11 Lessons from Indie Filmmaking
Posted Nov 13, 2009

’ve produced and directed event, broadcast, and corporate video for 2 decades now. Although there’s always room for creativity and experimentation and innovation in our work, there really is a standard operating procedure when it comes to commissioned video production.

Artistry aside, those of us who cut our teeth in event and corporate digital video work developed a measurable and marketable skill set that might best categorize us as “digital imaging technicians” (DITs). As filmmakers start adopting video cameras into their workflows, it provides another avenue of opportunity for the DITs among us to apply these skills. Admittedly, high-end cameras are very different from the cameras most of us shoot with; using a prosumer HDV camcorder does not make you an expert on RED. But there are many skills and expectations that experienced video professionals can bring to the indie filmmaking table that will serve a film project well.

I was recently tapped to work on an independent feature film. It was a Western set in 1880s Texas. It was shot on the Panasonic AG-HPX300, a new P2 camcorder. The production had assembled a nice kit including numerous P2 cards, a data-wrangling truck, and the P+S Technik PRO35 adapter to shoot on 35mm prime lenses, which created an amazing look. They also had two HVX200 handheld camcorders without 35mm adapters.

In essence, it’s a video shoot. But there were also some fundamental differences. Based on several days of experiences there, I have a few recommendations for those embarking on a similar path: 11 lessons learned about indie filmmaking from my sojourn into that world.

35mm Cine lenses need an adapter to work on a pro camcorder, but they give you a true filmic image with a shallow depth of field.

1. Crew Properly
Even a “spec,” or deferred, pro- duction should endeavor to solidly book critical crew for the needed tasks throughout the production. If you need to have two crews—one for preset, the other actively shooting—then you need to have not only a few extra hands, but also a production coordinator over- seeing both teams who knows what both teams are doing and can get people setting up the right stuff in the right place at the right time.

This coordinator may even need a small staff of his or her own to touch base with and get answers from different departments. Our Western called for special costuming, animal wranglers, historical props, weapons, fights, and a whole lot more. A question as simple as, “Can we get the shot where she comes into town?” really means, “Can we suit up 30 extras, wrangle the horses to the stagecoach, and have it all ready in an hour for the second unit of photography to shoot 10 miles from our current location?”

That’s a lot to answer, and without people dedicated to managing all this information and all these different departments, a lot of people will find themselves racing to get something that was missed or twiddling their thumbs waiting for something to do.

In the field, you have to wrangle shade for the camera operators as well as the horses.

2. Think Through Your Scheduling—Repeatedly
In the heat of a Texas summer, you don’t want lots of people dressed up in heavy period costumes unnecessarily. In fact, you don’t want them on set at all if they won’t be in a shot that day. That way, you don’t have to pay them—or feed them, for that matter.

For outdoor shots, the weather determines everything. Sunrise, afternoon, sunset—those parts of the script have those times of day. Rain pushes the shoot indoors. Schedule big crowd shots early in the shooting schedule, and get them out of the way. You’ll have your main actors through the whole shoot, so if your second day is rained out, you can move indoors. But if you get done with all the big crowd shots first, then all the extras go home and your budget will thank you. So will the extras.

3. Communication is Key
A multicamera shoot in the event world would have communication going everywhere and the director could talk to everyone easily—audio, lights, cameras, stage, and more. Live events have multiple communication channels going simultaneously. So why does a film shoot with an even bigger crew have a few walkie-talkies on a few people, and everyone else is deaf? Because that’s how it was done on film sets in the past.

By limiting communication, you enforce a chain of command where information flows top-down but doesn’t easily go back up. That’s good in terms of enabling the head people to stay focused on the shot at hand.

But when it comes to a spread-out production and the need to cue talent and find batteries, P2 cards, props, and more, limited communication does nothing but send various crew members scurrying in different directions at the same time. On our shoot, we needed to cue a stagecoach to come down a winding road and crack a tree branch. This spread out our crew. Then there was a second crew trying to set up our next location. I lost track of how many times people had to drive up and down the long hill to pick up a single piece of gear, to take something back, to get an answer to a question, or even to cue the stagecoach for its critical run. A 15-second shot took more than 2 hours to do. We did it only once, and it was perfect (three cameras rolling), but so much time was wasted because of a lack of communication.

Moreover, while it might not be standard filmmaking protocol, huddling everyone together to talk through “the plan” not only makes everyone feel like they are part of the team, but it means they can more effectively assist the production because they know what the goal is. This is very common in theater productions, and I’ve brought it to my corporate work, but I have never seen it in movie production.

4. Establish Your “Look”
One of the key elements of a multicamera video shoot is having all the cameras timed and color-matched, or “painted,” because they will be switched live, and all those shots have to look like they’ve come from the same camera. You would never, ever try to mix two cameras that would produce such disparate images as they had on this film: a big, on-shoulder, big-chip camera with a prime lens adapter and a handheld small-chip camera with a built-in zoom lens.

