GOING GLOBAL

I grew up in a small Kansas town, and when I returned home from film school it seemed the most logical place to begin making films.  Of course, people on the coasts thought I was nuts, but where else can you close down an entire street without having to worry about the police or any passers-by bothering you?

My first three features were filmed in Kansas.  It was only when I traveled to Macon, Georgia, for a film festival there, that I felt so comfortable in the town, I could see how easily it would be to make a film there.  So I did.  It felt like I’d graduated to the next level somehow.

After shooting in Macon, I decided to venture even further from the roost and shoot something in Palm Springs.  It was an exhilarating shoot.  Partly because it’s allegedly against the law to film anything inside Palm Springs city limits without having permission from the Powers That Be, permits, insurance, and all that.  So we just didn’t tell anyone, and made our movie anyway.

The next year, when we were headed to the Raindance Film Festival in London, I thought, well, if we’re all going to be there we might as well make a movie at the same time.  It was an absolute thrill.  Much like with the California shoot, London is beyond strict when it comes to permits, insurance, and permission from the Powers That Be, and so forth.  And, like our prior escapade, I decided to do it stealth and not say a word to anyone.  We got away with it.

I don’t do drugs.  And the rush that came with filming guerrilla style, essentially illegally, became so addictive I couldn’t stop!  After stealing London and Paris (for a quick scene at the Eiffel Tower), I set my sights on Hong Kong.  We filmed a week in LA and then flew to Hong Kong where we filmed an additional three weeks.  Hong Kong was more relaxed, and filmmaker-friendly than all the other cities, but it was still under-the-radar and more than once we filmed someplace we weren’t supposed to be.

How does one accomplish these things?  Well, it’s pretty easy, actually.  Google Earth and Google Maps makes it possible to “walk around” the streets and find locations, restaurants to eat in for lunch, alleyways to hold a staging area, and directions for subway travel times and so forth.  We didn’t need to hire any location scout or send someone to take pictures.  Google had already done all that for us!

It was pretty easy to post casting calls in both the UK and in Hong Kong, and all auditions were held via Skype, or on password protected YouTube or Vimeo pages.

In both places I had great help “on the ground” from the actors who would appear in the film.  We took advantage of shooting in areas they knew about, or perhaps places they lived.  In Hong Kong, our local producer even arranged for us to film the climactic fight sequence in a penthouse with terraces and more!

It might seem daunting at first to go to a far flung destination and shoot a movie without ever having been there before, but I’m here to say it can be done.  And, it is highly recommended.  The pure joy you’ll have coming home, knowing you made a movie in a foreign land… It’s something you can treasure forever.

HOW DISTRIBUTION CHANGED FILM: Part 3 of 4

Click here to read PARTS ONE and TWO.

We began doing research on the best equipment to invest in, best sound package, and best HD camera (we judged each camera based on the level of color captured, best sound captured, and overall user experience).  Months later, we had the whole set up.

I was ready to make my next narrative feature.  And I wouldn’t need so much money after all.  By owning my own equipment, omitting unnecessary personnel and expenses, and keeping costs as low as possible, it would be possible to make a feature film for little more than the price of a used Toyota.

This also appealed to investors.  Distribution has changed significantly since the glory days of the million-dollar buys at Film Festivals.  That simply wasn’t happening any more.  A top sales rep told me, “no company is buying low-budget independently made films for more than $50,000 up front.  And if you get that much you’d be one of the lucky ones.”

The first project to test if my new renegade style of filmmaking would even work or not, was an adaptation of Joseph Suglia’s dazzling novel WATCH OUT.  Could I really make a feature-length movie using only two people on my crew, with me doing all the camerawork, and still make it high-quality art?

The answer was a big loud YES.

WATCH OUT, which became my third feature film, was shot in two weeks.  Our working days were incredibly light.  We’d start shooting at 9 AM and on a few days we were done by 4 PM.  It felt like summer camp and everyone had a ball.

