BIG BRAINS - small budgets: DIY Filmmaking Advice

BIG BRAINS – small budgets: Andy Siege (Beti and Amare)
Turning Weaknesses into Strengths

Pretend that you own a guitar, and your name is Bob Dylan. You’re 16 and you move to New York to become a musician. But you can’t because you live in a world where pigs fly and the cheapest guitar costs $100,000 which no one will give you if you don’t have the right connections or don’t have rich parents… Well, that’s how it used to be for filmmakers. I say “used to be” because those days are over. The technology is now here and we can make feature films no matter who we are. Feature films… No matter who we are…

The DIY ethic has been around since the beginning of human history. Every invention, every new thing has been a result of the DIY ethic. We’ve just decided to call it that recently. DIY means that you create something yourself. This doesn’t mean that you have to go do it alone. I was fortunate to have my my female lead Hiwot Asres at my side, who’s professionalism and skill and positive disposition were like a brace for my backbone during the making of my first feature. Things were also made easier by my male lead Pascal Dawson, who was my technical assistant throughout the process and by my Ethiopian co-producer Mahdere H Sisay, and my translator Yonas Angesom Kidane. DIY just means that you can see your plans through to the end without having to ask permission or rely on unattainable resources to do so. For film, this means that you can tell the story that you want to tell, the way you want to tell it.

Making a feature film the DIY way can be very difficult. You’ve never made a movie before and you don’t have a lot of resources or people to help you. How will you be able to compete with other filmmakers who have more than you? Well, there is a way. I will begin by giving advice on how you can turn your weaknesses into strengths.

Many people who make DIY films make the mistake of trying to copy the way that movies are traditionally made. They try to get a big crew together and they rent the best cameras and they set up their shots for a very long time. But what they don’t realize is that the structures, hierarchies and even language that is traditionally used in filmmaking, were developed a long time ago for much less user-friendly equipment and for much higher budgets than what most DIY filmmakers get to work with. When you don’t have the resources needed for this kind of shoot, then a large crew and an expensive and clunky camera can be crippling. You’ll end up shooting only a few takes and only a few shots, which doesn’t give the actors a lot of opportunity to do a good job and doesn’t give the editor a lot of opportunity to tell the story. What you end up with then is a movie that looks decent but doesn’t tell a story effectively. There are tons of those out there.

If you do the opposite, if you keep your crew small and shoot on a cheap but good digital camera, you can shoot your storyboard and do enough takes to make it perfect, then you can get all the coverage and lastly you can even innovate and create new types of shot compositions. I shot my first film on an af-100, which is by no means powerful, and yet one of the responses I’ve gotten across the board was how beautiful my film looks. If you do it right you’ll have more amazing footage to choose from in the editing room than even the biggest productions. This is something that no mainstream filmmaker is able to compete with.

Be wary of unattainable variables right at the beginning of the process. When writing your script, limit the variables. Limit yourself to minimal sets and few characters. Only put in the script what you will be able to make real during production. You absolutely do not want to write a script that you won’t be able to shoot due to budget and technical issues. And there is a perk to eliminating variables from the get go. Writing your script this way will force you to focus on making the story good, instead of relying on effects and pomp the way many contemporary movies do. And again, you’ve turned a weakness into a strength.

Realize how important the story is. When making a movie, you tell the story three times. First when you write the story. Then when you shoot it. And then when you edit it. Focus on no other thing as much as that story. When you’re writing, narrow your story down to a simple “what if” scenario. When you’re shooting, focus your actors and crew on each scene’s fulfillment of that scenario. When you’re editing and looking at what you shot, have your screenplay in front of you and refer to it before editing each scene to keep yourself on track. Another way to say this that you have to have “clarity of vision”. We have the opportunity in DIY filmmaking to see our vision through with incredible clarity. Traditional filmmakers, who have producers, investors, even crew and actors to answer to regarding their decisions, can never achieve the clarity of vision that we can.

But remember to let the magic in. Another way to turn your weaknesses into strengths is to realize that sometimes the most magical things aren’t part of the plan. You might be filming a scene in a park and a bird might land perfectly in the frame. If that bird makes your shot better, then don’t throw it out in the editing room. Put the bird in the movie and let the magic in.

I like to look at DIY filmmaking like a puzzle or a mystery. You’re Humphrey Bogart, looking for the Maltese Falcon and you cannot stop until you’ve figured out how to get it. Every day you will be confronted by dozens or hundreds of little obstacles. Puzzles are solvable. Thinking about it this way makes it fun. And in the unlikely event, that you absolutely cannot solve a problem, don’t be rigid. Figure out an alternative but keep it in sync with the story. Remember that you’re not making a traditional film and use this as an opportunity to let some magic in.

My last bit of important advice is contracts. Contracts, contracts, contracts. Get everyone who works on your film to sign a contract. If you don’t do this then you’re bound to run into all sorts of trouble. The biggest reason for contracts is that you won’t be able to sell your film if you don’t have the paperwork in order. If you can’t show your distributor that you have the copyright to every single performance, location, technical labor associated with the film, then he/she won’t take on your movie because they don’t want to be held liable in the event of a lawsuit from a disgruntled collaborator of yours. I was very lucky because I learned about this from a mentor before I started making films and so I’ve always kept my paperwork in order.

