Today is the start of a series I’m doing on Indie Filmmaking. It’s going to be two (fairly long and detailed) posts on the entire process of indie filmmaking, covering all aspects and lots of product recommendations.
No equipment guide can maintain its freshness for very long. The fundamentals are still intact.
This is Part I of the series. Part II can be found here. Obviously, it’s best to read these in sequence, but if you’re reading this after reading it through once already, these guides will be great for dipping in and out of when you need to refresh your knowledge.
Without further ado, here’s the post.
A Guide for Indie Filmmakers Who Know Nothing About Indie Filmmaking
I hope this guide helps you make some distinctions about what it means to be in independent filmmaking. The points below are all aspects of the process that I think is most important.
I’ll start with an introduction to why I became a filmmaker and then we’ll cover all aspects of the filmmaking process itself.
Throughout the two parts of this guide, I’ll give you recommendations for equipment and provide budget options where available. I also hope to give you some awesome shortcuts that will make your journey easier.
Why I became a filmmaker
I will bore you, but only for a little while, with my own story.
When I was in my late teens I had dreams of becoming a filmmaker. There was this film school down in Florida that was offering a $99 deal that included round trip airfare, transportation to and from the Florida airport, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and a complete tour of the entire school.
I jumped at the chance to check out an actual film school!
I loved every minute of it except when they spoke to us about job placement. They said that after receiving your degree, the job you would get would most likely be an entry-level position (like a gopher).
I didn’t want that! I wanted to be a director (I was young)!
That was the last time I thought about going to film school. Years and years past and my dreams slowly deteriorated.
In the latter months of 2004, I was in a restaurant that I used to work at. I knew many people there including Mo Wallace.
Mo had mentioned to me a few weeks earlier that a film director was going to use her in a small part in his next movie! I thought this was great for her.
So, this night at the restaurant I was talking to Mo and she whispered to me that the director was sitting in the booth next to me.
Wow! How cool was this?!
I eventually walked up to him and offered my services, and he said that he might use me. He never did end up contacting me about it, but what this did do was spark my interest again. I was back!
The Desire To Make A Movie
I was going to make a movie, but I knew nothing of cameras, editors, and practically anything related to making movies. I have seen my share of special features and the ‘making of’ documentaries but had never received any formal training in filmmaking.
I knew that I could make a movie though; I was very confident of that. I’ve watched and studied so many movies that I could not possibly list even a third of the movies that I’ve seen in my lifetime, and I can pick techniques out of them with ease.
It was a boring night at school one night and a thought came across my mind. It was one of those creative “oh, that would be a neat movie” thoughts.
I was so bored because I didn’t like this class, and so I started writing my ideas down. I suddenly found that more and more ideas were flying out of my mind and onto the paper. My thoughts were flying around so quickly that I could not even write fast enough to get everything down on paper!
I had to jot ideas down very quickly so that I could go back and rewrite it later referencing my chicken scratch. It was truly amazing.
I started taking my lunches by myself just so I could read that book more. I read it in less than a week and was truly inspired.
After reading that book, I now had the basic idea of how to make a movie from start to finish.
What Dale and John’s book had in it was immensely helpful, priceless actually. What it didn’t have in it was the artistic how-tos or the technical how-tos.
I was on a mission. I would research and find the best of what I could afford.
I’m done boring you. Let’s move onto what I found on my research quest!
There are a few items that you will find very useful when in the pre-production stage of your film.
- Money… money… money!
- Scheduling & Budgeting
How to raise money!
How are you going to film your movie without any funding?
Yes, there are a few ways to film a short film for peanuts, but the idea must be extremely creative and groundbreaking to have any kind of impact. Instead, most films, either short or feature, need funding to work well.
If you are really serious about making your film and you have made a few movies already using a borrowed camera or even a small MiniDV camera you owned, then you should start to think about getting together a proper proposal to pitch.
I ran across this gem of a software package that really helps to organize things for you when you are about to do your pitch. It’s called Movie Plan and you can find it on their website. This will be your first step in creating the funding for your project.
At this point there are a few things you can do:
1) You first have to create a budget for your film.
2) Breakdown your script and log every minute item that you think will be in the film.
