When Not to D-I-Y…

I love the Do-It-Yourself world and do, indeed, do many more things than I ever imagined possible. Being able to do some rudimentary things like download and organize footage that’s been shot allows me to get things done cheaper and on my own timetable. Being able to create basic websites and instructional videos and webinars has allowed me to reach a lot of people with really good information. On my last film, I did all of the accounting including payroll and handled most of the legal work. Having technology help me get routine tasks done myself saved money and helped make the movie a reality. When I think back on it, I even became a screenwriter many years ago just so that I would have something to produce!

But there are situations when D-I-Y should be handled with caution.

I met recently with a young person who had worked in the film industry for a number of years and was quite successful in her niche but, like many of us, had grown restless. She initiated the meeting because she wanted to talk about “moving into producing.” Her reputation and her skill set seemed to lend itself to that goal. But as we talked she expressed the desire to tell stories and to control those stories as much as possible; in essence to be a writer-director-producer.

I met another young man who was about to direct his first feature. He was also producing it   alone, by necessity, and was planning on shooting and editing it as well. His script was quite good and he had some resources but was making the decision up front to “save money” by being a multi-hyphenate; doing the work of four people to conserve his cash.

My advice to both of these people was essentially the same: try to keep the number of hyphens in your title down to ONE as you start out.  Some jobs naturally lend themselves to working together like Writer-Director. There are certainly a few successful filmmakers who have other hyphenates like Director-Cinematographer. There are even some exceptional people with two hyphenates. But I think there is something very important about collaboration and about doing what one does best. Consider what you really, really want to be and what you excel at, then find good people to handle the other jobs.

My theory here is that even exceptional people are probably exceptional in only one area. Let’s say, as in the case above that you plan on being a Director-Producer-Cinematographer-Editor. Let’s say you are an exceptional Director (if you’re going to excel, I’d say THAT would be the area that will get your career the farthest!). So you are a great Director that is now working with an average Cinematographer and Editor and, possibly a not very good Producer. The question is, would the movie be better served with a great Cinematographer, a really talented Editor and a better Producer? I’d say yes to all three. Having skilled people in all of those areas will easily make up for the sacrifices you’ll make to have the money to hire them.

One word about the Producing credit – this is one where there are so many kinds of producers and contributions that can come from them that a lot of Directors do indeed function as producers in the early stages of getting their projects off the ground. Having a credit that acknowledges that is okay with me but I think it’s important to hand the actual job of producing off to someone who is capable as the production becomes real. I have had the Producer-Writer credit on several occasions and I have to literally take the Writer Hat off and put the Producer Hat on at a certain point if I am to be most effective.

The Editor hyphenate is especially tricky but is also more open than the others. It is possible to assemble a cut of your film yourself and then bring in an Editor or even a consulting editor down the road. It’s not my favorite scenario because the function of the editor is to be as objective as possible about the footage that was shot and it’s tough to be objective when you planned every setup and lived through the 18 hour day that it took to shoot. At the very least, if you’re going down this road you need to screen the film extensively and take careful notes of audience reactions. Try to take off the Director or Producer or Cinematographer hat when you are in the editing room and focus on making the best film possible from the available footage.

Generally, filmmaking is and should be collaborative. That can be scary and result in a feeling of “losing control” for filmmakers. But listening to other people’s ideas doesn’t mean you’ve lost control. Find people who share your vision and who can add to it, then hear their ideas and accept the ones that make sense for your movie. Don’t cut this process short by deciding to Do-It-All-Yourself!

What’s your personal experience with “doing everything” or “doing too much”? And how has it impacted the end result?

A Slow Film Movement?

The desire for speed in our lives is everywhere. Faster internet connections, faster communication methods and faster package delivery are just a few places where we seem to be reaching a fever pitch. When ordering online I often feel as though the delivery truck is downstairs waiting for me to choose my item so the driver can run it upstairs before I have a chance to log off the site – that is, if I have time to be bothered logging off.

More and more I encounter the “need for speed” demon in teaching film production. It permeates everything from budgeting where I can find sites advertising “a professional and accurate budget in 60 seconds” to programs that have students write, shoot and edit a movie in a matter of a few days. I am especially suspicious of programs where a script is written in a day or two, shot in a day and then edited in a day. The art and craft of filmmaking is, thus, reduced to some sort of race or competition against the clock. Regardless of the skill of the people involved the end result will not be nearly as good as it could have been had they taken more time. That’s the one resource that every stage of filmmaking requires. Since everyone knows that “time is money” we understand the need to cut time significantly in order to reduce budgets. But is that the way to teach film or anything?

