Updated: Dec 2, 2022
Join Koura on Episode 2 of Filmmaking (Actually) to dig into what she calls 'Intentional Filmmaking.' Based on your resources and what you want to do with your film, be it a short or feature-length, there are a jillion ways to approach the process. Once you decide what you want to make, whether you simply want to gain experience or show off what you can already do, you'll learn in no time that there's no time like the present to get started!
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Below please find a transcript of this episode. Episodes are also available as audio-only podcasts here or with subtitles in this video:
What is Intentional Filmmaking?
Hello, my name is Koura Linda, and welcome back to “Filmmaking (Actually)!”
I've been trying to figure out what to call this episode. I think I'm going to call it “Intentional Filmmaking.”
I look at intentional filmmaking as knowing what you want to do with the finished film so that you're able to take care of everything that you need to do early in the production process, and not run into a bunch of problems in post. There are a jillion things you can do with a film. (Jillion is a technical number.) You can use a film in a bunch of different ways. The first thing to decide is, are you going to make a short film, or a feature film? That's a pretty basic place to start. It is actually important to know. And that can be decided based on your resources, and what you want to do with it. If you're looking at making a visual calling card, that should probably be a short film. If you're looking for a distribution deal, that is more likely to happen with a feature. Films made for practice should probably be short. Films made for festivals can either be shorts or features, depending on which festival you're gearing towards, and also what you want to make.
So, what do you want to do with this film? Do you want it to be a sort of visual calling card that shows off the talent of the cast and crew involved? For example my husband and I have a production company called Space Dream Productions. We produced our first short film, “Names On The Wall,” to basically showcase what we were able to do with a really small investment. If you're an actor, or a cinematographer, or a writer, or director, do you just want to have content to show people? Do you just want to jump into the film festival circuit and rack up a ton of awards and festival fame? Or do you just need to practice? Are you just making a film because you want to get better at it, or you want to try something new, or you've never really done it before? Once you know where you're going with this and you know if you want to make a short or a feature, you should look at what story you want to tell. When looking at what story you're going to tell, the first thing you should look at is, what resources do you have and can you get the resources to make this film in the best possible way?
Remember, creativity is a resource. You could creatively execute an otherwise complicated script, you can have locations double for other locations, you can do things like that. But if your film is about a space station, and it includes aliens on spaceships going for spacewalks, or the film absolutely has to be shot on the Eiffel tower and you live in Canada... you may want to maybe look for a story that you are better able to tell with the resources that you have. One option, when you're limited by cast or locations and stuff like that, is you can always make an animation, but that is a totally different type of film and might not be what you're looking for. So for a live action film, you have your story, and you know where you want to go with it. I keep talking about these different things, well... How do you decide if you want to go to festivals or distribution or whatever. Like, what does that actually involve?
I'm so glad you asked! I will say that doing a film for practice is probably one of the most underrated elements of filmmaking. Just because you're practicing doesn't mean you need to make a really bad film. I know several indie films that are from first-time filmmakers that have won awards and even gone on for distribution. Fairly recent sort of larger scale films like “Lady Bird” and “ Get Out” were directed by first time directors. And more historically films like “Dances With Wolves”, “12 Angry Men”, even “Citizen Kane” was directed by a first-time director. So just because you're practicing, or you're new to all this, doesn't mean the film can't be amazing. What it does mean is that you should pick a story, or a script that you can really go to town on, and not do anything halfway. This goes for anyone on the cast or crew; it isn't just for the producers. If you fall anywhere on the grand scheme of making a film, you know you can round up some friends that do the pieces you don't do and make a film for practice.
The point of doing a film for practice is, you're really paying attention to the details. You're figuring out what all the quote-unquote “rules of filmmaking” are. You're trying different things. Once you've kind of got those rules down, maybe you're messing around with them a little bit, seeing how you can do it differently or better, even if it's only just better than the last time you did it. The thing is, when you're focusing on doing a film for practice, you want to be extra careful to check off all the boxes. Make sure you're doing every little step 100% to the letter. This is one of those dot-all-your-i’s, cross-all-your-t’s-type projects. And once you've got that down, the next time you're making a film it can be like, “Huh, you know, that didn't work, let me try it this way.” Or, “That worked. I wonder what happens if I do this instead?” And you can get a little bit more creative, you know? And maybe some of the things you try work, maybe they don't. But the whole point is, you're going in, you're testing the waters, maybe growing your skills, and you're learning more about yourself as a filmmaker and about the filmmaking process.
