BIG BRAINS - small budgets: DIY Filmmaking Advice

BIG BRAIN – small budget: Gregory Bayne (Person of Interest, Jens Pulver: Driven, Bloodsworth – An Innocent Man)

Gregory Bayne is a veteran filmmaker, cinematographer and editor best known for his 2011 film, JENS PULVER | DRIVEN, an intimate feature documentary about the legendary mixed-martial arts fighter.

An early adopter of using the internet to finance, build audience for, and distribute his work, Bayne has successfully crowd-funded over $140,000 since 2010 to produce, complete and release his films.

A 2012 Sundance New Frontier Storytelling Fellow, Bayne has been a guest speaker discussing the changing landscape of film, media, digital distribution and the effective use of crowd-funding at Columbia University, the Los Angeles Film Festival, Lone Star Film Festival, and the London Film School. He has written articles one these topics, and the fundamentals of storytelling, for Filmmaker Magazine, WorkbookProject.com, and NoFilmShool.com.

Currently, Bayne is in post-production on his second documentary feature, BLOODSWORTH – AN INNOCENT MAN (2015), about Kirk Bloodsworth, the first death row inmate exonerated by DNA in the United States, and developing the sci-fi detective series, ZERO POINT (2015), which he co-created with Christian Lybrook. The latter was one of seven projects selected by the Independent Filmmaker Project for their inaugural Emerging Web Storytellers Spotlight during 2014’s Independent Film Week.


It’s taken me a very long time to learn what makes a good DIY film. The beauty of DIY is in this impulsiveness, the idea of just going out and making a movie. But as I get older, I realize that the one thing that can help you succeed is if you really take the time to develop the story. It’s the one thing that doesn’t take any money, just time and work. But it’s the most important part. Everything else about film is a slave to that story.

Many new filmmakers brush over story in their excitement to make a movie, use the gadgets, and win the festivals. Developing your story is a tough process, but without a story, your film just won’t capture your audience. Developing a story doesn’t cost any money, but it’s the most crucial part of the entire filmmaking process.. You can just go out and make the film any time you want – it’s worth it to spend time on your story.

Once you’ve shot your footage, you’ll need to deal with your story again when you’re trying to make a cohesive narrative. That alone can take a movie or ten to figure out. Often, after doing all the work, you have to figure out how to make a story out of what you have by editing hours of footage to create a story that makes sense. When you’re the editor, it’s kind of like you have to write a book using a bag of sentences. It’s a very difficult process, but you learn a lot, especially in my case. My background is in editing documentaries. Documentaries teach you a lot about using the footage you have to create a narrative. A decade of trial and error has given me a big advantage in knowing how to make a good narrative when I’m editing.

The rest of the filmmaking process is comparatively easy, especially if you can find a couple of enthusiastic compatriots to join with you in your vision. But even then, the best way to inspire enthusiasm in anyone is to have a really great story. Once everyone you’re working with knows what narrative you’re working on, you can be impulsive and make a great film, even on a low budget.

Cinematography, lighting, effects, and everything else that goes with movies are only there to enhance the storytelling. You can buy a Black Magic cam and get a real nice image, but if you don’t have a strong story foundation to build on, you’re going to run into problems no matter how crafty you are. You can shoot a good film on a cell phone. Ultimately, the story is the thing that people will connect with.

I’m working on a series right now that I wrote for two years before shooting. You need that kind of time to review what you wrote and get it right. At first blush, you might think, oh my gosh, that’s genius! But if you set it down and come back to it a month later, you might realize that you only have a kernel of something good, something you can massage into an idea that’s worth the time to make. Another big piece of DIY filmmaking is cooperation. Often, you are asking people to help you make a movie for little or no money. Committing to your story, whether it’s a documentary or a series, shows these people a level of respect. You’re saying that you believe that your idea is good and are willing to put in the effort. If you can show them that and they can agree with that, then you’ll attract more people to your project.

