Some people want to make films. Some people need to. But what if you don’t have a wealthy benefactor or access to unlimited funds or a degree from a film school?
If you’re not already one of the 1.3 million subscribers to Film Riot’s YouTube channel you might want to remedy that. Compact and fast-paced, each episode covers pretty much everything a DIY-er would want to know in order to start making their own films—from equipment reviews and recommendations, to how to develop stories, to creating a believable nighttime jungle scene in an indoor space.
But don’t let the DIY target audience mislead you into thinking the show’s host and producer, Ryan Connolly, doesn’t have a thing or three to teach even the most seasoned vets. Because he’s spent the last ten years positioning himself to fulfill his most basic and fundamental need—making a feature film. His latest endeavor puts him one step closer to achieving that ultimate dream.
In this installment of Made in Frame, we had the opportunity to talk to the Film Riot creator-in-chief whose just-released BALLiSTIC is yet another in a series of compelling short films he’s made on an improbably low budget.
Not only is he a passionate filmmaker, he’s also an articulate instructor (and blogger and podcaster) who eagerly deconstructs his work and generously shares his tips and techniques with his audience.
In 2013, Ryan spent eight months laying all the groundwork for a zombie flick called Outsiders. He had actors, props, crew, and people literally on their way to the shoot—and at the last minute, his financing fell through. A less dedicated filmmaker might have been crushed, but Ryan regrouped.
“We decided not to let it be a total failure. Instead, we wanted to let the failure part be a learning tool for ourselves and for the people who watch our show.”
In ten days’ time, he had a new story, script, location, props, and everything he needed to make PROXiMITY, which not only became an online hit, but also formed the basis for the universe that later inspired his December 2017 follow-up Sentinel and, now, BALLiSTIC.
“When a wall comes up, you get a bigger sledgehammer. It’s the only way to progress in this industry. What happened with PROXiMITY was kind of a happy accident, and it’s been something that I just keep building on.” Plus, he adds, “The zombie market was oversaturated anyway.”
Master of fantasy Guillermo del Toro has said that the obstacle is the path. And Ryan embraces that idea. “You can’t always have what you want. It may not be possible with the budget or the gear you have. But a huge part of filmmaking is asking yourself about what your original intentions were and figuring out how to work around the limitations to come up with something that still conveys the idea. And sometimes it’s even better than what I had originally conceived.”
For the majority of Ryan’s career, he’s been a jack-of-all-trades out of necessity. Writer, director, producer, editor, DP, prop master—all successfully.
But BALLiSTIC is not only his most ambitious production to date, it’s one in which he allocated most of his focus just on directing (and the first in which he hired someone else to edit).
“I’m able to get my films about 60-70 percent of the way there by doing most of the work myself,” he says. But as he describes working with the various crewmembers on this film, he acknowledges how vital their added expertise was in taking that next step toward achieving his creative vision. In a recent Film Riot segment, Ryan talked about how important casting is—not just for actors, but also for the crew.
We discuss the idea of director as auteur, which Ryan doesn’t quite embrace if you’re attempting a larger-scale production. “I’m directing the film so it’s my vision, sure. But even if you have a director who has a definitive, specific style that screams loudly on the finished product, you have all these other people whose mark is on it. Which is why it’s so important to cast the people who share your vision and who will elevate it to a place that you couldn’t have achieved on your own.”
One of Ryan’s mentors had been urging him to work with an editor for years, which he had resisted. It was on this project, however, that the wisdom of collaborating with others who are experts in their disciplines became clear.
“I realized how big this project was and how many things I was going to have to juggle all at once,“ he says. “Now I get it. I don’t see myself editing any of my projects again, really. Or, for that matter, being the DP on one of my projects. I might operate a camera here or there, but it’s amazing having the freedom to focus.”
BALLiSTIC is a complex production, beginning with an ambitious and lengthy action sequence loaded with practical pyro and stunt effects that required thorough coverage. Canon, who partnered with Ryan on this production, supplied four of the seven cameras used on this extremely compact four-day shoot. LensProToGo supplied the rest.
Because the practical effects could only be performed once before the props were destroyed, getting maximum coverage was essential. As was keeping the budget under control.
“I’d just reviewed the Canon C200 on Film Riot and was really impressed. I love the Alexa Mini and had shot a bunch of recent projects on it, but this project was so much more complicated so I decided to put my money where my mouth was—because I’m always talking about how the gear isn’t the most important thing—and that’s when we reached out to Canon and they were keen to collaborate.
