|[article courtesy of FILMMAKER MAGAZINE Volume/Issue: Vol.2/No.3 Spring 1994]
As the pace and impact of ultra-low budget feature production continues to increase, innovative methods of making films with no visible means of support are being tested. Shot on Hi-8, The Lost Words represents a radical departure from the micro-budgeted features Filmmaker has profiled in the past [see Winter 92/93 and Winter 93/94 issues]. Video made it possible for director Scott Saunders to combine an extremely low budget with a luxurious shooting ratio and unlimited creative freedom. The result is a distinctive and engaging first feature.
The Lost Words follows the twists and turns in Charlie's life as his relationship with Marcie deteriorates. Hoping to turn things around, he decides to film his interactions with lovers and friends with funny and poignant consequences. Shot in a cinema verite style with very realistic performances and dialogue (partly improvised), the film manages to have the best of both worlds. It has the authenticity of documentary, and the shape of well-structured fiction. The film punctuates the drama with interviews with people who may or may not be actors, further blurring the line between fact and fiction.
The film also manages to have it both ways technically. By using a cameraman experienced with video and a skilled sound person, the director was able to reap the advantages of shooting in video while avoiding most of the disadvantages. The Lost Words looks and sounds remarkably good; it is hard to believe it was shot on Hi-8.
Previous experience: Scott Saunders left NYU's Graduate School of Film after two months; he subsequently worked as an on-line video editor, and made numerous shorts. In 1985, he founded Film Crash (with Matthew Harrison and Karl Nussbaum), a collective of filmmakers based in New York City that programs alternative exhibitions of independent films.
Genesis: Saunders wrote The Lost Words over a 4th of July weekend. It was written to be shot handheld on video (and then transferred to film). "Everything from the look, to the camera style, to the way the story is told, is designed with this in mind. The idea was to not to try to pretend I had film to work with, but to take advantage of the benefits of video and to work around its problems. The main reason that I'm delighted to have made The Lost Words in video is that it got made."
Shooting on video: This enabled him to "plunge into the project and start shooting without having a perfect script." It also allowed him to solve problems as he went along. Video gave him the opportunity to experiment and explore different approaches with his actors, which was very helpful since he hadn't had much experience working with actors before.
Equipment: Saunders bought a Hi-8 video camera (Sony V-5000) for $1,800, which had only one chip and was just one notch above a consumer grade camera. His sound person was able to control the audio input because the V-5000 gives you the ability to override the automatic gain control (unlike most nonbroadcast Sony cameras).
He used a portable external mixer and a boom, which enabled him to get good sound single system (and avoid having to sync all his footage). Because he owned the camera and had access to the other essential equipment, he was able to shoot what and when he wanted. Filming on video allowed him to have a 30:1 shooting ratio, something that would have been impossible if he had been using film.
Crew: It varied from 2 to 6. For the most elaborate scenes, he worked with a DP; a sound person; a grip/gaffer; someone who handled makeup, wardrobe, craft services, and art department; and one of his producers. But almost half the film was done with a two-person crew: Saunders directing and doing the camera work, and a person doing sound. Because using the Hi-8 camera was so easy and inexpensive, Saunders was able to shoot as well as direct much of the film himself.
Lighting: "We always tried to light for the most flexible shoot. We tried to keep the lighting as simple as possible, using as much light as the mood of the scene could handle." Locations were lit to allow the camera to keep moving. We didnt want to have to light for reverses." Scenes were usually lit to keep contrast at a minimum.
Working with the actors: Saunders did very little rehearsal with his cast. He needed to get the production up and going as soon as possible, and he also wanted to minimize rehearsing so the performances would be fresh.
The "luxury of video" allowed him to try more things out, and gave him greater leeway with the actors. It was "more like doing a workshop. If a scene wasn't working, I could stop and sit down with the actors and figure out a new approach. Some of the scenes were performed as written in the original script; some were written the night before when we lost a location; and some were totally improvised."
Schedule: Shooting was done primarily on weekends. "We integrated the film into everybody's lives. We wouldn't shoot if a key person wasn't available, so we didn't shoot every weekend. I didn't want people to have to turn their lives on their heads." The film was shot on and off from September 1991 until January 1992, with some additional shooting while it was being edited.
Post production: Saunders did both the offline and on-line editing himself over a ten month period, while he was working full time as a video editor. His job gave him access to all the post-production equipment he needed, but it also made for a hellish schedule. He would work all day, take a short break, edit his film from 9 p.m. to 2 a.m., get some sleep, and then work another long day.
He transferred his Hi-8 footage to Betacam, and edited on Betacam. The sound edit was relatively simple since many of his scenes were shot in long takes. For the mix, he primarily used two tracks.
Music: Saunders used pre-existing songs, most written and performed by the film's lead, Michael Kaniecki, who is a talented composer and singer.
Budget: While the budget included the purchase of a Hi-8 camera, post-production expenses were abnormally low because Saunders had free access to equipment and was able to do all the editing himself. Saunders explained that normally video post-production expenses would be significantly higher and that it is very difficult to get an on-line edit done for free.
Festivals: The Lost Words won the Silver Medal at the International Festival of Cinema in Portugal. It was also chosen Best Dramatic First Feature at the Suffolk Film Festival. At the Munich International Film Festival, of the independent features screened, only El Mariachi got more votes in the audience poll.
No budget approach: "No budget filmmaking means you have to say no all the time, because everything costs money. We had to rewrite scenes because we couldn't afford the $300 location fee. You have to figure out how to pay for nothing, and you have to try to say no as often as possible and as long as possible."
He also urges no budget filmmakers to stop trying for the perfect script. "As soon as there is critical mass and enough people are committed, you should dive in. You have to throw yourself into the process. You get it going, and suddenly it's a behemoth and there are problems, but the main thing is getting it done.
THE LOST WORDS BUDGET
|Auditions, casting, ads, rehearsals
|Hi-8 tape (40 @ 9.00)
|Office supplies, postage, phone
|Equipment rentals (monitors, lighting, etc).
|Equipment/supplies (batteries, bulbs, tape, etc.)
|Transportation (taxis, gas, to Us, vehicle rental)
|30 min Beta SP tape (50 @ 25.00)
|90 min Beta tape (4 @ 35.00)
|90 min Beta SP tape 3 @ 70.00)
Ultra-Low Budget Production