Shooting Ratios and Film Takes

Today’s question comes from my friend Luke, formerly a brilliant animator, production and conceptual artist, currently a brilliant portrait painter. He writes, “Working as a portrait artist has taught me that to get just one, really successful image, it usually takes about 40 shots. Film is even more complicated — so how many “takes” does one need for the average scene? Is there an industry standard for wastefulness?”

The answer is, no; not really. Every director will have his own style of dealing with actors, and his own expectations of how many takes he will want to get what he is looking for. Some actors are more experienced and better at understanding the director’s vision. Some directors will have multiple cameras on set, which means more film will be used (even if fewer takes are required). If the director shoots long takes, there is a greater chance that actors will make a mistake and they will need to be re-shot. If he shoots short takes, then more film is wasted on the “slate” material that will be edited from around each take.

There are too many variables to really make a generalization of what an industry standard might be. However, when you begin to plan a feature, you must have a reasonably accurate idea of how much film stock you will need to buy. This is tricky, but it’s not to difficult to calculate a rough estimate. Let’s assume that you are shooting a low-budget, independent 90-minute feature. Independent means you don’t have studio connections to negotiate a great deal with the supplier, and you don’t have the budget to buy any more than your bare minimum.

A 35mm camera shoots at 24 frames per second, which amounts to just over one and a half feet per second (film is measured in feet). You can find a number of timecode calculators on the internet that will convert between frames and feet precisely, and my favorite is WTCC II. Your ninety-minute finished film print will be exactly 8,100 feet long. If you have a six-to-one shooting ratio, which is cutting it pretty tight, that means you’ll need 48,600 feet of film stock to shoot your movie.

At some point, I should write an article on how to buy film, but here’s a quick summary. The two main manufacturers are Fuji and Kodak. Kodak donates raw film stock to film schools, so most beginning cinematographers will insist on shooting the Kodak film that they are familiar with. However, Fuji film is generally cheaper (but there are different types and speeds of film stock where that may differ). It comes in cans of different lengths; long reels for large magazines for dolly and tripod shots, and shorter, lighter lengths for handheld and Steadicam magazines.

The Mechanics of Storyboarding

Something that I always emphasize, to anyone who will listen, is the importance of planning. It’s impossible to create a good film on schedule and budget unless you have an accurate schedule and budget. It’s equally impossible to edit a good film out of poorly planned and poorly shot footage. To plan your shots well, you need a storyboard that covers all your shots. Easier said than done. So, today’s mailbag question is, “Is there software or a template you would recommend for storyboarding a movie?”

I can’t think of any software specifically designed for storyboarding a film… all you need to create are simple sketches, so any basic paint program will work just fine (although I highly recommend Wacom tablets to draw with). I do almost all of my storyboarding on paper. I print out a stack of templates, and then scan them back into the computer when I am finished. My template look like this: a 4:3 box for me to draw in, a small box in its upper right hand corner for the shot number, and a small thin box underneath it; just enough for a few lines describing action, camera move, or dialog.

How many of these panels you print onto a piece of paper depends entirely on how large you want to draw. I myself am a very poor artist, so I make very small panels, and I only draw little stick figures in them. Stick figures with noses; so I can tell which way they are looking. Stick figures and arrows showing the camera movements are pretty much all that you need. A little description under each panel will help them make sense if your art is as bad as mine, and shot numbers are imperative to keep things in order. If any shot is complicated enough that it requires multiple panels, name them 14a, 14b, 14c, etc.

Once you have a scene storyboarded, and the panels have been scanned in and separated into individual files, you can load them into Final Cut Pro or Premiere or whatever editing program you use. Then you can lengthen and shorten shots to fit your scratch track (which will be you reading your script with the rough pacing that you want), and create a timed animatic of that sequence. Once you have your whole film storyboarded and cut to a scratch track, you basically have your whole film finished. You can see what takes too long, where you need more shots, and where your pacing is right. Now you can stick your storyboard pages into a folder and go out and shoot a film that you know will work.

This kind of planning takes time, but it is imperative for well-ordered films – particularly for young directors who don’t have a lot of experience yet. Some animatics are cut from video-taped rehearsals with the actors, but unless you fully block the action of the scenes out on the actual sets that you will be using for the final shoot, you won’t have a fully developed idea of your camera angles and cutting, and you’ll still need a proper storyboard that takes these thing into account.

Preparing a Film for Release

Ok, we have time for one more mailbag question today: “What checks do I need to go through before I show a movie publicly or release it for sale?”

Well, you should write checks to all your marketing and advertising people, and probably a check to me as a consultant… just kidding. This is not an area that I am particularly familiar with, because it is fairly specialized. This is something that an entertainment lawyer would be more help on. I’ll assume that if you are signing a feature film on distribution contracts, you already have a lawyer handling double-jointed clauses and such, so I’ll aim this more at the short film festival preparation type of legwork. You’re getting ready to sell the film, and you need to make sure that all of your legal issues are in order.