And again, a practice film does not need to be a hot mess. It can still fall in any of the other categories, as far as being in festivals or even being sold. But some or all of the focus is on learning, growing, testing the waters, maybe even pushing boundaries. You're focusing on, “How am I going to tell this story?” Which is kind of the whole point of making a movie… that is, telling a story. So you're just going through the motions, and making a film to see if, in the end, you can put it out there for audiences and they can understand your story and your message. And if it is a hot mess, then look at what you did and see why, and then learn from it so you can do better next time. That's what's known as failing forward and it is both an honorable and a very worthy endeavor.
On the other end here, another reason to make a film is honestly just to show off, and that's not a bad thing! Let's say you want to start a production company, or you're trying to get known as a competent producer. You're going to need to produce a well-polished film to show people what you can do. This is a little different for films versus reels, which I promise I'm getting to that one next. Well-polished means that you're working with professionals. This is not just slapped together. Everyone working on it knows what they're doing and everyone is contributing well-made pieces to make a well-made whole. In other words, this film is going to be high quality. This does not mean that you need a $50,000 camera, and a giant lighting kit, and a crew of 75 people, and a month to make a five minute short film. You can make a really professional film with a very small cast and crew and limited resources. Providing you know what you're doing.
So for example, there's this filmmaker in Texas named Cameron Smith who makes these really incredibly professional films. But on the surface you'd be like, “He's making this with literally nothing!” I did a short film with him called “Keys”. (And you can find it on Hitrecord.org, just look up Cameron Smith and “Keys”.) We shot it in a few hours. We had a construction floodlight that was pretty much our only lighting source, other than the lamps and stuff in the room. And I don't mean fancy lamps, I mean table lamps. I used the makeup that I had in my purse and, if you know me, that is not a lot of makeup. And the side of construction goggles to look like an oxygen mask for the last shot. Fill in some awesome sound design and score done by my amazing husband, and add in Cameron's skills, and the end result is a really polished (and in my opinion) very powerful short film.
So the point is, you can go through the planning process of a visual calling card, but you want to make sure that you're checking all the boxes as best you can at each point with the highest quality possible. You want to make sure that the story is interesting, that your actors are really well cast for their parts. You want to make sure that your camera settings are right, that your shots are in focus where they're supposed to be. That your lighting is good. Even if it's just a matter of having a bounce to fill in some shadows. When using natural light make sure that the shot is lit. Your audio is well recorded, the costumes make sense, the makeup is well done, your camera framing is well composed and visually interesting without being distracting. Sometimes you watch a film and you kind of feel like the director is a glorified camera op, who just likes making pretty pictures. Which is cool, but movies are more than just nice camera work.
You want to make sure that your scenes are well set up with the set being dressed, not just around the actors but like if you can see the whole room, make sure that the whole room is dressed. And that could just be as simple as moving an awkward chair out of the background. Or cleaning off a countertop. Or changing the direction of the camera so that the actors are in a more visually interesting space. You also want to make sure that what the actors are doing is visually interesting, you know? Not every single scene they're just standing there, talking. Or sitting there, talking. Or walking and talking. You want to make sure you have proper sound equipment so that the audio is properly recorded on set as well. Once the film is shot, you want to make sure that your edit is smooth, that the pace lends itself to the story, that your color correction looks good and is consistent throughout the film.
You want to make sure that your audio mix is smooth and all the levels are even. You want to make sure that the dialogue is clear, that you can understand what the actors are saying. Ideally your score is not a drag-and-drop action sequence number 72 that you downloaded off of a stock movie site. No offense, but sometimes it's better to get music for a film instead of having to cut your film to existing music. I'm going to go over that a little bit in the networking episode. You want to make sure the audio elements are mixed in with the score properly, so that you aren't losing pieces because the music's really loud, or you can't hear the music, or whatever. Just make sure your audio mix is good. I'm going to say that a lot.
