PART 1: PRE-PRODUCTION
Budget & Equipment
Budget & Equipment
As I was sketching the structure of the project, the main factor shaping the direction it could take was money. I had a few thousand dollars set aside, and that’s all I had to work with.
You may wonder why I never looked to get funding? Well, in fact, I did. I tried, about a year earlier, admittedly for a different project. I had written a short script which I thought was one of my best pieces of work. It told the story of a beaten housewife whose only escape from her home and husband was going to the supermarket where she entertained a love affair with one of the employees. I sent it to the CNC (Centre National du Cinéma), a French public agency that selects every year projects that it then helps to fund, sometimes with grants of up to 100,000 euros. They rejected it. Perhaps the script wasn’t good enough to get selected, that is a matter of judgment, but my own situation didn’t play to my advantage: I was a nobody, I had no previous experience they could draw upon, there was no production company backing me, and I knew nobody on the inside who could put in a good word for my project. I was, for all intents and purposes, an unattractive investment.
And fair enough, that makes sense. But this rejection reinforced my somewhat cynical, somewhat realistic belief that when you don’t already have a foot in the door, it’s very hard to even find the door. This is how I viewed the industry loop: to find the door, your need an agent; to have an agent, you need to be recommended; to be recommended, you need previous work to be recommendable; and to have recommendable work, presumably, you need to already have been through the door. Where do you start if you’re not already somewhere in the loop? The only step in the loop I felt I could hack and get around was the first one: to find the door, you need an agent. Maybe I could find the door myself. And this meant: not waiting for a helping hand. Creating my own work
For a while, I thought about crowdfunding, only to abandon that idea very soon. While I think that crowdfunding is a great idea that is suitable for many projects, it just didn’t suit mine, at least not at that stage. To do a crowdfunding, you need to have a budget that you can determine in advance and set as a goal. I didn’t know how much my project was going to cost at the onset, so I couldn’t determine a budget to aim at. Also, managing a successful crowdfunding campaign is almost a full-time job in itself (as I would com to later find out, see the Chapter on the Kickstarter Campaign). I didn’t want to spend several months building and sustaining a crowdfunding campaign that had no guarantee of even generating the funds. Plus, to be honest, I didn’t want to “owe” anyone anything – not money wise, but result-wise. When a lot of people publicly invest in your project, then you have some form of moral obligation to deliver. I didn’t want to have this kind of pressure. I didn’t need it. I had enough money to buy my equipment and travel to the different locations, and I was still working as a freelance translator, so I’d still be making money along the way. I just wanted to get the ball rolling and do the best I could, on my own terms. Eventually, I did hold a small crowdfunding page, but it was more a place for friends and family to be a part of the adventure if they felt like it. About 15 people chipped in, generating around 1000 euros.
Between those contributions and my savings, I had at that point about 6.000 dollars to spend, and the first thing I needed was equipment. Buying my own equipment actually made a lot of sense. What I really wanted was to learn, to teach myself the basics of photography and practice them with the camera. By owning my own gear, I could play around with the equipment as much as I wanted. If I rented equipment, I would have no time to be a learner and any mistake would cost a fortune.
I spent three months extensively researching all the equipment I could need, and not only comparing products, but trying to understand each one as best I could so I knew what to look for. And one thing I learnt then was this: when you have to balance the desire for good equipment with the restrictions of a limited budget, you quickly become an expert, both on the products and on where to buy them. I spent hours upon hours reading reviews and watching tests on websites such as nofilmschool.com, phillipbloom.net, kenrockwell.com,
camerarocket.com, learningdslrvideo.com, DigitalRevTV and Film Riot on You Tube, dslrfilmnoob.com, cheesycam.com, dslrvideoshooter.com, and many others. I discovered a whole ecosystem of DIY filmmakers offering tips and cost-saving tricks. I was picking up bits and pieces of information left and right, making notes, comparing information, hoping that after crunching all these reviews and opinions, some truth would emerge and point me in the right direction as to what I should buy.
The first thing I had to figure out was: which camera should I buy? This is the big question. The one thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to get a camera that could produce the “cinematic look.” This expression is thrown around by all aspiring filmmakers because everyone wants to make a film that looks like it was produced in Hollywood. And this might sound a bit conceited, but it also makes total sense, because if the picture looks terrible or the quality of the camera is clearly poor (unless this is an intentional effect relevant to the story), no matter how awesome your story is or convincing the actors are, the audience will be irritated. I recently watched the extras on the DVD for Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and there are excerpts from an early test shoot where Buscemi and Tarantino play out their scenes in what looks like someone’s house and on video camcorders; it was correctly staged, the cameras were set up on tripods and the footage was edited like a normal film. But it looked like what it was: cheap (and of course it wasn’t meant to be anything else). Right there, you had a Tarantino screenplay played out by great actors, and there’s no way, as a spectator, I would have sat through 90 minutes of it. You can think of it in terms of music: you could have a great song, with the best lyrics, a brilliant melody and catchy hooks, but if you record it with cheap MIDI instruments and sing with a mediocre voice, the quality won’t show, people just won’t listen to it. Get it produced in a professional studio, with a real singer and good mixing, and you have a potential hit. Of course the job of producers is to see beyond the superficial “cheap look” of amateur films and decipher the potential talent of the creator who could be better served with more money. But what also attracts the attention of producers is work that has already attracted the attention of an audience, and for the general public, poor image often becomes a shortcut to poor movie. Good form is necessary to appreciate good substance, just like a clean window is necessary to look at beautiful scenery.
