filmmaking tips

How to Find Space to Improvise in the Filmmaking Process

Who could forget Heath Ledger’s Joker applauding Gordon in The Dark Knight or Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter making the “hsss” sound in The Silence of the Lambs? Whether it was an actor being spontaneous or the team unexpectedly having to rework a scene on the spot, improvisation is a fun and occasionally necessary part of filmmaking. Beyond the many hours behind writing screenplays, planning shots, and preparing scenes, you’ll find that some of our favorite film moments weren’t originally planned.

If you’ve ever been involved in a film production, then you know how crazy schedules can get. This means that if you want room for trying out spontaneous ideas while filming your own project, you’ll have to find time for it in your schedule. Fortunately, there are a number of time management tips to consider if you want to create some extra space for these opportunities.

It All Starts With a Solid Shooting Schedule…

There’s no better way to tackle a creative endeavor as demanding as filmmaking than with a plan of attack — with the understanding that things will almost certainly not always go as planned, and improvisation may be required!

Even if you’re project doesn’t have a large scale of time and dollars on the line, a good shooting schedule will usually directly impact the quality of your film. Thus, you can kiss any room for improvising goodbye if a poor shooting schedule has you pressed for time while you juggle tasks that need to be done and should have already been completed.

A good start for an effective production schedule is making sure your team’s key players sit down and make decisions. These days it’s easier than ever to all stay on the same page, thanks to online communication and project tools like Slack and Google Hangouts.

A rule of thumb in the film business is to plan for extra time — be it more days in a month or hours in a tough shooting day — so you can prepare for the unexpected, and leave space for opportunities to play.

Read: How to Plan an Effective Shooting Schedule

Let Your Budget Work For You!

If you’re a student or new to filmmaking, chances are your first big projects will have pretty limited funds. Even so, it’s important to make sure your budget will meet your main project goals — especially if you plan on having one or two expensive scenes that will impact viewers.

So what does budget have to do with making room for improvising? The better you are at planning according to your budget (and sticking to it), the more breathing room you’ll have during production.

In other words, staying on budget means the entire production will be more relaxed and focused because there’s room for emergencies, extra takes, etc. A rushed, stressful day with an entire team worrying about going over budget or not getting paid will certainly put a damper on things. The less pressure everyone feels while working, the more likely you or someone else will be comfortable enough to offer a fresh, creative idea on the spot — like Don Corleone’s cat in The Godfather.

Read: How to Get Big Production Value Out of a Little Budget

Take Breaks to Refresh Yourself & Your Team

Going with the idea of keeping your team fresh, there’s no better way than to plan for moments where you set the project aside and let your batteries recharge. On a union project breaks are mandated, but even student and non-union projects can benefit from this practice. Breaks can make a world of difference; just like that terrible essay or exam you rushed through due to being exhausted and anxious, your film’s quality will be affected by how strung out you let yourself become during production.

From fueling creativity to increasing work productivity, there are countless studies that convey the importance of taking breaks and practicing self care even in the midst of a hectic or high pressure situation — like working on a film set. Setting aside time for the crew to eat and relax, or an entire day where you can stop to do things you love, will have you coming back with refreshed energy, creativity, and stamina.

If you plan for breaks, taking a break won’t feel like a waste of time; it is a productive part of your schedule. You wouldn’t be the first filmmaker who has a brilliant idea or solves a problem during the time they set aside to NOT think about the project!

Read: How NOT To Make A Movie: 5 Tips Every Amateur Ignores

Ready to learn more about Filmmaking? Check out New York Film Academy’s degree, conservatory, and short-term Filmmaking programs.

A Guide to Getting Your First Film Made (On The Cheap)

Alright, so you’ve just graduated and you’re eager to make your first feature film. And you’re broke. Let’s just assume everyone reading this is broke. Where do you go from here?

Here are some tips to help you get started on your quest to create your own low-budget feature film, outside of the comfort of school:

Rule #1: Make a List of Everything You Have

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So you have a script written, but you need actors, a cinematographer, editor, costumes, craft services, and maybe even a director.

We all know that filmmaking is expensive, but if you’re a first-time filmmaker on a shoestring budget you’re far from a Hollywood level of production quality. So take some time to make a list of all the locations, equipment, actors, crew members, or props you might already have access to for little or no costs at all.

