Frugal Filmmaking and Techno-fetishism

iphone video filmmaking

“You want to learn about filmmaking? Then just get out there and shoot something!”

Such is usually the refrain when professionals are asked how to ‘break in’ or what the best way is to learn. Much like in any other creative field, e.g. ‘Writers write. To get better at writing, write more.’

There’s a vast cottage industry of courses, tutorials, books and workshops, designed to assist, accelerate or encourage. But nothing will ever teach you more craft than actually doing it, doing it often, and failing well.

But while writing is limited in the tools and toys you can obsess over, the right kind of screenwriting software, pen or notebook, none of them significantly affect the quality of the final result.

Not so in filmmaking, where an arms race of techno-fetishism reigns. Go to any popular online forum for filmmaking on the cheap and you’ll find the same thing: A keen, often young, filmmaker asks a question about how to get the best results with their limited equipment, only to be derided for their ‘choice’ and encouraged to spend hundreds or thousands more for better equipment.

“You’re not shooting in 4K?! What even is the point?!”

“Don’t even bother, I’m a professional wedding videographer and I’d never use anything that rubbish!”

“Shoot on an iPhone?! What a joke, you can always tell!”

That last point particularly sticks in my craw. Sure, you might be able to tell, but does it matter? Filmmakers have shot on VHS, or SD digital footage or Super8 and made creative films, launching their careers, allowing the limits of the technology to act as incubators for their creativity. Now most of us walk around with a phone with HD video shooting functionality; tiny supercomputers with videographic, audio and processing powers far exceeding what filmmakers had access to, not even 20 years ago.

So, all you really need in the beginning, to learn, to create, are some friends and at least one decent smartphone. If one of your friends also has a phone? Great, use it to record sound separately. A third phone? Fantastic, now you have a second camera angle! And when you’re done, use free editing software on either phones or a computer, stitch it together, watch the result over some drinks with your friends, and learn from your manifold mistakes. Then go out and do it again, but better.

Technology might limit the perceived ‘quality’ of the result but, like with anything else, it’s the narrative, the creative choices, that will shine through. Keep it fun, keep it creative, keep it utterly yours and you’ll far outstrip yet another 4k yawnfest that someone’s moaning isn’t getting enough hits on Vimeo.

There are some cheap tools I’d recommend to improve the process, but I’ll cover those separately. For now, let this be the message: As a budding filmmaker, you have your tastes, your instincts, your influences; beyond that you need little more than the device you may even be reading this post on. Go. Go forth and create.

What exactly is a blog?

GonzoThere was some discussion on Twitter the other day, about how a blog differed from a journal; that many blogs were in fact mere journals, filled with the personal thoughts and observations, and that there should be a different nomenclature for them.

You know what though, the differentiation is at best paper-thin. Unless you’re writing a commercial listicle for salary, ad revenue or exposure, a blogpost is no different from a journal entry. At the end of the day, it’s gonzo self-published article, and that’s a good thing.

Gonzo journalism, popularised by Hunter S. Thompson, puts paid to the fallacy that any writing can be purely objective. There will always be an element of subjectivity, to a greater or lesser extent. One might pretend otherwise, claim the writing is devoid of such trappings, but unless it’s the driest recount of facts, that’s nigh-impossible. Gonzo takes that idea to it’s logical opposite: if you can’t remove the writer from the writing, why not embrace that entirely?

Blogposts frequently instinctually blur this divide, as per the original observation, where a factual post is heavily tinged with the personality and prejudices of the writer. And why not? The blog is after all a personal domain. It may not be a safe space, it is public after all, but it is the digital yard of the writer. Those interested can visit, but none are compelled to stay.

So why not embrace this attitude, this gonzo sensibility? Why not accept that facts and guidance are useful, but do we really need another article telling us, for example, which rules of writing we should or should not follow? More interesting is what the topic means to an individual, what their perspective is, how it makes them feel. That’s where the individuality comes in: Everyone’s tastes and perspectives will be like nobody else’s. What’s interesting is when those tastes and perspectives appeal to the reader, making them think or empathise or just enjoy the ride while it’s happening.

So, embrace the gonzo, I say. Don’t try to write a dry recitation in a failed attempt at objectivity. Even if nobody ever partakes of your creations, find the joy of the writer in the written word, regardless of what you end up calling the result.

Review: Tea For Two


We’ve encountered the work of Pork Chop Pictures before, with their charming short film Soul Matrix. This time, they’ve partnered with Mini Productions, and after a successful crowdfunding campaign, they’ve released Tea For Two.

