This week’s interview is with writer/director Don Bitters, whose background in motion graphics and VFX has fueled his career success. Don talks about his trajectory from short films into full-length features, the importance of having a strong skill to set you apart, and how content creation gets you ahead.
Let’s dive in:
How did you start out?
I started out knowing I wanted to direct from when I was young. I made my first film when I was fourteen. I did a music video for the band KMFDM that they actually used in their US and world tour. That was just legos and clay, stop motion as well.
Before I came out to LA, I had done a short back in Chicago that was Student Academy Award nominated, but it didn’t really go anywhere because we got distribution. One lesson you should learn is to never sign up for distribution for a short film. The whole reason you make a short film – because you never make money on a short film – is to get a feature made or to get attention drawn to you.
The problem with doing distribution is that you’re kind of bound by what their distribution model is. This was pre-YouTube or pre-anything; this was back in 2007 or 2008. A DEATH IN PROGRESS, which we have online now because the terms with our distributor were up, made $300 over the course of 5 years. On one hand, great we made $300 on a short, but we spent $6000 on it, and we weren’t able to use it as leverage. Any filmmakers out there who sign up with a distribution company for shorts, it may look good for you, but ultimately what it’s doing is hampering your ability to get your short seen. Because you can’t put it on Vimeo, and you can’t put it on YouTube. You can’t say, “here’s a link to the movie.” You’re suddenly bound by this company’s strategy to distribute your short, which is usually packaged with a bunch of other shorts.
When I came out to LA, I quickly realized that I sucked at being an assistant, and I had these technical skills – I had been working with motion graphics. I kind of had a regular job that I had landed after 6 months of being out here. I was making $25-$30 an hour. For a 23-year-old that is insane. So it’s this thing where I was making enough money but teaching myself visual effects on the side because I knew the movies I wanted to direct had to have visual effects. It was the movies I grew up on. It was the kind of movies I was writing. It was the stuff I was interested in doing.
So you’re self taught in visual effects?
Yes. I went to school for general filmmaking. I knew I wanted to be a director, and because the job of a director is to work with actors, writers, producers, production designers, sound designers, editors, all those different people, I wanted to learn their tasks so I could do a better job at communicating with them.
I came out to Los Angeles, and I tried for a couple years to get something going with a friend. Short films. Things to roll into a feature. After a couple misfires of not being able to get certain shorts off the ground (because we just didn’t understand the scale of what we were doing), we sat down and said, “Let’s make a movie that we know we can sell.” And my buddy was like, “Oh, well, we can do ‘Sky Shark’ or something really crappy like what’s on the Syfy channel.” I was like, “I got a title, looking for a movie.” Because I had come up with this title back in college called TERRORDACTYL.
We intended to make it a quick and dirty movie – something where we could have a feature under our belt. Unfortunately and fortunately, what happened was we realized we were making a better movie than we initially intended to. I was putting a lot more time into the visual effects than you normally would on a movie like this. These are usually 6 months in and out, and you’re done; the quality doesn’t matter. But I wanted to make sure all the shots looked great. That’s why it took a lot longer to finish the film, but now it’s out. I think the reaction we got from people who see what we made has proven all that time was well spent.
Was that self-financed?
A little bit. It started out self-financed. Very low budget. I can’t say the number, but it’s way lower than you’d expect for what it looks like. We did some self-financing and then we had two investors come in during the last year to give us a little cash.
A big question people often ask is how do you find investors?
A lot of times, especially in LA, there are a lot of people out here who own companies or have more money than you know. We were very fortunate that one of those guys did give us some investment and then a little bit of that was family through one of our producers.
I think a mistake is when people go into things thinking that you have a 1.5 million dollar budget, so you need that entire 1.5 million to get started. No. What you really need is 100k because that 100k means you have money, and you can be seen legitimately. You can have a casting director. You can actually go talk to cast. They often want to see that you have money in the bank.
Having money in the bank is a first huge step to overcome. Because if you have nothing, it’s based on your talent and your name recognition. If you don’t have name recognition, you may have all the talent in the world, but no one cares. You kind of have to go out there and have something.
