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GH4 Guerrilla Filmmaking: Case Study

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This is a case study about Guerrilla Filmmaking using Panasonic GH4 to shoot “Without You”.

 The film project initiated when I was given a pre-Production Panasonic GH4 camera body to test before its global launch. After realising the great potential of the new camera, the simple test evolved to become a short film project. It took 10 days to turn this project from a blank sheet of paper to a successful shoot that combined the skills of 14 talented and dedicated friends.

This behind-the-scenes video will offer you a glimpse of how size does not matter, but rather dedication, efficiency and proper planning are all you need for your film production.

There are great Hollywood examples that opened our eyes to the awesome potential of Guerrilla filmmaking and inspired us to pave our own paths to Hollywood.

 

Golden Rule of Guerrilla Filmmaking:

Make the best use of what’s available.

 

The inversely proportional equation of guerrilla filmmaking.

No matter how little you have (budget, cast, props, locations, etc…) you can still produce great work, NO EXCUSES! You simply need to be more creative. I came up with an interesting scientific equation to it actually:

X CREATIVITY = RESOURCES / X

Where X is the multiplication factor of creativity as well as the division factor of available resources.

I’m not talking here about artistic creativity, but about creative ways in handling problems and finding most efficient solutions… not just quick fixes.

Common Challenges:

With challenges such as limited time, low budgets, skeleton crews, and basic equipment, Guerrilla Filmmaking is not for the faint hearted! It’s probably more about crisis management than about filmmaking… Yet it’s a lot of fun.

Our film “Without You” was on the verge of collapsing 3 hours after we started rolling… but thank God it survived.

You’ll have to remain Zen throughout the entire production in order to handle all those challenges with a clear mind and prevent it from collapsing.

I see Guerrilla Productions like a house of cards… careful and meticulous planning will prevent any chain reaction breakdowns. Once you place the last card, it will impress the world. Now it’s your turn to design this house of cards. 

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The 9 Guerrilla Steps

Those are the 9 steps I followed to produce “Without You” along with their challenges that kept us on our toes during the shoot and how we managed to solve and learn from them.

1- Scripting your story:

Following our golden rule, pick a story that revolves around things you “Already Have” or people you “Already Know”.

Last year Panasonic lent me a Preproduction model of the GH3 for a month to shoot a film for their Middle East Launch… “Every lost Breath” was the result. I used my assistant as the lead role, who happened to be an ex-basketballer, thus the story was about a basketball player… and all locations were within 1 Km radius around my house in Dubai.

 

Scripting of “Without You”

This year, Panasonic gave me the GH4 for only 10 days. Time limit was the first challenge! My solution was to pick only one location for the shoot this time, unlike with “Every Lost Breath”. I was lucky to find this abandoned mall, and that was the start.

The location was falling apart and desolate, so I though of being symbolic this time with the analogy between the abandoned space that reflects emptiness and void and your feeling when your loved one disappears from your life. Like in the first scene when he was walking out of the “Tunnel of light” and coming back to life. The use of locations to reflect a state of mind, or inner feelings and psyche of the character is a common Hollywood trick used in movies such as: The Cell, The fountain, What dreams may come, Inception, and many more…

So sadness was the main drive of the story…

Without You SG-1

Walking out of the “Tunnel of light”… coming back to life… to existence

And that’s when I came up with the Synopsis:

Memories of the lost love will live with you and blur the line between reality and dreams.

Achieved by the juxtaposition of the characters dressing stylistically in a desolate place would create an intriguing visual contrast that would emphasis sadness.

With a location and a synopsis locked, I carried on and started writing my script…

 

Modular Scripting:

Write your best… be ready for the worst.

Writing a script for a guerrilla shoot is not easy, your script should be crisis proof. The more flexible, the easier the shoot becomes. Meaning it should be prone to alterations, replacement or removal of chunks from it when needed without causing a domino effect. That’s why I call it Modular script.

