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8 Simple Rules for Making a Movie

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Fair Enough Friday: 8 Simple Rules for Making a Movie
By Jason Santo
Oct 17, 2003, 10:01

Since December 1997, I’ve been pretty busy working on something like fifty or so short movie productions (some of which are dangerously close to feature-length) while also doing small bits for several other small production companies. It means I’ve been behind the camera a lot, and for those of us who have been doing the Microcinema thing for a while, it’s pretty much understood that “behind-the-camera” means a person is most likely the producer, writer, director, key grip, director of photography, and caterer. In extreme cases, it even includes being “in front of the camera” as an actor.

When you’re working with no budget, the crews are as lean as Red Sox and Cubs fans’ hopes for another shot at the World Series next year. Though I have a rather great crew on a movie I’m making right now called Table Scraps, I recently found myself shooting a few quick takes alone, working both camera and sound while wearing directing and co-producer hats. All this, and post-production will introduce even more roles.

Alas, by doing shoots in this fashion I’ve learned a lot of lessons regarding how to properly put a movie together. Shooting for the edit, directing actors, and shuffling production schedules due to unforeseen circumstances are just a few of the “bigger” lessons I’ve been taught by experience. But there are also several simple rules I’ve picked up - two handfuls of straightforward leanings that are of the “do-this-and-thwart-Murphy’s-Law” variety. Some of them may seen foolishly simple to a few of you, but if you’ve made many shot-on-video movies with no budget and very little crew I’m sure you’ll agree these things can slow up a production’s pace, or in some cases even break its back. With that, I give you “8 Simple Rules for Making a Movie.”

1.) Bring the Battery Charger for Your Camera

I can’t even begin to explain how important this first, admittedly very basic rule is, and yet I’ve heard war stories time and time again of people who run out of battery power during a shoot. This results in two things: (1) not getting all of the needed shots in the can, thus necessitating another day of shooting and/or (2) rushing to beat the dying battery so you won’t have to re-schedule, thus compromising the quality of your work.

Unless your shooting with one of Sony’ cameras that can live for 13 hours on one battery, or you have enough money to buy enough batteries to get you through any amount of shoot time, this rule is applicable to you. Do you think you’re smarter than this? Well, that’s good. That means you bring your charger with you to every shoot, find an outlet immediately, plug it in and as soon as one battery expires, you start recharging. Don’t forget, as you’re most likely the production manager on your movie as well as the director and cameraperson, you’ve got to remember when your NEXT shoots are as well. This means keeping batteries charged at all times. Fortunately, lithium ion battery technology keeps improving, keeping charge times down. This means that while you’re shooting your next few scenes with one battery, the other could be ready for use again by the time you’re done. But without a charger, you’ve fallen victim to a hard-fast deadline for your shoot.

2.) Bring the Instruction Manual for Your Camera

At this point, I’ve worked with almost every three-chip digital video camera that’s been brought to the pro-sumer table, and with each one I have been rather impressed with the straightforwardness of its manual. Alas, each camera has little quirks about it that, if not quickly diagnosed could potentially slow or even stop production on your movie.

Case in point: very recently I was on a shoot in downtown Boston outside historic Fenway Park. Working with extras in a very crowded area that was growing more crowded by the minute, we were moving as quick as we could to get the first shot set up. When we were just about ready to start rehearsing with the camera, I noticed that when I pressed the record button on my Panasonic AG-DVX100, I got a flashing error message along the lines of “Internal Lock Error.” It was the most vague message I’ve received from a piece of electronics since the days of my old Mac system telling me nothing more than “Sorry, A System Error Has Occurred.”

Horrified, I tried a number of trouble-shooting methods, but nothing worked. The camera simply would not respond. Then I did something really smart. In front of the producer, the assistant director and all of the extras, I went to my camera bag and calmly took out the manual. It was a bit of a blow to my ego. I mean, how good a shooter could I be if I was looking something up in a manual while on set? But, after looking for a few minutes, I came up with what I thought was the answer and implemented it, resolving the issue. Had I not kept my manual with my camera always, I would have had to cancel a very important, fairly large-scale shoot. Had I tried to protect my ego by not using the manual, I would have had the bigger issue of looking like a fool because I couldn’t run my own rig!


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3.) Bring Tape (the Sticky Kind)

To say bring videotape is to go too simple with these rules. Instead, I’m telling you to bring duct tape or painter’s tape or both. Hell, bring packing tape too. Bring whatever you want, but be sure to have something that can either bind stuff together or something that can be stuck to the floor or ground as marks for the talent. So many times I’ve been faced with the issue of trying to get talent to hit the perfect spot for a shot, and so many times I’ve been at a loss with what to use for them as a mark, saying stupid things like “step up to that crack right there” to which they’ll often reply “which crack?” A nice big piece of painter’s tape or colored gaffer’s tape can be clearly seen in an actor’s periphery, so takes won’t be blown while they try to catch a glimpse at their marks.

