Written by: Becky Sayers
Filmmaking is a learning process. Especially when that process involves shooting a feature film in less than 2 weeks with a nonexistent budget and a crew the size of most bands. When Nick and I embarked on our first feature film, Break, we found ourselves walking uphill both ways in the snow. This forced us to be creative, coming up with all sorts of makeshift rigs, quirky solutions to common production problems, and trying to turn mishaps into serendipitous good fortune. Not everything we tried worked (it turns out that there are reasons for certain filmmaking traditions), but occasionally, our indie bag of tricks helped us out. Without further ado, let’s cut the bag open and explore the more effective tips we learned from Break.
1) Home Depot is your best friend
Film equipment is expensive and difficult to access, even with the magic this is known as the internet. Luckily, home improvement stores offer some of the same equipment or good substitutes at a fraction of the cost. Without the branding you can get gloves, clips, clamps, belts, totes, and all sorts of gear much cheaper.
Spend some time looking at the screws, plates, and pipe fittings. You can find all sorts of connections to make interesting camera and lighting rigs. With Break, we created a cheap jib used to execute small-scale crane-type shots. We used 1/2 inch galvanized pipe adapted to a custom-made tripod plate derived from a conduit fitting screwed to a block of wood. Sounds complicated, but it’s more like playing tetris in a hardware store until you get the right combination.
Another wonderful find in Home Depot is their cheap work lights outfitted with clips that you can attach to almost anything. With the help of the reflectors, they put out a good amount of light at low wattage and they don’t require stands. Even if you do have a set of professional lights, these still come in handy due to their small size, low wattage, and versatility. During a creepy scene in Break, we rigged one of the lights to the ceiling and had it swing back and forth during the scene, creating a dynamic shadow effect.
2) Don’t overlight
Now that you’ve got your home depot lights (and any other pro lights you’ve acquired), be careful not to overuse them. Nothing says amateur more than harsh, intense lighting, especially when shooting in digital mediums. I’m not saying you should err on the side of underexposure. I am saying that you should learn how to control and soften your light sources so that you can obtain proper exposure without making your actors look like they’ve been cast in a horrible daytime soap. To diffuse your light, you can use traditional means like soft boxes, scrims, gels, etc. If you don’t have these things, then here are some budget friendly tips:
- Move your light(s) back. Not only will it spread the light more evenly across the talent, your actor will thank you for not throwing harsh light in their eyes and cooking them alive under the heat.
- Bounce your light off a wall or a white foam board. Indirect light is much softer and great for fill.
- Diffuse your light with household objects. When shooting Break, I turned a fake house plant into what film people call a cucalorus. It breaks up the light and creates interesting shadows that, in this case, resemble moonlight shining through trees.
3) Give them BBQ
Filmmaking typically requires you to work with people…and people have emotions. Don’t treat them like machines or pets. Treat them like the valued contributors they are. Show your appreciation through a fun day off or a special home-cooked meal for lunch. This doesn’t have to be something you spend extra money on, but you do have to take time and effort to show your cast and crew that you care.
For example, with Break we took our lead actor (who drove from California to Washington to be in the movie) to Seattle for a day and showed him around town (EMP, Space Needle, Pike Place Market, etc.) Another day, my father made his famous BBQ ribs for the entire cast and crew, which put sauce-slathered smiles on everyone’s faces.
Invest yourself into creating a compelling soundtrack to accompany the picture you spent all that time shooting, editing, and color grading. A wise sound designer once told me that people are more willing to accept a film with cheap cinematography and visual flaws than they are willing to accept a film with a cheap soundtrack and auditory flaws. Visit an indie film festival and you will undoubtedly see that his words ring true.
Sound can cover up mistakes, sell the impact of a hit, intensify a film’s climactic moments, and establish tone where cinematography is lacking. Score can certainly help achieve these goals, but never underestimate the power of sound effects, ambient noises, and creative choices in sound. As much as you should be designing clever shots, consider designing clever soundtracks that communicate POV and tone. Once we started sound designing Break, a magical thing happened: the style and story started to closer resemble the concept we had imagined.
5) Awesome people
This is the most important component to making a great film. Coincidentally, it’s also the most challenging, no matter the budget. When casting and crewing your film, don’t forget that you actually have to work with these people 8-12+ hours a day. Sheer talent rarely makes up for a bad attitude. Yes, consider the talents of those you are recruiting to be a part of your movie, but also consider their personality fit with the rest of your cast and crew. People with great attitudes who are passionate about the project, will take your ideas to heart and pleasantly surprise you.
Break would not have been made without the amazing friends, family, co-workers, and film students that came together to turn a hazy idea into reality. How is it possible that I shot a feature film for less money than a 20 minute short? The biggest difference between the two is the people involved. Awesome people will make your money go farther, open new doors, and make your movie better.