“American Dream” Indie Film Diary

Last year I had a chance to work on an indie production. I was the cinematographer and also handled all the grip/gaffer as we had to move fast and get a lot of scenes in a short amount of time.

Like is usually the case on indie productions, we had a very limited schedule. Since time costs money, especially when equipment rentals and people’s time costs the most. We had to move fast and shoot an average of 5 pages of script per day. The rule in Hollywood used to be 3 pages per day. I say used to because more and more directors and producers who work on bigger films are also trying to stretch their dollars.

We had only 7 days for filming, but out of that only 4 days were for main photography with the cast. The last 3 days we left for pick-up shots and any B-roll and cut-away sequences we needed to get with just the main actor. Now just so happened on this project that the main actor, as well as the director and producer was all one guy, Earl Reginhard. A very unusual guy but I’ll explain later. So once we wrapped up the main shoot it was pretty much just me and Earl driving around LA getting the rest of the shots.

Normally, when I shoot my own passion projects I actually prefer to shoot simple. I mean, a small crew and a limited cast. Usually it will just be me and my brother Lukasz, who also produces with me all of my short films. Many times I operate the camera and direct while my brother takes care of the daily production chores and also does the sound recording.

The reason why I like to work with such a small crew is because I don’t like to rely on others that don’t care about the project as much as I do. When working on indie films where a lot of the crew either gets paid very little or nothing at all, it is normal that people get burned out working long hours and often under stressful situations. Eventually a lot of those people quit. If I rely on those people then a lot of my films would never be finished.

Don’t get me wrong. I love getting help from people who often volunteer to help me out on my projects… and when they quit I don’t hold it against them. After all it’s not their passion project and all they get out of it is a credit at the end of the film and hopefully some good experience.

My brother on the other hand owns a production company with me & we collaborate on the scripts and ideas. So when we do our indie projects where often we have $0, we get very creative with not just the scripts but also how we set up the shoot. We try to do it as fast as possible. Also we shoot often completely out of script sequence so that we try to schedule each actor for as few days as possible. We also know what we can pull off without any money and still making it look good because we know our limitations.

Now this brings me back to the production of the film “American Dream”. I am not the writer of the script or even the director. So normally I would do this kind of a job only if I feel like this is the kind of a production that has enough money to make the film look good. Which American Dream didn’t.

I don’t want to sound like all I care about is money, because I don’t. But if I am going to spend time working on someone else’s film as the director of photography and all I get out of a project aside from my salary is a credit and some shots to put on my demo reel, then I definitely want to make sure that the film has a chance to look good.

From my experience, I know that to make a shot look cinematic it’s not so much the camera gear but the production design. Like I’ve said many times before in my tutorials, production design is anything that goes in front of the camera. The locations, set dressing, costumes, actors, the lighting and even the way the scenes are staged. So in a way to get good cinematography you have to get all other pre-production things right.

When I work on proper big productions that is not something I have to worry about. Big productions all have a production designer & art department. Also they do location scouting and have a set dresser on the day of the shoot to make sure the locations all look good and fit the story. That makes my job as a DOP easier because I spend less time worrying about what NOT to show in each shot and instead think about how to capture all the character that each particular scene and location has.

I’ve had the unfortunate experience working before on some indie projects that could not afford to hire a good art department and in the end as cool as the idea for the film was, it just looked like a typical low budget production. Horrible looking shots can ruin a perfectly good film script when all your audience is concentrating about is how cheesy a scene looks instead of following what the characters are going through.

So why did I work on “American Dream”? Two words… Earl Reginhard!

Earl is an unusual guy because of the passion he has for filmmaking and life in general… this rubs off on everyone he comes in contact with. In fact, I committed to work on his film without even having met him in person. We just talked on the phone and email over a few months as Earl was getting everything ready for the production of “American Dream”.

Through out that time, Earl impressed me with his honesty and passion he had for this story. He was very straight up about what he knows and doesn’t know when it comes to filmmaking. He has worked before on films as a producer and as an actor but never as a director. “American Dream” was going to be his first attempt at directing, but he wasn’t afraid to admit that he had no clue when it comes to some aspects of directing.