All that being said, when thinking back to when I made my first film, I realize that the most difficult thing for me wasn’t a technical or logistical or artistic problem. It was having to listen to people, sometimes very close friends or family members, who said: “You can’t do it. What makes you think you can make a movie. You’re not doing it right.” And so on. This is an obstacle that makes many wannabe filmmakers fail, because when you’re making your first film, you don’t have any arguments against this negativity. You’ve never made a movie before and so you don’t actually know for certain that you’ve got it in you to create something good, and neither do the people around you. So my advice is, be ready for that. There’s nothing you can do about it. So just make your movie anyways. Because if you don’t, then it won’t get made.

This reminds me of another obstacle to be wary of. In this industry, you hear “no” more often than “yes.” So you have to figure out a way to deal with disappointment. I personally was able to deal with it by aiming high and keeping my hopes low. It worked and it made my successes even more of a surprise, which made them sweeter.

I’m willing to wager that your biggest technical obstacle will be in an area that you are unable to do yourself. I wrote, directed, shot, edited and acted in BETI AND AMARE because these are things that I know how to do, but when it came to the post-production phase, I had to find people to help with the music that I had envisioned, with Foley, with atmospheres and dialogue cleanup and then I had to find someone to mix it all together. That’s because the technical aspects of sound aren’t in my realm of expertise. So I had to shop around for people who were really good at what they did and who were willing to work for a credit and very little money. This can be really difficult and can take a long time. I overcame this obstacle by being politely persistent and although it took a year and a lot of trial and error, in the end I found some amazing people to help me. Be politely persistent and you will too.

My last bit of advice to you is concerning the reality that there are always a million good reasons not to make a movie. You will encounter these reasons on every step along the way. Some of them may even be very valid. But in the end, you just have to make your movie anyways.

My personal motivation for making my first feature length film, BETI AND AMARE began when I was 4 years old. I spent the first few years of my life living in rural Zambia, by the banks of the Kabompo River. We didn’t have cable, but we had a TV and a VCR and a tape of the movie: “Flash Gordon”. The one with the soundtrack by Queen.

I watched that movie a lot. I must have watched it a hundred times before my parents began blaming it for the nightmares I had begun to suffer from at an increasing frequency. So they banned me from watching it.

But I wasn’t done with watching it and I figured out how to use the VCR and I snuck into the living room at night, every night, when my family was asleep, and I turned down the sound and watched the colorful images flash by.

The first time I had seen this movie I had been both mesmerized by it, and very afraid of it. The reason for why I had watched it again after that was because I wanted to understand it, so that it would lose its power over me. I wanted to know what it was so that I wouldn’t be so affected by it. What these sounds and images where. Where they existed in relation to the reality I was living in. The universe of rural Zambia, where blinking your eyes is like an edit on a screen, where music comes from a specific direction, from a speaker or a bongo drum, as opposed to the man-made universe behind the screen.

During that time my father spoke to me about what movies where. He explained to me the concepts of editing and of directing. I remember that I understood what he was talking about quite well. And when relatives and friends asked me what I want to be when I grow up, I said: “I want to be a Director or a Cowboy.”

As I grew older I realized that both of those professions were probably equally unrealistic. I had heard that you needed tons of money to make a movie and I didn’t have any. After high school, I studied Political Science at University, and not Film.

Luckily, the world was about to change drastically, and the digital revolution would put the technology to make a movie within my grasp. More and more people were making movies with zero money, and I felt that talent and knowledge-wise, I could dance with the best.

You have to be crazy to go down the path I went down. You have to be absolutely insane to think that you can grab fate by the horns and wrestle it to the ground – that you can make a movie. And I’m a little crazy, so when I was 25 years old I dropped out of University, got my money back, bought myself a digital camera, grabbed a friend and went to Ethiopia. I wrote the script for BETI AND AMARE in three weeks and we shot it in 30 days.

As I’m sitting here, writing this, almost three years later I can’t believe how well things turned out. I’m not talking about my film’s festival acclaim; I’m talking about the basic fact that I was able to even shoot my movie. I know that I gave you the advice to eliminate all the variables, but the truth is that you can’t eliminate all of them and there’s so much crazy stuff that you can’t plan for.

The oddest and most otherworldly happening occurred during the first week and a half of the shoot, during which time we took a horse cart to and from set every day. On the way back we had to drive along a section of deathly dark highway without lights to indicate that we were there. Huge trucks sped by us at incredible speeds, honking and missing us by inches. One night, as we were crossing a field, heading towards the road, I saw the grim reaper. I saw a gigantic white skull floating towards me through the darkness and I knew that it meant death. My pulse increased and I knew in that moment that we would get hit by a truck and someone in my crew would die if I didn’t organize a car for us instead of the unsafe horse cart that we were currently using. When the apparition floated closer a shape materialized around it and I saw that it was a black horse with a white face.

The next day I called off the shoot and spent the day organizing a bus for my actors and my crew.

I also had to pay “road tax” to bandits on two occasions, and, in the rainy season when swelling rivers blocked the road, our entire crew had to make the long trek to set on foot.

Did we mind? No. Was it wonderful? Yes, it was amazing.

I love DIY filmmaking with all my heart. It gives us the opportunity to rediscover the medium of cinema. DIY filmmaking is adventure and innovation. It is a test of strength and of substance. It’s bigger than we can yet fathom and it will take filmmaking to new heights.

I believe that eventually its methods will be partially integrated into mainstream filmmaking and we will look back on this phenomenon with nostalgia.

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