Ahead of the next two day Guerilla Filmmakers Masterclass in June, I thought I would share some case studies of filmmakers who had done extraordinary things with little or no resources. ‘Ink’ is one such movie, just watch the trailer above, it’s mind blowing. This interview was taken from the Guerilla Filmmkers Pocketbook (and we now have an archive of reader resources on the office www.GuerillaFilm.com site).
If you want to come to the two day Guerilla Filmmakers Masterclass, you can get £50 off with the discount code CHRISJONES – taking the ticket price down to £85 for both days. More here… http://www.guerillamasterclass.com/
OK, here are Jami and Kiowa
Jamin – When I was four, I always thought there was a monster in my room that looked like the witch from Snow White. My fear was that she would grab me out of bed and take me somewhere. That kept brewing in the back of my mind for all these years and around 2002 took that idea and fleshed it out a bit. Every six months or so I added a bit more to the concept and eventually I had an outline for Ink. That is my biggest part of the screenwriting process. I like to have a solid and extensive outline before I go to script. That way the writing goes quickly and I hopefully don’t have to do many drafts. I usually outline extensively and like to work it out thoroughly before I get to script. I did this on Ink and then rewrote it about five times.
Q – Do you think character first or structure first?
Jamin – For me, so much of a story being interesting comes from understanding your character and how to get them into a conflict that’s going to affect them the most. So character is first and foremost and then I built the structure around that.
Q – Who did you get script notes from and what were they like?
Jamin – Kiowa and another writing partner of ours gave me the script notes. The biggest thing we learned early on from the first draft was that there wasn’t enough character development before things start taking off. Most standard structure will set up character first, get the audience familiar with them and then throw them into a world of conflict, but a lot of times I like to start on the conflict. I realized we needed to give the audience a little bit more to latch onto before we took them through this maze.
Q – Were you ever writing with the budget in mind?
Kiowa – Not really. Jamin was ambitious so the story could be the best it could be. It kind of seemed impossible at first, but we just made sure we had enough time to come up with a way to make it happen. We knew we weren’t going to have enough money to throw at problems, in order to make it work.
Q – Once you locked the script, what was the next step?
Jamin – We hadn’t intended on being really low budget. We always hoped we might get some real money. So the idea was that we’d try and get some name attached to it, but it’s a horrible problem for indie filmmakers. You can’t get a name without money and you can’t get money without a name. So we just carried on and wrote a business plan to get private investment. We also wanted to invest in it, so we re-mortgaged our house. That was key because by being the first in with money, it was easier to get people we knew to part with theirs. The investors were more willing knowing that our money was on the line as well.
Kiowa – Then we set a date to start shooting. I think it was around September or October of 2006, we said we’d be shooting this film starting July 1st 2007. We didn’t have any money, cast, or crew but just knew that we had to set a date and work backwards. So we started calling our crew and actors and doing fund raising at the same time. And guess what? We started shooting on that exact date. I feel that setting that kind of goal really lights a fire under you and you make it happen.
Q – What was your tipping point?
Kiowa –We live in a very small bungalow but for a lot of scenes in the movie we needed a big house. This way we could use it as multiple sets and a production office, so we decided to rent a large house in the suburbs. But the thing was we didn’t sell our house, so by moving out we had double rent. Taking that bold step made us realize that we had to do it now and within two months of moving into that house, we had wrapped up our investment, hired everyone and were off to the races.
Jamin – Everyone committed at the same time. It was very apparent we were going to make the movie no matter what. I think if people feel that the film is going to happen with them or without them, no matter what, it makes a big difference. Plus we’d made a couple of films so they knew we were going to do it.
Q – How did you come up with the unique look of the film and how did you keep costs down?
Jamin – The key to keeping costs down was having a year of prep time. We started location scouting a year in advance in order to make sure we found the right forest with the leaves falling at the right time. We started working on the make up nine months in advance which was helpful because neither of us had ever done prosthetics before. So by the time we were really in production, we knew what we wanted to do and how we were going to do it. As for the look, let’s start with Ink himself.
