Getting Chaplin’s Film Crew Together – in a World of Theory @ UC Berkeley

In order to shoot “All I Want Is Silence”, I need a crew. There are only two problems:

  1. UC Berkeley’s film program is a film studies, not a film production program
  2. I am new here, so I have no idea who is good at filmmaking, or who would be interested in it

Good that I knew of these “problems” months before I got to Cal. Don’t get me wrong, I love the theory here to death; it’s exactly that kind of stuff that I would never in the world expose myself to – things like Charlie Chaplin or Early Cinema, which were the two classes that kicked off this project in the first place as the Making of the Writing post desribes.

Others were not as lucky and only realized this later, as this historically documented translation from “Der Untergang” illustrates in stunning detail:

Finding the Right People

To make a long story short, I contacted all sorts of people I could possibly contact before I arrived, and spent countless hours touring the campus, asking my classmates “So… are you into production, or…?” until they would be annoyed at me, and tried to hunt down every filmmaker that I could find on campus.

The only person I knew I didn’t need to look for was a Cinematographer. Hiroki and me have been working together for the past three years and threw all of our life savings together to found a production company in LA – there’s enough trust and telepathy between us to shoot films to the moon and back. So, that position was covered – it would just enrich my budget by a flight ticket of around $170, that’s totally worth it.

But – everyone else I still have to find, in my first semester at Cal – and it was too late now to chicken out, I had told too many people about the project. I look on my facebook friend list “Film Team at Berkeley”, in which I had added all people that I met in class, in GIANT film club meetings, in entertainment industry events, in BFF events and so on and so forth. I have about 30 people in that list. Each person is usually interested in directing and writing, which is perfectly fine, but it doesn’t make sense to have 30 writer-directors on a film set; crew positions need to be given, a hierarchy must be established. This is now about 2 months in on my Berkeley experience, and in 60 days you see a lot if you want to be a filmmaker. Out of that search for resources and people arose the Cal Film RUB, which is a complete collection of Filmmaking Resources at UC Berkeley.

The Team of "All I Want Is Silence", neatly organized and color coded by department.

The Team of “All I Want Is Silence”, neatly organized and color coded by department.

I saw that there was relatively little discipline in the filmmaking process, and very little hierarchical consciousness established within the people that were interested in filmmaking. Great – now I can share a little bit of what I have learned over the years, namely the organizing aspect and putting a crew together. I write a mass facebook message to these 30 people and tell them about the project, show them links to my short film “Terminated” and my 2012 Cinematography Reel as proof that I would not waste their time, and ask them to participate in the project.

Some people hop on board, the Cinematography department fills up in no time. I experience difficulty with the costume, production design, makeup and sound department (as I had anticipated) – so I go back to my tactics from “Terminated” and ask a good friend that I trust to be Production Designer, although he has no experience in it. We know each other from class and walk the same way home like 3 times a week, so we had plenty of time to talk. Right in the middle of a film history class, although I have plenty of time before and after, I whisper over to the first row –

“Hey, Fernando, do you wanna do production design on my film?”
(…)
“Like, do you want to be THE production designer?”
“Ehm, what do I have to do for that?”
(…)

Drive and dedication is everything – my mantra with crew members. And it works, Fernando turns out to totally be the right choice. A few people tell me “I’ll do whatever, I just want to work with you”; most of them end up as line producers, multi-tasking throughout different departments and finding their spot.Some of them turn out to be absolutely dedicated, some fall by the wayside because they are too busy.

I ask a friend (who I got to know relatively well in- and outside of class) to be the 1st Assistant Director, he’s a very dedicated guy; another guy named Marc volunteers to be 2nd AD. While Marc churns out a lot of work, the other friend leaves me some invaluable, direct criticism on the script (which I soaked up like a sponge and used to make the script a lot better) – but decides to drop out but of the project soon later. I already anticipated him dropping out, so instead of finding a new 1st AD, I now know Marc and his work ethic well enough to promote him to Assistant Director and find a new 2nd AD.

The costume department gets spearheaded by a girl I  only met once and talked to only a few times on facebook; Joan ends up pumping out cool concept art and infusing good ideas into the characters. Makeup, hair and beards is eventually being taken over by two girls who do an excellent job at collaborating.

I ask two girls – Janelle and Miriam – to be the producers of the project; I know both of them only since a short time have a good gut feeling about them. I am a bit scared about them competing with each other for authority or power, but they both are Berkeley-style, chill as fuck. Excellent. The further the preproduction goes, the more I realize that the department heads are mostly having a hard time coping with the entire workload, and need larger subgroups to help them.

