Every pitfall has a silver lining. Since losing three days to re-installing all the software on my computer after a trojan attack, my editing software has worked much better, without any of the weird behaviour which was slowing it down before. This is great news, as I've been able to successfully finish a lot of editing projects which I was previously blocked on.
After setting up a monster export queue last night before bed, I've sat down today to watch the results and take notes on things that still need tweaking. It's an interesting process watching the results of your labours for the first time. This is a very bootstrapped baby business, and a lot of my films have been more or less a one woman show behind the scenes. When you've done the writing, the camera work and the editing yourself, you have ample opportunities to confront your own errors. Whether you can correct them or not is a different matter.
Some films were shot by Tom and I, the only people in the room: we both set up the lights, performed in front of the camera and then cut if we wanted to move the shot. This way of shooting is low-budget and can be very intimate, but it can result in flaws such as:
- the actors glancing at the camera after changing position, in order to check whether they're still in shot (the only monitor I have is the digital preview screen on the camera itself, and an actor looking at the lens can be surprisingly disruptive to a roleplay scene);
- the actors failing to check the composition of the shot after changing position, resulting in either someone's head getting chopped off or a very imbalanced shot with both players squeezed into one half of the frame.
Without someone else to check the shot, it can be hard to get this right... but the more practice we get, the better we become at it. Alternatively, you learn to only use this method to film scenes where looking into the lens won't actually be disruptive - such as candid personal scenes, rather than immersive "in character" scenarios.
Another learning curve has been how much to change the shot. Often we're shooting in quite cramped interior locations, where after fitting the lights into the room you only have a couple of angles you can point the camera without getting the lights in shot. If you cut and you can't change the camera angle, the resulting video will "skip" in a way which I personally find quite annoying as a viewer. You can put a fade transition in, but I prefer to keep those to transitions which imply the passing of time rather than to cover errors.
However, the scenes I like, with interesting psychological twists and character development, can sometimes end up quite wordy, especially if you're shooting without a script or a storyboard. Lots of dialogue can work really well in some scenes, but in my opinion you want at least something to be moving to keep the film visually interesting. If the characters are sitting down and talking, the camera should move around them. If the camera is static, you want the characters to move within shot. Otherwise you might as well make it a radio play from the moment they sit down.
So, some of the scenes we've filmed have a nice little emotional journey for the characters, but it all happens in dialogue and the camera doesn't move much. As an editor, I'm watching the footage wishing I'd made the decision to move the camera more. On the other hand, when I have changed the shot more frequently, employed more handheld camera, more zooms and pans, the results are often imperfect. I've only worked with professional, experienced camera operators on two or three shoots; most of the "homegrown" scenes have been me, Jimmy or Tom behind the camera, learning on the job and doing our best.
The more editing I do, the better an idea I have about the kind of camera techniques that work in practice. This has informed my decisions as a director and camerawoman. However, manual camera skills are not learned overnight. If my early scenes tend to be overly static, my more recent scenes tend to suffer from over-ambitious storyboarding and more wobbly handheld shots than I'd ideally like.
The DIY production process goes a bit like this:
WRITER ME: I came up with this awesome scene idea! Can we shoot it?
PRODUCER ME: Hrm, yeah, I think that might work; we could probably make this location look suitable and those performers would be great in these roles. I'll make the arrangements.
(On the day of the shoot)
DIRECTOR ME: (reading script) Okay, actors, here's what you have to do. Camerawoman, can you get this shot for me please?
PRODUCER ME: Hang on, I haven't finished set-dressing yet! Let me just hang this picture...
CAMERA ME: Right, okay, sorry I'm late. I just need to check the mic's on... Okay, slow zoom, coming up.
DIRECTOR ME: Great, that'll do, now let's get the next shot.
EDITOR ME: What the hell is this?! Director, what were you thinking? Cutting from this angle to that angle doesn't look natural at all! Also this zoom is really shaky! Camerawoman, you SUCK! How the hell am I meant to make this look like a professional production? YOU ALL HATE ME.
It leaves me wondering whether it's better to stick with what you know, keep a static shot and risk having a visually slow-moving scene; or take risks, try new things, have a go at operating the camera myself so I can get the shots I want, and end up with otherwise excellent scenes which are let down by jerky camerawork.
As a viewer, I think I'd find both annoying. But as a producer, I think the latter is probably the better mistake to be making, because otherwise how will I learn and improve?
There are some advantages to this sort of low-budget, DIY approach. Each job I do gives me a unique perspective on the others. Editing has taught me lots about direction and camera work; editing, direction, performance and camera work have all helped me write scenes which are actually achievable; working as a performer for other people has taught me lots about how to be a director and producer without being hateful to your actors. Being able to clean up my own messes is also quite satisfactory: for instance, as a performer, I'm much more comfortable modelling for photos when I know I'm going to be doing all the post-processing and can tidy up or cut out anything unflattering. And if Editor Me is going to be swearing at a novice camera operator for their shaky transitions, I'd much rather be cross with myself than with one of my friends or partners.
On the other hand, multi-tasking is very fallible, and if you get stressed or behind schedule in one role it affects all the others. Behind the camera, I'm jill of all trades, mistress of none. With my novice skillset I'm rarely able to implement my ideas exactly as I'd envisaged them. The most successful shoots I've had so far have been ones where we had lots of people behind the scenes all doing different jobs, so that everyone was able to pay full attention to their own contribution without getting stressed out. So hopefully, as the business expands and I can afford to hire more crew, we'll get better results. At the same time, Tom, Jimmy and I are all gaining experience every time we shoot, learning on the job and making fewer mistakes.
Maybe I'm just hopelessly perfectionistic, but every film I finish, even the ones I love, I can see things which I'd like to improve. I hope that you can enjoy the character interplay, interesting storylines and solid spanking action without being put off by the technical imperfections. Trust me when I say that I'm aware of each and every flaw, and working to improve and learn as fast as I can. Every producer has to start somewhere. I'm looking forward to doing this long enough to get as good as I'd like to be.