Halloween special: Avoid horrific filmmaking mistakes

They saw what you did!

Ghosts! Goblins! Zombies! Bad science fiction movies! How do you steer your movie clear of terrifying filmmaking mistakes?

Avoid horrific filmmaking mistakes

Halloween can remind us of all the horrors in the world: real or imagined. This includes mistakes that we, as filmmakers, can make.

It can be easy to see the mistakes in other people’s films. Imagine the horror those filmmakers experienced when they first noticed those mistakes.

Now imagine attending the first public showing of your science fiction movie. Is this the time you first notice the weak story, bad acting, or lame special effects?

Talk about a nightmare!

Filmmaking mistakes are unavoidable; they’re going to happen to you!

That doesn’t mean you’re powerless to stop them. You can take steps to prevent as many as possible.

We’ll share a few tips you can use to keep the bad filmmaking monsters at bay.

In the beginning…

Before you begin your science fiction filmmaking journey, you can ensure you don’t set a deadly trap for yourself.

On our last show, we asked a lot of fans at the Dallas Comic-Con what they liked and didn’t like about science fiction movies.

Too often, filmmakers make movies they (and their friends) want to see. This can be a deadly mistake!

It’s the science fiction fans who buy tickets to see your movie. It sounds obvious, but those are the people you are making the movie for.

What do science fiction movie fans want to see?

Well executed stories.

You can try to hide a poorly written script with exciting visuals. But your audience won’t be fooled. 

If your story isn’t solid and entertaining, do not pass Go. Do not make that movie.

Listen to what the science fiction fans want to see.

The secret ingredients

You want to use the best ingredients possible when making your movie.

Here are the three secret ingredients of a good movie:

  1. A good story
  2. Good actors
  3. Uniqueness

We’ve already talked about the first ingredient: a good story.

When I interviewed filmmaker Timothy Plain, he described the importance of the second ingredient: good actors.

“Hiring professionals in certain areas will make your stuff look so much better. One of the overlooked aspects of that is actors. I really feel like a good actor in front of your camera is going to make it much more professional.”

Timothy’s current project, The Spirit Machine, is a great example of a film with the third ingredient: uniqueness. Watch the trailer to see what I mean.

Don’t be the invisible man (or woman)

In today’s crowded independent film marketplace, you’ll see that there are a LOT of movies.

How do you stand out so your science fiction film gets noticed?

When I interviewed Mark Potts, the director of Spaghettiman, and producer Reilly Smith, I learned there are three elements required so your movie gets noticed:

  1. A great title that gets attention – Spaghettiman is a great example of this
  2. A great concept – a super hero who shoots spaghetti at bad guys for money
  3. A great production – the execution of the movie. This is the hard part.

On the Indie Film Hustle podcast, Linda Nelson (of Indie Rights Movies) explained why making a science fiction film is a great way to avoid getting lost in the independent film marketplace:

“If you are choosing to do drama, you are competing with 30,000 other films on a site like Amazon. If you choose to do a science fiction film, you might only be competing with 1,500 films.”

Don’t go broke

I interviewed filmmaker Darren “Daz” Scales, who directed the science fiction short Darkwave: Edge of the Storm.

Daz created an exciting film that looks like a major studio effort. And he did it for very little money by being very creative.

One very cool trick that Daz used was finding a very interesting location first and then utilizing that location in your movie.

For Darkwave: Edge of the Storm, Daz came across a decommissioned communications outpost. He then wrote that into his story and avoided the expense of building a set.

Another cool trick Daz mentioned was where to find actors for your science fiction film: science fiction cons.

Filmmakers Samtubia and Samgoma Edwards, who produced the award-winning TK-436: A Stormtrooper Story, found some of their actors on Craigslist.

Yes, I said Craigslist.

Samtubia and Samgoma also learned to create their own special effects by watching YouTube tutorials. Their short film looks like it has a big special effects budget.

When I spoke with Annetta Laufer, the writer/director of Afro Punk Girl and producer Shobu Kapoor,  I learned a really cool trick for creating a location that looks amazing.

They utilized creative grading to get the look they were after and make their location look more apocalyptic.

You can think of grading like adding an Instagram filter to your film to make it look more interesting.

We’ll talk about grading in a future episode of the show.

Don’t go out there by yourself

Many of us independent filmmakers like to try and do it all.

The results are often horrifying.

I asked director of photography Les Gaddis if it’s a good idea for the director to  be the DP on their own films.

The advice from Les is simple and direct:

“It’s much better to have help.”

As a director, your primary responsibility is to help the actors. For most of us, if you also choose to be the cinematographer, you won’t even be able to give 50 percent of your attention to the actors.

Let someone else focus on the cinematography. If you’re the director, focus on the actors.

This also goes for special effects, music, props, costumes, and so on.

It’s much better to have help.

The biggest horror of all!

What could possibly be worse than making a horrific mistake with your movie?

Not making the movie at all.

