Want to learn how to make a movie? This seasoned crew has some advice for you.
I love getting filmmaking tips from writers and directors, but let’s be honest, there are so many jobs across the industry that matter. That’s why I was so excited that almost the entire crew from The Paper Tigers was interested in giving our readers some advice.
The Paper Tigers was written and directed by Bao Tran and tells the story of some students seeking to avenge the death of their slain martial arts master within the annals of… Seattle. It’s a fun twist on old tropes.
Keep reading to hear what the crew learned making such a fun and exciting film. And check it out when it debuts on May 3!
Tips and Tricks from the Filmmaking Team Behind The Paper Tigers
Susan La Salle – Unit Production Manager
When The Paper Tigers director Bao Tran and his producers approached me to production manage their kung fu action movie, I was curious, excited, intrigued, and thought to myself, not everyone gets the opportunity to say “when I was on the kung fu movie…”
I took about 15 minutes to mull it over and responded with a resounding yes. I was particularly eager for the challenge of taking a budget that I had not participated in creating and seeing if I could work within those constraints. As a production manager, that meant working inside someone else’s box, not my own, which was freeing in a way, because decisions had to be made based on someone else’s perspective on how the money should be spent.
The producer team had spent seven years prepping for this film when I was asked to step in with my indie film experience as a production manager to execute their dream. They knew the film they were trying to make and had assembled a great cast but most of the logistical components, from production office to locations and crew were yet to be determined.
Experience is the most critical component when it comes to implementing a budget, and hiring experienced people makes the biggest difference. Because of the nature of the film, the quality of the script, and the people already associated with it, we were able to attract experienced people working as keys that really knew how to stretch the budget. These people in turn were able to get other highly skilled people to accomplish director Bao Tran’s vision.
Nothing like this happens without an enormous behind-the-scenes effort from people dedicated to their craft. The Paper Tigers chose Seattle as the setting because of its historical perspective for both the genre and the place, with Bruce Lee as the godfather of the modern American kung fu movie. This film had everything to challenge production management: stunts, locations, and pyrotechnics. We had a multicultural and diverse crew, with women and people of color in key positions. What we did not have in money, we made up for with heart and determination.
Where we were mostly under-budgeted was in locations, which is common for indie films because often when budgeting there is an assumption that locations will either be donated or won’t be expensive to shoot in. Scenes are often written in scripts without logistical considerations. The writer has a vision and sees the scene play out and knows how it looks, and that imagination is based on some form of conceived reality. Big-budget Hollywood films foster the perception that anything imaginable is possible. Those films set the benchmark of what is achievable, and the ultimate challenge in indie filmmaking is somehow trying to make the film feel bigger than its indie budget. The locations department and art department play a huge role in this.
The final scene in The Paper Tigers called for a rooftop with a view of the city of Seattle. It’s one of those big, critical scenes that needed to look bigger than its budget. We needed a rooftop that was affordable and accessible, one that we could take over and control, and one that could structurally handle the load of an entire film crew and equipment. We were fortunate to find a rooftop in the central district that we could make work, and unfortunate to have the most epic thunder and lightning storm Seattle has seen in decades perfectly coincide with our shooting schedule for those scenes.
We had 40 people on a rooftop ready to go, and we didn’t have tomorrow because this is the last day of filming, and without this scene, the film won’t work—so the stakes are high. But in the epic battle of budget and safety, safety wins, which meant holding everyone for several hours in the middle of the night while the storm passed, and decimating the budget for those scenes that we had worked so hard to preserve. We were finally able to shoot the scenes thanks to a highly skilled stunt crew and well-rehearsed actors, and thankfully no one was struck by lightning.
You have to choose safety over budget which leads to subsequent budgetary changes; less money left to work with and even more limitations.
Indie filmmaking is an attempt to do the impossible with the resources that are available and dare to somehow pull off a miracle and make a great film in the process. My job is all about, how much is that miracle going to cost?
Wing Lee – Production Designer
“You’ve gotta have heart!”
