Today we welcome Lady Jane Summers from the Airship Vindus.
Lady Jade Summers is both a person and a character on the Airship Vindus, part of the Steamworks & Shadows universe. The observations she makes are her own and does not necessarily reflect on the Vindus crew as a whole.
Zero Budget Film Making, Or, How To Tell Stories On Film With Not Very Much At all
By Lady Jade Summers of the Airship Vindus
I’ll begin with a disclaimer here: Steamworks & Shadows, the 9-episode webseries telling the story of the Airship Vindus versus the Veritas Academy (and assorted characters), has not been made yet. That’s being produced this summer. So even as I write authoritatively here about zero-budget film making, there is still much we have to learn. It may be even more interesting and instructive to read a blog post from me on the same topic in a few months’ time.
However, we haven’t been idle – haven’t been idle since last August, in fact. We’ve gone from a motley group of strangers to an up-and-coming name in the Midwest (successfully running a fundraising campaign for our films) and we have produced several webisodes, shorts, vignettes, trailers (and one rickroll). We are deep into the pre-production for our 9-episode webseries.
None of us have had any formal training in making films or videos.
Here is what we have learned, in three parts.
Let us begin with:
If you’re anything like me, your main experience with the process of film making came from watching the making-of documentaries for big Hollywood movies and sometimes the director’s commentaries on the DVDs. I’d fast-forward through all the actors talking and plot recaps to get to the good stuff – the filming part (preferably with explosions) and the special effects (also often concerning explosions.)
It’s true that it’s not as much fun to watch a bunch of people sitting around a table with a bunch of paper. But I know now that that is arguably the most important part of making a film of any size: the story and characters, and the writing of. It doesn’t matter if you’re dreaming of a one-person monologue in front of a webcam or a full cast production like we’re about to attempt. Without a compelling story and characters people care about, you’re sabotaging yourself from the starting gate.
This is absolutely key. You can’t skip this step to get to the explosions. (Otherwise Michael Bay would be hailed as an auteur.)
Fortunately for the zero budget aspect of this, imagination and paper don’t cost much. Free tutorials and writing guides abound on the Internet. You’ll be swimming in a sea of well-meaning advice from friends and family, too. Things like Pixar’s 22 Rules of Writing make the rounds when you’re not even looking for them. I won’t go much into the finer points on crafting story and character, as those writing guides do a much better job of it (suggested reading: Stephen King’s “On Writing” ). You’ll also find plenty of tutorials and free script software to help you transform your story into standard script format.
Three observations, however:
- Inspiration comes from everywhere.
I’ll go ahead and assume you’re a steampunk and therefore a bit of a geek. You’ll have been steeped in examples of your favorite authors’ writing, and your favorite films, your whole life. Reread and rewatch them, but pay attention this time as a student, not a consumer. Study how the masters practice their crafts – pacing, timing, dialogue, exposition vs. action, camera angles, framing, and on and on.
Find other books and films within the genre of your production and study them. It’s cheaper than taking classes.
- For a first-time production, try to write characters within your comfort zone (and your actors’ comfort zones).
It’s tough enough trying to make a film on zero budget without taking the kinds of risks that could cause problems for even experienced filmmakers. Unless you happen to have friends/castmembers who have vast previous experience with avant-garde material, it’s easier to write characters that your cast can get along with in their heads. They’ll come out much more naturally.
- SHOW, DON’T TELL.
You must remember that the characters living in your head are much more fascinating and interesting to you, the creator, because you know them intimately. You know their secrets. Your intended audience does <i>not</i> know them intimately and so you must assume them unimpressed unless you “sell” them on the universe you’ve been dreaming about. Do not assume your characters are cool. You have to show them that your characters are cool.
The crew of the Airship Vindus has been living with our characters in our heads for anywhere between a few months to two or more years. We’ve lived with the Vindus universe for over six months. We’ve developed whole pages of backstories and inside jokes between all of us that you’ll find us giggling madly about if you catch us at the right (or wrong) moment. None of this matters if it doesn’t make it into the writing in a convincing way.
