Friday, September 16, 2011

Cinematic Tips for Low-budget Filmmaking

The goal of every filmmaker is to create a cinematic experience. The big screen presents a challenging environment that must captivate the audience. How do low-budget filmmakers fill the screen with images and sounds to compete with mainstream Hollywood’s unlimited resources? Films become movies when the filmmaker can make them cinematic and appealing to a broad audience.


What makes a movie a movie is sound. Most first time filmmakers will fail because they do not understand the importance of sound. In production, sometimes it is not possible to capture sounds that the audience expects to hear on the big screen. Often filmmakers are visually driven and overlook the importance of sound. Your audience wants to hear footsteps and the sound of a door opening. Find a competent sound engineer who can help you in production to capture clean and usable sound. Have enough money in your budget for recreating sound effects, sound editing and sound mixing. Without them, you do not have a movie. They are essential in creating reality in your film.

A Vision

Have you ever watched a movie and felt that you are watching 3 or 4 different films? What kind of movie was the director trying to make? Was it supposed to be funny or dramatic? Why was the theme in the first act completely missing from the rest of the film? Why are the characters’ personalities changing for absolutely no reason? Films fail because they lack a unified vision. You as the filmmaker must understand what the movie is about and what type of movie you are making. If you don’t know, nobody else will. It’s your job to understand the script backwards and forwards. You have to know the characters as if you have known them for your entire life. What’s the point for each scene? What are the motives for each action of your characters? How does one scene connect with the next? Having a unified vision for your movie requires effort and commitment. Know what your characters want and why they want it. What do they want from whom? And what do they need from whom? The low-budget world offers filmmakers the best opportunity to have a single vision because most often it is the filmmaker’s personal journey and life experiences.


The big screen demands good acting. Your job is not necessarily to find great actors but to find actors who can play the characters in your script. The world of low-budget filmmaking is full of solid actors who have yet to be discovered. It’s great to have a named actor, but it is probably out of your price range. You can find competent actors just about anywhere in the country. Your local film commission is a good place to start. Another tip is to check local theaters as well as talent agencies.


Now that you’ve shot 120 minutes of footing, do you use it all? Not if you want your movie to be viewable. Good filmmakers will trust their editors to make decisions that will tighten the film and give it the proper pace to hold the interest of your audience. You may have to lose scenes that are your favorites because they do not work within the flow of your movie. Good editors know where to cut. A few frames here or there can make the difference between a solid movie and a disaster. This may be a cliché but editors often say that they helped save the movie. Sometimes filmmakers have to be willing to discover the movie in postproduction.


Transitions is the process through the use coverage shots that help to get you from one place to the next. Most filmmakers don’t think about this during production. Most scenes are shot out of sequence over the course of several weeks. It’s easy to get lost in the process. Without thinking about transitions or how the film flows from one scene to the next, you could be looking at a complete disaster. Movies require a change of time and a change of place. As a filmmaker you must make this seem fluid. If the audience doesn’t understand how the scenes tie together, you are in deep trouble.

How to get good at this is to watch a lot of critically-acclaimed movies to see how they handle transitions. There’s no reason in the low-budget filmmaking world that this should be a problem.


Films look cinematic when you move the camera. There’s just something about putting a camera on a dolly with tracks to shoot your scene. It looks big league. I realize the tendency in low-budget filmmaking is to go for handheld shots. Resist the temptation. At least put your camera on a tripod if you don’t have the time or money for dollies and crane shots.


You need your own unique voice. Does your film have a presence? Is there a constant tone or atmosphere that defines your movie? Or are you just serving meatloaf? Nothing wrong with meatloaf as long as you add some salt, pepper, and spices in order to create a unique flavor. Every filmmaker wants to stand out in the crowd. What makes the film, Fargo, unique? Why does it have style? Is it the dialogue? The location? Speech patterns? Cinematography? Whatever it is, you need to find it for your film. Make it your own.


Let’s face it. In the world of low-budget filmmaking, the audience will not be dazzled by your usage of special effects, chase screens, explosions, and action sequences. Your film must be about something. You project requires weight. In other words, you need substance.

Explore some issue that has never been presented on the screen. You may care about the issue, but will your audience? Does it make people care? Will it challenge your audience? Have you started a dialogue? Movies with substance are capable of moving their audience and impacting them emotionally. Is your theme important enough to be a movie?

Lighting and Contrast

How you handle the contrast between light and darkness will determine how much your film will express a cinematic presence. There is a good chance you will be shooting in a digital format. All video cameras, no matter how good they are, have problems with contrasting light sources, especially when you are shooting a scene with dark and light images present. Work around it as much as possible so you don’t get yourself into trouble. Try to shoot scenes with balanced lighting to avoid under- or over-saturated images.


I talked about this earlier in the low-budget filmmaking principles. But it is so important in order to achieve the cinematic experience. In fact, it is the holy grail of filmmaking. All screens are two-dimensional. The trick is to fool the audience into thinking there is a third dimension existing in a two-dimensional world. The ability to manipulate depth-of-field creates this illusion for the audience. Without a 3D pop, images feel flat and lifeless. If you are not thinking about depth-of-field while you are shooting your film, you are wasting your time.

Color Correction

No matter what the format, whether video or film, without color correction, there is no cinematic appeal. Real life looks uninteresting and boring. Color correction helps to create a mood and presence that does not exist in the real world. You can over saturate, under saturate or completely change the color scheme to convince your audience that you have created a unique and fascinating world in which your characters move through and exist in.

Christians and the World of Low-budget Filmmaking

So where does the Christian fit into this process? For years, most Christian filmmakers have been making low-budget features. But the problem is they have violated practically every low-budget principle and every element in the guerilla code. That’s why the films often look cheesy and one-dimensional. We need Christians who can embrace low-budget principles and create a new kind of film.

What if we stop making Christian films and decide to make redemptive films. What would they look like? Would they speak to a broader audience? By applying low-budget principles, we can use the same strategy that the independent film industry has been using for years. We now have the keys. All we have to do is present Biblical truth and tell stories that will engage our audience. Isn’t it time that filmmakers who have a passion for Christ make their entryway into Sundance or the Toronto Film Festival. The independent model could provide a better way to reach our audience than the big-budget studio system of Hollywood.

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