Awesome Sound Design on a Tight Budget, Part 1

It's been said over and over again that film is a visual medium. Please don't buy that crap. Film is a gestalt medium wherein the whole is much more than the sum of the parts. A gestalt is an entity made of many parts that by themselves have value, but when they are put together in a specific, ideal way, the sum value skyrockets. That is what happens when a film is well made.

Sound is a major component of your low-budget film. I'll go out on a limb and say it is co-equal with the visual aspects of film. It's not simple, not trivial, and not easy. It is however, essential. Sound can make or break your film and it's going to take a lot of planning and careful editing to get it right. It's not just the quality of the audio in your film, not by a long shot. It's all about sound design.

You absolutely must nail your sound if you want your film respected and appreciated. How do you do that? Well, let's talk about it. Clearly, I can't solve that problem for you here. But I can point you in some useful directions and perhaps inspire you to think more about the sound component of your movie. Start out believing—with me—that sound is more important to your film than most people ever imagine. That's because the best sound design is inconspicuous, powerful, and often subliminal.


As a baseline, you have to have quality dialog pickup. That really requires a variety of mic options. You might want to consider hidden lavaliere mics attached to a digital recorder tucked in the back of the actor's belt. Consider using an iPhone as a recorder for example. Good dialog capture is essential, because you don't want to pay for ADR.

But that's not really what I mean by sound design. Let's assume you have amazing pickup for dialog. Right? That has to be a given. You would not even consider putting your time and effort into a movie that doesn't have it. Right? Sadly many new filmmakers do just that, and it kills their work in the end. I've seen first-time efforts where understanding the dialog was literally impossible. But, again, this is a quality issue, not a design issue. Design is all about the invisible sound elements that create environment, emotion, transition, and further the story. Proper sound design enhances the dialog, expands the set environment, and sets both mood and place. You can quote me on that.

I get aggravated when I see a filmmaker who pays little attention to sound design, and I stop watching. It has happened too many times. So let's look at what sound design entails.

Your Overall Sound Design
To get started on an overall sound design, study your script and think about how you can employ sound to further your story. Do this early on. Each scene should be blocked out with sound notes. Make note of your thoughts about sound transitions between scenes. I'd keep a separate script just for sound notes.

Note how you might use background music. Think about how you can use ambient sound to enhance a scene's impact without going overboard. Don't forget subtle sounds like footsteps, twigs snapping when walking in the woods, and cars going by. Do you want a particular sound to remain in the background, or do you want it to stand out as it might in battle scenes, or at a shock moment in your horror film? (Please don't make a horror film. Most of them are horrible. It's been done.) This will give you an overall plan. Don't stick to it! You'll find that, as your production rolls along, new ideas and new possibilities will occur to you. Keep making notes. Good judgment helps here, as always.

Let's look at some of the pieces you'll be working with.

Dialog recorded in the wild (any place outside the studio) will always have ambient background sound with it. This is good and bad. Ultimately you want to have total control over all ambient sound in your film. Plan to record the cleanest dialog you can in front of that lovely Victorian row house in San Francisco. Then listen to it, and hear birds, airplanes, cars, a motorcycle blubbering past, and a bee buzzing by the mike at a critical moment. You will need to sweeten these tracks.

Assuming your micing is excellent (suggestions for that will come in part two of this piece), you still need to clean up the dialog. On a budget, find a student with a background in sound editing. She can do a spectrum analysis of the dialog tracks to see what can be done to clean them up.


You'll be amazed how good current Sound editing software is. With a sound application like Adobe Audition, your sound person will be able to surgically remove most of the background noise like pops and airplanes and coughs, giving you relatively clean dialog tracks to begin layering your film's soundscape. A good sound person may do things like enhancing “presence” and making dialog feel more rich. If you can't afford Adobe Creative Cloud membership (you can do it on a month-by-month basis to get access for a very reasonable rate), you can buy the Dexster Audio Editor for $45.00 and it is excellent. It even has spectrum analysis for noise removal. (More suggestions to come in part two.) In any case, we now have some nice, clean dialog tracks—probably duplicates from different mics, including lavaliere, shotgun, and boom, depending on your budget.