The film was highly praised by critics as “One of the great cult films of all time, (MJ Simpson).”  WATCH OUT also premiered at the Raindance Film Festival in London to sold-out crowds, where it was nominated for Best International Feature.

A review in Film Threat wrote, “(Balderson) makes movies that are so gorgeous that it’s not unreasonable to say that, cinematographically at least; he’s the equal of an Argento or Kubrick in their prime. Some people have perfect vocal pitch, Steve has perfect visual composition.”

I repeated the road-show tour concept we did for FIRECRACKER and released WATCH OUT theatrically in 2008 to sold-out audiences in the “Stop Turning Me On” world tour, to promote the self-distributed DVD release several months later, where it debuted at #24 on Amazon.com’s Top 100.

The third and final installment of the WAMEGO TRILOGY on DIY Filmmaking (WAMEGO: ULTIMATUM) chronicles how we did it.

Once I knew we could do it, I decided to raise the bar a bit more and experiment with a cast of all well-known actors.  The production would cost and be the same = the film would be shot in my new renegade style, without permits and in a secretive manner.  There would be no equipment trucks lining the street, no craft service table, no excessive lighting or camera gear, no substantial crews, or anything to attract attention.  The cast and crew would resemble tourists, which would give the production the freedom to do whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted.

With no make-up or costume person the cast would be required to do their own make-up, take care of their own costumes.  We’d all be staying in people’s homes, not hotels, and would have to accept there would be no cash per diem.

I approached several stars, some I’d worked with before, and others I hadn’t, and to my astonishment, they all agreed.

That project, my fourth film, became STUCK!

When I called SAG to ask them if they had special deals for projects under $50,000 they laughed at me and said, “It’s impossible to make a feature-length film for less than $50,000.”  They also said I “needed to seek professional help.”  Actual words.

But, they were wrong.  I had just proven it was possible with WATCH OUT.  I thought about telling them, but decided that they were just like those insecure filmmakers who needed all that phony “stuff” for passers-by.  Trying to educate SAG on the reality of the world was going to be a waste of time.

(To be continued next week)

SCHEDULING: PART 1 OF 2

You do not need any fancy, expensive, or magic movie making software to schedule a movie.  You simply need some note cards, scotch tape, and Microsoft Word.

To begin the scheduling process, buy a stack of colored note cards.

Colored note cards

Each note card will represent a scene from your script.  Use yellow cards for all exterior “day” scenes, green cards for interior “day” scenes, blue for inside “night” scenes, and purple for exterior “night” scenes.

To make a card, match the card color to the scene in your script.  Is it inside, outside, day or night?

On the top of each note card, write in the scene number and name.  Then write a brief description of the scene.  On the right, list the characters in that scene, and at the bottom, any special props or unique elements (such as a car, animal, special effects, etc).  Then, at the top right corner, put the amount of time you think it will take to shoot that scene.

How long will it take you to shoot the scene?  That’s up to you.  Think about it from the standpoint of shooting difficulty.  Is it a scene filled with action and multiple shots?  Maybe you’ll want to give yourself an extra 30-45 minutes.  Or, maybe it’s one camera set up but two pages of dialogue that you think you’d be able to do in less than an hour.

I average an hour of shooting time per one page of the script.  So if my scene is two pages long, I’ll write down “2 hrs” at the top of the note card.  If it’s half a page, I’ll write down “30 mins.”

Then, once I have all the note cards done for each scene in the entire script, I will separate them into piles based on location.  All the scenes/cards to be filmed at the “diner” in one pile, all the cards for “hotel” in another.  And so forth.

Once you’ve separated the cards into location piles, you can begin organizing them into “shooting days.”

To do this, lay the cards on the table and count the hours.  I try to keep the shooting times each day right around 8 hours total.  (Later, when you add in breaks, travel time, lunches, dinners, etc, you’ll see that 8 hours shooting time is plenty; more than 8 hrs makes for a long day.  On the flipside, 6 or 7 hours for shoot time is divine).

If your locations are shorter, say, you have just two cards for the “hotel” which add up to 3 hours, set those aside.  Either that day at the hotel will be very light, or you’ll match it up with another location and move sets mid-day.

