By Randi Altman
Monticello, Indiana — Independent filmmakers come in different shapes and sizes, but what they have in common is their desire to tell a story. Thanks to today’s affordable technology, more creatives can call themselves independent filmmakers than ever before — and even produce films that can compete against those with varying budgets.
Oak Road Media’s Randy DeFord is one such filmmaker — he embraces the term “doing it all.”DeFord wrote, directed, produced, shot, edited, recorded, posted all the audio, and composed the theme song for the film Taylor Bertram, a story about spousal abuse.
This winter, Taylor Bertram was an official selection at the Trail Dance Film Festival in Duncan, Oklahoma. Another film that was screened at the festival (out of the 18 accepted) was “Dust Of War. “That film cost an estimated $1.2 million [according to IMDB], and mine cost $2,700,” he says. “I think my methods and standards found justice when a competing film cost 400 times as much,” he says. “The whole possibility is humbling and gratifying.”
Taylor Bertram is written from the point of view of a person who witnesses the abuse of a friend. The audience goes on to not only see the results of spousal abuse on the victim but also the toll it takes on those who witness the horrible act. The story is set in rural Indiana, in a city not unlike where DeFord lives. “I wrote the film as a crime drama that touches on other cultural themes, but there is some levity in there as well. The lead character’s husband is very much an ‘Indiana smartass’ with an opinion on everything… but he does it with a smile.”
Taylor Bertram was DeFord’s first HD project, and he says the experience gave him exposure to some new post techniques. “Prior to this film, I had not rendered from HD to different formats,” he explains. “I also spent a lot of time learning color correction. I am a big fan of the late Tony Scott and his saturated colors, but I wouldn’t want it as a norm. But he made it work!”
DeFord’s post tool of choice is Sony Vegas. “I find it very flexible with both audio and visual. When I can’t get a result, it’s typically because of my ignorance and not the capability of the software. It has a rich set of approaches to color change,” he says. “With the HD files, I found new, exciting color possibilities I hadn’t seen in my past post experience. And post is where it all comes together. All the prerequisites are important, but post is where it grows legs and starts to move.”
Just as he found ways to keep costs down in post, DeFord kept the production budget down as well. He opted for a custom boom arm for the mic on set, which was important since he had no crew. “Just me, the mic and the cam,” he says. He did have a custom score of piano interludes provided by Jay Vernali, but other than that and the session players for the theme, it was all him.
For the shoot DeFord, who used a DVX-100 for years, called on a Panasonic AG-HMC80P AVCHD. “It’s everything I need for a camera, and it only costs around $2,500. The one thing I don’t like is the bulk compared to the DVX, but the SD cards that download instantly to the computer are great. It makes the whole workflow faster, with improved quality. Plus all scenes are laid out in files. This makes it very fast to view a cut with the actors so they can see their performance immediately. They love that.”
When a scene is locked, DeFord edits it within the next week. This allows him to make decisions for the rest of the film. “Being able to see a piece of the finished film makes it possible to be creative for everything going forward, including changing locations for future scenes. It can also cue me in to shots in a given location that I wouldn’t have considered if I hadn’t seen a finished edit.”
DeFord is a big believer in high production standards, regardless of how small your production is. “You simply cannot make the choice that post is the place to fix everything. You must insist on both correct exposure and good audio. You can enhance good captures but not bad ones. I’ve seen low-budget films where the filmmaker apparently thought the viewer would not notice or care that the light or audio was different from edit to edit. That has a lot to do with why they don’t get into festivals. If you settle, you’ll regret it. Standards are standards…develop them and use them!”
In terms of the film’s music, DeFord wrote a backwoods title song. “I hired four local musicians and four top Nashville session players to make it happen. As a musician, I love recording. It’s so much fun to see it all come together. It has a much faster payoff than the film since that takes months, but the song can be rough mixed the same day. Also, I like piano interludes to set the mood, and I have a great keyboard player who does that.”
Being able to create and post the music makes that part of the post process faster, he says. The piano man records the music in Nashville and then sends DeFord the file via e-mail. “Music is another standard,” he says. “You can’t fix bad music. I spend what I need to have that recorded professionally. It’s a key part of the combination of visuals and music creating a single experience. My advice is to create mood, not distractions.”
DeFord has some very strong opinions on making independent films and the creative freedom that comes with this type of work. “Indie film to me is being independent from the techniques of big production studios. If you can do it yourself, then do it. Why have 30 people on set when you can do it with one?” he asks. “True indie filmmakers should throw away the Hollywood template and find more efficient ways to tell a story. That’s what defines indie: forced innovation due to need. The technology is there if you have a human with matching flexibilities.”