This is all the sound that isn't dialog but contributes to the “atmosphere” of the shot. Again, most people don't consciously notice this, but it plays a huge roll in your storytelling. Unfortunately, a common practice is to let ambience lay where it lies. That is, let whatever you pick up at shooting time be the ambiance in the shot. In most situations, this is a truly bad choice. We want to craft the ambience to create a sense of mood and place, so we will use layers of sound to enhance the emotional experience of the film while also giving the dialog a complementary background. Yeah, it's a lot to think about.

A creative use of resources might be to keep the sounds you remove from the original dialog. You can use it later on, perhaps in a different project.

Remember to record about three minutes of ambient sound at your shooting location with no one there. This will give your sound editor a reference. His editing software can reference this ambience track to remove background noise from your dialog. Use the very same track to build background sound elsewhere if you like.

It's just nice to have a collection of ambience tracks that you can sweeten, edit and use for bits and pieces when you need them. I've even used a contact mic screwed into a tree to record strange sounds that can be used at a very low level to sync with what's going on. This can all be done using excellent-but-cheap mics and reasonably priced audio editing software.

How Human Brains Handle Ambience


Our brains are far more complex than we realize. There is a lot going on outside of our awareness that contributes to our gestalt experience. Ambient noise would be extremely annoying if we couldn't put it someplace out of our attention range, so we do. People who live under an airport approach don't really hear the planes passing 500 feet above their houses. It would drive them nuts if they did. What's important in filmmaking is that even though we don't actually "hear" ambience, we do process it. A subliminal part of our brains keeps track of these invisible sounds and feeds our brain with information. This information shapes our emotional experience. For example, walking down a country lane chatting with a loved one, we don't necessarily "hear" the birds chirping, but they do add to the experience by creating a comforting sound environment. Another thing that happens unconsciously is that, as movie viewers, we can differentiate between diegetic and non-diegetic sound without thinking about it. That is, we process sounds that we know the character in the film can hear, as opposed to the parts of the soundscape we know are there for us alone, like the musical score. Diegesis is a word you should know. It refers to the world experienced by the characters in your film narrative. The creative use of non-diegetic visual and audio material to tell your story can be very useful to you.

Let's take a look at crafting a multilayered sound environment

An Example
We have a close up on a pretty woman's head and sad face. She has long hair against an out-of-focus sky background. A slight breeze moves her hair. There are no visual cues as to where she is as she stares distantly at something, the camera slowly pulling back.

The sound:

Layer one – a soft layer of distant surf rolling in.
Layer two – a few sea gulls screeching in the distance.
Layer three – a church bell rings in the distance then stops
Layer four – a soft wind almost unheard blows from time to time
Layer five – a jet plane roars by in takeoff mode.
Layer six – we hear children playing joyously screaming and splashing.
Layer seven – a dog barks once.
[Camera reveals palm tree and surf in bg]
Layer eight – ice tinkling in a glass
Layer nine – Off-screen dialog: Male Voice: “I don't really want to talk about this right now…”
[Camera continues to pull back, revealing she is sitting at a small beach table drinking a mojito with an attractive man her age who is speaking.]

These layers are positioned beneath the dialog, where you feel they strategically do the most good for the scene. That is the art of it. If you can't figure that part out, find someone who can.

You could have a hidden TASCAM DR-05 portable digital recorder, with its quality condenser mics, hidden in the table centerpiece, or you might have lavaliere mikes in place for all the dialog, or both. They plug into the digital recorder or perhaps a shotgun or a boom—or all three.

(Much more on your sound equipment in part two.)

 Tascam digital recorder

Important note (picture this in all caps): You will not use the camera's recorded sound in your film. You will use it only to sync the digital recordings, which are much higher quality.

The Sound Reveal
Okay, what did this background sound alone tell you? Notice how it leads each visual reveal. We continue to hear the dialog layered in over the ambient tracks, and we follow the situation as it develops. You could add in a little visual— maybe the place is called Lonely Jack's On the Beach, but from your camera angle you just see the word: “Lonely” in the background, and it goes with the woman's sad expression. You could also layer in a moody contemporary song about loneliness. 

See how much you don't have to reveal through blatant exposition? I hope you're starting to see how exciting and important sound design is, and how it must work with your whole production to help form that gestalt. It is your best tactic for indicating off-camera action critical to the story, and it's a hell of a transition tool. As a rule of thumb, always place audio transitions just before the visual ones.

