Recently, we put the wraps on post production on my Not So Super pilot episode. I thought, since this was my first major video production, I would share what I learned while shooting it. This won’t be of interest to those of you who have been doing a lot of video production already, but I’m hoping it will help those who are new or who have yet to start video production.
#1 $h!t Happens
On the second day of shooting we had commandeered a bar, taken time away from the patrons and the owners, set up lights and sound…only to have the camera completely die. Total catastrophic failure which meant no shooting would be possible that day. It was crazy, the Canon 60D we were using was just 28 days old, and yet there it was, dead, not starting up at all. So it trashed the whole day of potential shooting. In the end, we managed to get it all done. But the point here is, even with a ridiculous, nearly impossible deadline (set by the contest creators) and a whole scheduled day of shooting washed out… we got it all done. So, as Douglas Adams so wisely put on the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy… Don’t Panic.
#2 Always have a back up plan
This is because of number one. After the camera died and wiped out the whole day, wasting the time of strangers, cast and crew.. I invested in a second camera, another Canon 60D. Now, the chances of that same sort of catastrophic failure, are greatly diminished. Of course, it was a major cash outlay on my part, but in the end, I feel far more secure when we go out to shoot and we can now do multiple angles at the same time, bonus! This might not be within your budget, but there is most likely a rental place nearby. We have the awesome Art’s Cameras here in Milwaukee and they rent camera bodies or full kits. The rental meant we could continue shooting the next day while the other camera was headed to the repair shop. Before going out to shoot, make sure you have some sort of back up plan whether it’s a second camera or a rental. It will save a lot of hair from being pulled out at the roots.
#3 Audio Means Sound, not Music
In the pilot there are big pieces of it that have no music. We did that intentionally. We weren’t shooting an MTV music video or reality show, we were shooting a dramatic piece of video. So we opted out of the constant flood of music in the background. Because of that, we had to use a lot of filler sounds, a lot of ambient and background stuff that brought the video to life and made the environments more organic, less sterile. Music is nice, but like other things, can be used sparingly to great effect.
#4 Smart People Collect Smarter People
I would have been lost if I had not had the amazing Jeff Garbarek, Director of Photography, video editor, camera operator. He was so awesome that I split the directing credit with him, because I don’t know that it would have been as good had he not been there. Since this was my first major video shoot, I tried to be smart about it. I assembled a team of people who were far smarter than I am in major areas. I stumbled upon a composer for the score, I had the DP to do all manner of things and to give me input on shooting, angles, and a variety of other things. When you’re starting out, it’s best to get a team of people who have some experience and who can help you get things rolling. Without the support of the team, I would have been floundering. The pilot could not have been made without all of them, cast and crew. Thank you one and all.
#5 Scheduling Properly
Ugh, scheduling. It’s hard, but necessary. Alright, it wasn’t that hard really. We broke down the script into scenes then analyzed what and who was in each scene. That gave us a really easy way to schedule our shoot. We only have six scenes and a dozen actors, so it wasn’t a massive undertaking, but on the feature-length project we’re doing next, it will be. When we broke it down, we found that there were three scenes which basically had all the same cast in it, across three locations which were all fairly close. So when we lost that day to camera malfunction, we were able to combine the two days of shooting into one with the same cast. We also had two other scenes with the same equipment, cast and requirements. They were shot at the same location (and through the magic of filmmaking look like two sites) and so that meant a single day of shooting could get them both done, and we did. Also, be sure to leave some time in the shooting schedule for those catastrophic malfunctions…because the Fates are fickle and nothing is perfect in the universe… Plus, you might find you need time for other things like pick ups (extra shots) and ADR (additional dialog recording), so schedule some buffer days.
#6 Go with the flow
This is vital. I was on the verge of a mental breakdown when that camera broke. This was mostly because of the deadline that was placed on us. So this piece is really for both directors and producers. Like I said in #1, shit happens, so instead of working against it, simply go with the flow. It will make your life a lot easier. In the end, the cast and crew were all very understanding about the camera failure and graciously rescheduled everything with me. The deadline, didn’t move. That was suddenly far more pressure than I would have liked. Ultimately, we made the deadline with the rough draft. It just wasn’t anything near what we had wanted to send that day. If there had been more wiggle room with the deadline, we could have sent off a better product first time round. As I said, we ended up getting it all done, but then we were expected to hit yet another ridiculous deadline. I simply said no. There was no way I was going to have the post production team work through the Thanksgiving weekend. So we didn’t, we all enjoyed the time off and came back and wrapped things up a week later. No one died because I fought to push the deadline back, the show got done and is all the better for the extra time. Plus, we managed to get some extra pick up shooting in to help strengthen the end product.
#7 Color Correction can do wonders
With the nigh impossible budget and schedule we were given we didn’t have a lot of (read any) time for retakes. So we had to work with what we had. Luckily, my DP was a pretty smart guy, way smarter than me, and used color correction sparingly, but to great effect. That helped clean up some of the major problems we had with some footage. Since we were going for a more noir look we had a lot of hard shadows and such and it worked. But that tiny little RGB Curves feature in Premiere Pro is amazing.
#8 Ambient sound covers lots of mistakes
This might also fall into have a plan B. We had some sound problems which I might have mentioned already. In the future we’ll be using two systems to capture sound. That’s really the thing I learned, never trust a non-redundant system. It’s why I’ve now got two cameras as well, both in case of catastrophic failure and to make sure we always get the shot. But this is about sound and when we used a truck in one scene it was so loud that it totally blew out almost all other sound. So we had to yank that and drop in something else. That left a distinct absence of any kind of background sound which felt odd, so we had to add that in as well. Luckily, again because of my awesome DP, we had minutes and minutes of ambient sound at each location and we filled it with some other sound effects.
#9 Simple VFX mean awesome visuals
With a superhero show there’s bound to be times when we need to do some VFX. With the pilot we had just one but in the future, throughout season one, there are several things we will want to do. I realized that they don’t have to be those massive, over-the-top visuals Hollywood likes to use in almost every action film. They can be simpler and still be effective. While the VFX we did wasn’t 100% what I had envisioned, it worked for what I was trying to convey. So remember, don’t go big when less will do in VFX.
#10 Retain Whatever Rights Possible
Sooner or later, there will be some disagreement about something. That’s how it goes. In my case, the ‘producers’ wanted us to stick closer to the original script while I wanted to flesh some things out more for the viewer. Creative differences happen. On top of that, other business differences might crop up as well. As a creator, make sure you retain the rights to your own stuff or you might simply lose control of it. In my case, I entered a contest and read the contract carefully. Later, when I found out how things would work if I won the contest, I was far from pleased and so am hoping I don’t win now. I know it’s weird to hear that, but it’s true. I would rather not win and have the rights to my show and work revert completely to me so that I can do things like a director’s cut of the pilot and then shop that around for funding. Granted, the company that ran the contest does have a license to the pilot that was produced but I still own “all right, title and interest, including copyright and all other rights, in and to the Product and all derivatives thereof, to be used (or not) for the purposes the Filmmaker will, in the Filmmaker’s discretion, determine.”
There are some other things I learned during that shoot, but it’s all more technical and less general and might not apply to many of you. The key thing is, shit happens, roll with it. I like to paraphrase Buddha a lot in my life and so I will leave you with my favorite of those:
Don’t worry about the small stuff. In the end, it’s all small stuff.