I’ll never forget the phone call from Ashley to say that our ‘short for nowt’ Skipped had got into Raindance Festival. It was one of those time-freezing moments. Years of blood sweat and tears coagulated for one brief glorious moment into a single drop of success. I remember now that every filmmaking hurdle flashed before my eyes in one instance. But, let’s face it, I love films and it probably didn’t happen quite so cinematically as that.
Give a shit, let’s pretend anyway! ‘Cos we at Shiftwork have made a host of films on miniscule resources, have encountered a whole host of effing challenges, have learned from all of them and will hopefully learn from bigger challenges in the future. Raindance for us is an opportunity, a springboard, but it’s also a chance to reflect on the shorts we’ve made and the challenges we’ve had making them.
And – this being a Buzzfeed age – we can present it in a handy list with a plug for our next project at the end. So here’s our list of tips on making festival-screened movies for nowt – apologies if some of it seems like teaching to suck eggs btw.
1 Get a good team and be good to them.
Because they’re being good to you. Oh yes, you beret-wearing despot genius, it might seem that the sheer brilliance of your vision should be enough for anybody to beg to work for you, but movies are a business, and you probably ain’t paying. Your cast and crew will hopefully get to use this film to further their own careers, but whether they do or don’t they’re helping yours, so at the very least they deserve respect, food, travel and expenses. The same applies to the post-production team – there are incredibly talented composers, colour graders, animators out there looking to further their careers and make some penny-pinching art alongside you if you treat them right.
But how to find them? There’s loads of great sites out there already, I’d recommend Mandy for crew and cast They tend to give back what they put in – so if you want talented people, you need to make sure your profile looks professional, that your job post is well worded, you need to be apologising for the fact that you can’t pay them what you should, and you need to offer travel expenses and food WITH THE INTENTION OF ACTUALLY PROVIDING THOSE THINGS YOU DIRTY RAT.
Honestly, I am so fed up with helping on and hearing about sets where people aren’t fed properly, are told a wrap time that the producer/director has no intention of sticking to, are treated rudely, and are then still waiting for news about the finished film five years later. Every set you shoot will have at least 80% brilliant people who you’ll want to work with again in the future, so make sure they feel appreciated. If I’m lied to or talked down to in my day job I’ll down tools and walk – and I get paid for that shit! Which brings me neatly to-
2 Get a job, hippy.
Now I know there are some people out there who can go years on bohemian living, an artistic vision, and yes, a large inheritance from their father, Earl Goodman. Everyone else has to eat. And unless you secure outside funding, even a no-budget film will, oxymoronically, cost time and money, especially if you’re looking to get it into a decent festival. Both myself and Ash work hard jobs to make this dream possible. We’re not ashamed of those jobs, we’re proud of what they’ve enabled us to do.
3 Don’t film till you’re happy with your story and shots.
Our most recent short film Leticia Drowned was developed with the cast (a la Mike Leigh) over the course of a year’s rehearsals, had carefully comprised shots that were lovingly prepared with the DoP beforehand, and featured a complex set-piece sequence. Conversely, Skipped was rewritten throughout improvised rehearsal and on the shoot day, all to create a deliberately spontaneous style for the film. And despite the hugely differing styles of preparation for these films, on both we didn’t start filming until we were as sure as could possibly be that film would work.
There’s a range of ways to do this, but they all boil down to two things. For the shots, the writer, director and DoP discuss what they see when they imagine this film, and then the director, DoP and crew discuss how this can be feasibly achieved. For the script, the director and writer discuss their own vision alongside with what is feasible and not, revise that vision through the auditions (and for us through rehearsal), until they have a story, and then the writer keeps that in mind in support of the director while being open to the possibility that events may force it to change (see tip 5). During these meetings there will be differences of opinion and visions that are impossible to realise. I can promise you that resolving these beforehand these is nowhere near as harrowing as trying to fix them on the day. That having been said, you should still-
4 Aim high.
I don’t mean epic battles, or anything like that – although if you think you can pull that off on a lo-budget it would be a wonder to behold. What I mean is that the age of budget films being allowed to look cheap is long gone.
There really is no excuse any more. Phone cameras shoot in 4k, lights can be built for close to nothing or just found from everyday sources and there are countless videos for how to make your DSLR footage look the dog’s bollocks in every editing software. I’m not saying that money and equipment doesn’t show, of course it does. But for me, making a crappy looking or sounding film is no longer excusable. Although, of course-
5 Expect that something will go wrong during the shoot.
It always has for us. It’s a lot to take on, all this planning, and something usually goes awry. But there’s never been anything yet that has meant we can’t film. “Oh but what be the antidote to such celluloid poison?”, you ask in a petrified willowy voice. Well, as Montell Jordan says, this is how we do it.
