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.

Filmmaking 101: Droning on and on

The problem with doing anything for the first time is that you don’t know what you don’t know. You can read books, listen to interviews and watch instructional YouTube videos all you like, but it’s never going to compare with actually getting out there and doing it. To that end I decided last year to write and film my first short film; a simple eight-minute, two-location piece about food poverty. With drones.
Horsell Common

And so, in an attempt to test out a few ideas, I headed to Woking’s Horsell Common with two friends, two SLRs, two tiny drones and nowhere near enough batteries for more than a couple of hours of flight time. A standard battery will give a drone perhaps 10 minutes of flight time while recording HD video, but take over an hour to charge. Lesson 1: Make sure you have enough power for everything!

Our drones were the Hubsan X4; no stabilisers, no direct video feed to the handset, but quite cheap, small enough to keep in a Tupperware box and sporting an on-board 2MP HD camera. The lack of stabilisation meant that the drone pilots needed a lot of practise; the script calls for a chase amongst trees, so this meant I have a lot of POV footage of drones crashing into said trees. Lesson 2: Bring tools and spare parts for everything that’s likely to get broken.
Footage Review

The fact that there was no direct feed from the drone meant when the drone ran out of battery, it was time to download the footage, store it, review it and consider corrections. An obvious correction might be don’t crash into the trees, but considering the size of the little things, it was a matter of judging how close to each other the drones needed to get in order to be in shot and look large enough to be menacing. The reviewing of footage would have been easier with more SD cards and perhaps some assistance with the download for review. Lesson 3: Establish an efficient digital workflow to maximise shooting time.

The chase scenes themselves were a little haphazard, not just due to the difficulty in maneuvering the drones, but also I didn’t establish routes. This was especially problematic when, to supplement footage, the chase was re-enacted with two cameramen running after their prey with SLRs. Because the route wasn’t clear, in an attempt to make it look frenetic, there were too many occasions where the harassed cameramen were in each other’s shots, making that snippet of footage useless. Lesson 4: Use route markers and make a practice run.

When editing the footage together from the SLRs and the drones, another factor emerged: One SLR was set to record at 24fps, one at 25fps and the drones at 30fps. As one of the cameras was also set to Warm colours instead of Default it also meant that the footage was much harder to stitch together convincingly, and required grading and far too many hours in Premiere Pro to make it at least feel somewhat seamless. Lesson 5: Make sure all camera equipment is using the same settings.

So, after three hours of shooting and three hours of editing, most of which was spent cursing, we have 30 seconds of stitched together, not altogether terrible footage. It’s not amazing, but considering this was our first test run, it’s not bad at all. I ended up using more incidental, accidental and otherwise apparently unusable footage than I thought I would, even if it did mean trawling through countless clips. Lesson 6: Keep all footage and review it all, you never know what you might be able to use.

There was one final lesson: the drones record no sound, so the chase sequence feels uncomfortable and odd. That might be a stylistic choice, but should be intentional, not accidental. Lesson 7: Even if it’s a test shoot, bring a digital recorder to record some ambience. 

And that’s it for the first test shoot. We’ve decided we need another test weekend, bringing the flight experience and lessons to bear on the task. But all were filled with some confidence that this project was indeed achievable.

Creative Goals of 2015

I wrote a list of creative goals for 2014 last year, and I didn’t do too badly on them overall. I might not have watched as many films from the list as I wanted, nor read as many screenplays as I should have, but nobody can say I didn’t finish what I started. In so many ways I’m in a very different place to this time last year, and a wealth of possibilities lie before me; I’d be a fool not to take full advantage of them. Not, at this point, to fully transition to a full-time writing life, that may come later. But 2015 will be the year where I put things into place to allow that to happen in a controlled manner. So, with that in mind, I’ll cease this wittering and put out my stall:

  • Writing: May as well start with the most important one. By LSF 2015 I want to have written one TV pilot and series bible, one feature film and a couple of shorts.
  • Tank filling: There are still so many films I need to see, and scripts I need to read. I’m going to treat myself to a BFI membership and aim to take full advantage of it.
  • Film making: I have a filmmaking task outstanding from last year which I intend to complete in the next weeks, but more importantly in spring I intend to produce and direct my own short film. I already have the script and some interested people lined up; it’s all a little daunting but I intend to just throw myself into it and learn all I can. To help with it I’m taking a filmmaking course with the Met Film School in March.
  • Commercial: To earn money for one piece of creative output, whatever it needs to be; whether writing, filming or photography, at least one thing this year will be a paid piece of work.

2014 was a tumultuous year, meaning 2015 is very much a tabula rasa; an opportunity to decide on the priorities in my life. It’s not my dayjob and it’s not where I live; what matters to me, what’s important, is living a creative life and be true to only myself. I won’t be wasting my time between now and the end of January, there’s plenty of writing and watching and reading and planning to do before then, but in many ways my birthday celebration will be like a reboot, a rebirth-day. Surround myself with good people and begin my life anew.

So, motto for 2015?

Create and Live.

Quote: Derek Cianfrance on shooting on film

When you shoot on film, there’s an urgency that starts happening. On 35 mm 2 perf, you have about nine minutes and twenty seconds and then the mag [film magazine] runs out. And the actors pretty quickly start to recognize that time. The actors are like athletes.It’s like a quarter of football. They have nine minutes and twenty seconds to get some points on the board to make things happen. They can feel it. Versus on digital – you can shoot forever.

Derek Cianfrance – Director/ writer of Blue Valentine & The Place Beyond The Pines

Link: Top 10 TED Talks on Storytelling and Filmmaking

I’ve always liked TED talks, even when I’ve been suspicious of them. Wonderfully entertaining, interesting and enlightening as they can sometimes be, they can sometimes feel insubstantial. What sea-foam is compared the oceanic body of knowledge; but then I remember that I use Twitter as a primary information source.

So, here we are, TED talks that relate to storytelling and filmmaking.

Top 10 TED Talks on Storytelling and Filmmaking

Aside: I’d really like it if one day we could decide whether it’s filmmaking, film-making or film making. There must be some official body we could lobby.