Top Ten Mistakes of Rookie Filmmakers
by Bill Pryor
Editors note: Bill Pryor is a professional videographer, our resident sage and one of the reviewers for the Kansas International Film Festival. He watches the bad video so you don't have to. Here are his tips for improving your chances of having your masterpiece picked up by a festival. Check out our Filmmaker on a Budget series to see how our resident experts would apply limited funds.
In addition to writing, shooting and editing for a living, I'm a board member for the Kansas International Film Festival and as such get to see lots of low budget independent films. For the past five years or so I've been involved mostly in the documentary end of the festival, when it comes to choosing what films we'll show. So, I watch a lot of films that have passionate stories but often don't have an equal level of commitment to production values.
If the concept and story are good enough you can sometimes get by with amateur production values, but it's rare. Very rare. If you're going to go to the trouble of making a film, you should learn to do it right. A writer learns to use the language properly. An artist learns how to mix colors and textures to get the effect they want. Salvador Dali didn't just pick up a paint brush and a bunch of paints and create all those cool paintings overnight. He may have been born with the creative vision, but he had to learn the technology of his art. A musician takes music lessons to learn his instruments. My wife is an artist, she paints horses...pictures of horses, not the animals themselves. She has an entire room of floor-to-ceiling books about horses. Anatomy books, biology books, horse bones. Flexible wooden miniature horse skeletons. Photographic studies of how horses move. You get the idea.
The point is, if you are going to be an artist, you must master the technology, the tools you will use to create your art. I love today's video technology. Anybody who really wants to learn to shoot a film can afford to buy a camera that provides video quality people only dreamed of 10 or 15 years ago. It's shameful to waste that technology simply because of a lack of knowledge and commitment to the craft. Can you imagine spending a year or more shooting a documentary...going into debt for the camera and lights...maxing out your credit cards for travel expenses...begging and borrowing from all your friends to use their houses for locations, their cars...talking people into letting you shoot in their businesses...taking chances and hopefully not getting arrested for shooting in places the powers that be don't want you to shoot...and then somebody like me watches your movie and says, "Well, it would have been good if the guy hadn't tried to use the camera microphone for all his interviews. Scratch that one."
Nobody can cover everything you need to know in a short article, but I can point out the ten most common mistakes I see over and over. I'll start at the top, since I used the camera microphone comment as an example in the above paragraph.
Bad Sound. You probably thought I was going to say underexposed images or something like that, but bad sound gets my vote for the Number One spot. Here is one film making lesson you need to hammer into your consciousness permanently: Just because they put a microphone on the camera doesn't mean you're supposed to use it.
A camera-mounted mic is acceptable for recording ambient sound, such as traffic noise. It can be used for shooting an interview IF the interviewee is talking right into the lens and you have the camera about 2 feet in front of their nose. Except for very rare circumstances, you can't shoot sound with the camera mic...ever.
To do it right you need a shotgun mic, a fishpole (boom) and a soundman. A good soundman will try to keep the mic barely out of the frame, just over the subject's head, generally within two feet or less. Not always possible, but a good soundman can always find a way to make it work. Sometimes a lav mic is better. Sometimes more than one mic will be needed. Professional soundmen carry suitcases full of different mics. If you're on a budget you can get by with one or two.
It is possible to get good sound with a $300 mic. Better quality mics are, of course, more expensive; but I'll take a cheap mic and a good soundman over a good mic and no soundman any day.
Auto Focus. This should be obvious, but those new to the business don't think about it. Most auto focus systems are center-weighted. That means the camera will focus on what takes up most of the middle of the frame. If you compose your subject in the middle, with auto focus on, and you pan off him a little for a nice composition, the focus will shift. In more years of shooting than I care to acknowledge, I have used auto focus only one time. It has its place; it can be useful. But only in very limited circumstances.
Auto Iris. This is one that will drive any video editor with experience into a screaming psychotic episode. You pan off the subject and the iris shifts to open up 3 stops for the dark background. Or, you follow the subject as he walks in front of a window and the iris stops down as the scene is suddenly dark. In the worst case a dark car goes through your scene and the auto iris shifts to accommodate the dark mass of the car, then just as quickly shifts back. Doesn't seem like a problem until you need to apply color or exposure correction in post and have to adjust the application every time the exposure twitches in a scene. Trust me, your editor will hate you. You won't see it happen in the viewfinder but it's hard to miss on the big screen.