Writer/Director Mark Brennan and producers April Kelley and Sara Huxley put together quite the cast for this 15 minute short: John Challis (Only Fools and Horses) and Amanda Barrie (Coronation Street) are joined by William Postlethwaite and Abigail Parmenter for this charming tale of tea, time and love.

Alice & Jim

Centred around a tea shop, the narrative is carried by Challis, in top grouchy form, and Barrie who is endearingly funny throughout. The narrative can’t be detailed explicitly, as there’s a surprising element to it, but it flows well, unveiling the narrative smoothly. While some didn’t catch the implications of the ending, I found it nicely subtle, where it could have veered into heavy-handed exposition.

Tea For Two is beautifully coloured and the music and sound are spot on. Overall Tea For Two is a great success for the team, and we hope it does well when it hits the festival circuit.

Outlining And The Inner Five-Year-Old

Two days in an empty house, one of which spent beating my head against the wall of exhaustion masking as writer’s block, four colours of Sharpie, 107 index cards and a pot of goulash. That’s what it took to completely re-outline Underworld Calling, my supernatural thriller, from scratch. Into that rewrite went notes from members of the London Writers’ Circle, friends on Twitter and excellent paid feedback from Drew Hilton, the Screenplay Mechanic.

As much as I loved the ideas and characters, and the last draft and story as a whole, I knew it had major issues: Dangling plotlines, insufficient visual and commercial appeal, redundant characters and poor structure. Most of it was due to not outlining from the get-go, then re-tinkering with it over and over, rather than just biting the bullet and outlining it all over again. My key tool to ensure the story was nice and tight this time around was to enquire of my inner five-year old. Every index card was greeted with a plaintive ‘But whyyyy?!’. And if I couldn’t answer it simply on the index card, it got shuffled off until I had either an answer or a better plot point. And by that method, many darlings were murdered, sometimes literally, always brutally.

I’m a long way from done, of course. There are currently oodles of index cards on the floor, in columns by sequence. I’ve taken photos, but I need to write them up, and then turn them into a treatment. And when all that’s done, then starts the actual writing wherein there’s a decent chance the plot and characters and outline will shift a little. But I have a solid starting point, an outline that has managed to survive my most brutal self-criticism, and the relentless enquiries of said inner five-year old. And that’s no bad thing at all.

Scripped, Online Screenwriting and Backups

Some screenwriters, whether for reasons of cost or convenience, prefer online software solutions for their script work, whether Adobe Story, Celtx, or newcomer WriterDuet. However, last week the risk of those primarily online services came to public attention with the dramatic implosion of Scripped.

Scripped was an online-only screenwriting and script storage solution, a web-based alternative to using Final Draft or Fade In. The ScreenCraft owned community was languishing somewhat, apparently on the verge of rejuvenation when a total database calamity occurred. All scripts, including all backups, were irrevocably wiped with no hope of restoring them. Due to the diminishing nature of the community, the damage wasn’t as widespread as might have been feared, but for those people still deeply embedded in the ecosystem, it was catastrophic. Those who had not maintained offline backups had lost potentially years of work.

Now, the idea of not taking backups sends shivers of fear up my spine. It’s this kind of terror, combined with poor or non-existent offline solutions, that has kept me from web-based screenwriting software. I know that Adobe Story and WriterDuet have both an offline solution and backup options, but then so did Scripped. Adobe may have more resilient infrastructure than Scripped owners Screencraft, but nothing can really protect you totally from that kind of disaster.

Personally, I write using offline tools, I use Dropbox for day-to-day synching, TimeMachine for frequent backups, and also store timestamped archives of my writing folder on an FTP site. I considered myself slightly over-paranoid in this regard until I started speaking to other people. Additional options included saving timestamped archives onto DVDs, and printing and filing all drafts of all scripts. Those might be going a bit far for me, especially physical copies. Paper is anathema to me, and if I fall out of love with a script, the temptation to shred it might just be too great.

So, what can we learn from the Scripped fiasco? By all means use online solutions, especially if budgets are a concern. But make sure they have decent internal backup solutions, and also store editable copies of all your scripts elsewhere, with as many additional storage iterations as your paranoia demands. Because it’s only paranoia until the unthinkable happens.


Craig Mazin and John August go into some detail about the Scripped aftermath in their Scriptnotes podcast.

Also, if you need to recover scripts from PDF backups, this can be done with most files directly in Fade In, but also in Highland.