Tips for First Time Filmmakers

Our last two entries [Ed: On Wicked Bird Media] have been focused on tips for first time filmmakers who are heading to cons and film fests… but what about you who haven’t quite made it that far? Producing is hard; there are so many moving pieces to a film that even the most experienced hand can fumble sometimes. But for you first time filmmakers, producing your epic story or silly short can go from an exciting dream to a stressful nightmare in a snap. Here are the top five things first-time filmmakers tend to forget.

Think, Think, Think.
Plan everything. Before you get to your shooting day, you’ll want to have all the information you need at your fingertips. Put together a shot list, collect everyone’s cell phone numbers, make (and purchase) a props list, write up your list of questions for your documentary subject, print out all the releases and make a schedule for your team to try and stick by. Don’t leave any important planning until the day of – it’s fine to change your mind, fit things in, or ask for more or different takes if you have time, but you want to be sure you will be getting everything you need done in a way that will work for your film. Leaving planning until the day of will slow everything down and make for a longer shoot than you expected – especially when so many creative minds are around to offer input.

Sound & Vision.
Everyone always remembers to get a video camera for their big shoot – but don’t always remember to utilize the proper microphones for audio. I’m going to tell you this right now – in-camera microphones do not cut it. At the very least, your team should utilize a shotgun mic connected to the camera; ideally, a boom should be used for a narrative film, or lavalieres for a documentary. The vision of your film is important – these are the moving pictures after all – but crappy audio can drag the whole production into the mud. It’s important to do your best to capture good audio as well as an awesome picture.

Get into Wardrobe.
Whether your piece is a period drama or an “talking head” documentary (and I don’t mean the band), there are a few things you need to discuss with your talent regarding their wardrobe. Most people know that white and black don’t work very well on camera; but this is also true for stripes and checks, which can visually vibrate, distracting from the look of the piece. You’ll also want to stay away from logos, slogans and any branding. Finally, the best makeup investment you can make is a wide brush and a palette of translucent face powder. It works on most skin tones to keep away shine – yet another possible distraction on camera.

You’re not an Actor.
It’s an underutilized tip, in my opinion, but – never act in your first feature film. There is simply too much going on for a first time director with a small crew; you need to focus on making sure your performers put on their best face, the shot is lined up and the sound is good. By putting yourself on screen, your putting some of the most important aspects of the film in jeopardy. Dream of being the next Kenneth Branagh, Tarentino or Smith? Wait ‘til you have a decent sized crew and experienced actors. Until then, stick behind the camera and make sure your film is the best it can be without you in it.

The Legal Stuff.
Always get releases for everything. You don’t know what will happen with your film – cult status, here you come! – and you want to protect yourself in the event that you ever see a profit from it. You can ask your performers to sign away all rights to their performance, image and work, but if you want to be nice, you can always offer a percentage of whatever net profit you make. Same goes for location, for crew, and for anyone that lends you a photograph or piece of art (materials). You have to be sure to get all of your bases covered. If you are lucky enough to know a lawyer, have them make a simple document for you; if not, there are plenty of releases online to base yours off of. Don’t trust them? It’s fine to use the simplest language possible. Once they’re all signed, stick them in a folder and keep them stored for a rainy day.

These five tips are the ones I see first time filmmakers leaving behind again and again, taking a great idea to mediocre folly. Make sure you don’t sacrifice the quality of your production with these basic mistakes. Come back next month when I talk about tips for first time directors – and in the mean time, good luck with that film!

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    Andrea Wolanin