One way of achieving this flexibility is scripting only 70% of the shooting plan… the remaining 30% is left for safety shots and spontaneous set experiments.

Believe it or not! Even Hollywood directors often shoot without having a locked down script, a great example is how Doug Liman started shooting “Edge of Tomorrow” without a finalized script, and he ended up shooting a lot of different takes of the same scene with dozens of cutaways and inserts to be on the safe side during the editing.

Story board

This is the final step in the scripting. My favorite way for the storyboard is to shoot some reference shots for the storyboard while scouting the location with my team. Scroll through the gallery below for some examples of Story Board frames compared to their respective final shot from the film.

Shooting boards

Usually shooting boards are scrambled versions of the storyboard. This is purely for time and cost effectiveness from a production sense. Which would seriously confuse you in tight shooting timelines of 10 hours or less and especially when you’re being your own Assistant Director as well.

Thus, to make life easier for me… I shot the film in the script’s chronological order! Shooting the guy sequences in order first, then the girl’s sequences. Then the last scene with the hug during sunset. Which was another race against time to synchronise the shoot to that perfect second of the day.

Shooting in the script order is not possible with every script of course… but I wrote my script with that in mind. So yes you can do it if you put some extra rational planning during your creative writing.

 

 

2-Budgeting your production

Beg, borrow and steal… and buy!

With a script locked in… you will need to write down the list of EVERYTHING you need for the production. Such as:

Equipment – Wardrobe – Props – catering – Logistics – Etc…

Now cross check everything and see what needs to be “Begged for”, “borrowed” and “Stolen”, then the remaining will be “bought”. So always allocate some extra money for emergencies or at least be prepared for it.

 

The Begging

The only begging that happened in “Without you” was when the abandoned location’s developers popped in and asked us to leave the premises immediately as we didn’t have proper shooting permits. We begged a lot and we had to pay 600$ for the permit in the end. Which was not accounted for in the budget of course.

 

The Borrowing

Keep in mind that borrowing props, equipment, or even time and experience means owing favours to people. Unless you barter those favors with exposure through film accreditation for example. Which is what I did with everyone who was part of the film.

Technically I also borrowed the GH4 from Panasonic for 10 days instead of 3 when only a few people in the world had the privilege to get their hands on it. The return favor is to produce a good film that can show the camera’s potential.

 

The Stealing

Well… I prefer calling it using things without permissions.

As long as whatever you’re using will not cause any harm to anyone or damage anything, then you should not feel very bad.

In our case we used a shopping trolley from the supermarket next door for all the tracking shots (read more about it below in the rigging section). But we returned it back right after the shoot and cleared our conscience.

 

The Buying

Expected costs: The missing things from the “Beg, borrow & Steal” list were mainly wardrobe, of course the cast had their own wardrobe to spare, but the location was too dusty and messy that I didn’t want to mess their own clothes. But rather buy new ones and offer them as a small “Thank you” gesture in the end of the shoot, if still in good condition.

Unexpected Costs: Apart from the unexpected location cost we paid, music was the other big cost. I initially had a music composer friend that traveled when we finished the edit, so we had to find an alternative… and I had to go for a paid professional composer, which cost almost 2000$… You might think this is not very guerrilla, but you need to be prepared for some nasty surprises like these!

 

 

3- Gathering the team

Skeleton Crew

Mobility is essential in guerrilla filmmaking. So pick only the people you really need for your film. The crew might change from one production to another. Ideally everyone should fit in 2 cars at most, along with the equipment. This will help you especially in situations where you’re shooting in multiple locations.

One-man crew

To be a guerrilla filmmaker, you need to be a multitasker. Everyone needs to become nothing less than 3 crewmembers in 1. In this project, I was 6 in 1: a Script Writer, AD, DOP, Editor, Colorist and Director… And I was sweeping the floor…Literally!

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With no budget, why would they join you?

To be able to convince them to join for free, you will need to be one of those 3 characters:

A friendly Guy: Having a lot of friends is a plus, ideally in the same field. This way you’ll never run out of crew.

