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FILMMAKER: Ryan LaBee
STORY: No Crew. No Money. No Problem: Why It’s Worth Your Time To Make Zero Budget Films
Why even bother?
I don't have the greatest camera. I don't have a real crew or anyone who is willing to devote hours of their time chasing my dream with me. No one will see my work anyway. No one even cares. So again, why bother?
Anyone smell that? Smells like someone stepped into a big, heaping, smelly pile of self loathing and doubt. Everyone check your shoes. Oh, will you look at that — it's me.
It's easy for us to think of thousands of reasons not to be making films. I just listed a plethora of thoughts that race through my head almost every time I decide to pick up my camera or put pen to paper. The hard part is deciding to push through, and to just do it anyway.
When you are a zero budget filmmaker as I'm sure a ton of us are, you usually have almost no resources for your film projects. No money, little to no crew, and living in the middle of BFE, makes it pretty easy to feel like you're creating in a vacuum for an audience of one.
The truth is, you very well may be. But I believe that you should be creating as much and as often as possible, despite this fact.
I once heard a story about American Jazz saxophonist Ike Quebec, and how he supposedly locked himself in his room for weeks, teaching himself how to play sax, and that he refused to come out until, “he could play better than anybody.”
When I decided that filmmaking was the future I wanted to aim for, I approached it with Ike Quebec’s story in mind. I may not have a crew, or money, or at that time, even a camera, but I do have time and passion.
I know. Sounds a little too "Hallmarky." Please stick with me though.
It was my belief that if I didn’t have the resources to make a film, I would use all my free time to learn everything that I could about making movies before I ever even shot a single frame. I would lock myself in my metaphorical room and be just like Ike!
Over the next few years, I bought every book there was on filmmaking. This is not an exaggeration. I could literally write the book on, ‘Buying Books on Filmmaking.’
Before I go any farther, so you have a little context, let me tell you a bit about myself. Let's get in our way back machine ...
Duh loo loo! Duh loo loo! Duh loo loo!
I know you can't see me, but I just waved my fingers at the screen doing my best Wayne's World dissolve impression. If that reference means nothing to you, just Google it!
The origin story of Ryan LaBee
I was born and raised in a small town in southern Missouri that, unless you’re from there, you have never heard of. There weren’t many career prospects in my hometown unless your family had money or you had a desire to be a farmer. I had neither.
I grew up incredibly poor. There were points in my life where my family didn’t have electricity, and my seven brothers (yes, you read that right) and I all slept in the same room of a one bedroom mobile home. And in the daytime, our bedroom turned into the living room!
I am not telling you this so you can start picking out your outfit for my pity party, I’m just telling you this part so that you understand why I made my next decision...
After high school, I didn't know how to apply for college or how to pay for it, so I did what most kids in poor cities do when they want to get out. I joined the military.
If you knew me growing up, this would have been the last thing you would have ever thought you’d see me do. I barely looked fit enough to volunteer at the Salvation Army, let alone join an actual branch of the military.
“The military? Ryan? Ryan (cries every time we run in P.E. class) LaBee? He joined the military?!?”
I did. And I’m really glad that I did.
Joining the military allowed me to get out and see the world, meet tons of people, and live a life. It has paid for all the college I’ve taken up to this point and it afforded me a small level of comfort so that I could pursue my passion - filmmaking.
By the way, this isn’t a paid endorsement of the military. The military is a good fit for some people, but not for everyone. I’m actually separating in a little over a year because I’m ready to pursue other options. The point I’m trying to make is this, if you want something bad enough, you will find a way to get it no matter the cost. Even if you do cry every time you have to run.
Okay, so let’s get back in our way back machine ... Where were we? Oh, our good buddy Ike Quebec, that’s right!
The wrong approach to learning how to make films
So, I first approached filmmaking like the story I had heard about Mr. Quebec. Except my interpretation was all wrong. I couldn’t lock myself in a room and teach myself everything I needed to know about filmmaking. That wasn't enough.
