BIG BRAINS - small budgets: DIY Filmmaking Advice

BIG BRAINS – small budgets: Signe Baumane (Rocks In My Pocket)
Digging for Small Potatoes with Different Kind of Gold in Mind

Signe Baumane was born in Auce, Latvia, and grew up in Tukums, Latvia and Sakhalin Island. She was married to Yuriy Gavrilenko, an artist and impresario, and Lasse Persson, a Swedish animator. She began writing for publications at the age of 14. She attended Moscow University and graduated in 1989 with a BA in Philosophy.

She began working as an animator in 1989, taking a position as animator at Dauka Animation Studio. Over the next several years, local television aired several animated commercials that Baumane had designed and directed. In 1991 she produced her first animated film, The Witch and the Cow, of which she was the scriptwriter, director, designer, and animator.

Following a two year stint as a children’s book illustrator in Moscow, she returned to animation, illustration and stage design in 1993 in Riga. She relocated to New York City in September 1995, finding work with Bill Plympton as production manager, color stylist, and cel painter the following January.

In 1998 she resumed work as an independent animator, making several films. Two of these, Woman and Veterinarian were made during visits to Latvia. The remainder were made in New York City.[1][2]

Signe has initiated and curated a number of independent animation programs and along with Patrick Smith and Bill Plympton is the organizing core of Square Footage Films, a group of New York independent animators that self-publishes and distributes DVDs of their own work. [3]

Besides doing animation, Baumane is an artist, and has produced numerous paintings and sculptures,[4] and has also worked as an illustrator for children’s books.

Her films have been screened at important film festivals such as Annecy, Tribeca, Sundance, Berlin, Ottawa, Venice and they have received numerous awards.

Baumane’s animation Rocks in My Pockets is a feature-length autobiographical animation that explores the depression that has haunted three generations of women in her family. Rocks in My Pockets was selected as the Latvian entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards but was not nominated. [5]



Did you wake up one day thinking – ‘Oh, I can’t wait to make DIY films so I can make enough money to buy a house and 2 cars and send my children to a very expensive school’?

The reasons for making a film should be as many as there are filmmakers. That’s what’s so exciting about filmmaking and art – we all are different and we all have different points of view and voices. To have that variety of opinions expressed in variety of forms is what makes society and culture thrive.

I started out in many ways delusional – hoping to make films I wanted to make (without even thinking about a house, cars and children) and, of course, I ran into the wall of impossibility of my dream. There is very little money available for individual filmmakers.

Economic obstacles of filmmaking are tied with changing public tastes. Who wants to run to a farm to eat rye bread, lean goat cheese and carrots if there is sweet-fattened-easy-to-chew burger delivered conveniently to one’s home?

Only very few filmmakers make films they want to make that millions of people are willing to pay $16 each to see in theaters. I am not one of those few filmmakers. It is possible, if you are reading this article, that you are very much like me – we make films that appeal to smaller audiences. And since smaller audiences don’t bring millions of dollars, no big production studio or wealthy distribution company is interested in our films.

So we are left on our own, in the Do-It-Yourself realm.

To me, DIY is a film made without outside production studio support, a film that started in an individual’s head as an idea and she/he used means available to her/him to make it. Mainly, her/his own money, time, apartment, friends, etc.

In earlier times that kind of film was called a more artistic term – auteur.

To me a DIY label indicates that the film carries one person’s vision, or, if it was directed by a group of directors – the vision of that group, unpolluted by outside influences and considerations.

Freedom from outside money often means creative freedom – except, freedom without money is not a fully exercised freedom.

Like, you are free to go to Antarctica to shoot time lapse of Southern Pole sky in 3D.

You only need $200,000 for that.

It is interesting that the term “Independent Film” used to mean something, but now the word “independent” has been hijacked so many times, that I am not sure anymore what it means. It used to be what you now call DIY, but then one day “independent” films became cool and got more attention and money.  So now what we call “independent” films have multimillion budgets with teams of advisory committees attached.

To me DIY films are auteur films and the difference between them and an independent film is who has the final say in making creative decisions – the producer or the director? Who has the vision and the power to render it? In a DIY project the producer, director, writer, actor, animator production manager and production accountant often is the same person.

My animated feature Rocks In My Pockets was cheap to make.  We had a very small crew of 5-6 people. But of course, lack of high production values (we didn’t have 20 animators and 40 inbetweeners and 100 colorists) AND the unusual subject for an animated feature (family’s history of depression) puts the film in a different category than, let’s say The Lego Movie. Does Rocks have less value as a film because of that?

While making Rocks In My Pockets I learned a few interesting lessons that might be interesting for you, too.

