24 July 2009

Filmmaking on a Shoestring

Michael Clark is one of the producers of One Day Removals, a black comedy, shot in the regional accent of the north east of Scotland, about two hapless removal men and a truck load of bodies. Stirton Productions, the Scotland-based production house of which he is a part, developed and produced this feature (like most indie filmmakers I know here in Toronto) on a very modest budget and wrote the following piece on their experience. I encourage others to weigh in on the advice his company has offered here.

How do you make a film with no money?

Good question.

How do you make a film suitable for screening in a cinema with no money? Well, the first thing you need to do is buy a Macintosh. No, really. When I first wrote the screenplay for Removals we approached the Scottish film funding body, Scottish Screen, for help. This was not forthcoming. We tried again. Same story.

So without the actual industry assistance we were stuffed, right? Wrong!

If the powers that be won't help you make a film you must make it yourself. Thanks to today's digital equipment, you absolutely can. Start with a Mac. Our most recent production, Removals, was filmed with a Canon DM-XL1 camera, edited on a G4 quicksilver. Software: Radius Edit DV, Adobe Premiere 6 and Adobe After Effects 5.5.

This all might sound a tad expensive, but it really isn't that bad. £4000 (approximately $7,150 CAD) and you will have a system, which will allow you to produce film after film. Learn to love the process, make it second nature: there is nothing quite so rewarding as being able to fall out of bed straight into an edit suite.

You don't even need to spend that much! Any older iMac — provided it has firewire — will allow you to capture a digital video output. Even a simple digital camera (£500+/$900+ CAD) will allow you to film and edit. Most uncompressed DV output will cope quite well with being projected on a big screen so don't just think in TV terms. Most film festivals now accept mini DV or videotaped copies to be shown. It's always fun to see your work on a big screen and a reaction from a large audience makes all the effort worth while.

The question of funding?

In our experience, if you wait for funding to arrive you could end up old and bitter. So just stop moaning and grab a camera.

On the subject of funding.... We have been trying to get official Scottish Screen (the governing body of film in Scotland) funding for the better part of a decade now and I doubt that any will ever come. Part of the problem is that we make entertaining and audience-pleasing films and Scottish Screen sidestep such productions in favour of "art." There are many funding opportunities for art house films already, as such productions form a valid and meaningful support for film as an expressive art form. So it's pretty annoying that the only mainstream funding body takes no interest in films that may make money. Check out some of the things they do fund. [It's] worth a look.

Having said that, the problems of Scotland are pretty much the problems of everywhere else: Too many filmmakers chasing too little money. My advice, don't even try. Just take that energy they want you to use jumping through their hoops and utilize it creating something useful instead.

So what comes next?

Well, Removals has been enough of a success for us to consider a feature length film. Tricky, but I think we can do it. Right now I am looking for actors, musicians, investors and all the other things that a director with no money is usually looking for. A break would be nice. But I'm not banking on it.

So what other piece of advice can I pass on? Well, I'm just a low budget director. I don't want to sound like a pompous windbag, but I have learned a few things. Every film is written three times: once on paper, once on location, and once in the edit suite. Try to get at least one of these right! Probably the most important is the edit.

Other people will tell you it's the script. Yeah, maybe. But editing can take a scene that didn't work and turn it into something good. Or, if you're George Lucas you can spend months replacing the original actors with CG copies if they get their lines wrong. Remember, rushes are not a film! So get editing.

The final piece of advice I would give is to surround yourself with talented people. Use them. Try not to worry about being too popular. If someone isn't good, don't be nasty, just find someone better. Once you've found a good crew stick to them like glue. Listen to them and learn from them. Directors often fall into the trap of thinking that they are always right. Take it from me, nobody is infallible so find people you can trust and talk to.

One of the tricks we have used is the weekly meeting (ours is a Thursday). Get the key people in a room every week and tell them what you need. That way things can move forward and the people who don't pull their weight will soon become obvious.

So there you go. I hope this is of some use, and if you happen to pass a cinema, which is showing a Mark Stirton film, pop in and have a look. If I can be of any further help, please send me an e-mail and I'll bring it up at the Thursday meeting.

Michael Clark is a producer for Stirton Productions.

Created and run by director Mark Stirton, Stirton Productions is a digital movie production facility specializing in original feature films. Currently based in Scotland, the company provides unique content, producing Scotland's first sci-fi/action/horror movie The Planet. One Day Removals, their latest movie, was nominated for a British Independent Film Award.

This article was republished with his permission.
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