A few months ago, I got the following advice for indie filmmakers from Kevin Smith:

“The opportunity comes from you. Don’t wait for someone else to come to you to make your film.”

As always


What do sci-fi movie fans want?

Let’s go to Comic-Con

I just got back from a couple days at the Dallas Comic-Con Fan Days event.

Captain America
Comic-Con Fan Days (Dallas)

This gave me a chance to ask attendees (many of whom are science fiction film fans) what they like and don’t like about science fiction movies these days.

Comic-Con Fan Days (Dallas)

I asked this to help you, the science fiction filmmaker.

Too often, filmmakers make movies they and their friends want to see. But, it’s the fans who watch science fiction movies.

Star Trek
Comic-Con Fan Days (Dallas)

Listen to what these fans say and figure out what kind of story you can tell that will make them happy when they see your project.

Comic-Con Fan Days (Dallas)

Not everyone agrees on what they like and don’t like. There is no science fiction film for everyone.

I’m not going to summarize their likes and dislikes. You need to listen and decide for yourself.

Comic-Con Fan Days (Dallas)

After I stopped recording their answers, I mentioned to several that no one asked for zombies. Instead of saying they didn’t care to see more zombie films, almost everyone mentioned what they were really interested in was a well executed story.

Perhaps that’s the big takeaway on this episode:

Science fiction movie fans are interested in well executed stories.

As always


How to find music for your sci-fi movie

The importance of music in your movie

“Music adds emotional energy to the stories and characters in films in a way that a film cannot do on its own.” – Jeff Rona

This week on The Sci-Fi Maker Show, I interview Dan O’Connor (Dan-O) of danosongs.com.

Of course, the music you heard during the Jeff Rona quote is Dan’s.

Dan O'Connor of danosongs.com
Dan O’Connor of danosongs.com

Dan started Danosongs, a library of production music, in 2008.

Interestingly, Dan is also an actor and a filmmaker who made a science fiction short some years ago. That makes him the perfect guest for this show.

We talked about how important music is in your films. And, too often, filmmakers don’t even think about the music until the end of the filmmaking process.

It’s a shame because music can add so much to the emotion, mood, and tone of a movie. It shouldn’t be an afterthought.

I asked Dan about his favorite movie composer; who is it that inspires him.

His choice is Hans Zimmer who did the soundtrack for the Dark Knight trilogy and many other movies.

In addition to Angelo Badalamenti (David Lynch), I am rather fond of the soundtracks that Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross produce for David Fincher films. I’ve included a video below where Trent Reznor discusses how they work.

Dan notes that Peter Gabriel does some interesting soundtrack work. Many of his pop songs make their way into movies.


Dan started danosongs.com as a personal site.

Today, you can download any of those songs for free. If you want to use one of his songs in your project, it’s only $10 per song. No royalty payment.

Ten bucks and you’re done! What a deal!

His songs have been used in a variety of film projects over the years. And no wonder – he produces great tunes in a variety of styles.

Please note: Dan does not do custom composing for movies.

He is also a member of the band Phoenix Tree.

Dan, the actor and filmmaker

Dan has been acting for a number of years and even produced his own science fiction short. Check out Zedic and the Crimson Born.

Dan has a role in a new science fiction film coming out in November called Parasitic. He also has a role in another film – Coven.

Where to find music for your sci-fi movie

You’ve got a lot of options and you don’t have to spend a lot of money.

Don’t ignore the music for your movie! It’s important!

  • Danosongs – ten bucks!
  • Production music – prices vary and so does the quality. It can get expensive.
  • Student filmmaker forum – you might find a music composition student willing to work for a reasonable price
  • Students at a good music school
  • Stage 32 – filmmaker’s site, includes film composers
  • Your musician friends
  • Try it yourself using software such as GarageBand, Band in a Box, JamStudio, and Soundation
  • Creative Commons music – contact the music creator if you choose to use this option
  • Craigslist – you never know

Resource (affiliate link)

As always


Les Gaddis: a cinematographer’s journey

His journey begins

Les Gaddis is a directory of photography, also known as a cinematographer.

Cinematographer Les Gaddis at work
Cinematographer Les Gaddis at work

And, like many of us, he also directs.

Since he works in the indie film world, he’s done just about everything, but his focus is “making pretty pictures”.

He started shooting with a Canon 7D, but moved up to a Black Magic Ursa Mini. He shoots some projects with other cameras, such as the RED, by utilizing rental houses.

He learns how to use these cameras by doing his research online.

Note: If you want to learn to use a RED, there is an unofficial RED camera menu simulator (aka “Donna”). It’s an app for your smart phone.

Les grew up in New Orleans where his father had an event photography and video coverage business. As a teenager, Les was shooting weddings.

After a year or so, he got better at shooting video and started to enjoy it.

Les studied video production at the Art Institute of Dallas where he learned film theory, but the best thing that came out of it was the networking with students and teachers.

With YouTube, Vimeo and other online resources, Les feels you can get a good free filmmaking eduction on the Internet.