The more effective approach is to either go with two smaller camcorders and 35mm adapters or not go with 35mm adapters at all. Yes, it would be a shame, but a tight 10-day production schedule precludes using only one camera for every single shot of the movie. If your Steadicam can’t handle the big camera at all, then ditch it. In post, you’ll be much better off when it comes to cutting the footage together.

Will the images from these two cameras match side by side? Not at all.

5. Consider the Effect of Location on Production
Don’t try to critically assess your image based on an 8.4" LCD that works fine for corporate productions but that you can hardly see in direct sunlight. A pop-up canopy does not solve the problem; it simply provides shade. You need a production truck, a dark room, or a good Hoodman that provides a truly black environment between your eyes and the monitor.

Of course, walking back and forth between blazing Texas July sunlight and the hooded monitor is probably not great for critically assessing images either. There ought to be a dedicated DIT who stays with the monitor to critically assess focus, color, dark, light, and such and relays image status to the director of photography (DP) or camera op.

Additional monitors can help cast and crew as well. It takes longer for the director to yell back to the set and for someone on the set to relay the message as to where the actors should have their hands than it does for the actors to look at a monitor and put them in the right place. Just as seeing a digital still image lets us improve the image, video monitors help ensure everyone is on the same page to get the shot right. We’re all on the same team, aren’t we?

6. The Waveform is Your Friend
Interiors with blown-out windows are not acceptable in films, and you can’t recover crushed highlights or shadows—you have to make sure both are there when you capture the image. The scope tells you where everything in the shot falls in terms of luminance. Crushed is crushed.

Only after you see the scope do you know, for example, to put a couple scrims outside the window to knock it down or a couple of reflectors outside the stagecoach to bounce in more fill light to even out the image. You can always add more contrast later, but it’s impossible to put that shadow detail back if it was never captured to begin with.

During the project we switched from an 8" Panasonic monitor to a larger Sony LUMA series monitor with a built-in scope and a true 1280x720 pixel-for-pixel display. This made a huge difference in terms of giving people information about the image. But not everyone knows what to do with this information. The director is concerned about overall direction. Other people check focus. The DP is operating the camera, so he or she can’t see the monitor and scope at all. A DP/DIT whose job it is to assess the image should be the one with the biggest and best monitor and scope. Otherwise, the information is wasted and everyone is basically guessing.

7. Roll Multiple Cameras
It’s easy to live-cut when the action really matches. When you have multiple cameras capture the same moment in time, the action matches perfectly. Films have a long tradition of single-camera production. But that really has zero bearing on production today. In essence, it’s a video shoot—there’s no film, and now, no tape. It’s data. So roll everything. Camera 1 gets the wide shot. Camera 2 gets the close-up of the face of the lead actor. Camera 3 gets the horses’ hooves as they scramble to a halt and kick up dirt.

Then in editing those hooves match, and the exact lurch of the actor as he pulls on the reigns will match between the wide and the close shot because they are the same exact shot. It’s not the typical production style for filmmaking, but it should be—especially when you have the unpredictability of animals to contend with.

It’s harder to light for multiple cameras than it is for a single camera. But if lighting is changed for each shot, then there isn’t consistency in the lighting. If it’s a big shoot, you’ll have time to set the lights up for multiple cameras. If it’s a small shoot, then there isn’t much lighting going on anyway. The viewer will actually perceive the consistency of the light—that it doesn’t constantly change from shot to shot.

If you have dialogue between multiple people, multiple cameras can really make the difference when matching the interlocutors’ interactions. Multiple takes still provide the option to choose between the delivery of one take over another, just as most multicamera sitcoms are shot more than once to give the editors options during post.

How well can you critically assess your HD footage on a 7" field monitor in the middle of the set? Not well at all.

8. Make Sure You Have Enough Power
We were shooting in an 1880s mock-Western town, so there weren’t outlets everywhere to plug gear in. Or we were out in deep pastures to shoot riding sequences. Either way, we needed power because the main camera only had one battery. It also had an AC adapter that could charge the battery, but only when the power to the camera was shut off. So we were essentially tethered to AC all the time.

Generators create noise, so for remote areas we had to bring in generators, park them far away, and run gobs of extension cables to get power to where we needed it. Lighting also took power, but thankfully we were also utilizing LED lighting, so our power demands were far less than what they could have been.

For day sequences, having a lot of the proper kind of batteries to run the main camera and the monitor would have enabled much faster setup and teardown for each shot. If this were a live-truck production, the CCU cable from the truck (one wire) would provide camera and monitor power as well as communication.

