Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Stumbling Through Sound Recording

Having finished my second short film about five months ago, I feel I have learned a lot about recording and editing sound. Most of what I learned was through trial and error. For instance, on the first short film we made, I completely underestimated the importance of sound. I had an Olympus voice recorder that I had bought from Best Buy for about $90. I had also bought a shotgun microphone that mounted on my Sony camcorder for back up. So, on our first day of shooting, which happened to be in a cemetery, we had the Olympus voice recorder taped to the end of a broom handle as our sound recording equipment. Sad, I know. As it turned out, you might guess, the Olympus recorder was the weaker link. We had to rely solely on the on-board microphone from my camcorder. My cousin Lance, who is my main partner in doing these shorts, and I had to re-record sounds and mask sounds and insert sounds like crazy as we edited, because we didn't pay attention to the sound recording on the first go-round. The sound editing was a nightmare on our first film...

Fast forward a year, and we were in the process of filming our second short, "The Laughing Boy." The Olympus voice recorder was nowhere in sight, and in it's place was my new sound recording toy, a Zoom H4 recorder. The Zoom is like a portable recording studio made mainly for musicians, with tons of options and effects. With this new recorder, I also invested in more equipment: first, a true shotgun microphone that wasn't some four-inch-long mic that mounted in a hotshoe on my camcorder, and second, and perhaps most important, a set of headphones.

I had studied up on sound recording since the first short film, and learned a lot about the mechanics of a good recorder. I had come to learn that a good sound recorder had to have a few key features:

1. It had to have XLR inputs. XLR inputs are (usually) a three-pronged connection for microphones. This connection gives a more balanced audio that cancels out electromagnetic interference more efficiently than the 1/4" microphone input jack that many sound recorders have.

2. It had to have a phantom power setup, which many higher end microphones require.

3. It had to record in stereo. Many cheaper recorders only record in mono, meaning when your recording is played back it only plays out of the lefthand speaker.
4. It had to be portable, light weight, and easy to use.

The Zoom H4 had all of these capabilities. Some of them I didn't fully learn and understand until I had already recorded with it, but now I know. The Zoom H4 has an on-board stereo microphone that records just as good or better than the shotgun mic I bought. However, its mic is omni-directional, which limits its range, unlike the shotgun mic that picks up sound from longer distances. I've read in several books and articles that a shotgun mic is the way to go so that's what I went with. I can't remember the brand of the microphone I bought, but it cost me around $150, which is apparently not a whole hell of a lot as far as quality shotgun microphones go. It was a hell of a lot to me, though! As important as the microphone is a good set of headphones. On our first short, we almost never played back our recordings after a take. Big mistake. With the headphones, whoever recorded sound on a particular day could play back each take after it was done, and listen for any problems. Having someone dedicated solely to capturing good sound has proved to be invaluable to our ragtag group of no budget filmmakers.

So, having said all that, is the Zoom H4 the way to go for good sound? For me, yes, but there are countless options out there. I'm no pro myself, but I feel that it is probably one of the better recorders for beginners. Really, the best option is to have XLR inputs on the camera itself and not have to go through recording separately. And while I am, at the present time, saving up to buy just such a camera, it is out of my price range at the moment. But damn it, I'm working on it!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Rodriguez On Filmmaking

There are a few books that I own on indie filmmaking, and all of them have helped in their own way. There is one thing I absolutely hate about most of these, though, and that is when the writer makes comments about how impossible it is to break into the movie making scene and how you should basically never expect it to get you anywhere. Maybe that sort of reverse psychology works for some, but all it does for me is make me think that the filmmaking community is too large and complex for me to possibly understand. And if that's the case, why should I buy this guy's/girl's book when I know it won't get me anywhere?

Well, I'd been following the films of director Robert Rodriguez for years, and when I found out he'd written a book on low budget filmmaking, I searched it out. (Note: If you don't know Rodriguez's work, watch Sin City, From Dusk Til Dawn, Grindhouse's Planet Terror, The Faculty, Spy Kids, Desperado, and so on). I'm a slow reader, but I burned through that book within three or four days! The bulk of the book is excerpts from Robert's journal as he went through the process of making his first full length feature film El Mariachi. It's interesting just to read about his trials and tribulations as a young filmmaker desperate to make his movie, but there is also a wealth of information to gain. All kinds of cheap special effects, such as gunshot wounds, are covered, along with inexpensive lighting and camera techniques, and much more.

I think the main thing that I gained from this book, though, was not the tips and tricks but just the downright fiery enthusiasm I had for making my own short film as I read it. It's like it opened a door that I didn't know existed. All the expensive cameras and cranes and lights weren't needed to make a great movie, after all! I have friends who worked on an independent feature, and this book was like the bible on their set, I've been told.