Should a director be the director of photography on their projects?

When Les shot his first feature film, he also directed it.

What did he learn from the experience?

“It’s much better to have help.”

Les Gaddis
Les Gaddis

As he has matured, Les has learned to let go; he could allow someone else to be the DP on a film he directs.

After working on projects for a number of years, Les has also moved into the role of educator for gaffers and aspiring cinematographers.

Getting ready for production

Filmmakers often acknowledge that preproduction is important, but that doesn’t mean they use that time to prepare.

Les prepares.

Les likes to close his eyes and visualize the film, shot by shot before he shoots it.

From that mediation, pre-visualization, he creates a shot list.

He keeps this shot list with him when he shoots.

On set

It is rare that Les shows up on the set on time. That’s because he likes to be early.

Les Gaddis
Les Gaddis

He goes through the check list and finalizes the day’s shoot. This is his last chance to do preproduction.

“It’s game day. It’s fun for me.”

Being early allows Les the opportunity to walk the set and make sure he hasn’t missed anything. For exterior locations, he uses sun-tracking software to help plan the day’s shooting.

Once crew members start showing up, they start staging gear. This way the lights and other equipment is out of the way, but easily accessible when needed.

His growth as a filmmaker

“When I first started out, I felt like I had something to prove.”

As a newbie filmmaker, Les felt his job was to make the images as pretty as possible because he wanted demo reel footage.

“There may be a script that doesn’t call for the most beautiful images. There may be a part in a film where it makes sense for your frame to be off because the character and the way they’re handling a situation may be completely off or not centered.”

He took his ego out of the equation and asks himself “how can I best tell the story?”.

Today, story comes first.

“Sometimes I like to even give certain characters their own camera movement.”

That last quote kind of blew my filmmaking mind! I had never thought of doing that.

Les likes to stick 85 percent to the plan and leave 15 percent for improvisation. In my opinion, that’s a sign of a confident filmmaker.

Like many filmmakers and artists, Les realizes his early efforts were terrible.

He didn’t quit. He kept learning and working at it until his work was great.

“Filmmaking is a marathon”.

Get inspired!

Check out Les’ work on his site – gaddisvisuals.com.

You should also give his podcast a listen – Capturing Light: A Director of Photography’s Podcast.

As always


Sci-Fi movie projects: where are they now?

This week on The Sci-Fi Maker Show

Since we started this podcast over a year ago, we have met with a an interesting mix of science fiction filmmakers.

On this week’s show, we’ll let you know what has happened to four of those filmmakers since we featured them on the program.

Every filmmaking journey is unique.

Sci-fi movie update #1: Soul Frackers

We met Bennett Litwin, the executive producer and writer of Soul Frackers over a year ago.

At the age of four, he almost died and had an out of body experience.

Eventually, that led to his current project, a science fiction comedy set in another dimension.

They still have a couple of shooting days left. Bennett is adding a couple of actors to the troupe.

Editing is going well and they are waiting on some special effects and music.

The expected completion date is January, 2017.

On the set of Soul Frackers
On the set of Soul Frackers

Sci-fi movie update #2: This is Meg

This is Meg is a low budget independent comedy directed by Alex Ferrari. Although this is not a science fiction project, any filmmaker can learn a lot from Alex’s story.

Alex began the project in April 2016 and has completed the movie. He is editing the trailer and will begin the film festival and distribution journey soon.

Alex has a very popular filmmaking podcast, Indie Film Hustle, where he talks about This is Meg and all about hustling in the film business.

This is Meg film poster

Sci-fi movie update #3: Lilith in the Garden

Emily Lawrence is an actress and writer in Los Angeles.

I stumbled across her Kickstarter campaign to finance her science fiction short Lilith in the Garden.

Emily was trying to raise $5,000 with a stretch goal of $7,000 so the crew would get paid.

I’m happy to report – she made the stretch goal. And, she has a new director for the project.

Emily Lawrence, actress
Emily Lawrence

Sci-fi movie update #4: The Spirit Machine

Timothy Plain is a director of commercials in San Francisco.

Timothy’s project, The Spirit Machine, is what he describes as “a super crazy sci-fi fantasy project inspired by the ’80s movies I love.”

The short is based on an actual Thomas Edison invention known as the spirit phone.

It’s been a long journey since raising over $96,000 on Kickstarter, but the project is complete.

Timothy has shown the short in Los Angeles and San Francisco to enthusiastic crowds.

The Spirit Machine
The Spirit Machine


  • Bennett Litwin interview about Soul Frackers on The Sci-Fi Maker Show
  • Soul Frackers Facebook page
  • Alex Ferrari interview about This is Meg on The Sci-Fi Maker Show
  • This is Meg website
  • Emily Lawrence interview about Lilith in the Garden on the Sci-Fi Maker Show
  • Lilith in the Garden Kickstarter page
  • Timothy Plain interview about The Spirit Machine on the Sci-Fi Maker Show
  • You can watch The Spirit Machine here

As always