We had very little money but a lot of heart. I became involved with The Paper Tigers through my friend, actor Celia Au, who introduced me to Bao Tran. Learning about his eight-year journey in raising money and shaping this project convinced me that the trip to Seattle from New York was definitely worth it. I loved that this was a story by an Asian, about Asians, with a lot of Asians in it and centered around kung fu. That the filming will all be in Seattle was especially poignant. A martial arts movie where Bruce Lee lived and was buried. That’s certainly a high bar worth aspiring to.
At my first meeting with Bao, the challenges of the project were clear. We will have to make it work on a very tight budget. With a two-week countdown to the first day of filming, every bit of help was needed and we have to get the biggest bang for our buck. I shared a two-bedroom condo in the Public Market area with DP Shaun Mayor, generously provided by Del Louie. Until the production office in Shoreline was opened, I spent a few days breaking down the script, researching for the story, meeting with the team, and eating some great Seattle seafood. It was beginning to feel like family.
Bao needed to be in Los Angeles for casting. Having to scout multiple new locations barely one week from the tech scout without the director was daunting. With Seattle native UPM Susan LaSalle assuming point driving First AD John Nolan and me, we pulled through with long hours in the car.
On a film like this where there is so much fight choreography and stunt work, there has to be close coordination between the art department and the stunt team of action director Ken Quitugua, along with stunt coordinators Kerry Wong and Sam Looc. The climactic scene on the rooftop would require a lot of attention and work. We continued to search and lockdown locations even on “off” days when we were not filming. At times it was nail-bitingly close.
Filming on rooftops poses its own set of safety, logistical, and lighting requirements, and let’s not forget the actual scripted final fight scene between Danny and Zhen Fan played by Ken. As the prep for the film progressed, we settled on a roof with a view of the downtown area. The owner had specific requirements we had to meet in order to film. We needed to lay down a protective layer of plywood over a substantial portion of the roof.
Portable metal barriers were to be placed along the edges for safety and to guard against accidental falls. To avoid wasting valuable time moving and hiding these elements during filming, I decided to embrace them. We turned the roof into a construction site. Part of my job is to help give the director and stunt team interesting choices. This motivated us to dress the roof with a variety of construction materials such as pallets of roofing supplies, bricks, tools, sawhorses, drums of tar, etc. I also designed a small seven-foot-high nondescript roof structure. All of these components helped create an obstacle course for the climactic cat-and-mouse chase and fight sequences.
As this scene took place at night, another challenge is lighting it. To help with this, I had several metal “smokestacks” built and installed strategically around the roof with SPFX smoke. This gave a nice sense of atmospheric movement in the background that can be lit. The idea of a suggested inferno seemed like the right mood.
It was quite a scene installing the rooftop with producers Al’n Duong and Dan Gildark hammering plywood on their hands and knees, stapling roofing material while another team worked with producer Michael Velasquez, hoisting endless sheets of plywood up from the street using a winch system put together by Jimmy Hudnall. In addition, all of the camera and lighting equipment had to be brought up to the roof by making numerous trips in the one passenger elevator available for load-in.
Another important set that needed special attention was the kung fu school. We didn’t have the money to build it, so it had to be a location we could dress. We found a community center in University Heights with empty rooms which had the right look for a potential kung fu school. This set was a result of enthusiastic local contributions in many ways. Seattle kung fu schools provided much of the set dressing including an actual Wing Chun practice dummy and several weapons racks. Master Mak Fai allowed the art department free access to his personal weapons, props, lion heads, banners, and photos from his two schools. Set decorator Lisa Hammond was able to connect us with a world-renowned Chinese calligrapher who wrote all of the couplets and brushed calligraphy signage we see.
All the traditional banners signifying events, congratulatory gifts, and martial arts contests won by Carter’s school were sewn by producer Al’n Duong’s mother-in-law. To show the long history of the school and style of kung fu taught there, we tapped into old family portraits of grandfathers and uncles from our art department coordinator Jinny Chung’s collection. On the set, they became old portraits of past masters and teachers. These were important visual elements as we wanted to showcase Carter’s school as successful and flourishing with a rich tradition.
We also worked with our stunt team to provide breakaway pieces and action props for the fight sequences at the school. The room available for our filming was meant for dance instruction which had an entire wall of mirrors. Art director Jasmine Cho was able to cover the mirrors with white contact paper and store-bought crown and chair rail moldings to create a seamless match to the existing walls.
