You don't want your micro-budget film to look like what it is. Shooting pro-style is essential. Fortunately, you live in the age of affordable enabling electronics and DIY. If you look at shooting as a utilitarian task necessary to get your ideas in the can, you will fail. I'm not going to mince words—you will be wasting your time, and you might be an idiot. Just sayin'…
Shooting is an art. It requires creative planning and execution. Micro-budget filmmakers have an advantage, in a way. You are forced to use small, light, affordable equipment, which gives you remarkable shooting flexibility. Director Sean Baker told me he's been able to go out in public and shoot a scene; and the passers-by don't even know he's shooting because everybody is shooting something with iPhones these days. People don't pay any attention.
I spoke with Sean, whose Sundance hit Tangerine was shot entirely on the iPhone 5s with an anamorphic lens. It will be released in theaters by Magnolia Pictures on July 10, following a successful festival run. His total shooting micro-budget is under wraps, but it would surprise you. Believe me, if you have talent and put in the creative and physical and mental effort, your dream of creating a releasable film is not pure fantasy.
As for shooting with the iPhone, he said that small cameras (DSLRs, for example) and iPhones let you shoot in public with a very low profile. He mentioned that you sacrifice depth of field with the iPhone, but with the anamorphic adapter from Moondog Labs, you can definitely achieve a cinematic look. You'll amass lots of small savings. For example, the small form factor enabled him to shoot in an open diner without having to rent the entire place and fill it with extras.
He acknowledged that the smart phone has advantages and disadvantages, but having shot the entire film on his phone, he's obviously found ways to make it work. “The sound equipment is what people noticed," he said. "It's a lot bigger and more involved and obvious. You don't want to skimp on sound.” (See? I spoke with wisdom in my sound blog.)
Okay, I'll assume you'll be using a DSLR to shoot because of its lens options and other advantages, but you might consider collecting additional footage with your iPhone or GoPro Hero from different angles. These will give you shooing flexibility. If you shoot with the iPhone, consider getting the Filmic Pro App as well as the Moondog anamorphic device to get widescreen, truly cinematic results. More below.
Tristan Pope shooting Romance in NYC
A Few Rules to Shoot By
Here are some general rules to keep in mind when setting up takes.
Rule 1: If you can afford a DP, or can con one into working with you, do it. If he or she is good, you will not regret it. Shooting is both art and science, and there are likely more variables than you can take into account by yourself.
Rule 2: Be careful not to overuse trick shots. You probably want a few for interest, but if you do too many, they lose their impact, become hokey, and actually diminish your film.
Rule 3: Keep your camera moving. Lock-off shots have their place, but in general keep moving with dolly shots, Steadicam-style shots, drone shots, tracking shots, crane shots and sliders. Avoid handheld unless you're making a point—shaky shots annoy audiences. All of these can be shot with improvised and DIY equipment, especially using three-axis active gimbals.
Rule 4: Interesting angles are nice from time to time, but your audience is used to and expects reasonably conventional, well composed shots.
Rule 5: Short talking-head shots can be locked off, but long ones should be smooth tracking takes from the front and and back (mix it up) while subjects are walking, or otherwise locomoting.
Rule 6: Choose your lenses carefully. Each lens brings its own feel to your shoot. Get to know what those feels are. A zoom lens is not always (or even often) your best choice, but it can come in handy, especially in impromptu shots in public where you can change focal length quickly to grab something serendipitous.
Rule 7: Watch your lighting! You'll likely be shooting on location, so time your shots to take advantage of the sun's position. Remember that the golden hour is fabulous, but also fleeting. It's probably a good Idea to shoot flat so that the look can be refined in post. Natural light can be amazing, but use fill where you need it, making it look natural. DIY lighting is a good place to save money these days.
Rule 8: Speaking of locations, pick places you can dress before shooting. Not a rule, but try to shoot an empty plate of your locked shots so your editor can clone out when the boom dips into the frame or a hawk swoops through your shot. On that note, also remember that it's better to be stuck with the boom in the shot than to have lousy dialog coverage.
