Big Budget Blues

In planning a film shoot, many filmmakers will ask themselves, "What's the right way to do this?". Whether determining the size of the crew or scheduling the shooting days, we tend to find ourselves looking for a standard to draw from. A production template, if you will. The only problem is that the only real standard of doing things is predicated upon having a massive budget. I had a chance to observe and reflect upon this "standard" last week while I was out of town shooting a TV commercial. As surprising as it may be, most television commercials have huge budgets. How huge? Well, for a thirty-second spot, many commercial productions will spend anywhere from $1-3 million. And that's only for a day or two of shooting!

As I was acting in this commercial, I was afforded a terrific vantage to observe the workings of the set from minute to minute. You'd think that because I'm trying to make my own movie, that I'd be drooling over all of the luxuries afforded on such a set: Comfortable transportation and lodging, large wardrobe selection, thorough props and art direction, a sexy camera, HUGE lights, and a massive support crew for every department. Surprisingly, all this made for little more than a lesson in inefficiency.

To my eye, the problem begins with too many people. While it's fair to say that delegating is the key to managing any large operation, it can also increase the likelihood of miscommunication. Too often it ends up being a game of telephone where people are relaying unimportant information and confirming nothing.

Time is money, and when it takes ten different people's approval to move forward on anything, a simple task can turn into a huge obstacle. I also noticed that the further removed a crew member was from the creative heads, the more complacent and lazy they would be about any and every task. Ultimately, I was working for two and a half days on location for about twenty takes of ONE shot. Most of that time was spent trying on different outfits that either no one liked or no one could find someone to sign-off on. I'd seen this sort of thing before on other commercial shoots, so I started analyze further...What does this mean for me?

My limitations become my liberation. The bare-bones crew that I'll be working with on Passing Harold Blumenthal might make some things difficult in that there will be fewer hands. But the way I see it, having fewer hands may help to yield fewer problems. If I only have a First Assistant Director, for instance, then I don't have to worry that what I tell them won't make it's way to the Second AD, and then to the Second Second, and then to the actor waiting to go on set. If I can't afford HUGE lights, I don't have to worry about paying and feeding and communicating with three gaffers. The more gear, the more people. The more people, the more time. The more time, the more money. The more money, the more stress. The more stress, the less room for creativity.

My crew shall be lean and mean. Departments will have delegated responsibilities, but not to the point of redundancy. I'll have all the necessary equipment to do the job, but nothing that might slow us down. Although it is a necessary reality, I don't want to rely on money to solve creative problems. If my recent TV commercial proves anything, it's that no matter how many people or toys you have on-set, the only thing that'll make the product great is the content and the skill with which it's captured and presented. If the creativity can't make it onto film, then it's all for naught.

The filmmaking standard of large budget productions does not help the lone filmmaker. I'd like to discover/develop a new standard of filmmaking for independents. There's got to be a recipe of the essentials that utilize all the necessary departments of a crew, but without clogging the pipes. As I move forward with pre-production, I'll try and look at how my choices made along the way might be more universally applied to other filmmaker's endeavors.