|Tom Dicillo's Parody of low-budget filmmaking, Living In Oblivion|
If you're a regular watcher of independent cinema, you've probably experienced them: the glaring errors, the awkward glitches, and the low-budget blunders that characterize a film as, in the worst sense of the word, independent. When they make their awkward appearance on the screen, we roll our eyes heavenward, struggling to understand how filmmakers could let such monstrous gaffes slip under the radar.
While studios can underwrite lengthy reshoots, artful editing, and enough F/X explosions to distract an audience from almost anything, indie filmmakers are often forced to cross their fingers and hope no one notices the boom in the shot, the hole in the plot, or the day the lead actress was having an allergic reaction to her cough suppressant. And while some flubs can actually lend a low-budget charm to the film, others are serious enough to send viewers streaming out of the theater. For beginning low-budget filmmakers, the trick is knowing which indie cliches are merely annoying and which are truly deadly.
"Technical flaws in the picture don't bother me as much, whether the film is grainy or dark, but I think people don't put enough thought into their sound" says Diana Williams, producer of the documentary Another First Step. "If the sound sucks the uninformed person will attribute that to the actual quality of the filmmaking."
The informed viewer will also have a reason to condemn the film -- especially when it comes to coughing up distribution dollars. "The absolute benchmark of a cheap film, and the reason a lot of them don't get distribution, is because they have such terrible, lousy sound," explains Doug Blush, the producer and director of the nationwide film and video showcase TV Babies. "It really will shoot down an independent production because you have to spend so much money to fix it."
Strong sound is especially important for filmmakers traveling the festival circuit. "There's no guarantee you'll screen in a studio theater," says Williams. "A lot of festivals have screening in gymnasiums, for example. So if you're coming in with bad sound and then screening in a theater that may not have great sound, you've got two counts against you."
One reason for bad location recording cited by sound editors is that inexperienced producers have a tendency to hire novices for important sound work. "Often you have someone who's just learning as the boom operator," says Steve Hamilton, president of Spin Cycle Post and as well as an editor and supervising sound editor for such films as Hal Hartley's Amateur and upcoming Henry Fool. "People don't think about sound until the last minute -- the image is afforded much more importance," he continues. "The best-sounding films are [the ones in which] the producer cared enough to get the D.P. and sound department rehearsing ahead of time."
Low-budget locations can prove to be problematic sound-wise; often locations are chosen because they're cheap and without a thought given to background noise. Hamilton advises, "The director should be designing all his shots to get good audio. Sometimes a great-looking location is just too noisy to mike well." Short schedules also contribute to poor sound. When there's a problem, inevitably someone in production will say, "We'll just loop it later." However, low-budget productions unable to afford a lengthy mix with a top-notch mixer may discover that cheaply recorded and hastily mixed ADR sounds just as bad as a muddy location track.
Sound problems not anticipated and corrected in production end up costing the filmmakers a lot of money in post. The filmmaker ends up relying on the post process to correct for conditions such as improper sample rates, no pulldown, using video speed instead of film speed, improperly referencing decks so that there end up being drifts, and times codes that are off. "The computer age can save you money," says Hamilton, "but only if you plan ahead. [Before you start shooting] you should know who's doing your audio post, get their specs, determine the most effective way to sync dailies, decide whether you'll use simuldats or have someone else provide you with flexfiles."
Booms that make it into the final print are often the first sign of a limited budget. Because the 35mm film exposed inside the camera contains a frame significantly larger than both the 1.85 aspect ratio picture that usually shows in theaters and the taller picture that plays on TV, the boom will appear within the D.P.'s eyepiece, but it shouldn't dip below the frameline. On complicated dolly moves or scenes in which actors stand up and move around, this can be harder than it sounds. The boom gets in the shot when, as location mixer Brian Miksis (Gummo, Two Girls and a Guy, Buffalo 66, Wide Awake) says, "The boom operator thought he knew the boundaries but didn't; the camera operator should have noticed but didn't...."
And, as Williams adds, "Not only don't independent filmmakers have the resources to shoot again, but a lot of first-time indie filmmakers don't use video monitors. They may not even be getting dailies, so they don't see the mistakes until they're in post."
Almost as common as the boom in the shot is the boom shadow in the shot. Boom shadows are often a result of limitations in the lighting package. Cheaper packages often contain smaller instruments with harsher light sources which create harder, more visible shadows. And of course, raising the boom higher in the frame to keep a shadow from falling means sacrificing sound quality. Lack of communication on set is also often responsible. "The better the relationship the sound department has with the D.P. and the lighting people, the better the film will be," Miksis explains. "It's important that everyone knows what the other departments' needs and limitations are. Too often, however, you'll have a D.P. who works very quickly and isn't sound-friendly, who doesn't communicate or doesn't even know what the frame is. Or you'll find a lighting department that isn't keeping sound and shadows in mind. Sloppy communication leads to sloppy errors."
