Seven top tips for no-budget film making

Sound recording

It is really difficult to make your film look like it is made with money when there isn’t any, and I have spent years making films with little or no budget. Here are a few tips that I have come up with that will improve the quality of your film:

1 – Sound. If you have only a few hundred bucks to make your film and you need to choose between a Sound Recordist or a DOP, spend it on the Sound Recordist and film it yourself.  No-one will want to watch your film if the sound is crap and they can’t hear what’s being said.  It is best to shoot on a DSLR with decent sound than blow your budget on a RED or Arri with a catch-all omnidirectional mic sitting in the room somewhere.  Having a professional sound recordist on set will reduce the need for ADR even when shooting outside.

2 – Sound.  Again. If what you have recorded is ruined by an airplane every 90 seconds (we are based near Gatwick Airport) or by noisy traffic, or a million birds tweeting just as you shout ‘action’, then it may be necessary to record ADR (Automated Dialogue Replacement).  But!!! Please wait until there is a final cut of the film before you do this. Most actors on indie sets are looking for opportunities to show their skills and be creative, so dialogue may drift from your script in order for them to give a more compelling performance.  Recording ADR isn’t an opportunity to change the dialogue, and you should only use it where necessary – don’t start your shoot with a view that everything will be re-recorded after.  Dialogue and phrasing must be exactly the same as what you see in the final cut, otherwise it will look like your film has had a bad sound edit, which nobody will be able to sit through or use as showreel material.

3 – White balance your camera!  This may sound like we are teaching your grandmother to suck eggs, but the amount of orange footage I see from film makers is truly alarming. White balancing is a basic process for any camera operator and should be done regardless of what type of camera you are shooting on.  Secondly, check your footage after each take if see if it has come out OK.  If it is any shade of orange that you have not planned for, you should white balance your camera again and go for another take. Another reason for orange footage is lack of lighting. Once you have orange footage there is no coming back from this, and your footage will look washed out after a colour grade.  Nothing ever in post production will replace a proper white balance on set, and will lower the production value of your film. This could be the difference between getting your film selected at a festival for screening or you getting that email that says ‘the competition was very high this year and unfortunately your film has not been selected’.

4 – Anyone who says ‘let’s sort it in post’ or ‘that can be done in post’ once you are already on set and filming should be slapped. Hard.  Deferring work to post production in an unplanned way complicates your edit and risks your film not looking how you intended, or worse, poor quality because the editor doing the work doesn’t do or have the software for the unplanned compositing work that they are now suddenly responsible for.  If you need special effects, plan ahead first and make sure everyone knows, is capable, and has the tools to do what they need to do.  If it was a shit take, do another one. If you need an extreme close up shot, make sure it is on the shot list so that you DOP can have the right lens at hand.  Your post production should be planned, not used to cover up bad film making and poor planning.

5 – No exterior day for night filming!  Ever.  It looks crap and rarely looks like night time. If you need a night time shot, wait until it gets dark to shoot it. Day for night colour grades rarely look authentic and it will create a lot of work for your colourist.  If you must do a day for night shoot, shoot during civil twilight or nautical twilight either at dawn or dusk, and never shoot a day for night whilst the sun is visible in the sky.  I have had a lot of requests from people to turn bright lunchtime sunny weather into night time – this is unrealistic and will not achieve a professional look.  Think about your team – would your DOP be able to use it in their showreel? 

6 – Keep your short films short.  Aim for your film to be less than 15 minutes. Festivals like to have lots of short films during screenings and a short film of 15-45 minutes is less likely to be screened compared to shorter counterparts unless it has exceptional storytelling and cinematic style. Short form story telling is an art and it will really help you hone your skills.

7 – Clapper Boards – When using a clapper board to sync sound with picture, there must be something on the sound file to identify and match it to the corresponding footage. You need to read what is on the board out loud so that the editor can line it up with the appropriate footage. This may sound like we are stating the obvious, but we have had lots of experience of having to listen to every sound file to find the one we are looking for because the clapper person has not spoken the scene/shot/take out loud when they have clapped.  This is enormously time consuming for the editor.  When time is short and there is no time to clap on the front of the take, say ‘board on the end’ into the mic and write up the board and clap it at the end before cutting – and say the scene/shot/take.  Lastly, make sure the whole of the board is in shot when boarding a take. This may sound really daft, but we have had footage where the clapper part of the board is out of shot when clapped, or only the bottom right hand corner is in shot. The easiest way to around this is to board the take before assuming the position and focus of the shot.

Written by Saranne Bensusan on 6th February 2018

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