A great Salesman: With a skill to convince other filmmakers to join you for whichever incentive you offer them.

A great Filmmaker: being famous for you work will encourage everyone to want to work with you for no charge.

 

4- Location Scouting

The Search

Scouting should not only happen when you have a film in mind, It should be a habit to keep your eyes open for interesting locations that could potentially be good for future projects. Which was the case with this project. I personally use the iPhone app (Pin Drop) to save those potential locations. Or simply take a snapshot with your smartphone and use its geotag to find it when needed.

 

The Testing

First thing you should do once you find the location is to conduct some technical tests ideally using the actual camera and lenses to try to pick the best corners of the location. Another important thing is monitoring the sun’s path to plan your lighting. I personally use (SunSeeker) app that draws an augmented reality sun path on the sky. Which was key in choosing the ideal location for the final scene when the sun was setting behind them at the hugging moment. I managed to pin the sun exactly between them.

Finally, after choosing the final shooting corners, I put small foot markers to remember where exactly the actors should stand.

We managed to time our shoot perfectly to get the sun perfectly centred between them.

We managed to time our shoot perfectly to get the sun perfectly centred between them.

Location permits

Ideally you should find a location that will cost you nothing and doesn’t need a permit. But that’s not always easy to find, especially in big cities.

The only places that cost nothing would be your home and friends’ homes or outdoors.

Even in Dubai (where the shoot took place), you need a permit if you want to shoot in the desert! Mother Nature is officially owned by the government after all.

The 3 solutions for free locations:

1- Come up with a script that only happens in homes of friends and relatives.

2- Use locations that could sponsor your film and barter accreditation.

3- Be stealth and take the risk shooting in locations without taking permits… but be prepared for the nasty consequences. 

I took the risk… and paid the price!

Even though I was trying to be as cautious as possible while shooting without a permit by using an abandoned location and scouting for 5 days to monitor any activity from authorities, Murphy’s Law was manifested on the shooting day!

3 hours deep in the shoot, the owners of the location visited for a random inspection and kick us out!! We begged… and apologized, then begged some more. In the end they agreed to let us use the location if we pay 6000$ for the permit!!! Yes you heard it right! After more begging and pleading for almost 3 hours we settled on 600$. The biggest damage here was not the money, or the wasted time, but the moral… I was on an adrenaline rush overdose… I lost my focus… but I had to recollect myself and pretend nothing happened in front of my crew. Thanks to my friend Ihab (Key Grib/Coloritst) who temporarily played the role of AD to help me regain my focus and we picked things up where we left off.

Guerrilla is all about taking risks and surviving the consequences! Crisis management… remember?

 

 

5-Packing your gear 

Mobility and Efficiency of the crew are important for your gear as well.

My aim was to fit the camera; lenses and lights in one small camera backpack to go under the radar… and I managed to pull it off.

Camera and lenses

Panasonic Lumix GH4

Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8

Panasonic Leica 25mm f/1.4

Panasonic Nocticron 42.5 f/1.2

The GH4 is great when it comes to packing your gear as most of the micro 4/3 lenses can literally fit in your pocket. They’re so small that sometimes I put 2 lenses in 1 lens compartment. Some of the lenses are with remarkable quality as well such as my setup:

GH4 Camera LensesLights

Battery operated LEDs should be your go to solution. But watch out, the market is flooded with those cheap low quality ones that give green spikes and inaccurate color hues. I have to admit that I did use those cheap ones in this film, but I was only using them for rim lights not key or fill lights, that’s why their low quality didn’t affect my characters. Also because they’re the most portable and powerful ones I had.

Harnessing natural light

Harnessing available light, ideally from the sun, should be your first priority! It’s a delicate balance between 3 factors:

1- Choice of location: You need to be able to pick the right corners of your location that offer different light scenarios due to the placement of light sources: windows, doors, etc…

2- Choice of time: with the sun constantly moving, you should be a sun tracker to be able to predict how it will affect that location at the time of the shoot.