Use background sound to presage action to come. For example, our couple having drinks by the ocean are chatting seriously when we hear a subtle commotion off camera. The male looks off to the left to see what's happening. Next we hear a gunshot. She jumps and he ducks in reaction. We hear a woman scream off-camera. Again, we've built an entire sequence of events, clearly understood, without relevant dialog or description and off camera.

So learn to respect and use ambient sound as your friend and one of your best tools for establishing and clarifying both off-camera and on-camera situations.

Didn't plan to use music? Have you ever wondered why everybody uses music? As I type, Love It or List It, a Canadian home remodeling show, is playing on the TV. They are chatting about redoing a house in Vancouver. The background music is tracking the conversation. Now, as the female lead is chatting, the sound designer is laying in musical hits to emphasize her dialog. People watching it are 98 percent unaware. In fact, if you asked a viewer if there is background music played on that show, they would likely tell you a definite “no.”

So how do you use music? Depends. You can go with background music and/or vocal tracks. The latter is very popular in contemporary teen soaps and TV drama.

First, start collecting sound tracks. You should probably subscribe to a license-free music source. But those generic film scores are widely known and a little too generic for me. There are alternatives. Seriously consider visiting and exploring SoundCloud. It's a Swedish sound distribution platform where you can find all sorts of really bad music and a little but of really good music that you can often get permission to use. Some is posted as public domain, but most is copyrighted. Again, people will do remarkable things to be associated with a movie, even yours. There is no explaining why, but use it! Offer film credits.

On SoundCloud, the easily available sound has a download link attached. Type in “ambient” and you should find something called “Dawn Part 2” by MrSuicideSheep. Seriously! It's very good. You can download it. Contact Mr. Suicide before releasing it in your movie. But you can certainly use it for free as a placeholder while you're setting your movie sound up. Example tracks are often used to sketch out a sound design. In most cases, you'll only use a few seconds or minutes of a track.

Now, in the same list, listen to Funieru Mihail's “Best of Buddah Bar Ambient Chill Out.” Some very nice stuff to track in behind the couple as they begin their seaside chat. Very mellow. But you can't download it. You can certainly record it as it plays (if you have the app for that). But if you love it, you should contact the owner and negotiate. Start with screen credit.

So what do you do after we hear the gun shot? You change the music abruptly. Go harsh. In SoundCloud type: “violent” and get a list of upbeat tracks. One of them, “I See Stars – Violent Bounce” has some really disturbing moments, one of which might enhance the emotions after the gunshot. Oddly enough, I typed in “Uplifting” and the first track, “NCS:Uplifting,” was quite disturbing and might even work better. Try different tracks until you get the emotional response you're after. Try it on friends and recruited strangers to get a feel for the general response.

Use a Film Composer  


Now that you have your musicscape sketched out, search out the SoundCloud Film Scoring Network. It was started by Berklee College of Music film-scoring students. It is a treasure trove of cinematic music. Some of it is downloadable and much of it has a “Buy” link. For example, “Glimpses of Eternity” by Lex Dumitru (right), a talented composer, costs only one Euro for specific rights—but not film rights. Lex is a real film composer. Sure, he lives in Bucharest, Romania. You could probably steal his work, but don't. Contact him. He can create a true original film score for you that you very well might be able to afford. Forget screen credit here. Come up with some coin. He's an excellent artist who should be paid and given screen recognition. He'll be worth it. Lex is a good guy, speaks English and may be able to work within your budget. I like his tagline: “Emotion is my craft.”

Hits: Your Baton
Now we get to how you can add emphasis to the music score with hits.

Hits are generally percussive sounds that blend with the background music. I insert them to emphasize action. I also use sound effects (SFX). Video Copilot is an excellent source of information on how to use hits in your work. They have two reasonably priced DVDs that will help: Pro Scores and Sound FX. They come with excellent tutorials on using sound and music to enhance your video by Golden Pixie winner Andrew Kramer.

You can download the BBC sound effects library from many places on the web, but it's not legal to use it in published works because all the sounds are copyrighted and thus require a license for use. So if you can afford it, buy the library. It is pricy. But I use it, along with other resources, to sketch in SFX both as part of the ambience and as hits in the music. I created a short bit of draft animation in After Effects as a demonstration. In it, I change scene a couple of times and use music, hits and SFX to give it a feeling. I tried it several different ways and haven't decided my favorite yet.