Additionally, tape can important safety-wise as if you’re shooting in a high traffic area with a lot of lights and A.C. power, you can tape down cords, avoiding any accidents with people tripping and preventing them from damaging themselves and your equipment.

4.) Bring Lots of Extension Cords

One thing you’re always going to need is power. Whether it’s for your camera because you’ve run out of battery life, or if it’s for your lights, or for a DAT player recording sound, power is vital to any production. And yet I’ve been on many a small flick’s set where there simply wasn’t enough easy access to power. Best bet? Get about three 50-foot extension cables for your grip kit, and also be sure to pack several power strips, and converters for ungrounded outlets to grounded plugs. Being able to circumvent power accessibility issues takes what could be a huge problem out of the game.

5.) Get a Swiss Army Knife

A long time ago, I was watching an episode of the television show Mad About You starring Helen Hunt and Paul Reiser. Reiser’s character was a low-budget documentary moviemaker and in one episode, Hunt’s character bought him a Swiss Army Knife that he really didn’t care for. I was shocked. What kind of a moviemaker isn’t happy with receiving a Swiss Army Knife as a present? One of the very first lessons I learned was to always have a utility knife on you when you’re working on a movie, and on almost every shoot I’ve done I’ve thanked God I had my knife with me. It has helped me remove my tripod mounting plate from my camera, aided me while I cut gels to fit in my lights, allowed me to easily cut electrical tape, and it has been valuable in countless other capacities that are too numerous to list. One time I even used it as foley to double as gunfire. And when a shoot is all over, that bottle opener sure can come in handy!

6.) Understand the Importance of Bounce Cards

Just because the weather forecasted for your exterior shoot is a perfect, bright and warm sunny day, don’t think you’ve avoided the bad luck demons entirely. While sun is obviously preferable to rain, an overcast day is truly your best friend when it comes to movie making. Direct sunlight, on the other hand, offers you up the problem of human evolution: we all were born with brows above our eyes. What does direct sunlight and the human design for the protection of our eyes have to do with one another? Shadows over the eyes.

I’ve blown many a good scene as a shooter because I wasn’t able to counteract the effect of harsh sunlight on an actor’s face. In fact, I’ve shot scene in a few of my movies where actors look like talking skulls. Whenever possible, shoot in the shade. But if you can't, the best way to counteract this kind of unfortunate circumstance is by making sure you have bounce cards or reflectors on set at all times. These can also be invaluable to you in situations where actors are backlit, but during which you want to see their faces.

By bounce cards, I’m speaking as simply as a white piece of poster board that you can hold directly off camera to bounce sunlight back into the faces of your talent. I’m also speaking as complex as the little convertible reflector discs you can pick up at a photography store. These are either lined with white, silver or gold reflective surfaces, and they cost about $30-$100 depending on the size you’re looking for. Regardless, make sure you have SOMETHING that will help you work with the sun!

7.) Schedule at Least One Hour for Every Page

While many of you may think this is excessive for dialogue scenes, I’ve been around long enough to know that you need at LEAST one hour scheduled for every single page of movie script you’re shooting. Unless you’re inexperienced and shooting everything in wide, boring shots, an hour is the minimum amount of time you’ll need ON PAPER to get proper coverage of a page. This doesn’t mean it will take you an hour, although it certainly might! It just means your schedule should be constructed in such a way that a 12-hour day equals a twelve-page shoot. Perhaps you can do 18 pages in twelve hours. I know I have in the past. But if you want to have a comfortably paced schedule to work with actors, camera, lighting and allow yourself enough time to get all the coverage you’ll need in editing, schedule at least an hour per page for dialogue scenes and for action scenes, schedule with even more time as padding.

8.) Feed Your People

While this movie may be largely a crew of one, chances are you’re not in this completely alone. This means you need to be respectful of other people’s needs, the most primary of which is for food and water. I’ve often made the mistake of pushing my cast and crew to get to a certain point in the screenplay before we break for lunch of dinner, and I have often paid the price. On one movie, I made an actress wait about six hours into a shoot that started at 8 in the morning before I broke for lunch. The girl was so tired and hungry, that the takes I was getting from her were sloppy and unfocused. But still I pushed on, creating more problems for myself than I would have had if I’d just stopped earlier for lunch. Additionally, several takes were ruined by the growling of people’s stomachs! While it may be fun to later report that you are this hard-ass moviemaker who can shoot for 20 consecutive hours on nothing but coffee and a doughnut, your cast and crew are not going to think you are cool. They’re going to think you’re a selfish dictator with no care in the world other than your movie.

It’s been said many times before, and here I’ll say it again: moviemaking is a collaborative process that often relies on the emotions and ideas of a number of focused individuals. By not feeding your people and pushing them to perform long hours without enough breaks, you’re treating them with disrespect and you’re exposing how little you truly care for these people’s efforts.

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