Secrets of Indie Filmmaking

Secrets of Indie Filmmaking:
How Big a Crew Do You Need: Part III

Over the last two weeks, Ardent Partner Christopher Comrie wrote about making No-to-Low-Budget films with a skeleton crew. In this week’s Secrets of Indie Filmmaking, he returns with Part III of How Big a Crew Do You Need?

Click to read Part I and Part II.

If you are a producer or director with a real budget to play with, good for you. If not, here is my advice on putting together a crew for the DIY-type of No-to-Low-Budget Filmmaker:

OK, so you already have the players in front of the camera. Whether actors or documentary subjects, you’ve already got them. So what crew do you absolutely need to get your project in the can?

You need a director. You need a cinematographer. It’s hard to do both at the same time well yourself, but if you want to, go for it, I won’t stop you.
There is a lot to recommend directing and operating the camera yourself; a greater intimacy with the image for instance. And my actors have told me they enjoy the director operating the camera. It feels like they have all my attention while they perform, and they certainly do. For them, the camera is me.
But, having said that, the day I find a Director of Photography who is; a really sympatico collaborator, with a good eye and a keen storytelling sense, who is practical and can work as fast as I want to, I will gladly hand over camera duties. See, we take finding that “good fit” seriously, so until that day, I’m happy to do it myself.

Good sound is so important, and poor sound is so much less tolerable than a poor image even to the average audience member. You have to pay extremely close attention to get the best sound you can. It’s a crucial and painstaking job. Get a good sound recordist if you possibly can. I’ve been obsessed with sound since I was a kid, so my ear is pretty good. However, if you’re operating the camera and the sound and directing, it is possible, but I believe that you are going to be stretched rather thin. I strongly believe in getting someone dedicated to doing sound. And they better not be a bozo. As with anything in the ‘glamorous’ world of movies, there are a lot of unqualified people walking around saying they are sound recordists. Make sure you find one that really knows what they are doing. Believe me you will regret it if you don’t.

Assistant Directors? With all honest, due respect to the good ones I’ve worked with that are real pros, in the DIY world, I don’t have use for them.
As director/producer, I should be organized enough during prep to properly breakdown the script, and prepare a detailed shooting schedule, from which I can create a daily callsheet.

Every morning before shoot I look at the scenes to be shot that day. Then I try very hard to assign blocks of time to shoot each scene, and then stick to that plan as much as possible. If I spend more time than anticipated on a scene, I have to quickly figure out which scene(s) I’m going to spend less time on.
In other words, I kick my own ass, I don’t need an AD to do it for me.

Wardrobe/Costume Design — in Part II I mentioned multi-tasking crew members, and that our Writer-Producer turned out to be good at making Wardrobe decisions that worked. This was true for decisions during shoot, but we also had Wardrobe “consult” with us in Prep. In the case of our feature, we could do this because were shooting contemporary city dwellers traveling to or living in the tropics. A Costume Designer/Wardrobe Mistress broke down our script during Pre-Production and made wardrobe recommendations for the characters/plot. The actors provided their own clothes that fit those recommendations. Anything that they didn’t have, we purchased and provided, or had made. Obviously this is not the approach you take in a costume drama, but if you’re making a costume drama, you have a real budget and don’t need this post.

Props and Set Decoration – haven’t “needed” them yet. But we tend to develop movies based on what we know we have, or believe we can borrow/access. For example, if I’m shooting in an actual restaurant or house that we’ve chosen for its look/character, they are therefore already largely “dressed”.
We do buy or build hero props of course. Again, if I get most of what I need during prep, I’ll be fine. Your movie may have more or bigger requirements, in which case get a;

Production Assistant/Driver – This is what I resent not having on my last shoot. Having to break my day to do a shopping run or to take the cook home is a real waste of valuable creative time and energy, but with crew members suddenly nervous about driving in a foreign country, I literally had no choice. I’ll get someone else to do the driving next time.

And let’s mark a moment about food, shall we? Catering and Craft: we do want to write a dedicated post on catering, so for now I’ll leave it at this; feed your crew.

That’s it for what I consider the absolute essentials in the DIY filmmaking world. Is it easy to be this bare bones? Of course not. It’s damn hard work. But it’s also good discipline — Of every potential position ask yourself: “do we really need it? Can the person in that position multi-task? Have they got a good attitude?” Remember, when you already have very limited resources, every extra person you bring along is another person that needs to be managed and consulted. (And fed. And housed. And transported…) It may seem like more bodies equal more help, but you must ask if each body is doing more work than they create.

I tend to start with the idea that I’m doing everything myself, then imagine how much better it might be if I could get someone else to focus on one of the key jobs.

Here’s hoping taking a look at our approach to forming a skeleton crew helps You prepare Your next project.


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