Friday, March 27, 2009

Bill's Little Movie Experiment (Part Four)

I thought this part was going to go up on Wednesday and today we’d return to Hitchcock... but the best laid plans.

Although I’m making my little film partially to recapture those silly days of my youth when I had a Super 8mm film camera, a bunch of film cartridges, and it only cost 99 cents for processing at K-Mart - this is also a series of experiments for a book on writing and making your own digital feature. That makes budget one of the most important parts of this experiment - I want to make this film for as little money as possible. What the average person might be able to put on a credit card.

John August’s REMNANTS series had a budget of $25k per episode, which is dirt cheap for something made by the rules in Hollywood. He paid people, had permits, did everything by the book. I will not be doing any of those things. I am going back to the days when all I had was that camera and a couple of lights and I had to convince friends to show up and be actors and/or crew. One of my early films - LAUNDRA-MATT - was me, a camera, my roommate Dave, my laundry and the coin laundry down the street from my apartment in Walnut Creek. He had to go to work, so we shot it in about half an hour. It got laughs when I showed it. NEAR HIT will be a little more structured and organized than that, but don’t look for a grip truck and cables.


I know of a couple of producers who make movies *for a living* at budgets in the $6k range - paying key crew members and special effects houses. These are films you can find in Blockbuster (on the bottom shelf). One of these guys budgets his films for $10k, takes $4k off the top, and shoots the film for $6k... and the films look good enough to get into Blockbuster. They are not great - in fact, not even good - but are good enough. The problem with many of these low end things is that the people making them just don’t care - and there isn’t enough money for them to care. This guy makes a film every single month - it’s an assembly line - and he finds a script for almost nothing, actors who will work for meals and a credit and a copy of the DVD (Los Angeles is full of actors who want to break in, and think being in a film that is in Blockbuster is better than having zero credits... and they are probably right) and gets “step up” crew members - a camera operator who wants a Cinematographer credit, etc. The rest of the crew are unpaid interns... and even then it’s a skeleton crew. I know another guy (actually, I don’t know him, I know his camera guy) who makes films for $10k or less... and had a deal with Lionsgate Home Video that paid him $100k per film! He had once - long ago - directed a minor hit horror film, and his name on the DVD box sold a bunch of copies. He was smart enough to use famous true crimes as the basis for his movies - which provided the “mental real estate” that also helped sell his films. Some of you may know who I’m talking about. Anyway - making a film on the cheap and getting it into Blockbuster is possible.

In a past blog entry I mentioned a guy I know who figured out a way to buy his equipment with his first budget so that he could continue to make movies for tape and expandible costs forever. So if you want to make your own movie, cost isn’t as big of a factor as it used to be. I spent more money on Super 8mm film and processing the last time I tried to make a feature. Though I have yet to do an actual budget - I’m waiting until I finish the script - let’s just look at some basic costs to get a rough idea.

The day I began writing this blog entry (a while back) I got an e-mail from FIND (formerly IFP) in Los Angeles about why I should re-up my membership, and one of their main sales points was that you can get discounts on equipment rentals. Here in Los Angeles, everyone is making a movie and the laws of supply and demand makes cameras expensive sometimes. So FIND will rent me an HD camera for a weekend for $200. They will rent me sound equipment for $30 and a lighting package for $40. I haven’t checked the rates in the Bay Area, may be more, may be less - but I’m using this as a ballpark.

So, let’s do the math - 6 weekends at $200 for the HD camera is $1,200. Let’s add in the sound and the lights at $420. We also have to add in tape stock and those $5 pizzas, and some odds and ends. Regular reader Bill suggests we form an LLC to keep us from losing everything if something goes really wrong (my friend Max made a low budget horror movie, no insurance, and had a guy in full monster costume *fall of the roof of a house*! I wouldn’t have done something that dangerous in the first place.) - I will probably need some form of insurance to rent the equipment in the first place, so that will probably be in the budget along with the LLC. We’re looking at around a few thousand base cost. Now, there are other things that are going to cost money - but so far, this isn’t sending me to the poor house. I do plan on adding some known actors, but you don’t have to do that. I’m planning on spending around $10,000 total. Probably around $6k for the film itself and another $4k for the “deliverables” (I did an article last year for Script Magazine that went through all of the deliverables a distrib will require). (Deliverables include posters and various different versions on tape, as well as all of the legal requirements and E&O insurance, etc. - the things a company needs to deliver the film to distribs all over the world). I’m sure all kinds of crazy costs will come up, and that is part of the experiment - to find out those hidden costs and tell the readers about it so they will be prepared.

