32 Tips on Making an Indie Feature Film: Production & Post
32 Tips on Making an Indie Feature Film: Production & Post
I’ve made a lot of movies. I started off as a Runner and worked my way up. I worked on 13 movies as a 1st AC & 2nd AC and Director of Photography before I became an award-winning Director & Writer in my own right. Having gone from Runner to director I have experienced the whole gauntlet of film making from the biggest shoots (Harry Potter and James Bond) to tiny micro-budget one-man crew shoots. I have seen many ways to do things effectively and simply.
There are 6 main areas of filmmaking for the indie filmmaker: Development, Pre-production, production, post-production, festivals, and sales. In my first blog, I cover development and pre-production. In this blog, I will dive into my 32 tips for production and post-production.
These are my observations from more than 1,000 days on set and 29 years in the industry! Hopefully, they will make your filmmaking journey more fun and more productive.
A collage of ID passes from some of the jobs I have been on including the BBC and Big Brother, and Reading Festival.
So you’ve got your screenplay, it’s been through development, you are 100% sure it’s in the best shape it can possibly be in, you’ve had read throughs with actors, and spent months in pre-production getting your vision across to all your Heads of Department, Cast and crew. All the kit, locations, props, wardrobe, accommodation, permits, legal stuff and catering has been sourced and you are ready to go! These are my tips for on-set, physical production.
Tip #1: Always be early. This is your masterpiece that could be the beginning of the rest of your career.
Tip #2: Work out your shooting order and stick to it. Get a rhythm going and do that every set up. What works for me is: read through the scene with cast on set. Block it until it works. Show it to camera, then send actors to make up/hair for checks etc. whilst the camera and electrics set up to film. Then rehearse on camera and shoot it. We usually shoot the rehearsal.
Tip #3: Work out whose going to say Action and Cut! This may sound obvious but it can be very embarrassing if you haven’t worked it out.
Tip #4: It’s easy to forget that this is a job and we’re all at work, but if you behave like a boss then people will treat you like a boss, respect is earned.
Tip #5: There is no magic filter. If something looks bad on your monitor – it’ll look bad on screen. I worked with one director who would just say things like, “so that tree will just disappear will it?” and “I want the sun coming up over that building,” (when we were facing North). Don’t be that poorly informed.
Tip #6: Talk to actors directly: don’t shout at them from behind a monitor. Especially if it’s an emotional scene.
Tip #7: VFX and CGI are a pain when you have a low budget. Be creative and avoid them if you can. Bad shots will always look like bad shots. If you are going to use VFX make sure you take the time to shoot the plate shots and elements properly, or you’ll either have to do them again, or fix them in post which will cost more.
Krista DeMille and I in Montana filming "Atomic Apocalypse"
Tip #8: Wear a watch. I know sounds obvious. But if you check the time on your phone you will almost certainly see a message, email, text or a Pokemon that needs immediate attention, and you’ll be standing there on set fiddling with your phone whilst the entire cast and crew stand around waiting for you to finish.
Each one of these quick emails/Pokemons takes a minute or two, ten of these in a day is ten minutes, in which you could have shot a set up. When I was directing for the BBC we would regularly schedule 15 minutes to shoot a scene. I once shot a scene with three set ups and dialogue in 7 minutes. It’s a good scene and was broadcast.
Tip #9: If you are the director there should never be a time when you have nothing to do. If Camera and Grips are setting up, go and talk to your actors, if the actors are in wardrobe, talk to your producer, if you are waiting on actors talk to your Cinematographer about the next set up. And always make time to talk to your Gaffer who will often suggest really great advice, and it’s always wise to be on the good side of the person in charge of your electricity.
Tip #10: Remember to eat and drink. I know sounds silly. But just do it OK?
Tip #11: Pay invoices on time. Most cast and crew on Indies don’t have a lot of money and are already working for you on the cheap. It’s difficult enough to live your own life, don’t make other people’s (who are helping you) more difficult. Pay that invoice. Just do it. The stress of not paying it will end up costing you more in therapy.
Tip #12: Time. Time is our best friend and greatest foe but you’ll never have enough of it. Even on huge multi-million dollar feature films that shoot for 100+ days they wish they had a few more days just to polish things a bit.
Tip #13: 24 and 48 hour film challenges are a great way to practice your skills, forge friendships and get stuff done, but very seldom do they ever end up with films that you are really happy with that go on to do well at festivals or as showreels. There will always be exceptions to this, but when you look into it you’ll find the reason some 48 hour film were a success was because they spent a whole load of time planning or preparing it. Or got someone famous to be in it. (which they sorted out in pre-production).
Often after people have shot their 24/48 hour film project then they spend a whole load of time fixing it in the edit. But it’ll never be as good as the original vision as it was a rushed shoot and script.
A happy crew is the best crew! "Atomic Apocalypse"
Tip #14: The mental and physical exhaustion that comes with working on films 24/7 should not be underestimated. Look after yourself. Give yourself a break.
