A Word to the Starting Filmmaker

I’ve come to realize that experience, training and knowledge only gets you so far in the independent film industry. If you want consistent paying jobs in the indie film word you need to own (and know how to operate) your equipment.

I don’t.

Why? Because I’m a manager-type. I’m not a techy type. Never have been, never will. Don’t get me wrong I have studied lighting, sound design, photography, camera functions and capabilities. I know how to edit and shoot pieces due to my training at a TV studio in Michigan. I own editing software, a small handycam and some “Rodriguez” lights and that’s all that’s worth mentioning. I edit when I have to. It’s something I dread. I can do it but it doesn’t give me joy, I’d rather pull my hair out.

So why don’t I have fancy equipment to get more paying jobs? Because I see it as a trap. Take a high-end consumer camera, A year ago a Panasonic DVX100b was a good way to go. The cost was about $3500. This year there is the Canon T2i that you can get for about $800. The RED is on the market and that can set you back $25,000 (body only). Now that’s just the camera. It’s not including all the lenses and accessories. You’ll need a tripod, a case, extra batteries, SD cards or MiniDV tape. Do you want a jib? A small lighting kit?  After you total everything up, your looking at a pretty pricey ordeal. But hey, you have equipment and experience, now you can pay off your investment with paying gigs, right?

Well there is the rub. You’ve now put yourself in the hole by buying equipment, so only paying jobs can get you out of it. There comes a point when you have to look at the investment of equipment and the possible return on investment, i.e. profit. How many paying jobs do you need to get to pay off the equipment? Are there that many jobs in your state to make that possible?

What if you bought the equipment so you can make you can make your own projects? Will you be working on other people’s projects to pay for the equipment but then not have enough time to work on your own project you bought the equipment for?  I seen it happen more times than I’d like to admit.

Next you have to keep in mind upgrades. It feels like every 3 months there is a better camera out there. Faster, sharper, more HD, 3D… Soon your investment it outdated and the jobs will be harder to get because people can rent or know someone who already has the best of the best.

There is an upside. Lighting equipment doesn’t go out of fashion too fast. Quality sound equipment can hold a long investment life. But again, look at the investment to the job opportunities available.

So that’s why I stick with the management side. I work as a Producer, Director, Writer, Assistant Director and Script Supervisor. All these jobs involve start up costs, but they were small. My script writing involves Final Draft ($249 cost) and books (upwards of $200). Producing involves contracts ($80), scheduling software ($500), and more books to protect the project (upwards of $200). Directing involves training and knowledge, watching movies, documentaries, schooling and more books. I went to UCLA for writing and producing so there was a heavy investment as well.

Producers, Directors and Writers are not generally hired or paid in indie filmmaking. That leaves Assistant Directing and Script Supervision as my paying gigs. AD work isn’t in high demand because it’s usually the friend of the director who gets that job. I don’t think enough people in the indie world know what an SS can bring to aproduction. A SS handles continuity, logging, and what is filmed vs. what is in the script. A SS works closely with the director to make sure they got the shots they need and the eyes for the editor to make sure they have usable takes with options. There is a lot more to it but that’s the reader’s digest version of it.

The first gig I had as a SS was wonderful. We had an actress that liked to tuck her hair behind her ear. When it was time for the wide shot I asked her if she wanted her hair tucked or untucked for the scene. She preferred untucked. It was my job to make sure that through the wide shot, the two-shot, the close up and the over-the-shoulders her hair was not tucked behind her ear. That way the edit would be continuous. Hence why sometimes a Script Supervisor is called Continuity. The Director loved me because once they got ready to roll, I’d make a motion to the actress to untuck her hair and we were set to go. I love the thumbs up from the director after catches like this. It’s small contribution but it helps the head-banging on the editor’s desk later.

I love doing SS work, but it’s one of the first things to get cut out of the budget for a film, a lot of people use their friends, mom or girlfriend to be the SS. The job is judged to not be that hard. I argue that once you have a good SS you’ll value what they bring to the finished product of the film.

An SS brings forms and a stopwatch, it’s not the enticing as someone bringing a camera, lights or sound equipment to set. So getting a paying job is more likely if you have equipment otherwise it is perceived that anyone can do a job that involves a clipboard.

I recommend having equipment but I do have caution, look at your possible return on your investment including upgrades and upkeep costs. Also note that you can take a deduction on your taxes for buying film equipment but talk to a financial advisor for the details on what you can deduct and how much you can expect to return each year.

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