How to Make a Short Film with SAG Actors (and not kill yourself)

NB: this post was written before SAG created the Short Project Agreement in August 2018. The Short Project Agreement replaces the old Short Film Agreement. You can read about the differences here.

 

This post is based on my personal experience dealing with SAG-AFTRA’s Chicago local. Most of the information I got from attending a seminar for producers, run by Kathy Byrne, Director of TV/Theatrical here in Chicago, and from actually going through the process while making The Deadline.

This is meant to be a primer for working with SAG under the Short Film Agreement to address the most common questions that come up and demystify the process.

It’s not a complete explanation of every detail of the contract1 Read the contract before you sign it!

Disclaimer: Some of this information has changed since 2016 when I originally wrote it. While I tried my best to get everything right, I may have misunderstood some things. This is not legal advice and is meant to give you an overview and a basic understanding of how things work. 

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  1. For example, I’m not going to talk about how you’re not allowed to require an actor to be completely nude at an audition and that you must permit them to wear pasties or a G-string. 

Post-production update for The Deadline

Post-production is humming along nicely. Right now I’m working with the composer to create the soundtrack. I’m also talking to a music label about licensing a couple songs that I want to use in the middle of the film.

After that, we’re going to mix the sound and color grade the picture (we shot it flat, although the teasers have a LUT on them to bring out the color a little bit better).

Right now, we’re hoping to have it done by the end of October so we can start submitting to festivals.

Sidney Lumet on Editing

I was going through my notes as I work on editing The Deadline and I found this quote:

In music, everything from a sonata to a symphony uses changes in tempo as a basic part of its form. Typically, a four-movement sonata will change not only its musical themes in each movement, but also its temo in each movement and sometimes even within each movement.

Similarly, if a picture is edited in the same tempo for its entire length, it will feel much longer. It doesn’t matter if five cuts per minute or five cuts every ten minutes are being used. If the same pace is maintained throughout, it will start to feel slower and slower. In other words, it’s the change in tempo that we feel, not the tempo itself.

Quoted from from Sidney Lumet’s Making Movies.

I read this and thought about how I cut Words Fail Me and realized that I used jump cuts (LOTS OF JUMP CUTS) to speed things up and now I realize that by making (most of) the episodes move so quickly without changes in tempo, I was actually making it feel slower.

With The Deadline, I’ve been using tempo changes more effectively (I think) and taking Lumet’s advice in conjunction with Walter Murch’s advice to cut on changes in emotion/thought (and his Rule of Six), I’ve at least got a better approach to how I edit, as opposed to just winging it.

Feedback in the editing process

I like to get feedback on my work throughout the writing process, by doing readings (in front of audiences of other writers or live audiences, depending on what stage the script is in) and I started getting feedback on my rough cuts when I did Words Fail Me last year. Last weekend, I had six friends come over and we watched the latest version of the rough cut of The Deadline.

I prefer to do the screening in my apartment because then people will actually sit there and watch without distraction–it’s hard to sit through a short film when you’re home alone and your phone is beckoning to distract you (at least it is for me).

I thought it was going to take about an hour — 15 minutes to watch it and 45 minutes to discuss, but we ended up talking for about 2 hours. The feedback was really great and it allowed me to see things that were in front of me but had become invisible through repetition. And there were a couple of beats that I loved but everyone said that they should be cut. It’s heartbreaking because I really loved those parts, but they just didn’t work for the story.

And there were some notes that I will not be using. I think you shouldn’t take everything, otherwise people will feel too much responsibility when they give a note, because they know you will take it.

And sometimes there are secret reasons for doing something and you just have to trust your gut that they are for the best. Feedback should make the work stronger and make you a better editor. I wonder if mastery of editing would mean that your instincts are so refined that all feedback would be superflous.

Tony Zhou on editing

Who needs film school when you have Every Frame is a Painting? This couldn’t have come at a better time for me, as I’m getting into the exciting but difficult part of editing The Deadline.

Speed up Adobe Premiere Pro with previews (how to get rid of those yellow and red lines)

I don’t know how I didn’t know about this. I’ve been trying to edit some really high-res footage from The Deadline and Premiere has been dropping frames like crazy (you can hit Ctrl-Shft-F11 to see if frames are dropping). Basically, it’s been really choppy and impossible to get into a good state of editing flow because of the choppiness.

Then I discovered that you can render previews of the footage. Basically, it’s the same as rendering an export, but you’re having Premiere render video to be used within the project. It doesn’t change the underlying source files, but it means that you can work with and edit much smaller preview files and get smoother playback in the monitor.

Here’s how you do it:

You can render any part of a sequence that falls under a red render line. You can also define a section of the sequence you want to render by setting In and Out points.

Render a preview file for a section of a sequence setting In and Out points:

1. Set In and Out points to mark the area you want to preview.
2. Choose Sequence, and select one of the following:

Render Effects In to Out Renders the sections of the video tracks lying within the In and Out points containing a red render line. Alternatively, press Enter.

Render In to Out Renders the sections of the video tracks lying within the In and Out points containing either a red render line or a yellow render line.

Render Audio Renders a preview file for the sections of the audio tracks lying within the work area.

Note: You can set Premiere Pro to render the audio tracks whenever you render the video tracks. For more information, see Render audio when rendering video.

The rendering time depends on your system resources and the complexity of the segment.

