By: Christy Anna Wu, Filmmaker
In indie filmmaking, overpreparation is the key to success. But as a first-time filmmaker on Alvin, there were unavoidable pitfalls that I encountered simply because of my lack of knowledge. While everyone's experience will be different, I hope that my 20/20 hindsight can be helpful to other independent filmmakers.
1. Don't stretch yourself too thin
During the early stages of pre-production, I thought I could do it all by myself: write, direct, produce, and set design. While some teams run lean, it was unrealistic for this production. Before I knew it, I was up to my ears in work. Film sets are nothing short of a team effort and I would've been floundering without my co-producer or production designer. Don't do it by yourself. Maintain creative direction, relinquish control. Trust your people and learn to delegate.
2. Buy production insurance
Production insurance is one of those stipulations you need that you don’t know you need until it stiff arms your progress. While preparing to rent camera and lighting gear, we found out very quickly that third-party production insurance was required. It includes and is not limited to protection for equipment, vehicles, and locations. Because of the time crunch, we worked with an insurance group that responded to our RFQ the quickest. However, if you’re not in a rush, I would highly advise shopping around for comparable quotes. Coverage will vary depending on the nature of your production.
3. Budget for gear rentals
Speaking of gear, who has what? Most productions I’ve been on have needed extra gear, whether it’s a set of lenses, extra lights, or even a hazer. But it all adds up very quickly no matter which rental house you choose. The camera and electric team ought to have a ballpark idea of what is needed to enable the director’s vision. Oftentimes, those total rental costs are unexpectedly higher, so if you can afford it, allocate a buffer amount. However, if you are on a strict budget (and most productions are), you and the crew will have to compromise.
4. Account for prep and rehearsal
Prior to Alvin, my indie crew experience — typically in the art department as a set dresser — has mostly involved showing up the first day of production ready to roll. I was rarely involved in the pre-production process, which I have learned, largely sets up the flow of production. For instance, without prep days for the art department, you have no props or sets. Without rehearsal, your main actors come in blind. Looking back, I should have budgeted for enough prep and rehearsal days to reduce stress and promote familiarity respectively.
5. Condense your shot list
Let’s put it this way. I had 160+ shots distributed across four production days. That’s 40 shots per 12-hour day, which would be about three shots per hour. Factor in the varied complexity of a camera and lighting set-up and you’re down to just minutes for any takes. Work with the DP and pare down your shot list to what makes sense. Quality over quantity.
6. Safety first
Alvin was nowhere close to a guns-a-blazing action film, but it still required a safety coordinator and mats for one scene. This one’s a no-brainer but still needs to be said: Protect your talent and also your crew, or else be considered liable for their physical and perhaps mental health. Budget for the coordinator accordingly and never compromise anyone’s safety ever.
7. Follow SAG rules
Daunted by hiring union actors or crew? Don’t be. Sure, it’s a lot more paperwork and overhead, but you ultimately open up your talent pool. Non-union and union talent and crew both deserve work; they should be paid fairly at a minimum. In particular, we casted several SAG actors for “Alvin”, which meant that our budget had to account for travel, lodging, pension & health, and per diem. Our total production budget also eventually exceeded a certain amount, so we had to contract a payroll company per SAG rules. Do your homework and read the fine print.
8. Acquire robust hard drives
Alright, so now that you have your production cast and crew ready and primed, you’re ready to capture that footage. A full memory card ends up in the hands of the data wrangler or assistant editor, who then copies over that data into … someone’s random external hard drive. Feeling nervous about losing that footage? For peace of mind, that footage needs to live on at least two of your hard drives, three to be safe. I currently use G-Technology G-Drives.
9. Use surveillance if applicable
Depending on the size and location of the production, radios and headsets may help facilitate communication. In tight quarters with a small team, surveillance is overkill. On larger sets, walkie talkies are staples. Alvin was shot in a sprawling warehouse where it was easy to lose sight of a team member. It ran smoother simply because we didn’t have to chase down anyone. Plus, how cool is it to pretend you’re on a top-secret mission?
10. Have dedicated BTS crew
I want to emphasize the importance of having high quality behind-the-scenes photos (and sometimes video). After spending months, if not years, prepping for a shoot, it would be a disservice to not document the entire production process. It always amazes me that a whole film team gathers on the first day, cast and crew alike, to make movie magic. Not only does a BTS photographer capture moments, they may also capture key art for your promo materials. Sadly, we missed 70% of the Alvin production, but we do have our memories.
11. BONUS TIP: Line up your post-production team
“That’s a wrap” is certainly satisfying to say. Still, there is the final stage of post-production. A post team combo usually includes an editor, colorist, sound designer, composer, VFX artist, and motion graphics designer. This team constitutes a large chunk of your overall budget. I made a rookie mistake by under budgeting post-production. Stand firm with a deadline for completion and plan ahead for film festivals if applicable. Post-production is a creative and technical process like any other. Sustain that momentum by staying on top of it.