This is the first one…it's a bit harsh in places, but does bring a little drama, calm or excitement depending. Then all sound stops and you can see what a difference sound makes. There are some rough visual transitions, but this is just a draft. I'm also including a capture of my After Effects screen.


Note the sound layers and placement. I've closed dozens of animation layers so you can see the sound part.

So go for it. This stuff is all fun and exciting and requires a level of skill and attention that can really show you off as a filmmaker if you take the time to learn and do.

Sound is such a big topic that I've divided this unit into two posts. In the next post, I talk about how you can afford to capture good dialog using inexpensive equipment and how to edit it. That includes all the stuff like affordable software to remove hiss and noise associated with cheap mics as well as jets and coughs and motorcycles going by. I'll show how to mic up your actors and where to find what you need. I even have a short piece on how to make your own decent lavaliere mikes if you can't afford to buy or rent them. I'll also talk about other hardware you may need that you can afford and how to use it all in an iOS pipeline in the wild with no line power.

I hope you're finding these posts helpful. If you have any suggestions on sound or any other part of this series, please post your thoughts below. We all appreciate your input. We are a community and we need to support each other.

While you're waiting for part 2, check this link out. Get involved. And go over this slide presentation.


Seven Ways to Save Money After NAB

The big story at NAB is always workflow, but everyone knows that money and efficiency are inextricably linked. The latest and greatest technology is undeniably exciting — but so are the price breaks that can bring high-end gear within reach of a budget-conscious production. Here are some of the price cuts and other impressive deals that caught our eye at NAB 2015.

Assimilate Scratch 8.3


With early support for high-resolution finishing on Red Digital Cinema cameras, Assimilate Scratch was one of the original leaders in 4K workflow. Competition is heavy and desktop computing power is increasing, which means that high-end software like Scratch can be had for a fraction of what it once fetched. At just over $50/month for powerful software that once demanded tens of thousands of dollars, it almost feels like stealing.

Was: $5,000/year
Now: $650/year

Atomos "Bare Bones" Shogun, Ninja 2, Ninja Blade and Samurai Blade


Atomos is trying to save filmmakers some bones with new "bare bones" versions of its recording systems. The savings aren't huge, but for users who already have Atomos accessories in their toolbox, the new reduced prices makes it less expensive to get outfitted with multiple recording systems. A complete "battle ready" system will be available at the original $1,995 price, but the "bare bones" Shogun comes stripped down to an SSD media case, AC power supply, and soft carrying case for $1,695. At the low end of the line-up, a bare-bones Ninja 2 sells for just $395.

Was: $1,995 for Shogun
Now: $1,695 for Shogun Bare Bones

Avid Media Composer First


Avid isn't giving away the farm — it's clear that pro editors will still need the full-blown Media Composer Software package to get any work done — but it is looking to raise its profile, especially among younger editors who may gravitate naturally to Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro, with a feature-limited version of its standard-bearing NLE that stores its projects (but not media) in the cloud.

Was: $1,299 for a perpetual license or $49.99/month for Media Composer Software
Now: Free feature-limited version

Blackmagic Design Ursa


Blackmagic Design solidified its reputation as the most prolific camera manufacturer out there, introducing new designs including the Blackmagic Ursa Mini as well as a new version of the full-sized Ursa with a 4.6K Super 35 sensor. At the same time, it cut the price of its existing Ursa models by $1,000, making them a better deal for shooters who don't feel like they'll miss those extra pixels. 

Was: $5,995 (EF) or $6,495 (PL)
Now: $4,995 (EF) or $5,495 (PL)

DJI Ronin M


If you've had your eye on DJI's popular Ronin stabilizing gimbal but balked at its weight, the new and less expensive Ronin M may be the model you're looking for—especially if you're just looking to fly a smaller camera like a mirrorless or a DSLR. The Ronin M weighs just five pounds (compare to the more-than-nine-pound Ronin) and can carry up to eight pounds of camera (versus the 16 pound payload of its predecessor). Factor in a price cut that should bring the Ronin M below the $2,000 mark, and you've got a product that makes more sense to more DPs.