Rule 9 Generally a two-camera shoot will be better than a one-camera shoot, and that's a good reason to have an extra camera on hand—and you always do with your iPhone.
Rule 10 Avoid distracting action or awkward perspective in your shots. If there is action in the background, make sure it helps to tell the story.
You don't want too many locked-off, shots and hiring a full-bore Steadicam operator is expensive. So is the equipment. Don't do it—not on your budget. One of the fantastic advantages of using small cameras and smartphones is that you can get shots that are impossible with the big Panavision cameras. Okay, the resolution isn't as high and depth of field can be a problem (fix it in post), but with the new stabilization options for small cameras you can shoot professional tracking and crane shots with ease on a tight budget. This opens all sorts of creative doors for you. There are even highly affordable specialized stabilizer platforms for iPhone and GoPro. I like the Feiyu 3 Axis G4 Steady platform on a long “Ultra Reach” super light carbon fiber poll [pictured] that provides a means to simulate moderate crane shots beautifully.
Another alternative that only recently became available is the cheap three-axis controller and motor system. For example, you can buy a kit from Hobby King for a fully stabilized, motorized Turnigy camera rig for a camera like the Canon EOS 7D Mk II, with its interchangeable lens options and excellent image quality. You can even get older Canon EOS-M bodies on eBay for less than $200.
Turnigy Pro Stedi-hand with 3 Axis electronics.
If your budget is really tight and you're handy, make your own excellent actively stabilized camera rig using the AlexMos three-axis gimbal control and motorized camera rig kit from Turnigy (also Hobby King). The rig with motors is about $148 and the 32-bit AlexMos controller will run about $170. I've seen clones for even less. You'll have an amazing platform. It takes a little bit of technical knowhow, but It's not difficult and you'll near the equivalent of a $7,000 pro stabilized rig. You can buy a complete unit with a mic mount for about $500. You might want to rent the superb MoVI rig (upwards of $8,000 to buy), but I'd go the less expensive route until my films started making money.
A note on Drones
I'm assuming I don't need to say much about the very cool uses of drones for shooting, but in the next section I'll mention a few uses you many not have thought of. I built my own high altitude drone aerial camera rig for about $3,200. I don't recommend going that route. Mine is a bit of overkill and takes two operators, a pilot and a camera person. It's more than you likely need. I've been checking out the DJI Phantom 3. It has a really nice camera, three-axis stabilization and a cost of about $1,300. It's their low end drone, but it is amazing in performance and affordable. There are a number of alternatives on the market; take the time to see which one works best for you.
A well-stabilized drone camera rig, like one of the products from DJI, can be used in very interesting ways to make unexpected shots. For example, let's say you have two people walking under a beautiful trellised walkway toward the camera, talking. Instead of making it a dolly or Steadicam shot, try having your drone fly in front of them as they walk. It's as steady as handheld, so nobody will know, until—and here's the cool part—they finish the dialog and suddenly the drone zooms away from under the walk cover and upward in an unexpected reveal of the big picture. Bad guys are coming to get these lovers and we see them approaching from our sky view.
Also, you can set a drone in the sky—like a jib but higher—and have it pretend to be a locked-off camera filming some action below. The audience will wonder how you found a camera position there. Similarly, you can film mountain climbing from a steady position 20 feet out from the cliff. Use your creative instincts and create interesting shots…just don't overdo it.
You can simulate crane shots with your GoPro or iPhone on a Feiyu setup with the extension poles. Hold the camera about 10 to 12 feet in the air and keep it slowly moving to cover your shot, then dip down to actor level for dialog. Another excellent use is for low-angle shots. I know it's been used too much, but it works. Follow a character from behind, shooting just their feet as they lead us into a new scene. For example, you open on a wide shot of the bustling street market, you cut to a high shot of a young woman walking from above and behind, and then you lower your camera on a pole until it is aimed at her unusual shoes. Follow as she walks through the market and into a bakery. Keep shooting as you pull back to reveal her approaching the main counter with all sorts of interesting goodies on display. She hands the baker a suspicious package.