Then we have the issue of lighting the set. The lighting department needed to put up a grid supported by four truss columns that must be covered. Montana Tippett, who came on board to help with construction, came up with a solution to clad the columns so the truss portion would not be visible. These columns blended quite well into the rest of the set.
These are just a couple of the many locations and sets in the movie. One can understand, as the saying goes, “it takes a village” to make a film. All the producers took a hands-on approach in helping every department and filling in wherever needed. This attitude of diving in and getting their hands dirty from the top leadership proved to be absolutely contagious in encouraging the many volunteers and interns to do the same. Community and family support was paramount to the success of this film. From Yuji Okumoto’s contacts at the Japanese Community Center to long-time friends of the production for generously providing locations or volunteering a place for out-of-town crew to stay, as well as graphics designed by Jasmine Cho’s mother for the film. This was a genuine grassroots project. For me, The Paper Tigers was certainly one of the best and most satisfying film experiences I’ve had.
A sad epilogue… as so many of you out there know, John Nolan, our 1st AD, passed from COVID-19. I got to know John on this movie and will miss him. May the film Gods in Heaven forever hand him next day’s call sheet.
Shaun Mayor – Cinematographer
I never thought I would ever be fortunate enough to shoot a feature-length kung fu film in my hometown along with the added bonus of doing it with childhood friends. After literal years of perseverance from our director Bao Tran, our producers Al’n Duong, Michael Velasquez, Dan Gildark, and Yuji Okumoto, the summer of 2019 made it so.
Upon reading the script, the scene that really grabbed me was the flashback “glory days” of our Three Tigers. I think this brought a lot of us back to what was ultimately our foundations of filmmaking: stealing our dad’s video cameras.
Back in high school our action director Ken Quitugua and I would spend our free time shooting fight scenes with friends while emulating our favorite Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, and Jet Li movies. When discussing the creative approach for our montage with the Tigers in their prime, Bao and I were adamant about keeping this close to home. So I went on eBay and found us a Sony Hi 8 camera that was similar to my dad’s. Bao and I were aware that shooting a portion on this camera would keep us from meeting certain acquisition requirements, but we both felt that this needed to be authentic, and I’m very happy that we stuck with our guns.
The rest of the film was shot on an ARRI Alexa Mini. A camera system I’m very familiar with and everyone knows is tried and true. Upon choosing our camera and lenses I knew form factor had to be a consideration for the number of car interiors the script had along with the amount of handheld required for essentially nine rounds of fight scenes.
We were telling a story of flawed characters that take us on a very haphazard journey. I knew the glossiest modern lenses weren’t what this story called for. We went with Zeiss Superspeeds and embraced the nuances of some of their imperfections much like our main characters. My gaffer Drew Nelson and I also approached our lighting in a similar fashion. We weren’t placing “superheroes” on a pedestal, so we didn’t light our characters that way. We mainly were motivated by accenting what was natural and also designing what we felt would be natural for our locations.
We faced many typical challenges that an indie film faces: budget constraints, shortened prep schedules, losing locations etc. But I think the biggest challenge that we faced was battling mother nature while on the rooftop of a six-story building. On our final three days of principal, one of the biggest thunderstorms Seattle had seen in decades rolled through and shut us down for at least four hours. There was a point where I wasn’t sure if we’d be able to complete the film.
While we were waiting for the storm to pass, Bao and Ken were able to trim our shot list to what was absolutely essential. Thankfully I had an incredibly experienced crew behind me. My gaffer Drew Nelson, key grip Joe Heath, and 1st AC Jesse Amorratanasuchad all kept their cool. We were able to complete the final shot on Bao’s list just as the sun rose. When it was go-time everyone stepped up and carried this film to the finish line.
Not every independent film is blessed with a crew that will step up like ours did. We were definitely one of the lucky ones.
Kris Kristensen – Editor
The Paper Tigers was edited on a Mac Mini (2018) with 3.2 GHz 6-Core Intel Core i7 with 64 GB of ram. We used Adobe Premiere CC 2019. Not sure what our drive system was, you’ll have to check with my assistant Vanessa Williams who is the technical mastermind behind all of this… I just cut. Also, we had no internet in the building, so that was fun.
