Over the past 2 years my first feature film entitled 'DARKSLIDE' was created through a DIY (do it yourself) practice and mindset. It isn't the first project I have been involved in, but it is the longest and most accomplished of my films. Using this experience I have utilized what I have learned about the evolving technological advances and classical filmmaking processes alike, in order to create my own original works with complete creative control, on my own terms, at my own pace.
Film is a collaborative medium, so not everything can always be done alone, but the film industry is evolving in a way where more and more things are possible with less and less people to accomplish them. This is good and bad for the industry and creators, because people need jobs and need to be paid. But, when you don't have money and you are starting at a lower level, sometimes as the creator of a piece you can wear a few more hats and accomplish things yourself.
I was able to raise around $3675 through Indiegogo, combined with the equipment I had amassed over the years I was able to accomplish DARKSLIDE as an entirely independent DIY production.
Here are 7 anecdotal tips that come to mind after the experience of creating DARKSLIDE, which I will elaborate on. These tips explore how to get the most out of a very small budget and still make your film stand out from the crowd:
1. Know about the camera:
Okay, so let me preface this by saying that not every director is a camera wizard, Kevin Smith is a good example of a director who admits to not being super camera savvy, but he none-the-less makes great movies (in my opinion). The greatening accessibility and the lowering costs of modern cameras, as they seem to be getting smaller and more efficient at a constant speed, makes me feel that it is important to understand how cameras work to ensure that you are getting the most bang for your buck. Even at the no-budget level, it will cost something, or you will have to be pulling a lot of favours (do it if you can). We are talking around $5000 CAD or less here, for the bare basics of what I needed to achieve in order to be satisfied artistically. It is possible to make a film for less, but I found that to be the choice amount if you want to acquire your own gear. If you can find people with their own gear who are willing to help out, that can save you some more money. But I personally enjoy having my own gear as a director so that I can ultimately decide to shoot anything at anytime I feel necessary, with any crew I want.
You can now get a camera for $2000 or less that has incredible capabilities when it comes to dynamic range, and utilizing these cameras can make your film stand out visually and increase the value of your image. At this point it becomes a sound investment towards the quality of your films picture, without endangering your life financially in the process. Learn about dynamic range, codecs, resolution, aspect ratio, depth of field, sensor size, etc. Apply this knowledge to which camera you decide to buy.
For example, the camera I chose was the Black Magic Cinema Camera, which comes in many different variations. I bought mine used, and saved around $300 doing so. The camera was practically like new and worked without issues. The version I chose has a Super 16MM equivalent sized sensor. Now, I needed a lens. I wasn’t sure which mount I wanted to go for, as the camera offers several different options. I knew that I wanted a lens that could open to 2.8, and I knew that I wanted it to be as versatile as possible so that it would be feasible to shoot the majority of the film using just one lens. What I settled on was the EF-Mount and a used Tamron zoom lens that has a range of 17-50mm (without the crop factor), f2.8 constant, costing $320. For a cheap lens, it is surprisingly sharp. The options and combinations of lenses and cameras seem ever abundant. But this combination gave me exactly what I wanted for around $2400 total, adding on the price of an extra battery that plugs into the camera and gave me up to 6 hours of extra life.
Find out which options work for you and fit that within your budget. It will pay off in the end, when your visuals look great. With a little saving, you won’t be completely broke in the process. Take your time, and shoot your movie, with a capable camera that you now own. It made sense to me.
2. Pick up graphic design:
Photoshop is an insanely powerful tool that can take a stale image and within seconds make it stand out to the eye. Not to state the obvious, but learning how to have a consistency and doing research goes a long way when it comes to promoting your film through graphic design. Thumbnails for trailers and videos, posters, banners, cover photos, profile pics: these are all examples of things you should spend time on and ensure that you are adhering your art style to the proper size for each format. Don’t just hodgepodge some stuff together, I mean, that can be a certain style if you are going for something chaotic, but overall just have a theme or idea of why it is you are doing what you are doing when you are designing these images for the public. These are what will give people an initial impression of your film, and so the more compelling the better.
There are really no concrete rules to how you get someone to buy something, or how you get something to be seen. There are tried and true methods, but everything seems to depend the most on the content of what you are displaying. People are bombarded with so much content these days. I feel it is important to be very clear and concise with what you are displaying. You want them to notice exactly what it is you are trying to show them, whether it be an image promoting the title of the film itself, or a website URL that helps direct people to your official website. With this said, I find it best to try to be creative with how and why I am posting images, instead of just constantly posting them. I try to wrap the content of these images around certain events or themes within the film so that they not only promote it but also help to enrich the world within it.
Being able to create images with a sense of consistency and eye grabbing imagery will come in handy when it comes to getting the word out about your film, trying to sell it through VOD, or trying to promote your campaign towards raising funds for your film.
3. Study the sound:
I find that the best people to ask advice about sound are sound engineers themselves. Filmmakers can be very knowledgeable, but the engineers specialize in sound. Sometimes they know little tips and tricks or how exactly to approach different recording scenarios in different ways than one might normally think as a filmmaker.
Like with camera equipment, sound recording devices are getting smaller, cheaper and more capable. Typically a shotgun microphone is used to record sound on set, with a focus on getting the dialogue spoken by the actors, as well as the sound effects made by their actions. Some cameras have good built in audio recording, but those tend to be on the more expensive side. In my experience with the Black Magic, it is best to use a separate device for recording audio and then sync it with the video later.
