Welcome to Filmmaking 101, where we offer some tips on how to go about creating your movie masterpiece. Read on to discover suggestions for your pre-production, production, and post-production phases.
You have your idea for an arthouse masterpiece or an action-based blockbuster; now how do you translate that into a script―the backbone of your production? You can use MS Word, Google Docs, or another document program. But using dedicated screenwriting software provides the standard formatting, outline tools, collaboration modes, imaging tools, and alternate dialogue options used by writing pros. Popular screenwriting software choices include Final Draft, Arc Studio, CeltX, Fade In, Studio Binder, and Highland 2.
Focal Press is a trusted source for media-oriented publications; the company offers a Basics of Filmmaking guide and multiple books on screenwriting, which will come in handy in your pre-production phase.
Use storyboarding software to create visual depictions of your scenes that can help you plot out your narrative. In a pinch, you can even draw storyboards by hand―sometimes a basic sense of talent placement, a sense of the location, and the angle of view are all you need.
Tooling around the city or countryside looking at potential locations can be one of the more relaxing processes of movie-making, but it still requires close attention. When selecting locations, consider factors like light and noise levels at various times of day, the ease of loading in equipment, and transportation options for your crew. If at all possible, choose an elevator building so that your crew can bring in and pack up their gear quickly. For urban locations, getting permits for vehicle parking is key―electrical generators (genny vans) and equipment trucks need to be located close by to save time spent cabling or fetching gear. Keep in mind that you'll need a holding area nearby for actors who are between scenes, craft services, restrooms, and catering facilities if the crew can't do a "walk-away" lunch.
To envision your shots easily and determine which lenses you'll need, check out these mobile apps that let you select focal lengths for grabbing stills and, in some cases, video for later review. The Artemis Pro digital viewfinder app for Android and iOS enables you to select sensor, lens, and other settings so you get an accurate field of view of your locations. Blackmagic Design's Digital Film for iPhone offers extensive camera control settings including LUT application, codec selections, and the option to record to external disks or Blackmagic Cloud via DaVinci Resolve. Additional filmmaking app options include Shot Lister, Shot Designer, and Scriptation.
Your barebones crew could consist of a DP (director of photography), an AD (assistant director), a key grip, a gaffer, and a sound mixer. Ideally, you'll also have a camera operator, a DIT (digital imaging technician), a script supervisor, a production designer, a prop master, and a hair and makeup team, while the key departments will be filled out with first and second ACs (assistant camera), several grips and electrics, and a boom mic operator. Salary, experience, style, and availability will be your major factors in hiring your crew members.
Your budget will, of course, be the major factor in choosing your equipment. B&H is ready to provide you with expert help in choosing from a wide selection of cine-style, mirrorless, DSLR, and other cameras, plus audio, editing, and grip and lighting equipment.
Cameras and Lenses
High-end cine-style cameras are the crème-de-la crème option for shooting ultra-high-resolution video with rich colors, selectable "looks," up-loadable LUTS, wide dynamic ranges, a wide selection of ISOs, and built-in ND filter options. They also have the widest compatibility with pro cine-style lenses which produce the highest quality looks and generally come in ARRI PL or LPL mounts.
DSLRs and Mirrorless
Many DSLR (digital single-lens reflex) cameras are popular choices for recording video. Thanks to their large image sensors, DSLRs can capture high-resolution video as well as stills, and can be used for creating shallow depth-of-field looks and artful "bokeh" (out-of-focus highlights). Mirrorless cameras similarly offer high-quality video and stills but in a smaller, more lightweight form. DSLRs and mirrorless cameras come in a variety of lens mounts, enabling you to use lenses you already have or new cine-style lenses in Canon EF, Nikon F, and Sony E mounts.
Deciding on a video resolution, an aspect ratio, and a recording codec based on how and where you may be distributing your film is another consideration when choosing your camera.
If you find that you are the entire camera crew on a low-budget production, don't overlook professional camcorders or even consumer-level versions as an option for shooting your film. Features like built-in zoom rocker controls, touch autofocus options, image stabilization, and optical and digital zoom make it easier for solo camera operators to concentrate on framing and exposure. Choose a UHD 4K model for optimal imagery and look for pro features like proxy recording and integrated Wi-Fi to speed your file sharing and editing workflow.
Stabilizers and Drones
Stabilizers enable you to capture smooth, first-person POV (point of view) or "walk-and-talk" traveling shots without the jarring seen with handheld footage. Stabilizers come in ring-style and single or double handgrip designs and are available in a range of prices.
The wide availability of drones has made impressive aerial shots available to almost anyone. Professional cine-style drones feature the ability to use your existing camera with interchangeable lenses, precise positioning, longer runtimes, and up to 8K high-resolution capture. The more affordable prosumer drone models have built-in cameras, can capture up to UHD 4K video, and are lighter weight.
Unfortunately, the adage of "people only notice sound when it's bad" often holds true. Two key things to remember when recording audio: always use a double-system setup and use a wired boom microphone whenever possible. "Double system" simply means that you're recording your audio to a device other than your camera. Even though almost all video cameras also record sound, you'll get noticeably higher-quality audio using an audio field mixer and a boom microphone. While wireless microphones can be less intrusive for your talent, wired mics are more reliable, have better sound quality, and are not prone to interference the way wireless systems are.