First, we look to fix the problem direct. If the next scene is meant to be shot on a deserted street and a busload of tourists are roaming around photographing bins, we’ll try to shift them along with good manners and hearty laughter at their inevitable “can I be in your film?” jokes. Then, if the problem can’t be fixed directly, if these tourists don’t care about our film, if it’s a busload of coked-up obnoxious investment bankers, say – we’ll look to the crew for salvation.
Can the DoP find an interesting angle to shoot with good (enough) lighting that dodges the drug-crazed sociopaths? Can the sound department engineer the recording to reduce their unconscionable braying to a whistle on the wind? If your editor is contactable (or, as with our shoots, working on set in a different role) do they know if it’s at all feasible to lose the bankers in post?
Remember that nine times out of ten, if they specialize in the job they’re doing today these crew members will know more about their trade that you do. Don’t be too proud to use that knowledge, don’t be too quick to write off the scene. And if they don’t know, don’t be afraid to Google. However, if after all of this there still isn’t a solution or workaround, if you cannot possibly find another location or another shooting day, then the only answer left is to change the script to suit the new circumstances and you must do this. Just as the difficulty in getting everyone together for a low-budget shoot makes it madness not to prepare thoroughly, it is absolutely crazy to give up on a film/scene now that you’re all here.
Handily, I’ve an example of how this can work, can even make the film stronger. And whaddyaknow, it’s from one of our shorts! The Estate Agent is, I think, a very enjoyable, nicely satirical comedy horror – and I’m definitely not biased in any way. The lead actor going into filming was going to be a tall blonde woman in her early twenties. That Hillary Derrett isn’t and the film still works is testament to her brilliant performance, and some last-minute ruthless script editing.
5 Be as ruthless in the edit as you were with the script.
You’ve done it! You’ve overcome the severe lack of funds, the DIY Bank Light worked great, the watering can-rain trick paid off, your cast and crew had a great day and want to work with you again, and above all – YOU HAVE GREAT FOOTAGE. Surely you’ll want to get every drop of wonder out of these beautiful tapes eh, no shot left behind?
Unfortunately that’s the worst way to look at an edit. The more film I cut, the greater heartbreak every time I realise that some portion of these lovingly crafted words/shots/performances/direction will be lost. But for low budget, the decision is made for you. You’re up against films with twenty times your production value; can you really afford to have that joke fall flat on the festival screen, despite how much you loved writing it, despite how much it killed on audition day, despite how much it tore up rehearsal? Does that dying hero’s final scream of anguish that seemed so potent in the shoot actually sound a bit daft, and how will it feel for you and the lead when it causes snickering on the back row? How quickly will everyone dismiss your film, you, as just another bunch of amateurs who, well they’re nice and all that, but they’re not really media are they?
Editing is really enjoyable. It’s like writing a story out of a load of pages that you’ve found in a box that are all mixed up higgledy piggledy, then realising that you wrote the book they were torn from. But, more than any other part of budget filmmaking, there just isn’t the space for anyone’s ego to fit in the edit suite (also known as your living room with the headphones on your second-hand Macbook ‘cos the kids have bagsied Paw Patrol on the big telly).
6 When editing, get free stuff.
Seriously, there’s a lot out there. Want to get some fresh EDM on a characters phone ringtone? Google “royalty free music”. Want a shot of someone checking said phone but forgot to film it? Google “free stock footage”. Need the sound of a skip lorry pulling in to a driveway? Google “freesound”. Need to find out how to key frame someone without a green screen? Google- you get the idea. And once you’ve cut your footage and free stuff into a masterpiece that will burn up any cinema screen, just double check that it is a masterpiece and…
7 Get notes from people you trust not to be nice.
I know people who are caring, so caring. They want everyone to be happy, and would never say anything to hurt anyone’s feelings. And they’ll be precisely no help when it comes to giving me notes on the next edit.
My girlfriend, on the other hand… well, she’s caring as well, natch. But she loves movies, knows her opinion, and has never, so far as I know, sugarcoated it for me. So, without ever being dismissive or derisory, if she thinks anything we’ve done doesn’t work, she’ll tell us about it. It’s a priceless input, which is why when she starts voicing such reservations on something I’ve worked away at all week, I now make every effort to shut up, to not answer back, and just go away and think about what she’s said. That doesn’t mean I’ll agree with her – Christ, sometimes it doesn’t even mean I’ll like her very much in that moment – but it does mean that when I go back I’ll need to have a valid reason to disagree beyond “that’s just the way I want it”. And if four more people I trust say that same thing that she does, then that’s a note that need serious consideration.