When you’re finished organizing them, lightly tape the cards together on the reverse side (so if you need to move cards around later on, you won’t tear the front off).

Then, tape the strips of days up on your wall.

Shooting days

Each vertical strip of cards represents one shooting day.  At the top of each strip I put a pink card that says the location.  If you are doing a feature, and organizing scenes based on roughly an hour’s shoot time per page, you should have somewhere between 12 and 18 days, give or take.  Of course, that can be shorter if you aren’t changing locations, or longer, if, say, half of your movie takes place in Hong Kong (you’ll add a day travel time just flying there).

Feel free to rearrange the strips of “days” until you are comfortable with the order of locations.  I always try and select an easy location to start, as the first day on set is always the one that should be the lightest.

rearranging the strips

In the next blog post, we’ll open up Microsoft Word and make the shooting schedule.

(If you need help creating your note cards, I’m available for consulting via telephone or Skype.)

The Wamego Trilogy

To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of its initial release, I am making the WAMEGO TRILOGY available for FREE on Vimeo.  Spread the word and share these documentaries with every filmmaker (aspiring or professional) you know.

“Dreams are made of this stuff… Missing here are power-lunches and power-trips. Which is a breath of that fresh Kansas air.” – AFTERTASTE MAGAZINE

“Perfect! If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, you’d be a complete fool not to watch all the docs in this trilogy… There’s a lesson to be learned from the Baldersons.”
FILM THREAT

“Hollywood should be jealous.” – ICON MAGAZINE

“Literally thousands of miles away from the world of red carpets, cocaine nose-jobs and botoxed to the bone, anorexic 40-year-old women pretending to be 21, Wamego is a world full of cinematic dreams and devoid of pretension.”
HOFSTRA CHRONICLE

“Steve Balderson’s approach to his work is not just a breath of fresh air – it is a gale-force wind that just may huff and puff and blow that famous Hollywood sign down right before the film industry’s eyes.”
OREGON DAILY EMERALD

“A constant reminder to never give up or give in…”
ALL ABOUT TOWN MAGAZINE

“WAMEGO is a testament to the hard work ethic of the Midwest. It proves that with determination, anything is possible – even making a feature film by yourself, in the middle of nowhere!”
LAWRENCE JOURNAL-WORLD

“What was ‘Lost in La Mancha’ could easily be ‘Found in Wamego’ … A warmfelt, honest lesson how to realize your dream without sharing a bed with the devil.”
PLANB MAGAZINE, NORWAY

“Balderson serves a fat slice of humble pie to his Hollywood peers. A reality-check to inspire indie artists worldwide!”
THE BLACKSMOKE ORGANISATION, UK

“Those who have filmmaking ambitions of their own will get a little more…”
MICRO-FILM MAGAZINE

“WAMEGO will have a league of moviemakers clicking their heels to be transported to the Kansan, Do-It-Yourself state of mind.”
BRAD JEWELL

“It’s fascinating, entertaining, inspiring.”
PLAYLOUDER, UK

“The documentary, more than any other movie-in-process film, actually demonstrates how to make a movie. It’s not a tedious and silly art school exercise, but a deep look into the thinking, perspective and determination that a filmmaker has to have in order to get a vision on the screen. Wamego is good story telling… A rich tale with fully developed characters, a well-developed plot and layers of conflict… Wamego is recommended viewing… Shows those professionals from LA how things should be done.”
DISCOVERY PUBLICATIONS

CONTINUITY

Face it.  The only people who care about continuity are people who care about continuity.  The majority of people watching a movie don’t think about it at all.  Instead, they’re watching the movie.  People who care about continuity aren’t watching the movie—they’re watching props and costumes.

It’s okay to encourage people making the movie to be aware of continuity, but there’s no reason to be obsessive over it.  Your actors usually look the same in the morning as they do a couple hours later, do they not?  Unless you’re shooting a scene that will take three days to film, it really shouldn’t be that big of a deal.