When people watch The Paper Tigers and think “editing,” most will go straight for the fight scenes. They are beautifully cut.
Full disclosure: I didn’t cut any of those scenes.
When Bao initially approached me about editing the film, it was very clear that I would edit the drama, and that either he or Ken Quitugua (our fight director) was going to cut the action elements. That said, if you enjoy the fights, I hope it’s partially because I contributed by editing the drama and comedy scenes that buttress them and make you care about our main characters.
Our first assembly clocked in at just shy of three hours, so we knew something had to come out. For me, it was easy… there was an entire subplot of Jim having gone down the path of teaching for money instead of honor, and while it was a good storyline, it felt distracting. For starters, tonally it lacked much of the humor that the rest of the film had that gave it so much heart. Thematically, it did underscore the theme of doing something for honor instead of money, but I felt it didn’t strike it hard enough. Most importantly though, it unbalanced the story.
The Paper Tigers are Danny, Jim, and Hing, but ultimately this is Danny’s story. He’s the one who keeps running from his responsibilities, so I thought we should focus on that alone. Hing’s story arch really already happened before the movie starts, so that left us with two out of three characters with an arc, and it didn’t feel like a team—it felt like a tripod with two long legs and one short one, so it just made sense to start chopping wood there. Even then we only lost maybe 20 to 25 minutes. The remaining time that we lost just came through a thousand cuts.
The second big issue for me was that any scenes with the Three Tigers working together against a common enemy just flowed, whether their opponent was their childhood rival Carter, the new street punks, or their current antagonist Zhen Fan. However, when it was the three tigers alone, they all got along so well that the scenes lacked an underlying tension. Initially, the Danny/Jim conflict was diffused by the time they’d finished their first beers together, they’d put all of their differences aside in the name of avenging their Sifu.
Recognizing the tension against their foes vs. the camaraderie between the tigers, I came up with the idea to just milk whatever stress I could find between Danny and Jim. For example, Danny may make a joke, but then instead of Jim laughing along as it had been shot, I would cut to him staring daggers at Danny, and then find a reaction of Danny looking like he’d been reprimanded. Then if we had it, I’d cut to a reaction of Hing either trying to yuck it up or looking disappointed that the gang’s not yet quite back together. Hing is the heart of the group, not just the physical healer, but also the spiritual healer trying to mend their wounds.
Ultimately, I think it strengthened the ending, because Danny and Jim finally set aside all of their pettiness for the showdown. Together they recommit to the oath that they took as teens and are able to recreate the event that separated them, only this time it brings them closer together. Had we not created the tension between them throughout the entire film up until the end, that commitment to one another would have felt flat.
Just goes to show what you can do by leaving a few choice shots on the editing room floor.
Ken Quitugua – Action Director
When Bao first told me about this film, it was nothing more than a one-page treatment and some loose character ideas. It would take a few more years to flesh out the story but it was immediately clear that he was not interested in creating your typical kung fu fare. Drawn to his unconventional approach, I was completely sold on the concept and wanted in on the action. Aware that we would all be pushed beyond our creative limits, I knew this was going to be an opportunity worth every bit of hustle and heart.
Those early talks and brainstorm sessions would serve as the foundation to our design. The main characters were defined as living legends, years past their prime and a bit reluctant to come out of retirement. Their movements and mannerisms served as a reflection of these traits, and everyone they fought would help accentuate their flawed condition. Most kung fu movie heroes are defined by swift physical prowess and a high body count. Not the case for our Three Tigers.
Instead, we set our sights on making “bad” look good. But finding a balance between authentic techniques mixed with the hilarity of stiff muscles and bum knees proved to be a tall order. Thankfully we had a cast fully committed to the concept, putting their trust in our vision. Every physical performance exemplified the team’s willingness and dedication to bring this story to life.
Just the same as with any independent film, the process didn’t come without its obstacles. Technical resources were lean, and shoot schedules were ambitious.