See if any of your friends have time or tools. Got a camera? That’s somewhere to start! And once you’ve made a list of everything you have that you can make a film with, that leaves…

Rule #2: Make a List of Everything You Need

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Reverse budgeting works: figure out what or who you need. That’s all a budget is. Now, itemize everything and everyone on that list. Do your research. Figure out how much you’re able to get for cheap or zilch.

There are three ways people pay for the budgeted line items:

  • pay now (cold-hard cash)
  • pay later (deferred payment based on profits made from the film)
  • pay through product placement (sometimes referred to as “in kind,” or the “you scratch my back/I scratch yours” deal).

Rule #3: Locations Are Expensive

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Ever wonder why so many low-budget movies seem to take place in just one location? Rodrigo Cortés’s “Buried.” Steven Knight’s “Locke.” Steve McQueen’s “Hunger.” Michael Snow’s utterly sublime Wavelength. Even Barry Jenkin’s Oscar-winning film “Moonlight,” with a story that takes place throughout many decades in a character’s life, only has a handful of on-screen set locations throughout.

Every time you add a location to your story, you add in more costs and even more time. Keep that in mind when budgeting. Always remember your paperwork too. Paperwork is super important.

Rule #4: Sound is King

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You may be fretting about whether you have the most streamlined, high-tech, newest and hottest camera on the market for your first film project, but we’ll let you in on a little secret: Having good sound is equally important.

Just look at any documentary to see how good-quality audio can make a professional difference. You can find more creative solutions to shoot compelling visuals with a cheaper camera or very little lighting equipment, but audiences will be far less forgiving if your audio is impossible to listen to.

Rule #5: Have the Rights to the Music

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If you know someone who can do your soundtrack, if you can hire someone for cheap, or if you can make music yourself, go that route for sure.

But definitely, definitely do not use music that you have no rights to.

There are so many urban myths surrounding fair use laws and licensing, but the simple truth is that you can’t use anyone else’s music effects or soundtrack without their permission. Charles Burnett’s “The Killer of Sheep” wasn’t released for nearly 30 years for this very reason.

Get permission in writing if you can.

Rule #6: Thinking On Your Feet Is Okay

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If you went to film school or made some short films in the past, you’re probably well aware that it is often the case that things don’t go as planned when on set or in the editing room.

You may have spent months or even years writing the perfectly crafted script or creating storyboards and shot lists that are detailed to the teeth, but all of that is likely to change any given minute you spend on set. Let’s be real: problems happen all. the. time.

All legendary filmmakers have had to deal with this. What is their secret? They see these “problems” as creative opportunities. And as most film junkies know, some of the best scenes in movie history were completely improvised.

Rule #7: Marketing

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For most filmmakers, this is the hardest part. You’ve spent sweat, blood and tears making your baby, and now you need to deliver it to the people.

The toughest part after your film is made is getting people to care. We wish there was a catch-all tip for marketing indie movies, but there isn’t. However, we will say that marketing is something you need to be thinking of from day one, when you first begin writing the script. Throughout the process, reach out to professionals and hire a professional if you can.

What is your best advice for first-time feature filmmakers? Let us know in the comments below! And learn more about filmmaking at the New York Film Academy.

 

6 Takeaways from 2016: What Last Year Taught Us About Filmmaking

It’s that most wonderful time of the year, and here at the New York Film Academy, we’re taking a quick look at some of the enduring lessons from 2016. This past year saw a lot of interesting twists and turns in the entertainment industry, with some tried and true lessons borne out and some new truths unearthed, so we’ve distilled six takeaways from 2016 that we hope help you prepare for your filmmaking endeavors in the New Year. Cheers, 2016 — thanks for the memories, and for teaching us these principles of filmmaking!

Franchise, franchise, franchise.

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From the endless array of comic book universe movies to Star Wars and Harry Potter, if there is a minor character or dark alley that didn’t show up in an earlier movie, give them their own feature. Done properly, these films are opportunities for fresh takes on old characters or explorations of the series universe that reveal a whole new side of things. “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” brought the Harry Potter series’ wizarding world to the U.S. and gave viewers a closer look at Newt Scamander and the days before the rise of Lord Voldemort. “Star Wars: Rogue One” targets an adult audience that grew up with the original Star Wars films who will get the references to other films in the franchise.

Is it a remake when it’s totally different?

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An all-female “Ghostbusters”? “Pete’s Dragon” and “The Jungle Book” retooled for the 21st century? In some cases, only the name of the movie bears any resemblance to the original. Using a familiar franchise in a completely different way may raise the ire of die-hard fans, but reboots can also attract a new audience. Younger viewers who might be turned off by the 1977 version of “Pete’s Dragon” with its musical numbers or the 1984 version of “Ghostbusters,” were drawn into the fast-paced action and edgy humor of the 2016 films.

