‘The Line”

A Short Film, From 0 to 100

Over the past few years I’ve done some writing in my spare time (little short stories and some short scripts). I always considered it a nice way to stretch out my right brain while straining my left in the technology world. However, I never did anything with them — I was content to let them collect virtual dust in a Word or Final Draft file.

I became inspired to change my pattern after speaking with several people that put out art on a regular basis (an inevitability in the Bay Area). Eventually, I got it in my head that I wanted to bring one of my creations to life.

There was only one problem. I had no idea how to make a film or even where to start. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve watched enough shows and movies over the years to get a decent idea of what a finished product should look like. But I’ve never dug into the process of taking a film idea from paper to screen.

This should be obvious to most, but if you don’t have a background in something, you either plow through and try to learn 8–10 years worth of knowledge, or partner with someone that has that knowledge and have them share in your vision. And not all of us are Elon Musk type savants that have the ability or are willing to cram that knowledge in before diving into the deep end of the pool.

In my case, I got lucky and met a NYU Tisch Film grad through friends. This particularly guy (now a good friend) was hanging out in San Francisco delaying his inevitable trip to Los Angeles to work the Hollywood machine. The first time I met him he was spouting off quotes left and right. Lots of energy. I knew he’d be a great person to team up with. Having someone to keep the wind in your sails when times get tough is very important.

I showed him a script I had written for a short film that I was particularly fond of. He liked it. He suggested we make it. We were off to the races. Quite frankly he was probably excited about the prospect of making a narrative film and not having to work sound boom on a commercial shoot. For some reason San Francisco is a hotbed for ad spots. Maybe the image of the Bay Bridge helps sell more Kias?

As fun as the final products are to watch, they belie the hard work and moving pieces that go into getting a production off the ground. Especially on a shoe string, self-funded budget (my case).

My partner laid it out for me. At a minimum we would need:

  • A Director of Photography
  • A Director
  • An AC (Assistant to the Director of Photography)
  • An AD (Assistant Director)
  • Script Supervisor
  • Costumes Curator
  • Actors

Not to mention equipment like camera, lights, backdrops, etc…

And yes, the majority of these folks need to get paid. Budgeting comes first, of course. He threw out a $4–5K figure. I got a second opinion from my friend at Universal. Yep, $4–5K was a reasonable figure for this kind of production done right.

There’s a reason the Director of Photography appears first on that list. He’s the most important guy on the set for a small film. The Director is important to give the shoot structure and vision, but there are no shots and no movie without a skilled DP. And good DP’s don’t come cheap. As is becoming a theme here, I went to my friends for connections in this department. I was lucky enough to come up with two options:

  1. A USC grad working solo in the Bay Area with a Canon C100 (with all the bells and whistles, including sigma 18–35 lens, canon 50 prime lens, SD cards, follow focus, mattebox, 2 tripods, 1 c-stand, AC gear (lens cloth, compressed air, tools etc.), shoulder mount, 3' slider dolly and portable crane w/ weights)
  2. A friend working at a production company in San Francisco (with access to a Sony F5 camera)

Both guys were great and experienced/talented. I initially had locked in with #1, but when #2 came along and offered the Sony F5 at a discounted rate, it was hard to pass up. The C100 is a great camera, but the F5 is a beast used for professional production. As fate would have it though, the F5 is a finicky beast, and the week before our shoot, the F5 he was planning to borrow broke down. The operator also had another engagement for a higher paying gig during our planned shoot date. This is going to become a theme — always have a backup.

Michael, our Director of Photography, operating the C100 rig.
The Sony F5 Camera

My partner was happy to Direct (having made some films himself while at Tisch), and our DP had his own AC (Assistance Cameraman) and AD (Assistant Director) he brought along. Their team provided their own camera equipment, and we rented lights (Kinos) from Samy’s Camera.

That left one more major group: our Actors.

When writing the script, I didn’t consider that it would be difficult to cast all of the parts. I didn’t consider that it would be difficult to find actors — they grow on trees right?

Just as it’s easier to find Engineers in San Francisco than anywhere else, it’s easier to find Actors in LA. However, there are some tools at your disposal and there are communities of actors in each major metropolitan area. My hope is that there will be more of an acting community in SF that doesn’t revolve around car and mobile app commercials. But for now we deal with what we have.

Casting was an interesting process in and of itself. We didn’t have a studio to hold auditions, and I heard from several people that using your living space/apartment is a great way to creep people out. So we eventually found space at Fort Mason, which we rented for a few days for auditions.

SFCasting worked decently well for us. We reached out to improv troupes and actor community groups as well. Craigslist and friends of friends rounded out our cast. There is still no substitute for recommendations from friends (like in all industries).

Finally, we needed a backdrop for our shoot. For this particular film, we wanted a music venue to serve as a backdrop for our “line”. I contacted every music venue in San Francisco, from The Independent to the Fillmore. About half were asking for deposits well above our budget (some into the $5–10K range for a night of shooting). Some ended up being logistical nightmares due to their positioning by busy streets. Still others were not interested in letting us shoot at all for any price. I even heard from one venue that they would not like the extra exposure a film might give them (go figure).

Luckily, we were able to lock down a venue for a reasonable price: The Factory in SOMA. We originally had planned to shoot outside the venue (giving the illusion of a line waiting to get into a show), but we made a blunder and assumed that a parking lot shielded from the street was a part of The Factory property. During the walk through a week before the shoot, we were told that was not the case. We lucked out when the manager of The Factory let us shoot inside the venue.

The shoot itself was a blast. We invited a bunch of our friends to be extras and wrapped up in about 8 hours. The crew was great, and the AD was awesome at making sure we maintained consistency across shots (and herding our actors and extras into position — not an easy task).

The main logistics problems were behind us after finishing the major shoot. Now all we needed to do was get some pickup shots for an intro and filler material. We set a date for the main character actors and crew to meet us at Clarion Alley to shoot the remaining footage.

There was only one problem. A week before our planned time for the pick up shots, our main character actor shaved his beard (due to a request from his work). More or less we had a situation almost the opposite of the one covered in the film What Just Happened.

In “What Just Happened”, Bruce Willis (playing himself) refuses to shave his beard for a film produced by Robert Deniro’s character Ben.

Continuity is everything in film, and we had no choice but to delay the pickup shots a few weeks until the beard was regrown.

From there, things went smoothly. We were lucky enough to know a friend with a quad-copter/Go-pro 4 set up. It really gave us some awesome aerial shots that rounded things out nicely.

A still from our Quad Copter footage

After assembling the raw footage, we had to think about who could piece it together. I spoke to a few Editors with varying levels of experience, but we ended up going with our DP and AC on the shoot (that had experience with editing themselves). This was ideal because they understood our vision and had the best idea of what shots they had to work with.

Overall, we came in under budget with a product I can be proud of. Now the next steps are to apply to festivals and see what people think. The best part of the experience was meeting a number of great people in the film community in the Bay Area and elsewhere. I also think it was a great foundation to build on for future projects.

Now a Feature next!

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