Hi all. Last time we talked about how myself along with my filmmaking group, Waking Dream Studios, decided to go the fan film route of showing off our skills, and in doing so getting noticed as filmmakers in a much bigger way than we’re accustomed to. Once deciding to take a crack at the DC/Vertigo property John Constantine: Hellblazer a script was written with certain key elements already in place.
What I didn’t mention last time was that, even with the unforeseen aspects, the writing was far and away the easiest and cheapest part of the process, it always will be. This, of course, brings up the question of why even bigger films seem to have so many problems with story, character and structure, when for relatively little cost it could all be sorted out in the scripting phase?
The answer is simple, the writing is usually seen as the least technical part of the filmmaking process, and as such everyone thinks they can have a say in it, they also think that all their ideas are good and that they are right. I’m generalising, but on a big film a lot of people have some say and the waters can soon muddy, despite all common sense. This is an aspect where independent filmmaking is superior; you have the sheer freedom to make exactly the film you want to make.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t have an objective third party involved; I have a small group of friends who I trust to give me feedback because they are very good writers themselves and are objective enough to be fearless in that feedback, they WILL tell me of the issues with my work and make suggestions of their own. With this YOU have to have a strong enough will to take these issues onboard, put your own objectivity to the forefront and then decide what needs changing and what doesn’t.
All this writing and theorising can be done at a leisurely pace, and as such the film still doesn’t feel like a real thing, it is when you take steps into bringing the film to life where the pressure starts being applied and things start getting tough.
What comes next happens in a jumbled order, juggling tasks becomes a requirement and one you should be good at or your project will fall apart at an early stage, or worse, become a right hash-up on the shoot days. For ease of purpose I’ll separate all these pre-production tasks into categories and hopefully give insights not found even in independent filmmaking guides.
We at Waking Dream don’t usually work with budgets in the classical sense of the term, which is to say, we don’t figure out how much a production should cost then produce paperwork and make plans to stick to that number. We DO try to figure out how to make the film as cheaply as possible, so when we spend money it’s necessary to achieve our particular ends, and thrifty. That being said, we don’t often keep track of how much a given film has cost, so while most are made for practically nothing at all, others of equal quality could have cost hundreds of pounds.
In these cases it is usually because we’ve acquired a new piece of kit and/or a number of props. Filmmaking equipment is not cheap to either buy or rent, but we usually fall on the side of purchasing things outright just to have them ready to use on other shoots, which they almost always will be. As any photography enthusiast can tell you, even something as simple as a camera lens can cost many hundreds of pounds, and depending on the quality of the aesthetics you desire from your finished product, these regretful costs usually tend to be worthwhile, firstly because you’re film will be the better for having more kit to choose from and secondly because it’s not a cost you’ll have to incur on a future production.
For our Hellblazer film I fully expected to pay far and away more money out than we have for many of our previous films combined (more even than we spent on our feature debut, Gabriel Small), there would be make-up prosthetics and specialised props required. My initial opinion was that I’d need something in the region of £400-£500 for the various wares, which wasn’t far off the mark, but on completion of the storyboards it became evident that to get some of the shots that I wanted we would require a wide angle lens and some kind of steadycam or stabiliser device, which would bring the costs way up.
There’s no trick in acquiring the money you need for a short, and with this, as with our other productions, Jordan and myself simply dipped into our own pockets. We’re not rich or anything, far from it, we both work in a factory; I work on the shop floor, and have very little by way of disposable income to waste, so the solution, as is the case with most of life’s problems, is to graft. To earn the money required to make our film, I clocked in around eighty hours overtime in less than two months, Jordan used the majority of an annual bonus, which he worked hard for, and that’s how we funded Hellblazer.
There are many other ways to generate cash, of course, but a fan film, legally, has to be non-profit, otherwise you’re open to all manner of lawsuits, so by extension seeking investors is a no-go, you have no return to offer them on the other end. Why anyone would WANT to invest in a short film at all is beyond me because the chances for profit are remarkably slim if they exist at all. You could win a contest, sure, but besides that when was the last time you saw a short film outside of festivals or the internet?… Well, before an animated film I guess, but I’m exempting those as examples.
There’s crowd funding, but this is no less work than doing a bunch of overtime and even then sites like Kickstarter only pay out if you hit your target amount, so it’s not guaranteed and then you have to fulfil a bunch of pledge incentives after the fact. Sites like Indiegogo may prove a little easier, but honestly, the bubble has already kinda burst on the whole crowd funding thing, it got too popular too quickly and people got wary of having appeals pushed into their collective faces. Now campaigns by people who are already professionals in their respective fields tend to be the ones you see going stellar. But whatever, don’t let me put you off having a go.
The other legitimate route to getting a short funded is to apply for that funding via a local or national film/arts grant. These tend to take forever to process and can be a bit of a lottery or choc full unnecessary red-tape issues. All the waiting required to hear if your pitch was successful is time you could be spending making a film, and again, getting this kind of funding for a fan film of a licensed character could be incredibly problematic.
All told and with the advice of our crew ensuring that we get good products for a reasonable price, we’ve paid out for make-up, prosthetic materials, professional looking poker kit, an awesome vintage trenchcoat, the aforementioned lens and stabiliser, the venue, food, fuel, travel costs and inevitable miscellaneous incidentals.
Cast and Crew.
In filmmaking, unless you’re making a huge blockbuster, people will be the most expensive thing for you to attain, so unless you have an unseemly stash of money to hand the odds are pretty high that you have to convince people to work on your production gratis, cast AND crew.