A good way of making sure that you’ve covered everything is to make sure that you have a good press kit. Make a website for the film that has your EPK (electronic press kit) on it. This will include contact numbers for yourselves, synopsis of the film, production stills (with links to hi-rez printable pics), the format, ratio and sound of the film, the credits of the film, short bio/filmography of the main creators, what festivals it has been to already and which awards it has won, and possibly some production notes and maybe even cue or export script, which has a list of all the music clips or other non-original materials.

You will also need to have (and be able to supply to potential buyers) the appropriate licences and permissions for any non-original materials that are in your film. If you have hired your lead actors (SAG or otherwise), keep your contracts with them handy. If your actors are volunteers, make sure they sign some sort of release that says that they know they’ve been filmed and relinquish rights to their filmed image, etc. If you’ve used any recognizable places as sets, you should have releases from their owners (technically not legally required, but distributors want to make very sure that they can’t get sued).

You should also think about being able to supply a version of the film with just an M&E (music and effects) track, for foreign buyers who want to re-dub vocals without re-mixing the entire soundtrack. Once you have all of these elements together, you are prepared to meet the demands of almost anyone who who would like to show or purchase your film. Everything else is simply a matter of being above reproach in your contracts and payments, the material that you have purchased to use, and the manner in which you represent your film to sell it.

Soundtrack Copyrights and Licencing

Here’s a question that I get pretty often. Sound design is half of any film production, and music is more than half of sound. Creating a musical score for a film is difficult, particularly for filmmakers with little or no budget. Why not just use pre-existing music? And here I quote from a recent email: “There is a song that I have on a CD that I would like to use in a movie. Is that even a reality? Who do I have to get permission from, and how?”

These are tricky waters to navigate. It is certainly possible, but can be very complicated legally, and is usually very expensive to get the
appropriate license. There are no set formulae as to who owns any particular rights to any particular song. Often, the band or artist will
retain ownership of the song they have written, the record label will be have ownership of the recording they have produced, and a distribution company will purchase full rights to sell the songs on an album. Now there are three separate licenses from three separate entities that you must purchase in order to use the song in your film.

Things can be even more complicated if it’s an older song, and since then record companies have merged, or distribution companies have sold off blocks of rights. Current records of who owns what can be difficult to find. Fortunately, there are a number of services available that will make sorting through those licenses easier, such as ASCAP. For a fee, they will handle most of the paperwork, but if you can get a second opinion from a copyright or entertainment lawyer, do so.

There are also different types of licenses that you can by, such as the right to use a song in a film that will only be shown in North America.
This regional licence will be cheaper than a global license. Also, you can purchase rights that have a limited shelf life. If you are producing a
television program or documentary, this might be a good way to cut corners, but if you are creating a feature or short film, you should try to buy rights in perpetuity. You can also, if you have the budget, purchase the right to re-sell the songs, but this is mainly for large studios who will later release their own soundtrack album and would like to include non-original songs from the film.

As I said, it gets tricky, particularly since song rights and performance rights are two different things. For example, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, written in 1808, is copyright free and in the public domain. However, a recent recording made recently by the Boston Pops or London Philharmonic is not. Perhaps you can find a local orchestra who will allow you to record their performance of a classical work, or possibly a royalty-free music library that has the same song. Be warned though; cheap music libraries are overused as it is. Think twice about using Network Music for even a no-budget short film.

Creating 35mm Prints for Distribution

So, let’s say you’ve just finished your film. Pre-production covered all the bases, every shot was filmed during production, and post-production pulled everything together. You have even managed to generate some distributor interest in your final product. Now what? From today’s mailbag: “I would like to show my movie in theaters. How do I go about doing that? What format would I need to have the movie in to be able to play in a theater?”

Nearly all theaters, in the United States and worldwide, use 35mm projectors to show films. In order to give them a product that they can use, you need to create a 35mm print with a Dolby Digital (or compatible) soundtrack. This is expensive. However, there are a number of labs and transfer houses that are able to take whatever type of footage you have and print it directly onto 35mm film. You can search through some of them on the Kodak website. Of course, every screen you want to show your film on will need its own full print of the film. Releasing a film on multiple screens is
very expensive.

Unfortunately, if you’ve shot on tape, transferring your footage onto film isn’t really going to make it look any better. To make your movie look like film once it’s been transferred to film, you really need to shoot on film. 35mm film has eight to sixteen times the resolution of D1 video, and records far more color depth. The digital cameras that George Lucas and Robert Rodrieguez use to shoot their features are custom-made to emulate the way that 35mm film reacts to light, and are capable of capturing 4k resolution images at a high dynamic range. Until cameras with similar capabilities are cheaply available, film will look like film, and tape will look like tape.

However, if you have managed to sell your film to a distributor or festival that requires a 35mm print, or if you have shot on 35 or 16mm already, it is pretty straightforward to actually have the print(s) made. Make sure that you shop around to get the best deal in terms of money and in also terms of the image control that you will have as the footage is being printed onto the film stock. Also, be aware of the various sound formats. The various methods and formats used to create surround sound within a theaterchange from time to time, but almost any film printer will be up to date with what most projectors have installed.