Thursday, January 9, 2014

15 Tips for the Amateur Filmmaker

Jeff's 15 Tips for the Amateur Filmmaker

Editing on the movie is going well; I'll be pretty hush hush about it until I'm nearing the final product (still months out). In the mean time, hind sight is 20-20, and these are some of my lessons learned.

1) Have a Prop Bin
Otherwise you'll end up with props laying around all over the place. Not only is it just better organization, but it prevents a prop from accidentally appearing in a scene before/after the prop is introduced via the story; or in my case the prop now appears in two places at once.

When the actors were on set they were actually great about preventing prop faux pas, properly resetting props between different takes of the same scene and taking props with them to the next scene. For me the problem occurred at the end of the day: actors leaving the set asked me where to put the props and I told them just to leave it on the table (or whereever). I of course forgot about this when I decided to do a few pickup establishing shots after the actors had cleared the set.

These two back to back shots... spot the magical transporting prop

Have a dedicated bin/box/shelf (something or someplace that is not scheduled to be in shot ever!) to put props in. That way you never have to think about it.

2) Your Feet Make Noise
Footsteps. For some reason we as humans have learned to ignore the sounds of footsteps; after all we hear it every day. Only when that idiot in the apartment above trudges around are you every aware of how monstrously loud every foot fall is.

The camera does not tone out foot steps at all. In normal life we can walk and talk at the same time, plotting mindlessly. This is a problem on camera. The audio will pick up every foot step. Now it seems that two character are having conversations in tap dance shoes.

Tread lightly.

3) Cameramen are Not Transparent
That is they cast shadows. This is something that less obvious in the moment of filming, but blatantly obvious when watching the footage.

If you are in total control of your lighting you can avoid this. Or if not, try:

  • Moving out of the direct light
  • Add a second light source at opposite angles
  • Have the cameraman stand near to an actor; on film your brain will fudge it and match the cameraman's shadow to the actor on screen.
  • If using the above trick, don't move unless the actor moves. You're brain will recognize a trick if the cameraman's shadow moves without an actor also moving.
  • Make the shadow unrecognizable; merge your shadow with other larger shadows (like a tree's shadow); or have your shadow cast on a non-flat surface to obscure the obvious outline.
Both shots have a cameraman's shadow

4) Actors Looking at the Camera
It's natural for you to give eye contact to all people involved in a conversation. Thus if two other people are in the room you're naturally inclined to look between them. However if that 3rd person is the cameraman we have a problem.

A split second look at the camera

Behind the camera it's dumbfounding when an actor stares directly into the lens. But this is so automatic  (and usually for a split second) that often times the actor doesn't even realize that they're doing it. I've had this exact conversation on set:

'Ok, let's do that again, this time don't look at the camera.'
'Oh, but I didn't look at the camera.'
'Um... yes you did.'
'Dude don't look at the camera'
'No, I looked at you, not the camera'

The concept of not looking at the camera is easy to grok; what's difficult to learning is not looking at the cameraman (whose head happens to be directly behind a camera). It feels rude, but exclude him entirely from you're conversation.

5) Actors Looking at Scripts
This is only a problem if you're on a zero rehearsal schedule like I was. Hopefully the scripts are placed in the scene in a not too obvious manner (covered by arms, props, etc.). Keep the scripts on the table and leave them out of the center of the frame; and you'll actually get away with a lot, so long as the actors don't look at them at the wrong moments.

In editing you'll splice out all the moments when the actors are quick reading their next page of dialog, that's not the issue. The issue is when the actors take turns talking and reading. Again this must be a natural inclination of people; the resulting side-effect is two actors in conversation never actually having eye contact.

If an actor does need to look down, the other actors should pause.

Synchronize when looking at scripts.

6) Actors Flipping Pages
Again this is only a problem if you have scripts in the shot. Flipping pages makes a ton of noise on camera! Probably because paper acts as a rigid vibrating membrane, almost like a drum head.

All actors should synchronize their page flips and avoid giving dialog during the page flip. Getting actors not to talk during a page flip is the harder part. Take a moment, pause, flip. It will all be edited out anyways.

7) Scratch Your Face with the Other Hand
It's good to keep natural mannerisms / body language like scratching (when acting confused) or brushing hair (when acting casual). But don't obscure your face with your gestures.

Tell the actors to use their other hand instead (because they won't realize it's ruining the shot).

8) "Just one last take"
As a director never say this, because it's a lie. It's also demoralizing to the actors when it was the 'last take' five takes ago. Instead say "Good. This time do X a bit differently. Action!" This sets better expectations for the actors, and prevents them from thinking ahead to the next scene too early.

9) Don't call cut too soon.
Allow a scene to end in awkward silence for a few seconds before calling cut. These few seconds will be invaluable in the editing room. Same with the first few seconds of the scene.

10) Allot a lot of time for montages
The amount of time spend filming a montage isn't actually that much. This is because you'll be able to do most sequences in one take; most montage sequences will have music playing over the audio, so as a director you won't have to worry about bad audio ruining a take.

However it's the stage setup for each little montage that takes the time. Dozens of locations. Dozens of props. Costume changes. You are after all capturing a large progression of story time.

11) Draw the Drapes
The sun actually moves pretty fast. The few minutes between takes can be very noticeable (especially during dusk).

No more than 5 minutes between takes

Cover windows (or leave them out of frame) to avoid having to worry about this.

12) Remind the Actors Who Hates Whom
Over the course of a movie some characters will grow closer, some will grow farther apart. But on set scenes aren't shot chronologically; (and not always on the same day) while actors can infer how much they should portray hate toward each other, tell them explicitly; The actors may honestly forget that yesterday their characters were yelling at each other (so don't look so comfortable being in the same room as her! You should be giving her the evil-eye instead! etc.).

13) Screens; laptops, tvs, cellphones
These items are props for actors to hold. Not for actors to show camera what's being displayed. You should just leave all the screens blank, it's not worth the effort actually setting up the visuals on the device for several reasons:

  • Aliasing issues; caused by a mismatch in frames-per-second between a device's display rate and the camera's record rate. 
  • You don't have time to futz around with this stuff on set (and also the last thing you'll remember to do anyways)! If you need to show information on a device, film this as a pickup shot later. You have bigger continuity issues to worry about.
  • Also a blank screen provides some of the greatest wiggle room in editing. If an actor's performance is a bit more over the top than you had in mind, put giant flashing warnings on the screen to match the reaction. It's easy to act opposite technology if you insert the right visuals in later.

14) Louder, not Dumber
There will be retakes on set because an actor's volume was too low.

If you say: "This time do it again, but louder!"
The actor then becomes self conscious of their volume, focusing primarily on projecting; and as a side-effect their speech becomes robotic; with explicit intonation (and ultimately sounding like they're reading from a script).

You end up with:
The first take is too soft, but with great intonations.
The second take is loud enough, but poor intonations.

This problem goes for the director too! On the volume related retake I'm listening for volume instead of scrutinizing their overall performance. If I'm not conscious of this, at the end of the take I am satisfied and have moved on to the next scene; and it won't be until post that I'll realized the err (as well as facepalming my own "cut! that was much better!")

15) Sighs, Exhales, Gasps
I never realized how important breathing is to our body language; and in fact you can get away with portraying a ton of emotions with just a nuanced inhale or exhale; but more importantly you'll have trouble portraying certain emotions without them.

If you have a sense that a performance wasn't quite believable, but you can't quite put your finger on it, try having the actor accentuate their breathing.

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