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Uncle Al’s No-Budget Filmmaking Primer

In film on July 17, 2010 at 7:13 pm

No-Budget Filmmaking Primer
by Al “Uncle Al” Bouchard

As excerpted from “Uncle Al’s Midnight Movie Mania”,
the blog at

Part 1: Visual Eyes

Since this (talking about film/video/photography/other visual arts) is the purpose for which I started this blog, let’s begin, shall we?
Starting from the beginning…
A spinning ball of hot material began to slowly cool, throwing off lighter elements as it slowed its spin… [Nope. Too far back.]
Let us assume, for the moment, that you’ve got a camera. You’ve read the manual, several times, and have shot enough with it to be comfortable with it.
You want to make a movie.
Okay, so now what? With a $100 camera from Big Buy, or whatever, you’re not going to be shooting 2001: A Space Odyssey, or even 201: A Spaced Oddity. {Well, maybe… Aaah, not.}
You can, however, shoot something you can be proud of. “How so?” you may ask.
Follow the Five P’s.
Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance.
Yes, for those of you who were in the service, it’s one of those little mnemonics they drill into you so you don’t forget something critical, and screw up yourself and your buddies. That doesn’t mean it has no value; on the contrary, it’s an important part of your toolkit, as much so as C-47 Media Attachment Clips (wooden spring clothespins, to civilians) and Gaffer’s Tape.
Preplanning has the value of preparing you for the unexpected… which, despite public relations puffery, happens all too often, and all too easily.
Now, to the stages of making a movie. There are four main stages, in order:


We’ll discuss them in order, in the next four installments of the blog. For now, just remember this lesson from the collected wisdom of no-budget moviemakers: “The camera doesn’t lie… but watch out for the cameraman!”

Part 2: Pre-Planning Your Pre-Production

All right, you’re ready to begin.
You need a story. Since this would be your first attempt, a small story will do. (Remember, War and Peace this ain’t.) Let’s use, as an example, a simple story.
Geeky looking man walks up to pretty girl crying on a bus bench. He asks what’s wrong, and she says her dog was stolen.
Geeky looking man ducks into nearby phone booth; with a flash of light, he becomes GeekyHero. GeekyHero dashes off at super speed to find the dog.
A disreputable-looking character sits nearby holding a dog. GeekyHero sails in, coldcocks the disreputable looking man, and takes the dog.
Back at the bus bench, GeekyHero hands the dog to the girl, expecting to be made much of for his heroics. She looks at him and says, “This isn’t my dog.”
GeekyHero faints.
See? That wasn’t so hard… which is why I shot this one myself about thirty years ago. (The footage is still around here somewhere…)
I was going to say “for the moment, we won’t bother with proper script format”; but if I do that, then you might get into bad habits that would take much more time and effort to break, and replace with the right ones. So we’ll give you the right habits now.
Since I’m assuming you are impecunious student types, or maybe just cheap (like me), there are places where you can get free script formatting software. I’m putting in a partial list here;
places like ScriptNurse Screenwriting Site [], Celtx Production Software [], Cinergy Script Editor [], Page2Stage Screenwriting Software [], and The DV Cafe – Free Downloads for Filmmakers [] have downloads you can get. And if you Google™ “screenwriting”, you’ll get an absolute overload of sites to search. (Great time wasters.)
So, once you have your script in proper format, you have to do what they call a “breakdown”.
(And, no, you aren’t having an impairment of mental function, nor are you having mechanical problems. This refers to listing all the cast and elements [costumes, props, locations, special effects, special make up, and the like] that you need to shoot this epic.)
This is an approximate breakdown of what you’d need:
Scene One – girl on bus bench crying, and geek asks about it.
Scene Two – Geek turns into GeekyHero, and runs off.
Scene Three – Disreputable-looking man has a dog; GeekyHero punches him out, takes dog.
Scene Four – GeekyHero hands dog to girl; she says “Not my dog”; he faints.
Cast Members: Girl, Geek, Disreputable Looking Man (DLM).
Costuming: GeekyHero Costume (in addition to regular clothing).
Props: Dog, Handkerchief/tissues (depending on the preference of the actress).
Locations: Bus Bench, Phone Booth, another location where DLM sits.

