Increasing Your Film’s Production Value: An Interview with Ken Mader

It is my distinct pleasure to introduce to you award-winning filmmaker and one of my dear friends, Ken Mader. A self-

Ken Mader

described ‘mutant-hyphenate’, Ken does it all. From writing to producing, directing to editing, Ken’s multi-faceted understanding of the in’s and out’s of film are unmatched. I caught up with him during a rare bit of down time between projects to discuss the importance of production value, particularly for the low-budget filmmaker. 

Mark Travis: Your work consistently has the look of bigger budget projects. What drives you to squeeze that much production value onto the screen?

Ken Mader: Blame it on being raised on Hollywood movies I guess.  I’ve always been fascinated with the filmmaking process and tried to push the envelope, make whatever I shoot look like it cost 10x its actual budget.  From the time I was 8-years-old with my first Super-8 film camera blowing up model spaceships in my parent’s backyard, to my first feature where we built an entire bio laboratory set in their garage, I’ve just never understood the concept that just because it’s low budget it has to look low budget.  Especially now with all the tools we have available, why wouldn’t you want your film to look and play amazing?  Unless you’re making the next BLAIR WITCH or PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, striving for quality and production value for me has always been a priority.

MT: How would you define production value?

KM: Production Value to me is simply when something looks professional.  It’s not necessarily about car chases and explosions (though that can certainly add “production value”) but rather when a filmmaker puts a focus on the quality of the image, sound and storytelling.  It can be somewhat difficult to quantify since artistry plays a major role, but runs the gamut from a well-developed screenplay to quality production design, lighting, sound, wardrobe, makeup, acting, directing, editing, music… every craft is important to help elevate the quality of the work.  Finding talented people to collaborate with in each discipline is optimal, but there are also some simple techniques that can be learned to help lift your project above most others.  Let’s face it, craftsmen and women have spent decades perfecting the art of storytelling on film (and now on pixels).  I feel it’s incumbent upon all of us as filmmakers to at least learn that language and the inherent rules before we start breaking them.

MT: Why is the production value necessary for the independent filmmaker? 

KM: Whether movies or TV (dramas not ‘reality’) audiences have been conditioned to expect a certain level of quality and standards of professionalism in their entertainment.  The same holds true for executives and producers who are in the hiring or “green light” position.  Simply put, amateur quality takes the audience out of the story.  They begin noticing the poor production values rather than being engaged in the storytelling and characters.  Low quality will unconsciously make your audience focus on that lack of quality.  It’s distracting when you’re used to looking at the best of the best every day. Further, executives can rarely see beyond the screen or what you show them in your showpiece or demo reel.  If you present them something that looks low budget, you will be pigeonholed as a “low budget filmmaker”.  They will think if they give you more money for your next project that you will make it look like that.  So unless low quality is part of the conceit (again ala BLAIR WITCH or PARANORMAL ACTIVITY) it’s always best and will serve you well to try to raise the bar as high as you can.  We have a slogan at my demo reel company: “Look like you were paid for the work on your reel, not the other way around.”  I’d say that holds true for independent filmmakers as well.

MT: What are the easiest ways to increase production value, particularly for low or no-budget films?

KM: First and foremost is lighting.  Regardless of the camera you shoot with, proper lighting is key to making your film or reel look professional.  Find a DP who knows how to light, or if you can’t afford one, learn the basic fundamentals yourself (this is a good thing regardless, as it will help you communicate with a DP once you have the budget for one).  Don’t assume that just because you’re shooting digital on a low-light sensitive DSLR that basic principles of lighting do not apply.  Or conversely if you’re lucky enough to be shooting 35mm or RED that you don’t need to light.  Even shooting in natural light situations you will usually need to augment the light in some way, be it with a bounce card or reflectors or face fill, etc. Study films that are similar in genre to yours.  See how they did it.  Really examine and analyze how they lit the scenes.  Where is their key light sourced from?  Are they using rim light, edge light, top light, back light?  Then use all that info to inspire your own visuals.  Steal ideas if you have to (don’t worry, we all do it) then incorporate them into your own original work.

Here are a couple of quick tips to get you started:

1. – “Shoot the Shadow Side”  Meaning, key light from the opposite side of the “Line” whenever possible (and if you don’t know what the Line is, look it up.  It’s also referred to as the “180 Rule”.  It will save you from looking like an amateur and your editor from going prematurely bald for pulling his hair out trying to match directional continuity – not to mention your audience getting dizzy watching your film).

 2. – When outside in daylight, put the sun behind the actors; or in early morning/sunset use it as a side light.  Never ever use the sun to light faces.  It’s simply too bright and not flattering for the actors (washes them out).  With the sun at their backs or side acting as a hot rim light, use a bounce card or reflector to cast some of that light back up into their face.

 3. – Put the camera on a dolly (even if that means sitting in a shopping cart) or use a stabilizing system like Steadicam or Glidecam.  There’s nothing worse than making an audience nauseous with radical hand-held shaky-cam (unless again it’s an aesthetic choice to shoot “shaky-cam”).  And if you do shoot handheld with a small camera, get a shoulder mount or some rig that will give it the look of more “weight”.  Otherwise it can look like you shot it with your smartphone intended for YouTube.

By the way, probably my biggest pet peeve besides bad lighting is “crossing the Line”.  I see that basic Filmmaking 101 rule broken all the time in low budget indies.  

MT: So how do you employ these techniques in your own work?