“The C200 is only, like, a $7,500 camera, and I’m a big fan of the color of Canon cameras.” (Ryan says “only $7,500,” because that’s a fraction of what digital cinema cameras like the aforementioned Alexa Mini cost).
They shot in Cinema RAW with a wide range of Canon cinema lenses, as well as SLR Magic anamorphic lenses. It was edited in Premiere Pro using ProRes LT because even though Adobe now supports editing in RAW, the files are large, and using seven cameras meant that there was a lot of footage. It was finished in ProRes 4444.
Note that if Film Riot reviews a product, it’s not because they’re beholden to a sponsor—it’s more an endorsement based on having used the gear or system on film projects and believing in its usefulness and quality. Ryan’s big on honesty and is no one’s paid shill. “We have sponsors like Canon and Adobe and SmallHD, but they’re more like collaboration partners who believe in the projects. We put everything into making the films and it’s awesome that Canon wanted to help us out.”
What’s perhaps most interesting about watching the Making of BALLiSTIC is seeing how strategically Ryan organizes his productions. Shots that required the motorcycle-sidecar camera rig were grouped together on day one. Days two and three were heavily loaded with stunts and pyro effects, so that by day four they could go to a skeleton crew to get the close-up performances of the main character and shoot inserts.
BALLiSTIC is a pro-quality production, and Ryan and his team accomplished everything in record time. Approximately six weeks of pre-production, including writing the script. Four days for the action shoot. Three days for the interior/night shoot. Sixteen days of editorial, and a day of color grading. Approximately six days for the composer to create the score.
“He just works crazy fast. It’s insane to watch,” Ryan says of his composer, Daniel James. “He wrote the whole end credit bit—from having no clear idea to finished—in 45 minutes!”
Ryan is, as any director should be, incredibly grateful for his crew’s heroic efforts. He believes in giving them strong direction, but also the freedom to bring what they think will be right for the project. By instilling a sense of ownership in them they, in turn, work that much harder to bring his vision to life.
It’s somewhat rare to see a director thank a crew that sincerely, and watching him do it at the end of the LA shoot is a thoroughly heartwarming experience. (Future directors, take note: you can run a tight production and still be nice.) If you’re always willing to work harder than everyone else, you’ll find that collegiality works better than fear.
After completing the action sequences shoot in LA, Ryan worked with his editor, Lucas Harger, to cut that portion of the story before moving to the next phase of the production, which would be shot in Texas.
“We didn’t have what I considered the heart of the story yet,” Ryan says. “But by cutting the action part first, we were able to identify the places where we needed more.”
More importantly, however, having an editorial partner helped him move through what he refers to as “the dark hour of the soul moments.”
According to Ryan, on every project he’s done, there’s a point in the initial rough assembly where he says, “Oh, God, what did I do?”
After directing fifteen or so films, he panics less than he used to, but working with Lucas and having a problem-solving partner-in-crime was enormously helpful.
“I wasn’t the only one trying to break things apart and put them back together. We had two minds doing that, and even just having someone to talk things through with was great. Also, while he was busy cutting one thing, I was able to think about the moment before or the moment after.”
In addition to hiring an editor, Ryan turned the final color grading over to Asa Fox of The Mill in LA. After one day of working together, Ryan was thrilled with the results.
“He really brought that extra 30-40 percent of magic to it that I wouldn’t be able to achieve myself. I could direct it there, but I couldn’t get it there. Doing this film has helped me realize that I’m very much a director and producer, and having worked with people who are truly passionate about that one thing they do day-in and day-out underscores the power of collaboration.”
When collaborating on a production of this magnitude, it’s imperative to have a platform where disparate crew and collaborators can exchange feedback, get fast access to vital media, and do it all in a secure system that improves speed and efficiency. That’s why Frame.io has been an integral part of Ryan’s workflow.
“I usually create different projects for the various artists in different capacities. My editor is on all of the projects, although I do have one that’s just for the two of us, because he’s in St. Louis and I was in Texas. I went out to sit with him three different times, but in between we were able to send stuff back and forth and be frame-accurate with our comments and conversation.”
He created separate projects for his colorist, and for the effects artists, each of whom had their own shots to work on.
“I like to keep things pretty separated so that everyone on the team is on a unique project with me. It keeps it cleaner and it’s easier to manage everything, especially toward the end when there are tons of files coming in at once. It helps keep it from being confusing because not everyone needs to see the thousand roads leading to the same place. They each just need to stay focused on their path.”
