First, a bit of transparency: I have messed something up on every project I've ever done.
Now, I'm sure I'm not the first person to say that and I certainly hope it's not true for every project I ever do, but so far...yep. Usually it's something small - maybe the image was a little overexposed or the framing wasn't great. Occasionally it's been something more significant - like not realizing the microphone gain wasn't up high enough and half the audio was crap. Sometimes it's totally subjective, like feeling as though I didn't provide good direction to the on-screen talent.
The bottom line: I can look back at every project and know there's something I did wrong. Or, if I'm somehow able to make myself one of those 'glass half full' people, that's a lot of opportunities to learn something.
So that's my goal now and probably as long as I make stuff: learn something from each of those borderline f-ups and hopefully continue to improve as a filmmaker. And if sharing some of the thoughts or details around those moments helps (or entertains) others as well, even better.
So with that, here's 5 things I learned filming TRACKER:
1. Storyboarding really helps
At least it does for me. Forcing myself to sit down and visualize the shots beforehand was amazingly beneficial. It was really the homework I needed to be properly prepared on set. And specifically for how we shot 'Tracker' - where I was making the majority of the lighting decisions and operating the camera - it saves a ton of time not having to think through all the blocking on the day.
Not everyone should do it - some shooters are just better at pre-visualizing the shots in their head. And I didn't storyboard the really simple shots. The standard 'over-the-shoulder' (OTS) or insert shots I would just list with framing (CU, MCU, ECU, etc). But pretty much everything else I sketched. And I should mention: I'm a terrible artist. My crew got quite a kick out of my horrible stick figures and nondescript objects in the frame. But they worked.
2. Make sure the locations are locked up
We thought we had a location for a couple key scenes and the day before filming realized it had fallen through. Scrambling to find a new location was the most stressful part of this particular shoot. In the end, we secured a location that was probably better than the original, but it still made me realize how important it is not to take your locations for granted.
3. Setting mood can be really important (I think)
This film was the first really dramatic piece I've directed. There are some really heavy scenes and I decided to direct the actors a little differently than the comedy or corporate work I've previously done. We used sad music and took some time to really make sure the weight of the moment sunk in. I generally want the filming experience to be a lot of fun, for people to laugh and have a good time. But for those scenes, it was really important to me that we maintained a more subdued mood on set and allowed the actors to sink into that 'zone.' I have no idea whether it actually made a difference in the finished product - the actors were great so they probably could have pulled it off either way - but I like to believe it helped.
4. Sound matters
Okay, everyone knows this, but I'm not just talking about getting clean dialogue. Sound effects, music, room sound, transitions - it's really easy to spend less time on sound than you should. Little additions like footsteps or silverware scraping can make a big difference.
And make sure to capture that room sound. It's so easy to say "Nah, we're fine, let's move on" (which I definitely did on this project), but once you get into post, it makes the editor (me) want to go back and slap the director (younger, stupider me) around.
5. When you think your edit is as tight as you can make it, you can probably still remove 20%
The original rough cut of Tracker was about 17 minutes long. At that point I knew there was still a ton of fat to trim. The next version was about 12.5 minutes and much tighter...and I started to worry. We had to get it under 10 minutes and I just didn't know how that was going to happen. My next revision got it down to 12 minutes flat and at that point I was positive there was no way to remove another two minutes without losing whole scenes. I became really concerned and even started thinking of ways to record some extra dialogue to cut down or replace scenes.
In the end I was completely wrong - I cut it down easily under 10 minutes without removing any full scenes. And most importantly - it was much better because of it. The pacing was better, the tone was more consistent, and there were story beats that needed to go, even though I liked them. As the common saying goes in the editing world, "you have to be willing to kill your darlings."
But here's the big thing - after the film festival we were preparing to put it online, which meant no time requirement. We didn't have to keep it under 10 minutes, so I could add back in all those parts I had to cut, right? Well, as I went back through and looked at the film, I realized I didn't really miss anything. I actually trimmed it down by a second or two.
Usually if I watch the director's cut of a movie my reaction afterwards is "Meh, that wasn't really any better." They cut that extra content for a reason. Knowing that helps me be less precious with some of the footage that I hesitate to remove.