SHOOTING TIPS FOR FIRST TIME FILMMAKERS
“Prior preparation prevents poor performance.”
By Shailik Bhaumik
Images from the award winning film, “Dasein”
This article is for filmmakers who are going to shoot their first feature film and comes entirely from my own personal experiences. Other experienced filmmakers may have differing opinions. Some say, “the shooting floor is a battle field” and they’re not wrong at all. All of us have come into this field being inspired by watching a great film and saying, “Whoa! I’d like to make movie like that!” We all have fantasies and visions about our own films, but bringing those images or frames to reality takes a lot of homework and craftsmanship. So, shooting without prior preparation is almost suicidal.
You may have heard the stories about the “genius” who used to go to the shooting floor without any script or proper preparation and how he or she had discovered new techniques right on the spot, but trust me, experimenting or improvising on the shooting floor could bring disaster to your project. Be assured that for the entire shooting process you don’t need much creativity. You only need to have good craftsmanship and managerial skills. Do all the improvisation in the preproduction stage, but not at the shooting floor.
1. A good script is a director’s best friend. With little money, time, or experience, it really is doubtful that you’ll be able to pull movie magic out of your brain without a solid screenplay. If you have a great script, you still have a shot. People will forgive all sorts of technical imperfections, or budgetary constraints if they’re drawn into the story you’re telling.
2. When breaking down the script, try to isolate the beats and turns of every scene. A shot list is important, but it’s also important to know why a shot is there in the first place. In a limited schedule, sometimes almost everything that’s been planned is thrown out because you just don’t have the time, so it’s good to at least have a basic understanding of what is needed from a scene. What is it supposed to feel like? Whose scene is it? Sometimes you can accomplish what you need with one shot instead of five, if the most important moment or emotional turn is captured.
3. Chose an aesthetic or filming approach that you can actually pull off with the time you have. It can take hours to prepare for a dolly shot, a steady-cam sometimes takes forever to really prep for. The result can look great, but you have to really know if your schedule can afford it. If your film is going to be very performance based, and dialogue heavy, you really want to design your approach in a way that gives actors the most flexibility and freedom to do their thing, and sometimes a super complicated, technical camera move puts more of the focus on the super complicated technical camera move… and less on them.
4. The most important work is assembling the right cast and crew. Honestly, your key decisions will happen before you shoot a frame of anything. You want people that are quick on their feet, skilled, passionate, and will fight to make the film as well as it can be, because with barely any time, that’s what it will take.
5. Run! Run! Run! When you have tons to tackle in one day of shooting, sometimes all you can do is just jump in there and start filming. Save the intellectualizing for the editing room, you really don’t have time.
6. If someone is telling you that you are wrong – fire them without hesitation and early. They will only get worse as the shoot goes on.
7. Even if you think you’ve got the shot, go ahead and get another one anyway. Trust me, when you get to the editing room you’ll be happy that you did. It’s not that the first one is bad per se, but technical errors can sometimes slip past people when they’ve been working long hours, and moving quickly… and sometimes, we all just want the take to go well so badly that occasionally our brain can play tricks on us. You don’t want to go crazy and get 20 takes of somebody turning a doorknob, but even when the adrenaline is going, and it seems like there’s so much else to do, always make sure to go again just to be safe.
8. Spend your money on screen – nobody cares that you shot on an Arri Alexa with Cooke lenses. Spend money less on equipment and get more shooting days. It’s the story that matters not the kit.
9. If your shooting schedule is 14 days, make sure that your cast and crew set aside 15. One problem with shooting on a very tight schedule is, that if you don’t make your day… you’ll still have to get that stuff you missed shot at some point, it needs to go somewhere, and it’s usually at the most inopportune time ever that you’ll have to get it. Always plan that things will go wrong, because without fail, they will, and on a short shoot, it can really derail you for good if there’s no margin for error.
10. There is no movie without your crew. Always appreciate your crew, and make your crew feel appreciated. At the end of the day, the movie is in their hands.
11. FX takes very long time. It doesn’t matter how subtle, make-up and make-up fx take a VERY long time. Whenever you have a make-up effect planned, think about ANYTHING else you can shoot while that’s going on, or you’ll literally be paying people to sit on their asses.
12. Don’t drink at the end of the day. It’s nice to want to bond with your crew at the bar, but you have to understand that they’d rather have a functional director who isn’t hung-over and groggy. Some people can pull it off, but filming is really taxing, and your brain has to be sharp to juggle all sorts of last second decisions and to solve problems. There are so many things that you’re responsible for, and even though it can be tempting to want to decompress after a long stressful day of shooting, you’re really better off just going home and going to bed.
Stay positive. No matter how crazy things get, no matter how impossible everything can sometimes feel, as long as you try to grin and bear it, try to tackle every scene with enthusiasm, heart, and total concentration, you’ll get through the end of the day, the end of the week, the end of the shoot, and hopefully, with luck, you might even get a movie out of it.
Shailik Bhaumik is an award-winning filmmaker and entrepreneur. Known for his feature film “Dasein”, Shailik is the founder and Chairman of Human Lab Corporation, a Multinational Film Company whose mission it is to help Independent Filmmakers survive and thrive in this highly competitive industry. Shailik oversees worldwide operations including production, distribution, and marketing for HLC’s live-action films, as well as films released under the HLC banner.