After the journal ends in the book, Rodriguez adds a "10 Minute Film School" section that got me even more excited about getting out there and making my movie. He basically explains everything you need to know in about a chapter length. It's amazing. He also does his "10 Minute Film School" sessions on several of the dvd releases of his movies, as a special feature. All are incredibly helpful.

I'll end with a quote from the book:

"First step to being a filmmaker is stop saying you want to be a filmmaker. It took me forever to be able to tell anyone I was a filmmaker and keep a straight face until I was well on my way. But the truth was I had been a filmmaker ever since the day I had closed my eyes and pictured myself making movies. The rest was inevitable. So you don't want to be a filmmaker, you are a filmmaker. Go make yourself a business card. Next."

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Screenwriting for Dummies by a Dummy

One of the first things I learned when I decided to make a short film was how to write a screenplay. I had read a few before, but had no idea how to format one, and I had no knowledge of the technical aspects of writing it. Of course, since I was just starting out it really didn't matter if my screenplay met Hollywood screenwriting standards, but I figured it couldn't hurt to know the basics.

So, I picked up the cheapest book on the subject I could find at Books-A-Million. It was called simply, "Screenwriting", and it was a book from the "Teach Yourself" label. I figured that if I read up on the basics of formatting my screenplay, I could go from there and write it how I saw fit. With any form of art I am only interested in learning the basics, because after you know the fundamentals the rest is up to your own creativity. Well, the book offered a lot of help and advice, but the main thing I discovered from the book was on the last pages. It listed several websites that pertained to screenwriting. Among them was the following website:

What this website offers is screenwriting software called Script Genie that works with Microsoft Word. The software automatically formats your writing to the style of a screenplay, with your guidance. It is extremely simple to use. As you're writing, you choose what type of style you want and it places the cursor where it's supposed to be, sets the font and caps lock as needed, and you type away.
When I say "style," I mean Character Name style, Scene Header style, Dialogue Indent style, etc. For instance, when you introduce a character speaking dialogue, in Script Genie you click the Character Name style. The program sets your cursor where it needs to be, and you type the character's name. Then, you hit Enter, and click on the Dialogue Indent style, and it sets your cursor for typing your dialogue. And so on and so forth.
The "Screenwriting" book helped me understand the different settings required within my manuscript, but the Script Genie software made sure I did it properly. It is the only screenwriting software I have used. It cost me around $30, as opposed to software such as Final Draft, which cost upwards of $200. I think, for the budding independent filmmaker, Script Genie is an easy to use, cost effective choice. The book, also, was very helpful, and I think only set me back about $13.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Introduction and Intentions

Here I am, a virgin blogger making my first mark in the blogging universe. I suppose I ought to give an introduction and explain my intentions for this blog, for the benefit of all three people who will end up reading it. My name is Luke. I make short films as a hobby. My hope is that one day this hobby will expand into a career, in one form or another. I am also a horror movie afficionado and horror memorabilia collector (not necessarily a "fanatic", but close).
As far as this blog goes, I intend to write about the no budget indie filmmaking experience, from every angle I can think of. I do this because when I started out, about three years ago, I knew absolutely nothing about filmmaking. I really didn't know how to even start learning about the movie making process. All the books I would scan were using terminology that I didn't understand, and spoke of equipment that I wouldn't be able to get my hands on with my level of income. So, with the limited information that was useful to me, I set out to make a short film with nothing more than a middle-of-the-road consumer camcorder, a voice recorder, friends, family, and enthusiasm. The short film we made, "Toys For Sarah," ended up placing second in a small, local short fim festival. The movie is far, far from perfect (I still can't stop from cringing when I watch it) but the fact that we made it into a festival made me realize it can be done, even with sub-par equipment. So, having said all that, with this blog I want to talk about the extreme basics of film production, sound design, lighting, editing, searching out film festivals, etc. I hope that as I learn the ins and outs of filmmaking, I can share them with other beginners like myself, and maybe learn tips from readers. (Note: I use the term "film" a lot, though I have never worked with actual film. Technically, what I do is video making, not film making, but film making just sounds more appropriate. Video making sounds like I make music videos, or porn...)
Another subject I'm sure I'll devote some time to is horror films, and music. For better or worse, these forms of art have a huge impact on my life. So for anyone interested in horror movies, heavy music, or strange music, you might find some interesting insights here.
Well, there's the introduction. If you're reading this, welcome to the blog and I hope you drop by again. I'll try to keep it interesting!