3- Light modifiers: I’m talking about being proficient in using reflectors, diffusers, scrims, nets, etc… to harness the light as well as to control it to your cinematography needs. 

This delicate balance should also be supported by a very quick setup and strict shooting durations. As in the case of losing time, there’s no pushing the schedule forward, the universe will not wait for you to finish your shot.  

 

Rigging

This film needed some very tricky camera movements and stabilizations such as low handheld moves as well as super stabilized shots at sprinting speeds. In such abandoned location where debris covered most of the place, I resolved to use a combination of 4 rigs:

1- Brushless Gimbal: Stabilized shots

For those who don’t know what is a Brushless Gimbal is, it’s simply the electronic alternative for Steadicam. It’s 10 times lighter, 5 times smaller and takes 5 seconds to be ready to roll. Basically every DP’s dream come true… at least mine.

Since the launch of the overpriced MoVI rig (the first brushless gimbal in the market), everyone who cares about indie filmmakers started producing their more affordable yet as effective, if not even better versions. BeSteady is one of them.

We had just got our unit and were exited to take it for it’s first spin. Check below for some photos using it.

 

2- Shopping trolley: Tracking moves

This is a perfect example of “Making the best of what you have”. I’m sure there’s something out there designed for that purpose, but I found this to be a perfect solution for all the controlled tracking shots of the sprinting sequences. The idea came to me on my way back from one of my tech-recces when I grabbed a drink from the supermarket next door.

The challenge was to find a trolley that doesn’t wobble much or veer at high speeds. So I simply went to the supermarket and started testing different ones within the shop itself at normal speed of course till I found the one with the smoothest ride.

3- Monopod: Handheld camera moves

This is the unsung hero of camera rigging. I used my Manfrotto monopod with the Manfrotto 701 fluid head as a shoulder rig, a dolly and of course as a monopod!

When properly used, you’ll unlock its full potential and realize it’ll answer most of your camera rigging needs. It used it when I needed to soften the handheld camera movement.

4-Skater dolly: Sliding shots

Another very affordable solution that was only used in a couple of ground level shots. You simply need a super smooth surface to operate it. Which is why we used a scrap metal sheet that was lying around as the smooth surface the dolly needed.

 

 

6- Shooting your script

Shoot like an editor

I strongly believe that a great director is a great editor. Editing your own work is essential for you to learn and understand what needs to be shot and what’s the most effective ways of shooting it. Alfred Hitchcock used to sit next to his editor in all his movies to tell the story his way. Of course back then editing was not only a creative process, but a physical effort as well.

 

B-Rolls:

I have a shooting ratio of almost 10:1, which should be reasonable and safe to have enough material for the story. This ratio doesn’t mean I’m shooting every Master Shot 10 times, but rather taking more of B-Rolls to strengthen and enrich the visual storytelling. B-Rolls consists of those 3 categories:  

Cutaways: Shooting and action that is happening at the same time, but in a different location to establish story parallelism.

Inserts: Shooting the same action from several angles where each angle will add a different type of narrative or emotional emphysis.

Interesting fact: in “Without You” at (Min 1:00), I took the action of the guy looking at his hand from 5 angles, and then I went beyond and took extra of his reactions looking at his hand. Most of these “inserts” ended up replacing the Master shots in the final cut!

Safety Shots: Take at least 2 good takes from the same action while keeping the edit in mind and the 180 degree rule.

 

Choice of camera: GH4

Size and practicality are key to any guerrilla shoot when it comes to the camera.

I invite you to read my full article that explains why I feel that GH4 is the “King of Guerrillas”.

Frame Rate: Everything was shot at 60FPS and conformed to 24 to give this ethereal slow motion feel. I avoided shooting at 96 as the quality deteriorates drastically in my opinion.

Color Profile: In order to get the flattest image for a high dynamic range, I shot using the CineD on it’s default setting, yet with Master pedestal at +15, I wasn’t expecting it’d introduce so much noise which had to be removed in post.

