Your Top 5 Filmmaking Questions Answered

Avatar Cinema Summit | April 17, 2018

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#1 - What Camera Should I Get if I'm Just Starting Out?

I see this question just about every day, if not multiple times per day. If you are a member of any online forums or groups about filmmaking you probably see this question quite a bit as well.

It's a fair question. If you are just starting out, you probably don't have all the technical know-how yet to understand all the specs that are being thrust at you by manufacturers and bloggers everywhere. What is 10-bit vs. 12-bit? What is 4:4:4 and 4:2:2? What is RAW vs. LOG?

These are probably the questions that you REALLY have when you are asking, "what camera should I get," because if you don't understand these concepts, it may be pretty difficult to wade through all the jargon and get to the nitty gritty comparisons between cameras.

I could go on and on to try to explain everything there is to know about cameras, but I'm going to restrain myself here.

The short answer to this question is - whichever one feels best to you.

That probably seems like a cop-out. And it kind of is. But I've worded it this way - what "feels" best - to highlight the crucial point here. You should go out and try different cameras before you buy one for yourself.

Get your hands on a few, and see how they work and feel. Fire off some test shots and see how it looks in your editing software. Try color grading some of the footage. 

Each brand of camera has different qualities. You may prefer one over the other. We here at Cinema Summit happen to prefer Panasonic. But, that doesn't necessarily mean that you will.

So how do you go about getting your hands on these cameras?

Rent.

There are excellent services out there for renting equipment, even if you are in an area of the US that doesn't have a lot of film/video facilities or rental houses around. Things like Borrow Lenses and LensProToGo are two great options. 

When you rent the item, they'll ship it to you. And then when your rental period is over, you send it back.

If there's no other way for you to get your hands on something and see it in person, this is a great way.

If you happen to live in a place like LA or NYC where they have major camera stores and professional film/video rental houses you can easily visit them or call them ahead of time to schedule a visit to try out different pieces of equipment.

Hands-on quality time, to me, is number 1, because you can see 100 video reviews and blogs about cameras and get 100 different suggestions. It comes down to YOU. Does the camera produce images that you like? Does it feel good in your hands or on a rig? Can you afford it and all the accessories that come with it?

Answer these questions. And you'll be off to a good start.

#2 - Should I Go to Film School?

Gah. These questions are tough guys. And pretty personal to you and your situation.

Trevor and I both went to film school. In fact, that's where we met.

At school, we could not only get hands-on experience in various areas of the filmmaking process, but we also took in-depth classes about film theory and analysis, which I think is just as important as the technical knowledge of cinema.

But, most importantly, film school created a network for us. We have a great group of friends who are all talented and successful filmmakers that we continue to work with to this day. This, in my mind, is the most significant pro when it comes to this question of going to film school or not.

Now, that being said, you don't NEED to go to film school. At all. Period.

There are tons of other tracks to get to where you want to go. Places like the DGA have programs to become an assistant director and join the union. You can start as a PA on set and work your way up to Producer. These things happen every single day, and you can choose that path.

Does film school give you an edge over the competition?

Maybe. Maybe not. Like everything in life it depends on what you put into it. You still have to put out a lot of effort. The industry doesn't just come knocking on your door when you start flashing your diploma around.

If you want to become an expert at a specific craft, such as cinematography, then yeah, I think you could gain a lot of excellent knowledge and experience from going to a school like AFI, for example.

But, as they say, there are a million ways to skin a cat. (Where did that saying come from? Really weird.)

Some people say, save the $100,000 you would spend on film school and put it toward a movie.

To that I say, "whoa, hold your horses." Yeah, putting $100,000 toward a movie might be a worthwhile time and money investment, but if you don't already have the knowledge and skills to pull off a great film, diving in with $100,000 isn't going to magically make you a skilled filmmaker.

Though, I will admit. Producing a feature film while I was still in college was one of the best learning experiences I had. Without the foundation and the years of practicing with shorts and student projects, I never would have been able to do it successfully.

So, I say, either way, film school or no film school, get out there and get as much experience as you can. Dive into projects that are over your head. Sure, if you want. But also take on projects that are more at your speed.

But remember, if you keep going out there and doing your own thing without any guidance, you can only learn so much, because you'll end up just falling into your usual patterns and making the same choices and the same mistakes potentially over and over again.

If you go the non-film school way, try to find a mentor, or a group of individuals to look up to and model yourself after.

If you do go to film school, absorb as much as you can in-class, but don't be afraid to jump out of your comfort zone and do outside projects.

#3 - How Do I Make My Projects Look More Cinematic?

Getting "the film look" has been a funny topic since the invention of video. Film, real film, has this magical quality about it. It's a beautiful softness and texture combined with a richness of colors.

With video, we hopped over the abyss in just a few years from having technology that is far inferior to film concerning resolution and color rendering to now having cameras with digital sensors that can capture higher resolution, color depth and dynamic range than 35mm film.

But, those digital sensors don't spit out images that make you feel all warm and cozy like film does. So even now, people are on a quest for the "film look" out of their digital cinema cameras.

So what's the answer?

The best answer I can give you is - composition and color grading.

Assuming you can capture images well on a digital camera, the thing that separates movie-quality footage from amateur hour is the quality of color correction/grading and the composition of your frames.