The script plotted out 15 unique fights (eight in the VHS intro alone) involving over 17 performers and a handful of training sequences. If we were ever to see this through, it would require hours of meticulous planning and coordination with other departments. Despite all the forethought, we were constantly challenged to innovate at a moment’s notice. Thankfully I had the support of our incredibly talented stunt coordinators, Kerry Wong and Sam Looc. They brought years of experience and creativity to the table and were always willing to step in to help bring out the best in each performance. Both made huge contributions, not only on the stunt safety side of things but also in the artistic execution of every fight.
Despite all the sore muscles and creative tensions, it was by far the most creatively rewarding project I had ever been part of. Watching this grow from a one-page treatment to what we see on screen is a testament to the amazing family of collaborators we have bonded over the years. Being stretched beyond our creative (sometimes physical) comfort zones paid off in so many ways, as it was truly an experience of a lifetime.
Daniel L.K. Caldwell – Composer
One of the earliest and biggest challenges about scoring The Paper Tigers was finding a musical palette that matched the tone of the film. Striking a balance between a modern sound and Chinese influences proved to be quite a process. While the score needed to bolster intense faceoffs and fight scenes, it also needed to complement the comedic side of the film. We ended up using some hip-hop elements blended with traditional Chinese instruments like the guzheng, ruan, and dizi flute.
There’s a scene in the middle of the film where our heroes face off with one of their former rivals and take turns matching up with him. This scene uses comedy hand in hand with the action and required a meticulously timed musical cue that matched the many hit points of the fight and supported the comedic elements sprinkled throughout, while still feeling like a fluid piece of music. While it took a lot of time and tweaking to get right, this was one of the most satisfying scenes to work on.
Michael Velasquez – Producer
This post started off as an alcohol-fueled rant against all the ridiculous and unnecessary bullshit you have to wade through in order to gain a single inch in feature filmmaking. Ultimately, I realize that my feelings on indie film aren’t going to be useful to anyone. If you frequent NFS like I do, then it’s already too late. You’re in love.
So instead I’ve compiled some anecdotal advice (and a few more feelings) that I hope will help you with your film if you’re just starting out. I am by no means an experienced producer and didn’t deal directly with all these situations myself. Some of this is based on my observations on how our other producers and department heads worked, hustled, and bled. Like most of you NFS readers, I cut my teeth on my own no-budget short films as well as those of my friends.
Most of the core team from The Paper Tigers first came together on writer/director Bao Tran’s short film Bookie way back in 2006. We were bright-eyed kids firing on all cylinders, and there was such a scrappy, magical energy working on that production. Even after we’d all since moved on in our professional lives, there was always the pull to get the band back together to repeat what was, for me at least, the best on-set experience I’ve ever had. When Bao asked us to work on The Paper Tigers, I think we all leaped at the chance.
This was it: we were going to make our first feature together. We were going to bring back the magic and do it our way.
Six years of development hell later, after a long streak of shortsighted, cynical, and even some downright racist rejections from potential investors and production partners, we still hadn’t secured a fraction of the funding required to greenlight the feature. But creators want to create, so we decided to use what private funding we’d scrounged up to shoot all the flashback scenes as a SAG Ultra Low Budget project (at the time, meaning a total budget of less than $250,000, but we had considerably less than that).
Making the jump from homegrown short films to an Ultra Low Budget project was eye-opening. This was a huge decision that involved a lot of self-reflection and honest dialogue, especially because during this time, our lives outside of filmmaking were starting to force our hand as to whether some of us could continue on the project.
In retrospect, it’s pretty amazing that our core team trusts each other enough to have even had these sometimes very intense conversations with each other and still come out as friends on the other side. I can’t stress enough how important it is that you surround yourselves with solid producers and department heads. As they say, shit rolls downhill, so if there’s too much discord at the top, then the rest of your process and everyone involved will eventually be covered in shit.
“Hire good people” might sound like pretty obvious advice, but we’ve all heard stories of projects that were tanked or made unbearable by one or two individuals. You don’t need to be a part of that. If the bad apple is the primary investor, find other investors. If they’re a “name” you think you need to get a green light, find another name. You don’t want to subject yourself to months or years of anxiety because you attached yourself to the wrong people.
