Last year I became aware of a low budget feature shot in Brighton called ‘Pictures Of Lily’, and so I asked the director, Mark Banks, to share his insights on his debut production… Over to Mark…
Preparation Ache. I don’t think you can over prepare for a shoot – I wouldn’t know though because I was never prepared enough. One of the things about shooting on the streets, as we often did, is that you need a warm place for actors to sit as well as a backup location in case the 1st one just doesn’t work. And, regardless of location, you need a rigid shot list, equipment list, a timed schedule sent beforehand as call sheets, a bossy person with a watch and a plan B for when it all goes tits up. The few days we got this close to right were probably the smoothest of the whole shoot.
Story, script, performances and originality are all more important than what camera you use or how good your film looks. That doesn’t mean that you should make a bad looking film on purpose. Excellence is about paying careful attention to every detail and I’m proud that our film looks lovely (thanks to DP, Ed Christmas). But take a film like 2011′s Another Earth (apparently made for $150, 000 and shot on a Sony EX3) the lighting and camera-work is, at times, patchy and inconsistent and there’s a large amount of digital noise in darker shots (especially on the big screen) yet it’s taken around $2million to date and, more importantly, it’s still a beautiful film – thanks to the story and the performances (see also Kevin Smith’s Clerks for the ultimate bad looking good film).
Audio, audio and audio. I know you’ve all heard this a million times, but bad sound will make someone switch off quicker than a bad image. We shot much of our film on the busy streets of Brighton and I set one of the most important scenes on a windy beach. If I could go back in time to when I wrote that scene I would probably get 2 tuba players to blow hard into my ears until I changed it to a more easily controlled setting. Being forced into ADR on a tender scene is not only very difficult, it’s downright scary, I love that scene and we managed to make it work but don’t make things harder than they need to be: they’ll be hard enough anyway.
Look after your actors. If you want these people to sit around and wait half the day, then bare their soul on cue, you should make them feel as comfortable as possible. My tip is to give them an assistant – a runner or local student who will always check that they have what they need. Actors love it. On our film it was often a person who doubled as make-up, hair and bogey checker.
Rehearse and re-rehearse. On huge-budgeted films, this is an area that is often sacrificed due to time, money or actor’s commitments. But, if you can cast well before production, then this is an area where the low budget film maker can really shine. We rehearsed for 3 months before shooting and I am so glad that we did. There often wasn’t time on the day of filming to go through all the nuances of performance and delivery so it really helped that that these guys, mostly, knew what they were doing. Start with a simple script read through and discuss character with the actors individually; then progress to more in-depth scene by scene analysis – and video it (great for reference and makes a cool DVD extra). If you’re making a character driven piece as we were, then it’s impossible to overstate the importance of performance: you can make your film look as technically perfect as you like but if we don’t believe those people saying those lines you might as well photograph the scenery.
Be cinematic. Having said all of that about photography and cameras being less important than other things, do remember that you’re making a movie – not a TV play. Try and hit upon a style for the piece … something that runs through the whole film. This can be a photographic choice like lenses or movement or it could be an editing one like dissolves, jump cuts or simply bringing the audio from the next scene in over the last few frames of the scene before. Compare Woody Allen’s films Manhattan and Manhattan Murder Mystery: the former being shot on stationary wide lenses allowing the actors to move within the still black and white frame like an old postcard come to life; and the latter being all hand-held shots that follow the performer’s every move and create a sense of urgency and tension.
Be original. When writing Pictures Of Lily, I was concerned that it wouldn’t be commercial enough. If you’re making a film that isn’t action or plot driven, then it had better be different and engaging (even if you are, then it should be). Genre films make money more easily but one that affects you and lingers in the memory is what I will always aim for. Don’t do a good job, make a great film.