Running the Asylum: Part II
From monsters to mockbusters: the art of the D.I.Y. moviemaker.
By Holly Grigg-Spall.
In Running the Asylum: Part I, we began our series of interviews with the inmates of film production company The Asylum, who produce a movie per month. Part II concludes these interviews.
Kalie Acheson, Production Designer
1) Being resourceful and thinking outside the box is imperative when taking on a low budget film. Often, I tell art PAs who are starting out to familiarize themselves with the inventory of the local thrift stores and become a bit of a hoarder! Conversations with my team tend to go something like this – “Should we keep that paperwork with blood all over it or toss it?” or “Wait, maybe we should keep the torso of the headless, armless, mannequin…” I am not a packrat in my personal life but in my professional life it is a necessity. The day you throw away the headless mannequin is the day you will be on set and think “Damn, that would have been perfect in that window display.”
2) Time is always the biggest challenge when working within a budget. I am a perfectionist and there is not nearly enough time for perfection. I have learned that you have to be brave and confident with your concepts yet take time into consideration. The Asylum films are exciting and move quickly therefore you have to stay focused and prepare for everything because anything can happen and often times will.
3) I have worked with a range of different budgets and there is a level of creativity that goes into any production design yet the level of ingenuity tends to be greater the smaller the budget. Often, you have directors that have an incredible vision with a budget that is not so incredible so you have to find a way to bring that vision to life regardless of finances. Depending on the script, we normally have a dollar store day when we prep. My crew and I go sifting though the merchandise trying to figure out how we can build props or create obscure set dressings with dollar store household items.
4) With any job, you have a routine but in my field you have to be able to adapt to any situation. One set you will be creating dog and children safe toys and the next you will be asked to create tortuous weapons. I would say the greatest tools are adaptability and a positive, caring attitude.
Robert Stuvland, Post-Production
1) I continue to use Final Cut Pro, for me its still incredibly professional and I know of a lot of people in town who still work on it. It’s easy to use and is ideal for picture editing. I’ve used it for 3 years and I expect to use it for the foreseeable future.
2) I’ve learned quite a lot about hiding some of the rough edges. There’s little tricks I can do where if the camera is locked off on a tripod for multiple takes, and if there is a piece of equipment in the best take, I can use part of the frame from a different take to “mask” over the piece of equipment. I can also “punch in” on the image as a way of hiding something along the far edge of the shot. I add digital zooms into the shot to give the image a little more dynamic style. Little things like that can go a long way especially when dealing with movies that require visual effects. I try to do as much as I can on my end so to make things easier for the VFX artist.
3) You can do little things to make a low budget movie look great but really it’s a group effort. A lazy filmmaker can only be helped so much. You see it happen a lot in film school where people aren’t sure what they’re doing or how to do their job properly. As an editor you have to be able to look at the movie multiple times and pitch new ideas to the director. If you’re lucky and work with someone who’s open to new ideas you’ll be in a much better place. I found out very early on that there is no one way to make a movie. The more creative you can be with your limitations the better it will be.
Joseph Lawson, VFX Supervisor
1) Plan and be organized! More than anything else this will help you keep up with the majors because you’ll know exactly what you need to get before you start shooting. Storyboard, plan your shoot, and the logistics. Go through your script and number/label every single effects shot in advance, even do a thumbnail drawing (doesn’t have to be pretty) in the margins. I’ve seen both Spielberg and Kubrick’s doodles, they’re nothing to write home about and see where it got them. Think about how to achieve an effect and if it can be done practically, choose that path first.
2) Be ambitious and realistic. Know what you can do then push it further rather than aiming at what you can’t do (yet) then having to spend double the effort getting it just done. It’s better to do 50 fantastic-looking shots than 100 crummy looking ones. Thinking about a shot involves not just the end result but what it takes to get there (models, plates, effects, dynamics, compositing, and more). The slimmer you can make an effect and still achieve the emotional or story goal the faster it gets done.
What to avoid? Things that are hard and time consuming: Water. Fire. Kids. Animals. Most of this can be covered with stock footage and stock plates. (http://www.detfilmshd.com/ is a great resource).