These options are not available if the work area is enabled.

To maximize the quality of motion in rendered preview files, check the Maximum Render Quality option in Sequence Settings. For more information, see Settings.

Oh, and you know those yellow and red lines that you sometimes see on the timeline? Red means that Adobe thinks that you’ll have a hard time playing the footage in the monitor without dropped frames. Yellow means there’s a decent chance of dropped frames. And green (which I’ve never seen until today) means that you’re all good to go.

I feel relieved at finding this and a bit dumb for not finding it earlier.

Wide-angle close ups and the Coen brothers

I’ve watched this EFIAP about eight times now. I watched it about a week before production on The Deadline started and I sent it to Nick the DP and he was like “oh man, I just watched that too!” So we ended up stealing the idea of going wide in close-ups and I’m really happy with the way it came out. You really feel like you’re there with the actors.

When I watch the scene in Tony’s video where the camera changes angles on Roger Deakins, I can actually feel an emotional difference–it’s subtle and probably most people can’t tell, but I think it’s meaningful.

I also like the way they shoot from “inside the space” between the two characters. Personally I don’t like dirty close ups because they take me out of the moment. There’s something ‘off’ about a character talking while we’re looking at the back of their head, and it always takes me out of the moment.

Here’s the video:

And here are some stills from the film. They haven’t been colored yet, but you feel like you’re right there with them. At least I do!

Hannah's Import Sync.00_13_01_14.Still008
Hannah's Import Sync.02_34_04_13.Still029
Robert's Import Sync.00_53_03_22.Still015
Hannah's Import Sync.01_10_01_09.Still015

Directing kissing scenes

There are two scenes in The Deadline where actors have to kiss. I brought a jug of Listerine to rehearsal yesterday and had everyone wash their mouth out (so no one actor is singled out). At the very least, nobody will have bad breath.

One of the scenes has three people making out. It’s a bid unconventional from the actor’s perspective because the kissing is… unmotivated? I don’t know if that’s the right word, but they’re not in romantic relationships that lead up to a moment of intimacy. They plunge into intimacy spontaneously. I had them run the scene several times to get the choreography right (there are a lot of moving pieces that have to work in sync) and then once the timing was down, I did a take with lips engaged. Then another because the first time they were uncomfortable and the kissing was too comedic.

The point is, I tried to minimize the discomfort (if there is any, some may enjoy it). It’s part of being an actor but I don’t want to abuse their sense of professionalism.

I think I might have been more anxious about it then they were.

One of the actors is playing a non-speaking role and was so incredibly awesome about the whole thing. I asked him (in private) about 3 minutes before running the scene if was cool with the kissing and he was 100% in.

Breaking down a script as a director

We’re two weeks away from shooting The Deadline, which is the biggest project I’ve ever done in terms of budget, cast, crew, and pretty much everything else. I have a great producer that I’m working with and she takes a lot of the producing load off of my shoulder but there’s still a lot to do on my side. So much that it sometimes feels like there’s not much time to actually think about directing — what I want from the camera and from the actors.

Now that there’s a lull in producing responsibilities, I’ve been going through the script scene by scene to figure out what I want out of it in terms of camera movement/framing and actor performances. I think that preparation in this realm is essential because I want to have an answer to the eternal question that actors ask: what the hell do you want from me here?

So I came up with this little checklist of what to look for in each scene.

For each scene, find the:

  • camera movements
  • objectives
  • character POVs
  • blocking
  • circumstances to remember (the moment before, character-specific notes)
  • internal states
  • moment to moment, anything you want to see
  • moments of play or improvisation
  • how to play it
  • any looks you want or specific reactions to try

The script is only 13 pages and takes place in one location, so by traditional screenwriting rules, it’s only one “scene.” But we broke it out into 13 mini-scenes to make it easier to shoot. And each mini-scene has its own story, its own beginning, middle, and end. I had a writing teacher a few years ago that taught us to break sketches down into beats, and then work each beat to make sure that it told its own little story.

Basically, something should be changing in every mini-beat — an emotional change, a physical one, a status change, etc. Breaking the script down into 13 mini-scenes fits into this framework naturally and makes it easier to answer the above questions at any given moment.

So I take each one and jot things down, usually breaking the notes out into sub-heads: one for camera, and then for each character that appears in the scene. I’ll take these notes with me to rehearsals and to set when we film. My hope is that by the time we’ve rehearsed twice, that these will all be second nature to the actors and myself–we’ll all know what’s supposed to happen so well that we’ll nail it after a few takes and then have time to play and improvise a little bit.

And any time I think of something interesting to try in a scene, I add it to my notes so that I can forget it for now and have it in front of me when I’m working with the actors.

And I don’t write down notes for all the things listed above, just the ones that are apt.

I think this is a useful exercise, even if you don’t end up using any of the notes, because it forces you to clarify what you want and it uncovers any weaknesses in the script (that can be fixed now). I’m always open to happy surprises, but when in doubt, I prefer to be prepared. Some day I hope to be so good that I don’t need to prepare at all and I can do everything by instinct and feel. Until then…

My next project

Words Fail Me is officially done, released, and ended. There won’t be any more episodes, unless someone decides to give me some money to make them. I’m moving on to my next project, an absurd and comedic short film called The Deadline.

Thanks for watching Words Fail Me and please check out my new project!