You’ve polished your script and now you’re ready to take what was once a floating idea and make it into a hard-knock movie. Thanks to the digital revolution, you have no qualms with pointing, shooting, and editing. But nowadays that puts you at the level of a 5th grader. Let’s discuss how to put your film one step—and hopefully more—ahead of the light saber-wielding ten-year-olds with consumer camcorders. On the same budget.
At the next level of filmmaking, there are two words you must keep in your breast pocket: production and design. This means everything from costumes, to set design, to props, to anything visual in your movie. You can distinguish Wes Anderson from Michel Gondry from Todd Solondz in one frame because there is so much meaning embedded in the production design choices you make.
The simplest production detail at this level is set design: location, location, location! As a student filmmaker, do not underestimate the power of shooting where you envision the film taking place.
Despite New York’s stringent laws, I have been able to shoot in a city park, on the subway, in a tour bus, and at a bus stop. With just a little bit of initiative, you can get the contact information of the park managers and bus drivers. Uttering a “Jonathan” or “Marie” in the right places will take you very far.
But when all else fails, you can go “rogue” and simply show up to shoot. When the busybody security guards show up to kick you off with warnings of terrorist activity, make like a distraught high-schooler and cry (it works!). For on-campus shooting, Joe Sabbat at Lerner’s University Event Management is your go-to-guy.
If you’re shooting indoors, and especially if you’re shooting in your dorm room, take time to dress the set. How many times has a wonderful police interrogation scene been ruined by the Brita and colorful swirly floor lamp in the background? Unless your scene will play in a lazy college student’s room, remove the evidence. Few characters have Locke, Descartes, and Homer on the bookshelf.
Good production design will tell you a lot about a character. A character may need to drink water, but a Nalgene and a reused plastic bottle say different things.
Next is costume. Most of us have worn jeans and a hoodie since orientation, but the “hottie at a party” and the “art history major” characters have most likely not. A character that wears a vintage dress is very different from a character that wears pajama pants. Once again, you need to step into your character’s mind. Did he wake up late and put on his tie backwards, or did she lay out her clothes the day before? Tracing the minute-by-minute of the character’s day is not overdoing it.
Finally, props. What is “Strangers on a Train” without the cigarette lighter? And “Shadow of a Doubt” without the ring? Hitchcock used his props to imbibe his films with subtext and so should you. If you have money to shell out, use it on a key prop. I’m currently pulling overtime at work to get a professionally-made ventriloquist’s puppet, but props can also be found in your room. Not every prop is a key prop, but if a character drinks a Natty Ice, that says something. If a character has heart-pendant, that says something. If a character looks to a wristwatch every second, that wristwatch better say something.
Witty dialogue, a 24P frame rate, and good sound are great, but remember that “film is a visual medium.” This means the audience should look at one frame and get the feeling you are trying to express. It’s this element that separates film from other art forms. To be able to show that a character is riddled with guilt without her saying, “I am so riddled with guilt!” is just divine. Conceptualize away.
Frances Bodomo is a Columbia College senior majoring in film studies.