By Ryan Nelson
After graduating from film school at The University of North Carolina School of the Arts, I was punched in the gut. I had driven into Los Angeles mere hours after the last day of school ready to set Hollywood on fire with my thesis film. But Hollywood didn’t seem to know I’d arrived. A few months later, Hollywood still wasn’t knocking on my door. Desperate to work on film sets and learn the tools of the trade, I took a job as a grip. In hindsight, it was a lucky accident. I spent the next few years watching some of the industry’s most successful filmmakers from just a few feet away.
Like a sponge, I soaked in every aspect of filmmaking that I could from my time on the sets of Avengers, Real Steel, Spider Man 3, Bad Boys 2, Seven Psychopaths, Smokin’ Aces and a slew of Adam Sandler comedies. I spent hours working, watching, learning and judging. How are they blocking the actors in this scene? What sort of cameras are they using? Why did they use that light? When do you move the camera? When is it static? When I saw the finished films in theaters, I ultimately asked myself, did it all work?
During that same time, I wrote and directed a slew of my own short films. I tried many of the same techniques I’d seen on set. Some of those attempts succeeded and some failed.
Recently, the stars finally aligned and I directed my first feature-length film, Mercy Christmas, from a script I co-wrote with my wife Beth Levy Nelson. After five years of writing, fundraising, production and post production, the movie is finished. We made the movie outside the Hollywood system, using crowd funding, generous friends and loving family members to compile enough cash to make the ultra-low-budget version of the Mercy Christmas screenplay.
I say low budget because it was financially, but thanks to my time on set, years of practice and much trial and error, the finished film looks and feels like much more than it cost.
Mercy Christmas, by the way, features Michael Briskett, who meets the perfect woman and his ideal Christmas dream comes true when she invites him to her family’s holiday celebration. Michael’s dream shatters, however, when he realizes that he will be the Christmas dinner. The film is currently on iTunes.
My experience working professionally in the film business while I struggled to get my shot at directing taught me many things. I learned over those years that a mastery of the techniques and equipment used to tell stories for film was imperative.
The stories I gravitate towards tend to have higher concept set pieces. I really enjoy combining action and character. At this point in my career, the budgets are more limited. However, I can’t allow financial restrictions to hold me back from the stories I want to tell. I must always find a way to use the tools available in their best way.
I remember an early meeting with a possible producer for Mercy Christmas. I told him I was planning to shoot two cameras. The producer chided me, saying it would be a waste of money. Right then, I knew I didn’t want to work with that producer, and I didn’t.
Every project I do now and in the future will be two cameras. And the reason is simple: It would be a waste of money not to use two cameras. On a limited budget, two cameras offer twice the coverage. Yes, understanding how to shoot two cameras is key, but it’s also simple to master. Cross coverage is not conducive to lower budget lighting so stacking the cameras on a single piece of coverage gives you a medium shot and close shot at the same time. Or for instance, when shooting the wide master shot, you can also get a medium master shot to give the editor another option to breakaway to while building a scene.
In Mercy Christmas, we have a fight scene that consists of seven minutes of screen time. It’s a raucous fight that covers three individual fights happening simultaneously. We scheduled three days to shoot the fight. Without two cameras it would have taken more days to shoot, and we definitely didn’t have more days in the budget.
Of course, two camera rentals and camera crews are budget concerns, so the key is to find a lower budget but high-quality camera. For Mercy Christmas, we chose the Canon C-300 Mark II. We found the image to be fantastic. I was very happy with the final result. You can also save money by only renting one lens package to use for both cameras.
Good camera coverage doesn’t mean much without an excellent editor. Our editor for Mercy Christmas, Matt Evans, is a very good friend and also very experienced in post. Like me, Matt started at the bottom and worked his way up. Along the way, he worked on many studio films as apprentice editor, first assistant editor and finally editor. Matt’s preferred tool is Avid Media Composer. He’s incredibly fast and understands every aspect of the system.
Matt’s technical grasp is superb, but his story sense is the real key. Matt’s technique is a fun thing to witness. He approaches a scene by letting the footage tell him what to do on a first pass. Soaking in the performances with each take, Matt finds the story that the images want to tell. It’s almost as if he’s reading a new script based on the images. I am delighted each time I can watch Matt’s first pass on a scene. I always expect to see something I hadn’t anticipated. And it’s a thrill.
Another aspect that should be budgeted into an independent film is professional color grading. No, your editor doing color does not count. A professional post house with a professional color grader is what you need. I know this seems exorbitant for a small-budget indie film, but I’d highly recommend planning for it from the beginning. We budgeted color grading for Mercy Christmas because we knew it would take the look to professional levels.
Color grading is not only a tool for the cinematographer it’s a godsend for the director as well. First and foremost, it can save a shot, making a preferred take that has an inferior look actually become a usable take. Second, I believe strongly that color is another tool for storytelling. An audience can be as moved by color as by music. Every detail coming to the audience is information they’ll process to understand the story. I learned very early in my career how shots I saw created on set were accentuated in post by color grading. We used Framework post house in Los Angeles on Mercy Christmas. The colorist was David Sims who did the color and conform in DaVinci Resolve 12.
In the end, my struggle over the years did gain my one of my best tools: experience. I’ve taken the time to absorb all the filmmaking I’ve been surrounded by. Watching movies. Working on sets. Making my own.
After all that time chasing my dream, I kept learning, refining my skills and honing my technique. For me, filmmaking is a passion, a dream and a job. All of those elements made me the storyteller I am today and I wouldn’t change a thing.