Also a little note on credits. To start your film, if you're just making a visual calling card, maybe put like, your company's name or something like that. But no offense, 99% of the time — especially if you're using this to pitch yourself or pitch your skills or your talents — having two minutes of your name and titles and stuff like that? Just get to the story, let your work speak for itself. And then at the end, say who made it. Because you really want the work to be the important thing. Show what you can do. I mean, if you're Steven Spielberg, then by all means say, “A film by Steven Spielberg,” but holy crap! If you're Steven Spielberg and you're listening to my podcast, I think I'm gonna die!
All right, so I have a little confession to make. That list that I just gave you of all the things to take care of on a film set? You actually need to do that with any film you make, no matter why you're making it. The only difference between why you're making a film, and what you actually need to focus on, are very, very, very minute points. Take care that all the little pieces of what you're doing are being done properly. If you're just practicing, then practice! Use the time to learn and grow and focus on that. And bring people in that you can collaborate with, and grow with, and learn from, and maybe they can learn from you, and hopefully you make some cool art in the process.
If you want a distribution deal, you need to decide how much you want to pander to existing distribution trends. Not to be cold, but do you want to go with horror or action as a genre? Because those statistically sell better internationally. The reason those sell better is because there's very little that can get lost in translation, and if you're doing something like a rom-com, and you're translating it into Taiwanese, it may not have the same impact, the jokes may not be as funny. So action, horror, recognized franchises, those films do better internationally because they're already known. You can also just rely on your own pitch to get it out there, no matter what. Just know that if you choose a harder road, it's going to be harder. So you have to decide, “Which path do I want to take here?” You're also going to need to cast at least one if not several name talents who are bankable internationally. And the more bankable, the better your chances are of getting a distribution deal. So that will affect your casting choices. It also will mean that it will affect your budget. It also will affect things like your script. You can't just have a name actor who shows up in the last 10 minutes of the movie. You have to make sure that that name actor is seen on screen usually within the first 10 or 15 minutes, or distributors will pass.
You need to make sure that the way your audio is edited, the dialog is very specifically on a separate track. You really should do that anyway, but it's even more important for distribution because you have to make sure you can remove the dialogue and replace it with a dubbing of another language without having to redo every single element of your sound design, score, etc. So when you go in for your edit, you need to know what are you going to be doing with this so you know how to line all that up. You also need to be okay with a distributor re-editing your finished film, or otherwise dictating how your final cut is going to be. Because when you go for distribution you actually don't keep full creative rights.
As an indie filmmaker getting distribution, the likelihood of you keeping full creative rights is very low. Now if you're looking at self-distributing — which is more and more becoming an option, which is actually really cool — if you want to self-distribute, you don't need to worry about that so much. You do need to make sure that your audio track is remixable. Having recognizable names still helps, just because marketing and fan bases are a thing. But you get to keep a lot more creative control when going that route. Even so, you may direct sell to Netflix, and Netflix may tell you to make some edits. So just know that selling your film, you're stepping out of the purely creative and into a little bit of the business, and you have to start making business decisions as well as creative decisions.
For name talent, you're going to need to consider: Are you looking at social media followings and like bank-ability of the name? Or the actual talent of the person you're casting? Because throwing a heavy hitter when it comes to fan bases might look good on paper, but if the person isn't right for the role, or if the story is really weak, or the production value is really badly done, you're not going to end up with a really good film, and it's just going to be another one of these big name flops. And that's not fair to anybody. So this is where, for me personally, I'm always weighing the business side with the creative. Like, when I'm faced with a business decision I personally lean in towards, “Is this going to add or distract from the story?” And I try to mitigate that as much as I can. You do have to consider this if you're going for distribution.
If festivals are your endgame, you're going to need to know that shorter films are easier to program. That's just basic math. But it also depends on the festival. I've seen two minute shorts, and I've seen 30 minute shorts at Sundance. I've also seen two minute shorts and 30 minute shorts at very small local indie festivals. If you want to hit that festival sweet spot: 7 to 12 minutes is kind of the popular average, but no matter what you should just try to make an awesome film. Because if it's really awesome, it's going to do well in festivals.
Having been to so many festivals all over the country in the last three years, well-made, well-told, interesting stories make up a good eighty percent of all the films screened at festivals. Yes the remaining twenty percent is largely nepotistic, and some festivals more than others. But I know one festival that is literally zero nepotism. The festival director is one of my dear friends and mentors, and I've had films not accepted because it didn't fit with the programming that year. And at the same time, I've seen other festivals where it is clearly just the Friends and Family Show, and every award is being given as a pat on the back to another friend. It's frustrating. The average I'm going to say is about 80 percent of all festivals but, if you make a good, strong film, with a good, strong story, you will definitely have a fighting chance at festivals.
