Thursday, 8 December 2011

10 Tips for Student Filmmakers

The three of us spent four years studying Film Production Technology at Staffordshire University. It was an incredible experience and we've learned a lot, but it's safe to say we made a lot of mistakes as well. If only someone could have given us a heads-up so we didn't have to learn things the hard way...

10. Budget
Yes, it's a lovely gun, but
it's a film about cavemen.
You're a student so the chances are you don't have a huge amount of money and, unless your University gives you a budget to make your film (that'd be nice), you will have to fund your film yourself. There are many different ways that a film's budget can spin out of control and, in our experience, films are rarely completed under-budget. Payment/expenses for cast can make up a significant portion of your budget, especially if you have lots of characters in your film. So before you even start writing your script, think about how much money you can afford to invest in this film and whether you will be able to afford to pay for cast, crew, equipment, location, props and sets. The very worst thing you can do is run out of money before the film is completed as you are then left with no money and no film. However, that doesn't mean you should sacrifice quality for the sake of money - just make sure you're spending money on the right things.

9. Preproduction, Preproduction, Preproduction
If properly scheduled, planned and rehearsed, there's no reason why your film shoot shouldn't run without a hitch. Investing the time during preproduction to schedule your shoot, plan your shots and conduct lighting tests can save you hours of time during shooting that would otherwise be wasting deliberating, discussing or arguing about creative or logistical decisions. Time is so precious on set - you don't want to waste a single minute discussing something that could have been decided weeks ago. You should never make a film without some form of Schedule, Storyboards and Shot Lists.

8. Don't Forget Sound
Far too many student films fail to give enough consideration to sound, then suffer because of it. It is one of those things where it is easy to take it for granted, and you don't realise how important it is until it is done badly, or not at all. The correct score can instantly create the desired emotion in
We didn't actually drop a sofa on top of Cal.
your audience, regardless of what they see on the screen and many effects that would be hard to pull off with visuals (gunshots, car crashes, fight scenes, dropping sofas on people, see left) can be accomplished through the use of appropriate and well timed sound effects.
However, don't solely rely on royalty free sound effects online. Often, they are poor quality and you never have full control over them. On the other hand, if you get yourself a Marantz Player or a Zoom H4n and go out and record your foley sound yourself, you can get the exact sound you want.

7. Work with professional people
There comes a time when you have to start making films with other professional, enthusiastic filmmakers, rather than making them with your friends just because they are your friends. Your friends might not share your passion for filmmaking and the experience may put a serious strain on your friendship. It may sound cold, but it will save you a lot of stress and you will produce a better film if you seek out other like-minded, motivated filmmakers.
Don't rely on friends as cast either. You may think it'd be a lot easier to use your friends as cast, but when you're out on location and you need your "actor" to perform the same routine for the 20th time, you'll learn the difference in a professional actor and a friend who thought it'd be a good idea to star in your film.

6. Production Essentials
From our experience, there are certain things that you should always have on set with you.
• Extension Cables - You can never have enough extension cables. If you're shooting indoors and want to have total control over how your set is lit, you don't want to have to compromise your shot because the cable for one of your lights is that little bit too short.
• Batteries - Always make sure you have a regular stock of every kind of battery that you'll be using for your shoot. Rechargables are preferred, since you can recharge empty ones while you use a different set.
• WD-40 and Tape - "If it should move, but doesn't, use WD-40. If it shouldn't move, but does, use duct tape." WD-40 can help loosen bolts, hinges and moving parts in grip equipment, especially on a cold winter's morning. Duct tape is cheap, easy to tear and can do anything from securing cables to floors and walls, holding together props and sets and even securing the camera to a jib in an emergency!
The elixir of film sets.
• Chocolate - The number one crowd pleaser. Chocolate is known to release endorphins in your body, which make you feel happier. Keeping your cast and crew happy is vital for ensuring a production runs smoothly and having a healthy supply of chocolate on set goes a long way to ensuring that. Coffee and tea can also help as well, especially on that cold winter's morning while the crew use WD-40 to loosen up the tripod head.

5. Working with cast
Getting cast for a student film can be tough. Although there are a lot of up-and-coming actors and actresses who will be happy to work for expenses only in order to get experience and showreel footage,  never forget that most actors will drop out on your project if paid work comes along. Keeping regular communication with your cast before your shoot is also very important so they are kept up to date. As bad as this may sound, if you don't hear from an actor for a week or two and they haven't given you definitive confirmation on their involvement, assume they aren't going to show up. Finally, make sure you make your project worthwhile for your cast by taking care of them during the shoot by providing them with food and drink throughout the shoot, paying them their expenses and giving them with a copy of the finished film once it's finished for their showreel.

4. Keep it simple, dick-head
The phrase "Go big or go home" does not apply for student filmmaking. In our 2nd year, we made the mistake of thinking that a sci-fi film with high production value would impress our lecturers and get us top marks. What resulted was a film that, though ambitious, where the lack of technical merit was only surpassed by how little everyone gave a shit about how much time and money we spent on it. You are far better to think of a simple film idea and execute it well than dream up an incredible epic and do it badly, which leads us to...

3. Work to the Mark Scheme / Criteria
The 90-minute feature that you and your friends painstakingly made over 3 months might be a masterpiece, but if the project was to make a short film under 10 minutes long, you're going to fail.
In a less obvious sense, if it's a film marked on the merits of its cinematography, don't lose too much sleep over the soundtrack. Just like writing an answer in an examination, look at where the most marks are allocated whatever project you are working on and put the most emphasis on those areas. It may seem somewhat stifling in terms of creativity, but projects are about getting marks - there are plenty of opportunities to let your creativity run wild outside of projects (see Tip #1).

2. Don't leave your projects to the last minute!
Lecturers will tell you this over and over again, but so many people learn this lesson the hard way. We certainly did at certain points during University. However, as three former-students, let me tell you this: As a student, you can't make a decent film last minute.
For some courses, it might be possible to leave an essay until the night before, then pull an all-nighter to get it finished for the next day, but that shit don't fly for filmmaking.
You won't be able to write a decent script, pull together a cast and crew, arrange locations, book equipment, shoot the film, score, edit, grade and render off a film without weeks of preparation.

1. Make Films
It's the simplest piece of advise we can offer but so many people fail to do this.
While we were in our 2nd year of study, our lecturer realised why a lot of the films that his students were submitting contained so many basic mistakes: We weren't making films in our own time.
Not for any project or assignment,
Just because we could.
I think anyone who has ever made a film of any description will agree that something always goes wrong when you're making a film. It might not be anything major, just a mild annoyance, but there is always something that doesn't quite go to plan. But you learn from all these little mistakes and you try not to make the same mistake on the next film.
However, a lot of us weren't making films other than for our projects, so we were making all these stupid mistakes when it mattered the most.

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