7 Guerrilla Filmmaking Blunders to Avoid

Avatar Cinema Summit | December 19, 2017

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#1 - Writing Too Many Locations Into the Script

The script writing process is a unique and personal journey. Everyone does it differently and there really isn't one definitive way to go about it. But, just because there are technically no rules doesn't mean you shouldn't set forth some personal guidelines to keep you on track.

When it comes to guerilla filmmaking, I always get visions of people in camo face paint running around Downtown LA with a camera. Though this is a pretty strange and silly thought, it brings up a good point to consider. Where are you going to be shooting?

While yes, the thought of running wild and stealing shots seems pretty exciting. It's not the best way to get things done because it's not predictable.

There are so many variables when you shoot in the wild like this. You could get shut down at any moment, or you could show up and find that there is construction on the street you were planning to use. Also, good luck trying to get coverage that matches with all of the changing conditions around you,  if you aren't shooting with multiple cameras.

This is why large scale productions spend thousands of dollars to make conditions as perfect as possible. They want ultimate control over every aspect of the environment.

As a guerilla filmmaker, it is basically the opposite. You have zero control in public areas and your only option is to embrace the chaos and go with it.

Because of this, we highly recommend making a list of assets during the writing process. This list will include things like:

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    Set Dressing

This notion gets some backlash in the filmmaking community because some argue that it stifles creativity. And maybe it does for some. I would argue that it makes you be more imaginative by forcing you to creatively use your current assets despite your big grandiose idea that could never be achieved within your current guerrilla filmmaking strategy.

It's easy to look at a blank page and say I can do ANYTHING. Which you can, on the blank page. But when it comes to putting your page to the screen, doing anything beyond what you and your resources are capable of is a blunder waiting to happen, and one of the biggest problems with most independent films.

Every time you seek out a big shot and miss it by an inch, those inches add up. And soon you've missed a foot, and then two. And so on, until it's the end of the movie and you've missed your mark by a mile.

When it comes to guerilla - stick with the achievable and don't put 12 locations into your film when you only know you have access to 3.

#2 Bringing Too Much Gear

It's easy to become enthralled by the gear. I'm the first to admit that I am exceptionally susceptible to gear envy. So much so that I started collecting it.

It started small - just a piece or two in my apartment. But that quickly transformed into a closet full. Once it started spilling out of the closet and into my living space, I knew I had a problem, but did I stop there? No, no, no. I decided to bring Trevor into the game and split a storage unit with him. 10 feet by 10 feet. Plenty of room to keep everything organized and tidy.


Turns out Trevor also has an equipment bug, and when our powers combine, we turn into a Craigslist, eBay, and Auction Megazord. Our tidy 10x10 storage unit quickly fell victim to a tornado of buying and stuffing until it could hold no more. So, we stopped there.

Yeah right.

We purchased a 25-foot box truck and filled it with gear, thinking we would rent it out. Which we did, multiple times. But ultimately our storage unit started spilling into our truck until the truck became unrentable. And that's where this story of destruction ends.

Nope! We got a SECOND storage unit. This time, a 10-foot by 20-foot unit. We weren't going to let the same thing happen to us twice. No sir! 

But alas, we did. That storage unit quickly filled up as well, until we decided that our equipment hoarding ways are hurting us more than helping us.

Sure, we still do it. I can admit it. And yeah, we moved into even bigger spaces since then - an office/studio and a 450 square foot storage unit.

But we stopped stuffing everything in. We changed our frame of mind. Now, we purchase primarily for re-selling, and the equipment that we keep is done so with the "small footprint" mindset.

You see, we quickly realized that, yes, having tons of gear can be fun. But what actually do you use?

We didn't use 90% of what we had. Yes, things got rented out every once in a while, and that's great. But we are ultimately filmmakers for us. We want to make our own projects. We realized that we aren't the type to roll up to a shoot with a 25-foot truck if we don't absolutely have to. So we ended up selling it. And selling most of our "big iron" as they say.

Now we think about how we can maximize efficiency while limiting scale. And this is crucial for guerrilla filmmaking.

Being mobile is key. You have to be light on your feet in order to get a guerrilla shoot done. If it takes you two hours to load in and load out, you've already lost.

With the current equipment market, the need for literal tons of gear is diminishing quickly. Digital sensors eat up light. Lenses are incredibly fast. And lights are brighter, lighter, and use less power.

So, the next time you gear up for your guerrilla shoot, think about what you need. The Boy Scout rule of "be prepared" still holds true. But don't overdo it. You don't need to be prepared by buying out Wooden Nickel. Instead, try being prepared by planning ahead and thinking of creative alternatives during the location scout. 

Trust me. You'll be glad you did.