You can use auto iris to set an exposure if you zoom in to a neutral reflectance subject, such as a standard 18% gray card, or light blue shirt, etc., but then turn it off.
There's an interesting thing I've noticed about the lower end cameras--the cheaper the camera the better the auto iris usually works. It's made for the home movie maker, not for the professional. Like auto focus, there may be some circumstances in which it can be useful--TV news for example. But not for most types of production.
Auto Gain / Auto Shutter. Similar problem to leaving the auto iris on. If you shoot with the auto gain on, suddenly you may find that your picture goes soft and grainy. High gain is something to be avoided most of the time, unless you're after an effect or shooting TV news. If you have to use high gain, do it manually. Turn the auto thing off. Same for the shutter. It takes time and control of the lighting but you'll have a more consistent product when finished.
Auto Audio Gain. Same thing for audio. Again, all these automatic functions have their place and can be used sometimes...just not in a serious production. Some camcorders actually have fairly decent auto gain, and recently I was in a shooting situation in which I had to use it. It was OK but not great. I wouldn't do it on a paying job.
Bad Composition. You can always spot the amateur: Too much head room, the subject is almost always centered and sometimes too much foreground. Go to the library and get some books about composition. Go to the movies and critically analyze the cinematography and camera positions. Pay attention to when to use a higher angle and when to use a low shot.
Zooms. Nothing says "amateur home movie" or "cheap corporate video" like a bang-bang zoom. If you're shooting interviews and want to change focal length, try do do it during pauses. Or be sure you know you have or will be able to get cutaways to cover the zoom. The only place it's sometimes okay to use a quick zoom is a music video and even there it's frequently over-used. If you must zoom, try to always shoot several seconds of head and tail on each shot. That way the editor can cut the zoom out and go from the long shot to the closeup and, maybe, make the shot work.
Shaky Cam Syndrome. Get a tripod. Something else to burn in your filmmaker psyche: A hand held shot is a special effect. Just because it worked in the Blair Witch Project, doesn't mean it will work for you. True, the popular 1/3" chip professional cameras all have optical image stabilization (OIS) and it will help smooth out your shot, but it's not a tripod. If you want a hand held effect, fine. But don't shoot hand held because you're too lazy to set up a tripod. Sometimes you have to shoot hand held, and I can live with that, but if you have to do so, keep the lens wide. The more you zoom in, the worse your shaky cam symptoms will be. This is why Hollywood professionals spend thousands of dollars on steady-mounts and dollies. Basically a tripod that moves. You don't have to spend thousands. I've seen wheelchairs, grocery carts, and wagons used as dollies. I've seen them made out of old skateboard wheels and PVC pipe. But there's a reason the pros think they're so important.
Bad Lighting. Generally, it's the straight on deer-in-the headlights approach, if there's any at all. Flat lighting, no back lights or kickers, no fills or reflectors. Mixing color temperatures and bulb types. Again, watch films and pay attention. Go to the Lowell Lighting website and order Russ Lowell's book about lighting. Lighting is the most important part of a picture and the second most neglected part of film making after sound. Lighting is an art form. Everything in this list so far is in the realm of technology, lighting is where you get to the craftsmanship. Where the art meets the technology. You can learn it, you have to if you want any chance of selling the end product. Another one of those little video lessons to remember is: Where you don't put the light is as important as where you put the mic.
Blown Out Backgrounds. A blown out background, in soft focus, filtered, can be an effect. But in many cases it's simply bad exposure. That's what lights and gels are for. In a documentary you can get by with it more than in a feature film, but if all your shots are blown out, it will help unsell your story.
OK, that's my top 10. Others may have more. I started out with bad sound as Number One because I probably hear more bad sound than bad anything else. The other items aren't necessarily in a particular order. Bad sound stands out above all the rest so strongly that I felt compelled to give it a big Number One position in my list. Remember it's an audio-visual medium. Audio and video are equal. A good story that has acceptable sound may make it into a festival when all the other items are very weak, but if the sound is bad--well, nobody's gonna watch your film.