the journey of a first-time filmmaker through the eyes of a software engineer — part 1 — pre-production

I, like most of the actors in Los Angeles, have a day job that pays my bills. I am a self-taught software engineer. So far I’ve met only two other people who are like me; so, yes there are few of us but we definitely exist. Last fall, I decided to make a movie and this summer I completed work on two short films. I have no traditional education in filmmaking, but I learn by doing. In the past several years, I worked with many startups and I realized that making an indie film on a shoe-string budget is a lot like building a startup. Speaking of budgets, I financed both of the movies on my own. I quit my full-time job as a software engineer last October and switched to freelancing.

The are a few reasons as to why I decided to make shorts and not features. First, since I have never made a movie before, I only acted in them, it was much easier to wrap my head around making a short than a feature. Second, a short film is like an MVP. It gave me a chance to see if there is a potential for a feature or if I need to scrap it all together and get back to the drawing board. Lastly, it is usually cheaper to make a short than a feature.

Final rehearsal for “Aloneness”

I wrote the screenplay for “Aloneness” in the fall of last year and we were in a pre-production mode until March of this year. With “Collage”, my second short, it was much faster. I wrote the screenplay in May and we started production on July 1st. The main difference in the timelines was the scale of production. “Aloneness” required a bigger crew and multiple locations; “Collage” was much smaller and simpler. My friend Noel Olken, who has experience in production helped me produce “Aloneness”. “Collage” I produced on my own. A producer is like a CEO and a founder of a startup. A producer oversees the process of pre-production, production, post-production, marketing, distribution; he or she is there from the beginning until the end.

Pre-production meeting for “Aloneness” with Co-Producer, Noel Olken and Director of Photography, Bill Coleman III

During the pre-production, we had to find crew, cast actors, secure locations, find equipment. This is also the time when the director, me in this case, has to create a shot list and a storyboard and go over them with the director of photography. This is a roadmap for what and how we are going to shoot once we get on set.

Supplies for the pre-production meetings

Pre-production in my view is the most critical part of the moviemaking. It is similar to architecting an app from the beginning vs building it from the drawings on paper napkins and waiting for poor decisions to bite you in the ass. I worked with those startups and it is not fun.

I had no budget for a location of one of the scenes. After searching for four months, we found a pizza place that gave us the feel I was looking for. I had to rewrite the scene that originally took place at a burger joint. A week before we were supposed to start the shoot, the owner of the pizza joint disappeared and stopped returning my calls and emails. Imagine if the week before the public release of your app, the Apple store tells you that your app didn’t pass their requirements. By a pure miracle, a couple of days before the shoot, my producer found a coffee shop that allowed us to shoot there for free. The place was perfect.

The pre-production process for “Collage” was easier because I had to learn to be patient, flexible and open to change. I also had more money. I had a few good projects that I closed.

Writing the screenplay for “Collage” while on a trip to San Francisco, CA

As a developer who works remotely and loves the solitude, working with crew and cast was the hardest thing for me. There are days where I do not speak to a single human being unless I buy myself a cup of coffee. As a producer and a director on these two shorts, it was my job to deal with the conflicts and do my best to ensure that my team enjoyed working on these movies. Computers do not have feelings.

In my next post, I will talk about the production of “Aloneness” and “Collage” and what happens on set when the camera stops rolling…