At The Asylum there are tools we use to all of the time: Lightwave 3D for animation, a good compositing program (like the affordable After Effects CC), Photoshop for graphics and matte paintings. We also have a built up stock of software, most of it relatively affordable, like Vue and Terragen for landscapes, even ZBrush for creature modeling. There are always great tutorials to help out as well. Money a pinch? Get Blender, it’s quite capable and totally free.
3) Right person, right job. Need a model? Buy one or hire someone who can build one if you’re not a great modeler. Not great at dynamics? There are a lot of folks out there who are. It’s rare someone has talents across all disciplines and there are a lot of artists who are far more trained than you are at their craft. There are also plenty of resource sites for models as well as training (for the best most relevant and usable tutorials on the net: http://www.videocopilot.net/). If you are a jack-of-all-trades, remember to give yourself enough time in your schedule to get everything done though deadlines do help. They’re great motivators and make things happen.
4) Crowds are better shot as green screen elements than avatars. Though great things are possible in CG, convincing crowds are an art in themselves. If you can get a dozen people against green screens (individually and in groupings) you can comp them and make crowds fairly fast. Just remember to try to get roughly the right angles for the shots you planned.
5) Watch how things, people, animals move in real life, not just what you see in movies or TV. Go take an acting class or get involved in community college to learn how people move, speak, and emote. Take that art class because it’s so worth it for design and color. Watch every movie you can to learn drama, camera angles, techniques, why certain shots contribute to emotion/passion/suspense/everything. Watch even movies you think are terrible (consider them a Mystery Science Theatre reverse barometer because learning what not to do and why as a filmmaker is as important as what to do).
Gerald Webb, Casting Director
1) We use all professional casting services to find our talent. Many of these services are free for posting character breakdowns, some charge a nominal fee. For low or no budget productions, post your breakdowns at acting schools allowing actors to respond directly to your call.
2) Always hold auditions at a professional place of business and not at a private home, hotel room, or anywhere else that could potentially seem dangerous for the talent. I know you’re not an axe murderer but your talent doesn’t!
Many casting companies will rent professional casting space to you by the day or even by the hour. In many cases theses facilities will make the casting process much easier with proper lighting, some even provide cameras and sound recording equipment. A cheaper option may be borrowing a conference room at a friend’s office. Though it isn’t a casting facility, your talent will feel more comfortable coming to a professional office space.
3) Be sure to schedule auditions properly. Give everyone a set time with a 4-7 minute interval between scheduled auditions. I’ve seen many people just open auditions for a couple of hours without specific time slots. They end up having no one show up at the beginning and get crushed with actors at the end and so wind up going for extra time. If you’re paying for space by the hour this can really cost you.
4) If you’re low or no budget and can’t pay your actors or crew, share your vision with other aspiring filmmakers, make-up artists, casting directors etc. Many people will work for low payment or free if you give them the opportunity to do the job they aspire to and receive the appropriate credit, thus building their resumes. Many 2nd ADs want 1st AD experience and Casting Associates want Casting Director experience. By sharing your project and letting them gain the experience and credit they want, the low or no payment is less of an issue. You can all grow together. This will help you also start to form some great relationships that could become enormously valuable in the future.
5) When it comes to taking care of your cast – paid, unpaid, it doesn’t matter – treat people with respect and professionally. Most importantly, be prepared. Don’t have others show up to work when you haven’t fulfilled your responsibilities to the production and to them. It’s all about the production, not you, so check your ego before pre-production. You can’t make a movie without a team and egos destroy teams.
6) When choosing your cast it depends on what your goal is for your production. If you are trying to make the best art you can then just cast the best actors, period.
If you’re trying to sell your project, names can help and the bigger the name the better. In our pop culture driven world, there are many personalities that can really boost your project’s appeal. Unfortunately in many of these cases there is a drop in the quality of the acting. You have to decide which is more important to you. If you do go the pop culture route put those personalities in roles that support your film but don’t need to carry it.
Make sure to take the time to really develop your material as better material will attract better actors and I’ve seen stars do projects for next to nothing because of the great material.