Cinematography in indie filmmaking is a constant negotiation between financial reality and creative vision. With that in mind, should indie cinematographers consider Super 16mm more seriously? There are some sound arguments for it.
Financially, film may not be as expensive of a choice as most would think. Arri CSC still rents out Arri 416 and Arri SR3 packages to students, and indie filmmakers. Rental houses will often work to make packages that are appropriate for their budget and the project. If you opt for Arri SR2, the option becomes even cheaper.
In the Vancouver area, for example, Cineworks offers SR2 packages for $400 a week. With the trend moving towards digital, the cost of rentals for film cameras is expected to go down even further.
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A well constructed demo reel might be the key to your dream job.
Follow these tips to make sure yours stands out!
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a demo reel is worth a million. An expertly crafted demo reel can quite literally kickstart your career if your resume is less than prolific. On the flip side, all it takes is a few seconds of poorly assembled footage for a producer to make a snap judgement and move on to other applicants. So what does it take to make a demo reel that will sell your skill?
PICK A SKILL TO FEATURE
You may be a jack-of-all-trades on set, but when it comes to your demo reel you should choose only one or two skills to focus on. Consider what sort of gigs you are hoping to gain with your reel, and what kind of footage you have on hand.
IDENTIFY YOUR GOALS Take some time to really think about what kind of jobs you want to apply for. If you are trying to get hired as a extreme sports cinematographer, a reel that is composed entirely of subdued dramatic scenes may not be the best choice. That said, it doesn’t hurt to show versatility, so if you want to keep your options open, put together a sample platter of the different genres that you have worked in.
CONSIDER YOUR CONTENT
If you find yourself with more ambition than useable footage, then it may be time to get out there and get working. It might seem counterproductive to ask friends if you can volunteer on their indie projects when you’re trying to get paid work, but the truth is that you need good content to populate your reel. Another option is to make your own material, specifically for the reel. Good footage is good footage, and the most important thing is that you created it yourself.
InFocus Film School alumni Marina Caviglia’s reel.
KEEP IT TIGHT
When you have enough material to start your editing process, it can be very difficult to choose exactly what you should use and what you should cut. If you find yourself with a seven minute mega-reel it may be a smart move to get someone else to edit for you. The truth is that many producers may only make it fifteen seconds into your reel before they decide to consider you for a job. With that in mind, a minute to a minute and a half is a great length for your reel.
ASSEMBLE A FOCUS GROUP
Once you’ve got the initial cut of your reel together then it’s time to assemble your most honest friends and family members, and get them to give you some feedback. Ask them to specifically note which parts jumped out at them, and which they could have done without. Compare their notes, watch your reel again and re-edit. Repeat the process with some new participants, and then go tweak it a little more. Sit back at your computer and take a moment to celebrate your killer demo reel.
This process can seem a little daunting at first, but in order for you to establish yourself as a professional you have to make some pretty big strides. The film industry is extremely competitive, but if you’re willing to put in the extra effort to make your demo reel shine, then you are already on the right track to having a long and prosperous career.
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The versatility of the DSLR camera has made it a favourite among independent filmmakers. With a compact design that is highly compatible with small crews and Guerilla style shoots, the large sensor and wide selection of lenses have the potential to produce footage cinematically akin to 35mm film. The major downfall to the lightweight body of these cameras is the difficulty of handheld operation: even the slightest motion can be noticeable while filming. Luckily there is a stabilization solution, no matter what your budget.
If you are producing a film and have NO BUDGET for a stabilizer, you may think that there isn’t much you can do to improve the quality of your handheld shots. However, there are a number of tried-and-true industry tricks that can make a huge difference in your footage.
It’s generally better to use a wide angle lens, or the wide end of the zoom whenever possible. This is because camera shake is much more noticeable the closer the subject is to the camera.
The way you stand can make a huge difference when it comes to stabilization. Find a stable object to prop your elbows up on and to help keep your arms steady. If you’re going for a lower angle, take a knee and balance your camera on top of your kneecap for additional support.