First, know that if you don’t figure out who is your audience and how to reach them, you might be the only person besides your family and the film’s crew who will see the film.

Making a film is 1/3 of the job, getting it to your audience is the rest of it.

Be willing to invest your energy and mind into distribution and marketing.

With the tools available in 2015, anybody can make a film. And they do – in hordes. But a lot of people make a film and they stop at that, hoping that somehow, miraculously, they’ll get a distribution deal and the distributor will take care of the rest. The world is populated by beached whales of DIY films that were deserted by their makers at the moment they were made.

If you made a film, it is YOUR responsibility to make sure it walks into the world and connects with people.

Second, treat your DIY project as a job/career not as a hobby. Budget it accordingly. It drives me crazy when filmmakers boast that their film cost only $600.00 to make.

“Did you live under the bridge during making the film? Was your rent part of the budget?” I ask.

“Oh, no” they say. “My day job paid for the rent and my living expenses.”

Well, that means that they made the film as a hobby and a hobby is for personal enjoyment. So why do they get frustrated when the film is not accepted in film festivals and theaters won’t show it? If you made the film for your personal enjoyment, then right there, the mission is accomplished – you enjoyed making the film and should not expect more from it.

Third, when talking about budget and financing – in 2015 marketing and distribution comes hand-in-hand with finding financing for your film. Kickstarter is not just a crowd funding platform, it is also pre-sales platform and it is the place where you can announce your project to the world. Use it as a reality check to see if anyone wants it.

Fourth, some time ago directors/creators used to be like divine creatures floating high above, sprinkling their creations down to the eager population. It might be like this for some directors now, but for most of us, DIY directors, being humble and friendly is a better strategy.

With our bleeding bare hands we dig into hard infertile ground finding small shriveled potatoes and throw them up, hoping that someone will catch them.

Remember – no one asked us for those potatoes.

Fifth, less and less people go to movie theaters. Even big studio productions fail to attract audiences. Please, stop for a moment and ponder – what do you have to offer that no one else offers? What is so special about you and your project?

When I look at a stream of my Twitter feed, I despair – so much information!  I have to push into that stream with my own little film, yell just like the rest of them, demanding attention.

Information in 2015 feels like pollution. Do you really have to make more of it? What is that makes your information/film important?

The most difficult stage for DIY filmmakers is definitely financing, marketing and distribution. At the Rocks In My Pockets marketing and distribution stage, I completely lost my ability to sleep and lived in a constant state of horror for more than a year. And the horror is not over yet. The film production stage was so much fun compared to that. It felt like vacation. We make films because we love making films, not because we love to market them.

In general, I make films because I want to express my point of view. I make films because I want to shake people up, to encourage them to think independently from what mass entertainment feeds us day in and day out. I made Rocks In My Pockets for the same reasons. On top of that, it was a story that had to be told, there was a need in me to tell it, and there was an interest in other people to see it.

I am all for diversity of opinions and visions. I am not against mass entertainment, but for obvious reasons (since its main concern is a film’s sell-ability to the biggest possible populace) their producers/investors are making very safe choices and are afraid to experiment. Thus they regurgitate old ideas, do re-makes, bring bestselling books to screen, and work with formulas.

But the filmmaking industry needs to have a testing ground to experiment with new ideas and new approaches to visual storytelling. Somebody has to do it. DIY filmmakers are crazy enough to do it.

Unlike some really cool people, I can’t see the future.  I can barely foresee what I’ll do in the next 36 hours. So anything I could possibly say in regard of DIY future will be from the realm of wishful thinking. So, here it goes…

Big behemoths (big studios) will make bigger and more expensive films/spectacles that will try to repeat all the successful films that were made before (my theory is that one of the reasons people don’t go to movie theaters anymore is because studios keep making the same movie over and over, so if you have seen 5 movies in your life you feel you’ve seen them all).

Those will be the 3 big boring rocks of the entertainment world, while zillions of small nifty, weird DIY productions will fill the rest of the space of film entertainment, and because small is small and flexible, they’ll find new forms of distribution that big studios didn’t think of.

I believe in the power of an individual and I believe in people.

I do understand that studios are also made up of people, but sometimes it feels like the logic of a corporate operation takes over an individual-who-works-for-the-corporation’s thinking.

But yes, the reality is that I am still reeling from the experience of making a film independently.

It truly was like climbing Kilimanjaro – grueling and scary. Facing the Unknown. Putting everything I have – EVERY THING (my relationships, income, sanity, health, name, future) – at stake.

They tell me that the second time around it’ll be easier, but I doubt it.

Nevertheless, I am ready to jump off that cliff again.

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