But now we come to a stumbling block – suppose you’re not a writer. Suppose you are talented in all respects except writing. This leads us into the next part of zero budget film making:
It’s extremely tempting to take every single rein of control as you frantically try to nurse your dream production into fruition. Writer-director-editor-producers aren’t that uncommon on indie projects, and even lauded. Especially on a zero budget, as you have to ask people to work for you for free, it’s often just easier to do everything yourself.
This, taken too far, is a genuine mistake. Our Steamworks & Shadows director, Ben Watkins, has a story to tell about his first ever Star Wars fanfilm from years ago – he tells it better than me, so you’ll have to ask him when next you see us – but it generally goes something like this: he tried to take every single rein of control, the film is now locked away very deep where none of us have seen it, and Ben has since embarked on a saner mode of operation.
The advice runs thus: surround yourself with people smarter than you.
As the creator(s), micromanaging is going to come very easily, but you have to know that you cannot be all things to all people. Rather than attempting to reinvent the wheel, find someone who already has a wheel or already knows how to build it.
To that end, mine your contacts list and your friends groups. If you’re already a member of other geek subcultures and scenes, so much the better – you’ll be starting with more than zero. Geeks tend to come with all sorts of varied background knowledge ranging from writing to costuming to construction to photography to acting to marketing, all useful skills. And if you’re friends, they’ll be more willing to work for you for free.
Stage32.com is a good resource for when you need to cast your net wider. It’s sort of a social network for theater/movie people, though, of course, the catch is that you’ll have to find people willing to work for free. (A note: asking people to work for free is not as galling when you offer to pay for their gas and also provide food.)
Once you’ve got people working with you, here are two more observations:
- Maintain clear, open lines of communication.
This is a kind of universal piece of advice applicable to anyone who has worked on any kind of project for school, work, or a hobby. Insert any other knowledge you have for managing groups of people. Make use of Facebook or Google Docs/Calendar (or preferred communicating tools of choice) to keep everyone up-to-speed and organized.
- Treat your production as WORK.
Friends are awesome, and you benefit from already having some rapport rather than starting from scratch with strangers, but the biggest pitfall of working with friends is that you don’t have clearly agreed-upon boundaries and expectations. This may lead to excuses, missed deadlines, lowered standards, hurt feelings over miscommunications, and a muddled workflow that will hinder your project.
Though not everybody needs one, sometimes it helps to have a written contract. It’s useful to have a clear delineation between “right now we are friends” and “right now we are coworkers.” And the other unpleasant part is deciding what to do when someone just is not pulling their weight or flaking one too many times. It’s easiest to treat it the way you’d treat a situation at work – conflict mediation, action plans, or ultimately removing them from the project if it comes to that.
Now that we’ve got a story and people – now we get to the bit of the making-of documentary with explosions in it (sort of):
We’ll divide this section into three parts: Equipment, Filmcraft, and Publicity. I’m not going to write step-by-step tutorials, because there are much better tutorials out there for just about everything, and you’ve already got the expertise of your friends and crew to rely on.
The biggest hit to your nonexistent budget will come from equipment, depending on how high-quality you want the final product to look. If you want to do a Paranormal or Blair Witch-style production (or the aforementioned monologue in front of a webcam), you won’t have to scrounge up quite as many dollars in equipment – but make sure you have a solid grasp of style before you try that, as amateur shakeycam is not a substitute for genuine suspense. (Story, people!)
Generally speaking, for HD-quality, film-quality production, you’ll need:
- A good camera.
This is where you need to research, ask your friends/crew, and make some hard decisions. The cheapest option? Borrowing from someone who already has gear. Otherwise, the typical DSLR will start at $700 and keep going up. I’m a big fan of Canon DSLRs because I have prior training from journalism school.
BorrowLenses.com is a fantastic resource for people without the budget to buy a full-blown film-quality camera. The site allows you to rent camera bodies, lenses, and other equipment for up to 4 weeks for a fraction of the cost of buying. However, figuring out what to rent takes a bit of specialized knowledge, so crowdsource your research and ask your knowledgeable friends.
