Posts Tagged ‘Tim Guetterman’

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Making a Plan and Throwing it in the Trash

February 5, 2010

In a formal film production, roles and job expectations are defined according to tradition (ie, line producer, production manager, assistant director, etc). This traditional approach to production is the best way to maintain a proper division of labor, keep morale up, and get the job done fast and right. This approach also requires a crew that is fully staffed and experienced – or at least knowledgeable.

In the independent world, we are generally under-resourced, so we invent all sorts of creative ways to cut corners while (hopefully) maintaining our artistic integrity and vision. When getting into indie territory, it can be a wild west situation where you just have to make the most of what you’ve got. Personnel-wise and everything else-wise.

The one thing you don’t have to skimp on in an indie is preparation. Some would say the resource bottleneck all indies suffer is exactly why you should over-prepare.

Preproduction

Note: Every filmmaker has a different process, and indies require the invention of process, so all I’m doing here is detailing how I’ve done it. There are definitely lots of other, better ways to get this job done.

The more notice I have in planning a shoot, the more time I have to explore every possible opportunity, anticipate any problems, and devise solutions for every element of the production.

When I’m prepping a specific scene, I usually go to the location weeks ahead of time, take pictures and notes, and do scratch blocking with whoever is there. I’ll make return visits with all my key players (camera, stunt, etc), discuss options, and codify a plan, then go home and make shotlists and overheads, and draw storyboards of the action.

This long-lead workflow is fairly idealistic. Once production starts, we don’t always have the luxury of long exploratory discussions, or contemplative afternoons alone. Working on an indie, everything is subject to change at a moment’s notice. Flexibility and real-time imagination are key. It takes the focus and creative energy of everyone involved to turn obstructions into opportunities for strong creative choices.

Even if our location is changed at the last minute, the stunt dog dies, or it starts raining blood, the planning we did, informs and strengthens the choices we improvise.

The martial artist practices form and sequence to seek or impose order to the chaos of violence. Planning a shoot is no different. Like martial arts, creativity under pressure gets easier with experience, but it all stems from preparation.

Even if my plan goes down the tubes, I’m more prepared to get the scene done because I’ve thought through every detail.

Location
For me, the creative parameters start with the physical location itself. This is where I may well reinvent a sequence in total. When it comes to locations, I welcome the opportunity to reinvent a scene or sequence and make the most out of what’s there.

What I find least productive, is trying to squeeze whatever preconceptions I had on the script level, out of an environment that just isn’t the same. If a location is great, but different, I want to make it work – provided, of course, it doesn’t compromise the integrity of the overall story.

Once I’ve thoroughly checked out a location, I’ll bring my DP, producer, stunt coordinator (if applicable), go over everything I’m thinking, get their input, and then document everything.

Shotlists and Overheads
On the functional side of my process, the shotlist and overheads are much more important than any storyboard.

Armed with a shotlist, we go in knowing exactly what shots we need for the edit, as well as any C.Y.A. coverage I can think of (inserts, whips, b-roll). The shotlist details all the coverage, the angle of view and any other notes or special instructions. We use the overhead to map the geography of the set, as well as establishing camera positions for coverage, which correspond to the shots on the list.

If everything goes as planned, we show up and shoot the list, checking it off as we go. If we discover interesting ideas a long the way (and we always do!), we shoot that too.

Storyboards
I meet many aspiring filmmakers who seem to think storyboards are really important, but there are plenty of great films that get made without them (see all Soderbergh films, Spielberg films that don’t involve spaceships or dinosaurs).

That’s not to say storyboards aren’t useful – they absolutely are. They’re just not crucial. In my opinion, if you’re a relatively articulate director, and you have a good dialogue with your DP, you should be fine with an overhead and shotlist.

Many directors would prefer to work with the actors and leave the visual element entirely to the DP. There is no shame in this at all. Personally, I prefer to do most of the work with the actors before shooting, and be more hands-on with the photography on set. It’s really a matter of style and preference.

In my case, I used to board every single shot I could, for the simple reason that I was a control freak. In production I’ve realized that – at least for me – you have to shoot what’s there, not what you think should be there.

I think of my storyboards as a guide to the overall visual style of the film, to show what key shots I think need to be there, or anything I’m specifically looking for. Otherwise, I’m fine trashing them and rolling on what looks good.

Tossing It For The Win

My film, The Local, had over 150 scenes, spanning many locations all over New York, inside of 27 shoot days, on a very modest budget (don’t ask). There were also numerous fights and stunts and countless challenges that can never be fully revealed.

Our plans were constantly snarled by the same logistical problems that plague all films (weather, cops, flakes, illness, bad wiring, etc). It’s a testament to the talent and ingenuity of my team, that we were repeatedly able to repel, outsmart, and ultimately out-create any obstacles the universe threw at us (and have fun doing it).

The film would never have been finished – let alone be any good – had we not prepared every shoot day to the best of our abilities, and from time to time, been willing to toss all our meticulous plans into the garbage and seize the creative opportunities around us.

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