Tip #15: Be prepared. Things will go wrong, actors will be late, equipment will break and it’ll rain or be too sunny. I had to shoot a scene once and it was pouring down, so we just shot it with actors holding umbrellas, and ultimately it added a sense of urgency to the scene it didn’t have before. It wasn’t what I wanted but it turned out really good on screen.
Tip #16: if you are the director, your job is to get the best performance from the cast, I have never found shouting at cast helps. Actors like to talk. Talk them into doing what you want. Don’t order them.
Tip #17: Listen to your crew, they will almost certainly have been on more movies than you. Every shot you are doing has probably been done before, and they will know a way to do it. I worked with one actor who had done more than 100 movies, and his advice was wonderful. Every day is a school day.
Tip #18: Always plan - but be creatively willing to change. Be willing to compromise every now and then. Save creative battles for what really matters.
Tip #19: Be aware of budget. Everything adds up. I worked on a shoot where the DoP wanted a fresh gray scale every day. Each one cost $49. We were shooting for 35 days = $1715. I told him no.
"The Dragon Detective" - in production - yet to come!
Tip #20: Stick to schedules.
Tip #21: If you change things in your script remember to tell everyone else. Number every draft, so people don’t get confused.
Tip #22: Remember a happy crew works better than a grumpy crew.
Tip #23: Feed your cast and crew. Not into a wood chipper but make sure there is enough food. People get really Hangry and make mistakes. You are not responsible for your crew’s dietary habits. Don’t try to feed an entire crew your vegan lentil stew. It’ll only make them angry. They need carbs. I was on a shoot where the director was a vegan and forbid non-vegan food on set. The crew mutinied and left and the film was never completed. How good the food is on set is one of the MAIN THINGS cast and crew will talk about to other people.
Tip #24: I always keep a big box of sweets/candy by the monitor, it makes people happy and rather than tell me their problem, they tend to take the candy and munch away forgetting the problem they were going to burden me with.
Tip #25: re-record dialogue as soon as actors have said it if you need wild tracks. Whilst they are still in character and up for it. This will be really helpful in the edit. You can send actors off with the sound recordist to do this if you feel you need to move on to the next shot.
Tip #26: Take time to enjoy it – you’ve worked so hard for so long just to get on set on a movie in production. Take a moment. Watch everyone working away and be thankful for this wondrous opportunity. Remember to thank everyone. It’s never too late. Thank them at the end of the day, after a great shot, end of the week, and at the wrap party. Send them all a big email or facebook message once it’s done.
Me with the machine gun on "The Mark of Cain" (Channel 4) in Tunisia 2006.
On a big film or TV show, there will be an editor working along as you are shooting and every day you’ll pop along to the edit to see how they are getting on. They will speak with your Script Supervisor and might give you a list of pick up shots as you go along etc.
On an indie quite often you doing start the edit until the shoot is finished. This presents a few problems as you don’t have a cast and crew to do any more shots pick ups or new scenes. There are a couple of ways to get round this, one is to always schedule a few days of pick ups half way through your edit. The other is to make 100% sure you don’t miss anything when you are shooting. But this is very difficult.
Tip #27: pick ups should not be thought of as a bad thing. You are distilling your shooting experience to make the scene better. Do not feel that pick ups mean you did it bad the first time. It’s just an opportunity to see everyone again and get back on set! Yeah!
Tip #28: Editing will take six times longer than you thought. I did one micro-budget feature and we were in post for two years. I prayed for my own death on numerous occasions. Everyone will let you down with deadlines. VFX, CGI, Animation will all take much longer than they promised. Anyone doing a favour for you will drop you in favour of paid work. That’s the life we chose.
Tip #29: At some point you’ll have to re-write your screenplay to match exactly what the final edit of your film is. All the dialogue needs to be exactly what the actors said. You’ll have to do it with a time code all the way through. This is very boring but must be done. If it is done wrong then your subtitles will be wrong, and it’ll be very embarrassing if you are at an international film festival and the subtitles don’t match up with what the actors are saying. Trust me. I know.
Tip #30: You will picture lock more than once. Probably three times. Maybe four. Like with your screenplay, once you have picture locked leave it for a few days and then watch it with fresh eyes. It’s almost certainly too long. If you are making an indie film and are planning on festivals then aim for 90 minutes. Long films are simply less likely to be selected.
Tip #31: Sound is vital. Spend as much time and money on sound design and mixing as you can afford. Sound is at least 50% of your movie and should be treated as such. There is a reason why we have radio and audio dramas and not just silent moving pictures. Good sound design will lift you movie in ways you could not imagine.
Tip #32: It’s only finished when it’s finished. (It’ll probably never be finished. See Tip #1).
You made a movie. Buy yourself a present. You are now a member of a very special club! Well done!
About the Author
Martin then spent 15 years in the camera department as a 1st and 2nd AC (Assistant Cameraman), learning his trade on films like Judge Dredd, Harry Potter, James Bond: Goldeneye and The Muppets, including a year working in Australia and two feature films in Tunisia, as a training ground before becomi...