Adam Spinks gives his two pennies to indie filmmakers without two pennies
Adam Spinks, director of shorts and features, offers advice to other indie filmmakers looking to make their next film, shooting with different camera set ups, and how to prioritise resources when funding is hard to come by.
Having ideas for films is hard, especially ideas that are good. Having money to make that film in the way you see it in your mind, is like trying to find a needle in a haystack after a hurricane.
Regional and national funding bodies are offering some amazing schemes, but you’ve got to get very lucky and be at the right place at the perfect time. A lot of chips, ticks and crosses have to line up for you and it’s a fact that far more people are applying for these pots of money than will ever be financed through them. Resources and money are finite - filmmakers and ideas are unfortunately not.
I’ve been there, more than once. My first feature Survivors was done thanks to some crowdfunding and a lot of doubling up on jobs on our part. We shot the film in 14 days on a budget of £5000. We finally found a US distributor in 2015 and secured a UK VOD distributor in the middle of 2018. That entire project felt like a war of attrition and we managed to weather the storm and stay standing longer than the obstacles we overcame. I learned how to sound mix myself, for example, to lower costs. It meant a significant investment in time, but your time is your own, and as a filmmaker, something you will have on your hands periodically, especially in the colder months of the year.
We also handled the edit ourselves, which while artistically can be challenging, was necessary due to the low budget nature of what we were undertaking. A similar process was undertaken for my second feature Extinction, which despite the advertised budget on IMDB, was very much an indie affair.
Fast forward to 2017 and I’d done a couple of better funded short films and found the experiences wildly varying. They ranged from really fulfilling to entirely frustrating. It’s easy to scale up productions with big expensive cameras, forgetting that if you don’t bother to invest in lighting and experienced crew to run that increase properly, there is little point in it at all. Inexperience, mixed with high end kit, is a recipe for difficulty. So I turned to Like Glass and to a total change in method.
Like Glass was done with a cash production budget of under £1000, raising only slightly to cover the sound design/mix and score. Our total spend on the film to date has been under £2000 and we’ve so far screened at 17 film festivals worldwide, earned over 15 nominations and taken home 3 awards. It’s by far the most successful project I’ve ever been a part of and it’s also probably the cheapest if you break it down on a cost per minute basis. It’s actually already the most successful festival run of any of my shorts and it’s not halfway through yet, so if there really is a correlation between spending money and better quality, I’ve not done much to support it.
With a crew of 8 on our biggest day and it was shot entirely on location in various places around my home county of Surrey. Production ran out of two cars, one boot carried our film kit and the other carried clothing changes, catering, an easy-up and all our props and make up. Whereas a normal day, with bigger kit, would be a huge undertaking with even one location unit move, we were able to move 4/5 times per day and not lose huge amounts of time.
As such, in 3 days we did somewhere in the region of 155 slates whereas on a short I did with an Arri Alexa Mini we managed 130 slates in 5 days. On something else I did we shot on the Red Dragon and managed 164 slates in 11 days, which was an incredibly frustrating experience.
With new cameras and tech it's much easier now to strip back the process and create wonderful films with a skeleton crew. We used the Sony Alpha Series 2 for Like Glass, shooting in 4K which we then downscaled to HD for our final edit and delivery. This gave us a really beautiful HD image but also, this way of working, meant that we could work fast.
The A7S2 is tiny, even when it’s pimped out with lenses and a tonne of accessories, so we weren’t held back by the size and scale of all the production apparatus. It’s also fantastic in low light, which meant we could shoot much longer in the evenings and without relying on a big lighting set up (which can be cumbersome and time consuming to construct and use).
Although I must point out that shooting in 4K seemed like a great idea at the time, to edit 4K footage is tricky and it slows even a speedy computer down to a crawl. My edit suite managed it well enough, with some unwanted purchases of additional memory, but for a feature it would have been impossible so make sure you have the right infrastructure in place.
I worked on a web series where our DoP decided we’d shoot in 5K raw on a Red Dragon and despite concerns, the producers went ahead and did it anyway. The budget ballooned because of things like needing an onset DIT to log the footage, create a Proxy of it for editing in HD and then of course the storage of almost 5TB of data, as well as some of the problems I outlined above.
We ended up with 3 huge hard drives, plus clones and a proxy footage drive too. And then of course there’s the extra time spent grading the footage with a colourist. All of this added exponentially to the costs and when compared with the goal of the series, to release online, it was all ultimately pointless. The money would have perhaps been better spent on some of the design work, more props and costume choices, or an extra shooting day for the entire crew to ease a hectic schedule. There was far too much compromise, and it all stemmed from the central choice of a camera that was far too big for the job and needing to upscale everything else to match without the budget there as a foundation.