You've Got to Focus
A sharply focused picture would seem to be the minimum requirement of any motion picture. That said, it's surprising how many films -- mostly independent but also a startlingly high number of studio releases -- contain soft and sometimes out of focus scenes.
Inexperienced focus pullers, combined with D.P.s working with extremely shallow depth of fields, are the main reasons scenes go soft. Also, many indie filmmakers, especially those who cut on video, opt to forgo workprinting because it's an extra expense. "In cases where the filmmaker doesn't print right away, there are shots out of focus that get into the film if the performance is good," notes Hamilton. The video transfer process often tightens up a shot or corrects exposure problems, making it impossible to determine how soft, light, or dark a shot is until it's finally printed on film. When the first answer print arrives, "filmmakers are often so wedded to the performance that they'll let mistakes slide for the sake of keeping the take."
While an occasional soft shot isn't a tragedy, an inappropriate soundtrack, even on the festival circuit, is. Mentioned repeatedly as a pet peeve by everyone from producers to screenwriters to grips, a jarring tune or cheesy score can irretrievably taint a viewer's perception of the entire film.
"Lounge-lizard-type music, even though I like that kind of music, is the cliche of independent films," explains Drew Ann Rosenberg, the director of the feature The Dog People. Besides investing the film with a perhaps unwanted ironic sensibility, a familiar or over-amped soundtrack can simply distract. And overuse of expensive source cues may work for films like Forrest Gump but are distracting when used in low-budget indies. One of the most difficult problems for a new filmmaker is the temporary soundtrack that grows to be "perfect." "A lot of first-time directors get very attached to their temp tracks and this is dangerous," says composer Christopher Lennertz, who recently scored Battle of the Sexes. "Inevitably the songs will be well beyond the scope of the budget, so their next recourse is to ask the composer to copy it. You end up with a weak imitation rather than allowing the composer to come up with something fresh and innovative." Lennertz says that another habit is to not even consider scoring. "A lot of directors will use the Quentin Tarantino route -- instead of taking advantage of the emotional richness and impact that a score can add, they try to use songs, many of which just won't work as well."
Yet another scoring error is putting it off. "Scoring comes last, usually just after the budget has been all used up," says Lennertz. "Instead of waiting, hire your composer before you start shooting. Find out how much it will cost and how long it will take. Then you'll know to reserve that in the budget." Lennertz adds, "It's amazing what a well-crafted score can bring back to a film."
Thanks to the trendiness of handheld camera-work, most filmmakers assume they have some leeway when it comes to cinematography. "Fashion aside, it's probably a good idea to spring for a tripod. I've seen some incredibly bad camerawork, and I feel sometimes it's done on purpose, like handheld stuff that makes you want to vomit," complains Rosenberg. And Blush comments, "Handheld is a big staple. It's like, 'My film is very cinema verite,' when you know that the filmmaker couldn't afford a tripod. It's all about motivation. Is there a reason why this film has lots of shaky cinematography? If so, great, but if not, you've got to make the time to lock your shot down. Not everything can be justified as art."
So how do you get good handheld camerawork? According to Nick Gomez, director of the upcoming illtown as well as Laws of Gravity, the film that boasts perhaps the best use of handheld camerawork in recent years (and which may be responsible for the technique's continued popularity), the key is getting the right cinematographer. Gomez explains: "I knew that Laws of Gravity would be handheld, so I put out the word that I needed a good handheld D.P. Jean de Segonzac's name kept coming up. While he didn't have a lot of dramatic experience he did have experience in documentary filmmaking."
Gomez notes that there's a common misapprehension regarding the skills to shoot handheld. "D.P.s are very macho about handheld cinematography -- they all want to put the cameras on their shoulders and prove that they can do it. But some can't. It takes a special kind of skill, and either you have that sense of composition and grace or you don't."
On a film constrained by budget, fancy camerawork should be of secondary concern; usually it's difficult enough to provide adequate footage. The indie director who avoids coverage -- multiple camera setups covering the same action from different positions and with different kinds of shots -- risks cutting off his nose to spite his face. Too many directors decide to shoot just masters, considering it a stylistic choice. Dody Dorn, film editor of Kirby Dick's Sick, explains, "With one of the films I'm now working on, it's all shot in masters -- and sometimes with only a single take -- so what can I do? There are huge story holes I can't fill." With a little bit of coverage, editors can better performances, fix narrative gaffes, and improve pacing, yet many first-time filmmakers are unable to anticipate their editing needs while on the set.
Without adequate coverage, editors are often left with few options; budget permitting, the editor can hand the director a long list of insert shots or resort to using stock footage, which won't always work. Plus, as Dorn cautions, stock footage is very expensive: "If you're relying heavily on [stock footage], you're already offsetting any savings of not shooting it in the first place." Dorn recommends bringing the editor on early to discuss the shot list, especially if there's a low shooting ratio. There are many issues an editor, working with the director and D.P., can resolve before the shooting starts. "Anyone using a master-shot style, with long tracking shots and what not, is wise to back it up with additional coverage," Dorn affirms.