I made my first feature-length film when I was 20 or 21. It was really horrible. Even with lack of money and problems finding people to help and shooting sixteen millimeter black and white in Idaho, I think that after my lack of understanding of how to tell a story well, my biggest obstacle was trying to figure out my own voice. By the time I was twenty-one, I was making my first feature. I’d gone to film school in Vancouver with my friend David Klein, who shot all of Kevin Smith’s movies. Kevin and Scott Mosier were in the class right before me. They’d already gone and done Clerks when David and I graduated, and I was like, god, I’ve got to make a movie. I’ve always found it interesting that Kevin Smith knew his voice right out of the gate, that he was so confident in it. I’ve always respected that. But I and a lot of people like me were influenced by many different things. Back in those days, Scorsese was king. You were so influenced by his movies and other movies that you liked that you wanted to emulate them. You wanted to do the same great camera moves. You were inspired by the visual beauty and you missed the part about developing your individuality. That’s why so much of what we see even in the popular marketplace is derivative of other stuff. It comes down to introspection and having an objective eye towards what you’re doing. I can look back at my early stuff and recognize that I wanted to emulate Scorsese or Jim Jarmusch and that I wasn’t trusting my gut on what I really liked. Again, that’s just another thing that takes time to develop.

The first night we shot Person of Interest, we shot this diner scene. I had a dolly and a little steady cam. I had the shot completely orchestrated. The scene turned out like Scorsese and Tarantino on steroids. When I went back and started editing, I realized that I hated every moment of it because it was trying so hard to have a style that it ended up looking manufactured. I threw everything out and shot the rest of the movie handheld, even the diner scene. I realized that this was my style and my voice. I prefer to make something that’s a little more raw, that feels a little more alive. I want to get all the coverage, and I want to have interesting shots, but the thing that I really need to go after is the story and the character.

There are changes happening in the industry, too. Going forward, a lot of DIY film is probably going to be small-screen. When you’re making a DIY film, it’s important to be objective about that. I never had a vision of Person of Interest being a theatrical movie. I actually was excited to release the completed film via torrent. I thought that it fit the MO of the movie itself. I never expected it to be a big festival movie and it wasn’t. I never expected somebody to pay me a bunch of money for it, and they never did.

When I think about making Person of Interest, I always think back to Robert Rodriguez’s 10-Minute Film School. In a lot of ways, all the A to Z technical aspects of the filmmaking basics are there in that short film. But the really tough stuff is figuring out story, figuring out character, and figuring out your voice and what you really want to say about things. No matter how much gear you have, those super-important factors still take a you the most amount of time, unless you arrive fully formed, which most of us don’t.

If you want to make films, don’t decide that you’re just a writer or director. You need to actually just go do everything involved in making the movie. I like shooting handheld footage. Luckily, I feel like I’m pretty good camera operator by now. But I’ve also worked every crew position. I’ve mixed sound, been a DP, worked on production design, and of course I’ve edited. Because I’ve done all of those jobs, I now have a good working knowledge of how every bit of film production works. When I’m making a movie with other people, I respect everyone’s positions and I know what I’m asking of them. They know that I get them because I’ve done their job before.

Out of all the work you need to do to make a film, except for developing a good narrative, editing is the hardest part. It’s the last word on the story. Depending on the individual, it can be just difficult or it can be a lot of fun.

Production is always nice because you have people around you being helpful, and the social aspect is fun. But that editing process is a lonely place. If you’re both directing and editing it’s worse. Editing is where you find all the faults in your work. Even if you spent the time to develop the story, the inherent nature of low budget production is such that maybe you didn’t get everything you needed, or maybe an actor wasn’t as great as you would’ve hoped. This makes the editing process immensely difficult. The urge to make a film is so intense that it’s almost drug-like. You need patience to spend the time making sure that the story is great on paper before diving into the rest of it. I think many people also feel this push to publish, this sense that people are watching and waiting for their film, when in reality, nobody is. Rushing is a bad idea. It’s just as important to take time in the editing room as it is to take time on the story. Person of Interest took quite a long time to edit and became a lot different than the script that we originally shot. Driven was an anomaly, but it still took eight or nine months to edit. I’ve been shooting and editing Bloodsworth for close to three years now. It’s part of a larger project and involves things like animation, which slows the process down, but you get the idea.