The next part of preproduction is figuring out how many pages of script are shot per scene. (This is a lot more important for a 120-page script than a 12-page one… )
If you have your script to the point where it’s done, and you don’t expect to make any more major changes, it becomes “locked”. Any further changes are done on what are called “revision pages”, which are printed on a different color paper and added to the copy of the script. Say Scene Four is on Page Four, and is revised to run onto a new page; the new page is not numbered Five, as you might expect, since the stuff that’s already on Page Five stays there; the new page is Four-A. Additionally, if a scene is deleted, a notation with the scene number is put into the script to keep the scene numbers constant and consistent.
Confused yet?
Anyway, pages are measured in eighths. Half a page is not half a page, it’s “four eighths”. The script supervisor (if you have one) is supposed to keep tabs on how many scenes are shot, how many eighths each scene runs, how many takes were done, and which take the director thinks is a keeper.
By the way, you’ll probably be doing this all on your own, since this is a simple project.
You need to find a location where you’ll be shooting, cast the actors, which in this case might not be too difficult if you have enough friends, get the dog, costume, and camera, film, tripod (DON’T FORGET THE TRIPOD!) and batteries, and set up when you’ll be doing it.
A few other things to consider, while we’re talking about pre-production…
Will you be paying your actors anything? Will you be feeding them?
(Tip: If you’re not paying them, feeding them is a really good idea;
they might want to work with you again if you do.)
Will you be supplying the transportation?
(Do you really want to have three actors and the dog in your car with all your stuff?
On the other hand, if you don’t put them in your car, will they be able to get there?)
There are a lot of things to think about.
Well, we’re now progressing to the Production phase; that’s the next section of this article. Until then, be happy… it could get worse.

Part 3: Results of Productions

Okay, then… Last time, you had your script, your cast, your breakdowns, your equipment setup, and your locations.
With all this done, what’s left but to stick your actors in front of the camera and shoot?
[Do I disillusion you now, or wait until later? Aaah, better you know now…]
There’s a very old saying that goes, “There’s many a slip / Twixt the cup and the lip”;
the reason some of these sayings get to be very old is because they’re very often true.
You could have planned everything to be shot in bright, sunny weather, and the forecast is for exactly what you want…
but a rogue storm cell could dump rain all over your location during the entire time your actors are available.
You could be setting up to shoot, and a police cruiser could roll up, take a look, and ask for your permit.
Which you don’t have, since you didn’t think you’d need one. Which you try to explain to the nice officer.
You could conceivably be making your “one phone call” from the local police station.
Or, depending on the whims of the officer in question (and they can be quite whimsical, believe me),
he could confiscate your equipment and issue you a citation to appear in court to show cause why you should get them back.
Your leading lady could be having her period. Your leading man could be dealing with a case of near-terminal acne.
The dog could be suffering from worms, and dumping mounds of malodorous manure at the slightest provocation.
[My, didn’t that roll trippingly off the tongue? Occasionally, I come up with some alliteration that astonishes even me.]
[And no, that isn’t always hard.]
Now I don’t bring up these nightmare scenarios to stop you from making a film; on the contrary, I just want to prepare you
for situations that could happen, so you’ll be prepared to deal with them as best you may.
For a short film like the one we’ve outlined in the previous instance of this conversation, chances are that none of the things
I’ve described above will happen.
But they could.
But, for the moment, let us assume that everything goes superlatively well, and you’ve completed all your shots just as you planned them.
You feed, thank (and possibly pay) your actors, take your footage, and go home.
Onward to POST PRODUCTION… which is next time, unless I come up with some interesting sidelights about production to add first.
We’ll see what develops.