Part of my plan is to use the SAG Ultra Low contract - which I believe allows me to mix non-SAG and SAG actors in the same film... and pay the SAG actors a reduced scale. I haven’t looked into this, yet - so that may change. Most of these credit card films are made non-SAG, and use non-professional actors in all of the roles. I think the Ultra-Low budget allows me to cast almost every role with non-pros, and add one or two professional actors to help me sell the movie. I will use the “confined cameo” method - where an actor is in *one* location only, and those scenes are spread throughout the movie so that it appears they are in the whole film. My friend Paul Kyriazi made a post apocalyptic action film called OMEGA COP that had Adam (BATMAN) West as the last Chief Of Police in the known world coordinating the last surviving cop as he tried to bring order to a world in chaos... Adam West sat behind the radio at a police station set and talked to the last cop - was never in any other location. You could shoot him out in a day! And that’s my plan - find some actor I can shoot out in a day. Maybe two.

My friend who makes his little $2k movies mostly for fun has had an *iconic* TV star from the past in one of his films (the guy is no longer a star, and did it for fun) and had a female star from a couple of decades ago, who is still smokin’ hot... but no longer in her 20s. The shelf life for hot female stars is short - there’s a busload of new hot female stars arriving in Hollywood every day. So there are people out there who will do a movie for fun (no pay), which leads me to believe I can find someone who will work a day for very little pay.

The other way to go is to skip SAG contracts all together and use a Fi-Core actor. These are SAG actors who have fallen on hard times (or split with the union for political reasons) and can work for less than SAG minimum. Again, we are looking at people who may have once been famous, but now are out of work. I do not know who is and who is not Fi-Core, but I’ll bet Gary Colemen is... and everybody knows who he is. Other possibilities are music stars - a friend of mine made a horror movie with the lead singer from a very famous group in a small but pivotal role. And sports stars and comedians and anybody else who is not an professional actor... but everyone knows who they are. There are plenty of ways to get a face on the DVD box without breaking the bank. So my project will have at least *one* recognizable actor spread throughout the film (probably the hit target).


Someone asked about stunts after the last entry - and that’s a really good question. I am making an action movie... but won’t be able to afford a stunt team. This is where creativity comes into play. Back when I was making that ill-advised Super 8mm action feature, I also did not have a stunt team... but I had all kinds of action and even blew up a car (though not for real). Though I can probably round up some guys and gals with martial arts training - and probably most actors have some martial arts training - the main reason for doing those BOURNE style fights is budget.

My friend Paul Kyriazi made an *amazing* martial arts film called WEAPONS OF DEATH (not available on VHS or DVD) that starred real martial arts guys. Paul’s theory was to set up the camera and let the guys fight - and the end has an amazing fight scene between Eric Lee and Gerald Okamura. They practiced it a bunch of times, then Paul filmed it - and it’s amazing to watch these two guys fight *for real* (okay - it’s still a movie and they pulled their punches - but there are sword fighting scenes that is *real* sword fighting... just will dull-edged swords). Paul seldom cut to a different angle, his theory is that you get to see real guys doing a real fight with no camera tricks. That is a great theory... if you have Eric Lee and Gerald Okamura.

I will not have them... I will have some guys who took a martial arts class once and lied on their resume, saying they were a black belt. So I will be cutting a lot.

I know the stuntman who did the stair roll at the end of THE EXORCIST - great guy. Great stair roll. I also have seen THE EXORCIST 144 times (I was the projectionist) and can tell you there are *seven* shots in that stair roll. Which means Chuck only had to roll down a handful of stairs at a time. That’s still not easy... but the more you cut to a different angle, the more you can control the roll. Same thing with a fight scene. If you shoot like Paul did and just set up the camera and let them fight - that puts the scene on the skills of the fighters. If you shoot the same scene as a series of many shots - One character throws a punch, the other character gets hit and his head snaps back, etc. You have put the fight scene on the *editing*. When you are dealing with a ragged BOURNE-like scuffle, it doesn’t have to look graceful and elegant... in fact, it’s better if it looks messy. So that big fight scene is a bunch of little pieces... and that removes most of the stunts. We will probably build some balsa wood props and buy some candy-glass bottles and smash some things... but the fight scene will mostly be three shots: One guy throws a punch (or kick). The impact of the punch (or kick). The other guy goes flying from the impact.

