Improving the quality of your non-funded film
Written by Saranne Bensusan
I am a writer/producer who has written four short films and two features that successfully went on to get made. I have produced 11 films in total, including eight short films and three feature films. In the 2015/2016 year (starting at Cannes in May 2015) I have had 15 international film festival screenings of my work, with a future screening of Mano a Mono at Carmarthen Bay Film Festival in May 2016 (a BAFTA Cymru qualifying festival) and ‘The Hunting of the Snark’ being screened as part of the Toronto Film Week, which runs alongside the Toronto Film Festival in September. I have also picked up six awards at festivals in that time.
1 – Sound. Most new film makers are thinking about what camera they want to shoot their film on, and don’t really give the same level of attention to the sound. If you have only a few hundred quid out of your own pocket to make your film, spend some of it on a Sound Recordist. It is best to shoot on a DSLR with decent sound than spend the money on hiring a RED, with a cheap catch-all omnidirectional mic sitting in the room somewhere. The same goes for having the mic riding shotgun on the camera and then standing it six foot away from the action. Microphones need to be as close as possible to the action without being in shot – we have used microphone stands attached to boom poles to hold microphones, and hidden microphones in books before. Having hidden body mics on your actors will reduce the need for ADR even when shooting outside.
2 – Sound. Again. If what you have recorded is ruined by an airplane every 90 seconds (we film near Gatwick most of the time so this is a real problem for us) or by noisy traffic, or a million birds start tweeting just as you shout ‘action’, then it may be necessary to record ADR.
Please wait until there is a final cut of the film before you do this. Recording ADR isn’t an opportunity to change the dialogue in the script or correct errors, and you should only use it if necessary.
Don’t start your shoot with a view that everything will be re-recorded after.
Dialogue and phrasing of ADR must be exactly the same as the final cut of the film; otherwise it will look like your film has had a bad sound edit, which lowers the production value of the film considerably. You can choose to record a wild track on set, which is good for action scenes where there are no close ups of the actors delivering their lines.
3 – White balance your camera! This may sound like we are teaching your grandmother to suck eggs, but the amount of orange or blue rushes we see is alarming. Secondly, check your footage after each take if see if it has come out OK. If it is any shade of orange that has not been agreed beforehand, you should white balance your camera again and go for another take. Another reason for orange footage is poor lighting (see number 4).
Nothing in post production will replace a proper white balance on set, and not doing this will lower the production value of your film. This could be the difference between getting your film selected at a festival for screening or you getting that email that says ‘the competition was very high this year and unfortunately your film has not been selected’.
4 – Lighting. If you don’t have the budget for lights, you can use normal household lights and table lamps to light the set. A tip here to control variations in colour temperature is to swap light bulbs out to even colour temperature prior to white balancing the camera. With normal household lighting, you will see the colour temperature difference from room to room, with some lights looking orange and others looking blue or white. Aim for white light and use daylight light bulbs. We also found that some energy bulbs can cause banding, and we have avoided this by swapping the energy bulbs out for old fashioned tungsten ones, and using coloured bulbs that matched the colour palette of the film to make the colour grade look better.
5 – Focus and composition. It is very easy to set the camera up in the corner of the room and capture all the action. Consider close ups and cut aways to supplement your story telling, or to convey a feeling; and when you are outside, try experimenting with extra wide shots. In your lens arsenal the basics should include an 18-55mm and 80-135mm zoom. I also keep a couple of 50mm primes and a 28mm prime to hand.
Make sure that you know how to use the focus functions of the camera and practice beforehand; and playback footage on set to check to see if the ‘autofocus’ function isn’t focussing on something 10 metres behind the person you are filming.
6 – Make sure that everyone gets the right credit. Don’t give out ‘favour credits’ to people or mates who are not actually doing the job as you still need someone to do the actual job, and you need to be able to offer up an incentive if you are not offering pay.
7 – Never say ‘let’s sort it in post’ or ‘that can be done in post’ once you are already on set and filming. If any of your crew suggests this then don’t accept it as a legitimate solution to an on-set problem.
Deferring work to post production in an unplanned way complicates your edit and risks your film not looking how you intended, or even worse, a film you can’t use.
If you need special effects, plan ahead first and make sure everyone knows, is capable, and has the tools to do what they need to do. For some special effects shots, there will need to be work done on set first. This needs to be addressed in pre-production.
If you need an extreme close up shot, make sure it is on the shot list so that your DOP can have the right lens at hand, rather than asking the editor to ‘zoom’ the footage after. Your post production should be planned, not used to cover up poor planning and compromises suggested by other members of the team.
The person who handles your post will be putting as much time into the film as you are, so ask yourself what they are getting out of this. If all you have offered is expenses, then perhaps cut them in as a producer? After all, they are doing something massive to make your dream film happen.
8 – No exterior day for night filming! Ever. It really looks bad and never looks like night time. If you need a night time shot, wait until it gets dark to shoot it. Day for night colour grades rarely look authentic and it will create a lot of work for your colourist. If you must do a day for night shoot, shoot during civil twilight or nautical twilight either at dawn or dusk, and never shoot a day for night whilst the sun is visible in the sky. We get a lot of requests from people to turn bright lunchtime sunny weather into night time. Think about your team – would your DOP be able to use it in their showreel?
9 – Keep your short films short. Aim for your film to be less than 10 minutes. Festivals like to have lots of short films during screenings and a short film of 15-45 minutes is less likely to be screened compared to its shorter counterparts unless it has exceptional storytelling and cinematic style.
10 – Clapper Boards – When using a clapper board to sync sound with picture, there must be something on the sound file to identify and match it to the corresponding footage. You need to read what is on the board out loud so that the editor can line it up with the appropriate footage. This may sound like we are stating the obvious, but we have had to listen to every sound file in a series of takes to find the one we are looking for because the clapper person has not spoken the scene/shot/take out loud when they have clapped. This is enormously time consuming for the editor, who is probably not getting paid. When time is short and there is no time to clap on the front of the take, say ‘board on the end’ into the mic and write up the board during the take and clap it at the end before cutting – and say the scene/shot/take etc.
Make sure the whole of the board is in shot when boarding a take. This may sound like we are stating the obvious again, but we have had footage where the clapper part of the board is out of shot when clapped, out of shot completely. The easiest way to around this is to board the take before setting up the shot. This will also resolve the issue of out of focus clapper boards as well.