If you have access to a tripod you can quickly transform it into an improvisational stabilizer. Mount your camera to the tripod, spread the legs and minimize the height. Hold onto the base with one hand and lift in the air to use as a makeshift stabilizer.
Approaching stabilization with a MICRO BUDGET gives you a little more flexibility when it comes to purchasing entry level stabilizers and shoulder mounts. If you’re particularly crafty you can also try your hand at building your own contraption, with numerous DIYs online.
No Film School’s $70 DIY Shoulder Rig may seem like a steep investment for something you have to assemble yourself, but the results are quite impressive (and it’s an excellent conversation starter on set!).
LifeHacker has a cheaper and marginally sketchier rig: $15 DIY “The Silver Flyer” Stabilizer. This homemade dupe of the Steadicam mount, is made up of parts easily purchased at Home Depot.
The $85 Opteka X-GRIP EX PRO is a 2.83lbs handheld handle the secures your DSLR inside of a sturdy aluminum frame. It’s not intended specifically for stabilization, but the frame does reduce camera shake while simultaneously providing space to mount lights, microphones and other accessories.
The $140 Revo SR-1000 Shoulder Support Rig is a 2.25lb shoulder mount that is designed specifically for run-and-gun filmmaking. Between Amazon US and B&H this mount has over one-hundred reviews, scoring high across the board.
Stabilizing a DSLR camera on a budget is no easy task. If you want to forgo a tripod for a more mobile cinematography style, but still retain the quality of a professional production you still have many options.
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There’s a saying that is frustratingly accurate when it comes to finding work in the film industry: “You can’t get a job without experience, and you can’t get experience without a job.”
Whether you are fresh out of film school, or coming into the industry with a completely blank slate, here are some tips to securing a job on set.
Start With Your Address Book
If you have film industry contacts: contact them and ask if they have any leads, or if they’re working on a production that might need some more hands. Be polite but persistent, and ask them to keep you in mind for future work if nothing is currently available.
If you don’t know a single person in the film industry: ask your friends, your parents, or friends of the family if they know anyone who currently works in film. Sometimes a referral is all you need to get a chance at your first entry level position. Vancouver is booming right now, and you likely know someone – or someone who knows someone – that works on set.
Take a Workshop
The Motion Picture Industry Orientation* course was developed in partnership between Creative BC, MPPIA and industry labour organizations. The two-day course is a mandatory entry requirement for most BC-based film unions, and is absolutely vital to stand out from the crowd when you apply for an entry level position.
*InFocus Film School offers this course – find more information here.
Research Current Productions
Creative BC provides a comprehensive and up-to-date list of all the productions currently shooting in British Columbia, along with contact e-mails for each. Put together a resume that provides any relevant job experience, workshops and education and pair it with a concise cover letter. It always helps to have an insider contact, but it’s not necessary to get hired for an entry level position. All you need is a good attitude and a little luck.
One of the best ways to attract attention as a film industry professional is to establish a web presence. A website can feature your demo reel, describe your services and show testimonials from past clients. Creating videos on Vimeo or Youtube is another great idea, because you can cultivate a body of work to serve as your portfolio. Face-to-face networking always has it’s benefits, and there are a number of companies online where you can order inexpensive business cards.
Create Your Own Work
If you’re committed to your craft and prefer being your own boss, freelancing might be the ideal gig for you. There are several jobs in the film industry that are built for freelancing – video editing, camera work, audio engineering, and more. This option requires considerably more effort as you’re building your clientele, but it can be a very rewarding career move. Choose to specialize in one particular skill, and work to make a name for yourself.
There are many paths that lead to working in the film industry, as any established professional will tell you. The one thing they all have in common is dedication. Flexibility is an added bonus – sometimes accepting a position that’s outside your skill set can be a challenging and advantageous decision.
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The era of silent films lasted from 1894 to 1929, and left a profound mark on the cinematic arts. Even today, with technology that allows us to shoot high quality videos on our smart phones, and download and use open source special f/x software, the charm of silent film remains unabated.
In 2011 the French silent film The Artist swept the Oscars, winning five major awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor. It was not only a critical success, but a financial one as well, with a worldwide gross of over $13 million.