Again, there’s no trick to this, you just have to find who you want to work with and ask them to help out; they’ll say yes or no. Having said that, there are things you can do and ways to conduct yourself to widen the selection and skill sets of people you have to choose from and for them to be more inclined to acquiesce to your appeal for assistance.
Firstly get active in the indie filmmaking community, especially your local one. Go to festivals and events aimed at you and mix with other filmmakers there. There are usually get-togethers in most cities, just little networking, socialising and screening events, some of the people you meet at these events can be invaluable to you and you to them. Don’t just be out to get help for YOUR production though, offer to help on theirs, not just as a quid-pro-quo but also because you’ll meet yet more people of a like mind and gather some much needed experience.
People you meet this way will be the most reliable people you will work with because they care as much about filmmaking as you do and totally understand your position, and further, accommodate for it.
Alternatively we’ve had some success just putting out the word on social media, especially when looking for actors, but be wary of the curious; many will offer their assistance because they want in on the filmmaking game, but once they realise the work involved you will find your messages becoming unanswered or worse still, people just not turning out on shoot days. On important films it’s better to just work with people you are confident are reliable.
When working on others’ shoots be helpful, hardworking and amiable, this way you’ll develop a decent reputation, which people will respect, and respect will get you a lot. Similarly on your own shoot be respectful and noticeably grateful to everyone involved, conduct yourself professionally and be sure to be working at least as hard as everyone else on set and be THE most hardworking person on the production as a whole. You’ll usually find that this results in folk wanting to work with you again.
Depending on the shoot we have been known to have as few as two people on set, but we usually average out at about five or six, myself and Jordan fulfilling many roles. For Hellblazer we will be shooting with a much larger cast and crew, with around twelve people on set, separating jobs up and running in a much more professional manner. I knew we’d need the make-up, CGFX and poker consultants which I’d already got right at the beginning (as mentioned in part 1), but I’d just planned to fill the rest of the crew out with some regulars.
As it turned out the make-up jobs would require more than one artist, so Clare brought in a very talented physical FX and props artist called Jayne Hyman (jaynehyman.co.uk), who also agreed to help me with the props, basically making herself invaluable. This beside, and to my great surprise, we had many talented people actually coming to US and offering to help out with the film, either to gladly repay past favours or because they like our output, so with these offers we were able to fill out roles that we usually take on ourselves as standard practice.
For the first time ever we’ll be working with a script supervisor, lighting assistant, continuity supervisor, production photographer and more, which will be more people to manage but mean that Jordan and myself can concentrate more on what’s actually being shot. It also must be stated that many of the crew do these jobs for a living but generously forwent their usual fee, which is quite remarkable.
We’ve worked with lots of actors in the past so finding the people to play the demons in the film was no problem at all, but the actor playing John Constantine would have to look like him, otherwise what would be the point? So a more in depth search was required. Casting sites are, naturally, a great place to look for actors; I went on StarNow and basically narrowed the search field to John’s exact description for actors who live in my local regions. Only three actors fit the criteria and of those one looked just like our man, and he had a cool demo reel.
The down side of these sites is that they often charge to make contacts, but if you want to save money, just try tracking your desired performer down on Facebook, that’s what I did, and after some explanation about the project and Hellblazer in general, not to mention shooting him over a few imaged to show his similarity to Constantine, he agreed to be onboard. We had our John Constantine and he was a man called David Chabeaux (davidchabeaux.com).
Like acquiring people, getting your locations is as simple as finding somewhere you want to shoot and getting the relevant permission to shoot there, but you should look at the places from a few different perspectives and take all the logistics into account.
From a technical standpoint does the place have enough power outlets? How is it for sound? Will you suffer unavoidable interference? Are you capable of lighting it properly? How’s the accessibility?
From a people standpoint, is it going to get too cold? Are there places for none-essential crew to be while shooting? Are there amenities?
If you’re shooting exteriors make sure it actually HAS to be an exterior. This isn’t so much an issue when you are shooting somewhere that generally has clement weather, but here in England, in all but summer, and sometimes even then, weather is so interchangeable and unpredictable that you sometimes have to leave it right up until the day of your shoot before you can decided whether you’re actually able to shoot that day or not, which is obviously far from ideal.
In the Hellblazer script, two locations were called for; the majority of the film took place in a darkened room. That’s easy enough, right? Well as it turned out it was a little trickier than that. With the specific lighting set-up I had in mind it had be over a certain size and have an interesting design, further we needed it to be very quiet so as to be perfect for getting the dialogue.
I found two great locations to choose from, an abandoned Methodist Church and an old community theatre. We got permission to check them both out, and while the church looked incredible, it was cold, it has echo issues, lighting may have been an issue and it had so many windows that we would have had to make it a night shoot. The theatre, though less splendid, had available lighting, heating, blacked out windows, was virtually soundproofed and had kitchen and bathroom amenities. The choice was obvious.
Unfortunately, being a community space and requiring manning, there was a small fee for the usage, but being that the guy manning the building during our shoot would be a theatrical lighting technician, we figure we’re at least getting our money’s worth.
Our second location was for a brief exterior shot, and this was dependent on where the bulk of the film was shot; either we’d shoot outside of a church or some place that looked like an abandoned theatre. An abandoned nightclub side entrance near to my flat proved just the ticket.
When the people and places are locked a huge amount of pressure is lifted, but there’s still plenty to do.
Join us next time when we explore previsualisation, design, make-up and prop preparation.