Lighting and Grip
LED lights require less power and are physically cooler and lighter than tungsten, Fresnel, and HMI fixtures. Turn to these established types of lighting units for stronger, punchier effects or to cover a wider field. Flags, cutters, floppies, and softboxes and other accessories are used to shape the light output.
Dollies, Jibs, and Tripods
Platform dolly and track systems will give you the best stability and accuracy for repeated moves. Rentable Fischer and Elemack dollies with hydraulic booms are some of the most popular systems that can be used to reposition your camera quickly, horizontally and vertically, whether or not the dolly is on a track. Doorway or skater dollies provide a more affordable and more compact solution for creating moves in tight locations. While dollies can be used to great effect for dynamic or revealing moves, sometimes you'll want a simple pan or static, tableau-style shot from a tripod. Tripods are also a boon for grabbing steady shots for your documentary or other run-and-gun style production. Look for a fluid head for maximum smoothness, lighter carbon-fiber legs for quick repositioning and less operator fatigue, or aluminum legs for heavier, rock-solid positioning.
Property and Wardrobe
Props and wardrobe are easier items to source on your own when operating on a lower budget; just remember to buy multiples of clothing or props that will get wet, stained, or damaged during the course of a scene. If your budget is sufficient, prop houses and wardrobe suppliers offer a vast array of objects, furniture, and clothing for present day and period looks.
Do you or a friend already own a camera rig, sound gear, and a lighting package? Definitely a plus but, if not, consider renting select components or a whole rig from a rental house. Located in most large cities, rental houses usually specialize in camera, audio, or lighting and grip equipment but some offer a combination of these.
Don't skimp on the less technical roles on your film or try to fill them yourself―you'll need at least a production manager and an AD (assistant director). In a nutshell, a production manager keeps everything off set running smoothly: scheduling actor pickups, transportation, picking up and returning equipment, etc. The AD handles the on-set production process: making sure you stick to your time frame, getting the actors to set, and coordinating the crew, enabling the director to focus on creative decisions.
Review your footage while on set with the help of a wireless video transmitter system and a recording monitor. If you can hire DIT, digital utility, or video playback personnel, you can easily view your takes and get a jump on editing by uploading proxy video files wirelessly or by downloading your media cards on set and sending the footage off on drives to your post-production facility. Production monitors are larger, high-quality video monitors that are ideal for your video village on set and for post-production coloring and editing. When they're near the camera, DPs can quickly view their framing using the camera assistant's onboard monitor.
Staying on Budget
Know What Coverage You Need
One caveat to consider when recording video as opposed to shooting on film is the temptation to shoot too many takes and get needless coverage, which can cause you to go over budget and over your allotted time frame. I've seen firsthand how not having the defined time limit of a roll of film can lead directors to do a seemingly endless number of takes and to cover a scene from every possible angle in video, all of which leads to tons of footage that you have to wade through in post, adding time and money to that end of production, not to mention how overshooting can tire out your actors and crew. It can help to organize your shot list into necessary and bonus (time permitting) shots.
(Not) Fixing it in Post
While editing software can produce amazing effects, your goal should be to get the look and sound you want on set, not in post-production. Factors to consider for not "fixing it in post" include: processing limitations―for example, you won't get the same kind of anamorphic flares or polarized effects in post that you do on set; audio differences―sounds "looped" in a studio just won't sound exactly like those captured at your location; exposure―your light levels can be boosted in post but you run the risk of heightened "grain" in your imagery. Also consider that you may not end up with the post budget that you planned, so if you get it right the first time, you'll save money and still have the footage you want.
Try to arrange a "cover set" that you can use for interior locations if the weather is not cooperating with your exterior scenes. A cover set can be used for scenes that are already designated to take place indoors and are loosely scheduled in, or you can rewrite the action from outside to inside if necessary.
Dailies consist of the footage shot each day on a feature. It is traditional for the director, DP, sound mixer, talent, and other key personnel to review each day's footage the same night. This way, the director can get feedback and the crew can examine the footage for any technical issues, all while still having the same location the next day for any reshoots necessary. While some productions still project dailies on a large screen for nightly viewing, now directors can have their preferred takes delivered via a portable drive or a cloud-based service for viewing almost anywhere on a laptop or tablet.
Syncing Footage and Editing
Popular video editing software like Blackmagic's DaVinci Resolve Studio, Final Cut Pro, and Avid Media Composer let you automatically sync your video and audio tracks. You should, however, use a basic slate or a more advanced sync slate with timecode while shooting to ensure that you have a backup sync method. Video-editing software also enables you to apply transition effects, add titles, and mix multiple audio tracks. Most also provide chromakeying (green screen) and other visual and audio effects tools. The director and editor can assemble a rough cut to review before making additional cuts and fine-tuning your audio and adding a score and credits. Available with many popular systems, cloud-based editing solutions enable you to collaborate with team members around the globe. Be sure to back up your footage regularly through all stages of your production using your preferred hard drive method and/or a cloud-based platform.
You will determine your recording resolution in pre-production, but some editing software can enable you (within limits) to transcode your footage for exporting footage in popular codecs like H.264, H.265, Apple ProRes LT, and more for submission to film festivals and online content platforms. It's best to check each platform and festival's technical requirements before you begin production as there is no one-size-fits-all standard.
If you have any questions or comments about your own filmmaking experiences, please post them in the space below, and we will do our best to reply.