An art form that has been practiced and celebrated for over one hundred years, modern filmmakers can learn a lot from this genre. Here are a few lessons:
#1: Show, Don’t Tell
This common piece of advice for writers may very well be the mantra for all silent films. Without the convention of long, exposition-heavy monologues, silent storytelling relies entirely on visual elements. When you find yourself explaining the plot through your characters, think about what you can do to write a scene that displays it instead.
#2: Use the Voice of Music
Although silent films did not have a synchronized audio track, theatres would hire a house piano player to provide improvisational musical accompaniment. In 1910 the concept of the “compilation score” was created, a cue sheet that specified which songs should be played during which parts of the film. Music aided in creating atmosphere, establishing mood and connecting the audience to the story, encouraging them to suspend their disbelief. Music has a voice of its own, and can be instrumental in providing context to a scene.
#3: Simplify Your Story
Communicating the plot of a film without dialogue is a unique challenge, but it is possible – even for storylines that don’t seem able to handle such an adaptation. A good example is the famous literary detective, Sherlock Holmes, whose film debut was in the 1900 short, Sherlock Holmes Baffled. It was no doubt a challenge to present a mystery without dialogue, but it was done eight more times during the silent film era. Consider the complexity of your storylines, and whether or not they can be reimagined with a focus on clarity.
#4: Focus on Framing
There is much to be learned from the cinematography of silent films. When they were first in production, silent films not only lacked synchronized audio, but also colour film. Although some filmmakers opted to add a pop of colour to their movies by painstakingly tinting each frame by hand, the majority of them worked entirely within the realms of black and white, focusing on framing, depth, and shadows. When you strip away the common fallbacks of modern film (special f/x, flashy action sequences, etc) the visuals must act as a foundation for the story, inviting the audience to completely immerse themselves in a new world.
Silent film is built into the foundation of film history, and acts as inspiration for many modern filmmakers. InFocus Film School nurtures this art form by assigning students to write, shoot and edit their own silent film during their studies here.
One excellent example of this Tom Barton’s short film, Domestic Virulence:
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1. MONSTERS (2010)
Before Gareth Edwards was behind the helm of the reboot of Godzilla (2014) and the upcoming Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) he directed, wrote, shot and created the visual effects for his breakout sci-fi indie film Monsters.
With a production budget of just under $15,000 the film was shot in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Texas with a crew so small that they were all able to drive together in a seven-passenger van. After picture lock Edwards spent five months working out of his studio apartment, where he created all 250 of the visual f/x shots using Adobe software, Autodesk 3ds Max and ZBrush.
2. Primer (2004)
When the topic of low budget sci-fi indie films comes up, it’s hard not to mention the absolute powerhouse that is Primer, a movie that Shane Carruth directed, produced, wrote, scored and starred in. During its 2004 debut it won the grand jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, alongside the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation prize.
With a shooting budget of $7,000, Carruth’s film tackled the notoriously difficult topic of time travel. While this concept is absolutely within the realm of science fiction, this portrayal has been praised for being represented in a down-to-earth manner that enforces a kind of realism that is not commonly seen in this genre.
3. The One I Love (2014)
Directed by Charlie McDowell (the son of Malcolm McDowell) and produced by mumblecore giants Jay and Mark Duplass, The One That I Love is a welcome homage to the classic sci-fi television series The Twilight Zone (1959–1964), taking an ordinary couple and dropping them into a bizarre ethical quandary.
With an estimated budget of $100,000 (aided perhaps by the fact that filming took place at the home of McDowell’s parents), this film is a reminder that sci-fi isn’t necessarily synonymous with battle in space, or giant monsters. A speculative concept can stay true to it’s science fiction heritage and be an incredibly powerful tool to understand human behavior.
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InFocus film students are acquiring the skills needed to work on a professional film set.
But what happens when a Hollywood production comes to a film school instead?
That’s precisely what happened when Warner Bros. was scouting locations for its television program Frequencyand decided our brick-wall rooms would serve as an ideal backdrop for an episode, according to Program Director Steve Rosenberg.