3) You have to make sure you are over the top with this list of items. If a scene needs a pencil on the desk do not just say to yourself, “Oh, I’ll just find a pencil when I get on the set (or on location).” My advice is to be prepared always.
Here’s a starting point:
- Do your research and find out how much all of this will cost.
- Figure out your equipment budget – make a list of all the cameras you would like to get pricing on (how many cameras do you want?), sound equipment (will you go to a mixer or directly to a camera?), lighting equipment (you really need lighting to make your film look good), etc. A good book on this is Film and Video Budgets. This book has a good overview of the different sections of a budget and it also goes in-depth into four different budget types. This book also gives you access to their website where you can download example budgets. After getting your budget then take that figure and use it in the Movie Plan software.
How to approach someone is such a wide subject that I cannot possibly do it justice here. All I can say is that you may know someone that may have some money to invest. This person may know a group of others that want to invest and so on and so on.
Take the proposal that you got from the Movie Plan software and call your friend up. That’s what I did, and I wasn’t told “no” by the person I approached.
I’m working on putting together more information, finishing the script, etc… before our next meeting.
Finally – good luck!
NOTE: I mention this in the must-have section but I want to express its importance in this area as well. You may want to check out Dov S-S Simens’ DVD Film School. Information about Dov can be found here.
It’s slightly expensive at almost $400 but the information in it is incredible.
I first researched how to write a screenplay by reading a book on it. It told me how to use 3 Act structure, plot development, and everything there is to know about writing a screenplay.
I even found a template for writing a script too!
I sat down and tried to write it. What a pain!
The formatting is so different from anything else I’ve ever written that it’s very time-consuming to format a script in a traditional word processing program.
I start looking into programs that were specifically created for scriptwriting and came to find Final Draft. While looking at the features that Final Draft had compared to the other scriptwriting software programs, I decided that it would be the one to buy.
I found a package deal that came with Final Draft 6 and Syd Field’s Scriptwriting Workshop on DVD. Visit the Final Draft site to read more about the program.
I highly recommend getting the DVD workshop. I was brand new to writing scripts and his DVD really helped me get a really good understanding of how to write one.
After watching his DVD and doing all the steps he tells you to do, I then sat down and started using Final Draft. I was amazed at how easy it was to write. It’s easy to format, you don’t have to use your mouse in the middle of writing, and there are quite a few tools built right into Final Draft that can assist in the writing procedure.
Final Draft also allows you to save your script as a PDF file. This is one feature that is not found in any other scriptwriting programs that I know of, let alone other programs not geared for this purpose!
Do you need it? If you are going to be writing your own scripts, even if they are only say 10 pages long, then I say: yes. You will save countless hours by using this software.
I have not personally used any of these kinds of software. I have not done a storyboard for my films, either.
However, after filming my first short film, So, A Guy Walks Into A Bar which ran 9 minutes long, I found out why storyboarding is so essential to filmmaking.
Can you do without doing storyboards? The quick answer is “yes”.
What you must take into consideration though is that without doing a storyboard, you will most likely need to get the entire cast back to film the parts that you just didn’t think of while planning the shoot.
This exact thing happened to me. I captured my footage and started editing.
“WHAT THE HECK!?”
I had parts that were completely non-continuous that looked completely awful. As I was editing I had to start writing down notes on which scenes I had forgotten to film!
They were little small incidentals that I had not even thought of and most were transition shots that make the film flow easier.
For example, I had shot a scene where my main character, played by R. Michael Paquette, was driving home from work and stopped at the bar on his way home.
I got the shot of him driving to the bar and then he asked me “Where should I park? The spot that we were going to park is taken.”
I told him where to park and I resumed filming. He pulled into the parking spot and put his truck into park. Then he called his wife to tell him that he had to work late. Now in my mind, this was the footage I needed.
As I started editing I noticed that after I cut out the piece where he asked me where to park, there was a HUGE gap in the scene and it didn’t flow easily.
I needed a pickup shot of him pulling into the parking spot from outside of the truck to fill into the gap. If I would have storyboarded, then I would have never needed to recall the cast and film another shot.
Do you need a software program? Another quick answer is: no.
