Thursday, August 6, 2015

What I Learned On My First Long Short

I used that oxymoron on purpose since my last short, Rock and a Hard Place, was the longest and most technical of my films thus far. To steal from Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Though I’d rather start with the negatives and end on the positives.

Make sure everyone knows his or her role

I wanted to up my game with this film and went so far as to launch a crowdfunding campaign to at least offer participants a stipend. I’ll get to that campaign in a bit but first I have to tackle what caused me a lot of difficulty. My DP on this project wanted to be a director, whether he is conscious of it or not. The role of a Director of Photography is to give the director the shot that’s needed. Yes, there is always room for discussion, preferably a bit more than, “That’ll look like shit.” A good director will use the talents of those around him or her; they’d be stupid not to. However, a clearly defined role allows the director to direct and not worry about how the shot will be set up – he needs to trust the DP to do that.

If the DP hasn’t even read the script, well, you’ve got a really big problem. There is no excuse to come on set unprepared. Every actor knew their lines and through my direction and some discussion, nailed their scenes. So much time was lost on discussions about what a scene was to look like. I put a shot list together that was completely ignored. A Director of Photography is NOT a cameraman; he is the person in charge of setting up the shots. If a shot is going to look like shit, it’s because the DP can’t do it right or at all. I gave in too many times because it was wasting so much time to argue.

Know your role and clearly define the role of every single person on set.

Everyone has a process

Try to recognize your talents’ processes quickly so you can accommodate everyone’s way of doing things. Since this was my first production with several actors, all having key moments in the story, I felt overwhelmed at times with overlapping processes. Even professionals have feelings and I felt comfortable dealing with situations that arose.

Shit happens

Equipment breaks. Pieces of equipment are missing. People get stuck in traffic on the way to the shoot. These are all expected to happen. In fact, count on them happening. They’re inevitable.

However, when you break to hear what the sound quality has been for an entire day and it is, to put it mildly, terrible, then you’ve got a major problem. This was 100% my fault. The sound engineer was happy with sound but somewhere between recording and downloading it turned ugly – very ugly. I ran out of funds and had to contend with fixing the audio on my own. This will never happen again.

Stacey Iseman and Ian O'Neill
Checking out footage

Check everything. Then check it again. Make sure to build in extra set up time at the beginning of each day so that you can catch these snafus early. The sound issue could have been avoided had I done a test shot and sound check ported to a laptop before rolling cameras and sound. Big lesson learned.

Agree to disagree and move on

Everyone wants to direct but more importantly, everyone has an opinion. As the director you must listen to everyone about ideas they have regarding their responsibilities. If an actor wants to share an idea, listen. However, once you’ve made a decision, move the production forward. It is not wise to linger over such things. Remember your shooting schedule – people have to be other places.

Case in point, someone on set told me I was wasting time by telling the actors how good they were. I listened to this person. I disagreed with this person. I continued to give anyone…actor, sound, lighting, grips…anyone doing a good job positive feedback. I sat alone in a room and created this story. I had characters speaking in my head. I played out scenes in their entirety in my mind. After witnessing these professionals use their skills to bring that story to life, I was almost overcome with emotion. It was an incredible sight watching these characters come to life. After watching the first heavy, dramatic scene play out and yelling cut, I walked to my actors and hugged them.

I listened to the complaint about wasting time. I considered it, then dismissed it. I continued to give the actors positive feedback and my thanks for great work. If I were an actor doing a job, that would mean a lot to me. It would mean that I was doing a good job. That’s an important message to impart.

Stay calm

The toughest task on the shoot was keeping my cool when things seemed to be going absolutely wrong. I was angry, frustrated and worried. What saved the day was the people around me. I was so dejected when I heard the sound quality that I was going to cancel the shoot. I heard one of my actors say, “Well, we’ll do it better next time.” What an amazing person. It was all I needed to hear to pull everything together to get this film shot. As inevitable as it is that bad things will happen there is an equal inevitability that those around you will rally around you and help right the wrongs of the day. Always remember that. 

Think clearly

I had options that I did not use because I was not thinking clearly. I had a lot of people on set that could have taken on roles in the production to clear out some negative energy. I only thought about it after the fact. Always keep a clear head to enable good decisions, even in the face of controversy.

Get the f&$#ing budget right

I figured out what I needed, barebones, to make this film. I accounted for every person receiving an honourarium even if they told me no (I’m looking at you Parr and a few others, too) or they did not perform well or were a giant pain in my ass. It didn’t matter. I wanted people to earn something for their time, energy and expertise. I calculated for food and gear. Everything. Except for the cash I’d need to take care of any crisis that arose. Yep, no emergency funds.