You will be forgiven for using this trite move because people accept it as being in high-end movies. No two are alike, so maybe no one will even notice that it's been done before. Remember, it's easy to make this this a long, boring take, but you can be creative and keep it entertaining and informative while forwarding your story.
Here is an inspiring short video using the MoVI camera rig that you can think about when using a less-expensive rig. Build on the ideas you see here, adding your own twists and improvements. Next year, you'll be able to afford an actual MoVI.
Another fairly inexpensive way to capture amazing shots is to rent a Segway. In L.A. you can get them set-up for camerawork, but a regular Segway can be used if you head-mount your Feiyu-stabilized GoPro and use your head as the rig! (Avoid using the software stabilization in your camera. It's not at the pro level you need for credibility.)
Overall, you want to be shooting smooth, clean takes that will carry your story forward and make your editor happy. Just make sure you've planned 80% of it well. Sean Baker tells me he often gets shots he didn't plan that work for the final. Well, that too. But planning really helps keep your movie organized, especially out-of-sequence shoots.
Just for fun, here's a behind-the-scenes piece about another movie still in production, shot on an iPhone 6: Romance in New York.
Here's the trailer.
Shoot with a Partner
Even though you are shooting with a small camera, there will be times when your cameraperson could use a hand. When the camera assistant isn't helping, she can be shooting from a different angle, giving your film editor lots of good raw material for composing a visual symphony.
One of the really cool things a camera assistant can do is take the camera on a pass-through. For example, the Feiyu-mounted GoPro (or iPhone) on the long pole can be pretty versatile. For example, you're on roller blades, following a car pulling up to a stop with a pretty girl driving. Roll alongside, filming, and push the camera-on-pole slowly through the open passenger window as she opens the door and leaves the car. Follow her out the door, where your assistant is waiting out of sight to take the pole and keep the shot going. She walks towards an office building and the camera raises up to 15 feet off the ground and stops shooting as she enters. This could be a fabulous way to reveal action that doesn't look at all low-budget.
Long takes are all the rage these days and, when well-planned and executed, can add credibility to your film. Look at Birdman. Almost the entire movie in one take … well, it was in dozens of takes, but it was edited to look like one take. You get the idea.
Shoot for a Film Look
Several factors go into getting an authentic film look. It's not just the color grading.
It's an investment, but you need that 1.33 horizontal squeeze on your DSLR to get a widescreen cinematic look. True anamorphic lenses are very expensive for DSLR cameras, but you can get an anamorphic adapter much cheaper. They're a pain in the ass to use, as you have to focus both lenses. Nevertheless, It's a cheap way to get stunning 2.39:1 anamorphic footage.
When using a DSLR, one thing often overlooked is that with some anamorphic adapters you need to have the camera in 4×3 format when using an Anamorphic lens. At 16×9, the squeeze comes out a bit off. Some of the newer adapters, like the SLR Magic Anamorphot 1.33X–50 anamorphic lens attachment, are designed to shoot properly using the entire 16×9 image plane. So read the instructions.
The Moondog Labs lens for the iPhone is outstanding. Moondog Labs is run by a pair of optical engineers, Julie Gerstenberger and Scott Cahall. Scott has also designed mobile phone cameras, HUDs and 3D visualizers for some of America's top optics companies. The price of these lenses is extremely reasonable, considering they are excellent anamorphics.
One thing that you might not think about is the anamorphic lens flares that give night shots a cinematic quality you won't ever find in normal lenses. They can be added in post but, as we all know, ”keep it simple” is the rule for post.
Set Shutter Speed and Frame Rate
If you've ever looked at a low budget film that was shot using normal video parameters, it looks wrong. There is no motion blur and it's too perfect. You definitely don't want that.
I recommend shooting at 24fps (24p), which is how emulsion film was shot. Now you need to adjust your shutter speed to get a little motion blur. As a rule of thumb, set your shutter speed at twice your frame rate. That means a shutter speed of 1/50 is just about right for 24p.
Next, control your depth of field (DOF) with your aperture setting. This is one reason that it's easier to get film look with a DSLR than an iPhone—faster lenses give you more control over your DOF. You should already know that larger aperture openings mean shorter depth of field. Don't overdo it, but a compressed DOF, especially on close ups, adds to that cinematic feel. You can fake it in post for your iPhone shots, but it's not quite as effective.
