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5 Easy Tips for the Indie Filmmaker

Maria Frostic - Main Iceberg LagoonMaking great movies isn’t a walk in the park.

For small filmmakers, it’s about more than just budget concerns–Kickstarter has, in some ways, solved that problem–so what else affects the production of a movie? From casting to building a team, the small details are what reap big rewards down the road, So keep this checklist in mind next time you’re planning a project, and you’ll be more successful!

1. Make your ambition work for you, not against you.

When it comes to low-budget movies, they don’t have the money, they don’t have the A-listers, and, most of all, they don’t have the equipment — so how can they compete?

Aesthetics that require a Steadicam or setting up a track for a dolly shot can take a lot of time out of your tight schedule. Save the 10-minute sweeping vistas for Joe Wright and pick a style of filming that complements your final goal and is also doable on your budget and with the team you have. There are great indie films and shorts available on YouTube and Vimeo like “Writer’s Block” and “A Film About Walking in Slow Motion” to learn from. Watch some festival-winning films or shorts at your budget level to get an idea of ways to work on a shoestring.

2. Casting makes a difference.

There are plenty of great films out there that have no-name actors in them; in fact, almost all big actors started in small films. What does this mean for a low-budget film? You can get by without big names. What you can’t afford is to have not-great talent.

Put in the time early to locate and audition promising talent. Getting a casting director can actually be one of the more affordable options, because having a well-cast movie does wonders for production value. Don’t be afraid to alter script or story elements to take advantage of the unique talents of your cast. And always give the edge to an actor who is hungry. If you’ve assembled a cast of actors dying to be discovered, you’ve got a great recipe for success.

3. A good script will win you the big points.

Those blockbusters that make a ton of money in the summer (I’m talking to you, Thor) are not about the script; they’re about the special effects and the big stars. For a movie that doesn’t have those two, it can seem a little daunting–until it’s not.

A great script (and great, unknown screenwriting talent) can put a film on the next level and make a viewer forget the shortcomings that a small-budget film can have thanks to an enthralling story.

4. Always shoot a safety take.

“One more for safety” can be a joke on movie sets, but in many instances that extra take can save a film when the video hits the cutting room. After long days of shooting (and low-budget independent films always have long days of shooting), everything is going to start looking good. But the cost is always more to go back to a location and fly the actors back months later. Better to spend a few more minutes while you have everything assembled. Play it safe!

Pro-tip: Also shoot during the day whenever possible. Great lighting can get expensive at night, and shooting in empty locations in the after hours can as well. So shoot in the day, and shoot when places are open for regular business. Sure, you might get crazy ladies in the background of your shots at the grocery store, but at least it’s authentic.

5. Make sure your team is in it for the long haul.

Small films can have the money curse; no matter how much heart is poured into them, everything can come to halt at the last drop of a penny. Prepare your team from the beginning for potential setbacks because every film has them. Inexperienced crews are less likely to expect setbacks and the ones who are most likely to encounter them. Make sure to psyche them up, and also be sure to have “rain cover” — a plan B for when a location falls through or an actor comes down with food poisoning.

If you’re concerned with how your filmmaking crew will pay the bills while you’re working on your project—and you’re aware that paying the rent is a big deal for everyone—you can build in adjustment room in your shoot schedule to compensate, and it won’t totally derail your timeline.

Movies are more than just a way to express an idea; they express how we see the world. Keep these tips close to heart, and remember that in the end, good movies can get good financial backing and go from nothing to something in a split second. Just look at Napoleon Dynamite.

Cassie Phillips is a culture junkie and entertainment nerd, working behind the scenes on film sets and covering them for local internet and news outlets. She hopes these tips on what indie filmmakers should consider before starting their next project will help more small films get financed, get made, and get famous.

Image credit: Maria Frostic – Main Iceberg Lagoon" (CC BY 2.0) by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Wednesday Links: Best Movies of the Year So Far

Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you’d like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.

AV Club: Best Movies of the Year So Far – A pretty good list. Reminds me of tons of movies I still need to see. My personal favorite of the year so far remains Hunt for the Wilderpeople.

TechCrunch: MIT made a movie screen that brings 3D to all seats – without the glasses – This is still a long way off. In some ways, the rest of the world is ahead of the US, because they are willing to wear glasses. I heard recently that 3D is the norm in China, for example. Consumers there expect it over watching “flatties”. TechCrunch also had a cool story on how BB-8 works in The Force Awakens.

Need some desktop wallpaper? Check out these movie collages.

The Playlist: The 50 Best Animated Films Of The 21st Century So Far Best practices for ingesting camera footage and managing media in Final Cut Pro X

FiveThirtyEight: ‘Ghostbusters’ Is A Perfect Example Of How Internet Movie Ratings Are Broken – Take it from me, a white guy: there are too many white guys reviewing movies to be giving a fair picture.

