Anyone Can Shoot

A Beginner’s Guide to Winnipeg indie filmmaking

Winnipeg is a movie makin’ city. Huge talents such as Guy Maddin, Noam Gonick and the Astron-6 crew have been crafting strange and beautiful cinematic gems locally for years. Their work has inspired many others to follow suit and pick up a camera. But it’s not easy. Your idea, your story, your script is only the first small step on a very long journey.

You’re at the bottom of a mountain and you have to climb it.

NSI’s New Voice program. Credit: National Screen Institute

Training

The University of Winnipeg (U of W) and the University of Manitoba (U of M) offer excellent film training programs. If you don’t have a network of like-minded individuals willing to work for free, film school can be a great place to make connections. Students also gain a nurturing environment to creatively fail
without consequences.

Filmmaker Mike Maryniuk, an eight-year veteran of the Winnipeg Film Group, also worked mentoring students on campus with U of W film professor John Kozak.

“Making a film will teach you more about filmmaking than anything else,” Maryniuk says. “The only way to make a great film is to make three or four bad ones first.”

John Titley is a screenwriter, producer and director whose upcoming feature, Free Throw is to be directed by Trailer Park Boys’s Cory Bowles. Titley stresses the importance of a non-judgmental creative atmosphere for first-time filmmakers.

“These institutions give you an opportunity to play,” Titley says. “If you find you enjoy doing it, you’ll want to do it more.”

The National Screen Institute (NSI)’s New Voice program has been running for over a decade, offering a 14-week training course for Aboriginal adults aged 18 - 35. NSI communications coordinator Laura Friesen is enthusiastic about the program, as the curriculum pushes beyond the usual trappings of film school.

“These courses have been developed to include spiritual and cultural aspects,” Friesen says. “While aboriginal youths are learning how to get into the film industry, they may be also connecting with their spiritual heritage.”

L to R: Matthew Kennedy, Adam Brooks, Udo Kier and Connor Sweeney on set of The Editor. Credit: Supplied

Funding

Acquiring funding for a film is a monumental hurdle for every filmmaker, regardless of their place in the industry. Winnipeg Film Group (WFG) offers a First Film Fund, which provides $3000 cash and $2000 in services to rookie filmmakers for the production of a 3-5 minute film. This fund is open to all WFG members who have passed the required
training minimums. 

Jim Agapito, local filmmaker and a U of M film instructor is deeply fervent about the film collective, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year.

“It’s one of the best resources in the city,” Agaptio says.

Crowdfunding, a new avenue for film financing with notable companies including Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, is an entirely different beast. Astron-6’s recent giallo-horror throwback The Editor was partially funded thanks to a refreshingly creative IndieGoGo campaign. Co-writer and director Matthew Kennedy insists crowd-funding is not as straightforward as it seems.

“It’s easier if you have a pre-existing fan base of some sort, which is obviously difficult for people just starting out,” Kennedy says.

Fellow Astron-6 member and Father’s Day co-director Jeremy Gillespie admits the fan base can be helpful, but notes that nothing is guaranteed. Gillespie and Astron-6’s Steven Kostanski have a current IndieGoGo campaign for their upcoming horror film The Void, open for investors until April 6.

“That fan base may only get you so far.” Gillespie says. “We’re finding that the campaign has to be really strong to push beyond friends and family. We want to make a film using practical effects so, it’s about appealing to the audience that wants to see that kind of movie. You have to find the right angle.”

Crowdfunding involves the exchange of perks or gifts that investors can receive for their investment in the project. The quality of the perks varies depending on the size of the investment. An imaginative pitch video must also be included to convey the film’s concept to prospective producers. The video should be entertaining and feature preliminary footage from the final project.

“You need to offer something original and interesting,” Kennedy says. “Go out and shoot something without any money to show the investors, ‘Wow, they’re really gonna do this if I give them the money.’”

The Void. Credit: Jeremy Gillespie

Pre-production

You’re trained and you’re funded. Your next step should be to assemble a crew. The Winnipeg Film Group will come in handy, as they have access to a community of members, who can offer advisement and assistance.

“All filmmakers think they can do everything on-set, but they can’t,” Agapito says.

However, The Editor’s other co-writer and director Adam Brooks agrees, but feels it can also be beneficial to be Jack-of-all-trades.