Always have a set amount set aside in case of emergency. Big lesson learned.

Crowdfunding is a full-time job

I will be writing a standalone article on this but I still felt the need to share a bit about the subject here. I put everything I had into crowdfunding. It was a very difficult job. Even though I’d done my homework and I was organized and driven, raising these funds was so tiring and soul draining. I was successful in raising the funds for this film and came away with this thought, If this is what it takes to raise $2,500, what would life be like raising $2.5M?

This was a movie set

I was not in a friend’s house. I was on the set of my movie. Take control of the set. It is your set. You’ll be amazed how quickly you find your footing when you think this way.

You are a director

--> The greatest feeling during this shoot was that I carried myself as a director and was treated as such. It was an amazing feeling knowing that these professional actors were taking my direction and bringing the characters I’d created to life. This truly was an amazing experience. 

Have pre-shoot discussions with everyone

It’s amazing how a short discussion about the character an actor is about to play can be so significant. All the actors arrived on set prepared and it took but a little tweaking to get the characters down. I was incredibly impressed by every single one of them. Amazing.

Those short discussions with crew also paid off, for the most part. During these discussions you have to be aware of your gut feelings. If they tell you someone is going to upset the apple cart, listen and act upon it. Your shoot will be a lot better for it.

Be prepared

How can you expect everyone else working on the film to be prepared before arriving on set if you’re not prepared as the director. Being prepared will not nullify those nasty inevitable gremlins from appearing, but it will help minimize them.

I went over every aspect of the script, checked to ensure equipment rentals were on hand, everyone had directions to the shoot, and that everyone had rides to the shoot. I checked with actors to ensure the meals were sufficient. I knew who was staying at the location overnight. It was a constant vigil to make certain everything was ready.

I kept everyone up to date with emails before the shoot. I also sent out a shooting schedule which turned out to be a huge positive since my actors could then help me tweak it to suit everyone’s needs. I also sent them a shooting script ahead of time. Anything you can do to help everyone be prepared.

The information binders came in handy

On the day of the shoot I handed out binders to each performer and crewmember, in which was the shooting schedule, shot list and photos of the shooting locations throughout the house. Again, I wanted to give them tools to help them prepare for the shoot.


The ‘best of times’ were just that, the best!

I find it difficult to describe how it feels to be surrounded by people so willing to give their all for something that I envisioned. Remember, I wrote Rock and a Hard Place in isolation, characters and scenes going off in my head. Going from that to the set was such a thrill. I’m smiling right now just thinking back on it.

My friends gave up their home for two days so that I could film RAAHP. It was an extraordinary gesture that I’m sure they’re still reeling from. Friends jumped in as grips to do pretty much anything I asked of them. You just don’t know how good you’ve got it until you see friends grabbing a quick power-nap before I need them to do something else. They worked so hard for me and I cannot thank them enough.

I met new people who just blew me away with their talents and levels of commitment. Every actor on this set was stellar! I’d work with them again in a second. I learned from them and for that I can’t even begin to thank them. Biggest lesson I learned is that of collaboration. A movie shoot is nothing without collaboration. This was a great lesson that I’ll take with me to every project in the future.

I laughed. So did everyone else. In the midst of chaos we all had so much fun. Bloopers are the best. Now I know why they’re included on special features. Love them.

That’s a wrap

One of the coolest, most thrilling moments on this film was when I said to the entire set, “Ladies and gentlemen, that’s a wrap.” Cheers and applause arose from the set and I remember feeling so good at that moment. I now know what it was I was feeling. Pride. I was so proud of everyone.


I may have bumped heads with my DP along the way but I have to say that the film looks amazing! I still cringe at missing so many shots and angles, but what we got looked great. The movie has a look and feel to it that lends itself to the genre of thriller. I worked my ass off on the sound and though it isn’t perfect, it’ll do. The end result is a film that I am proud of.  

Chomping at the bit for my next film.

Stay tuned.

The Best Actors in the Biz!

Peter Campbell

 Stacey Iseman

 Vincent Marciano

 Aieron Munro

 Tyler Parr


Diane Girard said...

That is a very informative and well thought-out post, Ian. Making a film is certainly a complicated business. I bet you have an idea for another one, don't you?

Wingin' It said...

Oh yeah. I have several written out. Problem is always...drum-roll! Thanks for reading Diane. Much appreciated.