Also if you're going for festivals, be sure to take a lot of behind-the-scenes photos, get production stills, keep notes on interesting things from set, and the production process that you can use as trivia and points of interest in your festival submissions. You should research ahead of time if there's festivals you want to specifically target, such as a women's festival. Make sure to do the research of what their requirements are so that you can fit those requirements ahead of time. You can also see what types of films they seem to be drawn to. All of that can help you with your creative choices as you move the project through development and into and through production.
Last but not least. Everyone wants content for their reel. And sometimes the best way to do that is just to grab a few friends and sit down and make a movie, or record a few scenes to cut together. Again you want to make sure that everything about that is well made. Especially if you want to use it to show off your specific skill. If you're a makeup artist, you want to make sure the makeup looks really good. If you're an actor, you want to make sure the dialogue is clean and audible, and that you're putting out a really good performance. If you're putting together a couple of scenes, make sure those scenes show a range. Don't just film a thing where it's just all drama, and it's just three scenes of you being dramatic. Unless that's your thing. If that's your strong point as an actor, and you're a really good dramatic actor, then play that up!
But if you're looking for a reel that can show your range, pick a project or pick scenes, or get a writer friend to write something for you that shows your range as an actor. Also — and don't take this the wrong way — make sure your scene partner is not a stronger actor than you are. I cannot tell you how many times I've seen an acting reel and I'm distracted by the scene partner whose performance is just outstanding, and it really outshines the person whose reel I'm supposed to be watching. So find somebody who's on your level, and level up! You grow and become better and stronger so that you can hold your own across from a really strong actor or actress. Make sure that, for your reel, you're showing off the best you.
If you're a production designer, make sure that the scenes are really well-styled. Make it interesting — again, show a range. That's kind of the whole point of seeing a sampling of work. And you don't need to shoot an entire film, it could just be three different scenes and maybe they're all very different. Let your actor friends get their scenes in, you show off your styling. If you're a sound designer, really go to work on those scenes. Talk to the director ahead of time and really establish where the sound design is going to go, so that you can make it a very interesting sounding scene without being distracting. If you're a cinematographer, don't forget that director of photography means that you are the director of writing with light. So if you're shooting footage for your reel, and it's well composed, but poorly lit shots, with really nice camera motion? You are an awesome camera op, but that's not going to showcase your work as a DP.
Personally, when I get a DP reel, I scrub through it first. And if the lighting isn't impressive, or is uneven, or just bad, I will not even watch the reel. Because I don't need a camera op, I need a DP. And that means being really good with lighting. If you don't have good footage as a DP? Go shoot some. Find a director who wants to practice, and an actor who wants some footage for their reel. You don't need a super expensive camera, or a giant lighting kit. And if you do, you need to practice more. Practice with some really basic tools you know, even if it's just a bounce on a flag. You can use natural lighting, but you want to make it look intentional and not sloppy.
For what it's worth, no matter what: Focus on telling a strong, well-told story. Sometimes you do need to make production choices. What name actor are you going to hire? How do you make sure that they show up within the first 10 minutes of the script? How do you make a film festival like you? But no matter what, always keep the fact that you're telling a story as the most important factor. Because even the most flashy high production value projects can really fall flat if the story isn't there. But if you focus on story, if you really take care that you're checking all the boxes as you go along, you're gonna make a great film.
So go out there and make a great film! Sometimes I feel like these podcast episodes are like part podcast, part motivational speaking. Let me know what you think. Be sure to like, subscribe, follow, comment. Let me know your thoughts. Seriously, what do you want me to cover next? Is there a specific topic you'd like me to go over? Something you'd like me to cover? Let me know.
And yeah. That's it! Bye!
Have more questions? Email us at filmmakingactually(at)gmail(dot)com.
Have more than one question? Set up a (free!) consultation with Koura Linda! Limited time slots are based on availability. There is no charge and no sales pitch as part of a one-time consultation. We got this far through the generous mentorship and support from friends and industry leaders who took their time to offer guidance and teaching and advice. It will always be our goal to pay it forward!