Was: $2,499-$2,999 for the original Ronin before NAB
Now: $1,999 (per No Film School)



JVC has carved out a piece of the market selling cleverly designed cameras that aim for a strong balance between performance and pricing. Their cameras may not make the prettiest pictures, but their clients don't need footage that passes muster in a high-end DI suite while an A-list director strokes his chin thoughtfully and asks for more teal and orange. For those customers, JVC's highly affordable 4KCAM line-up, first announced in 2014, has finally arrived — with modest price cuts, to boot. The GY-LS300, with a Super 35 sensor and MFT lens mount, is the flashy one, but the other two are strong offerings at even lower prices.

Was: Announced at $4,450, $2,995, and $2,495
Now: Shipping at $4,395, $2,995, and $2,195

Pixar RenderMan (noncommercial)


Life got more interesting for aspiring animators with the announcement last year that Pixar's RenderMan would be free for noncommercial use. But it might help out working artists, too, who will be allowed to use a free copy of RenderMan at home for personal learning or to try out ideas and techniques for a paying gig—you just can't use it to generate the final content for a commercial project. If you create media for a church or other nonprofit organization, the rules get murkier—see Pixar's FAQ for more details.

Was: $495 per license
Now: Free for noncommercial use only

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VideoBlocks Opens Direct Sale Stock Video Marketplace to Public at NAB

VideoBlocks officially opened its new stock-footage marketplace to the public. Contributors of footage receive 100 percent of the revenue for their submitted work which translates to savings for stock footage customers, the company said.

The popular subscription-based seller of royalty-free stock video, backgrounds and After Effects templates announced the marketplace in January and is launching it with some 200,000 available premium clips curated from its top-level contributor community. 

Unlike many other stock footage sources, VideoBlocks takes no commission on marketplace sales, with the company says allows it to pass a savings of about $30 per HD download on to the customer. To date, VideoBlocks users have downloaded more than 30 million video clips from the site's existing Unlimited Library.

In order to buy clips directly within the new members-only marketplace, users must first subscribe to the main VideoBlocks library. Packages are $79 per month and $99 per year for unlimited downloads. A premium subscription of $198 per year includes access to 4K content, batch downloading and Dropbox integration. Current marketplace prices are $49 per HD clip, $199 for 4K footage, and $19–$49 for a template.

Watch Video of Furious 7’s 2nd-Unit Heroes Free-Falling over Arizona


If you thought your last shoot was hairy, spare a moment to consider the camera operators who captured a key action sequence in freefall for Furious 7.

On Furious 7, which opens in U.S. theaters tonight, the idea during production was to capture as much of the film's oversized action as possible in camera, keeping CG to a minimum. And so, when it came time to shoot a scene where the film's heroes parachute — with their cars, of course — onto a mountain road to hold up a convoy, the decision was made to shoot actual cars being dropped out of an actual airplane.

Watch the scene here:

Under the supervision of second-unit director and stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos, stunt coordinators Andy Gill and Jack Gill, and second-unit cinematographer Igor Meglic, the action unit went airborne for the first section of the film's "snatch-and-grab" caper sequence. Three aerial camera flyers — JT Holmes, Luke Aikins, and Jon Devore — jumped out of a Lockheed C-130 cargo plane flying over Arizona at 10,000 to 12,000 feet, with Red Epics and what look like GoPros strapped to their heads to grab footage of the cars that were dropped along with them. (The majority of the film was shot with the ARRI Alexa XT digital and ARRICAM LT film cameras.)

Watch all the looney second-unit action:


Vin Diesel famously predicted that Furious 7 will win a Best Picture Oscar at next year's Academy Awards. It's hard to see that happening. But if the Academy were to add a category for stuntwork, well then, Furious 7 would be a prime contender.

Seven Production-Design Tips for Low-Budget Filmmakers

Among the most neglected key elements in low-budget films are production design and art direction. That's a problem because production design impacts all aspects of your project. It is the detailed blueprint you follow to make your vision come alive.

I've been fortunate to spend significant time with some of the world's top production designers, and they are all truly amazing people. We formed a group called 5D Institute, which became the World Building Institute, at USC. It's all about immersive film design. Read about it.