You do not need it. You can write on a piece of paper and make really bad drawings and your film will still function as it would with a storyboarding software.
What you get when you start to use the software programs is ease of use. Just like the screenwriting software.
There are two types of programs; static image programs and 3D pre-vis programs.
If you are a watcher of special features on DVDs, you might have seen some of the ‘making of’ documentaries and seen them do something called ‘pre-vis’. This stands for Pre-Visualization.
A good static image program is Storyboard Quick or Storyboard Artist. The quick version runs around $279 and the Artist version is around $800.
There are a great many tools built into these programs that can ease the pain of storyboarding. Check out this programs website for lots of details that will inform a potential buying decision.
A good 3D storyboarding program is FrameForge 3D Studio. This is a little more expensive than the Storyboard Quick program but less expensive than the Storyboard Artist program.
This program also allows you to do basic ‘pre-vis’ storyboards. This will allow you to visually see zooms, pans, tracks, and the cast moving right on the screen. This program doesn’t allow you to save actual moving pictures, just snapshots.
I’ve recently purchased this program. I really like the interface. It’s fairly intuitive and it’s relatively easy to create your sets and arrange the objects within the sets.
I did notice that it is a little slow on the processing. Simply moving an object (person or place) from one spot to another takes quite a while. I’m sure that the reason why it is so slow is that because it is 3D and the computer must arrange all of these objects and it stresses on the computer’s resources.
Two things I really liked about FrameForge3D is that it is very fast to render your images, and the other is that the manual is probably the best manual I’ve ever read for any piece of software. You can tell that the company really put forth the effort to support its users and write such a great manual.
Overall, I really enjoy the program and don’t regret purchasing it for a single second. I do hope that they may be able to come up with some more speedy algorithms for future releases though. FrameForge 3D Studio costs around $349. Visit their website for more information on the program.
I haven’t done any blocking yet on any of my films, but I plan on doing it on my next film titled Causality Scheme.
Blocking is the structure of how your actors move, stop, turn, speak, and how the cameras pick up the action onto film. It’s your next step after storyboarding.
Per Holmes has created the Hollywood Camerawork 6 DVD set which teaches you how to block and also how to make your shots more efficient and artistic. I highly recommend getting this DVD set. You will thank yourself for purchasing it.
I mention this DVD set in the Other Essentials portion of this guide. If you get anything from this guide, get that DVD set.
Blocking makes sure that your camera is setup on the right side of the line (you will know what the line is after seeing the DVD set if you don’t know already). It tells the actor(s) to sit down or to walk through a door at a certain time. This is where the director decides that he wants an over the shoulder shot and then a reverse and then it moves out to a long shot.
Blocking is one of the most crucial aspects of filmmaking and I didn’t even know it existed until watching the Hollywood Camerawork DVD set. Per Holmes did a some great work with that DVD set.
One more note to mention – when you purchase the DVD set, you not only get the DVD set, but you gain access to their forum. Per gives you exercises on blocking and then gives you suggestions. It’s a great resource to have.
Scheduling & Budgeting
“Why would I need to schedule and budget my film?!”
It could mean the difference between creating a film that you simply hand out to your friends, and creating a work of art that gets recognized by your peers.
There are a few industry standard applications for planning and budgeting.
Entertainment Partners makes Movie Magic Budgeting and Movie Magic Planning, but EP has created two new products which are even better than the Movie Magic ones. They call them simply EP Budgeting and EP Planning.
If you have read the recommended book, Digital Filmmaking 101, they tell you how to plan and budget your films manually. There is nothing wrong with that at all.
However, I like my files to be electronic and I avoid using paper and doing any sort of manual calculations at all costs!
I checked out the two EP products and wanted to purchase both products right there and then! That is until I found out how much they cost. Each standalone program costs $699. You can buy both at a bundle price of $999.
This is money I didn’t have available, so I scoured the internet for a cheaper software package. I found Filmmaker Software.
Filmmaker Software is a scheduling and budgeting software package that runs off of MS Office. It’s a very neat little package and I bought it for $15. That’s quite a saving!
If you don’t have the money for the EP programs then you may want to take a look at filmmaker software – trust me, it’s worth it. It comes with a great PDF manual that explains how to schedule and budget your film. I highly recommend this package for those of you who are budget minded.