The truth is, in order to get good at something, you have to actually do the thing you want to get good at.
Locking himself in his room worked for Quebec because he still had his sax to practice with. It’s pretty hard to be a filmmaker if you’re not actually practicing being a filmmaker.
You can think about making a movie all day, every day, but until you pick up a camera and try to convey a story or a concept through moving images, you’re never going to truly be one.
That’s the bad and the good news.
Our single greatest resource as filmmakers (or why film school isn't the answer)
If you ask 100 successful filmmakers what advice they'd give a beginning filmmaker you're inevitably going to hear some variation of the following:
Pick up a camera, and make a film. It will probably be terrible, but do it again. And again. And again.
I know this, not because I am a successful filmmaker, but because every time I feel down on myself, or that my work is pointless, or feel like a fraud, I watch a video on YouTube of filmmakers talking about making films. Or, I read an article on one of the many filmmaking websites I frequent on a daily basis.
The internet is the great equalizer. It has become the greatest resource to anyone who is a creative person.
I’ve heard countless interviews of famous directors being asked, “Should I go to film school?” And it seems one of the prevailing thoughts is that film school is mostly for film theory and networking. You won’t necessarily learn how to make a film until you make a film.
These are both things you can do from the comfort of your home.
With the internet, the way we network has changed. I have been lucky enough to have had the opportunity to collaborate with some amazingly talented individuals from right here, stationed in the middle of nowhere Oklahoma. All because I used the internet not just to learn about the craft, but also to build up the network of creative people in my life.
Okay... but what about real resources?
I once watched a video of Robert Rodriguez see, the internet talking about the making of El Mariachi. In the video he gave this advice:
“Take stock of what you have, and then make a film about it.”
Famously, he put a tortoise in his first film just because his friend had a tortoise. No other reason then the fact that they had a tortoise, so they used the tortoise.
That’s what we should all be doing. You may not have a dedicated crew, or money, or the ideal resources, but you may have patient and loving family members who are willing to be guinea pigs. You probably have a camera of some kind. And, you have passion; if you didn’t you probably wouldn’t be reading this.
Make films with what you already have, instead of daydreaming about what you someday hope to have.
You have the time to try to get as good as you possibly can at the things that you can control. I am not religious by any means and I am definitely not Catholic, but I have always loved the genius of the serenity prayer. It goes like this:
“...grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I believe this can apply to all of us. We may not be able to change where we live. We may not be able to raise a million dollars for our first feature. We may not be able to afford all the fancy gear, but we can still become better filmmakers. What can change right now? What can you do right this minute to become better?
You don’t need money to practice writing a good story, or practice camera techniques, or to watch movies and to dissect how they work or don’t work, or to (every once in awhile) get anyone that is willing to give you a few hours of their time and to make a short film.
Maybe the only person you have in your life willing to work with you is your four year old daughter. Make a film with her. That’s what I do, and my daughter loves it. It’s become a bond between the two of us that I am so thankful for. Some of my proudest work are videos, I shot on the fly, with just my family.
Stop thinking about it and just go make a film
In early 2013 I set out with a few of my close friends to make my first official short film. I bought some cheap garage lighting I had seen on an episode of the now defunct ‘Indy Mogul,’ and a Canon T3i camera kit. And in a day we improvised a ridiculous short we made for a Hormel Bacon contest. And you know what? We won...
Of course we didn't win! That's not how life works. The short we made was terrible! There were continuity problems. The audio was atrocious and I did NOT know what I was doing with a camera! There's literally a scene where I dubbed my own voice over one of the characters my friend was playing because I couldn’t get him to come over to my house to dub some of his lines.
So what? It didn’t matter that the short was terrible because it was a blast to make. I still laugh every time I watch it.
As bad as my first short was, it still holds a special place in my heart because I had started. I was no longer just thinking about making films, I was actually making them, for better or worse.
Finally, I could call myself a filmmaker. Not because I was good at it, but because the act of doing is what gives you the right to the title.