Cinemablend: To 3D Or Not To 3D: Buy The Right Ghostbusters Movie Ticket – I echo this review. I saw Ghostbusters in 3D. The movie was funny and the use of depth was fantastic. There were lots of great 3D gags — proton beams busting through the screen frame, and even Ecto 1 driving through the canyons of NYC felt extra fun. They gave that sequence massive depth and it underscored the excited feelings of the Ghostbusters.

Script Mag: Crowdfunding as Networking

IndieWire: Charlie Kaufman On Freedom, The Future, And The Failure Of Anomalisa – For the record, Anomalisa is no failure.

“A work of art doesn’t exist outside the perception of the audience.” — Abbas Kiarostami

Free Paperwork: Documents for Filmmakers

Your Weekend Viewing: The Heart-followers

Enjoy this gorgeously-photographed short documentary about a family who lives off the grid. Their hand-built house is beautiful, cocooned in a glass geodesic dome allowing for a year-round vegetable garden.

And it doesn’t hurt the picturesque quality of the location that it is far enough North to have nights with the Northern Lights scintillating above.

I can’t find any information on the equipment used to shoot it. If I had to guess, the filmmakers probably had a DSLR with some nice fast primes and a tripod, and then made use of the ample natural light.

This is a great example of how you can let the atmosphere created by the subjects of a documentary create the entire tone of a piece.

A website for the film can be found here, and yes, it has English translations.

Movie Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi has been a cult favorite with movies like Eagle vs. Shark and vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows. Here, adapting the novel Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump, he manages to make a film with universal appeal while sacrificing none of the askew humor, heartfelt emotion or visual whimsy of his previous work. I loved this film! It is destined to be one my favorites for the year.

I knew nothing of the plot when I saw the film, so feel free to stop reading here. In barest outline, it concerns a “bad egg” foster child (Julian Dennison) who is sent to a remote farm to live with a smothering woman (Rima Te Wiata) and her angry, nearly-mute husband (Sam Neill). The farm is near the New Zealand “bush” — wild jungle where animals real, fantastical and human live. Adventures ensue, sometimes as the camera rotates 360 degrees in montages without cuts or dissolves.

The soundtrack here, like that for Eagle vs. Shark, is also an instant classic. There is a mixture of Kiwi choral, electronica and classics (Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”) that somehow blend perfectly. Throw in a dead dog, and it might seem that Waititi is attempting to out-Wes Anderson Wes Anderson.

If you like Anderson’s films, or Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies, for that matter, you should have a blast with Wilderpeople. It’s a movie brimming with energy, grief, playfulness, warmth, action and maybe even hidden messages about race relations. The movie, like Jesus, is tricky like that.

Wednesday Links: The Peregrinations and Struggle of the External World

Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you’d like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.

“I Never Knew How to Make a Film” – Michael Cimino in a 2005 Filmmaker Magazine interview. He got his start in commercials and was known for his elaborate sets. Here’s his famous American Airlines commercial, “Take Me Along”:

The Guardian: Abbas Kiarostami, Palme d’Or-winning Iranian film-maker, dies aged 76 – If you’ve never seen a Kiarostami film, Certified Copy is a good way in.

The New Yorker: The Screenwriter of “E.T.” and “The BFG” Says Goodbye – RIP Melissa Mathison

SlashFilm: Scarlett Johansson Is Now the Highest-Grossing Female Movie Star of All Time – Her total is obviously helped by Marvel movies in which she is not the main star. However, for those who say she can’t sustain a movie as a lead, I point to Lucy. People will pay to see her kick ass, even if the plot is rather dumb.

Notes from the War Room – Terry Southern on making Dr. Strangelove

The Daily Beast: ‘Die Hard’ Oral History: How Bruce Willis Changed the Movies

The Onion: Director Has Clear Vision Of How Studio Will Destroy Movie

Smithsonian Mag: The True Story of the ‘Free State of Jones’

Kottke: The green screen driving machine – I predict it won’t be long until this tech starts being used to ‘skin’ actors as well as cars.

“The director’s task is to recreate life, its movement, its contradictions, its dynamic and conflicts. It is his duty to reveal every iota of the truth he has seen, even if not everyone finds that truth acceptable. Of course an artist can lose his way, but even his mistakes are interesting provided they are sincere. For they represent the reality of his inner life, of the peregrinations and struggle into which the external world has thrown him.” – Andrei Tarkovsky

Weekend Viewing: Fuel

FUEL from JALABERT Camille on Vimeo.

A fun little animation…

This is my 3rd year graduation movie from MOPA (supinfocom Arles).

Thanks for watching!

Made with 3dsMax/Maya/Marvelous/Substance Painter/Zbrush

Wednesday Links: The Future of Netflix

Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you’d like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.

Car jib rig chases rider on horseback across marshy fieldGame of Thrones Season 6: Anatomy of A Scene: The Battle of Winterfell (YouTube video) – An incredibly high technical level of filmmaking was on display in the last episode, including a blended continuous shot that was reminiscent of The Revenant. Needless to say, do not watch until you’ve caught up, because SPOILERS.