InFocus film students were accorded insider access to the production that saw the transformation of two adjoining classrooms into a New York-style apartment.
“About 12 years ago I had worked with the DOP, Kamal Derkaoui,” said Rosenberg. “He remembered me and was incredibly generous in allowing our students to shadow the production and ask questions.”
One of the students, Tom Barton, echoes the importance of first-hand experience on a large film set. “It was crazy how big the machine was, with 50 people running around. Kamal let us stand behind the director and script supervisor to watch them at work while he explained what everyone was doing.”
Barton was pleased to hear the pros use phrases like “shutter angle” and “ISO rating” that corresponded to the terminology he had learned in school. Additionally, Barton had a vague idea of what a script supervisor was, but through close quarters he was able to gain a deeper understanding of the job.
“The difference on a big set is that the crew is more specialized, whereas on our shoots we are more actively involved in all areas,” he added.
The experience has confirmed for Barton that he’d like to direct. A lasting impression is in how the episode’s director was a constant source of inspiration and joy to the team.
Another student, Robin Jung, is no stranger to union sets. An actor with appearances on the series Fringe and the feature Bloody Knuckles, Jung was already prepared for the scale of the Frequency production.
Still, there were discoveries not quite anticipated. “The production had a large crew present, with PAs waiting around for when they were needed and I thought, ‘Wow, this many people for a three-minute scene.’”
Jung was amazed at the length of time it took to reset between takes and how the director would speak between the actors’ lines to guide the Steadicam operator on where to move.
“As the director you’re the captain keeping the ship on course,” said Jung. “For this production the director was straightforward in asking for what he wanted. I learned the importance of being bold.”
The students will have further opportunities to observe and learn when Frequency returns to InFocus for planned reshoots.
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Since 1999 the 8 day filmmaking challenge, aptly named the Crazy8s, has provided funding for nearly one hundred emerging filmmakers. Each year over one-hundred teams apply to the competition and six are awarded $1,000 and a production package that includes everything they need to make their film.
Paul Armstrong is an award-winning Vancouver producer, founder and programmer of the The Celluloid Social Club and the Executive Director of the Crazy8 filmmaking challenge. He provided some valuable insight for hopeful Crazy8s applicants who are considering entering this year’s competition.
What are the most compelling qualities you look for in a filmmaker’s pitch?
PA: The most compelling qualities I look for in a filmmaker’s pitch are four fold:
How original is the story and how well is it told. Does it have a beginning, middle and end? Is it more than just a series of action and plot points? What does it all add up to? Why is this story worth telling?
How passionate is the pitcher about the story in giving their pitch? Without enthusiasm on their part it’s hard to instil that excitement to get this film made in the judges.
Do I have the confidence that the filmmaker can pull off this film with the resources they have to make the film. Have they thought about the practicalities of creating their film?
Does the story speak to me on a personal level – do I connect with it. Film is a communication device and is that working here?
Are there any genres or subjects that get pitched far too often?
PA: With Crazy8s we welcome all genres and subjects – it’s up to the filmmaker to find whatever vehicle works to tell their story. The final six films are usually a mixture of dramas, comedies and genre such as science fiction or horror. That said each year there seems to be a common theme among many of the pitches and that can count against them as the judges would only want a certain number on a similar theme but we never know what that is until we get the pitches.
What is the best way for a filmmaker to stand out from the crowd?
PA: One of the best ways for a filmmaker to stand out from the crowd is to create a brilliant story that we can’t but help to say yes to. The other is to be yourself and to express that uniqueness in your film. Don’t presume what we are looking for in terms of what was made in the past or what is currently trendy.
Another way of doing it is to make your actual pitch original by including a taste of the tone of the film in the pitch rather than just a talking head pitch, which is fine too.
What are some of the worst mistakes people make while pitching?
PA: Some of the worst mistakes people make while pitching is to pitch an underdeveloped story where maybe the end isn’t complete or there isn’t a story arc. In other words they haven’t conveyed to us why this story is worth telling over another one. Another mistake is that the pitcher doesn’t show enthusiasm or passion and they get too complacent.