Film school students at least tend to make an attempt at overall design, but self-taught independents often are so wrapped up in the story and technical stuff they forget about the aesthetics. You don't have to be a production designer to at least put some thought into what the camera is seeing, over and above the action. My purpose here is encourage you to spend more effort on getting your overall design right without breaking the bank.

Your art department will most likely have the production designer and art director combined in one person, who may also become set decorator and set builder. Do not neglect this part of the project.

Great production design includes aesthetic psychology, my term for studying the impact of design on audience emotional experience. It can seriously aid in your storytelling efforts. Good design works in cahoots with set decoration, lighting, and camera work to create the mood necessary for your story. If you don't do it well, you can easily creep out your audience … and not in a good way.

The environment where your action takes place has a significant impact on the audience's emotional response. Sure, I know. Yopu don't have a budget for it. But that is no excuse. Production design costs you nothing … if you organize it yourself. Set decoration can be done on a shoestring … if you're clever. It may involve some social engineering to get volunteers to do the work and artful negotiation to get the stuff you need.

Early Design Drawing

This is a design from production designer and storyboard artist Greg Chown

I once was assistant art director on an NHK film project that had a fair budget, but the art director loved to scrounge. He managed to borrow — for free, mind you — about 4000 plastic flowers to decorate a child's fantasy garden set. We built the set out of Styrofoam blocks we shaped with rasps and blades. Oh god, that was awful work with styro-grit in your hair and eyes and clothes. It looked beautiful. But that is another story.

Often, simple production design entails securing a location, cleaning it up, putting some pictures on the walls, arranging furniture, and setting up the lighting. Sometimes it involves a little painting. It goes without saying that you need to have permission to paint anything, and you can always paint it back when you're done.

But you don't want to limit yourself to mundane locations that happen to be available, like your brother's apartment, or the University Gym. Try to find places where you can set up and leave up securely for the time you'll be shooting.

Here are seven ways you can increase production values through ingenious production design.

1. Location Scouting
You won't be hiring a pro location scout. Do it yourself.

Getting the right locations is part of your overall production design. I know you have lots of things to do, but this is important. No one knows your vision like you do. Try to give yourself several days to find nearby locations that can be used as is. For example, every city and almost every town has a few real Gothic locations. Be careful of graveyards—as awesome as they can be, people get pissed off if you film there without permission, and that is not easy to obtain. Find churches and get permission. Don't do gross, bloody scenes there. Universities are rotten with Gothic locations used by the big boys — and why not you, too? Just go through channels. If you live in Europe you have awesome locations everywhere.

Who would expect a location like this in Connecticut?  
Who would expect a location like this in Connecticut?

Even if your script doesn't call for it, think about finding interesting locations that won't detract from the action. For example you could have two lovers meeting in front of a lovely Victorian home or by a mountain stream. This sets a feeling for place. There are more cool houses and streams than you'd think, and it's usually a piece of cake to ask the owner if he or she minds you shooting on the sidewalk in front of the house. Parks make interesting places to shoot as well, but if you have recognizable people in the background, you need to get their waiver, especially for kids. Use good sense.

Locations of natural beauty is one reason Vancouver is such a popular place to shoot. But no matter where you live, there are interesting natural places to shoot. Research them. Okay, the Midwest can be a challenge, but there you will find woods and streams, and you may have to make do with a sunset scene in a farmer's field with a horse in the background. That could actually be killer romantic.

Be creative. Consider offering a product placement in your movie for permission to shoot, let's say, in a gorgeous vineyard or amusement park. Having some dialogue in a farmer's market might fit your needs. Perhaps agree to flash their logo or sign prominently in your film. Remember, bad location choices usually lead to audience boredom. They can kill a great performance. Use your head.

2. Build your sets to create the mood you need
If you need a castle, build one. Seriously. For under a grand, you can build an awesome stone castle interior using ingenuity and vacuformed plastic modules and components. There are companies that maintain a stock of vacuformed set pieces. Cool stone walls come in 3.5-by-11-foot lengths. Gothic windows and architectural components can be assembled into believable castle interiors, or barns or caves or even sewer tunnels. With creative lighting, they can give you amazing believability. Here's a link that can get you started looking.

Such prop pieces are available on-line at very reasonable prices. 

Such prop pieces are available on-line at very reasonable prices.

