A Perspective from Within

I’d thought I’d take the time to not review a movie.

“Why’s that,” you ask? As a critic myself, I love to review movies and tell others what I think of them. But my criticisms come mainly from my experience in the film industry itself, which makes my view different from most other’s even if only slightly. A viewer will watch a movie and think “Oh, this movie was good,” or “I just hated this movie.” I, on the other hand, see every film ever made as a result of a miracle. It staggers the mind how so many people can agree on a project, produce said project, then release that project to a number of people. (It’s even more staggering if it’s a bad movie with a poor premise.)

This isn’t to say that every film ever made is a good one. Terrible miracles have been projected on apartment-sized white walls and witnessed by thousands, if not millions. But at the same time it’s astonishing that it was accomplished at all in the first place, and that the movie made enough money to keep the studios and filmmakers in business.

On that premise, I thought I’d finally write about my experiences in film and television, a lot of it involving my current project. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna gush over how wonderful my project is and how much better than it the stuff  in Hollywood right now. (Though it totally is.) Most of the exciting details about my current project will be listed here, here, and here, (totally not shameless plugs, but stay tuned to the sites for more updates) while I’ll use this particular series of updates as more of an inside look at the industry itself based upon my experiences in the industry. We’ll go through each step of the film process and see how it’s done by professionals in the industry and how it shapes what we see in the finished project.

So let’s begin, shall we?

Pre-Production, Part 1

I’m gonna be honest: I’ve never been involved in the pre-production of a project outside my own on anything other than a yoga video aimed at middle-school kids. I was also involved in production and post-production of said yoga video. I think it was released on DVD as a series of videos as a part of some health curriculum sold to some school programs, I dunno. And basically, I just looked at the script and said “Okay, I can shoot this.” After all, t was only an instructional video about yoga. What do I know about yoga? Certainly not anywhere near as much as the original script writer.

There was one other instance where I sat in on a pre-production meeting, where everyone was basically pitching designs for a logo to a new TV pilot for a dance competition. Sure, I can draw and design logos along with the rest of these creative pros, but my focus was getting on the set and doing camera work. So that’s where I kept my focus. Other’s tossed some ideas around, one of them was accepted after a revision, and I went on to being the A camera operator for the dance auditions, then working my way up to one of the editors of the live video feed for the demo tape. (It all changed for me that day over a Taco Bell meal. No, seriously.) I got to see every shot all at once and have some sort of freedom as to what shot I should switch to next if the producers or director didn’t have any input at that very nano-second.

I’m not gonna bore you with too many examples from those two projects, since I had littel to do with pre-production on those projects. But I can tell you that I’ve been on a production where the pre-production was rushed in some way, and we felt its effects during an 18-week shooting schedule. (The names will be changed to protect the innocent.)

I was hired rather quickly to work on a set shooting behind-the-scenes footage for a feature-length film. It’s a very delicate process. Too many cameras, and you’re obstructing everyone else from doing their jobs. Too little, and you don’t have enough footage of people doing their jobs.

It was discussed that’d I’d come in a shoot some video of a pre-production meeting that would focused on… something. I was never told exactly what. It ultimately didn’t matter because they never actually scheduled a time for me to visit during the meetings.

See, there are hundreds of things you have to consider when in pre-production. There are locations, schedules, actors, crew, food, lodging, fitting all that into a budget, then a script and maybe some storyboards.

In fact, a script and storyboards are one of the last things considered in the pre-production of a low-budget film. Basically, pre-production for a low-budget project is full of meetings where people are wondering if they even CAN shoot a movie. After they take as many variables into consideration as they can and decide “yes,” what little time they have in pre-production is spent on a script and some storyboards. This is different in big-budget spectaculars, where most of pre-production is spent deciding how many characters are going to fight a special effect or turn into special effects themselves at some point in the film.

This image shows in millions how much money the Hulks were made of!

Sure, the inspiration and even a rough-draft of the script for a low-budget film begins before any pre-production meeting, but everything in pre-production is decided around that basic idea. After the parameters of budget has been set, the script begins further development. Ideally, there might even be a few re-writes for the script as the budget is taking shape.

On top of all that pesky planning for production that takes place, there also needs to be planning for post-production, which includes editing, musical score, special effects, promotional advertisements, marketing, and distribution of the film. If none of that is decided during pre-production, then there really is no solid plan that can develop healthily into a “movie.”

I was working for a production studio that fancied itself as a production studio, AND ONLY A PRODUCTION STUDIO. There was no forethought of editing deadlines and distribution. The marketing of the film (we’ll call it “Passionate Movie Syndrome,” or “PMS” for short) proved that it was an afterthought of reaching the second-to-last edit of the finished project. In fact, they were still editing the feature film they shot last year as they were shooting their current film. Both films they tossed onto one lonely editor, who was also working as his own assistant editor, logging the shots and sound clips from PMS during its production as he was rushing to finish editing last year’s project. The poor guy was a friend of mine from film school, and he often confided in me that he had absolutely no clue what was happening with last year’s project or how long it would take before he was finished with his part in it.

This was the environment I was unwittingly stepping into. And I wasn’t stepping into any pre-production meeting with a camera because, instead of being brought onto the project mid-way through to at least film the last few portions of pre-production, I was being brought on as an after-thought of the producer, who thought it was simply a “cool idea” to have someone videotaping his every move. In fact, the previous project they were shooting had the a fore mentioned movie editor shooting behind the scenes footage instead of logging video and sound like someone else should have been hired to do in the first place. This is probably what lead to the producer deciding to hire someone like me to videotape his every move during PMS, instead of hiring someone to log footage from PMS while the editor took care of the previous production. Though ideal, it probably wouldn’t be planned that way anyway since the investors for PMS wouldn’t want their money going to someone working on the last film they hadn’t finished yet. So really, the troubles we had on the set of PMS were in part due to the horrible planning that went into the previous film.

The clumsy pre-production took another toll on production when the producer realized too late that he did not have shooting permits for all of his locations, and that some of them weren’t even safe to step into. And by too late I mean that we were already stepping into these locations. The entire film crew moved over to a large grocery store to shoot a scene in the film when the store manager came out and told us to get off of his property. The director was shocked, as he was informed earlier by his producer that he had clearance to shoot at the store that day. Assistant directors began checking clipboards and pulled out binders full of papers, trying to see if there was some sort of written document that stated we could be there at that day and at that time. Nothing. The director was forced to move his production elsewhere

No one from either of those two projects were hired back for the third feature film by this production company. The producer seemed to have blamed everything from those two projects on everyone else and found himself some new friends.

The experience I had during the production of PMS gave me a new appreciation for pre-production as I head into my current project. We’ve taken months planning what we could afford to do and how quickly we could do it.  We’ve decided upon allowing for only a maximum of three locations for all of the first three episodes of my new project, Phyre Rusty Jazz, and are trying to reach a goal of $4,500 to produce these episodes. This way I can film three episodes in just three days and pay to feed, costume, and make happy my cast. (Now we just now need to make the scripts mirror those decisions. Production starts Sept. 28th!)

Next week I’ll get into the actual writing part of pre-production and how it also effects production.

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About Stefan D. Byerley
Stefan D. Byerley is an independent filmmaker and freelance visual artist currently residing in North Carolina. He likes detailed storytelling, intriguing imagery, massive bloody violence, crying at the movies, and long walks in the park during the Autumn season.

One Response to A Perspective from Within

  1. Adam DiPiazza says:

    Ugh. I hate pre-production. The pre-production on the movie I just shot was hell.

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