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no-budget filmmaking:

stretching your dollar, literally


I see it too much. And I want to do something about it. So I'm starting by writing the following.

What do I see too much? People not doing anything with their scripts, is what! And what is the main reason given for this (aside from time)? Money!

Yes, money is lovely in that it allows us to do some things we otherwise wouldn't be able to do, like take snorkeling lessons, or sky-dive, or invest in real estate, or save people...? But to make a film? Okay, so yes some money is still needed. But you hear "no-budget filmmaking" and that person is talking in the thousands (USD). Not encouraging. At least, not to me.

Alright, so either I'm super humble or super full of myself. But I believe that -- as long as you're not writing an indomitable feature-length sci fi action thriller of a tale -- you CAN do this; you can make a decent-length indie-style film for less than a thousand bucks and using a mediocre-at-best camera (depending on who you're talking to), and typically the more indie-esque, the longer the film's duration.

What comes in handy as much as a few (not thousands) dollars? Talent and skill. So that part is largely under your control. Hone your talent and you're guaranteed to get somewhere. That is, if you have filmmaking-related talent. And if you're reading this you probably believe you do, deep down. Don't forget that self-confidence is a big part of the challenge in completing a project. Approach it knowing that it will be completed, and soon, but reasonably allowing yourself to acknowledge the real question: to what level of quality?

So study up! Film school (as with money itself) comes in handy, but again, you can still arm yourself with the tools necessary without depending on this route.

How? YouTube what you need to know AND reintroduce yourself to the library. Cinematography, directing, sound editing. You name it. Learn all you can from the 'net and the vast amount of filmmaking tutorials meant for people just like you (BAFs - namely broke aspiring filmmakers) that it has to offer. But remember! Bookly education is not entirely replaceable, so make a few trips to the library and bury your nose in one or two books a week to round out your knowledge acquisition. I've learned many a directing or camera trick (though nowhere near enough) through both avenues, and books often provide something that the 'net doesn't: thoroughness, which is actually immensely useful a surprisingly high percentage of the time.

sound
IMPORTANCE IN THIS AREA CANNOT BE STRESSED - unless you're doing a silent film or some intentional shunning of sound altogether, o'course.

While you may not be able to afford a glitzy frilly camera, and instead be forced to settle for subpar video quality, please for the love of olives (or mushrooms, if that's what you're into) don't let the sound degrade with it. Avoid on-board (built in camera) sound at all costs! I strongly advise just pretending this input doesn't exist altogether. Nothing says "amateur film" more than grainy video quality paired with echoey, lackluster audio. Test this out for yourself by finding some clips online of comparable visual quality and varying degrees of sound quality, and see how much one engages you over the other (try to not pay attention to the actual content or just get clips covering the same type of subject matter). If you didn't notice already, you will find that crisp sound alone does a very decent job at getting you a big step up from "home movie" status.

What types of input can you afford, then?
First, try to get your hands on a camera that takes external audio. Or hope for the best and look for this type of input on the camera you already have, which will most likely be your only video cam option anyway. It will be labeled something like "EXT. MIC" most likely, and more than likely be near the "PHONES" (earphone) jack. Even small miniDV cameras from the early 2000s may have this capability. With this input, you won't have to worry about having to sync all the audio later in post.

If the external mic input is just not gonna happen, the next route is finding an external device to record audio onto (instead of your camera). It's alright though, the extra step of syncing associated with this approach usually doesn't lead to more than just a lingering headache.

I have been informed that smart phones are a decent possibility, as long as you are mindful of data capacity and always transferring upon reaching the limit. The genius thing about smart phones is they are discreet and can thus be used in the place of a lavilier mic setup (which usually run at least $30 per tiny mic). See the appropriate YouTube-ery for tutorials on such configuration (here's an example...).

Okay, so you have either an external mic option or a device to record on, and/or you even have lav mic type solutions good to go! For general sound recording, lav mics alone are sort of a pain (for starters, you need to constantly make sure they remain concealed). I recommend getting a directional/shotgun microphone (yes, the kind you stick on a boom pole), to plug into the recording device or external mic jack you hopefully do have. This comes in handy for so many things, for example, what if you need to shoot something like dialogue in a hot tub scene (we have one in Ex-pelled), in which you can't plaster a lav mic onto your actors all that easily? And if you have several actors in a scene, you'll need to make sure each one has his or her own mic setup. Annoying and costly!

Until not too long ago directional mics that fit a budget like yours and mine were hard to come by, but despair no longer! You can land a cheap shotgun mic from China (new, on eBay, for about 30 bucks give or take for shipping if you're in the U.S.). The model I use is the HTDZ HT-81, and it can be used on one of two modes - tele or normal. Look it up online and feast your ears on some helpful reviews. It relies on 1 AA battery (recommended instead of phantom power), and I prefer normal mode, since tele gives off a constant all-too-audible background hissing no matter how quiet the location (or maybe mine is just somewhat broken after having been dropped... yeah, try not to let that happen). Test it out and see which you prefer (for outdoor locations, logic tells me tele will be better since there is more ambient noise to filter out and it is even more directional than normal, so as to close in even more on the subject it is pointed at). You'll want to copy the audio to both channels in editing software for "stereo" sound (you'll only be able to hear out of one side of your earphones till then). And tada! Consider yourself having scratched the surface of sound in no-budget filmmaking.

camera, composition, and continuity
No-budget often means one camera and one camera only. Indie filmmaking at its finest! If you have two cameras, great, as long as they're relatively identical to each other. If not... test it out and see if the specs are similar enough to not produce significantly different images if you were to use footage from both in your final film. Talk about an unwelcome distraction.

Once you set up your lighting and have your actors in position, you might want to record room tone now (a minute or so should do, depending on the scene's duration), which means everyone needs to fall silent during this time so you can get the sound of the room in its "silent" state for later's editing in sound continuity. To play it extra safe especially in areas near passing cars and uneven noise distribution, see if you can collect minute or thirty seconds of room tone after the takes are done as well.

If your camera has a manual white balance setting and you feel comfortable using it, set it now.

Film however many takes you feel comfortable with (on average I do about 4 takes or so, but there is huge variation here, generally speaking), from each camera angle you want (usually 3 different angles, or more depending on whether using closeups (CUs) or extreme closeups (ECUs). In the cutting room, start by removing everything you know you can't/won't use before you get to the precise and selective parts.

rigging! (last but not least)
Most of your dollars may very well be saved in the realm of rigging instead of buying fancy schmancy equipment. Perhaps my favorite DIY project is the mic shockmount, because of how simple, cheap, and quick it is to make (if you have the right tools).

While you're eyeing that video, check out all of the same guy's other wallet-friendly creations. He is an absolute lifesaver in the world of indie filmmaking.

Another simple project to embark upon is the light stand, which can actually be used for more than just lights for your set (you can't go wrong with a basic $10 heat lamp from Home Depot, by the way): see here.

To be continued!

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