In 1983 a friend of mine and I embarked on a project of making a short film. The final product ran for 10 minutes and took 3 years of intermittent activity to complete. Our film was a narration of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land with scenes filmed in Sydney. We used a borrowed wind-up Bolex 16mm camera and only spent a few hundred dollars on the project thanks to the generosity of contacts in the film industry.
Since making this film, I have been fascinated with the process of film-making and long to make another using a digital camera.
In the early 1990s, Robert Rodriguez wanted to make a film. He saved some money and borrowed an Arri 16mm camera. The result was El Mariachi, a “Mescian-American action film” originally intended for release for the Mexican home video market.
Rodriguez wrote about his experience in the book “Rebel without a Crew” and states that he made the film for less than $7,000. Most of the cost was for film and processing costs.
Film production is a labour intensive activity with a production usually involving director, cinematographer, sound recorder, microphone boom operator, actors, production assistants and more.
Rodriguez recommends an approach of the solitary film-maker, like he did with El Mariachi. At the back of the his book, he presents his “Ten Minute Film School” which I am summarising below. Here is a YouTube link of Rodriquez presenting his advice.
Here is my summary from the book:
Stop saying you want to be a filmmaker, but change your thinking to say “I am a filmmaker”.
The technical knowledge required to make a film can be learnt in ten minutes.
It’s good to be self-sufficient instead of having to rely on others to get anything done. This is why youneed to be educated in all areas of production.
It’s not your wallet (and money) that makes a movie, but your creativity. The more creativity you can apply to solving your problems, the better your movie can be.
The most important and useful thing you need to be a filmmaker is “experience in movies”. This means using a video camera (borrow it if you have to), record images, and manipulate in an editing environment. Rodriguez used two VCR machines for editing – a most tedious process!
Everyone has at least a dozen or so bad movies in them; the sooner you get them out the beter off you are. Make this films quickly on video – you should be able to make such a short film within a week.
Rodrqigues said his first 15 or 20 short video movies were unwatchable, but learnt a lot from them. He kept making them because he enjoyed the process more than the result. Each film provides experience for the next project.
It’s better to learn to make movie on your own without formal training otherwise your movies will be too formal.
Writing a Screenplay. It’s better to start with original material rather than adapting someone’s work.
Question everythng, make your own rule book and invent your own methods.
Be your own Director of Photography. Grab the camera you can get your hands on fastest and start shooting. Everything else will fall into place. Otherwise you will never get started.
Hold the camera and look at your actor through the lens. Using a camera stand (tripod) will lock the camera down and make the film look stiff and dead. Use camera movements.
Put some energy in your movie! Many people thought El Mariachi looked expensive because the camera was constantly moving.
Before shooting the movie, watch the movie in your head. Play it out in your head, watching it while imagining the actors and angles you’ve chosen. Make a shot list to use as a checklist for filming. Trust your instincts while filming.
With these basics in hand, you can concentrate on the important factors: pacing, characters and story. Is the story compelling? Are the characters interesting? These are the things that matter.
On most movies, I don’t see why someone would need more than fourteen days to shoot them. Minimise the waiting time otherwise waiting will kill your creativity, and kill your energy.
How fast should you shoot? Rehearse it until you think you’ve got it, shoot it, then forget it. Move on.
Now get out there and make that movie!
Work hard and be scary.
El Mariachi – The Trailer
Trailer for El Mariachi
An early short film by Rodriguez with acting by his brother and sister. The opening animation was drawn by Rodriguez.