It does help if you don't just paint the stone with whatever paint you can get your hands on. Here's a tip. For stone walls as well as aged exteriors of all sorts, Gesso the surfaces. If you can't afford that, paint them all in flat white. Next, get yourself a collection of alcohol-based shoe dyes. Seriously. You dilute the dyes with alcohol and spray them on the rock. Layer similar colors to indicate sun bleaching on wood. On rock, try layering browns amd grays, and near ground add some green for moss or algae. To imply subtle plant growth in cracks, use model railroad terrain plants.fa688e41d6dc2de1020a960476126c9b

An old but useful trick is to dust all the crevices with black tempera powder, then lightly spray with water. This will add shadow depth. Experiment. I learned by casting blocks of plaster of Paris in rubber molds made for scale railroading, and then making them look real. Experiment.

Another trick I discovered uses iron dust. I got mine from a place that mills truck brakes. They gave it to me free. After painting a faux concrete styro wall, I sprayed on cheap hair spray (don't use the good stuff) and while it was wet I sprinkled some iron dust over it. Then I sprayed the iron with an instant rust solution you can buy in faux finish departments. The results can be amazing. The iron rusts and it runs down the paint, making your prop wall look ancient. This approach is great for horror films. These are just fun examples.

3. Get professional advice
Depending on the kind of set you need, you might want a real designer. Social engineering can come in here very well. You can sometimes get an interior designer to come in and offer you two hours of consultation for a screen credit. You can get a hell of a lot of advice in two hours. You may have to sweeten the deal with a walk on or extra position. I recently paid an excellent designer $175/hour just to come in and offer ideas on how to come up with a Zen contemporary interior look. Remember, this is not a no-budget film. You can do this.

Often, you can get student designers to work with your for their resume. Again, a little charm goes a long way. Offer the same screen credit. It costs you nothing. They can often give you advice on lighting as well. Too many low-budget films give little thought to professional lighting, and it makes a huge difference. We'll talk about color-grading later in this series, but a well-lighted scene gives the color-grader nice material to work with, and your final look will benefit grandly.

4. Use lighting as part of the set design
Invest in good lighting. It can hide a multitude of sins. It's not cheap, but it can be reasonable. Remember, good set lighting sets the mood, directs audience attention, and makes an ordinary set look extraordinary. At a minimum, your DP needs to know the basics of three-point subject lighting and have an eye for it. Work with your DP. You need a grip in charge of lighting, and you need to make sure they have an eye for it, too.Quick Lighting Tips from Full Sail 

Quick lighting tips from Full Sail

Consider atmospherics. In a night scene shot under a street light, enhance the visuals with mist or fog to enhance the light beams. Camera filters can help here. Flares can be added in post, but should be part of the plan up front. The DP can oversee it all, but you need a grip who honchos it. Good lighting can make a bad film fair and a good film great.

Here are some good resources to get you familiar with lighting aspects you may not have considered.

Creative scene lighting.

An excellent 3 point quickie from Full Sail Film School.

And here's a DIY kicker to the video above.

5. Consider shot composition as part of design.
On a low-budget film, people wear different hats. Your DP and director (you?) need to be aware of shot composition at all times. It's part of the overall production design. Tighten up those shots and keep the camera moving, but make sure it has something interesting to look at. That's one reason location is so important. You don't want blank walls and open space in the background while shooting action. Move in for the close shot if the background doesn't serve your purpose. Remember, everything must be focused on the story. A big wood fence behind the actors in a fairly wide shot will not serve you well.

When designing a shot, remember two rules: the rule of thirds and the golden spiral. They are related. The rule of thirds says an image should be mentally divided into nine equal parts. Visualize the scene divided into thirds horizontally and vertically—that is, two equally spaced horizontal lines and two equally spaced vertical lines. Important key composition elements should be placed along these lines or their intersections. Aligning your subject with these points/lines creates visual tension and interest. I would add that it also establishes an aesthetic comfort level for the audience. Many cameras have a thirds grid you can pop up.

Keep in mind Fibonacci’s ratio (aka the golden spiral, phi, or divine proportion). You should know this stuff; I'm just reminding you how important it is. If you look at a lot of student and low budget productions you'll notice that people who should know better tend to forget it. Here is a very nice video look at the golden mean on Youtube.