#3 - Shooting Beyond Your Post Abilities

Ahh, yes. The age-old HD, 4K, 8K conundrum. 

What's hilarious to think about is how quickly this became a conundrum. Prior to this "digital age" of cinema, it wasn't much of an issue.

Sure there was the 16 and Super 16 and 35 conundrum. Followed by the SD or HD brain game. But no. Actually, it wasn't that difficult of a debate. 35mm was the gold standard. Everything else was essentially a decision based on budget, and then eventually aesthetic appeal.

Nowadays, you couldn't tell the difference between a 4K, 5K, 6K, or 8K image if your life depended on it. The technology just isn't there, and some say that there are diminishing returns after 4K in terms of human vision.

"Okay, sure..." you might say, "but there's no WAY anyone should still shoot in HD, right? Those days are over."

False. Extremely false. 

There are plenty of reasons that one would and possibly should shoot in HD instead of 4K. The primary reason being Data Death.

Shooting an entire feature film worth of footage in HD requires a large amount of digital storage. One thing people seem to skip over when thinking about data storage is backups. Ah yes, the super sexy world of backup drives. But imagine, if a whole feature film, shot in HD, could be in the vicinity of 50 TB, you are looking at a total of 150 TB if you back up once and then have a redundant backup.

A multi-camera big budget film can shoot about 350 TB of footage.... WHAT!? Yeah, that's real. And if you back it up, that's 700 TB. If you back it up more than once you are broaching Petabyte status... try going to your local Best Buy and getting a good deal on that.

While it would probably be hard to reach 350 TB of footage on a guerrilla film, I think you see my point through my heavy-handed drama.

If you are editing this project yourself on your 5-year-old laptop. Maybe shoot HD. If you are running a crew-of-two scenario and don't have a DIT to help wrangle all of your footage. Maybe shoot HD. If you can't afford a buttload of hard drives and raid systems. Maybe shoot HD.

Maybe, just maybe, shoot HD. It's really okay.

#4 - Ignoring Sound

If you go to film school or even explore film education online, you'll probably come across the "Visuals vs. Audio" example, wherein the instructor shows you a film with bad visuals but good sound and asks you to compare it with a film that has excellent visuals but bad sound.

It's typically unanimous and points well taken that a film with good sound but bad visuals is generally more tolerable.

The curmudgeons then use this example to say that sound is more important than visuals.

Absurd. Not true. You need both, and you need both to work together.

But it's easy to see why they say this. The sound is easily one of the most overlooked aspects of filmmaking. Perhaps the majority of people learning the craft don't find it as fresh and exciting as cinematography and directing. Who knows. 

But from previous experience working in distribution, watching countless hours of independent films fresh out of the camera seeking worldwide recognition, it became painfully apparent that this belief is true. Indie filmmakers don't spend enough time, money, and thought on the sound of their film. And it DESTROYS the entire movie.

It's a sign of inexperience, or perhaps hubris. To think that you can produce a film, do everything yourself, and have it come out like a Universal Pictures tentpole is kinda far fetched.

The moral of the story is: do everything you can to make your sound the best it can be. This will set you apart from 70% of independent films being made. Then, if you have a solid story and well-executed performances by the talent and crew, you will likely gain the recognition that you seek.

#5 - Over-Lighting

Much like poor sound quality being a sign of a novice filmmaker, over-lighting can bring the same conclusion.

As filmmakers, one of our strange tasks is to mimic nature. We use lights, gels, flags, nets, and silks to try to recreate the natural look of the scene and it can sometimes melt your brain.

"Why doesn't this look good? I followed the three-point lighting rule!"

First thing's first. Three-point lighting is a learning tool. End of story. It's not a rule. It simply helps you understand the theories of lighting a human face.

Yes, having an off-camera key light to create an exposure on the face, adding fill to soften the harsh light, and using a backlight to separate the subject from the background is good practice for things like interviews. But it's going to be a coin-toss as to whether using that plan will end up with a natural looking shot for your narrative piece.

Sometimes it will work out, sometimes it won't. And you need to understand why.