Another mistake is that they forget to talk about themselves. We need to know who the pitcher is to gain confidence they can make the film. In addition some pitches are sometimes not polished enough. So be sure to rehearse your pitch and to fix any technical problems with it.
The Crazy8s Registration Deadline is November 2nd, 2016.
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Sound is often the most overlooked aspect of production for unseasoned filmmakers. Compared to the excitement that goes hand-in-hand with selecting the camera, sound can be an afterthought: a single line on an already overwrought budget, packed with expenses that are much more immediately compelling than the eventual audio technician leaning over his mixing board.
The importance of clear, well recorded audio may not become apparent until after the shoot has been completed and the editor first sits downs, only to hear a cacophony of background chatter, overmodulation, and that car alarm that didn’t seem quite so loud when you were on location. Instead of planning to “fix it in post,” choose wisely when selecting your sound equipment for a sure-fire audio strategy.
These button-sized microphones are frequently seen in documentary productions, tucked into the lapel of an interview subject. Although they are fairly low profile they require a somewhat bulky transmitter, a black box the size of a pack of cards that can connect with or without a wire to the microphone, usually secured in the back pocket of the subject.
While filming a dramatic production an unfortunate glimpse of the sound equipment is something to be avoided. But when used correctly there are several excellent uses for lavs in film.
Wide Shots: When the shot is simply too wide to facilitate a boom but you would prefer not to use ADR to record dialogue, a lav will come in handy. Distance is an excellent camouflage for these mics that may easily be spotted in a close up shot.
Tricky Shots: Locations can prove challenging when it comes to finding a place to hang the boom. In these cases lavs may provide a solution for the tightest of spaces. With some careful placement, lavs can be rendered largely undetectable in a shot.
Backup Audio: Sometimes location sound cannot be avoided, be it the drone of a helicopter that is hovering above your set, or the ceaseless siren that is cutting into your schedule. If you are able to hide the lav discreetly on the actor it can be used as a secondary source of audio for the editor to work with in post.
BOOMS / SHOTGUN MICS
The image of the pole-bearing boom operator is synonymous with film production. This method of capturing audio is made up of several working parts: a shotgun mic, the furry wind-shield cover (aptly nicknamed the ‘deadcat’) and the pole that these items are mounted on. The front of the mic is suspended above the subject just out of view of the camera, to capture dialogue.
Although shotgun mics must be carefully monitored to ensure that the direction is correct and that the boom hasn’t dipped into frame, they are an extremely versatile method of audio recording that is seen on virtually every film set. The benefits of using a boom include:
Full Control: While a rogue lav mic is impossible to fix without stopping a scene, a boom operator doesn’t have to interrupt the action to modify the position of his microphone.
Freedom of Costume: lav mics can pick up the rustle of clothing, a sound that can render a recording unusable. Booms are a reliable way to record and do not require the subject to take special care with their clothing.
Natural Audio: The sound that the boom picks up is superior to the lav in terms of natural tones. The ability to point the shotgun mic at the subject’s sternum instead of their mouth produces a more natural quality of recording.
Like every other element of filmmaking, sound recording will require some thought and preparation. Select the method of audio recording that works best with your budget and production, and if you’re able to, consider employing the use of each for the appropriate scenes in your film.
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Screenplays are a means to a finished film. Many industry people consider them blueprints. However, this comparison isn’t completely accurate. A well-written screenplay isn’t a sterile, skeletal, monochromatic set of action lines inserted between the dialogue.
Word choices impact the sight and senses of the reader. In that regard, a screenplay has more in common with a short story. The experience of reading a screenplay should approximate what the viewing of the movie will be like. In fact, another term for action lines is screen directions.
Writers may be hesitant to “direct on the page” in the misguided belief they are treading on the director’s job. This results in action lines comprised mainly of master shots that severely limit the potential of a script to translate into a uniquely visual motion picture.
Students at our film school are encouraged to craft effective action lines so that all departments—production, cinematography, art, sound, costume, hair and makeup, locations, electrical, visual effects—are working toward the same movie.
But how can you write screen directions that direct without directing? Let’s illustrate with an example:
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