Warning: Planning Your First Feature May Drive You Bonkers

When planning your first feature film, you’ve got to operate under the assumption that you’re going to do this, even if you’re eating rice three meals a day (or one), while meeting with local TV producers.

Robert Rodriguez said anybody could wash away problems with the money hose. What if that hose isn’t hooked up to anything? How do you deal with the problems that will crop up while making your first feature?

I was talking about this project with the director of the ballet school where I teach, and she said, well, you can’t plan your first feature film until you have your money. She’s got that backward: You must plan everything before you get your money!

My DP on our first feature is Michael Paletta, who I worked with on “The Adventures of Superseven.” He’s a planner. He’s also the driving force behind our first feature film. We started having production meetings way before we even thought about how to finance the picture.

first feature film

Planning Your First Feature Film

We knew we needed basic things, like a breakdown, budget, wish lists, etc. The first thing we did for our first feature was to complete the initial breakdown. I went to LightSpeed EPS. They’re an online production software site that Jason Brubaker promotes. But after using it, I found it’s amazing!

This may sound like a commercial, but when making your first feature film, you can manage a movie production through their site with everything from breakdowns to time cards. They also have some free stuff! I used their breakdown option, which made figuring out a basic budget for our first feature much easier.

From there, we started on a schedule.

From reading the script and coming from an indie background, Mike came up with a fifteen-day shooting schedule. On a first feature with a lot of physical activity, you have to plan differently than just a talking head script.

For the latter, you usually work with location and actor availability as your primary concerns. With the former, you have to factor in the physical demands placed on your actors.

The third act of the script deals with the actual competition. That’s where most of the dancing takes place. I want to do as much one-take stuff as possible, but I also want the dancing to be as good as it can be.

There’s The Juggling Act…

If you put the hardest stuff at the end of your shoot, your actors might be exhausted, both physically and mentally.

Conversely, if you put the hard stuff first, they’ll be fresh, but someone might get injured. I decided it was more important to get the hard stuff out of the way. If someone, God forbid, got injured, most of the dancing would be done, and we’d work around injuries for the acting.

A typical ballet variation takes one to one and a half minutes. That may not sound like much, but it’s very, very hard. You really can’t do take after take after take. So, when we were scheduling, Mike realized that half a day spent on one variation is a lot. That shortened the shoot, right there.

Our three main locations are the theatre where the competition takes place and the two rival dance studios. Before we even started our breakdown, we went location scouting. The big dance school we went to has several studios, offices, a kitchen, hallways… it’s really nice.

Mike was very happy, because he saw how we could take several pages of the script and shoot it all in one day. There’s even a very specific sunset shot, where I want the setting sun reflected in a dancer’s eyes.

Going on that location scout, we saw that the main studio had north facing windows; the sun will never be shining directly in, so we can shoot that at any time of day.

Write To What You Have

I try to write to what I have- that’s part of planning- and since I have taught at one school for seven years, I pretty much know what’s there. There’s another school at which I teach that has a huge main studio that would be wonderful to shoot in, except for one thing: there are mirrors on three sides, and glass doors out to the street on the fourth.

Camera placement would be a nightmare.

I wrote several scenes with very specific angles in mind.

I brought Mike in to do a screen test with two of my students, and he spent some time scoping out the studio. He mentioned some lighting things like temperatures, gels, and stuff that goes right over my head, but seeing the location, and figuring out where to put the camera, months before we were going to shoot, saved us a lot of headaches.

In a meeting afterward, we realized that planning our first feature film had already shaved three days off our prospective schedule. I also realized that one of the solos the two leads would be dancing didn’t have to be shown in its entirety until the third act of the film. That cut down on time we would spend in the studio, too.

All in all, when it comes time to make your first feature, there is a lot you can do without money.

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Jerry Kokich is the producer and star of a multi-award-winning web series. To date, Jerry has produced 26 episodes of “The Adventures of Superseven.” and put out a two-disc DVD, and in the process has not spent more than $5,000, TOTAL.

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