Family-friendly fare fills the house.

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Of the 10 highest-grossing films for the year, four were children’s films and four were comic book-related films with a PG-13 rating. With the price of ticket sales climbing and the temptation of other forms of entertainment, it can be hard to get audiences in theaters. Family-friendly films earned their share of the box office and, of course, product tie-ins helped studios expand their profits. As filmmakers and studios investigate more interactive experiences, this is an audience eager to reciprocate.

There’s no question that women (and female characters) can carry a picture and that gender inequality in the industry must be addressed.

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In the past, many producers argued that movies had to have a strong male lead to draw an audience, but the film industry is starting to admit that this is not the case (and, honestly, never was). Slowly, we’ve seen the industry begin to respond to the call for gender equality. Through 2016, “Bad Mamas,” “Ghostbusters,” “Moana,” “Zootopia,” and other films with female leads were among the 25 top-grossing films of the year. The misguided argument that only men can draw in an audience will, we hope, remain firmly an error of the past.

Orange and teal is still a thing; drones are taking off.

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Heavily saturated films with orange and teal color grading are still part of the look that will characterize films from the early 21st century. “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children,” “Deadpool,” and “Captain America: Civil War” enveloped viewers with a sense of foreboding thanks to the dark wash and heavy use of blues in the grading. Drone cinematography is another piece of technology that has been getting more use in films as costs went down and quality improved. From amateur filmmakers to big-budget Hollywood films like “Captain America: Civil War,” drones supplied a lot of the aerial footage we saw on screen in 2016

Tell ‘em A Good Story

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This one never goes out of style. With so many other entertainment options from streaming services that let the audience binge-watch season after season of a show to immersive video games competing for the audience’s time and money, the film industry has responded with what it does best— good, old-fashioned storytelling. Exploring the comic book universe and its seemingly endless opportunities for cross-overs and different storylines featuring bankable characters may be a natural fit for the binge-watching, extended viewing era. Smaller films and independent features have gone back to the heart of storytelling and start with empathetic characters in compelling situations. Whether it is romance (“Lala Land”) or a heist (“Hell or High Water”), a screenplay with characters the audience can root for is the foundation of any good film.

10 Cinematography Tricks for Working With Only Natural Lighting

When asked why he preferred shooting with all-natural lighting, Stanley Kubrick simply replied, “Because that’s the way we see things.”

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It’s a trend that’s growing in filmmaking. The excellent “Dallas Buyers Club,” for instance, used only all-natural lighting during filming. This sounds like it might make things difficult, but it actually came with its own benefits. Director Jean-Marc Vallee stated that the actors didn’t have to worry about hitting their marks to keep within lighting zones, so it offered a lot more creative freedom for the cast. The sheer heat of artificial lighting rigs was also not missed!

Whether you’re shooting with natural light simply because you’re on a budget or for stylistic reasons, we’ve got some tried and tested tricks on how to get the best out of it.

When Shooting Indoors:

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  • If the room has windows, it’s generally a bad idea to shoot towards them. This will lead to overexposure and a nasty, bleached-out effect to the background (as well as anything in front of the windows being underexposed). Rather than wrestle between the two extremes, place place the camera adjacent to the window — to get more of a sidelight. This provides natural lighting from the window and avoids blow-out. This is extra important when interviewing for documentaries!
  • Load up on gel sheets. Specifically, ND gel. When applied to windows, it really cuts down on the amount of daylight and makes exposure a lot easier to manage (more on how ND filtering works here)
  • Aside from lighting itself, the most important thing in any cinematographer’s lighting kit are reflectors.  We cannot understate this: they’re definitely vital outdoors, and even more so when shooting inside using only natural light. It’s by far the easiest way to manipulate and maximize whatever lighting you do have to get rid of problematic shadows. Note: You may find it difficult to get a proper return if you are reflecting indirect light.
  • Shake it up. You can’t always manipulate the light exactly to your liking, so manipulate the subject instead. Extreme planning before a natural light shoot is important so as to not waste time on the day, but be mindful that it’s sometimes best to scrap what you had on paper if it’s not looking right in the camera. Reposition everything if you must, and be mindful of those shadows as you go.
  • Scrims are your best friend. Scrims will not change the quality of light from hard to soft, but it will knock down the intensity by diffusing light. Diffusion may be your best friend.