Just keep in mind that it will not create call sheets for you or anything that the more expensive programs do. It’s strictly manual, but at $15 it’s better than nothing.
Let’s get into the all important world of cameras!
Considerations when choosing a camera
The biggest thing currently when choosing a camera to consider is whether or not it is HD. SD is still the popular standard but is slowly being taken over by HD cameras.
For the low budget indie filmmaker HD was pretty much out of the question but there have been some excellent advancements which I will discuss in the HD vs. SD section below.
HD vs. SD
HD stands for High Definition and SD stands for Standard Definition.
You probably have heard of HDTVs. SD has a resolution of 720×486 pixels. This is what we all knew as TV before HD came around. HD booms out with one of two resolutions: 1920×1080 and 1280×720.
As you can see by the numbers, HD is a much higher resolution and therefore provides a much better picture. The advantage is obvious. The disadvantage is a little more hidden.
HD is still pretty new and standards are still being discussed. DV on the other hand is 720×480. The ever-industrious Wikipedia has more info on DV and its resolutions.
HD has a new friend in the digital video arena now: HDV.
HDV is a compressed version of HD. HDV allows the camera’s HD footage to be captured on normal MiniDV tapes. It’s captured using the MPEG2 codec which means that it’s already compressed HD footage.
It’s a great format and is starting to be natively supported by many editors.
My biggest concern about HDV is that if I currently bought an HDV camera, I could not use it in my editing software. I’m a user of the Avid Studio which currently does offer support for HD, but not HDV yet. The Avid Studio Essentials is made up of Avid Xpress Pro HD but since it is its own set of programs the HDV update has not come out yet.
The standards that are being discussed could easily consume a week of reading so I will not include it in this guide except for that HD DVDs and HD DVD players are on their way. They are extremely expensive and hardly sold anywhere, however.
Prices will drop eventually, but the standard delivery of an indie film is still SD on DVD (or if you are lucky, transfer to film and projected on screen!). DVDs are currently formatted in SD resolution.
With DVDs offering both full screen and widescreen editions, filming in widescreen has becoming more accepted by the common moviegoer.
I still know people who say that widescreen is bad because it “cuts off the actors’ heads”. Nothing can be further from the truth. Widescreen is the actual footage that was shown at the theatre. Full screen removes the sides of the film so that it can fit the screen of a normal (as in non-widescreen) television without having those black bars along the top and bottom of the screen (letterboxing).
In the ‘old days,’ video cameras typically were only able to film in 4:3 aspect ratio. 4:3 is the ratio that we all knew as normal TV before the widescreen/HD/DVD revolution.
What is becoming more popular is the 16:9 aspect ratio. This is widescreen. Pretty much all professional cameras in the low budget filmmaker’s budget are able to film in 16:9.
Even most of the low end cameras have the ability to film in 16:9 as well nowadays.
What you want to pay attention to is whether the camera films in 16:9 by default (native 16:9) or in 4:3 by default (native 4:3). Most cameras can do both, but it’s how they get to the non-native ratio that’s important.
For example, the Panasonic DVX100 series of cameras film in 4:3 natively. You can produce a 16:9 image however, but what it does is stretch the footage from 4:3 to 16:9. I’ve seen a movie made with this camera (Broken, a short film by Alex Ferrari), and it looked excellent.
On the other hand, the Canon XL2 films in 16:9 natively and cuts off the sides of the footage to create 4:3.
Keep in mind that not all expensive cameras can do 16:9. You can purchase a $40,000 camera that’s made for broadcasting the news, but most of those are made to film in 4:3 ratio. You have to choose the right camera for the job you are doing.
Interlaced vs. Progressive
Cameras film in one or two different formats: interlaced and progressive.
Interlaced footage is where the camera doesn’t take full screen pictures of the subject it’s recording. It takes only half the image, the next image it records is the other half. It doesn’t record the top half of the screen and then the bottom, but every other line of resolution. Visit 100fps for a great explanation on this.
When a camera films in interlaced format, which is commonly referred after the frames per second (fps) as an ‘i’ (e.g. 60i). You will most likely see where the lines are being matched up when viewing the footage on a non-interlaced TV or monitor.