In ancient times, it did take the studios three full days to shoot a single scene.  So it was important to make sure the costumes and hairdos looked the same, since in the final movie the scene might only be 90 seconds long.  And if there were drastic changes in such short timeframe, it would be visually jarring to the audience.  But those days are long gone.  Now it just takes a few hours to shoot a scene.

But there are still people who obsess over continuity.  I’m here to tell you that unless it’s a really stupid mistake, it doesn’t matter.  The viewer will still watch, and continue watching, until they have to get up and go to the loo.

Imagine a scene where a woman is wearing red as she climbs into a car.  The car speeds away.  In the next shot, the car stops, she gets out, and is wearing blue.

People obsessed over continuity will go on and on about that being a horrible mistake.  Whereas any normal person can see she’s obviously changed clothes, so it must be a different time or different day.  Often times in movies directors, or costumers, will use a change of clothes as an unconscious suggestion that time has passed.  So there is no continuity error there.  Just an error in the eyes of the person obsessed with continuity.

Now, of course, if the scene that follows is a luncheon, and the woman wearing blue sits down and miraculously, without getting up, she’s suddenly wearing purple, well, that would be a stupid continuity mistake.

Sometimes I like to dress my actors in the same costume throughout the entire movie.  Have a look at CULTURE SHOCK.  With the exception of a few scenes, all the actors are wearing the same things throughout.  I used the children’s cartoon SCOOBY DOO as the aesthetic template.  Daphne, for example, always wears that purple dress and lime-green scarf.  Velma is always in that hideous Orange sweater.  Shaggy is always in that green shirt.  Yet, has any person watching the show ever stopped and said, “Wait a minute.  She was wearing that yesterday.  Obviously must have been out all night.  What a slut.”  No.  No one says that.

Aside from being a fun artistic choice to dress your actors in the same costume for the entire film, it eliminates the need for a costume person.  The actors can just take care of their clothes themselves!  If you decide to do that, be sure to bring enough Fabreeze, or buy two identical outfits, because you will stink after five days wearing the same clothes on a movie set.

VANITY ON THE CLOCK

If you’ve worked on a film set, you know how important it is to remain on schedule.  The art of scheduling a movie accurately is really one of the most important parts of the filmmaking process.

In order to schedule a movie, clear communication needs to take place between the crew and cast who will shape it.  Some DP’s will want to spend hours lighting “that shot” while some actors want another hour to prep for the scene – and soon you’re behind schedule.

The first thing I do is limit the DP set up time.  If he or she has truly given it some thought, there will be an easy way to light nearly any scene in less than 15-30 minutes.  On any given budget.  But, it takes the self-discipline to be able to sit down and plan it.  If you wait to decide what to do until you show up on the set, you won’t know what you’re doing until you get there.  In that case, you will not be prepared and it could take a long time before the camera team is ready to get the shot.

Another thing I do is tell my actors to show up Make-Up and Hair ready.  In some cases I have hired a hair and make-up person, but I tell them to be in charge of their own schedule.  And if Hillary needs to be camera ready at 3pm, she should be on set at 3pm.  It’s the responsibility of the make-up artist and Hillary to make sure this happens.

Preferably there won’t be any make-up or hair person, and each actor can just be responsible for doing it themselves.  If my actor isn’t comfortable doing it on their own,  they can hire their own make-up artist.  I’m happy to give the artist credit in the movie, but they most likely won’t be a part of our overall schedule and planning process.

I understand that everyone wants to look his or her best whether it’s in front of or behind the camera.  The DP wants the best lighting, the actors want to look their best, the props, costumes, all of it.  Each person wants to achieve their best.  And I think that’s great!  When I’m directing something, I want it to be the best possible experience for the viewer.  So I totally get everyone wanting to be and do his or her best.

What I don’t understand is how few people are really willing to take responsibility for themselves to make sure they achieve their goals.  I sketch storyboards before showing up on the set.  There’s no reason the DP can’t look at them and design his lighting plan in advance.  There’s no reason the actors can’t look at them and know which side of their face will be seen.