TERRORDACTYL is a huge help because it’s a feature that out there. It’s done well, and it can be seen. You can be like, “Here’s what I’ve done. Boom. Go to Amazon, iTunes, DVD November 1st. See it. It exists.” It’s not a theoretical, “We can make a movie.” So that’s a big help.
Once you have that first money in, especially if you’re in LA, you know someone who knows a casting director, you know someone who knows “a name.” If you can talk to them and get them attached to your project, even at a lower number, then it’s very easy to go to a distributor and go to other financiers and say, “Hey, we’re not a risk because we have this thing, this thing, and this thing, and we’ve done this, this, and this.” It’s all about mitigating risk.
How have your VFX skills influenced your career trajectory and the kinds of movies you make?
Very much so. TERRORDACTYL in the grand scheme of things is an anomaly. Hopefully, I have a long career. I kind of always said to myself that I want to make one of two types of movies: I want to make something that’s going to blow your mind, or I want to write something that’s so fun to shoot and so fun to finish that it has to be fun to watch. TERRORDACTYL definitely falls into the latter of those.
I’ve got stuff that’s more like a psychological thriller. I’ve got crime thrillers. Dramas. Visual effects and science fiction often work their way in because, for myself personally, it’s a huge boon that I can actually finish shots; I can show people things. Again, it removes one barrier to trust. You can say, “It’ll look amazing. It’ll look like this. It’ll have this and this and this. It’ll move this way.” But, until you can actually show someone, it’s hard to get that across.
It’s all about the pitch. It’s all about the hustle. But anything you can do yourself to create actual things people can recognize as good work is going to eliminate 70% of your hustle.
Have you use your Chicago network from Columbia College?
I actually met more people from Columbia College out here than I did going to Columbia. Columbia has a big push to get people out here. I had some very good teachers out there, who had a larger understanding to get out of Chicago. You have to go to LA or NY because that’s where the industry lives. I love Chicago. It’s a great city. But you can’t have a career there. You’re basically going to be doing whatever job LA comes out there with.
When did you start writing seriously?
I was attempting to write scripts in grade school – messy crazy things that looked terrible. Parodies of EVIL DEAD 2. Basically it was, “I want to make movies. How do I make movies?” I would just write what I had seen. Then, I did shorts. I did a 30 minute short when I was 16 that did pretty well. But really, I think it was through college, sitting down and having that discipline of getting a script finished.
I think the mistake a lot of people have about writing is that it’s this thing that will come to me at once. Sometimes it does, but more often than not, it is a job. I think Stephen King put it that way. It’s a 9-5 for him. It’s a creative muscle. You have to actually use it.
Working and those first years surviving in LA, how did you balance freelance jobs, making money, and your personal projects?
I can speak for myself, but, again, it’s unfortunately not something that applies to everyone. I came out to LA with a strong technical skill, motion graphics. Then I was able to turn that into visual effects. It’s not a direct path, but there’s a connection.
That’s a thing I tell everyone who’s planning on moving to LA; get a technical skill, even if it’s a small thing.
If you want to do anything involving VFX in your career, at some point learn the most basic level of VFX. There is work out here. You will get jobs. And those jobs will pay you well enough that you can survive. Very often they are not these salaried, long-term jobs; they’re contract jobs. You’re working for ‘x’ amount of months, and then you have time down. You’ve hopefully made enough money in that time that you’re able to invest yourself in writing, creating, and doing these things. It is a balance that a lot of people have to strike.
I’ve been fortunate that doing the jobs for VFX and motion graphics for a long time gave me the skill sets to pull off stuff for myself. I was hired to do jobs where I’m creating creatures and explosions. I’m able to then do it in my movie because I’ve done it already. I can even do it better because I have all this practice and skill. I’ve seen what all the mistakes are and am able to not repeat those.
Did that experience also help you create teams for your projects?
My visual effects company and my skill set is non-traditional; it’s simplified. It’s a team spread out over the country and the world. Usually visual effects companies set up actual offices with hundreds of people in them in one location. It’s usually grueling hours and they go where the subsidiaries and tax incentives are. For a lot of people, that’s really problematic with their families and long-term careers because you’re uprooting yourself every few years. For me, it’s allowed me to have a really strong group of people who are just working where they are working. They’re working from home at a much more reasonable hourly rate. I think we’ve all heard about the insane crunch time that happens for VFX. It’s killed companies. It’s ended careers. It’s awful. Anything you can do combat that and make people feel comfortable doing what they’re doing is super helpful.