Technology is partly to blame here. Equipment has become lighter and cheaper, making high quality product possible with minimal investment. The lighter gear and the digital editing systems have allowed filmmakers to do more with much less. Time that was once spent lighting, for example, has been reduced to allow more time for shooting. But does Technology equal Time? Should it?

I am all in favor of technology because it has made many of the films I produced a reality. Without technology my last film, UNION SQUARE, would not have been possible. And part of the production plan for that film was a terribly fast shooting schedule for a feature film – 12 days. In fact, the plan was for a 10 day shoot but we extended it because it simply wasn’t practical. Let’s examine my journey into the world of ‘flash filmmaking’…

UNION SQUARE was conceived of as a feature film to be largely shot in one specific location – my producing partner’s loft. It was to have as few characters as possible and we were only to venture outside if we stayed close by since we had only one production vehicle, a mini-van. It was to be shot on the Canon 5d, the fashionable camera at that moment, with as little equipment as possible since space was very limited. The crew was also to be kept to a minimum, anywhere from 12 to 15 people depending on the day. The catch in all of this is that a group of 20-somethings was not executing this plan but rather a group of 40 and 50-somethings. In fact, the combined professional experience of the producers and director was well over 100 years. We had accomplished actors – Academy Award winner Mira Sorvino, Emmy winner Tammy Blanchard and Tony winner Patti LuPone. To complicate matters a dog and a very young child were added to the story.

Despite the unusually short shooting schedule the timeline of the project was actually well over a year. Here’s how it went: The idea was hatched in March with the stated goal of a November 1st shoot. The writers went to work on the script and delivered a draft in mid-August that was sent out for casting. Light pre-production began in September by which time we had our key creative crew signed on. Casting was resolved in this period and scouting for the handful of additional locations began. October was the start of formal prep, rounding out the crew, deciding on locations, shot listing and finalizing equipment. There was a two week rehearsal period scheduled that led right into the first day of shooting on November 1st. As I said before the 10-day shoot had to expand to 12 to accommodate the pacing and style that developed. Post-production didn’t formally begin until mid-January. It lasted until mid-April in order to lock picture. We then waited for the right sound editorial team and colorist to be available as well as the right artist to record an end credit song as we geared up for a September premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. All in all, from conception to premiere it was an 18-month process. That’s probably the fastest project timetable that I will ever see.

Why so much time and was all of it necessary? Interestingly, the lack of money gave us more freedom to spend Time because it was largely our own time that we were investing. The writing period allowed enough time for the writers to get a very solid ‘cast-able’ draft – one that appealed to quality actors. The rehearsal period was really important to the success of the actors and their performances. The decisions to wait for the right artist to record that song, the right sound design team and the right colorist were absolutely the correct ones. Each person contributed a great deal to the overall production value and quality of the end product. The Time – essentially the breathing room – that we had was even more important to the process than the limited amount of money we spent.

But how does that apply to teaching filmmaking? I’ve often heard film students dismiss professional protocols, saying, “I know that’s what they do in real films but that doesn’t work in a student film.” Why not? Why would a student intending to work in the real industry not employ professional practices? Why wouldn’t teachers want to model professional behavior? I believe timelines and deadlines are an essential part of filmmaking but they shouldn’t be used as gimmicks. There’s no award category for the fastest written screenplay or the shortest shooting schedule. An audience, sitting down to watch a film, will judge it on its merits and not on how quickly the author came up with the story.

Saying to a filmmaker – any filmmaker at any stage in their career – that, “We’ve taken away the majority of your funding resources, now we’re going to see just how fast you can work,” is a cruel trick. And I really don’t see how much can be learned in the process. Writing, especially, is a craft that requires time and room to research and think about story first. A gifted screenwriter may come up with a worthy short film script in a day or two but no one should be forced into such a timeline. It removes the actual creative process from the creation and presents a really artificial environment. And even that “worthy” screenplay will only get better upon rewriting and editing.

Editing the project is another place where there is really no substitute for Time. Taking hours and of hours of footage and first assembling it, then rough cutting it, screening it and working it down to a coherent story takes time. And only once you’ve arrived at a coherent fine cut can you begin the process of really improving elements like visuals and performance before locking your picture edit. And that step, in turn, is where enhancements like sound design and music come into play. Editing is very much a process of discovery just like writing and requires it’s due. That’s why, the move from clunky film editing equipment like upright moviolas to automated editing systems haven’t really reduced the number of weeks in the average post-production schedule. Editing remains a process.

Let’s use technology to lower costs and increase quality – thus making filmmaking more democratic – but let’s avoid the ‘faster is better’ approach. A Slow Film Movement treats Time as a precious resource, more valuable than money. Taking Time in the creative process makes a better film and a better filmmaker.

What do you think? Have you been put under unrealistic deadline pressure and what kind of work resulted?