When Shooting Outside:

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  • Take advantage of blue hour and golden hour. Blue hour refers to the sliver of time after the sun disappears over the horizon but the sky is still lit, while golden hour is well known to filmmakers as the hour leading up to sunset (or an hour after sunrise). Blue hour is really handy for when you want to illustrate that it’s nighttime but don’t have any way of lighting a scene during actual darkness, and golden hour simply makes everything look gorgeous. There’s even a website that helps you plan for it in advance. That all said…
  • It’s not all about the golden hour. Keeping track of the sun is a very important factor in outdoor filmmaking, but you’ll also need to be conscious of what might get in between you and the sun at any moment — i.e.: clouds. While there’s not much you can do about the weather, you can note down any trees or buildings that might cast shadows at any given time (ideally when you do your first location scout).
  • Make sure everyone on the crew is prepared ahead of time. As with shooting indoors, you don’t want to be spending any more time than necessary setting up a shot or running through lines with the actors, especially when the sun is rapidly heading towards the horizon.
  • Make use of flags. Just as reflectors give you better control of how much light is going where, you’ll often find yourself in a situation where you’ve got too much light (particularly during summer day shoots). Flags — or cutters — are sections of thick black cloth stretched around a metal frame that allow you to block out sections of light and add some dramatic contrasting to the shot.
  • Pay attention to color and emotion. Getting the optimal amount of light is one thing, but getting the right “flavor” is another altogether. Be sure to check out our guide to color design, since a clinically perfect shot without any emotion whatsoever isn’t very compelling.

So there we have it: Hollywood-style cinematography without a Hollywood budget.

Got any of your own tricks on working with natural light? Any lessons you learned the hard way while out in the field? Hit us up in the comments below and share with the class!

3 Filmmaking Lessons from Animals with GoPros

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Animals with GoPros may not have gone to film school or won any Oscar awards, but they may have something to teach us about filmmaking.

Filmmakers strive to create visual experiences that are both relatable and impacting. Usually, the this is accomplished by weaving a story told through the eyes of different people. But what about seeing the world through the eyes of an animal?

With the help of technology, scientists are now able to attach cameras onto wild animals in order to learn more about them. For the first time, we can see how animals behave and survive while completely free of human influence.

The following are a few lessons aspiring filmmakers might be able to learn from watching footage recorded by animals with GoPro cameras:

1. The Perfect Location Is Out There

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It’s one thing to envision the perfect location in your mind, and quite another to actually find it. The fact is, one of the biggest (and most enjoyable) challenges in filmmaking is finding a location that not only serves the needs of your story but can also accommodate your production. Many filmmaker are forced to alter their scripts when the perfect location eludes them.

But sometimes, the answer may be to not give up too soon. When the National Geographic Society attached their Crittercams to a wild animal, they obtained more than just information on the animal itself; they collected environmental data and were continually astounded by the gorgeous locales these animals find. If you fail to find the perfect spot for a particular scene, don’t let it be because you cut your search short.

2. Perspective Is Important

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Imagine walking through a field where there’s only waist-high wheat as far as the eye can see. The golden colors contrast with the bright blue sky and white clouds, creating a gorgeous view. Now imagine that same field as a small animal, or even a child. The tall, seemingly-endless fields of wheat may evoke a sense of claustrophobia or fear of never finding your way out — or worse, the fear of running into a predator.

The lesson is simple: there’s power in perspective. Every future filmmaker should work to understand why each of the common camera shot types are important and how to best utilize them to tell their story. The best filmmakers know which shots work best to instill a specific emotion into their audience. Read our camera shots piece to learn more about popular camera shots and why they are useful.

3. Understand Social Interaction

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If there’s one thing you’ll discover by watching GoPro animal footage, it’s how social most species of animals are. From whales and penguins to wolves and gorillas, animals all over the planet interact with one another to the point where they even form their own societies! Vampire bats, for example, have colonizes ranging in the thousands that still manage to maintain a basic social structure and hierarchy.

The lesson to learn from animals? How people interact matters. Social context matters. The story beyond an individual character matters. This is why most movies receive a negative reception usually also have a cast of actors who are terrible at displaying genuine emotion. In other words, they fail to convince because you can tell they’re pretending. It’s when actors interact with one another and their world in a moving and believable way that you have viewers completely entranced by the characters. To achieve that as a filmmaker, it’s important to root your story in an environment and social context that audiences can understand.

Have a favorite animal movie or life lesson? Let us know in the comments below!