PRODUCTION

CAST ’N’ CREW

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As much as you might like to think of yourself as the lone desperado out there shooting away, it’s almost impossible to create anything of lasting value in a vacuum. The people who buy into your graphic hallucination are trusting you to take care of them. It’s not just a legal obligation, but a moral one as well.

There are a lot of shortcuts that can save you time and money. Low-budget moviemaking involves a seemingly endless re-negotiation of your bottom line. Accommodations are invariably made, things are done without, but I’ve yet to meet a successful filmmaker that didn’t take the well-being of his cast and crew very seriously.

I’m not a big fan of clubs, especially when they’re exclusionary. Even so, I recently shot my own movie under full industry/SAG contract, not because I’m a flag-waving union type guy, but because I respect my cast and crew.

Although I often get labeled as “wildly independent” I feel that it is important to point out that I’m a card-carrying member of the International Cinematographer’s Guild (ICG), IA Local 600, Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), the Visual Effects Society (VES), and the Digital Cinema Society (DCS), and signatory to WGA, DGA and SAG. I don’t do it to get work or be a member of a club, I do it for the protections and benefits that it offers my cast and crew.

Making a movie is a hard job, and dangerous too. By working under industry guidelines and regulations, my cast and crew were covered by workman’s comp (insurance), and their retirement funds were paid into.

Now trust me on this, I didn’t pay out any exorbitant salaries, and working with SAG is nearly as hard as making the movie — maybe harder — but the important thing is that my people were protected. Nothing else in the entire production process is that important.

More than anything else — more than resolution, more than budget, more than box office gross — it is your concern for your cast and crew that determines your professionalism.

CREW

So I guess that this is as good a time as ever to bring up the topic of the DGA. Yes, it’s a dinosaur. Yes, it’s exclusionary. Yes, it is expensive to join. I’m sure as an indie filmmaker, the DGA is about the last thing on your mind, but here’s my thinking on this.

As a professional moviemaker you’ve got considerations that the hobbyist doesn’t need to bother themselves with: PROTECTIONS, CONNECTIONS and CLOUT.

As a director on a low-budget film you are in a very vulnerable position. Something goes wrong, you could be paying for it for the rest of your life.

As a professional moviemaker, you’re probably in need of some legal and financial protection as well. While organizations such as the IFP are a tremendous assist in getting your career off the ground, once you’re off and running, the playing field changes rapidly.

Since you’re probably not punching in nine to five at the office, you’ll need a health plan, maybe even a nice little pension plan. No, you aren’t immortal.

With the vast majority of low-budget, independent features, the director is seldom working for a salary. If the movie does well, he’s promised a piece of the action. Cable television and DVD distribution have created a highly profitable distribution channel for independent work, but these are all large corporations that only see the bottom line. You need some way to track the money that is due you and then have enough clout to collect. To do that you’ll need the playground bully on your side.

Contrary to popular belief, the Guild has long been a resource with open doors for the independent moviemaker. Now, with many of the old guard passing on into retirement, the Guild has been forced to reevaluate its position.

The DGA Independent Director’s Committee has sculpted out a unique package of support for the independent that offers the same essential protections enjoyed by the big guys.

The golden days of the film industry are giving way to the pixelated vision of a digital future. Proximity to Hollywood is not a concern; on the contrary, production seems to be making a concerted effort to get as far away as possible. I just think that it’s kind of cool, when the dinosaurs come down to graze with the rest of us cattle.

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ALL YOU NEED IS GAFF

If we were to list the six most important jobs in the order of their importance to the fabrication of a successful motion picture, it would look like this:

#1 – GAFFER

#2 – PRODUCTION MANAGER

#3 – WRITER

#4 – DIRECTOR

#5 – SOUND RECORDIST

#6 – CAMERA OPERATOR

You might find this list a bit odd, especially coming from a person who is a working DP and whose job title isn’t even on the list.

Despite their protestations, most Gaffers would make fairly good directors, and nearly all gaffers are very capable camera operators. That’s all you really need if you’ve got a good script.

If you’re just starting out and really don’t have the resource for a professional crew, please consider pulling in a working gaffer, if only as a consultant. Heck, make ’em a producer or DP or director. It is the one craft that will make the most difference on the screen.

To be a working gaffer you need to understand both the physical and emotional aspects of lighting as well or better than most DPs.

You need to understand blocking better than most directors and you need to have an almost photographic memory with respect to continuity. There simply is no more important job in the actual production process outside of gathering the money to make the movie.

The cast and crew is the true equity of a production. They are the woof and warp of the tapestry you’ve spun. The degree to which you coordinate their efforts and protect their interests is the cornerstone of your professionalism. So try to limit the number of hats you wear and look for people who are passionate about developing their craft.