Add Authenticity and Production Value to Your Independent Film
Written By Fred Ginsburg, CAS, PhD
Medieval. Crusader. Viking. Caribbean Pirate. Colonial/Revolutionary War. Civil War. Wild West. Victorian. Steampunk. Great War. WW2.
Shooting a period piece can be expensive and beyond the budget of most small-scale filmmakers. Sure, you can wardrobe up a couple of actors. And, maybe, come up with a neutral location that could pass for anywhere, anytime.
But if you want to “wow” your audience, it would be nice to have a bunch of costumed players and period encampments in the background!
On a big Hollywood show, that would entail hiring a lot of professional “extras” as well as trained stunt people, and renting a ton of period authentic wardrobe, props, weapons, and encampment construction.
However, there is a very inexpensive alternative. Every month, all around the country, hundreds of role-playing hobbyists gather together to enact “living history” recreations or to engage in mock battle scenarios.
These are serious history buffs. They have done their research. Made or purchased period authentic wardrobe. Acquired props and weapons. And, have learned how to use them. Some of the guilds have even constructed period encampments with tents and vehicles. Some of the participants are expert craftsmen, able to recreate daily life (cooking, etc.) as well as period trade skills (blacksmithing, carpentry, textiles, and so on). Masters-at-arms have trained the combatants in safe but impressive use of period weapons and tactics.
You have most likely seen them at Renaissance Faire festival, Civil War gatherings, wild west shootouts, and public celebrations.
What you may not realize is – you have probably also viewed them countless times on cable television in historical documentaries as well as historical dramas.
Director Ridley Scott spent a year visiting medieval fairs, scouting for the best equipped and battle skilled knights and Saracens before he filmed Kingdom of Heaven. Even though he could afford Hollywood stunt people and extras, Ridley realized that re-enactors did this stuff all the time and would come off on screen more believably than tinsel town posers.
Civil war blockbusters such as Glory and Gettysburg utilized hundreds of weekend warriors to stage epic battlegrounds and encampments. Deadwood, West World, Vikings. The list is almost endless. And those are just the BIG shows. We haven’t even begun to list all of the stuff on the History Channel, Discovery, and Smithsonian.
Why spend a fortune trying to achieve a level of authenticity and grandeur when all of that is just a phone call away, and nearly for free?
These weekend re-enactors love what they do. And they love having an audience, whether it be live spectators or screen viewers. They have worked hard, spent a lot of money on accoutrements, and trained to be authentic and impressive. Nothing excites them more than the chance to be seen and appreciated!
If you are producing a multimillion-dollar feature film, then do expect to pay participants a daily rate that falls somewhere in between an unskilled extra and stunt background. But you would still be saving a lot in the budget and ending up with a very high level of authenticity and battle skill.
If you are a low budget filmmaker, often for the cost of beer, BBQ, and refreshments – many of these guilds can be at your disposal for a day or two. What you might need to pay is obviously dependent on the budget and intended distribution of your project.
I have worked with living history and re- enactment guilds that have added production value and scope to student films, internet labors of love, and countless low budget documentaries. As long as the film project was relatively non-commercial – these re- enactors did not expect much more than a modest donation to their group and/or some refreshments. And, of course, a copy of the finished production!
When you work with a guild, there are some important do’s and don’ts.
Treat everyone with respect. They are probably volunteers (big Hollywood shows not withstanding), and are not obligated to stick around if you get too bossy or snooty. Feed them well, and do not think of them as “inferior” to cast and crew. Make them always feel welcome and appreciated for what they are contributing to your project.
Direct your film, but do not micro-manage and over-direct these extras. Work with the guild officers. Explain to them what you need, but let them control and stage the background. They know better than you do what will look good to viewers, and how to stage/cheat battle sequences to look authentic, yet still be safe for the participants. They do this all the time; trust their judgement.
Sometimes you will need to explain how a filmed sequence will be constructed in the editing and post-production process. Guilds are used to live audiences; so they may not be up to date in cinematic sorcery or how you plan on integrating the footage. Explain it nicely. Do not “talk down” to guild members as if they are children. Some of these re-enactors have worked on more films than you have!
If you insist on personally staging the action in micro-detail, then you assume liability for anything that happens due to your lack of experience. It is better if your re-enactors are more like independent contractors in that they determine the best way to achieve your vision; just tell them what you are going for, and then be willing to accept experienced advice.
Nothing upsets historical re-enactors more than Directors who insist on silly “Hollywood” bravado. Avoid clichés such as “fanning” a six- gun, or making impossible shots, or ridiculous gun handling and sword handling. If you are going for a “super fantasy” sequence, discuss that with the guild reps way in advance of your production schedule to see if they are okay with your stylization.
If your re-enactors will be using edged weapons or period firearms – there is a liability issue, especially if your actors will be embedded in a melee or action scene. Make sure that your actors are trained and coached in the use of their armaments and what is expected of them. Work with your guild masters-at-arms to avoid situations and behaviors that could create risks for actors or guild participants.
For example, black powder rifles and pistols are loaded with gun powder but never bullets for staged battles. Bullets are only shown being rammed down the barrel in “insert” shots, which are done at a separate time under the strictest conditions. Re-enactors do not even use ramrods, due to the danger of accidently discharging a weapon with the ramrod inserted — which would be the equivalent of a spear gun!
Black powder pistols and flintlocks do discharge hot gasses and sometimes very small particles. Fiery jets do not just come out of the muzzle, but also at the priming pans or the cylinder gaps of revolvers. Make sure that sleeves are clear of these flashpoints, lest a poufy wardrobe catch fire.
Blanks are not “safe”. They pose physical risks at short range, which is why re-enactors always cheat their angles so that they can safely aim away from their opponents.
Always be alert for unintentional “muzzle sweeps” where a “loaded” firearm or projectile weapon (cross-bow, long bow) pans across other participants as it is deployed. Cross draw holsters and shoulder holsters are particularly susceptible to this kind of mishandling.
Sound people always have to be on their guard. Any unexpected discharge of firearms or field artillery could cause damage to microphones and eardrums!
Swordplay requires a lot of skill and repetitive practice, especially in group melees. Swinging a weapon poses risks not only to the combatant in front of you, but equally so to the warriors on either side and behind you. Missing a block or parry could result in an actual strike, so combatants always choreograph their moves. When I used to do steel-on-steel combat (yeah, I was a “Renny” when I was younger), we would have code words to cue our partners on what to expect. For example, if I were to insult your mother – then expect me to strike downward towards your head. An insult to your liege or king might signal a straight lunge to the chest.
As a producer, make sure that you have signed releases (prepared by an attorney) for every participant. There should also be general release forms or contracts signed by the guild itself, in addition to the individual release forms.
We are talking about a lot of extras, many of them armed. Their firearms are usually real; and even blunt swords can break bones and rip skin.
Discuss the situation with your entertainment/production insurance agent so that the production company has enough liability coverage in case something does go awry. Some productions may require workers comp or special agreements with SAG.
However, in the long run – the use of local re-enactors and living history guilds can add a depth of realism and epic spectacle that you probably never imagined that you could afford.
Fred Ginsburg, CAS, Ph.D., is a highly experienced and award winning professional sound mixer whose decades of work includes features, episodic TV series, national TV commercials, corporate, and government. He is a member of the Cinema Audio Society and the University Film & Video Association. Fred holds doctorate, graduate, and undergraduate degrees in filmmaking; has published more than 200 technical articles along with a textbook, instruction manuals, and hosts an educational website. Fred instructs location recording and post-production sound at Calif State University Northridge.