The decision to shoot our flashbacks as a standalone project was a gamble, but it turned out to be the right one. Doing so enlivened our creative juices, shook off our production cobwebs, and gave us footage we used to woo investors and run what was, I would argue, a groundbreaking $124,000 Kickstarter campaign spearheaded by our rainmaking producer Al’n Duong.
Let me be clear, this process wasn’t without its caveats, especially when it came to integrating that footage into the feature at large in terms of casting and the Unions, but DM me for details if you’re in a similar situation, because it’s pretty esoteric stuff.
Making the jump from Ultra Low Budget on our flashback shoot to Modified Low Budget on the actual feature (at the time, meaning a total budget less than $1,050,000 with SAG’s Diversity-in-Casting incentive) was downright transformative, meaning it completed my transformation into a cynical grump. Hopefully, the following advice is more practical in nature, but please, still take it with a grain of salt.
Make sure you engage with an experienced line producer early on, ideally one who has worked in the same cities you are shooting in, or at the very least, someone that’s worked in a broad range of cities. The more connections they have in a particular city, the more easily they can generate a budget for you using real-world amounts, based on deals they know they can get from various vendors.
Make sure the line producer has experience dealing with unions, because certain unions will do whatever they can to raise your budget in order to get their members paid more. Listen to your line producer’s advice. If you’re constantly telling them to lower the budget because you need to hit a certain number, this will bite you in the ass when you can’t get what you need for that amount.
During development, we had a veteran line producer that kept increasing our budget as the project evolved, at one point pushing us from Modified Low Budget into Low Budget territory which could potentially have killed the project before it even started. However, after we parted ways and then eventually moved into pre-production, most of their projections turned out to be true, and we ended up having to massively reevaluate multiple stages of production in order to compensate and keep our budget down. Looking back, it would have been better to keep them on board and engage in debate over the ever-increasing budget rather than have the budget suddenly increase for several reasons that had been anticipated but pushed aside early on.
Using the decision to shoot in Seattle as one of many examples, there used to be two grip and lighting houses in the region, but now there’s only one, so there is no price shopping and no alternatives nearby. When this company backed out of a verbal agreement, it almost screwed us. Fortunately, by the time this emergency popped up, Seattle native Susan LaSalle was on board as UPM and she was able to help us navigate the situation. I only wished we brought her on sooner. It still cost us more than expected, though, and had we heeded advice earlier on, it could have been mitigated at least.
It’s understandable that at some point, your ambitions are going to outweigh your budget. And in the end, your line producer is your employee and not your boss. But if you bring someone aboard to provide a service because they know more about that service than you, make sure you’re giving them the benefit of the doubt.
Along the same track, absolve yourself of the notion that you are anybody’s boss on an indie film set. Odds are, you’re paying your crew the bare minimum you can afford. Some may be doing a favor for another crew member or were vouched for by one of your department heads. Some are there because they generally love the process or want more experience. Many will have one foot out the door from the start. Remember that no one cares about your film more than you. And you can’t push anyone on set as hard as you push yourself.
Being an indie film producer means taking on any task that you can’t afford to pay or convince someone else to do, which is going to be a lot of tasks. Get used to it (I still haven’t). Did you do some accounting in a past life? Great, now you’re the production accountant. Did you volunteer to fill out some early paperwork for SAG? Awesome, you’re now our union liaison. Own a successful restaurant business? Perfect, thanks for handling catering on all the days we couldn’t cover otherwise.
Some crew will respect you for this hustle. Others will find it condescending. A few will outright disrespect you. Suck it up, eat your humble pie, and save it for your war stories. If you’re very lucky, you’ll be able to support the people who deserve it and never again have to see the people that don’t.
You’ve probably heard filmmakers say they want as much of their budget as possible “to be seen on screen.” I think what they’re usually referring to is fancy, expensive cameras, lighting, and lenses to chase that “cinematic” look. Or maybe they plan to spend a chunk of their budget on one or two big, interesting locations.
If you really want your budget up on screen, then what you actually need is time. Few things can waste more time than inexperienced, overworked crew holding a grudge. And few things can create time in a crunch better than an experienced, well-oiled crew with a clear goal in mind. If you give your camera team the most expensive, cutting-edge cameras, lenses, and lighting in the world, it won’t mean a damn thing without good people to wield them. A resourcefully creative production designer and art department can turn an empty square room into a long-established kung fu school or a dingy molding basement.