That impact shot can be a soft tap. A touch. Edit it fast enough, and that creates impact. Add the sound effect, and that touch turns into a freakin’ hard hit!

String a bunch of those together and you have a fight scene through editing. There was probably a time where a bunch of really quick cuts in a fight scene might make the audience think you were faking it... but now we *expect* quick cuts in a fight scene! And, even though I hate the shaky-cam of the BOURNE films, I plan to use hand-held camera to cover up any time a fake punch misses by a mile. Again, that style is expected theses days, so no one will think I’m trying to hide anything.

Foot chases are just people running.

In those old Super 8mm films I used to come up with creative stunts that existed only in your mind... and I will do that in NEAR HIT as well. Want to have a guy dangling off the roof of a 20 story building? You find a really low one story roof, shoot up at the guy dangling. Cut to - shooting down at a pair of shoes nailed to a pair of 1x1 boards with a pair of pants on them hanging over the 20 story roof “kicking”. Put it together and the audience believes those fake legs belong to the real guy - and that the real guy is hanging over the 20 story ledge instead of that ledge up against the side of the hill that is only 8 feet from the ground.


Which brings me to cool shots. One of the great things about 3 directors and only having to be responsible for one day of shooting a week is that we can challenge ourselves to come up with one *amazing* shot every week. I believe the reason why we know who the Coen Brothers are today is that shot in BLOOD SIMPLE where the camera is tracking over the top of the bar and cranes up and over the passed out drunk. And the other various cool *shots* in the film. So part of the plan is to come up with some “how did they do that” moments in the film.

In my stupid little movies, I always tried to come up with some amazing show off shot. From attaching a camera to a cable and *zipping* it across campus at Diablo Valley College where it would stop at a clamp on the cable four feet from where I had my actor standing... to a thing I did in my feature where I took an actor and a folding chair to the top floor of a San Fran hotel, set the chair up in front of the hallway window, and filmed all of the actor’s lines with this great background window overlooking the city, then shot the reverse through the window of a first floor office, over the shoulder of my hotel hallway actor, focusing on another actor on the other side of the desk. Cut the two together and people wonder how you got the camera on the crane outside that 40 story window... to the thing where you see speeding cars from a freeway overpass overhead as an actor is being chased across the overpass by bad guys. He looks down at the speeding traffic. Then, looking up at the actor on the overpass, he jumps! Of course, this is shot at the part of the overpass that is four feet off the ground, with the camera man laying in the dirt pointing the camera up. Then a shot of the actor landing in the bed of a pick up truck - close - all we see are the actors legs and the pick up bed. Then a shot from the overpass of the actor (secretly strapped into the pick up bed) as the pick up roars down the freeway. Cut that together and you have an amazing stunt.

Anyway, plan is for each of us to do one interesting shot a week. The rest can be masters & close ups, but one shot needs to be cool. That gives us 18 cool shots in the film... hopefully more than that, and hopefully we will all brings some interesting ideas to each day of shooting.

The first film of Paul Kyriazi’s I ever saw, THE TOURNAMENT, had a shot in it where our hero uses his super secret kung fu punch on the villain... and punches out a chunk of his stomach! The villain looks down, and he can see the sky through a hole in him! Then he falls to the ground, and the grass pops through the hole! Yikes! What Paul did is get the round mirror from a compact, put some gore around it, and stick it to the villain’s shirt. The mirror reflected the sky and field in front of the villain - which matched the sky and field behind him - and it seemed like he had a hole in him. When he fell down, they just stuck a bit of turf on his shirt and shot it from the right angle. All of these $1.98 special effect tricks go into my film, too.