Remember, I wanted him to look like that old witch because one of the characters’ main flaws is his vanity. So when he transforms into Ink, I wanted him to be hideous and have a very large nose. We worked with several make up artists in town and did tests so we knew how long the process was going take each day. As for how the fights looked, again, we took a long time choreographing them. We hired a very talented friend to be our fight choreographer. He had done various martial arts, wrestling expos and spent time as a bouncer at a bar so he’s been in lots of fights. But the one thing he really knows is Parkour (free running)and we were able to put that into the fight sequences, which made them look fantastic.
Q – What about the color scheme and overall atmosphere?
Jamin – My cinematographer, Jeff, and I knew that with the many locations we were going to have there was a chance the audience might get disoriented. So we decided to make each one incredibly distinct visually so the audience would know where they are at every point. Giving them different color palettes in each world or dimension helped tremendously.
One key decision we made early on was that we wanted to shoot with a very small camera. We knew there would be an enormous amount of set-ups and shots and a lot of tight spaces, so we found the smallest HD camera we could find – the Sony-V1U. It allowed us to move quickly and if we needed to rig it to a car mount, a jib or a Steadicam, it could be done cheaply. We knew that would knock down our resolution a bit, but we did a test printing it to film and it worked really well.
This was also a very effects-heavy film. The most we’ve ever done and I was doing them myself. So we tested a lot there especially with the Storyteller’s intro and exit into the world and the Incbui. Their look is a combination of visual and practical effects, so we had to do a lot to make sure they looked scary. And that was a good thing because on set they looked ridiculous. I thought I had made a horrible mistake. But it looked great and ironically the Incubi are the iconic images of the film.
Q – What program did you use to create their effects?
Jamin – Most of it was rotoscoping, which is why post took fourteen months. It was brutal. So for example, the Incbui have this screen in front of their faces with data moving across it. That was a combination of an actual plate of Plexiglas and then rotoscoped the effects in with After Effects. The glowing eyes are rotoscoping as well. It started with practical lighting on set and then I went in and animated them.
Q – Costuming was very elaborate in this film. How did you approach that?
Kiowa – We had three distinct things to create: the Storyteller’s look, the Incbui’s look and then Ink himself. Ink was very clear from the script, which says “He’s wearing a cloak of rags that looks like an Apocalyptic bag lady.” Very descriptive, but I also knew it was going to take a long time to make it. The Storytellers were harder because we had to come up with a concept outside of the script. So we put up pictures of things in magazines that inspired us. We knew going in that we wanted them all to look unique and conversely we wanted all the Incbui to look the same. So for the Incbui, we went sterile and plastic – where they are wearing rubber gloves up to their elbows, a plastic smock and this plate glass thing in front of their face. A lot of the look came because of cost as at one point we had to outfit a number of guys. But it probably made us be more creative. The Storytellers were my favorite part of the process because once we had the actors together I could design them individually. They are supposed to be angels that died at different points in history so their wardrobe reflected that. But the trick was they had to look cool individually as well as together so we couldn’t overdo it. And then there was a practical issue, especially with the women. Because of all the fighting throughout the film, the costumes had to be such that everyone could move well or hide stunt padding – so no skirts!
Q – Did you go to thrift stores (charity shops) for these costumes?
Kiowa – Yes. But I had to go to regular stores too in order to get multiple sets of the costumes. If something got shredded or grape juice spilled on it without a back up, we would have been in a lot of trouble. I bought three exact replicas for each person. The troublesome one was the most elaborate – Ink. It took me nine months to create because it’s a hand-sewn collage of old rags, sheets and curtains that I threw in the bathtub and dyed dark black. The shoulders of the cloak are hockey pads. I shredded it and did all sort of other things to make it look used. I also sewed other things onto it like the drums and shackles. It was the least functional costume to fight in. One particular drum would always hit him in the face! I had a tool belt on set every day with tons of safety pins and they would get so embedded in there, I would have to pull them out with pliers to make repairs and change the costume for continuity.
Q – How did you approach the art direction?
Kiowa – Jamin again had very specific ideas in mind, ideas that revolved around differentiating each world or dimension. For example, the Incbui hangout at the end had to be cold, sterile and somewhat modern because that’s what they are. We built it in a warehouse and the background were different sized squares that were backlit plastic. I connected them with the two-inch binder rings and hoisted them up on wood frames. The scene with the bride was a set built in the garage of our “production” house, where we lived during the shoot. We bought every pink sheet and curtain in about every thrift store in town for that set. We had no money, so what we lacked in money we made up for in time.
