BOTTOM OF THE LADDER
When I wake up, I’m standing in the middle of the street. My hands are outstretched as I attempt to explain to Shane, my cinematographer, what I’d like for the next framing. But there are no actors, and no Shane. It’s four in the morning and I’m straddling the white-dotted line in the center of 20th Street, alone. I had been sleeping in the front seat of my car after a production meeting went late, coveting the few moments that I could afford to close my eyes during shooting week. That’s when a production-induced stress-dream reared its ugly head and sent me stumbling out of the driver’s side door. The sleep-drunkenness didn’t wear off until I was gazing at a half-decent wide shot of a nearby stop sign framed between my thumbs and forefingers.
If you’ve ever found yourself on the back-end of a camera, you’re likely no stranger to experiences like these. I’d love to take this time to dole out some quality wisdom of a seasoned industry professional, but unfortunately the paper that bares my film school bachelor’s degree is still warm from the printer. It doesn’t get much lower on the ladder of the film industry than an unemployed post-grad living in the Upper Midwest, but allow me the opportunity to tell you what the weather’s like down here. I’d like to offer a few insights from a guy who’s still trying to figure stuff out, if you’d care to listen.
I’m currently neck-deep in my most ambitious project to date, a six-part narrative web series called Nimble. As a soon-to-graduate senior, I capitalized on the resources available to me and threw myself and several others head first into the first episode during my last year at school. Like a television production that relies on a strong pilot to get its foot in the door, we funneled all our efforts into a piece that shows what we are capable of, a piece meant to garner interest and support for the remaining episodes and propel us into the independent filmmaking world. We successfully completed said pilot episode in April and at the time of this writing are approaching the final days of an Indiegogo campaign to finance the remainder of the series.
This is the first of many lessons I’ve learned from Nimble thus far. That is, to start by having a clear understanding of your resources and options. Identify the constraints of your situation whether they be budgetary, location, or schedule-related and tailor your project to those elements before diving into the ambitious side. Find the envelope, then push like hell.
As a young filmmaker, I feel that flexibility and adaptability are of the utmost importance. During the weeklong principle photography for episode one, we were constantly reevaluating, throwing out shot-lists and shooting guerilla-style for the sake of time, and I genuinely believe the film is better for it.
In one particular instance I found myself sprinting up and down stairs after the production split into two units to save time; one on the ground floor atrium and the other on the fourth floor reading loft of the Minneapolis Central Library. Once our planned shot list became impossible, I had to know the story backwards and forwards to be able to make gut decisions and what images were absolutely required to convey the information without second-guessing myself. Pre-production materials are important, but pale in comparison to confidence in being able to tell your story on the fly.
Even though Nimble found it’s creative spark in a solitary gazebo in the woods behind my father’s house, the fire of the project can be attributed entirely to the value of collaboration. The energy, passion, and commitment displayed by the cast and crew over the course of this project has been simply staggering. And at the risk of sounding cliché, I firmly believe that the pilot episode would not exist today were it not for the input of these incredibly talented people.
I never felt that Nimble was solely my story to tell. I knew that every member of the team, from the actors to the cinematographer, sound editor, and make-up artist is utilizing their own tools in weaving the narrative. I wanted the audience to feel as though every single person involved in the production was having a blast telling the story together. I urge you to build a team that has camaraderie and who share your ability to adapt and your flair for imagination.
I remember during the writing process having trouble defining my main character, Jack. I just couldn’t pin him down. It wasn’t until I imagined an actor I knew named Luke filling Jack’s shoes that the character suddenly materialized. Having not worked with Luke before, this epiphany was a stroke of luck when he turned out to be one of the most talented and dedicated actors I’ve had the pleasure of working with.
When casting, I never look for actors that will perfectly portray the character that I’ve written. I want actors who will grind my character into a pulp and mold them into something unique and exciting. Not just actors who can handle the fast-paced dialogue and stunt sequences, or who can work into the wee hours of the night and sleep on the floor of my dad’s basement, but actors who love these things, actors who believe in this project as much as I do.
The final lesson that I learned from Nimble that I’ll share with you today is that most every creative idea is worth exploring. While Shane and I were shot-listing for the pilot episode, we made an agreement early on that no shot was too quirky or too difficult to be considered. The stylistic virtuosity of the episode comes out in spades as a direct result of this approach to conceptualization.
Once again, I hesitate to offer any advice from here at the bottom of the ladder, but since I’ve been growing and evolving as an artist throughout these endeavors I’ve jumped at the chance to share my thoughts. I encourage you to study yourself as a filmmaker, find your quirks and skills and hangups and use them, understand them, and manipulate them for the benefit of your project. That’s all for now, folks. I’ll see you once I climb a few more rungs.
Ben Pimlott is a filmmaker out of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He spends his time working with a fantastic group of filmmakers in and around Fargo, North Dakota. You can find out more about the series at www.facebook.com/nimbleseries and watch the full pilot episode of Nimble at www.nimbleseries.com.