‘It’s easier to be rich, but not necessarily better’

Would I become a better filmmaker, or make better films if I had more money to spend on equipment and post production? Perhaps a better question would be: 'Do I have a story to tell?' As long as I have a...
December 1, 1999

Would I become a better filmmaker, or make better films if I had more money to spend on equipment and post production? Perhaps a better question would be: ‘Do I have a story to tell?’ As long as I have a story, it makes no difference how much money I have – $50,000, $250,000 or even a million dollars – the same story can be told with any amount. (And, as the Blair Witch Project has proven to the world, a low budget does not rule out the possibility for commercial success, worldwide distribution or critical acclaim – thus pleasing the artist in all of us.)

Some documentary filmmakers are of the opinion that a true documentary must be shot ‘as it happens’ and that you ‘never know where a story will take you.’ I admit there are stories that fit this model, and of course it would be nice to be able to drift along side a story and capture it as it happens, deciding later what kind of film it will be. But a project like that can cost millions if it’s shot on film over a long period of time. I believe that good documentary films can be planned and executed within controllable parameters. No matter how much money I had in my budget, I’d always make sure that a good part of it is spent on research and pre-production – saving me a lot of money at the end of the day.

But, if someone did give me $50,000, $250,000 or $1 million dollars to spend on technology and post production, what would I buy?

I think my simplest answer is that I would use Super 16 film (negative) no matter which budget I had, possibly upgrading to Super 35mm if I had more money to spend. Using film keeps all doors open: I could take my movie to the cinema (blow-up to 35mm), I could transfer negatives to different video formats (PAL, NTSC, SECAM), including HDTV, and I could keep valuable negatives in my film archive for the future.

The decision to buy, lease or rent the equipment for a production always depends on what you would do next. If it’s going to be the only film in your life, you should rent the equipment and hire the staff to run it. If your plan is to stay in the business you’d be much better off to own a basic camera package giving you added artistic freedom (it also makes good financial sense). The dolly and the crane, the fancy lights and other ‘extras’ are most often better to rent.

If I was planing a very dangerous or risky shoot I’d consider using a cheaper DV camcorder which in the worst case scenario could be sacrificed on the spot. But I’d never knowingly risk the lives of any of my crew, so it would have to be a situation where the camera can be operated by remote means or under conditions not jeopardizing the people.

(On this note, I would definitely use some of the available money to insure the crew, equipment and the production. This is very important and is priority in a production. I have had the personal experience of one of my cameramen die on location when we were working together in Africa, and I can say this is an experience I do not wish anyone to have. I know how important insurance is for families back home in a situation like this.)

If I had 50,000 dollars

I would produce a film on Super 16 film on one or two locations close to home. The story would be about a person who has a close relationship with nature in the area and has dedicated his/her life to understanding and protecting it. To save on the film stock I would initially avoid filming long interviews, but use a good wireless microphone and a DAT recorder to follow the person ‘off sync’ for some time to gather material that could build the narrative. The wireless microphone would help me to be less ‘intrusive’ in a person’s life. I would re-shoot – in sync – some of the most dramatic statements.

I had a filmmaker once tell me he couldn’t do a film unless he had 200 rolls of film. That’s a 40:1 ratio for a 50-minute film. I know from my own experience that a well-planned documentary can be shot on as little as 5:1. I allow for a 10:1 ratio (50 rolls of raw stock). Instead of compromising too much on quality and screen value, I would opt to make a shorter film to meet my budget.

One option I’d consider would be to shoot research material on the Canon-XL1 DVC with the option to use my Canon prime lenses for enhanced image quality. (The XL1 would cost about $3,000 to $4,000 – this price should include an adapter for the lenses and zooms.) As the camera is a digital sound recorder, I’d get the sounds/talks I was looking for, but I’d also get images that could be used if they couldn’t be re-shot later. If I included the video in the film, I’d make use of the `film look feature’ in the digital editing machine.

A film is an emotional statement, so music is important. I’d have an original music score produced (for about $6,000 to $7,000). A few extra bucks on music will buy a few more instruments, and the acoustic feel takes away from synth-muzak that can kill a film. I would use a composer/musician who can share in the rights and won’t charge in full, but rather defer some of the potential income to royalties.

Obviously the lower budget will not allow me to do fancy helicopter work, but a fixed wing plane will buy me more aerial mileage, and many times deliver better material. I feel aerials are important in depicting landscapes, and I would use maybe $1,000 (1-4 hours of flying) for aerials, adding some more money for a camera mount on the plane (rent).

If the lower budget forceds me to work in video, I’d still shoot the aerials on film, maybe even 35mm film, for the enhanced quality of the images. Video is not very good for aerials and images that need a lot of resolution.

I would of course do all the post in digital mode, transferring negatives to anamorphic digital Beta (to allow for transfers to aspect ratios of 16:9, 4:3 or any other ratio requested by a broadcaster) with a sub-master in Beta SP. I’d choose a sub master in a format that could be imported into the AVID, which is my preferred tool for editing. I would make sure to include the film’s edge numbers in the transfer log so a future negative matching can be made. Sound post production will be streamlined with the AVID and I would use their Audiovision/Pro Tool suite. Again the key to working with smaller budgets is to be well prepared for editing and sound work. To view the rushes on VHS doesn’t cost a lot and logging all the material carefully in the PC/Mac speeds up the costly days in editing. Scripting the story in advance (but still be open for changes in editing) will shave mega bucks from the postproduction.

