay in a particular moment I am required to pay attention. These types of films usually don’t take you on a wild roller coaster ride. Instead, they just sit there and you try to absorb it as best you can. Suspense and humor build up is better than just throwing in random comedic or suspenseful lines and scenes. An example of this would be the humor in The Apartment vs. the humor in The Hangover 2. The former has a robust comedic atmosphere, while the latter just has empty gags and one liners thrown together. I think as a writer your ambition should be to create a mood that guides the story. American Beauty is a film with a distinct mood. And everything that happens in the film adheres to the mood, nothing feels out of place. If a film has a distinct mood, feel, tone, atmosphere, style, whatever, then that body of work will likely resonate on a more analytical and emotional level with the audience. And hopefully it will linger with your viewers.

A great way to give your films a punch (production value) is to shoot them in cool places. As you write your script you should actively seek cool locations that would fit into your script. Buses, trains, airports, office buildings, grungy apartments, alleys, cemeteries, city parks, remote nature, beaches, major sporting events, hospitals, libraries, churches, and museums all make great shooting locations. Ideally you would secure the required permits or get permission from the property owners for the various shoots so that you can take your time and film the scenes properly. But in the world of broke filmmakers that is not always an option which is why you need to scout out locations. You need to find areas that look cool AND would be easy to shoot in without permission. Scouting these areas out will help you reevaluate/edit your script and create more accurate storyboards.

Storyboards are a really big part of my filmmaking process. They ensure that I don’t start ad-libbing my shots. Why do I want to avoid ad-libbing my camera shots? Because unplanned shots and scenes usually look crappier than planned out shots and scenes. So the storyboards help me cement the desired image in my brain. They also serve as a great way for brainstorming. When I draw out scenes I am constantly think about alternative ways to shoot the scene. You are forced to think about composition, props, costumes, camera angles, lighting, and everything else that is visual. And if after hours or minutes of pondering something I don’t like it, I go back to the script and rewrite. My favorite part about storyboards is that I can hand them over to my brother and hear what he has to say about the shots. Storyboards sound like they are a lot of work but they aren’t. Basically I just need to sketch the scenes well enough so that I can understand what the heck is going on. And because the films I make are very short, there just aren’t that many scenes I need to storyboard.

Here are some variables you should think about while storyboarding:

  • Lens focal length, framing
  • Depth of field
  • Lighting and dynamic range
  • Audio
  • Ease of the shot

The lens focal length is strait forward. Ask yourself what kind of properties do you want? Do you want the foreground and background to seem compressed (telephoto), or do you want and extremely deep focus (wide angle).  Also, think about framing and how much physical room you have. Shallow depth of field comes at an expense; it looks cliche and lazy, it is difficult to nail perfect focus, and it lets in a lot of light. Getting moving targets in perfect focus is quite difficult. You need experience, planning, software and/or a follow focus. Getting the correct exposure could be difficult as well if you are shooting in broad daylight and want a shallow depth of field while staying at a relatively conventional shutter speed (say 1/48 to 1/60). The easiest solution for the overexposure problem is purchasing neutral density filters (ND filters).

It seems to me that everything on Vimeo is framed too tight. Maybe people are compensating for the low production sets they are working with. If you watch commercial films, you will see that the framing isn’t always in your face. Always being zoomed in can get claustrophobic, so I hope you don’t over indulge in this close up fad.

Always think about the lighting in your seen. Chances are you camera only has about 7 stops of good dynamic range.  This means that if you scenes with high dynamic range, something will need to be sacrificed. Either the highlights, the shadows, your wallet, or your story. Ideally you sacrifice your wallet, and light the scene properly. Thinking about light and dynamic range will allow you to shoot within the means of your equipment. Try to keep three point lighting in your mind throughout the story board process. Think of what kind of back light, key light, and fill light there will be. And don’t think that you need tons of expensive lights, after all sunlight and diffused reflectors can be quite effective. The most important part of this exercise is to think about the lighting situations in your scenes. Think about how you can use light to make stuff better, and how you can avoid working with poor lighting.

The audio is not very important if you plan to to do it in post. But if you don’t plan on doing everything in post, start thinking about what types of sounds you will need for every scene. Ideally you won’t have dialogue (because capturing clean dialogue on location is very hard).  If you plan on capturing dialogue, all I can say is good luck. Ideally you would get a good boom mic, a rycote, clean preamps (not Zoom H4n), and someone who knows how to operate all of this equipment. Practically, you might just be working with a Rode Videomic Pro and an H4n. All I can say is you are on the right path, and I hope it isn’t windy while you try to capture clean dialogue. Beyond dialogue, you should figure out what type of background sounds and sound effects you want to add. Very often I get new ideas when I list to sound or music. Put notes into your storyboards about sounds. They play a huge role in the type of mood you create.

You should get a rough idea of how easy or difficult the shot will be. It is up to you to decide what to do with that information. I personally think it is a good idea to tackle the difficult shots first. I figure that while you are motivated and energized, you are less likely to get sloppy and screw up a shot. Often when I realize a particular shot is too difficult for me to execute, I rewrite it. Here are some free storyboard templates you can print out and use.

All this preproduction work makes my films a bit more thought out. Maybe it even improves my films. Plus when it comes time to shoot, things go quicker and smoother.

Anyway, this is all for now. I am tiered.

  One Response to “Filmmaking 201”

  1. Actually, the blue laser lens flare is a characteristic from anamorphic lens, and as some study points, the higher the level of knowledge of images making, the more we like unsaturated and high dynamic range, this is a characteristic of film, where the shadows got more saturated than the highlights.

    BTW good post.

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