Monday, May 21, 2012

4 Basics before making an Indie film - Learning from ‘Ayynoorum Ayynthum (500 & 5)’ (Part 2)

(This is part 2 of the Indie filmmaking Series 'Learning from Ayynoorum Ayynthum (500 & 5). Part 1 Intro can be found here)
So you know, there’s this one time, in our lives, no actually, make that many times, where we realize there’s gotta be a line between ‘talking’ and ‘just doing it’. Many a times, we know we’ve been having this feeling of wanting to do something but never get around to it. But at some point, that ‘wanting’ to do it, turns into actually ‘doing it’ and for that to happen, especially when you’re trying to make an independent film, you need to have some basic things in place that’ll help you ‘decide’ to make that transition. Of course, like anything, there are so many other things that can tell you when you make that transition. Now coming to think of it, before we started production of Ayynoorum Ayynthum (500 & 5), we apparently had undergone these basics, without which we wouldn’t have been prepared for the next stages.

1. The 'Need' to tell the story
The word ‘Need’ is loaded. Maybe I should word it ‘desperate need’ to tell the story. I think you don’t get to that desperate stage before undergoing a lot of painful growing-up stuff. The need also stems out of a deep frustration that’s been lying within for a long time. Before getting to the need-to-tell-the-story-of-500&5 phase, I wrote other scripts spending months and even years to write apparently masterpieces that big studios would just swoop down and pick up. One of them even made it among the top 10 finalists of the IFFLA film fund development grant, but they were just sitting there, lifeless words unable to get someone to give them a soul, a form and make them into a living film. We tried getting those scripts through the gatekeepers, met up with reasonably well-known actors and did the whole nine yards thing. But something felt wrong, very very wrong. I/we spent 2-3 years getting ‘others’ to see our vision that we started losing our vision ourselves. The goal of making our film, was getting farther and farther. Then the frustration started to build up. Fuck, can’t we just keep it simple? Just freakin’ do it ourselves instead of waiting around for things to happen? Then we started talking, talking and talking…the want was becoming a need, to tell some story, any fucking story from within our sensibilities, the way we want it. Forget making masterpieces, forget star actors, forget the big monies, just tell it, damn it, let’s give the script a life! So there, we decided to tell the story about ‘money’ from a sort-of existential POV, which we’ve often talked about. The concept of money was a recurring theme in our discussions and so we made it the center of our film. Now, behind all the frustration, the seemingly wasted energies/time/efforts, came the ‘Need’, because if the desperate need is present, it will necessitate everything else, because it fulfils the question ‘why’? At that moment, we knew the need had to be addressed, no matter what. But of course, needing it and getting it have a long bridge in between them. So comes the next thing, the story.

2. The Story/Script
Do I need to state the obvious? Let’s face it. If there’s even a modicum of an evocative response to a film, it can only be attributed to its script. As any Joe Shmoe can tell you, a film is only as great as its story or more specifically the script. Everything else is secondary. The direction, cast, execution…everything. Of course, this is a highly subjective thing we’re dealing with here. But irrespective of how ‘good’ it is, it is one of the most personal stages of filmmaking considering how collaborative the entire process is. The writing process is by far the most intense experience that you can delve into without having to include anyone. The stage with total control in the otherwise chaotic filmmaking process. Considering my other feature screenplays that have taken months to write and re-write, 500 & 5 just took 15 intense days. Days and months of thought had already gone into it while the frustration was building up and when it was time to write, it all just exploded. A beautiful cathartic release. So if you have to get anywhere towards starting your film, you gotta have this part figured out. I could probably refer to millions of resources where you can find out more about the screenwriting process but personally, you really have to look within to get those words out. If you don’t connect with the story on an internal, personal level, then no amount of formulaic writing is going to help you achieve those needs.

3. The Team
One thing we realized, no matter what, the people that you are most comfortable with, are the ones you’re gonna be working with, if you’re gonna make a film(which usually takes months or years of your life). It’s not about experience or hiring union or whatever. Someone I knew used to say, “Work with people who are smarter than you” because with an ambitious vision at stake, you can’t possibly get into it thinking you’re the best brain at doing it the best way. The four of us, in our core team, knew how to do stuff, understood the process and all, but we weren’t the best at everything. Before we started production, we thought we had to hire only experienced film industry technicians and crew to get this made, because obviously this has to turn out damn good, right? And we did, but slowly things were falling apart for various reasons, mainly the comfort factor, for a project as unconventional as 500 & 5 and also, experienced doesn’t necessarily mean smarter especially with our use of more contemporary technology. For example, with a conventional film camera, you have lenses that are compatible with standard follow-focus rings that let you to easily manipulate the focus while in motion but with our use of DSLRs we didn’t have that luxury, so we had to use lenses without the follow-focus rings, which was quite a challenge. A traditionally experienced cameraman initially came on board with spiel after spiel of how he was the right man for the job but the day before shooting started, he bailed out, apparently not being to able to handle the challenges of Indie production. So within us, we had to learn stuff and ‘upgrade’ and get smarter and more adaptable people on board who understood what we were trying to do. Also, we had to resort to DIY(Do-it-yourself) filmmaking most of the time figuring out how to create things from scratch(more on that later). So basically, the point is to create a team of adaptable, understanding people(even if you’re a crew of just one or two) if you want your production to go smooth.

4. The Technology - The DSLR Revolution
Ahh, the icing on the cake. The word is DSLR or HDLSR. If you’ve heard this term before then you’ve heard of the revolution. The digital filmmaking revolution. Obviously, this is not something we invented because it’s been around the block, and quite a bit at that. I guess we’ve just been making it more popular and not without reason. It’s an abbreviation for Digital Single-Lens Reflex. Case in point, the Canon 7D, 5D Mark II and the more recent Mark III all unleashed by Canon. Indie filmmakers including us, have lapped up these cameras like there’s no tomorrow.
Even when you have the above three, the one thing that can keep you from starting production is the technology you are going to use. Obviously, we can’t all afford 35mm film cameras or the expensive Red or the Arri Alexa cameras. Thing is, if…if…you know (or learn to figure out) how to wield these cameras, they can be a boon especially when you consider their low-cost. A camera is only as good as the person wielding it. I’d written an earlier article on the use of DSLRs from the trenches here. But the main reason to put this out is how many people don’t realize the high price-performance ratio of the DSLRs. Before we started production, we compared the Canon 7D(costs around $1800) footage to the Sony EX1(around $6000) on the big screen, and there was no contest. The 7D’s image quality was far superior to the EX1’s. That’s how we decided to go with the 7D and its cousin the 5D. But as with any new technology, we had to understand its limitations and then work it to our advantage. At such a low-cost, a filmmaker has no reason to worry about the budget of making a feature-length film. In fact, as many feature filmmakers are resorting to digital cameras, the advent of the DSLRs can only help Indie filmmakers achieve their goals.

So when you have these 4 basic things figured out, there is an ample chance that you can jump from talking about making your film to actually doing it. Of course, there’s a ton of other chaotic factors involved, but this should give you the basic understanding, or sort of foundational signs that you may be in the right track.

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