If you don't do much shooting, you might wonder: How in hell do I control the light if I have a fixed frame-rate, a fixed shutter-speed and a fixed aperture? Good question. Fortunately, all DSLRs let you control the ISO, and there is your answer. You lose control of the grain, but grain can be good.
In bright daylight at full aperture you're likely to be overexposed, even at the lowest ISO. Thus, you'll have to sacrifice depth of field to get a proper exposure. That's just the way it is.
DSLRs usually have all sorts of in-camera compensation and looks. I recommend that you not use them, shooting with flat, neutral settings. I believe it is always better to let your color grader tweak the look in one of the excellent color grading programs like Red Giant Color Suite on PC or DaVinci Resolve on the Mac, where they have tons of options. (This opinion is not universally held.) Color grading is absolutely essential to make your mini-budget film look high-end. It's something you have to study, so it's not a quick fix. It takes talent and knowledge.
One reason I talk a lot about stabilization is that it is a major component of the film look. You can use Warp Stabilization in Premiere Pro or After Effects, for example, but it's better to give your film editor already smooth, professional footage.
Here's a simplistic view that you can work from: Dark green or blue tones convey a serious or dispirited tone. A warm palette suggests happiness. (If it's too warm, heat.) Monochrome palettes can suggest flashbacks or dream sequences.
In between there are all sorts of “looks,” and the art is to get it right for the mood of your film. A lot of young filmmakers tend to overdo it in this department. Use good judgment and a bit of restraint. The person who does your color grading is very important. Get a colorist with experience. The software grading possibilities are endless and include not just color, but atmosphere. Sparkles on water and dreamy sequences in the sunset can all be enhanced to be so much better than reality—which is part of what we do.
If you must, use the automatic “film look” settings to get you in the ball park, but I suggest just using them as a starting point and adding something personal. Essentially you can get a fairly cinematic look by tweaking the shadows to the blue side and the highlights to the warm side. Then slightly brighten the highlights and pull down the shadows until it looks right. This is just a very rough idea of what grading is about.
Finally, a cinematic look has to take into account aspect ratio. Typically, a ratio of 21:9 (2.40:1) looks cinematic. 16:9 is easier, but looks less cinematic. This is why Sean Baker chose to shoot this ratio for Tangerine.
Should I Shoot 4K?
That's a big question. Everything is going 4K, or so it seems. But there are many disadvantages for the micro-budget project, not the least of which is the massive amount of expensive storage necessary. Add that to the fact that absolutely no one but an OCD techie with binoculars in the audience will see any difference. It's all the rage, as all new technical advances are, but my position is that you absolutely should not shoot 4K if you are an indie producer. If you are on a micro-budget, it would be insane. Moreover, many of the gains you get by filming at 4K will be lost in the compression steps that take place before your film even reaches the majority of its viewing audience.
And think about post. Handling all that data is expensive in terms of time and equipment. It takes longer to render your finals after editing and post-production tweaking. It can kill you. You'll have all this data and no money to do post left because you assumed 4K would cost about as much as 2K. That's not going to happen. Unless and until 4K becomes a requirement to get a distribution deal, your best bet is to avoid it completely.
There is no way I could adequately cover shooting a micro-budget film effectively here in one blog entry. What I hope I've done is make you consider various aspects and possibilities that you may not have thought of before. With Google, you can gather information to teach yourself more of you need to know. There is a website designed specifically to support self-taught film makers with discussions and resources: www.mentorless.com. Take a look if you're sailing on your own.
This series continues. I've written drafts of several more entries, and I'm not sure which I will do next. But I'm in the mood for opening titles. You may not realize it, but you can grab or lose the audience with your opener. I'll tell you that I have clicked off several movies when I hated the opening titles. That mean's it is of particular importance to low-budget filmmakers because it's not about big expense. It's about creating an opener that will grab and set the mood. There are things you should know.
Until next time…get out there and shoot.
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