Part 4: Additional Production Credits By…

Okay, then, I may have rattled some of you with last entry’s recountings of problems involved in production… especially
with one as fast and short as what we had in the sample script.
Understand, things like that can and do happen… but there’s no saying it will happen.
Now, on to some things I didn’t discuss last time…
On a larger crew, the director (you) usually tells the cameraman (you) where to put the camera, and how he wants the action “framed”(positioned in the picture).
The gaffer (you) rigs the lighting (sun) to best effect for the picture, helped by the key grip (you) and his chief assistant,
the best boy (also you).
The sound recordist (you) places the boom operator (sometimes you) to get the best sound in the external microphone
while keeping it out of frame. The assistant director (you) gets the actors to their marks for perhaps one, and maybe more,
rehearsals, at the whim of the director. (A point to note: Some directors can be very whimsical; this is not necessarily a Good Thing.)
When all the technical side is prepared, the director will call “Camera,” at which point the cameraman will start rolling. The sound recordist
will report if they have sound, and the director will call “Action.” The actors will go through the scene, and the director will call “Cut” when the
scene is over. After checking with the technical side, to see if they have any objections, the director will either accept the take (“Print”, coming from the old days of making a print of the good takes to show later)
or reject it, and repeat the procedure above.
Sounds really dull, doesn’t it?
Well, it can be… except when your nerves are on edge because you’re doing an effects shot that is not repeatable. (You have two cantalopes to stand in for an actor’s head being run over by a car tire; using the actual actor is not an option.)
For something as short as our sample script, it could probably be shot “in sequence”; that is, filmed in the order you see it on screen.
For larger productions, with many locations, costume changes, and other logistical issues to consider, scheduling is usually done to shoot all scenes
in a particular location at one time, then all scenes at another location… Tearing down a setup and moving it to another location can be time
consuming, so the most efficient utilization of time and personnel is used. This is the job of the Production Department (usually you).
There are shareware programs to help you; I use a few myself.
The theories behind lighting for mood and effect are something I’ll go into another time, just as I’ll explain (one of these days) camera angles, “Dutch tilts”,
and the 180 Degree Line, among other things.
For now, let’s just take our footage, get back, and GET READY TO RRRRRUMBLE!!…

Part 5: Don’t Worry, We’ll Save You In Post…

Well, everything’s shot, and you now want to edit it.
First thing you’ll need to do is get your footage onto your computer to edit.
“On the computer?” you may ask. Yes, on the computer.
Modern computers have enough power to edit, render, and add special effects to footage that would make mainstream
filmmakers from even ten years ago drop their jaws in wonder. What used to take a Cray Supercomputer now can be done with something you can
pick up at Best Buy or Circuit City.
And NLE software – the sanctified “Non-Linear Editing” of a few years back – can be yours for a few hundred bucks instead of the
five figures you used to need to buy an Avid system.
Of course, it’s what you do with it that counts, and that’s what I’m going to tell you about here.
The most common way to get footage shot on digital camcorders onto a computer is by using a FireWire cable – also known as IEEE 1394 cable,
or iLink. Most editing software has provisions for controlling an attached camera by the cable, rewinding it, playing and capturing the footage
on the computer’s hard drive, and stopping the camera when either the tape is finished or the footage ends with nothing after it.
Most analog camcorders, while lacking the FireWire output, can send the audio and video messages through the A/V outputs (the RCA plugs like on a stereo system or a VCR). If you hook up your analog camcorder to the audio and video “in” jacks on your VCR, you’ll record a straight “dump” of what’s on the camcorder. Great for home movies, or those vacation pictures of Junior getting dive-bombed by the seagull flock, but not too useful for editing.
There are attachments you can buy in your local computer store (again, Best Buy, Circuit City, Fry’s, Micro Center, CompUSA, or whatever), that can hook up your analog camcorder’s A/V jacks to your computer, digitizing the footage. I have one, an older model from Dazzle (bought by Pinnacle Systems, which was swallowed by Avid). This hooks up to a USB (Universal Serial Bus, a newer-fangled way of getting information in and out of computers) port, and the footage is digitized and stored on the computer.
There are also other ways… many are much more complicated, and if you can get them to work reliably, me ‘at’s off to yer, mate.
So… the footage is now on your computer, ready to edit. (However it got there.)
First, you probably want opening titles. (It’s the traditional thing, you know.) Most software applications have what they call a “Titler”.
You select the color you want, the background (if any), and whether it’s still or moving. You type in the information,
and voila! The title is a “clip” in what is usually called “the bin”.
Don’t worry about these terms… they’re hangovers from the “old days” of shooting on film, and editing with scissors and glue. A “clip” is a piece of footage. That’s all. “The bin” is a place to put clips, because they had (and still have) large, cloth-lined laundry baskets with frames sticking up, from which you can hang clips you’re using. The end of the clip that’s not attached spools down into the bin, which is why you have the cloth lining. (Dust and scratches on the film are Not Good Things.)
You then take the pieces of footage you shot and place them in order on what is called “the timeline”.
The timeline starts at 0 hours, 00 minutes, 00 seconds, and 0 frames, which is shown in the following format:

The colons between “hours”, “minutes”, “seconds” and “frames” is used to highlight whether this is “drop-frame” or “non-drop-frame” timecode.
Later…; I promise.

