How Increased Production Values Can Elevate Your Story Without Breaking Your Budget

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