The rule of thirds is really simple to use, but it isn't always the best way to go. It takes an artist to determine which rule to use—and when to ignore it.

Also your shots should be composed with depth in mind. Talking heads against a wall are way too common. You can create atmosphere by focusing on your actors while having mild, slightly out-of-focus action in the background. Keep some perspective lines in mind as you compose your shots.

Juxtaposition can be be obvious and not subliminal. Ironic juxtaposition costs nothing and can seriously add to your film. Off the top of my head, I'm visualizing a road-rage situation where one car has run the other off the road into a field next to a barn. Behind the barn is an auto garage. The word garage is written in very large white block letters on a dark weathered background. But from the camera's POV, The G and A are both blocked by a barn behind the two cars. So all we see in the top right sweet spot is these large white letters, perhaps slightly out of focus: RAGE. Most people won't actually register it consciously, but they will unconsciously and it will add to the tension in your scene. You have to be cunning with these shots. Do not overuse  them and keep them as subtle as possible.RAGE

Brilliance is in the details. Professionals pay attention to all the details, but amateurs rarely do. Push the extra mile. Don't be sloppy. Nobody said making a movie was going to be easy. It definitely is not. That's why there are so many failed filmmakers out there. You don't want to be one, and your key to success is doing everything right.

6. Aesthetic Psychology
This is my term. I'm a psychologist, so I give myself license. But I googled it and there is a journal: Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts.

Every successful filmmaker knows that a great film leaves a variety of emotional impressions on the audience. That is by design. It falls into two distinct camps. The screenplay dynamics create emotional responses. But what is often neglected is that the production itself enhances those emotions, as with the RAGE sign. The use of color, noir lighting, positioning of scene elements, scene behavior (yup, scenes can behave—for example, imagine the effect when a downpour begins just as you hit a precise moment in the action.) Just because you are low budget doesn't mean you are low creativity. Do not settle for anything less than fabulous. Cut every scene that isn't exactly what you want. Watch with an impartial eye. What do you think of the way your film looks? Is it intense, exciting, dark, creepy, boring…and was it intended to be what it is? I cannot believe the crap that people put out, thinking it's movie gold.  I want to smack them upside the head; do not be one of them.

So It's probably worth your time to familiarize yourself with some things we have learned about aesthetics and then you can apply this to your Production Design…good ideas here.

If you're interested in further research on this topic, here is an interesting presentation on the psychology of aesthetics.

And then there is this study of neuroaesthetics from Marcos Nadal.

7. Print your props
Rapid advances in 3D printing make it possible to design props in Autodesk 3ds Max or NewTek Lightwave and have them printed via online services. The cost is modest if you don't need real metal, etc. This is a way you can get the exact prop you need. For example, let's say your female lead wears an iconic or mystical pendant. You could go to a jewelry designer and spend a small fortune having one made…or your production design department can draw it up and have a 3D student model it in Max and you send it off to the 3D printing Company.print unique iconic items for your characters to wear. 

Here is an example online resource:

You can print all sorts of weapons, including a light saber. Some companies have tons of props available pre-printed. In fact, the latest version of Robocop wears a 3D-printed suit.

You can send off your 3D designs in .stl format to online 3D printing companies  

The trick is to make them look believable, and that involves weathering in most instances. Google ways to weather objects. In addition to the gesso/stain trick above, it can involve such things as dry-brushing, worn decals, tea stain, paint chipping. The latter can be achieved by painting a base coat, say rusty metal, then spraying with hairspray again — so useful — and then painting on the top coat. Dry with a hot hair dryer. You can then use a metal toothbrush on the dry top coat to chip off bits and pieces, revealing the rusty metal undercoat.

These are just a few ideas to get you started thinking creatively. Google is your friend here. My purpose is to inspire you to go deeper into production design on your own project. It's not about big budgets. It's about creative application of what you have and what you can scrounge. It's about thinking aesthetically on each shot. It's about working smart, making the acting, storytelling and technical stuff interact with your created environment to enhance the audience experience.

Okay, I've started working on a piece that's all about sound design. I used to be a sound engineer at American University, and I've been talking to sound professionals as well. I think sound design is absolutely critical to a movie's success, and I have a ton of tips on what you need and how you might do it all.

Previously in this series:
So You Want to Make a Movie
Casting Your Low-Budget Movie

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