Editors also have a tendency to be flashy. It takes a long time to learn how that’s actually not what editing is about. What editing is about is pace and tone and serving the story. Simpler is often better. Just like with shooting, there’s tendency to be stylish when editing. You can still do that, but you can do it in simpler ways and in ways that serve the story. Finding the subtleties of editing is one of the biggest obstacles to the whole process of making a film on a smaller budget. When I’m making documentaries, I have a framework and a working idea of what I think the film should be. But that is influenced by what people say in interview and what happens in front of the camera, so the narrative is always shifting. You may have your scenes in your head, but how an actor delivers a line or how the camera moves makes you find the story anew in editing. It’s a patient process, allowing yourself the time to work through changes in the narrative. Objective feedback is an important part of the process too. Avoid relying on people who just praise you. You want to hear from people who have intellectual authority on story and can give you honest feedback. It’s also important to understand what is viable criticism that you can work with and what is just opinion. A lot of times, you can find a kernel of something good in someone’s advice and the rest is actually someone explaining how they would have made the film themselves.

At the end of the day, you have to make the film you have. When you’re in the editing room, and all you have is the footage before you, you need to be pragmatic about the fact that your footage determines what you can do with the tone, the pace, and the characters. If your footage veers from the original idea, you have to go where it leads. If you’re not flexible, especially in the realm of very low budget DIY stuff, you just shouldn’t do it.

When you get into DIY film, you need to think about your motivations, what you want to get out of it. Earlier on in my career, I made films because I was excited about the medium. I’d wanted to illustrate comic books, but David Lynch’s Wild at Heart made me realize that film was also an art form. By the time I got around to making Person of Interest, I had a young daughter and was starting to think a little bit about my legacy. I realized that I wanted to make films that I felt good about, that I cared about. It was about 2008. We had just been through the Bush years, 9/11, and the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I felt like darkness had crept into American culture. One of my best friends from high school went on two or three tours in Iraq, and when he came back, he was changed. I had never thought about how a person processes war and killing. So when I made Person of Interest, the whole tone of the movie was influenced by those reactions to war and violence. I wanted to explore what it’s like to go to war and come back, what it’s like to live in a society that’s not everything it was held up to be in my youth. I’ve shown the film to my friend Lou and to some other soldiers, and they say that it describes visually what it’s like to have post-traumatic stress disorder. The idea ended up being prescient, since right now we’re dealing with the DA hospital scandal. In this country, we’ll put bumper stickers on our cars that say “Support our Troops,” but when it comes down to dealing with a real person right in front of you, nobody wants to mess with it. I wanted to capture that sense of a nation in turmoil. I would almost describe Person of Interest as a tone poem. It captures a mood.

Since I made it, somebody has uploaded Person of Interest to YouTube. It has been viewed nearly a million times over the last several years. I’m thankful that somebody else uploaded it, because I don’t want to have to deal with the comments! Although, for everyone who hates it and calls it horrible and amateur, there are people who really love it.

DIY film is essentially a handmade experience. With both Person of Interest and Driven and Bloodsworth, I’ve done pretty much everything on the movie. I’ve created the websites, handled all the marketing, even designed the artwork on the DVDs. Even with Driven, which we have a distributor for, I handled all the DVD sales rights. You make all the decisions from the get go, from creating the story to getting it out to the world, even if you’re lucky enough to have help along the way. Luckily, over time, you start to get more partners. For example, Bloodsworth will be easier to distribute than my previous movies because I already have partnerships from Driven and other projects. But if you’re going to make a DIY or independent film, assume you’re committing off the bat to taking care of everything. Learning some design, some coding, and some social skills is a good idea. You also need to be willing to put yourself and your work out there. If you make a DIY film and don’t take that next step, it’s just a film. Nobody is going to come pick up the rights for you – that simply doesn’t happen. If you’re not willing to do the work, you might want to rethink whether DIY is the approach you should take.