KM: I try to keep all these things in mind every time I shoot.  After awhile it just becomes second nature.  Sometimes you may need to adjust the blocking of a scene to accommodate the better lighting situation.  Other times you may need to cheat the light a bit to paint the prettier shot.  In any case it’s about making it look the best it can be in any given situation.  For example, when I shoot and direct scenes for actor’s demo reels, they consistently get asked by casting directors and producers, “What show or movie is that scene from?”  That is the highest compliment I can be paid, and I’m very proud of that achievement.  Plus it’s a great conversation starter for the actor.  They look like a professional because the work looks professional, not like it was shot for their reel.  And as a result they tend to book the job more frequently.

At the end of the day, the better your material looks and plays, the better the audience will experience it, the wider appeal it will have.  And isn’t that the ultimate goal for all of us as filmmakers and storytellers?

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You can find Ken on the web at www.kennethmader.com and his demo reel company at www.perfectreel.com  He is offering a 15% Discount on all demo reel services for Mark Travis students including RED Camera shooting, as well as special deals on RED Camera Rentals and Production Value Consulting for Mark Travis Filmmakers prepping their next project.


The Hollywood Black Film Festival: An Interview with Tanya Kersey

This year’s Hollywood Black Film Festival runs October 25-28, 2012 in Hollywood, CA. Dubbed “The Black Sundance”,

Tanya Kersey, founder of HBFF

HBFF is an annual 4-day celebration of black cinema drawing together established and rising filmmakers, popular film and television stars, writers, industry executives, emerging filmmakers, writers and actors as well as diverse audiences from Southern California and around the world.

I had the privilege of sitting down with HBFF’s founder, Tanya Kersey, to discuss the benefits of film festivals and HBFF, in particular. 

Mark Travis: You began the Hollywood Black Film Festival in 1998. What inspired you to start it?

Tanya Kersey: I was running an entertainment trade publication called Black Talent News, and I had been doing a conference called the Infotainment Conference as a standalone weekend event for a few years at Loyola Marymount University.   I had also hosted panels and workshops at other film festivals so I was very familiar with what a film festival was.  HBFF grew organically from the conference.  I thought I was putting on a small, local conference and it turned into an international weekend event.  The filmmakers started asking when I was going to start screening films and a light bulb went off.  There wasn’t a Hollywood-styled black film festival in the LA area and I thankfully had strong connections in the industry that helped me jump start the festival and launch it at USC School of Cinema-Television.  I was inspired by the need to fill a gap and offer black filmmakers an opportunity to have their works seen.

MT: What are the benefits to submitting work for screening in a film festival?

TK: If you get accepted, you have the opportunity to have your film screened in front of a diverse audience.  You have the possibility of attracting a distribution deal, attracting an agent, networking with your colleagues and other industry professionals, seeing your film in front of a paying audience and gauging their reaction, getting press attention and reviews that you can build momentum on, and building buzz for your film. If your film gets accepted by a major film festival, that’s validation!

MT: What benefits, in particular, does HBFF offer filmmakers and writers?

TK: HBFF is focused on fostering and developing the vision of independent filmmakers and writers by bringing their films to the attention of the industry, media and public through an exhibition and competition program.  There aren’t many opportunities for the creative Black Hollywood community to come together to share in our collective creative energy, watch films, attend panels and workshops, network, make deals, develop business relationships and create partnerships.  HBFF is the perfect storm for Black filmmakers and writers in Hollywood that have few other avenues to be inspired, empowered and educated, and to take their careers to the next level.   But HBFF IS NOT only for Black filmmakers and writers, the information and opportunities that the festival offers can enhance the career of any filmmaker and writer.

MT: Oftentimes it remains a mystery why some films get chosen to be showcased in film festivals while others are passed over. How do you choose which films make it into HBFF?

TK: The films that we choose are based on exceptional stories.  It really comes down to story.  Story drives everything!  No matter how good the acting is, and how big your budget is, or how experienced your creative team is, if the story is not tight, the film won’t be right!  I always implore filmmakers not to rush to shoot a movie from a script that hasn’t been vetted.  It takes at least six months, on average, to develop a good script in terms of dialogue, character development, tone, continuity, and storyline.  Before you go before the lenses make sure you invest in professional coverage.  It makes absolutely no sense shooting a movie based on a script that isn’t ready.  All the tricks in the world can’t make a bad script good and if you invest before you shoot, you stand a much better chance of producing a film that will be a big winner on the film festival circuit.

MT: HBFF isn’t just about screening films. What other activities are available for filmmakers and writers to participate in?

Cast from “A Million Colours”, HBFF 2011

TK: Panels and workshops with leading industry professionals where you can learn about the business, refine your talent and development new opportunities.  We have a pitchathon where you have an opportunity to pitch your film project; and a monologue slam where actors do a monologue in front of a live audience and get comments and critiques from a panel of casting professionals.  The parties and receptions are, of course, great networking opportunities.We attract such stars and industry insiders as Academy Award® winners Sidney Poitier and Forest Whitaker, John Singleton, Bill Duke, George Singleton, Cedric The Entertainer, Ice-T, Anthony Anderson, Blair Underwood, Sanaa Lathan, Rockmond Dunbar and Loretta Devine. The festival has become a hotbed for the Black Hollywood community.

 This year’s festival runs October 25-28, 2012 in Hollywood, CA.  The festival website is http://www.hbff.org.  You can find out all about the conference panels and workshops at http://www.hbff.org/infotainment-conference-2012/.