Now, you may have always heard that “film runs at 24 frames per second”. That’s quite true… for film . Video, on the other hand, runs at 30 frames per second – 29.97, actually, but we round up to thirty because unless you work in broadcast engineering, you don’t need to worry much about that three hundredths of a second.
The frames counter will therefore run between “00” and “29”; when it passes “29”, it goes back to “00”, while the seconds counter increases by 1.
Have I confused you yet?
Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it.
Oh, and don’t forget to SAVE YOUR WORK OFTEN!!!
Put the first clip (the girl sitting on the bench) after your titles. Then put the next clip (the geek walking up) after that. Continue putting the clips in order, until you reach the end. When you put your end titles (like the stuff you see at the end of a movie, when people walk out of the theater), make sure you save your work. You can then look at what you’ve assembled.
Kinda sucks, doesn’t it?
Most first efforts will.
You need to go back to the start, and remember the editing maxim near and dear to all of our hearts: “Enter Late, Leave Early”. Basically, what this means is you don’t want “dead space” where nobody’s doing anything important to the movie. If the girl hesitates a second before starting to act like she’s crying, that second of hesitation comes out. Maybe even the first little bit of her starting to cry, too… you want it to look like she’s been crying for a while.
Also, when the geek boy walks up, start your shot of him in the middle of a step. Don’t make it look like he’s waiting for his cue.
Don’t cut things too tightly; you don’t want to lose any information. Just leave enough to show where you are and what’s going on.
Now, once you trim things down, it’ll probably look better. This is natural. So you’re tempted to just save it again, and burn it directly to a DVD to show everybody.
You should resist that temptation for now. Because there are more things you could do to make it even better.
I’ll go into that in the next entry… I’ve been running on a bit here.

Part 6: After The Party’s Over…

Last time, I said I’d go into more ways to make your movie better. Well, here we go… and I want to thank Peter John Ross of Sonnyboo for the inspriation. (Even though he didn’t know he did it…)
I told you about basic “straight cuts” last time; one scene ends, and the new one begins. There are many effects in most editing software now that have “transitions” (a two-dollar word for a four-bit concept: cuts) like you’ve seen in Star Wars, or some European films, or things like that.
You don’t need to play with those transitions.
[I don’t need to play with those transitions.]
Those aren’t the effects you’re looking for.
[Those aren’t the effects I’m looking for.]

Sorry… I couldn’t resist the Obi-Wan Kenobi schtick.
What you need are a few simple things… Cut On Motion, Matching Action, and Ell-Cut Audio.
No need to look so puzzled… I shall explain.
Cutting on motion is simply cutting the scene when something is still moving… Say, in our hypothetical film, you
want to cut between the geekyhero running out to search for the dog, and the Disreputable Looking Man sitting somewhere else with a dog. As the geekyhero runs,
you CUT in the middle of a run; when you bring in the next shot, of the DRM sort with a dog, start the shot on DRM doing an action.
Here’s a (very poorly drawn) sample storyboard to try and show you what I mean:

