If you’ve ever shot a feature film in 10-15 days you know that it’s a manic, stressful experience. You’re shooting 8, 10, 12 pages a day to try and get your story in the can. It’s like climbing Mount Everest: it can be done, others have done it, but dozens die every year halfway up the mountain.
OK, enough with the mountain metaphors.
The point is that if you’re going to survive a very short shoot, there’s some things you need to do to get to the end with everything you need. This is by no means an exhaustive list but it’s a good place to start.
1) The place to start is with your script. Keep it short, under 90 pages. Our last film had a 75-page script (shot over 14 days) and the finished film is 70 minutes without credits. I know that the “standard” is 90-120 minutes. Who cares? Everything else you’re doing is “non-standard”. Over 45 minutes counts as a feature film for most festivals. And chances are you’re not going to have a big theatrical release beyond one or two cities. For online and self-distribution nobody cares. But it means the difference between 10 pages a day, if your script is 100 pages and 7.5 pages per day if your script is 75 pages. If the average is 10 pages per day there will be some days where you will have to shoot 13 or 14 pages. Think about that for a minute. Ugh.
2) Be prepared to make changes on the fly. You don’t have time to reschedule a lot of material for later in the shoot. So, when something comes up, figure out a way to work with it. It starts to rain and you don’t have access to any interior locations? Shoot it under a porch roof or send a PA to buy a dozen umbrellas and plastic bags to cover your gear and crew and shoot your characters in the rain. Production value! If you can’t get good sound because there’s a party in the street? Shoot a montage at the party. Free extras! Turn problems into production value.
3) There’s a good chance you won’t be able to shoot everything. It’s just hard to consistently shoot between 7-12 pages per day and get it all done. If you’re going to cut anything during your shoot, drop the establishing shots and b-roll first; then exterior, natural light MOS scenes with actors; then interior MOS scenes with actors. Only last should you drop scenes that require sound and light. It’s easy to go pick up establishing shots and b-roll at your own convenience later, just you and the DP. It’s more of a pain to schedule pick-ups where you need sound, lights, hair and make-up, set design, etc. etc.
4) Be prepared to shoot some scenes from a single angle. On our first film we had three or four 12+ page days. Insane. There was simply no way we could get a lot of coverage or do five or six takes for every shot. If you have a big day coming up, think about which scenes would be undamaged – or better, would be even more dynamic – if shot from one angle. You might not have to do it but better to plan for it and make a call if you’re falling behind than be rushing at the end of the day and just shoot whatever happens to be your last two scenes.
5) Never do more than 3 takes. OK, sometimes you have to because you just can’t get it. But don’t be Stanley Kubrick about it. I remember hearing about a director who shot one angle 35 times because he wanted the cars passing behind an actor to be in just the right position when he said his line. That’s way over the top but you can get fixated on little stuff that doesn’t matter that much – and certainly matters less than shooting your entire film. It helps if you have good actors – they can save you a lot of takes. I can count the number of times we did more than 3 takes in our films and it was usually because I was exhausted and got the giggles and ruined the shot. It will help if you also use the time between set-ups to shoot some cutaways. It gives you more flexibility in editing to use your footage if there’s pieces of multiple takes that are better than others.
6) Bonus tip: get enough sleep so that you don’t get the giggles and ruin the shot. The longer version of this is: don't schedule 16-hour days. I know this seems like a way to get more shooting done but it almost inevitably leads to worse results at best and disaster at worst. Your cast and crew need time to recharge. Tired people break things, they make mistakes and they argue and ruin the flow of the shoot - or just stop showing up. Actors lose their voices or their ability to focus. People get sick. Keep your days under 12-hours. Especially because people are probably working for free. You want them to feel that the shoot was a good experience - for when you shoot your next film and you want to work with them again or to recommend you to other cast and crew.
If you found this useful, let us know in the comments below. And download our free ebook with tips on making your own microbudget feature: Tips To Making A Microbudget Feature Film
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