Continuity mistakes are another production problem editors are commonly called upon to remedy. Kate Williams, who edited Trees Lounge and The Myth of Fingerprints, laughs, "One of the most difficult problems to fix is missing the shot that gets the actors from one end of the room to the other." "[This isn't to say] continuity mistakes aren't in big budgets too," Dorn adds, "but without coverage they are really hard to cover up." One editing trick is cutting from frame during action so the eye is distracted by movement and won't notice a gaffe.
A few of the other common low-budget, first-timer gaffes don't require inborn talent and can thus be more easily remedied. Blush lists a few: "If you watch carefully, sometimes you'll see the reflection of the crew in a close-up of a car, or you'll see a lightstand or a cable trailing off into the void." The reflection of the camera and crew off of glass can be avoided. "Using polarizing filters can lessen the reflections," says cinematographer Stephen Berkman. "Or you can try to black out the camera. It depends on how much of the window and the reflection you want versus what's on the other side of the window."
D.P. Patrick Keating notes that shifting the angle of your shot might also work, as does making sure that the subject being photographed is brighter than the light around the camera.
Inappropriate set design is another indie staple. "Some cliches work for characters, but there's often another way to create a character without sticking to a cliche," explains set decorator Susan Benjamin, whose credits include The Stand. "For instance, you can have a nice bohemian pad without jalapeno lights." Capturing the boho essence is often tricky, yet its importance cannot be underestimated -- a false note can raise eyebrows in a style-conscious indie crowd. But there can be too much of a good thing. "I think there's a tendency to make everything look like the East Village in New York. Everything has to have this avant-garde feel to it," says Rosenberg.
White walls are a commonly cited critique of low-budget production design. "They just look bad," comments production designer Susan Block (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Goosed). "Darker walls show off the skin tones of your characters. And it's easier to light when you don't have to keep the lights away from the walls. When lights hit the white paint, the wall looks flat," she explains. Block says that she often will use thin wood covered with wallpaper as a way to cover walls that can't be painted. "Or I'll put up foamcore covered with fabric. Then you don't have to spend the time restoring the wall when you're finished."
Indie filmmakers are just as capable as their studio brethren of casting cliches. "I'm getting a little tired of seeing all the same familiar old faces in independent films" says Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson. "Some actors are just getting known as independent film actors, and it's just like seeing a big name actor in the same old role." Comments UCLA screenwriting instructor Frank Deese, "People go to movies to see stars because they're getting the same familiar persona from movie to movie, and that's not what you want in a good independent film."
While many of these cliches are ones that are only discovered after the camera is already rolling, there is at least one that can, if caught in time, be fixed before anyone's on the payroll. Michelle Satter, director of the Sundance Institute's feature film program, comments, "Scripts don't necessarily need to be plot-driven, but they need to be well-structured. Many independent films are personal or autobiographical, and this leads writers to make assumptions about their characters. The writer knows him or herself well, but may not know how to develop that character onscreen. There's a loss of clarity."
For Satter, however, the chief error she encounters in indie scripts is a lack of focus. "The writer often hasn't come to terms with what the story is about, and this contributes to basic structural problems in storytelling."
Often the scripts aren't gold -- and filmmakers look for other hooks to lure distributors. "There are a lot of art films that feature nudity that tries to apologize for itself," says Blush. "Usually it's not necessarily erotic nudity, it's the nudity of somebody who's being horribly abused or the nudity of someone who is trapped in a difficult situation." Post-Tarantino excessive violence has become an indie staple and not always to great effect. "I'm not against an ear getting lopped off if it's done for a reason, but there seems to be a need in independent films for some especially gory, violent thing that pushes it into another realm," says Blush. Screenwriter Rick Dahl agrees. "You need to find the thing that's unique in your story," he says. "A lot of times people end up imitating other films, or they use the same kinds of references that seem currently hip. Right now it's '70s pop culture and sudden violence. But you know when people are trying too hard to be hip or wacky. It doesn't work."
While the studio system may frequently churn out tired material, it usually conforms to the tried-and-true three-act structure -- a device that more indie filmmakers may want to look into according to Deese. "Another cliche would be a lack of resolution -- abrupt endings. I tend to jump a little when the credits roll on an independent movie. It's over already? That was the ending?" says Deese. "I don't want a message, but the movie needs to be complete unto itself in some way. Some filmmakers don't think they have to follow the rules of dramatic structure because artists don't follow the rules."
Of course, there are films that break every one of these rules and succeed because of, not in spite of, their disobedience. The great film auteurs do break the rules, but they break them brilliantly. "All the hacks break them horribly," says Deese. Fledgling filmmakers plagued by memories of chili-pepper lights and shopping-cart dolly shots can comfort themselves by placing themselves in the former category -- and perhaps next time learn from their mistakes.
Liane Bonin is a freelance journalist and filmmaker living in Los Angeles.