Now, my drawing skills on the computer are something less than breathtaking, but I hope I’m getting the point across, at least.
Matching Action is showing people in one shot performing what looks like a continuation of the same action in two separate shots.
Say the crying girl had received a mysterious note; she crumples it up after reading it, and throws it down onto the sidewalk.
Next we see a crumpled note on the sidewalk, picked up by a hand… which is not hers, but the geek’s, and he deposits the paper
into a trash receptacle. This changes scene on the audience, but they don’t notice as much as they might.
Ell-Cut Audio has the picture from one scene, say the one ending, overlap with the audio of the scene coming in. Say, as an example,
the girl puts her head in her hands and begins to cry inconsolably. On the soundtrack you hear
“I swear, you cry like a girl!” The picture changes to the geek and say, his father. The father’s voice, which was over the previous shot, continues:
“I never saw any real man who could cry like you do!”
There are other techniques, of course… like using something blocking the camera to switch scenes… say, a cab pulls in front
of the girl on the bench, and when the cab pulls away, it’s at another house, with a new character in view.
Or, perhaps, using a letter, or a newspaper, or some other thing of that sort to be the intermediate focus point in the scene shift.
Say, Hero writes a letter to Girl, with whom he’s had a fight. He’s trying desperately to make things right, and he pulls a copy of the
letter off the printer, and reads it. When we pull away from the letter now, Girl is reading it.
These techniques aren’t good to use indiscriminately. Just because a pinch of salt makes your soup taste better, you don’t put a cup
of salt in to make it even better still. Use these techniques in moderation – a pinch, or a dash, here and there, once in a while – and
it’ll make your film better to watch.
Okay, next time, we’ll talk about distribution – for the sake of this series, we’ll limit it to DVD, and
YouTube/Google Video/FaceBook/MySpace. (Festivals are a topic we’ll talk about at a future date… I promise.)

Part 7: Okay, NOW What?

Well, it’s done.
You planned out your script.
You wrote it.
You cast it.
You shot it.
You edited it.
You put titles on it.
A couple more things to talk about: music, for one.
If you’re just going to burn this to a DVD and show it to your friends, and that’s as far as it’s ever going to go, then grabbing
the theme from Superman or Raiders of the Lost Ark and putting it under your dialogue track is fine.
As long as that’s as far as it’s ever going to go.
If you ever decide to enter it into a contest, or upload it to YouTube or Google Video, then you have a problem.
Because, under copyright law, you don’t have permission to use that music.
You could get your video yanked from YouTube or Google Video. You could get a “cease and desist” letter from the law firm
representing Paramount Pictures (in the case of Raiders), or Time Warner (in the case of Superman). You could get sued.
Don’t gloss this over… Disney/ABC, for one, is VERY protective of its trademarks and copyrights, and has gone after a small day care for
having “unlicensed” likenesses of copyrighted Disney characters as outside decorations on their building.
My solution? Royalty-free music .
Most music for films requires licenses: A “performance license” is an agreement between the filmmaker (you) and the performer for a flat fee,
a percentage of any money made with the performance, or both. “Sync rights” means that the filmmaker (you) is agreeing to a license to use a musical composition in a “timed relation” (it’s going to be the same each time it’s seen) in a visual presentation. If you’re talented enough to make a new recording of a piece of music, you need “mechanical rights”, which is a license from the copyright holder, and means paying fees and royalties.
Royalty-free music, on the other hand, is either acquired (in the case of totally royalty-free music) or purchased from the composer. That purchase price gives you a license with all these rights with no further payment involved.
If you Google™ “royalty-free music”, you’ll find any number of sites that offer original compositions for reasonable prices. However, if you’re downright stingy,
like me, there are places where you can get royalty-free music FOR FREE. Peter John Ross, at, offers a selection of pieces he wrote (he’s a musician, too… when you got it, you got it) for free, with the only stipulation that he gets a credit line in your film.
Kevin MacLeod at also provides free music, under the Creative Commons license.
This basically means, as they explain it on their website[], that this is their way of maintaining their copyright, but releasing some of the rights of their work to the public use. They see it as a midway point between copyright (all rights reserved) and public domain (no rights reserved).
Either way, this is something to keep in mind… you don’t want a lawsuit, because they never fit properly.
{Sorry… I’ll try to keep the “puns”manship under better control…}
Now, when you burn your final edit to DVD, don’t forget to make one you can do on the Web… Google Video, YouTube, and many others use Flash Video format, from Adobe, and they convert your video of [NOTE: The new limit on YouTube and Google Video is 1 gigabyte – this is ten times the previous limit] into Flash Video to play on YouTube. Here’s a neat trick… if you convert it to Flash Video before you upload, you have better control, and the video can be bigger! There are all sorts of freeware and shareware programs to convert video files to Flash Video, so I leave that exercise to the reader. [A survey will be in a following article.]
You can also, as I do, post your own videos to your own website… that’s an advanced topic we’ll go into some other time.
As for this miniseries, it’s a bit longer than five posts, but I believe I’ve covered all I said I would… More in another article, and whenever that is, I’ll talk to you then!
Al B.

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