Speaking of $1.98 special effect tricks, in my Super 8mm I blew up my mom’s car... and then returned it without a scratch. Here’s what I did: this was back in the days of cameras with flash bulbs, so I bought a bunch of flashbulbs and some smoke bombs. I borrowed ever Super 8mm camera I could find. I strung flashbulbs on wires, put them all over the car. Put a little smoke on the car. Fired up the cameras and set off the flashbulbs. Cut! Another string of flashbulbs on the car. I opened all of the car doors, plus the hood and trunk, a quarter of the way, More smoke. Cameras rolling, set of the flashbulbs. Did this again and again, opening the doors a little more and adding more smoke each time until the doors and hood and truck were all of the way open. Then I took a bumper I had bought from the scrap yard, a door I had bought and painted the color of my mom’s car, and the spare tire... smoked the hell out of everything so you could barely see the car. Cameras rolling, last string of flashbulbs, and from behind the car, I threw the door, bumper and tire out of the smoke. Okay - in the editing room, I cut this together, and you have a bunch of different angles as the flash of the explosion blows the doors and hood and trunk right off the car! Tire rolling out of the smoke down the street! No actual explosion, though.

I also created plastic Toys R Us guns with flashbulbs in the barrel and a battery and contact in the trigger so that I could get some muzzle flash. All of this stuff is possible - but someone actually rents muzzle flash plastic guns, now - you don’t have to make them yourself and get that modeling glue all over your hands.

You have to be creative if you don't have any cash.

Wait, I said a building would explode, right?

Okay, there are several places on the web where you can get royalty free stock footage. You pay a flat rate, and own it outright... as does everybody else who bought the same footage. Here is the website - they have a sale on clips that includes a building implosion...

Free Stock Footage

And another place or two:

Footage Firm

Art Beats

And there are other places.

But a building implosion isn’t the same as an explosion - lots of dust, but no flames! So for that, we go to Detonation Films, which has all kinds of explosions and muzzle flashes and other cool stuff...

Detonation Films

Put all of the free and low cost stuff together and we have some big production value for an affordable price.

By the way, other tricks that I may use include everything from glass shots to hanging miniatures to foreground miniatures to the Schufftan process to anything else that they used in those early days of cinema before CGI. My friend Fred, who directed CYBERZONE, makes low budget flicks with more creativity than money - and he has done everything from a disaster movie for Sci Fi Channel using Corgi toy cars as foreground miniatures (with rubble and little telephone poles smashed over them) to aquarium castles as hanging miniatures in a fantasy film for cable. These things look *great* and cost very little. I watched an old film noir a couple of days ago, IMPACT, that had a car smashing into a gasoline tanker truck and explode... all models, but you really have to look hard to see that it isn’t real (actually, for me the giveaway was the angle - it was like a helicopter shot, but in a low budget movie from the 40s when they weren’t doing helicopter shots). Look up these things online if you aren’t familiar with them. John built a Schufftan rig a long time ago so that he could put real actors in a miniature set on video without any sort of post production special effects. The shots are married *before* the image gets to the camera.


Another bit of production value NEAR HIT will have is location shooting in Hong Kong. I’m still not sure how to get that into the story, but I know how it will happen in real life - I’m going to Hong Kong to teach a class after we shoot the film... and, since I’m teaching the class for the Hong Kong Film Academy where they have equipment, I will shoot a bunch of great stock footage type stuff, plus take character’s costumes with me and coerce someone from my class to wear the costume so that I can shoot over the shoulder shots and long shots and anything else - maybe even a foot chase between two stand ins, with close ups of the real actors running somewhere with the background completely out of focus. Hong Kong is a big city - just like San Francisco and Oakland - so I can do my real actor work as part of the normal shoot - doubling San Fran for Hong Kong. Some areas of Hong Kong are kind of Chinatown like... and San Fran has a Chinatown. So my little film gets to *globe trot* like a big budget movie!

I may also shoot some “plates” in Hong Kong so that I can green screen some of my actors into the backgrounds - not for lengthy shots, because I’m don’t want to give the audience time to realize it’s green screen, but a quick shot to “sell” that the actor is in Hong Kong would be great.