Because again, in film there is a softness and a richness in the colors that Rec 709 and LOG cannot provide. So dialing that in after the fact in post is the best option.

My advice to anyone who can't seem to nail the "film look" to their liking would be to sit down and examine the films that you like.

What is it about the images in those movies that speak to you? How are they framed?

I'd venture a guess that you are likely framing your images too tight.

With smaller screens because of streaming channels and YouTube, some online digital creators tend to frame tighter than a standard cinematic frame to compensate for the smaller screen sizes that the viewers will see the content through.

Many creators have done this over time naturally and unconsciously. In part, because the screens that they are viewing the shots on are 3.5" to 5". Where a film director sees the shots on set at a video village with much more substantial monitoring systems.

So check your framing and composition against the film greats that you admire.

Secondly, look at the color, brightness, and saturation levels of some of your favorite movies and dissect how they have achieved the look that you desire.

Then, practice recreating that look, even with single shots that you take. This type of practice and research is what will get you to the point where your videos start to have that "film look" you want.

#4 - How Do I Get Funded?

Geez, you guys. You are jumping the gun here. But okay, I'll try to tackle this one.

Just like everything in this industry (you will find out), there's not one correct way to go about getting financing for your films.

The steps you take to do this will depend on how you see the project turning out. Will you direct it, or sell the script? Do you want/need a lot of control, or are you okay with some significant oversight from a studio?

But, the time-tested standard approach is this:

Ask people for money.

It's disappointing, I know. I wish there were a magic button or a secret post that you could share on your Facebook page to get a million people to donate $1 to your film. It doesn't seem unreasonable. But, alas, it doesn't work that way.

You need to ask people for money, and the type of project you are doing with dictate who to talk to.

For higher budget films, you'll need to ask more prominent investors - maybe even joint venture firms, banks, or other production companies to get behind you and your vision and shell out some of their money for your project. If you are ready for that step, you probably don't need to be reading a post about getting funding for your films. If you aren't prepared yet for that step, continue on...

You may be familiar with the tactic of hitting up doctors, lawyers, and dentists as a leading source of your film's investors. The reasoning behind this strategy points to targeting professionals that likely have expendable income. It doesn't have to be a lot, but somewhere in the realm of $5,000 to $10,000. And this should be money that they could lose and not be hurting. As we know, films are a risky investment. So, someone along the way noticed that doctors, lawyers, and dentists have some expendable income and wouldn't be hurt too bad by losing $5,000 on your project. So, if you find 50 of these people to invest in your project; $5,000 x 50 = $250,000. Not an inadequate budget for a first feature film.

If that seems like too much work, you could lower the budget substantially and go the "asking friends and family for donations" route. We've done this on an early feature and scrounged up about $25,000 for a micro-budget feature. That's another way to go.

Or, you could do the crowdfunding game, which again, is just asking a ton of strangers to believe in your project and give you money.

The point being, there's no easy way out of this. You will have to ask for money from someone at some point unless you plan on financing your films with your own money.

#5 - How Can I Get My Movie Into Theaters?

So, you've got a finished film, and now you are ready to shop it around town to try to blow up the big screen with your cinematic masterpiece. What steps can you take to get your film shining on the silver screen?

Typically you'd want to have this kind of thing worked out before you are even starting production. But, if you don't, don't worry, there are some options.

4-walling

Some of you may be familiar with this term. It is mainly the practice of buying out theater space to exhibit your movie.

You can do this at just about any theater. They are happy to bump an under-performing film for a guaranteed payday from someone willing to shell out the dough.

Generally speaking, it's not considered a real theatrical release. You won't be adding any value to your film internationally by saying your movie had a theatrical release and then showing numbers from a 4-wall.

But, how can this be useful? Well, as a stepping stone to more prominent distribution avenues for one. You can 4-wall a theater and invite some players in the international sales and distribution arenas to attempt to move your film along in that way. But, don't expect people to flood the ticket counter to see your movie.

Tugg

Tugg.com is a website that allows people to rally behind a film they want to see in theaters and pre-sell tickets. It's mainly an "on-demand" theatrical exhibition. If you reach the pre-determined goal for ticket sales, Tugg negotiates the deal with the theater, and you get to take home a tiny percent of the ticket sales.

Again, Tugg won't be considered a real theatrical release, but you could do some cool things with this tactic without having to put up any of your own money to do so.

Perhaps taking your film on a nationwide tour would suit your fancy. Marketing the movie in various regions with specific links to pre-sell tickets could help gain some exposure for your film without having to drop a few thousand bucks each time like you'd have to for the 4-walling strategy mentioned above.

The Service Deal

There are a few theatrical service deal companies out there. Freestyle Releasing may be the most notable one, but other smaller companies pop up quite frequently.

Theatrical service deals work like this - the filmmaker or production company puts up the P&A (prints and advertising) for the film's theatrical release. The service deal company takes a fee out of the P&A, books the theaters and handles the marketing and fulfillment for the theatrical release. The filmmaker then takes the negotiated split, often below 50% of the ticket sales for their film. There can be a negotiated guaranteed run, probably for about two weeks, and then after that, it is based on performance. The theater will pull the film if it's not bringing in very much money, or, if it does well, they'll continue to run it until it fades.

There are variations to this, naturally. Some service deal companies may want a percent of ticket sales as well. You'll have to discuss the terms of the deals with each specific distributor and see what is best for you and your film.


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