Filmmakers still like to talk about what’s “professional” in film. I think that with DIY film making, you can have the fundamentals of a good movie without having a big crew or a lot of money. For instance, I’m about to shoot something that’s a pilot for a series. I’m shooting with digital cameras. I know that all I need is battery powered LED lights, a very small crew, and a couple of extras. You don’t need a lot of fancy gear to feel validated. I made Person of Interest with a Panasonic P2 cam, the HVX. Driven, I shot without a crew on a 7D with a zoom mic attached to the top of it. Same with Bloodsworth. People love technology, but on a lot of levels, we are not ready to embrace its true flexibility. For example, you can shoot at low light pretty well and you don’t need a ton of huge equipment to get the job done. If you start piling on big equipment and things like that, it’s not really a DIY production anymore. It’s going to cost you a lot more money and it’s probably not going to enhance the end product. Of all the trappings of traditional film, crew is still important, but even there, you need to look at which key components of the crew matter to your project.

DIY is often about simplifying. I have a very simple approach to cinematography: I make sure that I can see my subjects’ faces and that the camera is in focus. If I have that covered, then I can spend the time on composition. I have some nice, quiet, battery-powered LED lights from a company in Hong Kong that don’t get hot and are easy to move around. They look fantastic, and with them, I don’t have to get three people to traipse one light through the forest. That’s what it is to embrace DIY. In Person of Interest, I had maybe three or four lights to work with, a couple of C stands, couple of flags, a good mic and a good camera. That’s all. Recently, Quentin Tarantino said that digital projection was the end of cinema. On the contrary, I think the shape and face of cinema is an evolving one. I find it a little offensive when people say something new is ruining everything. If you look at the cinematography techniques that came out of early TV, you can see how they helped redefine and reshape the way that we tell the stories. You can see that even now, especially the way narratives are expanding into episodics and being delivered online. I watch 99% of everything I watch online. I go to the movie theater sometimes, but I feel that the DIY movement is like social media. It’s an interesting way for a lot of disparate voices to make and produce work. Some of those voices have great merit, some of them, not so much. But I think that what matters is that it opens up a global conversation. The beauty of the visual medium is that it crosses language and cultural barriers in ways that other mediums just don’t do as well. When people from Idaho or from the wilds of Africa or somewhere in the Ukraine or in the middle of the Egypt during the revolution can represent culture and the now, they help change the overall sense of what cinema could be over time.

The place where DIY film making often fails is in adherence to story. I see a proliferation of people doing independent filmmaking, telling their stories, and having to learn the same difficult lessons time and time again. Especially in the nineties, there seemed to be a disease going around where everyone made independent films because they actually wanted to make movies in the Hollywood system. They wanted to make a great movie and be the lucky person who gets picked out of the crowd at a film festival, and who is thereafter anointed by a production company and ushered into fame and fortune. The good thing about DIY today is that people are becoming less dependent on the idea that “arrival” is their endpoint. Instead, a lot of people are getting focused on the craft and, in many ways, interested in being the authors of their own destinies. Take my career. Do I have long term goals? Do I want to struggle every time I make a film? Probably not. But I’m also truly not concerned about being “discovered.” I already have the means to do everything that I want to do. All that’s left is for me to tell good stories, put them out into the world, and build my audience. The DIY phenomenon has allowed people to forget, not only the old methods of working, but their obsession over film festivals. Those usually don’t rocket you to fame anyway. Festivals are milestones. I love Sundance, for example. It’s a fantastic organization, and it looks great on a CV, but it doesn’t change your life. The point of making a DIY film is doing the work of filmmaking and then building up the quality of that work over time.

My hope is that, over time, independent artists will be able to carve out a sustainable living. Maybe they won’t make millions of dollars, but they’ll have a good quality of life and build from one project to the next without having to chase down money. The film world is moving in that direction. It’s amazing how much things have changed just since YouTube went online, never mind Netflix. I know that there are a lot of people who gripe that the industry is coming to an end, but the reality is that the changes that are happening are going to allow people to innovate.

