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1st Feature Film


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#1 Jase Ryan

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Posted 02 August 2007 - 04:00 PM

I'm shooting my first feature film next month and am wondering if all you DOP's who've shot a few features could tell me some useful words of advice. What are some of the most important things I should be aware of that I might not know now?

This film is a very low budget feature, $100,000 so it's going to be a small crew and very independently shot.

Please and thank you.
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#2 Michael Nash

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Posted 02 August 2007 - 04:54 PM

Advice is relative to the wisdom you already posess. Or do you want us to start at the beginning? ;)

What kind of experience do you have? How long have you been shooting? What unique challenges are you facing with this project? What kind of skill, talent, and confidence do you bring to the project?
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#3 Tim O'Connor

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Posted 02 August 2007 - 05:22 PM

I'm shooting my first feature film next month and am wondering if all you DOP's who've shot a few features could tell me some useful words of advice. What are some of the most important things I should be aware of that I might not know now?

This film is a very low budget feature, $100,000 so it's going to be a small crew and very independently shot.

Please and thank you.



1. Scout thoroughly. What are things like at the same time and day that you're shooting? What are
your power needs and what is available? Do a read through of the script with all department heads
and the director and discuss any issues, then meet later to see how they've been addressed. After the
read through, scout the locations with the drector and department heads and see how things line up.

2. If you're shooting in an old house make sure you have a supply of the same type of glass fuses
if they're used there. Check out the electrical service at all locations. Be safe.
Check for smoke detectors.


3. Always have a back-up plan. If you're not budgeted for reshoot days, find a way to do something.

4. Does the director have a strong idea of how to tell the story? Is he or she going to be springing a lot
of last minute suggestions on you and does the director understand what that does to a production?


5. Are you shooting film or video? Do you have a good relationship with the lab and are clear what is the
best way to communicate with it? Do you need and are you able to do any tests now?

6. What is the final destination of the film, both most desired and most likely? This may affect what lens
diffusion you would ordinarily use but may avoid if you're doing a blow-up.

7. How involved is the director with your shooting? Is it up to you to develop the shot list or is your director
giving you detailed storyboards? Does the director know that everybody in a storyboard drawing may
not be in focus at the same time when shooting?

8. Think about editing? How are scenes going to go together to tell the story?
What can you do with your camera work
to cut unnecessary coverage of expository moments and jazz up the film in an
appropriate way? For example, look how often episodes of "Law and Order" cover the early scenes
of a story in a single shot when the detectives are walking and talking a lot to a witness or the
Lieutenant. Sure, a network t.v. show might have fifteen or twenty times your budget but they have
a fast production pace. By shooting the basic fact-finding in one shot by moving the camera and the
actors, they can sometimes bang out certain scenes that could easily take longer if shot with that
mindless cover every angle approach. Doing some scenes in one shot not only can free up production
time, it also is actually appropriate for telling ceratin parts of a story.


9. This is a big break for you. What can you do to make the film look great and thus tell a great story
without making a great demo reel unfairly at the director's expense? What are ways to shoot this film
that are workable in the low budget world, haven't been done a million times and make the story
compelling without drawing undue attention to the cinematography?


10. Is the script tight? You can usually make a much better film out of a shorter script if the script has
become shorter because unnecessary scenes/exposition have been cut. Some may say that it's not a
D.P.'s place to speak about this but in the low budget world it depends on the situation. I've worked with
a lot of first time directors and first time writer/directors and you can often help them if indeed
your more objective eye can tighten up their script, thereby freeing production time. The more time
you have to shoot fewer pages, the better the movie.


11. Often on a low budget film, the D.P. is the most experienced person, including the A.D.s, if you even
have them. How much can you do know so that you have a well planned production that won't
constantly be drawing you away from your job as D.P.?

12. Do you have a good crew? Are they experienced? Sensible? Nice? Hard working? Do you know them?
Don't presume to be the director but do meet with your crew and see if they know what you need them
to know or if you can train them somewhat beforehand. It's great to have three grips but when
none of them knows how to fly the overhead you rented, because they're all really the director's
cousin's, do you want to find that out on set?


