So, I know I’m owing a post on the last stuff I wrote which was supposed to have a continuation – I honestly can’t even remember what that post was as I’m writing this piece – but in any case, let’s get back on track shall we?
When we talk about low budget filmmaking, either for the purposes of documentary filmmaking, feature or short films, or even events coverage (not really, a low budget events coverage is you using your phone for photo and video ops at your siblings graduation, so let’s nix the idea of a ‘lo-budg’ events coverage) the idea at first glance is to make audio visual content with the barest minimum. This concept does hold true, but the line keeps shifting once one gets to the ‘barest minimum’ part. What constitutes the barest minimum?
What is utterly essential and what constitutes a essential peripheral that can be sacrificed to keep costs at bay? What alternatives exist to make up for deficiencies caused by the absence of any essential peripherals during production or post production? This,or rather these ladies and gentlemen are the questions that have been posed and will most likely [not] be answered. Do read on.
In order to answer these questions, let us ask a few questions of our own. A fundamentally important question that you must ask yourself even before you pick up the camera. What are you trying to shoot? Is it a movie, a documentary, a wedding, or some assignment for your theater arts department? Scale of the project and the intended viewership is important in determining the lower limit of quality which you intend to offer. By the end of this article you will probably have had a rethink of what constitutes a low budget film.
So let’s start with something that is more or less the bane of independent production, feature films. Then again,what kind of feature film are you shooting? Comedy, drama, action? Depending on what you’re trying to shoot, your barest minimum needs will change. Let’s go through a few scenarios. So, you’re shooting an action based feature film on a micro budget, with your powerbike riding friends as extras or stunt men,what do you do? Do you rent a 50 foot crane and a Red DRAGON camera and shoot on to SSD cards,accompanied by the Sony F55 and some DSLR (probably the gh4) goodness mounted on stabilizers? Or in the spirit of low budget filmmaking do you not get a couple gopro cameras, mount on the bikes and your regular camera for the wide shot. However in the process of making the shoot cheaper, what do you sacrifice and what do you retain to get the shot you desire? Would you run your wide camera on a technocrane from a distance in an attempt to follow a high speed drive that would only be about two thirds of a second long in the final edit? Would you instead shoot at night, pour water on the asphalt ground so that your HMI lights reflect off the ground and have flares or police lights flash in the background? Is this proposition in any way grandiose enough to proportions rivaling Michael Bay? Not in the least and if the budget supports it, why ever not? But you must remember that fancy visuals are not substitutes for a great story,rather they complement a great story. Ever wondered why the Gopro cameras came into the spotlight? It is because they enable you the viewer to have a taste of high level, hair raising, adrenaline pumping action. The story is in the action being witnessed, not because the rider has a gloss paint on his bike or is driving through the Taj Mahul with lights strung elegantly about its pillars That’s why regardless of the artifact that the Gopro images produce,I mean, it’s definitely no Alexa when it comes to image quality,it still remains relevant, it’s the action and how it’s communicated, that singular item, how the story is communicated should be your focus and whether your skill set as the director or cinematographer is enough to create that immersive storytelling magic for the viewer.
What if you’re shooting a drama piece,what tools are important? Are you going to track and dolly about because its cool or do you let your story unfold and stick to your basic CU or OS shots? In recent times, I’ve come to the realization (in a Christopher Columbus kind of way) that still/motion picture capture is about removing light as much as it is about adding light, sometimes tried and trusted, boring cinematography with evocative lighting is all you need, and a nice depth of field to hide backgrounds that don’t add to your story. Plus there’s lots of cheap, electronic store lighting solutions you can always pick up or improvise with.
While you can compromise on the aforementioned, there are two places where you must never attempt to cut costs, these are storage and sound. First of all, I personally (my personal experience here is irrelevant though, as it may not have happened to you) distrust CF cards, so I hardly shoot on any camera that employs the CF card for storage, in the spirit of low budget I opt for cameras that employ SDXC or SDHC cards like the canon 60D, t5i, 70D. But your best bet would be to record externally to a HDD via the atomos Ninja, save yourself the trouble and record externally. As for sound, get the best you can afford, none of that non descript boom mic and zoom H4n thing when you can get better.Never short change yourself while shooting when it comes to storage and sound. Unfortunately this is where we falter, sound recorded in camera is used as final audio in the most low budget of low budget productions. Eventually you get audio with the kind of noise mood music and scores cannot entirely hide. Bad audio can be so distracting it draws the viewer away from your story.
Another thing worth asking is how much are you paying? Determining wages is also equally important. Its low budget means you’re calling in favours from family, friends and colleagues or employing labour who can afford to be cheap for one reason or another, like blackmail 😝. Determining just how much you can pay for so and so service is as important as any other process involved in bringing forth your creation to life. Does your budget cover catering, a production assistant or more? Does it mean you’d have to roll up your sleeves and not only be the producer and director but also the B camera operator as well as production assistant? How much of a pay cut would you take on editing a project that you are collaborating on? What duty, for the sake of quality would rather have someone else execute and how much would that cost your production. remember, your budget is like a physical manifestation of your artistic intentions underlined by quality (I really don’t know what that means though 🙈
So, while a film can be as cheap as you make it, there is a threshold where quality becomes directly proportional to cost,as a film maker, you are looking to exist just above that gradient but not so far to the point where quality and cost become practically unrelated. *insert Michael Bay reference here*