I think my unwillingness to compromise too much on the quality of the picture was born out of my experience at film school. At that time, discounting the rare occasions when we shot on 16 mm, we would primarily use DV cameras. The quality was just terrible – no matter how much effort you put into the production value, whether it was expensive lighting or heavy-duty dollies, your film looked like a soap opera made for some local television channel. The result felt like a complete waste of time and energy.
Luckily for me, by early 2014, the DSRL (Digital Single-Lens Reflex) market had been in full explosion. Ever since the Canon 5D Mark II came out in late 2008, independent filmmakers and hardcore amateurs suddenly could afford to make high quality video. And by that I mean they could go out and shoot anything and it could look like it had thousands of dollars of equipment behind it. I’m amazed how the whole “DSLR filmmaking world” was an unforeseen side-effect of the photography market. These cameras were not meant for motion picture, but for stills. It’s people, users themselves, who played around with the cameras and found a way to make them far more valuable than originally intended. These cameras were being equipped with functions that, in the video market, would cost way more for any device which displayed them: large and extremely high resolution sensors, great low-light capabilities, the ability to interchange lenses, the compact size, etc. These cameras were able to take amazing photographs and as soon as the DSLR manufacturers added a “video mode” to them, essentially enabling them to take at least 24 high-quality pictures per second, all these functionalities became “unlocked” for the filmmaker to take advantage of. It suddenly became affordable to have a camera that could produce the “cinematic look.”
After comparing all possible cameras on the market, I narrowed my selection down to three models which all had various advantages and disadvantages:
The Canon 60D: not only was it the cheapest (around 500 euros), but it was the only one to have a swiveling flip screen. However, it was a crop sensor (I’ll explain shortly).
The Canon 7D: this camera had a great reputation for being sturdy, for allowing practical sound recording, and was still very affordable (around 1000 euros). However, it was also a crop sensor.
The Canon 6D: this camera had the highest specs of them all, and especially, it boasted a full-frame sensor. No surprise, it was the most expensive (around 2000 euros).
That was my kit, complete. Overall, the 24-105mm lens is the one I have used the most. Probably 70% of the film is shot with this lens. The 50 mm lens was my second most used lens, mainly for scenes following the character in his different lives, and I used the 14 mm lens for some of the driving sequences and all the scenes at the beach with the child.
After buying lenses, you naturally turn to filters. The first trick I learnt is that if you have lenses with diameters of varying size, then there’s no need to buy a filter for each different one: just buy filters for your biggest lens, and then buy lens adapter rings which will fit onto any of your lenses and allow you to use the same filters on all of them. With regards to the type of filters, there are so many out there that it quickly becomes frustrating trying to work out what will be useful or not. In the end, I only bought two: a polarizing filter and a variable ND filter.
And while the polarizing filter was only useful for filming myself driving from the outside (its purpose is to filter out certain wavelengths of light and thus eliminates most reflections from windows), the variable ND filter proved to be one of my most important buys overall. Originally, I honestly didn’t really understand what it did or how it worked. I just kept reading everywhere that it was essential. It’s sometimes hard to grasp the use of something until you are actually confronted with a situation where it becomes critical. And so it wasn’t until I was trying to shoot with my 50mm lens at f1.8 (meaning that I was letting in a maximum of light in order to get the shallowest depth of field) that I understood, because without the filter, the image was completely overexposed. I couldn’t close the aperture, because if I did, while I would progressively start getting a readable picture, I would lose the depth of field. So, by putting on the ND filter, you can keep the aperture wide open and get a correctly exposed picture with a shallow depth of field. In short: no ND filter, no shallow depth of field during the day.
The next thing which is essential, the cost of which I completely underestimated, was a tripod. The research for this was fairly straightforward: I went with the tried and trusted brand, bought a Manfrotto055XPROB tripod (150 euros) and a Manfrotto MVH500AH fluid head (125 euros) for smooth panning and tilting. Next, I needed some form of “mobile” support for the camera, and there are basically two types, each for distinctive visual languages: the shoulder mounts for “handheld” effect, and the steady-cam mounts for fluid movements. I wanted both and knew that this could potentially cost a lot of money. But part of my restriction was that my equipment had to be small and light enough to fit in my luggage, so, for instance, when thinking of a steady-cam set-up, I was never going to buy a whole body-strap with an arm. Instead, I bought a second-hand Glidecam HD 2000 from a guy I found online in Paris, for 340 euros. I’m still not sure whether it’s worth that kind of money, but cheaper alternative models just didn’t have reassuring reviews online, while mechanical gimbals like the Ronin were just way too expensive back then.