For learning how to use a DSLR camera, Vimeo’s series of tutorial videos are invaluable.
- A tripod.
For steadying your shots, and one of the most important differences between a production that screams “amateur” and a production that doesn’t scream “amateur” quite so loudly.
- Audio equipment.
Good, clean audio is also one of the key differences between amateurs and pros. Find tutorials for rigging up boom mikes (the microphone on a long stick that you see in the making-of documentaries). You can record into the camera, or scrounge up a field recorder, which start around $100.
Substitutes, tricks, cheats, and tutorials for improvising more complex equipment (steadicams, glidecams, cranes) are just a Google away. Lighting is also important, but again, you’ll find plenty of suggestions for cheaper alternatives to the professional stuff.
Filmcraft is more than yelling “Quiet on the set!” and “Action!” (Though both are extremely useful phrases.) There is a reason why people go to film school to learn it, but as you might be beginning to suspect, there are now tons of resources online for learning good camera angles, how to compose a fight scene, making a shotlist, and so on.
Indymogul is a good start. Make sure to check out all of their Friday 101 videos.
- Analyze films and TV shows.
As you begin to learn the vocabulary of filmcraft, start analyzing all of the media that you consume. Take note of how many shots a single dialogue scene is composed of. Notice how cinematographers frame their subjects to create a mood or atmosphere. Analyze when directors choose to use wide-angle shots and when they use close-ups. Like in most art forms, copy your favorite directors. As you copy, you’ll improve your own skill.
- Set a schedule.
And stick to it.
- Scout locations.
With your cinematographer(s), go out to as many of your chosen locations as you can before the shoot day(s). The better you know the lay of the land, the better you can plan your shotlist, visualize your angles, and make backup plans for when you inevitably improvise. Otherwise, you may waste hours setting up on the day of, and you’ll almost certainly run into surprise Dumpsters or other eyesores you weren’t expecting.
Also, make sure your permits are in order.
- Make a shotlist.
This was one of the biggest timesavers for us when we filmed “Doomsday.” It cut a potentially 8-hour shoot day down to five hours, simply because we could just move along down the list instead of improvising angles on the spot. This is basic preparation.
Trust your crew to do the jobs you chose them to do.
These observations are not intended to be comprehensive, just helpful tips that might speed your production along. And while I’ve emphasized the importance of research quite a bit here, I have to add that the best way to learn and practice is to simply pick up the your camera and do it. Don’t wait for your big masterwork – make plenty of small, short, practice projects to improve your techniques and make all your mistakes <i>before</i> you pour your soul into the Dream Project.
With the internet, you can publicize your production far and wide. Take copious notes from professional and amateur productions that you admire.
- Choose a platform to host your videos on.
Options include YouTube, Vimeo, and Blip.tv. Most people choose YouTube because it’s the most common, has a huge existing community, and has the potential for monetization. Vimeo is regarded more as “the artist’s” platform and does handle HD video beautifully. I don’t have any experience with Blip.tv, but hey, it may turn out to be the one for you.
- Social media.
The most common advice I’ve gotten is to build your fanbase even before you open your fundraising campaign or publish your production. To this end, it’s almost requirement nowadays to have at least a Facebook and Twitter presence. Register your username, spend some time on those accounts exploring the existing genre/film communities there, and get your name out there. Other social media include Tumblr, Pinterest, and (for steampunks) The Steampunk Empire.
- Be consistent.
The fastest way to lose your fanbase is to go on hiatus or become inactive for a while. Keep your fans updated on your progress, even small ones – we like to know how you’re doing.
This is the route we chose to try to get to a not-quite-zero budget. The most popular sites are Kickstarter and Indiegogo. You’ll have to consider timing very carefully – if there are too many crowdfunding projects going around your subculture, you may get lost in the noise. In any case, here are two articles to help you along.
Whew, I think that’s everything. If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail us at email@example.com (or Google us, we’re pretty contactable).
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