I talk about this realization in my 2010 article, “Slaves of Industry” At the time, I was making Driven and I was just going to put Person of Interest out in torrents, and was becoming less concerned with the pay-to-play model of film viewing. It’s flawed. If you decide that every time someone watches your content, they have to pay for it, it’s going to be a long wait before you see the benefits. On the other hand, there’s a lot of merit to having a lot of people see your work over time. In the article, I talk about developing an audience that likes the things that I do. That’s why Youtube is so relevant now. Think about the big mainstream films that came out in 2010. Aside from Winter’s Bone, I can’t remember a single one. People like to blame the “demise” of the movie industry on technology like YouTube, but the other bigger problem is that the stories being told in mainstream film are stale, boring, and repetitious. I don’t think that something like Charlie Bit My Finger is a cinematic feat – it’s not. But it’s a sign that there are other mediums, other formats, and other ways to divulge the story that aren’t a 90-minute feature film. If anything, it’s the feature film format that’s going to shift. It won’t go away. It’s a format that viewers really do enjoy. But habits are shifting. I have seen a lot of DIY movement toward web series. I’m not necessarily totally engaged in the idea of three- to five-minute episodes. I actually like longer shows. But as this new format grows in popularity, people will start to realize, just as, at one point, they realized that they could pick up a camera and make a feature film, that they too can make a 14-hour story in the form of a series of episodes just like that. It has the potential to expand on a global level. My hope is that, in keeping with the dream of the 2000s, it will open up a world of collaboration to everyone. As I’m talking to you right now, this model is starting to come to fruition. You’re realizing that the world is a little bit smaller and that you can collaborate across cultures, across countries, and across the globe.

So you should make DIY films. The only way to get started is to just make a movie. I’ve heard people claim to be a filmmaker or a director, but they’re waiting to get some money to make their first film. If you’re going to do it, and this goes for anything, you just need to commit and follow through. Everything I’ve talked about in this piece comes down to the fact that I’ve just gone ahead and made my films over and over again during the last 25 years, and over time, I’ve learned how to do it. I’ve developed that skillset by practicing it. Think about it this way: where do you want to to be in 5 or 10 years? No matter what your plans are, that time is going to pass anyway. So if you so badly want to make a film, the only thing you can really do is go make it. It’ll probably be horrible, and that’s fine. It’s a learning process like anything else. It’s a great time for it – the cost of entry is as cheap as it’s ever been, and there’s a certain level of enthusiasm from people to want to engage in the direct film experience online. Take those first steps on the journey. If you don’t take your ideas and make something, then you’re like a writer who doesn’t write, but just thinks about this terrific novel in their head. It’s true that acting on your ideas will be harder than thinking about them. The filmmaking process will probably tear you down a little bit, but over time you’ll build confidence in what you’re doing. You can’t find your voice just by thinking about it. You can’t learn anything about telling a story unless you start trying to tell one. You can’t succeed on any level at any of the aspects of making a film unless you just start and figure them out along the way.

The beauty is that there are so many resources for aspiring filmmakers online. There are opportunities for learning, for cheap gear, for cheap editing systems and software. The barrier to entry into filmmaking is low. It’s just a matter of getting over that hump and deciding to do it. Your results may not be totally brilliant, but they will continuously build a body of work and improve your own ability. In the last four years, my abilities, my career, and my connections have all grown markedly as a result of my willingness to take a risk, make something, and put it out into the world. I don’t claim any great understanding. I feel like I have a very good handle on craft, but I don’t think that I’m some genius, though generally it feels like people like what I do. To succeed in making a DIY film, you just build. You can’t build unless you start doing it.

People ask me if independent filmmaking is worth all the effort, time, and creative energy. I think so. It depends on your measure of success. In my case, I don’t have a day job. I do a lot of freelance work, but for the most part I get to do things that I like for a living. To me, that’s success. Hollywood will not come knocking on my door anytime soon, but I’m not in that place. I’m in the place where I make my own movies and release them on the web. Enjoying myself and making movies I feel good about is what I value. Person of Interest was fun to make, led me into my own style, and gave me the ability to make Driven, which people still discover three years later. It really means a lot to some people. My next film with Kirk, a man who was accused of a murder he didn’t commit and eventually exonerated from death row, shows how his entire life has been framed by one pivotal moment. I have the opportunity to tell his story, to get people to see beyond the thorny politics around the death penalty, which is a huge deal in the United States, and to get into the human parts of his history. For me, that’s what it’s all about. It’s being able to show humanity for what it is and to really understand how we each personally deal with this American psyche we exist in. It’s totally worth it to be able to tell those stories, even without economic security. It’s totally worth it.

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