Shadow was on +5 and highlight was on -5 in order to squeeze more DR in the picture.

 

Too FLAT is BAD

It’s not always good to flatten the image so much on an 8bit H.264, which is the standard in DSLRs, as what really happens is losing all the rolloff color and gamma information between the darks to highlights. Skins and faces will look very flat with no highlights. We worked hard on DaVinci to recover those lost details back and make them look more human.

 

Lenses

My choice of lenses was mainly based on portraiture. So medium/tele focal lengths of 50mm to 85mm (full frame equivalent) were ideal. I didn’t need much manual focus control, so the electronic focus in those lenses, which is very unpractical for video, was ok for me. I also wanted a more smooth handheld type of camera movement, which is not only achieved by rigging but with stabilized lenses, that’s why I chose these 3 lenses:

Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8

It has the wide range I needed for my wide shots and has the versatility of the medium zoom range with a stabilized shot. Not to mention a great image quality as well.

Panasonic Nocticron 42.5 f/1.2

Maybe the best 85mm (FF equivalent) out there for Micro 4/3. And the only stabilised lens of the bunch, much needed especially for such a long focal length while shooting face close-ups. It’s also great to create a full frame equivalent depth of field when used wide open.

Panasonic Leica 25mm f/1.4

A great lens for portraiture in a tiny package.

 

Time Management

In order to properly calculate the right amount of time you need for any shoot, you need to consider 5 things:

1-Prep time

It’s time for the makeup, hair, wardrobe and coffee chitchat.

2- Setup time

It’s the time it takes to arrive on location and start setting up your gear right before the “First take annnnd…ACTION!”.

3- Shooting duration

The time it takes to shoot your story.

4- Breaks

Usually food breaks, or simply breaks that involve physical rest if the shoot has any physical demands… like running in our case.

5- Safety Margin

Shit happens in every shoot… so it’s always good to add at least 20% extra time just in case. Which pretty much saved our shoot this time because of the location problem. I ended up missing my break and lunch.

 

Being a Guerrilla director

Keep in mind that as a director, everybody is there to follow your lead, this is not an opportunity for chest beating and bossing people around, but rather encouraging the team spirit by asking things nicely and giving everyone his value. Occasionally make sure that each one is individually ok. Believe me… their positivity will reflect on you and they’ll offer you their best.

STAY POSITIVE is the first rule. Even if shit hits the fan, put on a smile, throw some jokes… No one wants to work in a stressful environment. Put yourself at the end of the priority list, even if that means not taking breaks or skipping your meal to ensure that everyone did. Never forget that whatever comes out of this shoot will carry your name, and everybody else’s!

 

 

7-Editing your film

Editing is the delicate mosaic arrangement of all your shots.

It’s an art by itself… no 2 editors will tell the story the same way.

I personally edit on Final Cut X, as it offers a super fast and easy workflow that would let you focus on the art… not the technical aspect of things.

Without you timeline FCPX

A work in progress timeline on Final Cut X

With a modular type of loose script, editing will close all the gaps between what was scripted and what was actually shot and tightens the loose ends of your shoot. And it’s your job to find the best pieces of mosaic to fill those gaps.

Don’t be surprised if you find some sub-stories appearing through your footage that were never intended in the main story… That’s the magic of loose scripts… like tiny easter eggs in your edit.

Believe it or not… the final cut of “Without You” is only barely 70% of what the original script was intended to be. Most of the key moments in the “touching the wall” sequence were all extra cutaways and inserts. Also the ending is the alternative ending since the original needed a much higher production and prep time.

 

The importance of Inserts and Cutaways

1- In some cases they might end up replacing your master shots.

2- Apart from the narrative or emotional message they would relay, they help a lot in the editing to avoid any jump cuts.

 

 

8- Scoring your film

Music is AS IMPORTANT as the visuals!

