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Tartan Features - Why Micro Budget Features?

Why Micro-Budget Feature Films in Scotland?

Most independent filmmakers will know the famous quote from Francis Ford Coppola about the fat girl from Ohio. It’s become an almost biblical text for aspiring filmmakers and while certainly prophetic, it was spoken 25 years ago by a great filmmaker reflecting on a fast dwindling Hollywood career. Coppola’s vision has really only been possible to achieve in the way he’s suggesting very recently – we believe this ‘one day’ he speaks of is NOW!

Here is the quote for those not familiar:

“To me, the great hope is that now these little 8mm video recorders and stuff have come out, and some people who normally wouldn’t make movies are going to be making them. And you know, suddenly, one day, some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart, you know, and make a beautiful film with her father’s little camcorder. And for once, the so-called professionalism about movies will be destroyed, forever. And it will really become an art form. That’s my opinion.”

What is probably a more pertinent and prescient quote, and one that directly relates to us (emerging filmmakers based in Scotland, NI and the North of England) is again from Francis Ford Coppola in reference to the troubled production of Apocalypse Now:

“There were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money, and little by little we went insane.”

We’ll revisit that quote later on, but for now:

Tartan Features is not a cool name – although the people behind it obviously are very cool wink emoticon as are all our friends and the people who like our page – and you! The name is part made in reference to Tartan Shorts, a long lost short filmmaking scheme in Scotland that lived within the early to mid 2000s. Many great shorts were made and many directors, writers, actors, producers and crew got a great foot up the industry ladder. Sadly the scheme no longer exists but the ghost of it lingers heavily in the sphere of Scottish filmmaking. This is what we want to change. We hope you will join us in banishing that ghost.

On a side note it’s worth mentioning that the budgets for Tartan Shorts 10 minute films were around £50-60K. Each. Does that come as a surprise?

A quick detour in to the past

The filmmaking landscape in Scotland in 2001 was very different from the way it is now. Back in the era of Tartan Shorts, if you wanted to create a high-quality looking short film on a low budget your two options were really 16mm or Digi-Beta (which still looked cheap). And obviously 16mm was very expensive.

In the late 2000s a technological tsunami occurred: Red, 5D, FinalCut7, Magic Bullett etc. We are constantly told that tools are a small part of creating a film and the most important elements are a good story and good acting, blah blah. While there is truth in the importance of a good story and good acting, we believe in the reality that filmmaking in the independent community has stepped up a very, very large gear due to an increase in accessible technology, and therefore more opportunity for filmmakers to practice without breaking the bank. The cultural implications of this are fascinating - the sun is rising in Ohio.

Cheap access to equipment led to a new interest in filmmaking. Corporations sought a market to exploit, which led to cheaper equipment and resources. Nearly everything you needed to know could be learned from YouTube tutorials, blogs and online workshops. This seismic shift in the rules of filmmaking had never occurred on this scale before, but it had in art and music. Punk Rock, Hip Hop and Dance music wiped the musical slate clean and the same revolution is happening in the film world.

This is now punk rock cinema.

And what does that mean for us?

Well, the ghost of Tartan Shorts still looms heavily. Very few people if any want to just make short films, if they’re serious about filmmaking as a career then they want to make feature films because they, like everyone else, enjoy watching feature films. The reality of shorts is that the only people who enjoy watching shorts are other filmmakers, and a tiny pocket of people with a niche interest in the artistic value of short form cinema.

You must make a feature film.

Don’t wait to be given permission or funding. You now have tools at your disposal that only cost a few pounds daily hire, and that can produce short films on a technical level equal what established filmmakers had 10 year ago. You don’t need a Red Dragon, a Canon 550D will produce something that looks vastly superior to what your contemporaries had in 2003. And ‘vastly’ here really means a huge difference. (TF will happily lend anyone a 550 for free if they want to shoot a feature).