“Putting it all on screen” to me means investing in people’s power.
To that effect, pay your crew as much as you can afford. I think most people understand they’ll be making less than their going rate on an indie feature, but don’t expect skilled, talented individuals to work for free just because you’re so darn passionate about the project that you promise will be a real winner and lead to more actually paying gigs. I understand there’s a lot of great myth-making surrounding the ambitious, no-budget indie-that-could. But once you’ve worked on a few projects and experienced the cognitive dissonance between cast and crew press interviews versus the actual experience of being on set, you’ll realize a lot of those narratives are either lip service to avoid bad press or straight-up lies to avoid burning bridges.
Make it a point not to pay anyone less than minimum wage, and also respect your state’s labor laws and rules regarding overtime. That’s not as obvious a statement as it seems.
Paying people money holds them accountable, even if it’s the minimum. Remember that anyone working for free has the incentive to bail anytime they want. If the only obligation your volunteer labor has toward you is close friendship, on a long shoot they may come to resent being there. And I promise you the last thing you want on set is anyone who doesn’t want to be there.
I have no idea why potential crew will pitch themselves so hard for low- or no-paying projects, but they do. No matter what promises they’ve made, during the hiring process, ask them straight up if they can afford to work on your project for this amount of pay over this amount of time. Make sure they disclose scheduling conflicts in advance.
Commit them to find their own replacement, and schedule that in advance as well. As long as you know ahead of time, you can continue production for a few days replacing even the most essential crew. Odds are, their second is able and willing to step up. Along the same line, don’t be afraid to let go of someone that’s not working out. The timeline during production is so compressed, you can’t afford dead weight and negative energy to drown you. Sometimes, it can be better to bring on some fresh energy and let them play catch up rather than continue on with someone who’s constantly dragging you down.
You may be able to convince great crew to work for a shit rate, but eventually, they’ll be unhappy and/or phone it in. You can find inexperienced or below-average crew for a low rate, but too often you’ll get what you pay for, and you’ll probably lose even more money in time wasted due to their inexperience and below-averageness. Start with a department head position and interview a few people you’d be genuinely excited to work with. Let them know you can’t afford to pay them what they’re worth but you don’t want your rate to be insulting. Feel them out and once you land on a rate with one of them that you’re both mutually satisfied with, that becomes your department head rate across the board. You’ll have an easier time convincing the next department head to work for this lower rate if they know others are already on board and being paid exactly the same amount. Now do the same thing with the following crew positions on down. Because your department heads feel they’re being treated fairly, they’ll be more willing to bring in people they’ve worked with before and already trust.
Once you step up in the budget, volunteers become tricky. The indie film survives on the backs of volunteers, and we lucked out with all ours. But you need to be very upfront about the responsibilities you expect them to take on. If you’re not at least paying for their mileage or providing even a tiny stipend, you literally have no leg to stand on should they walk off the project.
Again, you’re not really anyone’s boss on an indie project. The best you can do is make the work environment as pleasant as possible. Just like crew, ask your volunteers for their schedules in advance and ask them to find their own replacements if possible. You don’t have any authority over your volunteers, but you have a lot of goodwill and potential; don’t waste either.
Feed people well. Whatever you’ve got budgeted for meals and crafty right now, increase it, and then add some additional contingency. Hit up local restaurants for discounts or see if they’d be willing to donate meals, beverages, etc. through your fiscal sponsorship in exchange for a tax write-off (read the conditions of what can be donated through your fiscal sponsor carefully). If you have private investors, see if they have any hookups, or maybe they want to buy lunch for the cast and crew one day. I thought it sounded crazy at first to ask people who’d already invested thousands of dollars to now put even more money toward our movie, but it turns out investing makes them feel—well, more invested. It’s now literally their movie too.