Of course, you want more than five people to like your film. That’s why you have to-
8 Get the damned ‘Short for Nowt’ seen!
This is the one that baffles me the most. I’ve have seen GREAT shorts – I mean really, truly brilliant, ones I would love to see – and have later learned that I’m one of about six people to see them, because the filmmakers expended all of their passion into making it, and for whatever reason didn’t extend that passion into showing it off. WHY?!
If you’re proud of your film and of the people you made it with, you owe it to that film and those people to show it off. There are several ways to do this with shorts – online and Festivals being the primary routes, and although Shiftwork gives a home to our films online (at our excellent YouTube channel should you have an hour free – feel free to like, and email across offers of enormous donations while you do this) our main target has always been festivals. Three reasons for this – one, people go to film festivals who might be able to help you make more films, two, film festival accreditation is great on your CV, and most importantly three; we make our films with the dream of them being on a big screen in Leicester Square in front of a packed house, and with Raindance that’s what we’ve got.
But how to get into festivals once you’ve got the film you’re proud of? This is something that we’ve worked on developing over the course of the last year, and only now do we feel more confident that we’re getting it. But the very absolutely first step would be to read these two articles; 16 Things Film Festivals Hate About Filmmakers and Tips For Maximising Your Film On The Festival Circuit and do absolutely everything they advise. Build a website for your film – you can do this for free on plenty of sites. We use Weebly but that doesn’t mean they’re the best, get posting about your favourite fellow filmmakers and what you’re up to on social media. Look up your favourite festivals, your dream festivals, let them know that they ARE your dream both publicly and in the application you’ve lovingly prepared. And, if after all of that…
9 If after all of this your excellent film still isn’t getting into festivals, rework it.
This is the aspect of budget filmmaking that simply doesn’t apply to the big leagues. When every penny, every minute of your film is precious…it’s too precious to let go to waste.
Our short, “Skipped”, that is showing at Raindance this year, wasn’t the first iteration of our film. That was “Level Load Only”. It shared much with this film, and yet it’s not at all the same. When “Level Load Only” failed to get anywhere with the festivals we wanted, we took it away, dug out the purest story it had to offer, and reworked it into a brief teenage romance. It was hard to do. There was much to jettison, and we were proud of all of it. But it wasn’t getting into festivals.
Short movies – I prefer that term to film – are art, entertainment and business, to a degree. They have to find an audience. They have to get into festivals already full to bursting with shorts, and sometimes that might mean they have to be shorter. Some of the work that won’t be shown at Raindance was heart-wrenching to lose. But the work that will be shown is a credit to all who worked on it. And, in keeping with the spirit, we’ll make sure to keep us with them on the way up. Because the festival circuit is LONG, so you always must-
Fade Out: Be working on your next film.
Alright, let’s face it, this bit will be a plug for Shiftwork (what, I hear you cry, even more than the rest of this bloody essay?) The fact is, we have loads of stuff on at all times, and just to, ahem, illustrate how important it is to be constantly busy, we’re sharing two of those projects.
Sarama is a Muay Thai film, about a referee who must face up to the rot at the centre of the sport – and who might just rediscover the hope and redemption it can provide.
Health And Safety is a construction site musical, in the vein of The Singing Detective. When the pressure onsite and off get too great for Leroy, his world slips into an acidic song-and-dance, but the consequences that bleed into reality are dire.
These are both films that will cost MONEY. We’re hoping that, with the help of Raindance, we can find that money. If we succeed, we will be departing the world of low-budget filmmaking that has brought us so much pain, madness…and joy. But…it won’t be for long. Or at all, in fact. We just filmed a comedy for nowt the other week. Can’t wait to see how it’ll do.
About the author
Peace and love shiftworkers – you know who you are. Colm wrote scripts and put’em in drawers for time. Then he met Ashley Belgrave, they founded Shiftwork, and since then he hasn’t looked back. They’ve seen four shorts into festivals, Colm’s script was shortlisted for BAFTA Rocliffe 2016, his story was longlisted for Public Space (though to be fair I heard that list was LONG), and now their film Skipped is going to Raindance. And he could tile your bathroom! Mega!
Skipped is playing at Raindance
Screening time is at 18:00 on Saturday 23rd September
(and again at 16:00 on Sunday 1st October).
Get tickets here, and meet Colm and Ashley at the screening.