Archive | September 2015

Stay Calm and Keep Shooting

The Pace of Things

Time is money, even in microbudget (or perhaps especially so). If you take too much time getting it in the can, you’re burning meager resources, and tempting the labels of pretentiousness and egotism. But if you move too fast, you can get sloppy and destroy any chance of rising above the dreck and challenging the attitudes and preconceptions that many bring with them to the screening of a microbudget film.

Universal monsters

This captive audience of cast members and insiders is easy to please. Your real audience will come in challenging you to entertain and dazzle them. How do you do that and get it in the can on budget? – That is the question!

I’ve been at both ends of that spectrum. But mostly, I have been accused of moving TOO fast. I learned on the run, trying to please producers who gave me little to nothing and expected results yesterday. It’s the groove I fall into whenever I am on a movie set. Yet I look back now and cringe at some of the sloppy details, most of which could have been fixed while keeping on schedule and budget if I had taken a moment to step back and look at it coolly.

Of Price and When

The pace of your shoot is heavily determined by budget and deadline. Many of the short films I make now are for timed competitions (see Ron Ford’s Microbudget Blog, July 4, 2015), a challenge I find especially stimulating and feel particularly suited to, given my background. In those cases, shooting fast is everything. But still, without taking care and time to get good sound, images and performances, the project will have little chance of taking home awards.

Metropolis clock

“Time is money… Time is money… Time is money…” (Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS, UFA, 1927)

Even if yours is a personal project, and costs you nothing but your time – that is, even when there is no incentive to move more quickly – there must be some sort of urgency to the pace of the shoot, lest cast and crew people become bored and move on to other projects. I’ve been there, too. One project I acted in in the early 2000s was never completed, and can never be now, though we would love to. We’ve all changed too drastically. – That is a tragedy.

Hurry Up and Slow Down

The only really answer to the question of how quickly or slowly to shoot your project is to strive to make the best movie you can, under any given circumstances. In other words, go in prepared, do your homework, take your time on the set, and try to get it right. But keep an eye on the clock. – Oh. And try not to panic.


To face The Clock, do your homework, go in prepared and confident. (Orson Welles, CITIZEN KANE publicity shot, RKO, 1941)

Remember: Sound. Lighting. Performance. Those are what count. No matter how special your effects are or how revolutionary your ideas, if those basics aren’t up to snuff, nobody will give a damn.



Quasimodo thought the critics would be so mesmerized they would see past the poor performances and production sound in his microbudget masterpiece, “Sanctuary is my Middle Name.” – Sadly, he was wrong. (James Cagney, MAN OF A THOUSAND FACES, Universal, 1957)


There is a narrow gap between being a confident director and being a dick. The winning microbudgeter walks a razor’s edge.

My two big passions in life are microbudgetry (folks call it film making) and Community Theater. They have many similarities. They have many very important differences too, but that is meat for a future blog. One of the qualities they share is a reliance on committed volunteers. People who will put serious energy into your project because they believe in it or because they are trying to build a body of work for themselves. These are worthy goals, and it is a healthy, reciprocal relationship, as long as everyone is laboring on spec.


Onstage as Shelley Levene. (Courtesy Daniel Baumer, Danscape)



CrawlingBrainFullScan Directing “The Crawling Brain.”

However, if you do end up making the next “Blair Witch Project” and you get millions for your inspired microbudget effort – don’t be a dick. Be prepared to share the profits with those who helped you get it.

Too often I have been on microbudget sets where the director imagined him or herself to be the next Scorsese, just what Hollywood has been waiting for. These dicks (they shall not be named here) usually bring with them an unspoken assumption that cast and crew people know how lucky you are to be on the ground floor of this next wave in the cinematic art-form. And anyone who doesn’t suck wind at the power of that “artistry” clearly doesn’t “get it,” and probably doesn’t need to be on their set.

Consequently, many of these proud would-be film “auteurs” never finish their projects, because members of the cast and crew, feeling ill-used, will walk away from it.

These so-called artists are self-deluded dicks. They need to learn some manners. Don’t be that dick. Be prepared, great. Know what you want and be firm, absolutely. Be confident and be sure, but don’t for a second think you are better than anybody else. That’s solid advice in the world, and it’s true on the set, as well.


You ain’t all that.

When you have sufficient budget to pay all your people, it’s a dream. Your cast and crew really appreciate it, even if the pay is little more than a token. And if you can pay them well, you can even afford to push them a little, make demands if necessary. Even then, of course, you should still be guided by the “Don’t Be A Dick” principal, but you do have a little more wiggle room.

“We have a budget this time, folks!”
(Bikini Frankenstein, Retromedia)

However, if your cast and crew are unpaid, which is generally the case in microbudgetry, you had better be prepared to keep your ego in check and treat them with respect. They are donating their time and their passion. You should be grateful and you should show it.


Happy microbudgeters: “Tiki” (Retromedia) reunion. Ron Ford, Angie Dierdorff, Joelene Smith, Daniel Anderson and Heather Swanstrom.

Volunteers are to be wooed and nurtured. They are your companions in the project, they are a kind of family, and they are your friends. Let them know it every day on the set.

Film is Dead – Leave the Camera Rolling

We micro budget guys invented shooting cinematically on video media. It is rapidly becoming the norm, leaving film behind as a fringe medium, suited only for experimental artists and nostalgia buffs.


The Dinosaur Days of Film

On a recent episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan as much as said that film is dead, when he remarked that he could not tell the difference between identical shots done on film, and those shot on state of the art HD video.


Marc Maron, comic genius/cat lover


Vince Gilligan, creator of mature, layered television

On a slightly later episode of the WTF podcast, movie makin’ one-man-band Robert Rodriguez confirmed the death knell. While discussing his 2007 anthology collaboration with Quentin Taratino, Grindhouse, Rodriguez said that Tarantino planned to shoot his segment, Deathproof, on film, to recreate the 70’s drive-in look and feel. Rodriguez, however, chose to shoot his segment, Planet Terror, on video and simulate the identical drive-in look in post-production, at a fraction of the expense and with a lot more control.


Along the way, and inadvertently, Rodriguez explained how working in video has affected even the traditional protocol of shooting a movie. Particularly in the use of long rolls to cover multiple takes.

“I just leave the camera rolling,” Rodriguez said (paraphrasing). He has the actors go through several takes of the scene at hand until, he is satisfied, before ending the roll. The takes are separated by slates while the camera still rolls. The director makes notes of which takes work and which do not en route, to save the editor endless headaches.


Robert Rodriguez, movie studio in a Stetson.

Then he moves on to the next piece of coverage needed for the scene and starts the process all over again.

It’s a neat and efficient system, suited to the new technology. I have done some version of in the past, but kind of instinctively and not as cleanly documented and organized as Rodriguez. Often on a shoot I will have the actors go right into the next take without stopping the roll. It’s recorded on a digital card, so there is no expense in letting it run, and the actors don’t get “cold” from breaking their momentum and having to start over again for a fresh take. When I work like this on the fly, however, I just put fingers up in front of the lens in order to separate each take – one, two, three, etc.I couple that with a verbal slate, just to clarify.


Silent star Anita Page was in her nineties when she played a mock version of herself in my film “Hollywood Mortuary.” Her “interview” scenes are peppered throughout the film to give a sense of authenticity. All her scenes were shot as one take, conducted like a real interview.

Nine times out of ten, we microbudgeters are our own editors anyway, so you can be a little looser about it than the pros, with their so-called “budgets.” After all, you were there on the set when it was shot. You know how it went.

Still, a few notes couldn’t hurt either.