The microphone I ended up choosing was the Rode NTG-2, which I got in a kit with a boom pole, dead cat, and XLR cables for around $700 CAD. For a recording device, I chose the Zoom H1, which cost about $100. This made for a very light weight sound kit, which we could bring anywhere. The H1 does not have a very good preamp, so one thing we had to do was to be very careful about background noise. But it does have a great sound quality if you are able to avoid background noise as much as possible. When recording dialogue with this device it is most of the time a good idea to record in the quietest locations you can find. For every dialogue scene I tried to shoot close ups of all the actors where I could get the microphone as close as possible, to ensure that every scene had clear dialogue that was usable in editing.
Consider recording your own music for your project. This will give you a chance to bring an original tone and atmosphere to your film. I was able to have a mix of both original music pieces created by other artists and music created on set during the filming process by the fictional band within the film called 'P.F.C.' (find some of those songs here).
4. Find your unique advantages:
By unique advantages, I mean things that you already have in your life. Whether it is people you know who can act or have a talent, locations you can get due to family or friends, networking advantages if you know people with experience, etc. Everyone has some sort of unique advantage.
Another aspect of this is any talents you may have, or any access to expensive equipment or cinematic and expensive looking things. For example, if you are good at guitar, and you have a guitar or two lying around, try writing that into your story. I used everything I could from computers displaying custom abstract videos, to artwork my friends made for me, even cut up strands of orange cloth that I had leftover from previous projects, anything I could get my hands on to keep the backgrounds interesting while staying true to the look I wanted. Find your own examples of this in your life that fit into your story lines, DARKSLIDE involves a band who has a jam space that is decorated chaotically, so it allowed for a lot of creative freedom in how I messed the place up.
They say that you should write what you know, and that is true to an extent. I also believe that you should not be afraid to write what you do not know. With this said, I feel that one thing to remember is that it is helpful to write about things that you are already interested in and knowledgeable about. If you know a ton about mechanics, maybe you should write about a mechanic? If you play sports religiously, perhaps a movie about a person who shares similar interests in that regard? It is likely that you already have a bunch of stuff in your life based around this interest to help kickstart a story.
5. Do things on set in a timely fashion:
At this budget level, you are likely not going to be able to pay cast and crew, which means they will be volunteering their time. When people are volunteering their time, I very rarely push them to do things like 12 hour shoots and it is important that enough food for the duration is provided if it happens. I want to make sure that people are having fun, especially if they aren't getting paid.
As for planning each scene, arranging the location, gathering the props and scheduling the actors, this can all be done at a slower pace. DARKSLIDE was shot over a 1 year span by shooting almost 1 day every week (usually on the weekend). This means you will have to find people who are generally interested in your idea, because they will have to be on board for the long haul, if you are going this route. This is another important reason as to why you should make sure that their time is utilized well and that they are having a good time.
Many shooting days on DARKSLIDE would be 4-6 hours long, and did not require much travel from home base, and the scenes were setup quickly. When we didn't shoot 1 day a week, sometimes there were 1-2 week breaks in between working with the actors. On these breaks I used that time to gather b-roll footage and time-lapses, that way I would not be wasting time doing that kind of stuff while I am with the actors.
6. Consider crowd-funding, but with caution:
Everyone wants to make movies with someone else's money, and the key to doing this seems to be appealing to their sentiments. The crowd-funding projects that I often see get funding success usually have a very convincing argument that the project offers something unique that nothing else has ever talked about, and that the idea is in fact important to be talked about in the first place.
Going into the DARKSLIDE crowd funding campaign, which raised around $3675, I initially set the goal high at $10,000. What I found out, is that even with the amount of work I had put in (making quite a few video updates and promotional images all over social media), it still was not enough to raise the $10,000 goal.
I redid my pitch video 5 times for the first version (out of 3), it took over 13 hours for that one version alone. I must have spent over 150 hours on the campaign for the 60 days it was open. But it still wasn't enough, me working on it alone was not enough, I needed a team of people all putting in hours of their time to promoting and networking.
Still, with flexible funding, we received the $3675 raised and it did indeed help the film greatly. So choosing to crowd-fund was a good choice for DARKSLIDE overall. Having done it, I can now see just how much work it is. I thought I put a lot of work into the campaign, but if I had put more work into it and raised $10,000, the project could have expanded even more.
7. The sky is the limit:
You should start by writing in what you have already, that will give you a good baseline. But from there, I say the sky is the limit. Don't limit your imagination (within reason). If you want to have a helicopter chase, do it, but conceit that you might need to use miniatures or sound trickery and that it isn't going to look like a James Bond film.
The story is number one, and don't be afraid to tell your story any way you can, with any means you can. Focus on strengthening the world in which your story takes place. Dream big, and look to the sky as the limit. You want your main character to turn into a giant? Do you want the sky to turn purple and an evil vortex to appear protruding with horrifying tentacles? Do you want a field of wildflowers so bright they make your eyes hurt to start singing a lullaby? Do it. Why not?
You don't need thousands of dollars, you just need creativity. Don't do the thing where you limit yourself and your ideas. Find a way, make a compromise, find a creative route around the problem. Refine this new route until you are happy, and adjust your vision to fit this new strategy. What you imagine can be more grand than what is capable in reality, but this should not be limiting. Focus on capturing the feelings and the messages of what you imagine with the means and materials that you have in real life.
People will naysay, but it doesn't really matter. A filmmaker makes films, and as long as you are making films, you are a filmmaker.