Firstly, start looking around and observing real-light lighting scenarios. Here are some things you will find:

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    Generally speaking, light comes from overhead. In offices, houses, coffee shops, restaurants, and pretty much everywhere - lights are above us. The exceptions, of course, are lamps and windows. So, bringing the lights down to eye level to fill in those pesky shadows and provide that eye glimmer may be more flattering, but may also add that unnatural look depending on your scenario. You must choose the balance that is right for you.
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    We often are affected by just 1 or two light sources at a time. What that means is, in a room, you either are being lit by one or two lights, or there is tons of ambient light bouncing around the room and filling everything (which in essence creates one big source). Let's think about a party or bar scene. (One of the most commonly over-lit scenes in independent films) We love to add all sorts of lights and colors to these scenes, and because of this, perhaps we get overzealous with the thought that lights are coming from everywhere and our main characters should be hit by 6 lights at a time. This is rarely the case. Next time you are at a bar or a party. Really take a look at the people around you and how the lights are hitting them. You'll probably find that one or two lights will do the trick, and in fact, it's the background that is receiving the smattering of light - which will help create texture, depth, and that pop of color that you are probably looking for.
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    Motivation matters. One thing I notice often, even in major productions, is when a light seems unmotivated. Perhaps a wide shot establishes a sodium vapor street lamp overhead. And then in our close-ups, the sodium vapor light seems to be coming from 5 feet off the ground and has moved behind them, when it was clearly in front of them in the establishing shot. These are scenarios where I think people either stick too closely to the "rules" (which we previously established aren't rules at all) or perhaps are in such a rush that they stick with what they are comfortable with. Listen, it happens. We've all done it and been on those shoots where we need to do 28 setups in a day so we go on autopilot and get it done. But if this is your shoot, try to keep that to a minimum.

Now. Guerrilla films are the perfect place to embrace the natural light. You are running and gunning anyway, why spoil a good thing by trying to be a control freak. Instead of re-doing the natural lighting, why not just accentuate what nature has provided. Add more light from the window direction... bounce a light into the ceiling to provide more overhead ambiance at a coffee shop... put a tungsten softbox just off camera pointing in the same direction as an on-camera practical light.

You get the idea. Toy around with it. Not only will it speed up your production by limiting the setup time, but you'll also, hopefully, end up with a more natural look and avoid the dreaded "over-lit" stamp of disapproval.

#6 - Using Actors Who Don't Look Age Appropriate

This is a big pet peeve of mine. BIG.

I can only assume that this syndrome is carried over from film school. Which I definitely get. In school, you tend to use your friends for everything, no matter what the part is. I did it, you've probably done it. It's no big deal

But eventually, you have to move past that. If your protagonist is a rugged international spy, he probably shouldn't be played by your 26-year-old roommate. I'm sorry.

I know, casting is a huge task. And it can be incredibly time-consuming and painful. But you are doing a disservice to your project by not casting appropriate actors for the parts.

All it takes is one miscast character to ruin an entire movie for me. 

This problem goes back to the first tip I wrote where I discussed utilizing your current assets. If you aren't willing to cast appropriate people, and you don't happen to have a pool of talent that includes the appropriate people that you need, then don't write that script.

Or rather, I should say, don't write that script to be shot NOW as a guerrilla film. Write it if you want, and then save it for when you are ready to move to the next step of casting professional actors and shooting a project outside of your current means.

Simple. That's it. There's not much more I can say about it than that. So check yo-self. Grab a friend, family member, or stranger to look at a test shoot and ask them, "Do you believe that this actor is this person?" If they say no. Believe them and move on.

#7 - Ignoring Safety

Gosh, this is a big one. And there have been some terrible occurrences recently that have happened and resulted in the unnecessary death of crew members because people ignored safety to get the shot.

Part of the allure of guerrilla filmmaking is that scrappy, "pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps" mentality of getting it done no matter what the cost. It often includes trespassing or shooting on property where you aren't allowed to do so. I've even picked locks to get into a gated park to shoot one evening.

Often times, the worst thing that will happen to you is a slap on the wrist or maybe a ride in a cop car. And if you are willing to take that risk, that is your call. I don't condone it and I certainly don't take responsibility for you choosing to do so.

The one thing you should ALWAYS ask yourself is: "Am I putting myself or anyone else in danger by doing this."

If the answer is yes, DON'T DO IT.

If the answer is, "well... I don..." DON'T DO IT!

It is 100% seriously not worth it, at all, if there is even a shred of doubt that your decision isn't completely foolproof and safe.

At the end of the day, it's just a movie. Your vision of the perfect shot doesn't matter a whole lot in the grand scheme of life. But spending the majority of your life in jail for manslaughter can put a big damper on things.

Taking risks is a big part of moving forward. If you read business or self-help books, you'll often hear about that one moment where the person had the decision to jump or not jump, and taking the risk helped them get to where they are today.

That's all fine and good. But just remember, that sometimes, the other side of that story happens and you don't read about it in a self-help book, but instead, you read about it in the depressing part of the newspaper.

So. Be safe and be smart. 

1403 Views 4.83 On 6 Ratings Rate it

  • Lyn Brook says:

    Dry erudite

  • Bela Ballo says:

    Really great and useful content! Keep up the good work! 🙂

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