Monday, March 26, 2007

How NOT to shoot your first short film

I learned many things while going through the process of making my first short film. It was quite a fly by the seat of my pants sort of affair. I had spent weeks trying to come up with concepts, story lines or even themes to film around, but to no avail. All the ideas had were much too big for a 4-5 minute film, which was what I was aiming for. They were good ideas though, and still consumed my time as I wrote and developed them. This did not help my planning process or pre-production phase in the least. I finally settled on the loose theme of why Mumbai is my favorite place in India. This way, I could film my favorite places and some of the countless interesting things that go on in this incredible city and my theme was still broad enough that if hit with sudden inspiration, I could follow it.

I began by making a list of all the locations I would like to shoot across the city. It was quite a long list, and I started mapping how many days I would need to shoot and what parts of the city were close to one another and could be accomplished in one day. I began to strategize about the routes I would take on public transportation to get me there the fastest and to avoid the rush, and crush of commuters. I budgeted out how much this would cost, and given my inability to carry many things due to my neck injury, I had to plan how I would be able to carry my small hand held digi-cam and all my things for the day. I began to long for an assistant to carry my things, watch them as I shoot and take care of all the footwork. It’s also nice to have some input, feedback or a second opinion. I guess part of me developing my skill set as an individual capable of directing is being able to make definitive decisions, completely unaided, about shots, locations and lighting. (Not having an assistant was a “teachable moment” as we say.)

I received the hand held Sony Digital Camcorder that I would be using and set off. My first day of filming was quite interesting. I filmed my at my principal location, which was the Gateway of India and the Taj Hotel and walked north towards the Kala Ghoda district, full of museums, wide boulevards and beautiful architecture. I got a call from a friend with a unique opportunity: to attend a press conference on a boat in the Arabian Sea. This is exactly why my theme was loose; to take advantage of serendipity. I literally ran there, enacting a film worthy action sequence on the way, involving jaywalking, cab hopping, running across wide tourist filled plazas, upsetting grazing pigeons, worrying the general public and finally, hopping across two already launched ferries to reach my destination boat. I proceeded to spend the afternoon surrounded by representatives from Mumbai’s biggest media outlets, the only person not there on assignment. I got a lot of footage on the open sea, the coast line, and the shot I thought I wouldn’t be able to get: the Gateway of India, from the water, the way it was meant to be seen. I was thrilled.
Next day of shooting I got my principal market shots in Bandra and due to traffic, was not able to get to Haji Ali’s Masjid before the light changed. I went to Juhu Beach, was accosted by beggars and venders who target tourists. Their insistence that I pay for their services got in the way of me being able to shoot what I wanted, and not having anyone else there to help get rid of them, I left Juhu Beach earlier than intended. I got the shots I wanted on the main Juhu-Link Road and called it a day.

One more day of filming remained. I got the shots of the roadside fish, vegetable and fruit markets and mall exterior and interiors that I wanted. I wrote my historically informed narrative for the voice-over and planned the shots I could conceive as I wrote. I called my contact and told them I was finished filming and needed to be put in touch with an editor to process my footage and to begin assembling my short film. Did I mention that I was on a severe time constraint? I had extended my stay in Mumbai by one week to be able to do this project at all, and by the time I had gotten the camera I was to use, filmed and gotten in touch with the editor, I had exactly 60 hours to complete my project and get onto my plane to leave Mumbai.

I met with my cheerful, America-loving editor and we processed the digital (poor quality) film that I shot on. After all my filming, it turned out that I only had 80 minutes of footage. My editor was quite astounded by this limited amount of footage, and continued to remark on this throughout our joyful time together. The editing process was where I learned the most, and discovered how vast the technical knowledge I lacked really was. My original script for my voiceover ended up clocking in at 11 minutes. It was clear that I did not have enough footage to support this (interesting and informative) narrative. I made the first hard decision to cut the narrative and make it as sparse as possible while retaining my original intention (many other cuts followed).

It became clear to me that I would not be able to finish before my scheduled departure time and I extended my stay one more day. On the night we were scheduled to finish, the proprietor of the charming editing establishment we were working at. Ziptrak, came in at 9 pm telling us to get out. He was closing up early because he didn’t feel he could trust his late night staff to lock up after we were done. This was Monday night, the night before I was to leave according to my newly altered itinerary. I started to flip out as much as is possible in India, where no one seems to give a damn about anything logistics related. No matter.

Exactly what I didn’t want to happen did. I was working in the studio the day of my departure, stressing that the project wouldn’t get completed, just barely completing it. Music was added and that was about all the special treatment the much cut down 5 minute film got. I was getting so frustrated with my editor, and I realized how important that integral relationship is. My editor didn’t like my narrative, he thought it was boring and did not see the point of it. His eye and mine were often quite divergent, and he wanted to place shots that I did not like at all. I was getting frustrated with myself, because I did not have the technical knowledge necessary to ask for the effects I wanted, or even how to articulate what I wanted to happen with the project.

At the end of the day, my project did indeed get finished. I am happy that the experience is over. My original vision for the project was not fulfilled and I will re-cut the film as soon as I am able. I spent 5 weeks in Mumbai, observing Bollywood and experiencing it in many forms. $2,065 later, I have learned quite a bit about the film making process, and more importantly, the realities of a fickle, friendless industry, where loyalty, efficiency, honesty, truth and trust are not valued one bit.

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