Q – How did you go about getting locations?
Jamin – We got everything for free, except for the required permit to be in the forest. For 99% of our locations we just made a pact that said we wouldn’t pay for one and if someone didn’t give it to us for free, we moved on.
Kiowa – We looked for places that were already dressed. Props can become expensive especially if you only use them once. So the place where the Collector lives was this old warehouse with tons of metal. We knew we couldn’t build that so we had to find a place that was ready to go.
Q – How did you organize the production?
Kiowa – It was mostly my computer and I. An important thing we did was set up our office in a room in the house we rented, which was also used as a set a number of times. I didn’t have the luxury of a line producer so I did it. I figured out what our weekly cash burn was and worked to stay within that range. One thing I did to minimize the pain on my side was to set up automatic payments for various things like salaries. The actors I would have to pay individually because they didn’t work all week long. But it worked well and also took pressure off my crew because I knew they didn’t have the time to get to the bank. I didn’t have time to print out checks and put stamps on them and people appreciated that we paid them on time and frequently.
Q – What about call sheets?
Kiowa – We had an AD/Production Manager who would create them based on our schedule. But in order to be efficient, I created a Flash website where all the PM had to do was drag a PDF call sheet document onto a server. The rule was all cast and crew had to check the website after 9PM where they could download the call sheet for the next day. It was a huge time saver.
Q – Did you get film insurance?
Kiowa – Yes. Liability and worker’s comp (UK, Equipment, Public and Employers liability). You need that to rent equipment and get permits. We shot the whole thing in Denver and around Colorado. It’s really not expensive. It was $300 for the liability and a little more for worker’s comp. At least for the size film we were doing.
Q – Did you get film permits?
Kiowa – 90% of the time. We got to know the city engineer really well. It’s very easy to shoot in Colorado. Film production isn’t big business in Colorado so there isn’t a lot of bureaucracy.
Jamin – The car accident scene was shot in the busiest downtown Denver intersection on a Sunday morning and we didn’t pay anything for the permit. All we had to do was rent a few cops, get some barricades and pay for a traffic control plan. It cost about $2,200 in total but that’s nothing!
Kiowa – The only time we got hassled by the cops was when we shot a fight scene in an alley. They were walking by and stopped. They wanted a picture with Ink. For the most part when shooting downtown we always got permits because we couldn’t afford to lose a day.
Q – How many shooting days did you do?
Jamin – 83. 65 with our whole crew, which was around 10 people depending on the day. Most of them were on the grip and lighting crew. We also had stunt coordinators occasionally. That is where most of the budget went – salaries.
Q – What did you do about food?
Kiowa – It was not luxurious and we didn’t have a dedicated craft service person. We had a cooler with water and energy drinks on which people got totally cracked out. We had a cooler of snacks – granola bars, etc. And then we would get lunch from a local place. It was different every day because we moved around so much. Food gets so expensive! In fact, we had so many people who wanted to come down and help, but we had to say no because we couldn’t afford to feed them.
Q – How did you do the car wreck?
Jamin – A green screen sequence that was partly shot in our back driveway. The front shot had the camera inside on the passenger side of the Mercedes. We hung a green screen outside the driver side window and mimicked the wreck. We blew rubber glass and compressed air at our actor and then built an airbag that actually activated. Then we went to the actual intersection location and filmed a car hitting us. The way we did that was to have a car start at the car and go backwards, so when we played the footage in reverse it looks like the car is coming towards us. That was the back plate that went on the green screen. We did the same thing generally for the things that broke and reformed throughout the movie.
Q – Did you cut the film and if so in retrospect, would you rather have had someone else cut it?
Jamin – Yes, I did cut it. I have been an editor since I was a kid. It’s the one part of the process I like and don’t find stressful. It’s always nice to work with a great editor and get their take on something, but in this case I had a very specific vision for the editing. So it was easier for me to do it. It took me about three to four months to get the first rough cut.
Q – What was your post-production like?