While UHD may be the current popular choice, is that choice best FOR YOU? DP’s love to shoot higher resolutions but it’s absolutely vital to stop to think if it’s going to add to your costs in both time and management, and whether that’s worth it.
We found that shooting a film in the way we did Like Glass actually gave us more time with the actors, more time to workshop the scenes and find the best way of telling our story. There’s no opportunity to get ‘lost’ in the processes of set life, because it’s fluid and it’s fast moving and it’s all focussed around one goal, telling the story.
Filmmaking is all to do with storytelling, and very little about money. Sure, you can’t make a film for nothing, not unless you have incredibly accommodating friends and family who happen to already have the stuff you need, but in the end, none of it matters if you don’t have a story. People watch films to be told stories, to be swept up in the lives of others or to be invited to visit spectacular worlds that we render real through trickery and skill. Too often I’ve been guilty of getting caught up in the process, and then blinking and you’re in an edit and you’re not sure how you got there.
What money you DO have access to should go to three main areas.
Firstly, it’s your duty as the filmmaker to make sure nobody works on your film for a loss. If people are donating their time for free and that’s your agreement, you’d better make sure the catering is good and that the experience isn’t hellish. If people are working for their expenses, make sure you get a good agreement with them in advance of the shoot and stick to it. From experience, most disagreements come from grey areas where ‘expenses’ weren’t properly defined and people inevitably have different views on what ‘reasonable’ means.
Additionally it’s your duty, as filmmaker, to finish that film in a timely manner. Too many shorts or indie films are left rotting on hard drives and people who worked on them, perhaps for showreel or credit, gain absolutely zero from the process. Not cool.
Secondly, costumes. I am tired of seeing beautifully shot films with absolutely zero attention to detail in their costuming and design. Spend some time in pre-production actually designing an outfit or clothing selection that your character would wear, instead of either relying on the actor to ‘bring options’ with them (this rarely works out very well) or leaving it to the last minute and raiding the supermarket clothing department in a blind panic. Also, if the character has been outside for long periods of time, dirty the costume down accordingly, or whatever is appropriate for your story. This sounds obvious but given the number of films I see where things like this are forgotten I’ve included it in the hope I see less of it in the future.
Third, don’t put actors in front of a HD or UHD camera with some make up they’ve hastily done themselves in a poorly lit mirror in their car, or, even worse, without any make up at all. It does matter. The character’s make up matters to their story and to the journey your audience go on with your characters. Too many filmmakers spend all their budget on the Arri Alexa without thinking what on earth to do about what they’re putting in front of it.
You’re better off using a 5D and investing in beautiful design work. Prioritise story over process. Also, when it comes to make up, don’t FORGET THEIR HANDS. If a character has been climbing a hill, don’t dirty up their face and ignore their hands! You should see every additional department on your film as helping to add layers and credibility to your story. Sure, your Instagram page will look fabulous with photos of you surrounded by big expensive cameras but the game will be up pretty quickly if people watch those films and they’re terrible.
All of this considered, there will still be challenges, things will still get difficult.
Making films of any kind is hard. It’s a patience testing process that will cost you blood, sweat and tears and not always metaphorical ones but there are ways to ease some of the burdens. My lecturer once said to us that ‘the road to success is paved with bodies, most of which are suicides’ and I’ve never forgotten it. It’s a reminder of how many there are at the start and how few may eventually remain. For me it’s a powerful reminder of how lucky we are that we get to tell stories and have people watch them at all.
Like Glass didn’t go perfectly. We suffered set backs due to the sun, to rain, even snow on Day 1. We changed our minds late in the day about a costume and re-ordered with two days until photography. We never stopped being open to adjusting the story even as we were shooting it.
The night before our final day, it became clear the entire ending of the story had to be rewritten due to weather ahead. Instead of fighting the things we couldn’t control, we leaned into them and used them to our advantage to craft our film. That night we held a 4 way conference call between myself, Thérésa Hedges (writer) and our camera team, to workshop a new way to conclude our story and actually ended up with a much stronger finale than we might have had we stubbornly ploughed ahead.
You can drive yourself crazy making films, it’s a drive for control over something that’s almost amorphous in nature, its constantly shifting and changing, so my final bit of advice is go with it, see what happens, lean in to the uncontrollable. Come prepared as you ever can be and also be prepared to throw out the plan at a moments notice. Prioritise your costs towards what will help you tell your story and not what will look good on your social media pages.
You can follow Adam on Twitter: @AdsPads