I know this opinion is not everyone's, and that it’s going to be divisive, but this is my personal take on it:
The only difference between someone who calls him or herself a filmmaker and someone who doesn’t yet, is the courage to make films and to show them to people, and the naiveté to call yourself one.
If you have a camera and you’re making personal films big, small, good, or bad, and you put them out into the world for ridicule and judgment, then you can call yourself a filmmaker.
At first people will probably roll their eyes when you call yourself a filmmaker. And you’re probably going to feel like a fraud because, if you’re being honest with yourself, most of your work isn’t going to be very good at first.
I personally still feel this way all the time.
But you keep doing it because you know that if you keep at it long enough... you’re going to get better. And you’re going to feel less and less like a fraud. And eventually you’re going to have work that you’re proud of. Some of it you will still hate, but some of it will be good and you will ACTUALLY be really proud of it.
Amazing things will happen, but only if you're brave enough to get started
Before you know it, your name is going to get out there. You’re going to become known as the guy or girl who makes movies, and someone is going to ask you to make something for them. I know that’s what happened to me.
A little over a year and a half ago, someone I had never met - a local athlete - messaged me on Facebook and said, “Hey. I heard you make videos. Will you come with me to a meeting with my sponsors and talk about about making a video for me?”
I said, “Absolutely.” I went, and it was a bigger project than he let on, or I had expected.
All the bigwigs of the local community had come together to try to send this kid to training camp for the Olympics, and they wanted to make a video to raise money and awareness.
While I was at the meeting, I quickly realized I was in over my head, but I met two guys there that were far more experienced in video production. Even though I was clearly the odd man out, they let me stick around and turns out, neither of them particularly liked to edit, something that I personally love to do.
So, I stayed on the project, learned a ton onset, and I edited the entire video. We raised over 11K thanks to our video and we sent the kid to training camp.
The two guys I met at the meeting are now pretty good friends of mine and they are starting their own video production company. If everything goes as planned, I will be their full-time video editor.
This connection would have never been made if I hadn’t started making films, started putting myself out there to be judged, and hadn’t been naive enough to start calling myself a filmmaker.
That just goes to show that you have to get started. Resources, crew, money be damned... if you want to make films you have to just start making them.
Still figuring it out
Now, don’t let my momentary confidence fool youI don’t have all the answers by any means. More times than not, I still feel like a fraud.
I don’t really make anywhere close to a living at this yet. I am nowhere near as skilled as I want to be. I still mostly don’t have resources to make "real films," whatever that means. And occasionally, I still get talked down to, or have someone roll their eyes at me whenever they hear what I do in my free time.
But, I don’t make films just because I want to make money. Yeah that would be nice eventually, but that's not the only reason I do it. And I don’t wait around to have resources or permission to make them either, because if I did, I would never make anything.
I make films because I want to connect with people by telling stories. I want to convey ideas and I want to leave a tangible piece of myself behind for whenever I’m no longer on this earth; 24 frames a second, all screaming, "Ryan was here."
It’s a bit dark and emo, I know, but it’s the truth. The completely embarrassing, and vulnerable truth.
Your reasons for filmmaking may be different from mine, and that’s great. I don't pretend to be an expert in this stuff at all. This is just how i feel about it in this particular time and place in my life.
For me, filmmaking is far too hard, personal, and uncertain to only be in it for the money.
Still in my (metaphorical) room
Like I said before, my original approach to be like Ike Quebec was all wrong. I tried to learn to be a filmmaker by reading how to be a filmmaker and that doesn’t work; you have to start acting like one. That means making films even when you don’t have the ideal means or conditions to do so.
I am still in my metaphorical room practicing; the room being all the constraints I currently have no control over. However, there are things I can control, and I'm going to try to focus on those.
And who knows, maybe someday someone will see through the window and get a glimpse of what I’m doing in here and they will ask me to come out and play.
But if that doesn't happen, that's okay. I love every aspect of filmmaking, and even if I have to make films in a vacuum for an audience of one, I'm going to keep doing it.
And I hope you do too.
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