Kiowa – Well, I didn’t know anything about post sound and yet I became the sound designer by default. It was by far the largest thing to tackle. It started with me just placing in the ambience. We recorded all the Foley ourselves. We made a sound booth in our basement by stapling up mattress foam. Jamin did all the color correction. We did everything over fourteen months, back to back, in our basement, over networked computers. We were so finicky because we knew we had to get it right. A lot of filmmakers don’t do this because the experience has already been so painful up until that point. But there is so much you can do in post to make a project look polished. I’m glad we did it.
Q – Was it hard to work together even though you are married?
Kiowa – It was great! We work great together. We have the same tastes. And if he had gone through this stressful situation by himself, I wouldn’t have been able to understand the why of it. But being part of it was really cool. There were very few occasions where we got fed up with one another. Also I have no idea how to be a director so there was no competition.
Jamin – It was unifying to go through it together and only solidified us, which is odd because stress doesn’t always do that.
Q – What was your strategy with film festivals?
Jamin – We played at a lot of film festivals with our short films – over 80 – and they can and can’t be helpful. For us, they didn’t really help us. Having the shorts on YouTube did more. So when we were making Ink, we knew festivals wouldn’t be our primary focus mostly because we didn’t want it to play festivals for a year and become old news. To kick things off, we went to the first film festival that took us: Santa Barbara. It was close enough to LA to get that kind of exposure. We sent out postcards and e-mails to distributors. And one night an agent from UTA came to see it. Then the Ain’t it Cool News review came out, which got us more attention. Then we opened theatrically in Denver.
Q – What happened there?
Jamin – It played for eight weeks when it was supposed to play for two. And then it went to two other theaters in Colorado where it played for an additional four weeks a piece. We brokered the deals with the theater owners ourselves. We have gotten offers for around $5,000-$10,000 from distributors, but we think the film is worth a lot more and know you’ll never see any money outside of an advance. So we are hanging onto all the rights.
Kiowa – We decided to take the film out ourselves to independent theaters around the US. It’s done well – at least 15 cities. But it’s a lot of work. I have to show them our reviews, get them a screener and follow up. But we get a lot more people to see it this way and the buzz is better. And we earn some cash this way instead of wasting money sending formats and marketing materials to festivals so they can take your box office dollars. I think filmmakers have to embrace the fact that they are their own distributor due to the state of the indie market.
Q – Ink is now selling on DVD and iTunes to your fans, but it did get ripped and uploaded to torrent sites. How did that happen and how did it impact on your sales?
Jamin – We don’t know who put the bit torrent up. We were told by someone very familiar with the file sharing world that as soon as Ink was available someone would definitely rip it within a day or two. Sure enough, it popped up right away. What we didn’t expect was how it climbed to the top of Pirate Bay in about 48 hours. We certainly didn’t push it, but we recognized it as a good thing. On IMDB, Ink went from a ranking of #12,991 to #16 in a week and then to #14 the following week. We were open with everyone that we were happy about it and that made news all over the piracy sites. I think the community appreciated our stance and thus came back to donate and support us. Pretty cool really.
Q – How do you avoid the trap of not working on your next project as you are so busy of the current one?
Jamin – Kiowa and I talk about that all the time. The way I get around it is that most of the promotional stuff falls to her. I spend some time on it, but mostly I am writing scripts, taking meetings, and mentally preparing for the next thing.
Q – What doors opened for you career-wise following ‘Ink’?
Jamin – A lot of doors have opened. We’re now represented by a large agency, UTA, and have had numerous meetings with studios and production companies that we never would have gotten before. However, because we intend to keep making independent films in which we have creative control, those meetings are less important than the fan base we’ve been building. Fans are always the most important thing to us. They’re who we’re making our films for and their support makes it possible for us to continue with or without Hollywood support. Ink has created a fan base we never thought possible.
Q – What advice would you give a new filmmaker?
Jamin – I think it’s really important to be sure filmmaking is what you want to do with your life. Filmmaking is extraordinarily difficult, competitive, and painful contrary to the glamorous image it has. It’s very hard to do and even harder to do well. You can’t half-ass it, so be absolutely sure it’s what you want to do. If you decide to pursue it then stay focused and persevere. It takes a lot of endurance and a lot of failure to have any successes. We’re still learning that every day.
Great stuff, and a fantastic example of how costume can make a huge impact on a microbudget production.
Onwards and upwards!