Detour over

Back to 1991 and Francis Ford Coppola - the quality of images that emerged from those video 8 cameras just didn’t cut it for audiences. The stories may have been there but the poor technical quality served as a barrier between filmmakers and audiences. Today, you DO have the means of producing something that a general audience will accept. Admittedly, it will be light years removed from the quality of a Marvel film but an audience will accept it and it WILL help you.

This is all really just a long way of saying that the skills of new filmmakers in 2016 are for the most part, greater than of those in 2001. There are better tools and far, far greater resources for learning available. There are more filmmakers, and what is stopping people making films is a false impression that they need validation from an industry. You are the industry.

So why are you still making shorts? Here are some truths:

- A short film is not the 7” equivalent of a record album.

- The skills required to make a feature film are very different from the skills required to make a short.

- Shorts should no longer be seen as ‘look what I can do’ calling cards to fund a feature length version.

- Festivals today programme shorts that want to be shorts, and not shorts that want to be features.

- Make a micro-budget feature and use that as a more accurate calling card for a bigger feature.

The degree of success to which actors and directors can sustain a performance over a long period of time (such as that required to make a feature film) is a far greater indication of their talent than what might emerge in the time required to make a short.

You must make a feature film.

This idea is scary for some and liberating for others. Have you ever thought, “I can only make this film with an Arri Alexa shooting raw”? It’s an excuse for fear of failure. Grab a 7D.

Write a feature film to the resources you have available to you. Refine a script so it can work in locations you can access simply. Use what equipment you have available to you. Use your first micro-budget feature as your training ground; make your mistakes and when the time comes for you to make a larger film you will be guaranteed to make a better one than if that film was your first feature. You will have the experience and you will have a feature film to your name rather than another short, it shows ambition and progression.

Also, don’t be fooled into believing that if you have to self fund your feature that it’s just a vanity project. Recently there have been very low budget features made in Scotland (as in very low five-figure sums) that have made six-figure sums. True fact - not every film will be good and not every film will sell. At the end of the day film investors invest because they want to make money (mostly), and if you believe in yourself and your film by investing you can make money. If it’s money you want to make, experience is equally valid, as is the idea to simply make a film for the fun of it.

The micro-budget feature film is not a new idea but we believe it should be an accepted part of the Scottish film industry. This doesn’t seem to be happening on any great scale and so until it does, we’re going to push the idea as hard as we can. You don’t necessarily have to ask your crew to work for free, and we will discuss the importance of crew wages at a later date, but the importance lies not in how cheaply you can make a film but how well you can make it considering any restrictions you’re forced to work to.

We believe that micro-budget feature films are the missing link in the Scottish film industry. Everyone can benefit from their production – cast, crew, directors and most importantly the industry itself. A strong output of micro-budget feature films can be a breeding ground for new talent who can go on to work in high-end drama production. Micro-budget feature films can also be an important stepping-stone for below the line crew to try out in all departments, not just for writers, directors and producers.

You can be the fat girl from Ohio.

Don’t conform.

Coppola knew what he was talking about. His company American Zoetrope went from a micro-budget indie production company in to a full-blown Hollywood Studio. Coppola blew it but the principle components of indie filmmaking were in the DNA of his Hollywood films. Coming back to the Apocalypse Now quote, he said while reflecting:

“There were too many of us, we had access to too much equipment, too much money, and little by little we went insane.”

We think what he means by this, is that he wanted so badly to be the fat girl from Ohio.

In summary, of course there is a place for short films, they are a fantastic learning ground and an under recognised art from, but they aren’t a progression to feature films. Fight against the myth that you have to keep on making shorts to show your worth. Scale back, write a story that accommodates your budget and just make your feature. You’ll learn more than you can ever imagine, you’ll demonstrate that you can make a feature, and you will make the inevitable mistakes on this film rather than on your big dream project – the one funders will allow you to make off the back of your amazing micro-budget feature.

You don’t have to ask permission to become part of an industry. All you need to do is go out and make your own work. You have all the means at your disposal and Tartan Features will be your cheerleader, your flag bearer, your collective.

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