9. LED Lighting Rocks
Not only could we plug 60 of our smaller LED cans into one 20-amp circuit, but we did not need gels for any of them. These were RGB cans normally used for stage work, but each of the three colors was independently dimmable through DMX control from a laptop. Every single light could be addressed indi-vidually. The only feature they lacked was a separate “dimmer” control to control luminance once a particular color was established.

These lights also had basic colors built in without DMX control. So if you just need a whitewash for overall luminance or a deep blue to re-create the moon, you have it in a few taps—without DMX control. We lit an entire nighttime dance scene with these LED lights providing “moonlight” coming through the trees. The lights also proved to be cool running, so our daytime inte- riors inside of period cabins (without air conditioning) weren’t overheated from the lights. They are easy to carry, and there are no hot filaments to break. If it weren’t for issues with the rendition of specific colors from the narrow-wavelength LED lamps, these devices would and should take over the lighting industry immediately.

10. Wireless Audio Speeds Production
Even though the wireless spectrum gets more and more crowded every day, there’s still spectrum available, and the inverse square rule means your mics are closer and louder to your receivers than anything else. Directional receive antennas are even better. There are few things worse than having cabled audio go to a central mixer over wires and then back out to the camcorder with more wires and then have to keep moving the setup for different angles or reverse angles of the same shots. Power cables get mixed in with audio cables. Everything turns to spaghetti. There’s a buzz you can’t get rid of. Teardown and movement to the next location is delayed.

I’ve worked some of these reality and home shows, and the camera crews they employ move around with amazing agility. How? Wireless audio and all-battery operation. My work on Pinks for the Speed Channel had upward of 32 wireless channels and seven cameras going all over the place—all at the same time. I carried the entire tray of wireless mics throughout the entire active area of a race track while the audio engineer listened to all the tracks to hear what channels might have interference in what locations.

Run wireless mics to the audio op, who will provide a wireless fold-back to the camera. Then broadcast a mix on a separate channel for the director and other people to listen to. This is rather standard on video productions. Moviemakers who prefer separate audio/ video recording can still do this and slate everything. But when you’re working with a video camera recording audio, why create extra work?

11. Pick Your Acquisition Format Wisely
In general chitchat with techies on the shoot, I was told that the movie was being shot in 720p24 because that’s the highest that the cameras could shoot. Not being an expert on all the new P2 cameras, I looked up the HPX300 when I got back to the modern world and found this in the spec info: “2.2-megapixel 3-MOS imagers and full 1920x1080, 10-bit 4:2:2 AVC-Intra recording ... The 1080P and 480P signals are recorded with 2:3 pull down (23.98p) or 2:3:3:2 advanced mode (23.98pA).” So it’s not very hard to get true 1080p24 out of that.

But the HVX200 is limited to a “native” 1280x720 image. There are some who say that the actual chip resolution is lower, but it’s hard to find this out because there are no touted resolution specs for the chips in the HVX200: a 1/3" 16:9 progressive 3-CCD imager (effective resolution of 1.1 million active pixels with a spatial offset).”

Either way, I don’t see a limitation of 720p resolution here, but there is a limitation if you want to record pure progressive frames (CMOS issues notwithstanding). You have to use a 24p mode only available at 720p. The 1080 formats are recorded interlaced. 720p24 maximizes P2 space and reduces issues for film-out. This is not a huge technical hurdle, but one that the producers assessed and decided on before production.

Resolution, like camera type, frame rate, and even a color lookup table, are all tools to help you achieve a certain look. No one thing is best.

I was intrigued by many of the choices made on this movie production. It was a creative script with a very ambitious 10-day timeline and limited financial resources. Decisions were made to spend the little money they had in certain places and not in others, and that created overarching problems throughout the production.

First and foremost, I learned that communication is key. Even with free/deferred-cost labor, everyone deserves the respect of being met with and told what the big plan is and what their role is. That way, they are best able to assist the production without someone telling them to do every little task.

Communication between departments and crews is also critical. In television, you’re either wearing a headset or you are such an experienced part of the team that you can communicate with eyes and nods and everyone knows what’s up.

This movie had a production trailer. But it merely handled P2 dumps. Imagine if they leveraged it to be a critical digital imaging and assessment control room. They could have shot with the two HVX200s and captured both to hard drive over SDI, or at least critically monitored them in an enclosed room. They could have put wireless receivers in that truck and listened to the audio in a controlled space, as opposed to on a beat-up pair of headphones in the field by the camera.

Of course, it’s easy to second-guess any production decision. But by examining how certain choices caused problems in other productions, you can avoid making the same mistakes and ensure that your independent movie shoot rolls smoothly, and let the talented professionals you bring in make sure the final product meets, or even exceeds, your expectations.

Anthony Burokas (VidPro at ieba.com) of IEBA Communications has shot award-winning corporate video internationally and recorded events since the days of 3/4" tape. His is currently technical director for the PBS series Flavors of America and resides just outside of Dallas.