You asked about being a low budget D.P. and I haven't said anything about lights or cameras. Still,
everything here seems to come up on low budget productions. One of the tougher parts of the tough
world of low budget is working with people who are disorganized and not ready and didn't think ahead.
This is a big break for you so plan thoroughly and be ready to think on your feet. Good luck!
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#4 Tim O'Connor

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Posted 02 August 2007 - 05:26 PM

Advice is relative to the wisdom you already posess. Or do you want us to start at the beginning? ;)

What kind of experience do you have? How long have you been shooting? What unique challenges are you facing with this project? What kind of skill, talent, and confidence do you bring to the project?



"Advice is relative..." Good point.

Jase, you next should probably ask more specific questions.
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#5 Jase Ryan

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Posted 03 August 2007 - 01:38 PM

Thanks for the reply's.

I've been shooting for a while now and I'm confident when it comes to shooting, the only thing is, I've never shot a feature. I've never needed to hold a visual style for 90 minutes of screentime. This is definitely something big for me, and I understand what Tim was saying about making sure I shoot something that tells the story and isn't just good for my reel. I'm worried about having too many hats on at once. Since it's soo low budget, the producer wants to have a very minimal crew, which gives me only one camera assistant, a Gaffer, Key Grip and one lamp op and one grip. This is very small but it can be done. I'm trying to talk her into getting me three more people.
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#6 Kevin Zanit

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Posted 03 August 2007 - 01:54 PM

I'll add some advice that David Mullen has posted here several times in the past, and that I agree with:

Know your first week of shooting inside out, upside down, backwards and forwards. Do your homework during the prep time so that you don't fall behind in your first week, which is usually always a bit of a disaster.

Kevin Zanit
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#7 Michael Nash

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Posted 03 August 2007 - 04:55 PM

I don't mean to sound discouraging, but with minimal crew and equipment there's only so much you'll be able to control. At that point your biggest challenge is often just making it look good, and not like a compromise.

Design a look that works for the story and for the logistics you're up against. Don't try for a look that takes you more time and manpower than you can afford, but don't compromise the artful telling of the story just for ease of setup. Do this part in prep, discussing it fully with all your keys (including the director and 1st AD) so they're all on the same page about your approach to lighting and covering the film. If you try to work this out while shooting you're bound to run up against disagreements, disappointments, and cost/schedule overruns.

As for holding a visual style, break down the script into scenes. Each scene should have its own distinct look and tone, even if that's only a variation of a larger, overarching style of the film. Since you're likely to be shooting scenes out of sequence you'll need to have an intimate understanding of the tone of each scene within the story, so that you can implement the right look whenever you need to shoot it. Sit down with the director and design the look of the film, mapping out each scene within the larger visual arch of the whole film.

As for too many hats, make sure you have a good 1st AD. This is not negotiable; this is not an option. You need a good 1st AD to keep the production running over the long haul. I don't know your situation, but new filmmakers often try to treat a feature like it's just a big short film, or maybe a string of short films. It's not -- it's like a big machine with lots of moving parts that have to be coordinated to move together, over a long period of time. The director cannot be the 1st AD; the producer should not be the 1st AD (but sometimes is on small films), and the DP certainly can't take on the role.

Of course the more experienced your keys are, the better. They will be able to help solve problems that will crop up, and they always crop up on a feature. Sometimes your biggest accomplishment on a feature is just getting the job done under adverse conditions. It's pretty much guaranteed that the schedule and scenes will change before the end of the shoot, so be prepared to deviate from your initial plans and make new ones that fit the original design of the film. As DP you're often the "keeper" of the style of the film, so it helps to decide ahead of time how far you're willing to bend on that style during any given scene. Leave yourself room for errors and adjustments that won't ultimately detract from the final product.

A feature is a marathon, not a sprint, so design a pace and approach that lets you adapt to changes and keep going toward your original goal.
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