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Things I learned while making a movie

Posted on November 2nd, 2011
Posted on November 2nd, 2011

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DP Conor Coughlin and Director Coop Cooper

by Coop Cooper

I went to one of the best films schools in the world and I learned a heck of a lot about screenwriting. I taught it to high schoolers in Los Angeles and adults at seminars. I got to work with some seasoned pros and I learned a little about the other aspects of filmmaking. Unfortunately, back in 1997, it wasn’t very easy to make a short film. It was expensive and cheap ones ($1000 and up) often looked terrible due to the technical hurdles crews would have to overcome. Watching my colleagues slave over their thesis projects with (mostly) mediocre results was discouraging. Because of this, I focused on becoming a writer and academic, ignoring the technical aspects I had little access to.

Fast forward to summer 2010… I had a weird dream and quickly churned out a screenplay based on it. I met some filmmakers at festivals, asked some questions, went back home, did research and took stock of my resources. I suddenly realized it could be done competently for much cheaper than it did thirteen years ago. I raised a crew, secured equipment, auditioned actors and in December of 2010 I shot my first short film “The Best Day.” The premiere was last night and here are a few important lessons I learned from the entire process:

  • You can never prepare enough, so prepare as much as you can before shooting. This includes building a crew, scouting locations, estimating budgets, finding/buying props and costumes, storyboarding, accumulating supplies, networking and many other aspects.

  • Have at least one or two experienced people on your crew. They can offer valuable suggestions when you get stuck and take care of many problems independently.

  • Lighting and sound are two of the most important things that many filmmakers neglect. Don’t skimp on them. Spend a lot of time learning how to use them correctly. And TURN OFF refrigerators and air conditioners. I learned this the hard way. They create far more background noise than you expect while filming (just don’t forget to turn them back on!).

  • Do it yourself” equipment-making projects are rewarding endeavors. Don’t be afraid to try your hand at them. I made two boom/microphone poles with shock mounts and two camera mount cages (one out of PVC pipe and another out of metal). It was some of the most fulfilling work I did this year. I posted pictures of my camera cages on the internet and got a lot of emails from people interested in trying out my design.

  • Factor promotional materials and festival submissions into your budget far in advance. I’m quickly learning it’s one of the most costly of all filmmaking expenses.

  • Feed your crew and be sure to express how much you appreciate them. This is a cardinal rule. If you break it, few will work with you again.

  • Keep up with new technology. One of the hottest digital filmmaking cameras out there is an affordable $800. If I hadn’t been keeping up with the online trades or reading new tech articles, I might have missed it. Now I plan to shoot my next movie with it.

  • Learn how to do EVERYTHING. Within one year I learned how to organize pre-production, draw storyboards, audition and direct actors, frame shots, engineer sound, position lighting, operate cameras, run editing software, implement basic special effects, promotions and festival submissions… among many other things. Once you know how to do everything, the process will be less mystifying the next time around, but there will always be big challenges ahead.

  • Network! Go to film festivals, meet people, make friends and exchange info. They will be great resources, potential volunteers and may even offer up some opportunities.

  • Work on other productions (you find out about these from networking). If you volunteer or get hired for other shoots, you get to observe how other filmmakers work. It’s an essential learning strategy .

  • The more mistakes you make, the more you learn. I made a few this time around and learning how to fix those mistakes after you’ve finished shooting is a skill in-and-of itself.

  • Relax when it’s time to quit. As I write this, it’s 2am and I still have to prepare to speak to the Rotary Club tomorrow. I get so immersed in this stuff that this seems to be the one rule I constantly break. Oh well, maybe I’ll work on that when making my next film.

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Trailer for the award-winning short PRISMA…


A corporate promotional VHS tape from 1984 conceals a brain-altering signal which is said to grant increased health, longevity and psychic powers to those who watch it. View at your own risk...

WINNER: SPECIAL JURY PRIZE, 2017 Oxford Film Festival

WINNER: BEST EXPERIMENTAL FILM, 2017 FantaSci Short Film Festival

SEMI-FINALIST: 2017 NanoCon International Science-Fiction Film Festival

NOMINEE: BEST ANIMATION, 2017 End of Days Film Festival

NOMINEE: BEST GRAPHICS, 2017 FantaSci Short Film Festival

OFFICIAL SELECTION:
2017 Nightmares Film Festival
2017 A Night of Horror Film Festival
2017 H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival
2017 Oxford Film Festival
2017 Crossroads Film Festival
2017 Clarksdale Film Festival
2017 Twisted Dreams Film Festival
2017 Tupelo Film Festival
2017 NanoCon International Sci-Fi Film Festival
2017 FantaSci Short Film Festival
2017 End of Days Film Festival
2017 Grenada Afterglow Film Festival
2017 Shiver International Film Festival

Trailer for the lost short GOD MAKER…


Northern Mississippi 1932:
In a cabin in the woods, a blind blues guitarist will discover his destiny from a lovesick goddess who seeks to corrupt his soul.

GOD MAKER remains unfinished and in limbo for now, but the trailer expresses the mood and imagery intended for the project...

Coop’s award-winning 48 hour short film trailer for REGRESS…


Told in reverse, this experimental made-in-48-hours film begins with a shocking murder then backtracks (like a viewer rewinding a VHS tape) to reveal the chilling origins of this tragedy.

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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Crossroads Film Festival

Watch Coop’s award-winning short film THE BEST DAY…


WINNER: 2012 MAGNOLIA FILM FESTIVAL "Best Homegrown Film"
WINNER: 2012 SEATTLE TRUE INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL "Best Scream"

OFFICIAL SELECTION:
2012 OXFORD FILM FESTIVAL
2012 CLARKSDALE FILM FESTIVAL
2012 CROSSROADS FILM FESTIVAL
2012 NORTHEAST MISSISSIPPI FILM FESTIVAL
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2012 OTHERFEST
2012 MISSISSIPPI INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL
2012 SUN AND SAND FILM FESTIVAL

Morgan Freeman asks Coop a question at THE BEST DAY premiere! Video below…


My short film THE BEST DAY premiered in October 2011 at the Delta Cinema in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Little did I know I had a special guest in the audience who was about to ask me a question during the Q&A. Yep, I got a little flustered when I saw who it was.

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