So consider music at the scripting phase… Listening to relevant music while scripting will help you visualize the story and inspire your story as well as your cinematography.

Reference music:

In every film, I use a track (or more) for many reasons:

1- To inspire me writing the story.

2- To help me edit the first cut using that same reference track.

3- To become the reference for the composer that will help him better understand your scoring brief.

 

My reference track that inspired me was from “Nuit Blanche”.

As much as “Nuit Blanche” visual effects were top notch and the concept was very good, but I loved that film more for the music than for anything else. The track is simply a masterpiece!

 

Sources of Music

Once you have your edit and reference music, you have 3 options to get music for your film:

1- Music composer option:

Pros:

1- You can customize the music to illustrate and follow the action in your film.

2- The music piece is a unique piece that was tailored only for your film, no one else will have it.

Cons:

1- Good composers are expensive and hard to find.

2- It takes time.

3- You don’t know what you’re getting till you get it. Risky!

4- You’re limited with the composer’s skills.

 

2- Stock Music option:

Pros:

1- Affordable.

2- You know how the song will sound like exactly… no surprises here.

3- You get to choose from hundreds of songs.

Cons:

1- Songs might not fit the length or flow to your story.

2- The search might take very long time and you risk running out of options.

3- The song could be used by many other people on their videos, which will make your video less unique.

 

3- Rearrange pre-existing songs:

This is basically the best of both worlds option.

In “Without You” I heard a very nice song on The Music Bed, but the song didn’t fit the length or the flow of my film. So I contacted them to hook me up with the composer Bradford Nyght who can rearrange a whole new version of the song to fit my film.

This way… I managed to make sure that the song I’m getting is the one I like, and it’s tailored to fit my film perfectly. Voila!

 

 

9- Grading and Final look

Shooting on a flat profile such as CineD will force you to work on 3 stages to add a look:

1- Denoising: Neat Video

With a noisy sensor such as the GH4’s, denoising is a very important step. Check out why in this video review to show you why.

Neat video has proved to be the most practical denoising software out there, simply because DaVinci denoising feature can only work on the full version when the physical dongle is connected to your computer, and “Dark Energy” is a great software, but it only works on After Effects PC version.

Neat Video doesn’t only remove noise, but it also helps removing the macroblocking artifacts from the camera’s compression. The only major problem with it is that it sucks the life out of your processor to very frustrating levels.

Valuable Advise: After locking the edit, denoise all the shots first, export them with the denoised setting applied, and then re-import them back in the edit. This way the sluggish computer performance from the denoising will be eliminated and you’ll focus your energy on the creative grading. It’s an extra step… but worth the hassle.

 

2- Color Correction: DaVinci Resolve

First we applied the ImpulZ LUT film emulation: Kodak Elite Chrome 200_VS to Rec709 to unify the starting point and push the flat image to it’s maximum potential.

Second, we balanced the colors between shots and eliminate all the unwanted color cast caused by the environment or the cheap LED lights. As well rebalancing any white balances that went off.

Finally, due to the super flat look, we needed to rescue some contrast details in the faces. Here are some screen grabs of the process.

3- Color grading: Film Convert

I personally find film emulsion LUTs, such as FilmConvert, offering a very nice look to the film. They’re becoming more and more popular for a quick and easy “one click make awesome” look. I believe it might be a phase… but it’s pretty good for a pretty decent amount of options you get out there.

Advise: On FilmConvert, don’t limit your options to apply the proper camera profile that matches your camera, go beyond that and experiment with mixing and matching profiles. Even though I shot with GH4, yet I applied the 5D MarkII/Standard Profile setting with the film emulation of Kodak 5207 Vision 3 on this film.

 

To sum up…

Guerrilla filmmaking is so much fun, you tend to spend more time shooting than in the conventional big TVC or Hollywood setup, as well as interact much more with your team, yet it’s not a walk in the park. Plan for the best… be prepared for the worst!

Best of luck…

Now start thinking of your next guerrilla project while having a look at those behind the scenes moments 😉