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Filmmaking: Top 5 Things I Wish I Had Known When Making My First Project

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Making your first project can feel really overwhelming–I know it was for me! I didn’t know what to do first, who I needed to hire, or even how to pick a day to film. I just wanted someone to come along and tell me what to do.

That didn’t happen. So…

Here are FIVE THINGS I wish I had known when making my first project.

NUMBER ONE: ALWAYS MAKE A  BUDGET

No matter the amount being spent, track it! Even if you’re paying for everything yourself you’re going to want to know what area is costing you the most and how much you’ve spent.

My first “big” project I spent somewhere between 8k and 10k of my own money. Had I been tracking it, I likely could have SPENT LESS by saying, “This is how much I can spend on lights, what can we get for that amount?” Instead of asking, “How much do we need for lights?” That’s a backwards way of renting equipment that probably cost me a few hundred dollars.

If you’re looking for a project as a learning experience I HIGHLY recommend spending LESS. You will learn plenty of lessons on your first project, so why not spend $50 instead of $50,000?

If you’re looking to make a calling card/festival piece, spend more. This will allow you to use better equipment and give your piece a professional look you might not get otherwise. You can crowdfund or use personal savings and favors.

Here’s an example of a basic budget:

NUMBER TWO: MAKE SURE YOUR CREW WILL WORK WELL TOGETHER

I used to think since it was my project, I got to hire everyone. Which is sort of true, and sort of not. You want your set to run like a well oiled machine and that usually means letting department heads pick who works with them.

Often a director will want to have input or pick their DP, the DP likes to weigh in on their gaffer and First AC and on down the line.

So now I hire crew ONE PERSON AT A TIME. First, my director, then we together confirm a DP. Then the DP will usually suggest a gaffer or listen to myself and my directors recommendations. Then we agree on that position and on down the line.

The best place to find crew is ON SET so get out and PA, do student films, or attend filmmaker events as an alternative. Reminder, you can always check the #HireAMs database too!

NUMBER THREE: WRITE WITH LOCATION IN MIND

When I think back on the first draft of my feature script, I cringe. I had a movie theater, a school cafeteria, and a high school football game–with players on the field! This is NOT conducive to a smaller indie project.

So it’s a good idea to keep your location in mind while writing. Or when picking a project, see if there is a way to make a given scene work in a more filmmable location. That football scene now takes place in the parking lot just before the game starts.

Friends and family are your best bet for affordable locations on indie projects. Ask around and see who has a yard you can use, or a kitchen, or a hot tub. Sites like Peerspace and Wrapal are great if you need something outside your resources.

Book and confirm with the space owners the date and hours needed. Some people don’t realize that a film day can be as long as twelve and a half hours! So make sure your mom’s old college roommate is OK with you being in her kitchen from 6am and 6:30pm.

NUMBER FOUR: IT’S OK TO KNOW NOTHING ABOUT GEAR

Getting gear lists used to make me nervous. I’d see longs lists of brand names, letters, numbers, and not know what anything meant! But the good news is you don’t need to know much about equipment to rent it.

Ask for a detailed list from your crew and copy/paste it into sites like ShareGrid and KitSplit. Or forward the email to a rental house for a quote. If you send it to a rental house they will almost always send back a revised list, swapping out some items. Pass that on to the right crew member for approval and book.

On really tiny projects you may be using the DP’s camera and practical lights (like lamps from your room). If you’re spending a little money, put it towards sound, good lenses, camera, and lights.

One thing I do know about gear, and I learned the hard way, is to ALWAYS have sound. I’ve found it very difficult to get sound for free, but it is worth it to pay for a sound mixer on set and/or rent mics to record audio yourself. Not having good sound is the EASIEST way to tell a low budget amateur project from a more professional one.

NUMBER FIVE: THERE ARE ONLY TWO WAYS TO SCHEDULE

“When are we filming?” Crew members would ask me that when I was starting out and I didn’t know how to answer. Soon? July? Then I figured out there are really only TWO ways to pick a filming day(s). One is by picking the DATE and one is by picking the CREW.

If you pick the date, say July 20th, then every time you hire crew or look at a location, make sure it’s available July 20th. This is generally how I pick dates now, I’m more confident in my ability to get crew or gear for any day needed.

When I had less crew contacts I would ask when they are available and choose based on that. Everyone might not be available July 20th, so I would ask for a few options. If everyone’s schedule lines up on July 31st, THAT’S the day I would choose.

That’s really all you need to know–now it’s time to get your project in gear and CALL ACTION!

Allison Powell

About Allison Powell

Allison's motto is "Make it Happen". Since moving to Los Angeles from North Carolina, Allison has been involved in projects as an actor, writer, director, producer, and resident tea drinker. Her recent short film "Black Widow: Origins" got rave reviews from Movie Pilot News and is touring the country with Geek Film Fest. Last February she completed her first feature, "Banging Lanie", as producer/director/lead. She most recently worked on the romantic comedy "Fame-Ish" which was all filmed during a real anime convention. Allison is an avid runner and just completed her first 50 mile trail run.