Most of the department heads have little to no managerial  experience, so I end up micromanaging quite a lot of bottlenecks within the crew, ironing out communication issues and streamlining collaborations within each team. In the end, we are precisely 40 people crew, and the managerial workload is huge; although it eats a ton of my time, I know it will help each department do more and better work, and the more members I have on the project, the more Berkeley film studies students will be able to experience firsthand that it is very well possible to do legitimate, large and ambitious projects at Berkeley as a student team with little to no experience in filmmaking. The department heads end up being a huge help – although having little experience, they really push the quality of the project. In order to make their work smoother, I come up with more and more organizing tools, which are described below.

Organizing 40 crew members and hundreds of tasks

In a perfect world, I would just be leaning back and let everyone take care of their business. In the real world, I have to wear 20 different shoes – a good exercise. Not that the 40 people crew on “All I Want Is Silence” didn’t work hard, exactly the opposite is the case, lots of them dedicated ridiculous amounts of time and work – much more, that many of them work on a film of this scale for the very first time.

My first choice of tools is Facebook. I spend a ton of time on it already, working on my public image, my documentation of work and life, my wasted hours, my subversive study of memes etc. – so why not use it more focused for a project. First, I establish a new facebook group for the entire production team. Then, each department gets its own group-message including the department and myself – that way I can spot bottlenecks early and help the team resolve them (which were mostly communication issues, like “he didn’t call me back in the last 3 days” , “She doesn’t respond to facebook messages” etc.).
Towards the middle of preproduction, the facebook group reaches 70 members. Not all of them are actually actively involved, some of the people in the group jump in last minute to help out in the last days or on set.

We use the facebook group to share conceptual work, make invites to production meetings for people who don’t know yet what they want or can do etc. – all going quite effective, adding up to hundreds and hundreds of group and individual messages.

A collection of Facebook Group Messages. As you can see, with the 1st AD and 2nd AD alone, I wrote about 350 messages back and forth. I would estimate that there was 1000+ messages for the entire film.

A collection of Facebook Group Messages. As you can see, with the 1st AD and 2nd AD alone, I wrote about 350 messages back and forth. I would estimate that there was 1000+ messages for the entire film.

The next choice of tools – and that happened more by accident, because I rarely ever used it before – is google docs. I need something to document all these different tasks, and facebook docs inside the group just don’t cut it, they are way too basic. Quickly born is a contact sheet for all crew members, that one gets another sheet added for tasks to be done, a crew contact list etc. – and in the end, it’s ten spreadsheets inside one document, being edited dynamically by a theoretically unlimited amount of film crew members that update each other on progress in tasks, buying choices, reimbursements, costume completion etc. etc.

The Task list for "All I Want Is Silence". By the color coding on the right, you can tell that nearly all tasks have been completed, and the project is well underway.

The Task list for “All I Want Is Silence”. By the color coding on the right, you can tell that nearly all tasks have been completed, and the project is well underway.

A free production template - a blank version with notations of what we used that can simply be duplicated as a google doc - will follow in the next article on U, S, and Toby.

A free production template – a blank version with notations of what we used that can simply be duplicated as a google doc – will follow in the next article on U, S, and Toby.

Business as Usual

Parallel to all this, I am finishing a second draft based on all the great,direct, critical feedback I got – just like I hoped from Berkeley, I had met some honest and fearless critics here who help me immensely make this a better film. Nearly all of my film professors give me feedback, and I even get some response from production teachers who I ask for meetings via emails. All going good – now it’s just to hope that all tasks get done in time, that the team does not break apart, and that I don’t go completely insane. It’s not like I have a quiet life; the Berkeley mantra is “Dude, I am totally busy. Can we meet next week?”. The only smart way of doing this kind of time commitment on my end is to keep my homework to a minimum, donating $30 to moviepass three months in a row because I don’t take advantage of my benefits with them since I don’t go to the movies during the preproduction, cutting out all film watching outside of my theory classes (and studying Chaplin’s Essenay films), and practically abandoning all partying activities.

We organize sporadic meetings of all subteams which get more and more frequent as the production date approaches. The producing team doesn’t get around to building an ad-hoc production office, which is definitively something I want to do next time; biggest problem is the lack of availability overlap between the single people involved. For the next Berkeley film project I already know: One additional question that will be asked when someone joins the project, apart from “What is your number, email and facebook” will be “What’s your weekly schedule like?”
40 weekly schedules – that will be lots of spreadsheets…!

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