I made my storyboards available to the cast and crew of FIRECRACKER and I believe only about four people (out of 42) looked at them.  Karen Black was one of them.  There was only one moment Karen didn’t like where I was putting the camera.  But, I told her that now wasn’t the time for that discussion.  The time for conversation was all those weeks earlier when we went through each storyboard together.

Since I filmed FIRECRACKER, I’ve never had an unorganized shooting day.  And I’ve never been behind schedule.  Even if I’ve experienced a scene running over the pre-planned time, I average about an hour ahead of the scheduled wrap time each day.

Yes, it is possible to make a feature film wherein you don’t have to work 12-14 hours a day.  The trick is to check vanity at the door, really communicate with clarity and focus, and work with people who love taking responsibility for managing themselves realistically.

My First Review: DECEIVED

When I was asked if I would write a monthly film column for Aftertaste magazine, I jumped at the chance.  What could be better than having a real platform (as opposed to my non-public living room) where I’m invited to share my experiences, joke about my enlightenments and make a fuss of my frustrations!  But then the inevitable happened – the months just kept coming, one after the other.  Sooner than planned.

Last week I attempted to turn on my computer and it simply did not go on.  After two and a half unpleasant hours of tech support, I learned that my hard drive had failed.  It was gone.  Dead.  And there was nothing I could do about it.  They would gladly ship me another one, but unless I had any back-up discs, everything on the hard drive had been killed.

I began to panic and rapidly search for ways to somehow see if any of my previously unpublished articles, unread screenplays, storyboards, poems, or recipes could be salvaged.  Maybe I could get back my address book, expense report, emails, or find out if all my FIRECRACKER marketing materials were still alive.  But on Tuesday, my outlook changed.

After lunch, I began to feel an overwhelming sense of relief.  Perhaps I’d only been hungry, but it felt like a total burden had been lifted.  So I elected to just get rid of it altogether and order a new computer.  I didn’t care if all of my documents were lost!  I was suddenly hungry for a new beginning!  I chose DELL because I don’t like the cult over at the other place – where people think they are better than others.  Plus, DELL has better customer service.

Then I thought – if starting fresh feels this incredible – I might as well throw everything away!  I gathered a bunch of big black trash bags and got to work.  I only had a couple of days before my new computer would arrive – so there was no time to waste!  Out went the folders, the papers, the pictures!  Away with the demos, the tapes and the discs!  I did keep some items of value, however.  The Plez Letters got their own box, but everything else was history.  My history. And there was no reason to keep any of it.  I still have my memory!  When I’m old and lose my mind it won’t matter anyway!

I couldn’t believe all the crap I had.  And it was all crap I thought was important!  Did I really need to keep the screenplay to a film I’ve already made?  Did I really think I would listen to those unsolicited CDs?  They’ve sat there unheard for over a year!  When I’m eighty, will I really want to sort through that box of high school memorabilia?  Who in their right mind really *needs* that unsightly stack of FLAUNT magazines?  They didn’t review the “Wamego” documentary anyway – so fuck ‘em!

When I finally made it through all the crap in my office, I decided the furniture needed to go next.  Out to the curb.  Then I decided to get a much better set of storage units.  I found some inexpensive systems at TARGET and spent another day assembling them.  Re-storing, organizing and shelving only the important crap felt great.  And by the time I finished getting the office back together again – the new computer arrived.  It’s awesome. Jet black – really fast – with a big flat-panel monitor.  Delicious!

I am now a firm believer that all seemingly horrible events are only truly horrible if we want them to be.  And in the end, if we want to turn them into positives, we can if we choose to.  Though no one ever does, it seems to me.  Usually people are so trapped in their misery that they never want to escape it.

Which brings me to DECEIVED with Goldie Hawn.  This woman (Adrienne Saunders) really reminds me of one of my family members.  She’s direct, unafraid of confrontation, and honest.  It’s a refreshing version of the typical woman-finds-out-her-husband-isn’t-really-her-husband movie.  What’s this version like?  Well-crafted and smart.

