School of Film: Northwest Film Center in Portland

So you want to make a movie . . . well, there are lots of jobs to do, that’s why filmmaking is a collaborative effort. A good place to meet people interested in filmmaking, you guessed it: film school. It’s a good place to start. You learn by doing. Probably, the best thing would be getting ahold of a camera (you could always borrow or rent, if you don’t want to make a movie with your iPhone4). Walk into the NW Film Center and ask how much it costs to rent, and take a look at the bulletin board. Those are your people. If they are not already making announcements to find you, make one yourself. Declare your intention to make a film.

A good start for a new filmmaker is non-narrative, a conceptual piece, for instance: contact a local band and offer to make a music video of your favorite song. The band can post it on their website, YouTube, et al. and you can add it to your reel. Keep it simple, turn the camera on, make a movie, edit it to the song, and viola!

Filmming a short interview with someone whose work you admire is another low-budget production that will teach you all the basics of setting up your camera, lights, and editing. With documentary filmmaking, you can meet people and try to understand their experience. Let what the participants say guide what to shoot for B-roll and don’t settle for the surface: try to illustrate what they are saying.

The trick to a good doc is helping people feel comfortable in front of a camera. Given that not everyone wants to be on film, documentary filmmaking has some challenges. You do want people to sign a release. For a good interview, you forget there’s a camera.

Making a narrative film allows you more time to create the look and feel you want on screen. A good scriptwriter knows they’re writing a production budget: every scene costs money. For a new filmmaker, a first project is made easier with a minimum of actors, locations, and a time period that takes place over the course of a day or a weekend.

Before spending money to make a feature, think: who is the audience? what is the venue? what is the format and how are we going to pay for that? There are creative ways to distribute your film, and to finance it. An introduction to the business side of film is production management. Kathleen Lopez has taught at NW Film Center and I met with her to learn more. She works as a location manager and scout with Oregon Production.

She tells me you can work in almost any country in the world, if you learn the system to filmmaking. “We all use the same system,” Lopez says. “In Czechoslovakia or St. Petersburg you can walk on the set and you can tell by the way people are dressed what position they’re in.” Lopez’s students create a production budget and a schedule from the script that’s given to them. A production manager negotiates legal contracts and oversees the day-to-day operation with crew, actors, transportation people, caterers. They have to foresee trouble. “If there is an accident, where is a hospital?” Lopez says, “or do they need an EMT on set?”

“There’s an excitement to making a film,” she acknowledges. “Production management is more about the nuts and bolts: you have to be on time; you have think ahead; you have to fill out paperwork; you have to know how to run software with budgets in it.”

Yes, that’s a lot to think about, and you wanted to make a movie. When you have a script to be developed, you look for funding and do pre-production. Lopez teaches students how to break down a script. Students visualize the location and the characters: where are they? what do they wear? and are they carrying anything? “The script will say dimly lit apartment,” Lopez offers, “but what kind of lighting will be used?”

When reading a script, think about how much it will cost to film. “You want to put your money on the screen,” Lopez says. While video and personal computers allow more people to make films, even people with extraordinary vision and creativity will need help with distribution and financing. The input of other people is essential to the process.

“There is a system,” Lopez emphasizes, “and you can use it practically all over the world, but you don’t have to use exactly the same system. We learn the production system just like software and when we have it ingrained in ourselves, we begin – individually – to be creative about how to work the system. I love that there is a system and I like to spend time thinking about it, but once I’m in the field, actually with the camera or the crew, I let them do their own thing. I have an idea about how I want things to be set up, but then there’ll be some spontaneous little magical occurrence, and you have to listen to that. Sometimes it’s the person in front of the camera, or their daughter they brought to the set, and sometimes it’s a crew member who graciously leans over and says, what if we tried this?”

Northwest Film Center
1219 SW Park Ave.
Portland, OR 97205
PHONE: 503-221-1156 x10
FAX: 503-294-0874

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