The people reading my book probably won’t be teaching a class in Hong Kong, nor will they also be teaching a class in London (for the sequel’s stock footage), but we live in a world where you can contact a film maker someplace else in the world and offer to swap stock footage. You shoot part of their movie using your stand ins in their costumes, and they do the same for you. It would be possible to have a film that seems to be shot all over the world, just by swapping footage with film makers from all over the world. Hey, and you’ll make friends while you’re at it, and be part of their films, too!

If the Hong Kong stuff works out, I may actually do some cool stuff there and then do some “reshoots” with the actors when I return. I would love to do a chase on the double decker tram cars that go from one end of Hong Kong to the other - when two trams come to a stop one behind the other, the windows of the second levels almost touch each other - and you could jump from one tram to another... and leap from train to train. Now, we wouldn’t do this in real life... but we could do the chase with stand ins, then come back and build a fake tram wall and window and do the tram-to-tram jump in the studio... and by studio, I mean John’s garage. Because even though this thing may look like a couple million bucks, it’s going to be made for next to nothing.

This is just an experiment... that should be a lot of fun to shoot!

- Bill

Yesterday’s Dinner: El Pollo Loco chicken & corn on the cob & black beans.
Bicycle: No bike today - too windy. Even with a busy day on Wednesday I managed to ride a little, returning DVDs.


Andrew Bellware said...

A $10,000 budget seems like about the right way to go.

I don't think that Blockbuster is buying any "indy" titles anymore though -- only Asylum, Anchor Bay, Lion's Gate, and maybe a handful of others. That's really just too bad.

Stu Machwitz' The DV Rebel's Guide is a great book about low-budget action movie making. His blog is here:

Grant said...


I don't know what the blockbuster situation is these days, but all of those other companies will gladly buy a movie and get it to Blockbuster if they like it and the price is right.

Grant said...

Oh yeah, and Bill...

Some of the stuff they did on "Crank 2" sounds like what you're doing. Not that it's no budget. But supposedly they bought a cheap 4000 camera and a dozen even cheaper 1000 dollar cameras so they could get a bunch of coverage cheap. And do things with the cheap ones like strap the camera onto a car and smash it into a fire hydrant or what not.

I'm curious to see if I'll be able to spot the cheap camera shots. I'm also trying to find out if the 4000 dollar camera was really their main camera, or if it was also a backup to a rented "real" HD camera. Of course all the manufacturer press releases are hyping the fact that a major motion picture was shot on a prosumer camera.

Emily Blake said...

My ex is an aspiring stunt man and that is a tremendously difficult field to get into. There are only a handful of full time stuntment in Hollywood, so I'll wager you can find a few aspirings to do some falls and stuff if you post an ad on Craigslist. I passed this post along to my ex. He loves jumping off of things and is unafraid of pain.

mrswing said...

Re: stunts -

You should also visit the Stuntpeople site/message board. There are lots of martial artists around with good to amazing skills who want to become movie stars, professional stunt men or action choreographers. They regularly make low-budget to no-budget shorts, hoping to get noticed by Hollywood. So you might be able to get some interest there.

I would seriously recommend trying to find a 'free' stunt team though. Since you're marketing this as an action movie, not as a straight thriller, quality of action will be important to your audience.

And as for the Bourne style - or the Dan Bradley style, more correctly - apart from a few directors, almost no one likes this. Dan Bradley is a real idiot (sorry for the harsh words, but it's true). He puts together stunts and fights which feature moves, stunts and shots no one has seen before - and then cuts them together in such a way he deliberately obscures his own work. He thinks that if the audience strives to make out what is happening on screen, he's involving them in the action. WRONG! He's just pissing them off. Anyway, the important thing here is he's not using the style to hide deficiencies in the action, but he puts together perfect action moments and then deliberately messes them up.

Food for thought, methinks! :-)

Morgan McKinnon said...

This is gonna be good.

I'm printing it out and making a "little" book..."Bill's little Movie Experiment".

Brian said...

For kicks, I'm going to say that the unnamed director is Ulli Lommel-who once starred in several Fassbinder films and directed the 1980 minor hit horror film THE BOOGEYMAN. $100,000 for movies costing him $10,000? Pretty damn good. And here I was feeling sorry for him when I watched THE BLACK DAHLIA KILLER. By the way, I second the recommendation on the DV REBEL'S GUIDE. An excellent resource.

Brian said...

