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Directing and Production Tips

Techniques to Keep You Organized By Heath McKnight

After more than 12 years as an independent film and video director, and three years teaching filmmaking techniques, Iíve learned some things about staying organized. The less worry about the schedule, when lunch is being served, what the cast and crew are doing, etc., the more I can be creative. These tips will help you stay on track, and to avoid some of the many pitfalls a director can face, like losing creative control, a cast and crew mutiny and so forth. However, if youíre making simple little movies for YouTube, that are truly off-the-cuff, have fun and use this guide for your bigger productions.

Whether youíre writing it yourself or working with a writer, the script has to be locked and ready to go. Unlike major film, television and video productions that can just pour more cash in to solve the story problem, we donít have that luxury. A half-baked script can cost you not only money, but cast and crew many not be willing to cut you a break if they donít believe in it. 

Many first-time writers fall too in love with their dialogue, just like I have in the past.  There are dialogue-driven movies (Clerks, to name but one) and TV shows (Seinfeld, anyone?), but the norm is a mix of dialogue and action. If you have pages and pages of dialogue and monologues that couldíve been cut down to a sentence or two, you have written a play. Go into that field, then. Big chunks of lines can affect your cast, and if you donít take care of it in the writing phase, your movieís story may suffer if you try cutting it later. A page of script really does average out to about a minute of screen time.
I have been using Final Draftís  screenwriting software since 2000 and itís the best, in my opinion. I learned how to write from Syd Fieldís books, along with some college courses; I notice that a lot of colleges teach screenwriting, whether youíre majoring in film or creative writing, or not.

Scene from 9:04am

This is when you do your casting, hire your crew, organize and schedule the shoot, scout locations and so forth. On my film 9:04 AM, I had a longer-than-normal pre-production period, because the shoot was moved from June to October, 2006.  I was able to have plenty of rehearsals (youíll be doing more directing with actors here than in production, based on my experience) and work out the story with my co-writer during that period.  Unfortunately, I lost a couple of actors who couldnít commit to the new date, but picked up two excellent new ones. 

If you have the budget, get your first assistant director (1st AD) onboard as early as possible. He or she will help you with the scheduling and logistics. Speaking of scheduling, if you donít know what scene youíre shooting at what time, and where, even on a one-day shoot, youíll find your project falling apart fast. I recommend using Movie Magicís Scheduling software  to help out with this, or Company Move

You can also do it by hand, by breaking down your script into eighths, and writing down how many pages a numbered scene is, the location (interior, exterior), time of day, cast, props, etc. Final Draftís reports can make this easier. You can then schedule with Microsoft Officeís Excel or any spreadsheet program.

Now is the time to hire a proper crew. For a good shoot, you need at least a director, director of photography (DP, shoots the film), a line producer or production coordinator (helps hire crew and will run the set), a 1st AD (also helps run the set and works on scheduling; some will even write time codes down), a gaffer (for lighting), a key grip (to move lights, etc.), grips, a boom operator and sound mixer (can be one person), and production assistants (P.A.s, who can also act as grips). 
If you have a good budget, youíll need to hire a make-up artist (who understands film, TV and video make-up, along with high definition production), an assistant camera (who handles slating, loading tapes, changing film, focusing, changing lenses, etc.), a script supervisor (continuity and time codes; the directorís best friend), an art director/production designer (to decorate sets so youíre not shooting blank walls) and many others. Visual effects, digital imaging technicians (DITs, help run the cameras) and others can sometimes be seen as a luxury and cost a lot more. 

Stay cool, stay organized and have faith in your cast and crew.

One more thing, now is the time to go over the shots and the look with your DP, and to also choose a camera and format you or your editor can cut with. The camera doesnít matter as much as your and the DPís work on the visual aspect.  If you do storyboards, check out FrameForge 3Dís software offerings.

Lastly, make sure you know what your crewís dietary needs are; I have learned that if you show up with a bunch of pizzas or other junk food too often, your cast and crew will grow tired of it fast. Same goes for chicken, etc. And always have a vegetarian-friendly salad or veggie burgers standing by. On most shoots, snacks and one meal at the halfway mark (usually at six hours if the movie is a 12-hour shoot) are all thatís needed.  If you go past the set day (again, 12 hours is the average), have dinner ready.

Stay cool, stay organized and have faith in your cast and crew. Much of your directing and the hard work were done during rehearsals and pre-production, so now is the time to realize your creative vision. Make sure there are plenty of healthy snacks, water (keep a marker handy to write everyoneís initials on the cap of the bottle), meals and more, especially if you have a lot of low-cost or free labor. 

Be flexible and open to suggestions, but donít let anyone take over your film. If that happens, let the line producer talk to that cast or crew member. If they keep it up, or if anyone is out of line, be prepared to fire them. Better to do it early on, especially with a cast, before too much footage is shot and too much money has been spent. Get plenty of sleep and do NOT go out partying with the team, unless itís the wrap party. You need to stay the boss, not ďjust one of the guys or girlsĒ out for a drink. Youíll lose your authority. 

Feature Filmmaking at Used Car Prices

Again, donít lose control, but donít become a ďdictatorĒ director. There are three types of directors you can become (one who focuses on the performances, one who focuses on the look, and one who focuses on both), but you donít need to become a ďdictator.Ē As a line producer, Iíve seen it happen too many times, and soon enough, the cast and crew mutiny and the film falls apart. Also, if you arenít organized, how can you be creative during production?

Perhaps one of the greatest assets for an independent filmmaker and video producer is Rick Schmidtís seminal book, Feature Filmmaking at Used Car Prices. Though the focus is mostly on film-based projects, the advice Rick gives on making a film (or video production) from beginning to end is priceless. Iíve been referencing the book for over a decade.

Post Production
Ultimately, the non-linear edit (NLE) system doesnít matter; no one will say, ďWow, that movie was great!  They mustíve used Final Cut Pro or Vegas.Ē  The tools are there to help make cutting the film or TV/video program easier and as painless as possible. Better make sure the NLE and you or your editor can handle whatever you shot your film on!
Since Iíve been an editor longer than a director and line producer, many people ask me for tips on cutting. All I can say, keep it simple, keep it short. Walter Murchís In the Blink of an Eye is the best book on editing. For software, check out Final Cut Studio , Sony Vegas ,  Premiere Pro, and Avid. There are obviously others, but Iíve used and abused each of those NLE applications, and was happy with the results.

Hopefully these tips will help you out with your next film, TV or video program when you first conceive the idea, all the way to the release. But the work doesnít start there, now you have to market your film. My advice would be to check out Mark Stephen Boskoís Movie Marketing Handbook to get some hard-earned advice.

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Heath McKnight is a filmmaker and author who has produced and directed several independent feature and short films, including Hellevator, 9:04 AM and December. He is currently web content manager for doddleNEWS. Heath was also a contributor to VASST's best-selling book, "The FullHD," and has written for TopTenREVIEWS and Videomaker.

Related Keywords:directing, post production, movie making, independent filmmaking,

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