The big benefit coming from VFX for writing and directing is knowing not necessarily monetary costs but the man hour cost and the result of asking for a specific thing. If you don’t know in your head how you’re going to achieve “this thing,” it becomes much more complicated.
The problem for a lot of directors is that they don’t understand VFX. VFX are so predominant in every movie. Romantic comedies have 300+ visual effects shots. There isn’t a single movie out there that doesn’t have visual effects in some regard. I challenge you to find one that is 100% in camera with no visual effects.
Tarantino, the guy who hates visual effects, his movies are full of them. Green screen, set extensions, all that stuff. It’s the nature of the industry now. It’s a cheaper and better way to achieve certain things.
When directors don’t understand it, they make the assumption that it’s really easy to do, or they don’t budget for it. Or, they don’t account for the time and the energy it takes to achieve certain things. I’ve dealt with this, when you do something and it looks great, but they come in say, “oh, that’s not all I wanted,” because they weren’t able to communicate what was in their head.
I recently did a short. It was a Star Wars fan film that won an award with the Lucasfilm contest. It’s a grandson and a grandfather bonding over Star Wars and how it brings us all together. I was able to create the movie before shooting the movie in 3D low quality stuff. I did every single shot, every character, every camera move, and what that allows you to do on set is know exactly what the shots are. You know exactly where the camera is going to be. You know exactly what lens you’re going to use. You know what your blocking is. It helps a ton in figuring out all these details. If you’re figuring them out on the day or without any solid physical reference, it’s really hard to lock those things down.
For the next film, I’m planning numerous sequences. I’m actually going to be doing most of the film before we ever get to set – figuring out every single shot, every camera move, the timing. I’m going to edit together this hour-long thing of low quality 3D models in order to communicate with the DP, the production designer, the producers, and the VFX guys how we’re going to have it on set. The sound department will even know where we can put microphones to avoid the camera.
Do you sleep?
Not as much as I should. My wife would prefer if I did a little less work sometimes. That’s the fortunate thing about having a home office.
What’s your best piece of advice to a writer/director who wants to do what you’re doing?
Just do it. There’s a great Nerdist interview with Tom Hanks, talking about when he came up. The process for a young comedian was stand up, then you get cast as a guest star on a sitcom, then you get a sitcom, and then you get a movie. It was very much a process of what I call petitioning before you can produce. You have to ask, you have to beg to get this thing before someone will let you do it. Now, we’re kind of reversed.
You have to produce to petition. You have to make something before anyone will trust you enough that you can ask for something. It’s somewhat screwed up, but the tools we have now allow enough that you can build those things I mentioned earlier to remove those walls to trust. That “oh you can pull this off because you did this thing.” And it means you’re putting in a lot more effort on your own upfront, but it does allow you to show people what’s in your head, and what you want to do. Every phone has a camera. Or the sound thing – even if it’s crappy quality – I’ve seen people do amazing things with the crappiest quality phones and sound. A friend of mine has built his entire career off of that. He’s doing commercials and stuff now. He started out doing shorts with iPhones. There is an opportunity there for a lot of people.
I hear this on every podcast, it’s like just go out and do something. It really is that. Sit down and write.
Something to keep in mind is to know that you’re not infallible. You can get better. When I started writing, when I started doing short stuff, there was a ton of things that I learned along the way that I would not do now, even in TERRORDACTYL a little bit because I wrote that so many years ago. I probably would write that better now. People still enjoy it, and I think it holds up to a certain degree. I’ve matured as an artist, and I think you have to be willing to do that. You can’t assume you’re immediately the best at what you do. You have to be willing to grow and understand that you’re not infallible.
Surround yourself with people who are better at things than you. Spielberg is the perfect example of this. Spielberg will always credit his success to the people he surrounds himself with because the people he’s with are the best at what they do. He’s an amazing director, but he only gets the best DP, the best production designer, the best sound designers, and the best editors. And all those people want to work with him because they all can work to the absolute limit of their talent.