Maybe it’s just the clever way Goldie Hawn plays the role – but I sensed that there was little that could provoke her to curl up in the corner and shake with fear.  No matter what happened (the guy at the museum is dead, there’s some Egyptian necklace causing all this commotion, her apartment is broken into, her life is a total wreck, her dead husband really isn’t dead, etc.) she never cowered.  This woman was upset because she’d been lied to.

In a scene with John Heard, who plays her husband, she asks, “Why didn’t you just tell me?”  It was the way she said it that gave me the idea if he’d been honest with her from the beginning – she might have even helped him!  But he lied to her and seemed more interested in denial.  Big mistake.  Sure, it isn’t ethical to participate in jewelry fraud, murder, and pretending to be someone else – but the bigger problem is hiding it.  In the same scene (I think) he asks her, “Wasn’t I a good husband? Didn’t you feel loved?”  Clearly, he had parents and neighbors who taught him it was more important to look the part of Happy American than it was to actually be one.  Like there is some sort of shame associated with being anything else.  Sound familiar?  (Not familiar to films like this. I meant, familiar to our entire culture.)

I must make special mention to Thomas Newman about his score: Please, Mr. Newman, get off that goddamn xylophone or whatever the hell it is.  The theme for “Six Feet Under” is fine – but not every movie needs to sound exactly the same.  (Obviously “Six Feet Under” was scored years later – but still.  You scored DECEIVED over twelve years ago.  Enough is enough!)

On my street we believe it’s always better to be honest about something than it is to deny it.  No matter what it is.  Because it will – mark my words – come up at some point.

If you’ve killed someone, stolen some priceless treasure, faked your own death, and have problems with your mother – just get over yourself and be honest about it.  There are people who can help you.  Maybe not the 95% who will judge you, condemn you, or blame you for not living up to their expectations – I’m talking about the other 5% who will be supportive and understanding.  (This is the same 5%, it seems, who favor the separation of Church and State.)  If you make the choice, however, to deny it and pretend nothing happened – well, you will have a miserable life and die unhappy.

If you feel like the whole world is against you, or your life changes dramatically, simply eat something spicy and you’ll be fine.  You might even find the courage to do away with all that crap and move on.

(Originally published in Aftertaste Magazine, 2004)

PRIORITIZE YOUR TIME

I’m aware that our modern world isn’t easy to negotiate through.  I know people have jobs, bills to pay, the need to put food on the table, shuttle kids to and from school or band practice or play practice or that sports game.  I get it.  But, if you’re really good at time management, you can do all this and write scripts, make movies, and so forth.

I know it’s possible to write a screenplay in less than a week and get paid $15,000 for it.  I know because that happened to me.  But, I also know that I’m incredibly diligent in time management when it comes to something like that.  If my goal is to write a script in a week or so, and I’m getting paid 15 grand for it, I know that there is no time to waste at the gym, or on the phone chatting with friends, or texting and tweeting the lastest news.

I don’t think twice about just shutting the phone off, or telling friends and family that I’m going back in the “writing cave” or the “editing cave” or whatever.  Most people appreciate it and respect that, and understand the situation.

Other people don’t understand it, and that’s when it can become problematic.  Everybody has a needy friend who has a personality that if you don’t return his or her call or text immediately, they take it personally and think you’re mad at them.  Then, by the time you’ve re-emerged from the cave, your friend hates you and you don’t understand why.

Well, I’m here to say, screw ‘em.  Needy people are trouble.  Ask yourself which is more important?  Do you want to finish your script, your edit, your work or your art—or do you want to make sure you’re holding on to social obligations that have nothing to do with supporting your goals?  True friends, and people who support you and your goals, will always be there for you, regardless.  So I say “screw ‘em” to the rest because they’ll eventually just start sucking out your life force like leeches.

Now, I understand it’s easy for me to go into a creative cave of any sort because I don’t have pets, I don’t’ have children, and I’m not keen on frivolous social obligations with people I barely know.  But, I’ve made the decision that right now it’s the part of my life where I need to focus on myself.  So I don’t have pets on purpose.