This is not the format an indie filmmaker wants to film their movie in. It doesn’t look good!
To help mimic the look of the actual film, shooting video in progressive mode helps greatly. Progressive format, which is commonly referred after the fps as ‘p’ (e.g. 24p), captures the entire frame of the image so there is no interlacing involved at all.
Advantage to filming in the interlaced format: the cameras are typically cheaper. Advantage to filming in the progressive format: looks more like film.
This is central to the differences between shooting in film and shooting in video. These differences are slightly outside the scope of this guide, but indie filmmakers have been acutely aware of them for a long time.
For many years (decades even) consumer and semi-professional camera manufacturers have desired to make a camera that mimics the look of 35mm film. Progressive mode was a step forward, but the DSLR cameras that are coming onto the market now are affordable and able to shoot beautiful 24p video as standard.
This has opened up a very much accessible world of 1920×1080 24p full HD recording for filmmakers and videographers. To say this has revolutionized those two industries is an understatement.
Most good professional or ‘prosumer’ type cameras will offer what’s called XLR microphone inputs. This type of input connection allows you to hook up an XLR cable to an XLR microphone. This is important because without it you are at the mercy of the microphone that is mounted directly to the camera.
One option to not having XLR inputs is at least having a microphone input. If the camera has one of these you can purchase an after market converter that will plug-into the small mic input and enable it to take XLR cables.
Beachtek makes these types of converters.
One thing to note about XLR cables is that they are balanced. This means that no matter how long the cable is, there will be no interference from anything external to it. Non-balanced cables get more interference the longer they are.
Now, if your camera does have XLR inputs it is also important to make sure it offers Phantom Power. Phantom Power takes the power from your camera to power the microphone. If the camera doesn’t offer phantom power, then you must have a microphone that has a battery power source.
Is The Size Of The Camera Important?
Does size matter? It sort of depends on what you are going to be doing with the camera.
If you are going to make indie films with it, then the answer is no. If you are going to be producing commercials and might be hired to record conferences and things like that, then the answer is maybe.
When you show up to a shoot that you were hired for and open your camera case and pull out a 5 pound camera, the person that hired you might get a little worried or even upset because they expect a professional to have a large camera.
Unfortunately, perception is everything sometimes.
Fortunately, the light-weight and relatively small DSLR cameras are again both leading the way technology-wise and changing people’s perceptions. Wedding videographers (and brides!) prefer these smaller cameras as they can shoot pretty much incognito, aren’t nosy and are small enough to move around the venue fluidly without disturbing the festivities!
Cameras Currently On The Market
Sony HDR-FX1 or HVR-Z1U
Both of these cameras are very similar. The FX1 is the first professional camera that I purchased, which runs about $3200. It filmed in 16:9 natively and was able to film in HDV format as well as DV format.
What I didn’t like about this camera was that it filmed only in interlaced format and didn’t have any XLR inputs.
The FX1 offered a few different shooting modes that tried to mimic film but didn’t look good for the look I was trying to achieve.
The next camera, the Z1U, offers much more than the FX1, but is a little more expensive at roughly $5000. You can read more about the Sony HDV cameras at a few different places online, but the place I recommend that might have the most information is here.
Panasonic DVX100 Series
The famous DVX100A camera was the first budget camera that offered 24p recording. This was a huge development in digital video and the DVX camera took off.
This, like all new technology, however, took a little while for the editors to handle it. Currently, all editors that would be used by an indie filmmaker can handle 24p footage. 24p is one of the essential things an indie filmmaker should require from their camera.
The DVX100 camera is by far one of the best cameras for an Indie filmmaker to get. It’s relatively inexpensive when compared to the competition. It has XLR inputs. It’s compact. It films progressive at 24 frames a second!
And, last but not least, you can pick up a used DVX100A used for around $2,000 to $2,500.
Panasonic just released the DVX100A’s older brother, the DVX100B. It offers quite a few nice enhancements over the DVX100A. You can purchase a new DVX100B for around $3,800. The DVX cameras film in SD, not HD.