With the limited budget I would opt for a regular stereo sound track and I will not do more Foley work than absolutely necessary. I’d make sure I had a rich sound archive from location. The ambient sounds from the forests and fields would be of utmost importance. The budget would allow me to buy a Telinga parabolic stereo microphone from Sweden. Hooked to an off the shelf DAT machine it produces the best sound around (balanced or unbalanced output). A good MS-stereo microphone is a good addition and Telinga has my favorite for general ambient sounds.

As I’d need to save some money I wouldn’t use the EDL-list from editing to go back to the negative for negative cutting and the production of an answer and/or release print. My film would be for television and video distribution, so the digital video master will be my original copy. I will spend the extra bucks to make a clone of this master and keep it in a separate place. This other place could be the international distributor’s place. Only a professional distributor will make sure my film travels.

If I had 250,000 dollars

With more money, I’d work on a project that covered more time (seasons etc.), and allowed me to spend more time with the subject. My choices for which technology to use would not differ – at least not in the recording phase of the film.

The big difference would be in post. I could use computer graphics and animation to describe events I can’t film. The money wouldn’t be enough to cover my own Silicon graphics computer and a graphic artist, so the money (probably $40,000 to $50,000) would be spent on buying someone else’s time. (I am currently working on a science documentary about the ice ages of the past and the ones that will hit us in the future – it premiers on Discovery around the world in March 2000. Don’t miss this chilling experience.).

This would be a film with ‘grand images’; large ice fields, lots of aerials and dramatic events. It would call for a lot of music, probably performed by a smaller symphonic orchestra. I’d spend at least $20,000 on the soundtrack, and buy the music outright (releasing the music as a CD for next Christmas!) Buying the world rights for the music would cost about $270 per minute of program time (around $12,000 to $14,000 for a one-hour film). I’d allow the sound designer to spend more time on the soundtrack, and maybe do two different mixes in Dolby surround, one for television, and one for film.

This would definitely a one-hour documentary and we will travel to many locations around the world (Sweden, Norway, Germany, USA and Canada – maybe more). I’d spend quite a lot of money on helicopters for aerials, and also for bringing us to locations we could not reach by other means in reasonable time. It’s a luxury to have a helicopter for that, but the added money spent would show on the screen.

I would still have enough money to cover negative matching, and the production of a few release prints on 35mm. The Super 16 original negative couldn’t be used directly as a release format, as there’s no room on the print for an optical soundtrack, but the negative would be good enough for a blow-up to 35mm. I could use these for museums and institutions requesting prints for public screenings. This makes business sense for me and would give me an opportunity to get an additional release print I can use for film festival screening.

If I had a million (I would laugh all the way to the bank)

This money would allow me to fulfill the dream of producing a feature film for cinema. We already have a few stories hidden in the drawer and we’ve made the first recces on location. It would be a dramatic and emotional film with a storyline about people and nature.

My dream has always been to combine the skills of the documentary filmmakers (directors, cinematographers) and fictional professionals. I think a very dynamic working environment could be created (and we have already tested this in docu-drama productions).

With one million for technical and post-production costs I guess I would have roughly $2 million-$3 million dollars for the film itself. This would really be a low budget feature film – at least in the US. But for Sweden, a budget of three million dollars is a fairly big. I think we could produce more for less. It’s an issue of attitude and it reflects a situation born out of necessity.

For this feature I would still consider Super 16 film, even though I’d be tempted to work on 35mm. There is always the option to go with 16mm for the ‘close ups’ and 35mm for the B-roll to make sure I get the most out of my environment (which would be a spectacular piece of nature as a back drop to the drama).

The money would allow me to use dollies, cranes and other ‘vehicles’ for the film. I am not the kind of person who looks for opportunities to use a lot of special effect, but working with animals is a special effect in itself and I would probably make sure I had the best trained animals and the most serious animal trainers around. (Of course, this project would adhere to my ethics code for filming animals – WildCare – which is applicable to documentaries as well as fictional films. See

I’d probably have a full symphony orchestra on board. My choice would probably be one of the talented orchestras in Russia, Poland or another east European country.

I would also use a fair bit of the money on a good writer. When it comes to feature film, the writer is key, and I want to work with someone who understands my intention and gets the story structure right. Writing I can do myself, but writing for the screen I cannot. I have a dream and someone needs to read my mind.

For your information:

Bo Landin is the executive producer and founding director of Scandinature – the Scandinavian Natural History Unit in Sweden. After earning a B.Sc. in biological and environmental sciences at the University of Gothenburg, he went on to gain 30 years of experience as a science, natural history and environmental writer and producer for magazines, books, radio and television programs. Since 1990, Landin has been the presenter and executive producer of TV4′s regular natural history program, one of the most successful programs on Swedish television.

His recent international productions include: (as executive producer) Wolverine – The Last Phantom; Cheetahs – Running for their Lives (Genesis Award winner – Best Cable Documentary US, 1998); Nagarhole – Tales from an Indian Jungle; (for Discovery, TV4, WDR, YLE), Taiga – Forests of Frost and Fire (Discovery, NHK, WDR, TV4) and The Death of a Bison Bull (Grand Prix winner Eco Film, 1999); (as producer/director/writer) Secrets of the Pharaohs (Discovery, C4 UK and TV4 Sweden); Voices from the Desert – The Dead Sea Scrolls (for Discovery); Yellowstone – America’s Eden; Return of the raptors; Tundra Hunters and Living with Wolves.

In 1994, Landin was invited as a visiting professor at Brigham Young University, Utah to set up a program for science and natural history film making, and has since set out to establish a permanent Masters program for natural history and science film making at Montana State University with an exchange program involving the University of Karlstad, Sweden.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.