When I then looked at shoulder mounts, I discovered that what I thought was a simple piece of equipment was actually far more complex: it had plenty of add-ons, like a focus-ring puller, or a cage for magic arms to attach monitors and mics and bars to put filters or a matte-box. All these things were adding up and some all-inclusive shoulder rigs cost more than $1000. While doing my bargain hunting, I was of course looking at the cheaper models, knowing that there was a chance the quality would be poor. I eventually found one product on Amazon, the “CamSmart DSLR Rig,” which had all these pieces of equipment for only 155 euros. While my “too-good-to-be-true” alarm was ringing, I bought it: it was indeed cheap, but over time I learned to make the most out of it, and I didn’t even use most of the add-ons. The focus-ring puller and matte box are both in a drawer and haven’t been used at all. Too much hassle for what they provide.
The next item on the agenda was the monitor. The small screen on the back of the camera is just not big enough to use while shooting, plus it may just be impossible to see because of the angle or sun reflection. The problem is that external HD monitors cost a lot of money, several hundred dollars. Here again I found an effective cost-saving solution: I bought a Nexus Tablet (about 100 euros second-hand) which I could connect to the camera using the USB port and an OTG (on-the-go) adapter, and downloaded an app called “DSLR controller” (costing less than $10), which allowed me to get a live feed and also to remotely control all the functions of the camera from the touchscreen. To go with it, I bought a plastic clamp designed for in-car use, which I rigged to the shoulder mount, and then I used the cardboard box in which the tablet was shipped as a sun-screen for the tablet – it was already the right size and worked perfectly. While this was my regular monitor set-up at first, I soon ditched it. It was clunky, the cable was glitchy and I had become used to the camera enough to just use the back-screen. To block out the sun, I just made a small cardboard flap that I taped to the back of the camera and it did the job.
Buying sound equipment was also interesting. I first knew that I would need a go-to mic, one that could either sit on top of the camera or be used closer to the action. For this, I essentially went with the trend and bought the Zoom H4N Handy Recorder. However, as I developed the idea for the film and saw that most of the voice sound I’d be recording would come from interviews, so I also needed a lapel mic (which is a small mic that can be clipped to someone’s shirt or vest). The online comparisons of mics didn’t speak to me and the audio tests that I found of different lapel mics didn’t show much of a difference between the cheapest and most expensive ones. So I went with one of the cheapest models on the market: the Audio-Technica ATR3350, costing only 29 euros. Every single interview in this film was recorded on this tiny lapel mic (except the Galen Strawson one, when it decided to stop working). While this worked okay, possibly the biggest mistakes I made with regards to equipment is not buying an “on-camera” mic.
Having bought the Zoom, I thought I was covered: I would rig it to the shoulder mount and use it whenever I needed it. But because it was an external device, it required a few extra steps to use (I would have to set it up, press record/stop independently from the camera, and then later synch up the sound), and this hassle caused me to not do it. Therefore, for most sequences, there was no direct sound recording. At first, I didn’t think this would be an issue, as I originally intended to make a short film that would be all music and voice-over. But as the project grew into a feature film and I got to post-production, I realized that the film severely lacked the direct sound from the takes. This is why we had to recreate, with Julien the sound designer, all of the environmental sound in post. Not only was this a long and hard process, but it also means that the film’s sound design feels a little detached from reality (which sometimes works nicely actually). But if I could go back, I would definitely buy a mic that would fit on the camera (essentially replacing the camera’s own mic, which is just terrible quality) and record sound with the footage at all times.
The last piece of equipment which I bought was a rig to mount the camera onto a car. This was something I had just not really thought about, but which was indispensable for some of the shots I wanted to get: the driving shots. My initial belief on the matter was that this equipment cost so much money that I would probably do best to just rent a mount in the different places I was going to shoot. However, when I looked up the rental prices, I realized it would cost me anywhere between $30 and $120 per day, depending on the available gear. Given that over the course of the film, I would be using this mount for at least 5 days (1 in each location), it seemed to me like renting it would rack up to an unpredictably hefty sum. So I went online and looked at how much they actually cost to buy. Amazingly, I found that some very sturdy models with great reviews were available for less than $300. So, after some bargain hunting, I found the $150“Camtree G-51 Gripper Suction Car Mount,” which really turned into one of the best pieces of equipment I have. It came in a black briefcase with all the parts held in foam compartments and looking seriously like an elaborate bomb. This actually worried me a little when travelling, as I thought the Americans and the Israelis would quarantine my suitcase and bomb-squad it.
All in all, with the addition of a few other things (SD cards, an external hard-drive, a few extra quick-release plates, etc.), I spent, on equipment, just over 4900 euros (approx $5900). The important thing is that all of this equipment could fit in my 3 travel bags: my large suitcase, my trekking backpack and my carry-on bag – along with my clothes.
I was good to go.