He wanted my input on directing even though I was just going to do the cinematography. I liked that kind of honesty. Especially since directors and cinematographer work so closely together and make decisions together about the framing and angles. I knew this would create a great environment where we wouldn’t step on each other’s toes. Also, Earl was very meticulous in planning the entire shoot. For each scene Earl would send me photos and ideas for the locations, etc. We talked about the light and time of day we would shoot, especially since a big chunk of the film was to be shot outside in natural light. While talking to Earl during the pre-production of his film, I finally decided to take a chance and come on board as the DOP because I knew that the things that mattered the most were there to make it possible for this film to succeed.

Earl has a production company and owns some amazing gear. He even has his own Red Scarlet camera with amazing cine lenses but we actually shot his film on the Blackmagic 2.5K Cinema Camera and Canon EF lenses. You might wonder why.

The answer is simple. Low budget.

Even though we had access to the better Red Scarlet camera, we did not have the luxury of a long shooting schedule or a full size committed crew. Many people don’t realize that when working with bigger cameras like the Red Scarlet you need extra hard-drives and storage space for all those RAW files.

Also, you need proper support gear, and to use those nice cinema lenses, you need rails and follow focus and mattebox etc.

All those things are great if you have the time and crew to help you carry and set it all up. But me and Earl knew that in order to move fast and get all the shots we needed something smaller that one person could work with yet still good quality.

We looked at the Canon DSLR’s but finally opted for the Blackmagic Design Cinema Camera because of it’s amazing 1080p Apple ProRes codec. This results in high bit rate files that allow us a lot of flexibility in post when color grading while keeping the cost of hardrive storage down.

We could have used the Canon 7D but with it’s moiré issues and also the low quality codec, I knew that if I make a slight mistake with exposure then there was no fixing it in post. The Blackmagic Cinema Camera Apple Prores footage is such great quality that even if I under or over exposed a shot by two f-spots I could still save it in post. I also knew that when shooting as fast as we would have to on “American Dream”, I would eventually make some of those mistakes. It just happens when you’re shooting scenes this fast while the sun goes in and out on you in the middle of the take. I knew the Blackmagic Cinema Camera would save me in those situation.

Also, the camera has a smaller sensor that makes it easier when focusing, since the DOF will usually be a bit deeper do to the shorter focal lengths that a smaller sensor forces you to work with. You might think that a smaller sensor is a bad thing… but in this case that was great! Shorter focal lengths = deeper DOF = easier to keep shots in focus. That was better especially since I knew we didn’t have time for a focus puller and marks etc. So pretty much the whole film was focused by hand. I would operate the camera and manually focus the lenses at the same time.

Now, don’t think that the camera is perfect. Like any camera it has its faults. For one, it’s useless when recording sound, but I knew we didn’t have to worry about that since we had an audio crew that took care of sound recording.

Also, the camera is horrible on batteries. So we took care of it by getting extra V-Mount batteries and a simple rig
we attached it to from the Gini Rigs .

The one thing I did not expect though was just how horrible and useless the screen was on the camera. Since that was the only way I could monitor what I was actually filming, I ended up shooting most of the film with a black piece of cloth hanging over me and the camera. This also doubled as my sunshade when I forgot my hat 🙂

In the end I am really proud of the film we made and the story that Earl tells in his film. The film is still in the last stages of post production. I don’t know yet know when it will be released but I will for sure announce it once it’s out. You can also check out Earl’s blog for some more info about the making of this film and also to hear when and where you can see it.

Earl’s blog has some interesting points about working on a new wave of indie films utilizing the latest camera technology. Check out his post Digital times: Tides are burning

As many of you are probably aware, BlackMagic Design also has a 4K model – the BlackMagic Production Camera 4K. Both models are available at B&H Photo Video.

The most tried and tested way to power these cameras is to use the industry standard V mount batteries. They are however not cheap… but they work great and will power the camera for a long time!

Battery Mount
Battery charger


My favourite rigs for the BlackMagic cameras are from the Gini Rigs.

To find out about all the accessories that I recommend with these cameras, check out this in-depth post “BlackMagic Production Camera 4K – A Tempting 4K Option

One thought on ““American Dream” Indie Film Diary”

  1. That trailer looks really promising.

    I’d love to try a Blackmagic but only have a 7D for now. It has a VAF-7D inside so moire isn’t much of an issue and, thanks to Magic Lantern, filming in RAW greatly increase the post-processing possibilities. (As it eats lot of MB, having only one CF card is a major pain.)

    Tom, I’ve discovered your site and work some time ago, before I get a camera. I used to like a lot then, especially the many tutorials you shared. But now, with a camera at hand, it’s even better. Thank you for all that you do.

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