Filmmaking with a Two-Person crew – are you serious, Jon? Yes I am. It’s time for filmmaking to change. There are too many filmmakers out there trying to make movies according to the 1990’s Arthouse system. Gone are the days where independent pictures can seriously compete in the market against studio films. So what’s next? I think that we are poised for a French New Wave type of revolution where the glitz and the glamour of filmmaking are stripped to down to its essence. What is filmmaking in its essence? Picture and sound – or, in other words, a two-man crew.
I’m writing this article after being inspired by some absolutely amazing up and coming filmmakers. You can check out their work at their website elofilms.com. Specifically what really caught my eye was a clever film called “fever” that they did which you can watch here: http://www.elofilms.com/fever
That film was shot in four different countries with just a two-man crew – in this case, it was a husband and wife filmmaking team (Logan George & Celine Held). This film looks better than a lot of independent features that hit theaters in my opinion and the pacing and storytelling was riveting enough to hold my attention for the 9:30 minutes that the film runs.
With Logan operating picture and Celine operating sound, this husband and wife team was able to really capture the true essence of what guerilla filmmaking can be and I was blown away by what they accomplished – so much so that I dusted off my GH5 and started really thinking about how I could go about shooting a feature with just me and someone running sound.
Technology and the Two-Person Crew
Small 16mm cameras paved the way for young, bold filmmakers decades ago and the DSLR and mirrorless cameras of today that have the ability to shoot 4k and have in-body stabilization are the modern-day equivalent to 16mm – only better. The truth is that an audience has absolutely no idea what things are shot on. 16mm never really looked quite as good as 35mm so audiences generally knew they were watching a cheap arthouse film in the first ten seconds of footage, but today you really cannot tell the difference between an $80,000 Red cinema setup and a $3,000 mirrorless camera setup once it hits the big screen (at least I can’t).
Additionally, film was expensive. Getting your hands on cans of film and then paying for the development and processing and then dealing with either a flatbed or paying for the telecine conversion of the film to edit on an NLE were serious expenses. With the advent of digital, most young filmmakers already own or have access to a decent camera and as long as you have a few memory cards you can shoot and shoot and shoot and just pay for cheap hard drives to store your footage. That’s something that 16mm could never do. Even if you were to use free short-ends of 16mm that you spliced together and shot conservatively you would be looking at 6-10k in just print and development fees for a feature film when 16mm was at its cheapest.
The Amazing amount of inefficiency on a set
One thing that is clear is that there is an amazing amount of inefficiency on set. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on set where the PA’s and Grips are literally sitting around bad-mouthing a director or the producers because they’re bored out of their minds and just have nothing else to do but gossip. With a two-person crew, you’re guaranteeing yourself that there is no waste. It’s just picture and sound and both need to be on the ball constantly.
You also have the ability to sneak into places and steal shots with just two people that you couldn’t if you needed to drag along an entourage of fifteen or thirty. Try stealing a shot when you have to pull up in a four-banger with a honeywagon on the back end. Actor trailers don’t make it easy to fly under the radar.
No Name Actors (they’re just insurance anyways)
Getting name actors is great. The quality of the performances you can get from seasoned veteran actors is honestly something that can make a mediocre film into something entertaining – and bad acting can literally ruin any story. But the truth is that if you don’t get into one of the big festivals, the only names that matter in sales these days are really the big marquee names unless you’re trying to make a family film or other certain genres.
What getting name actors does do for you is act as an insurance policy. If your film is just okay but you have a couple of recognizable faces in it you’ll most likely still get offers from smaller distribution companies and sales agents to try to sell your film. Will the film make a profit? It really depends on the market, how good the film is, and how effective your sales agent and/or marketing strategy is so it’s hard to tell. But one thing is for sure if you use name actors you’re going to up the budget. In addition to name actor salaries, you’re doing quite a few things when you cast known actors. You are instantly becoming a SAG film – which costs time and money, you have to up the level of comfort for known actors with private dressing rooms, limited hours, controlled schedules, etc. – things get complicated.
With unknown actors who are still trying to break in, you can generally shoot for more days, get away with more economical meals, there’s no notion of having a private dressing room – they are usually true team players. And instead of trying to whip them into the best actor in the world, I would suggest you write something that plays to their strengths as an actor or you rewrite a character to fit their natural personality.
Instead of breaking your head trying to cast big names to ensure some kind of distribution for your film, working with unknown actors allows you to make the film much cheaper – conceivably even free – which is very liberating.
Learning how to write with serious constraints
The other thing that having a two-person crew means is that you can’t focus on any of the other stuff that larger crews can worry about. You can’t really dress locations, do special fx make-up – or any make-up at all really, you can’t worry about wardrobe, dolly moves or crane moves are out, you are reduced to using real locations, hand-holding or locking down your camera for just about every shot (unless you’re a Steadicam or gimbal operator yourself).
But instead of looking at all that stuff as a drawback, I think it’s a really fun challenge to approach as a storyteller. If you have access to a couple houses and a bar and you know five actors who really want to work you can come up with TONS of storylines that would be fascinating to watch with those constraints – it really gets back to the basics of telling an interesting human story.
If you’ve never considered making a film with a two-person crew I would recommend trying it out with a short and seeing how much you can actually get accomplished. I have a short film that I’ve been meaning to shoot and I think it might be a great candidate for this style of shooting. It’s written to be hand-held, has one location, and can easily be done with available light. Who knows – maybe I’ll get on it and write an article about the process sometime soon.