No Rules in Indie Filmmaking
Malik Bendjelloul, the director and producer for the 2012 Academy Award-winning film for Best Documentary Feature, Searching for Sugarman initially began production using 8 mm film to record some scarce, stylized shots for his brilliant documentary but ended up running out of money in production for more film to record the final few shots. He resorted to filming the remaining stylized shots on his smart phone using an iPhone app called “8mm Vintage Camera” to complete the film. The result in using the $1.99 app was video footage that looks indistinguishable from the scenes recorded on expensive 8mm film. Other than winning the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature the film also won in the Best Documentary category at the 2013 BAFTA awards, and the Special Jury Prize and the Audience Award for best international documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, amongst other accolades.
Dubbed the “mad scientist” of documentary film by the New York Times, award-winning filmmaker Brett Morgen directed the ESPN-produced TV documentary, June 17, 1994, with just him, his editor, and hundreds of hours of archival footage material. The film captures the various U.S. sporting events on the day in question and the emotions they generated, including but not limited to the opening of the World Cup soccer tournament, the Knicks/Rockets battle in the NBA Finals, Arnold Palmer’s last round in the U.S. Open, and the New York Rangers’ celebration of their Stanley Cup victory—all of which are overshadowed by O. J. Simpson’s run from the police. Completed in 2010 as part of ESPN’s “30 For 30” series the film received two Emmy nominations as well as a series Peabody Award.
Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Errol Morris introduced reenactments in his classic 1988 film, The Thin Blue Line. Historians of documentary films, documentary film experts, and documentarians alike reacted in displeasure to the film because of it. In fact The Thin Blue Line was marketed as “nonfiction” at the Oscars rather than as a documentary, which disqualified it from being considered in that category for an Academy Award. The documentary contained re-enactment scenes built carefully from witnesses’ statements, which became common in later documentaries. Although the film recreates several versions of the a Dallas police-involved shooting, it does not recreate one in which the known suspect shoots the officer, the interpretation which it argues is true. The final scene, in which Errol Morris and the deemed suspect are only heard, while shots of a tape recorder appear from various angles, was not originally planned. Morris’s camera broke down on the day of the interview, forcing Morris to use a tape recorder to document the dialogue.
These are three of many examples in how filmmakers—specifically documentary filmmakers—do not oblige to prescribed rules in completing independent films. Far from big money budgets and under the auspices and control of major film production companies independent films and their dedicated directors and producers find multiple routes in completing high-quality and award-winning movies. The title of this blog should really be expanded from “No rules in Indie Filmmaking” to “No rules in Making Art” because essentially the artist—as he or she endeavors in their craft do so with the impulse of creativity and the moxie to deliver. Rules on protocol, structure from a “professional” team, and procedure advised by experts do no justice for the artist to create freely and lucidly.
Negating rules in independent filmmaking does not mean in any way forgoing basic concepts and approaches to filmmaking. Shaky camera work does not replace smooth, still shots filmed on a tripod, jump cuts does not replace fluid, crisp editing, and the failure to storyboard scenes for the approach of impromptu (“create as you go”) style of shooting scenes hinders the quality and even the substance of a film. Rules meant to be broken if they surprisingly stood the test of time is rules of convention prescribed by a yesteryear, generational thinking that has no place in modern filmmaking. The new and continuously evolving digital landscape has unapologetically broken the seal of old (or older) models of traditional filmmaking that come with “rules” and “protocol”.
People all over the world have already entered the era of advanced technological societies where new methods and tools to filmmaking have cut time, endurance, and strategy for creating films in all genres. High definition video has transmorphed the scale at filmmaking from shooting on celluloid film reels to high-resolution video. Nonlinear editing systems on the computer have greatly evolved the industry from linear editing of actually cutting and pasting film reel materials together. And, the growing platforms for distribution (particularly digital, online video streaming) and the lower cost of prosumer film equipment (cameras, lens, computer software, etc.) have shifted the film production business where any small-town filmmaker can compete with elite Hollywood directors. In short, the game has changed. And, thus the rules of a past generation must be thrown out but not necessarily replaced by new ones. YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, and the like has changed the film viewer, their approach to indie filmmaking, and the expectations of what and how they are going to watch movies. This in turn results in changes for indie film directors and producers in creating independent films.
A corporate structure that institutionalizes creative tasks in filmmaking to regulated job functions, procedures through employment responsibilities of a company’s guidelines and goals, and the adherence to administrative protocol for permission and approval stifles the film artist to all degrees. Today, independent filmmakers have combined talents to telling stories in movies at various aspects beyond directing and producing. A filmmaker may be a solid editor, an exceptional writer, and an efficient cameraperson, and even a great fundraiser and promoter. These talents used intricately due to lack of sufficient funds, downsizing in the film industry, and technology that coerces the average person to be indispensable and versatile simultaneously all propel the independent filmmaker and his or her team to be more innovative and loose in their approach to filmmaking in today’s reality.
It becomes paramount now than ever for independent film productions to refrain from prescribed, textbook rules when it comes to creating film art. Indie filmmakers should let go of the bounds that are imposed by a corporate, institutional structure and let free the many ways film art can tell a story and convey a profound message. Independent film directors, producers, and production teams should stray away from those who sell them on industry standards of how to go about filmmaking in the traditional sense–which in itself is unbounded and unlimited in its endeavor. The message is clear: create rebelliously through the freedom of independent filmmaking in the digital revolution.