NYTimes: Can Netflix Survive in the New World It Created? – If anything, Hulu is getting worse with the departure of the Criterion/Janus library and the defection of the CW. HBO’s streaming has proved to be complementary rather than a threat. This article is correct in seeing Amazon as Netflix’s biggest rival.

Amazon has the deep pockets, but it should be investing those dollars on better streaming reliability, cleaner UI (with smarter recommendations) and quality content. You don’t have to click very deep on Amazon to hit miles of garbage movies and shows no one has heard of. The Amazon strategy seems to be to bid all other competitors out of business, but only on schlock. Then have the real content people want to see still have rental fees. In an age where Netflix has proven how young consumers want to consume, that model is incoherent.

AskReddit: What movie cliché drives you crazy? – “I have a bad feeling about this.”

Ars Technica: Movie written by algorithm turns out to be hilarious and intense

2001: A Picasso Odyssey – Kottke comments on another cool AI-based video.

Lessons from the Screenplay: Gone Girl — Don’t Underestimate the Screenwriter (YouTube video)

The Scene: $200 Million Movie Budget: What Everyone Earns (embedded video) – Not sure the source for this. Some parts not accurate.

No Film School: In the Future, You May Be Shooting Your Film with a Glitter-Sized ‘Metalens’

VUCAVU: Nestor – A feature film made entirely by one person. This is the only acceptable use for the “A Film By” credit.

“If you want to make movies you need to think on a micro-micro level and figure out how to make them for nothing with people who really care about your movie and really want to make it.”Anton Yelchin

Movie Reviews: An Inconvenient Truth, A Prairie Home Companion

Your Weekend Viewing: Mocap Dance Animation Simulations

In this video, “dynamic simulations combine to create a milieu of iconic pop dance moves that become an explosion of colorful fur, feathers, particles and more.” It was created by Method Studios NY for AICP, which I presume stands for the Association of Independent Commercial Producers.

Whatever the purpose, this is a nice keyhole into a future where physics simulations and motion capture allow for some wildly creative animated images. We are not far from a world where one actor can literally put on the skin of another. (You may think, from movies like Rise of the Planet of the Apes and The Jungle Book that we are already there. However, there is a good deal of traditional animation work that is added to the mo-cap to create those performances.)

I also look forward to improvements in dance video games. Can’t wait to select one of these Avatars!

What was Robert Altman’s ideal film?

Director Robert Altman during the filming of 3 Women“A painting with music.”

Writer/director Robert Altman is famous for large-cast, multi-storyline films like M*A*S*H, Nashville and Short Cuts. He also made many smaller, low-budget films of high value. Among them is a puzzler called 3 Women, starring Sissy Spacek, Shelley Duvall and Janice Rule as women who alternately assume each others’ personas. The idea for the film grew out of some images in a dream Altman had.

In the commentary track for the film, Altman speaks about creating films out of dream material, and the way art and music influence his generative process:

It’s like a watercolor in a funny way. You start and you want to vaguely give the impression but you don’t want to do hard lines. You want the viewer to look at it and let them make the hard lines in the watercolor, or the painting.

These films, as I see it, to me they are more like paintings than literature. It’s more about a visual idea and getting impressions from a visual idea. Except, we go back to the same problem that a film is linear. If a film is two hours long, it’s always two hours long. A painting is the length of time you wanna look at it.

Music is linear. But music is not specific in terms of literature. I remember as a very, very small kid when radio first started, my parents would take me for a ride in the car, ’cause I was probably a terrible little kid. And I would come home and they would turn the radio on. It was all classical music then. And I remember kinda half in a half-dream state — half-asleep, half-awake — I’d hear that music.

I would make up stories to go along with them. These stories had no beginning or ending, but they would usually [contain] things that were in my world then. It would be a cowboy riding across the plains. Things that a four- or five-year-old child thinks about. But these are impressions. These same impressions I wouldn’t have today with that music, but it does tend to carry you through a visual. So I guess my ideal film would be a painting with music.

Continue reading

Wednesday Links: How To Cut a Joke

Most of these links come from the @makingthemovie Twitter stream. If you’d like to see them as they come, follow us on Twitter.

Medium: The Trailers for Ghostbusters (2016) and the Art of Editing Comedy

Onion: Leaked Documents Reveal Studio Executives Knew About ‘Gods Of Egypt’ Before It Released Onto Public – Also, listen to the latest episode of The Flop House.

Videomaker: The Kuleshov Effect: Understanding Video Editing’s Most Powerful Tool

Randal Olson: Average movie length – Cool infographic.

Indiewire: The 20 Best Palme d’Or Winners from the Cannes Film Fest – Vanity Fair’s Little Gold Men podcast also had some excellent Cannes coverage.

Kottke: A visually rich tribute to the films of Christopher Nolan

Dangerous Minds: Deep Throat, Fantasia, Rear Window and more, each condensed into a single frame


Shane Black: An Annotated Filmography – Added review of The Nice Guys

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