If you want to shoot for eight hours each day, you should be budgeting for at least 10 hours of labor. To get 12 hours of shooting, budget for at least 14 hours of labor. Certain crew positions will require even more time than that. It’s not like everyone shows up on set at exactly the right time every day, immediately ready to rock and roll. And the workday doesn’t end just because your actors have gone home. You need to account for each department to get set up at the beginning of the day and then clean up, break down, and secure everything at the end of the day. You’ll need even more time whenever you end, then start at a different location. There are certain crew members who need to arrive in advance of everyone else and may also be the last to leave at the end of the day. Assume drivers transporting equipment to set and then back to storage or the next location will go into overtime every single day.
It adds up very quickly and can sneak up on you if you’re not prepared. You need to identify these crew positions and account for their overtime in your budget.
The same goes for your actors. On location, their day starts when they get picked up from their hotel and ends when they get dropped back off. Add to that their time in wardrobe and hair and makeup and suddenly two hours are gone that can’t be used in front of the camera. To an earlier point, your line producer and UPM should already know all of this and will budget accordingly. If you force them to back into a certain number against these known costs, then your budget is inaccurate.
You’ve probably heard about the SAG bond. When budgeting, make sure you research the various security deposits you need to pay early on. I would loop production insurance into this pot because it’s an expense you’ll have to front the cash for before you can even start hiring crew or securing locations. Make sure you research the various labor laws for the state(s) you’re shooting in, including minimum wage, workers comp, minor work permits, and various other fringes so you can account for them in your budget. Almost two years out from wrap, we’re still filing paperwork on this stuff.
Another thing to keep in mind is Residuals Reserves. SAG requires you to make a deposit on this before your actors can start rehearsals and contractually, they can keep this money for no less than two years if you don’t meet certain requirements moving forward. SAG will run a sales estimate for your film to determine the amount. Google “Residuals Reserve FAQ pamphlet pdf” for more information.
The DGA also needs a security deposit, though depending on how many DGA crew you have and your budget, it could be significantly less than SAG’s. Also, the DGA works its butt off to make sure you can start production. So their deposit goes a long way. We didn’t have to deal with any other unions at our budget level, but if you do, then you need to account for all the extra costs like pension and health, unemployment insurance, workers’ comp, etc. for any unions you’re hiring from.
SAG requires a minimum 10% contingency added to your budget. This is probably common knowledge among line producers, but at one point we took over the creation of the budget and were constantly lowering the contingency in order to keep the numbers down. Once we submitted our budget for SAG approval, which is mandatory before your actors can start work, we were required to increase our contingency and thus our overall budget, which of course meant cutting funds elsewhere.
If you’re planning to edit in Adobe Premiere, make sure your DIT and assistant editor know not to use Premiere’s “Merge Clips” function when syncing your audio and video. It might make things easier for your editor but will cause problems when sending your files to your post sound team. I don’t understand all the details, but a cursory Google search will show you there have been issues exporting AAF files with merged clips for a very long time now with no fix from Adobe in sight.
Additionally, Premiere’s Project Manager for consolidating your files is so buggy it’s effectively useless (another issue that’s been around for a while with no real solution). What this means is you must be specially organized while setting up and also during your editing process in Premiere because you won’t be able to rely on the software to help you organize after the fact. Any drift in organization between data wrangling, transcoding, and editing will be exacerbated in post. So much of post houses’ business models are based on different software never getting along. They are expecting and counting on your inexperience at the start. Don’t encourage them.
See if your production can qualify for fiscal sponsorship through a non-profit organization. No Film School has written on this very subject and was influential in us pursuing one.
With fiscal sponsorship, you can solicit tax-deductible deductible donations and apply for grants without yourself needing to become a 501(c)(3).
Know a lot of people who want to support your film but don’t necessarily want to invest? I’m telling you “tax write-off” are the magic words for tipping supporters in your favor. Now any money or non-cash donations becomes a tax write-off for them. With the right fiscal sponsor, this could be used for housing, meals, vehicles, locations, office space, props, etc. You’ll need to meet certain requirements for fiscal sponsorship that vary depending on which non-profit is sponsoring you; also, there are different limitations on what can be donated, and often requirements the finished product must meet, so read the fine print.
I truly hope some of this is useful and benefits you in your future endeavors. If not, all rights reserved. (You’ll get that joke eventually.)