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On the Subject of Weekend Warrior Filmmakers PDF Print E-mail
Written by Written by Mike Watt   
Apr 10, 2005 at 02:00 AM
Sometimes, the main drawback to being a movie reviewer is actually having to watch the movies. I get screeners on an almost daily basis, many of them from independent, no-budgeters who hope that their latest masterpiece is their ticket to success. Many of these show promise, just a few more projects under their belts, and these filmmakers may actually go on to make something beautiful, or serious, or fun, but well done no matter what. They’re just not there yet.

The rest of these homemade movies are exactly what they are: home movies and nothing more. And there’s nothing wrong with making movies to entertain yourself and your friends. If you and your drinking buddies want to run around a back yard, waving your arms and making a lot of noise, go for it. It’ll be hysterical at the next party and your antics will be immortalized for all to see.

For God’s sake, don’t subject others to it. They won’t get it and you’ll be putting most movie fans in an awkward position when you ask them, ‘So, didja like it?’ And if they say ‘no’—giving you the honest answer you actually didn’t want in the first place—you’ll be pissed off, they’ll walk away sad and embarrassed, and you’ll make fun of them behind their backs for the next half-hour to an hour, depending on how deeply you can hold a grudge.

I’ve complained about the digital video boom before. It’s the same complaint many folks had fifteen, twenty years ago when the VHS boom hit. Suddenly, it’s easier than ever for people to get their hands on moviemaking equipment and software, allowing them to go out and shoot to their heart’s content. Shooting video is fun. You have a stack of blank tapes just itching to be filled with captured imagery. People love watching movies, so making them must be as much fun, right? And if not, the so-called “filmmakers” are just taking themselves too seriously, right?

Wrong. Big old “wrong”.

There are people out there in the independent movie world who are busting their asses to make the movies that are burning inside of them. They are working hard, studying hard, trying to make the best movie possible under some horrible circumstances and difficult conditions, financial dearth not the least of the problems. They have the same exact equipment that you do—the GL-1, the clamp lamps from the local hardware store, the crappy $50 tripod with the shaky mount and the group of people—actors and crew—working for free, in their spare time, helping to achieve the dream. But what they have that you don’t—at least not now, and maybe not ever—is a coherent vision of their project. They understand how vitally important a shot list is to their production, the concept of “setting up a shot”, rehearsing a take, using the best possible equipment they can afford, which may not be much, but they’re making do.

They are not shooting their buddies running around in the backyard, screaming and throwing Kayro blood around at random. They are trying to tell a story—how successful the end result may be is difficult to tell at the outset, but the attempt is there.

I was recently subjected to a back-to-back screening of weekend warrior movies and I was hard-pressed to tell the difference between the two, save that one had actors I had actually heard of. (They weren’t good actors, by any means, but you can meet them at many horror conventions and pay a hard-earned double-saw buck for their autographed pictures.) In both cases, there was no evidence that anything had been rehearsed prior to the shooting. Even the so-called “professional actors” looked dumbfounded as to why they were there. The best that can be said about the first “movie” is that it was in focus much of the time, and it was edited. There was one shot that led to the next—often for a reason known only the auteur responsible, but some sort of method was on display. It was an experimental film, or so the filmmaker explained, so perhaps the inner message was simply lost on me. It wasn’t lit particularly well, or, in most cases, at all. Perhaps this, too, served his message.

The second one was incoherent and utterly annoying. However, the screening room was packed with friends and family of the filmmaker, so the audience roared with laughter at the onscreen hi-jinks. It was just as I described in the opener. Four buddies ran around in a panic in a back yard, pursued by a gibbering maniac with a chainsaw. There was ample frat-boy dialogue, but it was all recorded with the camera’s on-board microphone, so it was largely unintelligible. Most of the comedy came from goofy faces and long streams of gibberish delivered in a funny voice. There were no close-ups. The camera swung back and forth while people talked at each other, never waiting for a pause as one line of dialogue ended before the next began. It all just ran together.

There was no story that I could make out—something about an urban legend about a crazed ‘retard’. Title cards like “Years Later” were supposed to guide the audience in a specific direction, but I never reached a destination. Neither did the movie. When it was over, it stopped, presumably because most of the onscreen characters were dead at the saw and hands of the ‘retard’. The group responsible were very excited to have their first screening—or one of the first—and couldn’t believe they had such a packed house. When the opening music started, the director leapt in front of the TV screen to air-guitar with the theme. It was hard to be negative in the face of such youthful enthusiasm, and they were thrilled to death that one of their favorite celebrities—the one, in fact, who dragged us along to this screening—actually attended their event. They were so grateful and giddy for the attention. Just like the movie, which also begged for approval. And just like the movie, the group scattered and reformed, all talking at once.

