Shoot Your Ultra Low Budget Film In Record Time
A friend of mine who is venturing into making her first feature film, called me very excited that she was able to get all the equipment she needed for free: lights, stands, tripods, two cameras, a jibe, two kinds of dollies and a ton of other stuff, enough to fill a huge truck. Sounded great, especially because she’s on a very ultra low budget and being able to get all the equipment for free helps a lot.
Except for one little problem. She can’t afford all that equipment, even for free.
A ton of equipment requires a large crew to handle it and a large crew is expensive, unless everyone works for free. But a crew that works for free won’t last, unless you are planning to shoot the entire movie in two or three days; when people are not getting paid you’re lucky if you can hold them for too long.
So I told her to say thanks but no thanks.
A lot of equipment also means you’ll spend a lot of valuable time setting things up, and the single most common mistake in making an ultra low budget film is the mismanagement of time.
Time is the most important vector in making a low budget movie and it’s incredible to see that in most low budgets productions time is left completely un-managed. I rarely see filmmakers really sit down and think outside the box to come up with some creative time saving ideas.
Imagine this scenario. You arrive at the location at 8:00 am. The first scene is going to be shot in a bathroom. It’s 9:30am and your crew is still setting up lights while you try to block the scene and give the actors some direction… but there are 400 people inside the bathroom and everyone is stepping on each other. Your DP is also complaining of freaking light reflections in the mirror. A nightmare. Probably you end up shooting by 10:00am… for 10 minutes. Then you change camera angles, and the whole process of setting up the lights and matching what you did before starts again. By noon you’re barely done shooting the bathroom scene… and you swear you’ll never shoot in a bathroom again!
Making an ultra low budget film requires a different production management process than what it’s typically used for a Hollywood film or a higher budget film, yet filmmakers tend to use the same techniques and the same processes which work completely against them.
When approaching an ultra low budget production the most crucial thing is to manage time. Time is money, and money is what you don’t have.
You don’t need lights.
You don’t! The whole idea of using lighting is to enhance the dramatic effect of a scene. But that doesn’t mean you need to use “movie lights” to achieve it. Instead you can use the existing lighting in your environment to create the effect your want.
Go to you location and look around. Windows can become great sources of light. Too much contrast? Place soft translucent curtains on windows to bring the contrast down. Color temperature issues? Use gels on the glass. Lamps, chandeliers and other sources of light can provide dramatic accents. Not enough lamps? Bring some ahead of time (Cheapest place to get them is at the Salvation Army or Savers). Need to add more key light? Replace the bulbs in the lamps with photographic 250w and 400w lamps (just make sure to turn them off when not shooting).
Plan, plan, plan!
More importantly, setting up a location to shoot without “conventional lighting” can be done ahead of time, and it’s something you and one assistant can do easily. The key is planning, and planning is cheap. You don’t need the whole crew and you don’t need to feed anyone.
Once you have your “strategic natural lighting” in place (like I like to call it), visualize and plan your camera positions taking advantage of these “static” lights. You’ll be surprised how creative this process can be, not to mention the results you’ll get.
Additionally, don’t be afraid of complete darkness. You don’t have to light everything. If your character walks from the kitchen into a hallway and the hallway is totally dark, so be it. It’ll look great and realistic going through dark spots. When you encounter a situation like this, you can turn a light at the end of the hallway, or place a lamp in the background, so we can still see the actor’s silhouette as he walks in the dark (You want to see movement). You only need a hint of light to get the effect. Imagine the time you’ll save! Instead of watching your crew struggling to setup the lights, you’ll be just shooting and happy.
One final tip is to avoid flatness. Always create some type of contrast to enhance the dynamic range of your image. Then you’ll have enough “data” to manipulate it in post. This is actually true whether you’re using convectional “movie lights” or “strategic lighting.”
Use Depth Of Field
Often miss-used or not used at all, proper use of Depth of Field can greatly enhance an otherwise flat image. If there isn’t much you can do with lighting, like shooting in an evenly lit living room, you can use depth of field to narrow the focus on where you want your audience to concentrate. For instance focusing on an object, or the face of the actress, while leaving the background out of focus. The result can be exquisitely cinematic without the need to light the whole room up.
Train your eyes and mind to think out of the box
When producing an ultra low budget movie you must think out of the box and depart from convention. Constantly look for opportunities that would prevent you from using a large crew or spend time setting up. I shot a scene at a restaurant once and it took over three hours to get the lighting right. The scene turned out great but it took forever and we had to come back the next day to finish up. Meaning extra time and money. Later I realized that at night, the “regular” lighting in the restaurant was amazing. I should have shot the scene at night instead of during the day! So, when you visit the location look for opportunities. Maybe the location is free but impossible to shoot unless you bring a ton of lights, equipment and crew, so then it’s not so free anymore. In that case, keep looking until you find the perfect ultra low budget location.
So in fact I lied. It’s not that you don’t need lights, but rather you need a different kind of lighting: “strategic static lighting”. If well planned and thought out, strategic lighting won’t hold you down and you’ll be maximizing your shooting time. There is another benefit to this approach. If you need to re-shoot something, you don’t need to remember where you placed your movie lights to match with the rest of the scene. All you need is a few pictures of the location to see what lights where off and on and so on. Additionally you won’t need to bring a crew for a re-shoot.
Now imagine this scenario: You arrive at 8:00am at the location. You’re shooting in a bathroom and your strategic lighting is all in place. All the actions, angles and blockings have been planed and you begin shooting at 8:20am. The bathroom scene is then done by 9:00am. Now you’re saving time (which equals money) and you’re concentrating on what matters: your actors and your story.
Ultra low budget filmmaking is no about doing the same things you do in a better-funded production for less, but it’s about maximizing the shooting/setup ratio by introducing new processes and creative ideas.
Ultra low budget filmmaking success = shooting time/setup time
If you’re currently working on an ultra budget film, think where you can maximize time in your current planning. Perhaps you cannot get away from using conventional lighting in a few scenes, so for those you bring your “free” equipment and crew, but for the rest, apply the techniques I described. You’ll be able to keep a balance without compromising quality, and you’ll manage time much more effectively.
Think about it and stay focused