Scheduling is also an important part of managing one’s time.  I can totally juggle the responsibilities of earning a living, putting food on the table, and also creating my art.  But I might not be able to do them all at the same time.  Sometimes it’s possible to block out two hours a day for writing, or six hours a day for earning a paycheck, or one hour a week to write a blog article.  But, unless I write it down in my planner, and keep to the schedule, it becomes impossible to manage everything.

I know some of you might be gifted when it comes to time management and scheduling yourself.  And I know that some of you might really struggle with it.  My only advice is to make it a habit.  I think it only takes something like two weeks to make something a habit.  Start small, by getting a daily planner or learning how to operate the calendar on your smart phone.  Set alerts for yourself.

Most importantly, ask yourself if there are any things in your current lifestyle that impede your ability to work on your art, or reach your goals.  Are some of those things necessary?  Can you do without them?  Or, if you must have them (say you aren’t ready to send Fido to your neighbor’s house to live), can you think of ways to keep those things and also achieve your goals?

There’s no excuse to avoid achieving your goals.  There is simply time management and figuring out HOW you can achieve them no matter what.

STORYBOARDS

You don’t need to have elaborately sketched storyboards in full color with photo realistic details, but it is a good idea to have something planned and sketched.

I learned how to make storyboards before shooting something out of instinct, but there are a lot of filmmakers who have used the process in history.  Hitchcock is well-known for his storyboards—which were elaborately crafted and stunning in their own right.

Hitchcock storyboards for The Birds

When I made the storyboards for my film FIRECRACKER it took me weeks, and I did craft them with elaborately drawn details.  Partly because I wanted to communicate to the actors and crew exactly what each frame would look like.  When you are communicating something visually, it’s very important to show what it is you’re saying, in addition to saying it verbally.  Just saying we’ll shoot a “close up on that actress” can mean virtually endless options, taken from any angle, anywhere.  Do you mean profile, back of the head, face, three quarter turn?  Draw it.  Then we’ll know what you mean.

Again, your storyboards don’t have to be pretty.  It helps when they are, but the purpose of a storyboard isn’t much different than a screenplay.  They are merely means to communicate to whomever you are showing, what you’re about to do.  Sometimes, they aren’t meant to be shown to anyone.

When I draw storyboards, they’re for me to see and not really anyone else.  Of course, if someone wanted to see them, they can.  But the sole purpose is so that when I get to the set, I know exactly what I need to shoot, where, and how.

Storyboards from my film The Far Flung Star

They can be stick figures, crappy drawings, anything.  It doesn’t matter.  Are you making fancy cartoons and publishing high-quality graphic novels?  No, you’re making storyboards for your movie.  Keep in check.

When I’m sketching storyboards for a scene, I plan on sketches for an entire scene taking up only one sheet of paper.  I write the scene number on the top of each page, and once the Master Plan is complete, I can organize the pages of storyboard sheets behind each day of the schedule.  So all my shots are there for quick reference each day.

Dennis Hopper and I talked about this at length in his living room.  He felt that making storyboards was a great way to plan the vision of a scene, but that once you got on the set and the characters came to life, sometimes it could hurt to rely so coldly on the storyboards.  Especially if there was some kind of magic happening outside of the planning.  I agreed.

It’s a very good idea to do storyboards, even if you never refer to them.  I like doing them because I know that so long as I accomplish capturing those things, we’re golden.  Say you’re up until 3 AM dealing with a diva actor who needs babying, and you get little sleep, and the next day you show up on set feeling like a zombie and have no idea what to do.  This has never happened to me, but it has to a lot of filmmakers I know.  In that moment, so long as you’re prepared and organized, you’ll be able to make it through your day on auto-pilot.  So, plan something, even if it’s the bare minimum.

And be free.  Give yourself the freedom to capture something you hadn’t thought of before.  Actors will do certain things that inspire new shots, new angles.  If you get to the set and are inspired by the lighting, or architecture, or atmosphere, give yourself the freedom to scrap the planned storyboards and capture something new and in-the-moment.