This is just amateurism and is nothing to be ashamed of. They made a movie; they were proud that they had made a movie. They were even selling the movie on homemade DVDs. Again, nothing to be ashamed of, not even a precedent set.

However, the movie—like so many others offered on the internet and at horror conventions like these—was not a movie. The only thing that it had in common with an actual movie is that images had, indeed, been captured on a recordable format.

I’m the most lenient reviewer who possibly walks the Earth. I am sympathetic and empathetic to the plight of the hard-working indie filmmaker. The odds are against them from the start. There are too many little DV movies being made today—the market is saturated with product. Like the video boom of the ‘80s, distributors pop up every day, hoping to add to the home video market, but they are quickly saturated with submissions, very—very—few of them good. Or even watchable.

And many of you are sitting at home saying, “Yeah, but I can make a movie better than…” insert film name here. I’m not saying you shouldn’t. If you think you can, go for it.

But sit back and look at the project ahead of you first. Is the script telling a story. A story has a beginning, a middle and an end. If you look at it and say “Yeah, but I’m doing something unconventional”, blah blah blah—that’s bullshit and a cop out. Tell a story first. If this is your first movie, don’t be clever, be professional. Read everything you can about the art—yes, it’s a fucking art, no matter how many sleazy no-budget slasher movies you’ve ingested—and book-learn as much as possible. Making a movie is like conducting an orchestra. If you’re directing, you have to know what every player is doing, even if you’re doing the bulk of the work yourself. It’s difficult to get a large group of people together at the same time to do anything, much less to provide you with unpaid work just to fulfill your dream. Make it worth their while and only find people who will be committed to your dream. Make your dream part of their dream. Make them feel like their time is being well-spent. And it will be. Feeding people is a plus; screaming at them is a minus.

Long shot

Take time. Storyboard your shots, even if you can’t draw, and figure out how one shot is going to feed into the next. Your story should dictate where the close-ups, medium shots and long shots will be. Your master shot—tape is cheap, shoot a master—will tell you where you need coverage. Edit in your head first and you’ll know what will tell the story and what won’t. Have a story to tell. Try and save money to buy an exterior microphone. Make sure you monitor the sound for mike handling noise. Use colored gels if you can find them, search the frame before you shoot and figure out if there are any ugly spaces your eye is drawn to. Watch for lights that overblow the frame. Try and keep the sky out of the shot when shooting DV—it’ll just be ugly white and will kill your exposure. Watch movies and really pay attention to how a shot is composed. No one is dead center. Often, it cuts from one speaker to the next, rather than the frame swinging back and forth. The actors often seem like they’ve memorized their dialogue ahead of time. Shoot cutaways. Move the camera through space, not just left to right, but through the scene. Give the movie some depth. Use manual focus. White balance. Ask yourself: “Is this the most interesting angle I can shoot this from?” Then ask: “Does the shot require it to be more interesting?”

When editing, go from a medium to a close-up and cut on action. Try not to jump from long shot to CU when possible. It’s jarring. Cutaways will help you cover bad continuity. Bad acting can be helped with quicker cutting. Avoid very long shots unless they’re absolutely necessary.

And really look at your end product. You know the movie back and forth, so turn your mind off when you watch. Does the story make any sense? Can you fix it if it doesn’t, by adding or subtracting (preferably) shots or sequences?

Medium shot

Watch it again. Does it look like a movie. I’m not talking a slick Hollywood blockbuster. I’m talking about anything you’ve ever watched and enjoyed. Is it something you will be proud to have your name on—not just now, but years from now. Does it look like a “first film”? Is it something you would want everyone to see? Can you accept the criticism—not just from disgruntled “critics”, but from people who genuinely care about you? Can you tell the difference between people slamming you and people trying to help you?

These are hard questions. But filmmaking is hard work. It should be; it’s an art form. And it’s a business. If you have your eye on doing this, if not for a living then at least as more than a hobby, you have to learn what you’re doing. You also have to learn by doing. In the end, you may wind up with something you don’t want anyone to see. In that case, move on. Don’t take it to a film festival and jump around like a maniac. Leave that in your living room. Friends like visiting friends. Audiences want to be entertained. If you jumping around is more entertaining than your movie, you’ve got a serious problem on your hands.

Close Up

Oh, and by the way, if you didn’t recognize any of the terms I hit you with—the film “jargon”—you’re not ready to make a movie yet. Go read. Go watch some movies. And then drop me a line when your film is done. I’ll be happy to take a look.

Pictures from “Shockheaded”, courtesy of Piranha Pictures – www.piranha-pictures.com.

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