Oh, by the way. Good call on Detonation films, lots of good stuff there. I'm sure you'll be using Adobe After Effects for most of your post work but there's a really good alternative at with products called CompositeLab and EffectsLab which are very inexpensive and easy to use. Plus there's tons of free explosions, color presets, etc available on the site to download...

wcmartell said...

Stunts: I know a whole bunch of stuntmen I can probably talk into working on my film... but the guy who buys my book in Ohio does not, so I can't do that in my little film experiment.

And I hate the Greengrass Bourne films because I can't see what's happening. I'm not going that far - just using handhelp, and maybe whip-panning some shots to add action and distract from a *near hit* that should have been a hard hit whenever I have to. Most of the time it will be more old school hand held where you can see what's happening. Editing is more my action friend than shaky-cam.

My guess is the cheap camera was their "suicide cam" - I used to use garage sale cameras to throw off roofs for POV falls, etc. They used a regular cam for everything that wasn't dangerous.

Yes is the answer to one of the questions. You know which one.

Blockbuster buys from distribs... so the way to get in there is through someone like Lionsgate.

I will check out that book - but I'll bet they don't tell you how to blow up a car with flashbulbs. I have a zillion tricks from my low budget days...

And there will be more on this story as it happens. Like, when everything goes completely wrong.

- Bill

mrswing said...

Re the guy in Ohio - he might be one of the martial arts hopefuls... :-)

Andrew Bellware said...

Yes, my understanding is you pretty much have to go through a Lion's Gate or Anchor Bay for Blockbuster to take a title. The days of the smaller distributors getting in seem to be gone.

Best Buy, however, seems willing to take very small zombie pictures. ;-)

Anonymous said...

you used to be able to get 8mm film developed at k-mart?

could you do 16mm?

why in the world did they stop?!?!

Brian said...

I used to get my Super8mm film developed at the FOTOMAT-those drive-by Kiosks in the parking lots of Shopping centers. DV and HD is faster these days but there was so much fun just waiting to get the film back and see what "magic" you cooked up.

Bill-you're right about the car explosion effect, that's homemade DIY ingenuity at its best!

Here's a tip of my own, a cheap variation on Robert Rodriguez's blood shooters: Go to the toy store and buy some SUPER SOAKERS-you fill that up with a slightly watered down blood mixture and you can do very easy squib type shots by just blasting the thing into actor's faces etc. and speeding up the result in post. Very effective looking onscreen.

wcmartell said...

Because I saw THE WILD BUNCH at a tender age... buy some aquarium plastic tubing. Buy one of those lens cleaner bellows things at the camera store. Buy a piece of aluminum tubing, bend it at a 45' angle (you'll need one of those coil things to bend tubing - I built model cars and had stuff like that). Bellows to plastic tubing to aluminum tubing to and old belt with alum tube poking out belt hole. Fill with fake blood - you want thin blood, more water than syrup. Belt goes under costume - slice little hole for alum tube to peek out. Plastic tube goes down leg. Bellows is under acror's shoe.

Now place actor out in the open - away from everything.

Take another actor with plastic gun that flashes - put them across from blood rigged actor - high noon style.

Actor 2: "Bang".
Actor 1: Stomps on bellows and blood *sprays* out chest - like, gushes!

- Bill

wcmartell said...

PS: same sort of thing - air cannon kind of a thing - creates bullet hits on walls, etc.

PPS: For 16mm you had to go to a film lab.

- Bill

Thomas said...

I'll third The Rebel's Guide, but it leans more toward post work. Lloyd Kaufman's two books (Make Your Own Damn Movie and Direct Your Own Damn Movie) are just plain hilarious plus they have some good tips, too.

Martin_B said...

This was a fascinating post.

Explosions with miniatures can be very convincing provided the camera doesn't linger too long on them.

I'm thinking of the terrorist car bombs in "The Quiet American" and the nuclear explosion in "The Sum of All Fears." I only spotted the models after repeated viewing of the DVDs, and the effects didn't look expensive once I saw what they had done.

Blowing up your mom's car sounds like fun. Any chance of putting a video clip online? I have a mental image of this expanding cloud of smoke with random flashes going off. I'd like to know how it really looked.

Nathan Shumate said...

Karate Cop! The memory -- it burns!

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