This is one heck of a camera. The only disadvantage to this camera is that it doesn’t film in HD or HDV. This camera comes with a plethora of features, and they are all pretty much geared towards the indie filmmaker.
The XL2 first of all films in 24p. It also has the shutter speed of 1/48th which is a film shutter speed that is not offered on many cameras.
It also films in 16:9 natively, and it doesn’t stretch the 4:3 footage to achieve the widescreen aspect ratio.
The XL2 has interchangeable lenses. This feature is huge for the filmmaker that knows how to use a camera like this. The XL2 has a bigger learning curve because of all the features it has, but if you know how to use it, the XL2 can make one heck of a movie.
Parts of the film 28 Days Later were filmed using the older XL Canon model and the XL2 is even better than that one!
Canon did make a new camera that does have HDV but its features are that of the older XL models such as the XL1 and XL1s. The XL2 also offers two XLR inputs with phantom power. You can find a new XL2 camera for around $4,000, or used at around $2,900 or so.
This camera is incredible. I’ve not personally used it, but I had chosen to purchase this camera to use as my indie filmmaker’s camera. The reason I did not purchase it, and it wasn’t really a choice, was that I didn’t have the extra $1,600 to get it.
You can find this camera new for around $5,500.
This camera films in HDV and 24p, but the big thing is that it finally offers 720p recording! This is High Def that films in progressive and it also films at 24 frames a second!
It has interchangeable lenses, XLR inputs with phantom power, and a nice earpiece nicely placed where your ear would be so you can monitor the audio as you record without using headphones.
If I could have afforded it, this is the camera that I would have chosen. Visit this site to read a great article regarding this camera.
This camera is jam-packed full of features, but it records not onto tape, but onto the new P2 technology (like a mini hard drive).
This camera has XLR inputs, and films in the following formats: DVCPRO HD, DVCPRO 50, DVCPRO, 1080/60i, 1080/24p, 1080/24pA, 1080/30p, 720p (variable frame rates), 480/60i, 480/24p, 480pA, and 480/30p.
The AG-HVX200 will set you back $5995. It is small and compact but does not have interchangeable lenses.
While recording onto a hard drive type media storage device is nice, it is extremely expensive compared to MiniDV tapes. One card of 2gig size is roughly $700.
One main thing to consider is that a 4gig P2 card can record up to 4 minutes of the highest quality HD footage. This means that in order to film even just 30 minutes of footage you will have to spend quite a bit of money on P2 memory cards.
One major thing to note about this camera is that is has no GOP (Group of Pictures). In laymen’s terms, GOP is a process that is done by digital video cameras and takes one picture and then predicts what the following pictures should look like.
For example; HDV uses a GOP technology that when recording, it records the first frame as a full-frame (otherwise known as an I-Frame), but the rest of the pictures in this group are only partially recorded. When this footage is imported into your NLE, it takes these full and partial frames and puts them together to have them look all like full pictures.
Having a long GOP (many shots) is not as good as a short or no GOP because there are more partial frames. Since the HVX200 records directly onto the P2 technology, it doesn’t require it to record using a long GOP; each picture is its own entity and there are no predictions needed.
The HVX200 is a great camera that shoots in a better format than HDV as well. HDV is a highly compressed footage and loses most of its color information during recording.
There are a few tricks to help preserve the color recorded, but it’s very tough to do any advanced color correction, compositing, or effects using this compressed footage.
The new Panny camera still records in compressed HD but it is DVCPRO HD codec that records much more color than HDV does. Keep this in mind if choosing to go HD. P2 memory card pricing is dropping and will drop more and more as the technology becomes more widely accepted, and this camera will be an extremely affordable option for indie filmmakers.
If you don’t have the money to buy one of the cameras listed above, you can still make movies! Just go and get yourself a Canon MiniDV camcorder.
They typically all have widescreen mode but are all interlaced format.
If this is the case, and you don’t have the money to buy one of the above cameras, get a cheaper Canon and use Avisynth to deinterlace.
Try to find one that has a microphone input because if you get that, then you can at least pick up a Beachtek adapter so you can use an XLR microphone.
You can still make movies. Remember that if your story is good enough, the format in which you have filmed it becomes less and less important.