“It really depends how many jobs you’re willing to do yourself,” Brooks says. He shot the majority of The Editor by himself with only Kennedy, and first assistant director Alex McLellan. “More crew members would make things a lot easier, but who can afford that?”

Whether you decide to fully crew up or not, there are key positions that rookie filmmakers must keep in mind during pre-production. In addition to the obvious cast, writer, and director, here’s a bare-bones crew list:

1. Director of Photography

2. First Assistant Camera Operator

3. First Assistant Director

4. Grip / Gaffer

5. Sound Recordists / Boom Operator

 

Regardless of the number of crew members, these positions must be given careful consideration. The least glamorous jobs are often the most important.

When seeking a cast of actors, filmmakers would be wise to consult any local drama programs, sketch comedy troupes, and acting or improv classes. Anyone comfortable with performing has on-camera potential. Filmmakers themselves should also embrace acting, as playing a role in the film yourself will mean one less actor to drag to set each day.

“There’s a definite learning experience in putting on every hat that you can,” Titley says. “But talent rises to the top. Once you get to a certain level, you eventually have to specialize and choose that one job.”

The Void. Credit: Jeremy Gillespie

Production

Keeping equipment to a minimum is also important when working independently. DSLR cameras are ideal tools for small projects. Even an iPhone can capture some marvelous images and can be equipped with conversion lens and programs to alter with shutter and lens speed.

Sound recording is also simplified via iPhone. Even legendary filmmaker Terry Gilliam used an iPhone to record a key dialogue snippet for his latest, The Zero Theorem. If you have financial leeway, the Zoom H4N sound recorder is a better tool. Agapito insists that audiences will sit through visuals of any quality, ranging from the lushness of a Visconti film to the shabbiness of Kevin Smith’s Clerks, as long as the audio is listenable.

“Sound is 50 per cent of the battle,” Agapito says. “You can edit a bad shot, but not bad audio.”

On-set, first time directors often spend too much time on technical details and not enough with their actors. Time is limited and film sets can be terribly
chaotic environments.

If filmmakers are not careful, they might waste time shooting things that won’t make the final cut. You only shoot a scene if it’s important to the narrative. If it’s not important, why shoot it? Bypass long takes, despite your love for Max Ophüls, to avoid burning out your actors. You also have to feed your actors and crew, even if it’s just something your Mom whipped up. A hungry crew is not a
happy one.

When working with actors, allow them freedom to explore their characters. Do not be afraid to ask them questions about their role and the scene’s subtext.

“Let’s say the scene’s a guy asking a girl to have coffee with him,” Agapito says. “If his eyes are saying he’s only thinking about sleeping with her, that’s the subtext.”

If your lead actor doesn’t know the answers, they probably don’t understand the scene. The director’s most important on-set job could be the management of the crew’s morale. It can be frustrating working a 16-hour day in exchange for coffee and some hummus, although Brooks is quick to joke:

“If we had coffee and hummus, I would expect the morale to be through the roof,” he says. “Another fun morale builder is a game of ‘Sexy Questions,’ which is just what it sounds like.”

Post-production

Hope you enjoyed the wrap party, but now it’s time to edit. First-timers should look into editing software such as Final Cut Pro and Premiere Pro, as both offer state-of-the-art functionality. Editor and filmmaker Ryan McKenna (The First Winter) feels that hiring an outside editor can be especially beneficial to writer-directors.

“When you’re so involved with the project, it’s good to get an outside perspective,” McKenna says. “It’s nice because you can feel sort of sick of the movie by that point.”

The editor would be in charge of putting together an assembly cut to give the director an idea of what footage is available. A rough cut would follow, which the director would oversee before collaborating with the editor on the final cut.

At this point, the director of photography would be brought back to to give colour correction notes and fine-tune the film’s look, before Foley sound effects and the soundtrack are added.

Brooks feels the most common rookie mistake made during the editing process is a lack of ruthlessness.

“It’s hard to be objective when you’ve suffered for something,” Brooks says. “In The Editor, there were scenes set around a telephone booth that were cut. We had paid hundreds of dollars to rent that booth, and I had helped move it across the city. Ultimately, the movie didn’t need it. It hurts, but the audience doesn’t care if you injured yourself or went broke for that phone booth.”

Before you even know it, you’re done. You have a completed first film.

Welcome to the top of the mountain.

Published in Volume 69, Number 24 of The Uniter (March 11, 2015)

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