They also used Frame.io to put up the different versions of the cut as they approached the final, and were able to send review links out to viewers for feedback. In that case, Ryan sent them out individually. “I wanted everyone to be able to give their own opinion without being influenced by other people’s notes or ideas,” Ryan explains.
Not only did Ryan use Frame.io extensively for BALLiSTIC, he also uses it daily for his Film Riot production. “What we do for Film Riot is pretty much done in house, with me and Josh, my younger brother. We’re only a couple of offices away from each other, but sometimes if I’m in the midst of something and I can’t walk away to look at what Josh is working on, he’ll just pop it up on Frame.io and I’ll look at it when I can.”
As Film Riot has become more successful, the team has grown and they need to communicate with, for example, their effects artists, who work remotely. “I try to keep the shots in Frame.io if it’s anything that requires feedback or notes. It’s really easy to keep things clear and we’re able to make sure that shots get done correctly and we’re not wasting time.”
Film Riot is nearly ten years old, and focusing on that, his other show Variant (which also has over a 1.6 million subscribers), and his original films has pushed Ryan to stop taking client work in order to keep moving forward toward his ultimate goal of directing features. “It’s great to get the money, but you can get really comfortable doing that.”
It’s not the first time he’s compromised his comfort in order to move forward. “It’s like how when I was younger I quit my job at a company called Alienware to work fulltime on Film Riot, which still wasn’t making money. I didn’t know how I was going to pay my bills.”
He decided to give up his apartment and was planning to live out of his car, but luckily a friend let him sleep on his couch. When his mother found out, she asked him why he didn’t tell her—she’d have happily let him come home. But he was adamant that he needed to be uncomfortable in order to push himself toward his goal.
“I didn’t want to live at home because I would have been too comfortable there. Like, if I’m living on a friend’s couch, I’m intruding and that means I’m going to work a thousand times harder to get myself out of that situation,” Ryan says. “It was the same thing with taking client work. If the goal is to make features, then I’d rather stay uncomfortable.”
Part of what motivates Ryan to want a longer platform for storytelling is that he wants to be able to delve further into stories and characters, to be able to really get into their shoes. He notes that in the short films he can give viewers an experience—make them laugh or bite their nails or put them on the edge of their seats. “I’ve done a lot of short films and honed specific techniques through them. But two hours would be that much more awesome.”
Certainly he’s learned how to grab an audience, which he attributes to continuing to practice the crafts of story and technique. He’s never been one to let being a perfectionist stand in the way of making films.
“When you’re learning, you can’t expect perfection. It’s impossible. You need to embrace the imperfections, finish the thing, show it to people, get the response, and move on to the next one.”
When Ryan started Film Riot, that’s what he did. They had to come up with an instructional sketch every week, figure out how to do it, test it to make sure it worked, shoot it, and then build the episode around how they did it. “I had to be constantly creative and worry less about crossing every “T” and dotting every “I”. And that taught me so much.”
A single-minded passion for filmmaking continues to drive him. It’s as essential to his life as food and air. “When people say that they want to be a director, I ask them whether it’s what they want to do or what they have to do. Because it’s so difficult and you have to dedicate so much of your life to it. If you don’t absolutely have to do this, why would you want to?”
Undoubtedly, Ryan will find a way to make a feature. When it will happen and whether it will be financed by a studio or he’ll have to raise the funds himself remains to be seen. But when it does, he’s equally clear that his passion for Film Riot will ensure that he’ll document the process for his subscribers. “Building the community that we’ve built and helping young filmmakers—everything we do is always the kind of thing I would’ve killed to have had access to when I was fifteen or seventeen.”
That Ryan has publicly recounted how one of his films required not just a Plan B or Plan C, but a Plan E in order to complete it is testament to his commitment to his audience and his unflinching honesty.
“When I get that first feature, I’ll be very honest about showing the process, just like we do with the short films. Even when Outsiders fell through, we were honest about how it fell through, what I screwed up, what I didn’t see coming, what I learned from it.”
It’s almost like he’s letting you learn how to shave on his face, suffering the nicks and cuts so you don’t necessarily have to. Although, of course, you’ll still have your own challenges because no production ever goes exactly as you planned, and you’ll make your own mistakes which, of course, you’ll learn from.
And that’s exactly what Ryan would want you to do.