It’s been your dream since childhood to make a monster movie. Godzilla didn’t have this big of an impact on many people, but the film affected you like no other. Well you’re now in the position to take action on your destiny. Filmmaking is your hobby, your passion. Has been for about five years. You’re pretty confident with the gear, which, by the way, you’ve collected in large amounts. A couple of long-form videos created last year prove your deftness with scriptwriting. All the actors praised your ability to coax believable performances out of them. And you also made contacts with other video craftsmen who can help you in carrying out the dream; editors, special effects people, and musicians.
The plot to your flick is simple, a group of shipwrecked tourists discover living dinosaurs on a tiny island. Upon rescue, the money-hungry survivors plan to buy the island, turning its once peaceful environment into an amusement park. However, the mighty behemoths can’t be controlled like Mickey Mouse. This causes some problems for the guests, and creates the thrust of your story’s action. Sure, it’s similar to that Jurassic Park nonsense. But you had the idea first. Really.
With your life savings on the line, you plunge ahead with the shoot. Locations are little problem thanks to your Florida residence. Actors are available from the surrounding community theatres. The effects become the major concern, but eventually are pulled off in grand low-budget style. All-in-all, the production is pretty successful. With the footage “in the can,” you feel confident about the video. It’s your ticket to Hollywood. Or so you hope.
As you shop the monster movie around, distributors are…let’s say…less than interested. Hey what’s the problem. You put a lot of blood, sweat and tears (not to mention your kid’s college fund) into this flick. You know it’s not for everyone, but there’s got to be an audience out there somewhere. Right?
What’s the difference between your 90minute video epic and Spielberg’s latest? Yeah, I know, about 75 million bucks! That’s obvious. But you need to look deeper. Inherently, the two projects are the same. Actors reading scripted lines while being recorded to a replayable media. Both yours and Stephen’s movies have these elements. So what’s the problem. His film set sales records. Your movie is collecting dust. Maybe you should listen to what the non-buying public is saying. Weeding through the last distributors’ laughs and chortles (it had nothing to do with your movie, he was eating lunch), you heard him mention something about production value. More specifically, he said you had none of it. Wait a minute, you have a tropical location. You show girls in bikinis. You even have a fire-breathing monster! Those all certainly qualify as production value. Don’t they?
In the world of filmmaking, especially low-budget filmmaking, production value is hard to come by. When you consider the budgets that are required to obtain a “Jurassic Park-ish” production value, it makes you want to give up. Either that, or still strike out with your original plans, cheap-jacking every detail. That’ll surely get your project made. It will also find you in a situation similar to the one above. Believe me on this one. I’ve been there.
So should you give up? No! Don’t even think about that option. Thankfully, there is another solution. Gaining production value on a project doesn’t instantly mean spending money. This is a common misconception among novice producers. It’s also a mistake in Hollywood as well. Many times you can get a great look without blowing a wad of cash. You just have to spend some time and mental energy. The following methods should help in pumping up the volume on your itty-bitty budget video.
Start With the Script
Right off the bat, examine the script. It’s the blueprint for your film. If its flawed, you don’t have a chance. Let’s look at the reptilian raucous as an example. As a low-buck producer, you should be quick to point out the impossibility of believably pulling off the effects this type of movie requires. I know it may be a lifelong goal to put Godzilla back on the screen. But with $150, it’s going to be hard. As you start a project, eliminate any effects or scenes that seem tough. Just finishing any project on a small budget is hard work. Don’t complicate matters. You actually diminish production value by including cheeseball antics in a video. What’s planned as an effects extravaganza comes off more like backyard, home movie amateurishness.
The script is also the starting point for boredom relief. If you eliminate all of your showcase scenes, you risk creating a yawnfest. Now is the time to look at the remaining story and decide where some “punching up” is in order. How is this accomplished?
Ladders and Windows
The opening scene of your flick consists of a conversation between two of the shipwrecked boaters. They have just come to the conclusion that they may be all alone on the island. Until the end of time. This interaction takes place before the credits. It is meant to set a foreboding, isolated tone for the audience. In your regular manner of shooting, you might frame each of the talkers in an over-the-shoulder shot. The shot cuts back and forth corresponding to each actors lines. This gets the job done. But it adds nothing to production value.
In Hollywood, the scene would probably be shot with the help of a Louma Crane. This device holds the camera and operator. It allows for a long, smooth, sweeping movement from a point high in the air down to the actors faces. Or in reverse. Either way, the scene would carry a greater emotional impact than the two-shot method. Plus, aerial shots give you production value out the yazoo.
While you may have a basement full of equipment, there doesn’t happen to be a crane hidden in the corner. So what. You can get similar results by just using the ole’ noggin. The goal is to increase production value by arranging an aerial shot. How do you get high in the air, say to paint your house? That’s right, a trusty ladder. Infinitely less expensive and easier to handle, a ladder will lend you the height you need. The ladder won’t allow you to smoothly glide in or out of the scene. It does permit you to cut to an extreme long-shot at the required point in the conversation. In this case, towards the end of the exchange. You still get the effect needed for added production value. I have never owned a large ladder. A six footer is all that use around the house. But I have handyman friends that are well stocked. If you don’t happen to know a carpenter or roofer, try a local tool rental facility. On one of my first shoots, I rented an 18 foot freestanding ladder. That doesn’t seem all that high. When you see the outcome on the screen however, you’ll be surprised. Whenever you can break away from tripod-height shots, the quality of your production will increase. Don’t overlook other high-shot possibilities. When a ladder isn’t available or possible to use, try a second-story window, sitting in a tree or shooting from a rooftop. All of these methods produce exciting results. One word of caution. Be careful of your body and equipment!
Wheelchairs and Shopping Carts
High-angle shots aren’t the only way to add umpf to your project. Moving the camera helps too. The lead in your Godzillaesque caper must perform quite a number of physical sequences. Running down streets and through buildings occupies a large part of this action. You’re planning on capturing his foot movements with low angle shots. A couple of eye-level, tripoded run-bys will be shot as well. Finally, several establishing long-shots of the actor as he makes his run will be recorded. In post-production, you hope to edit together this melange of footage into an exciting scene.
It can work. There is a better way. Check out any popular action flick on the market. What happens when an actor is running or a car is moving? The camera is moving as well. This happens so often in contemporary cinema, that the viewer hardly notices it. We’ve all witnessed the behind the-scenes specials with a crew pushing the cameraman along on an elaborate track. That’s a dolly. It’s purpose is to create a smooth, moving shot. Movement adds production value. Again, you most likely don’t have a dolly in your gear bag. Don’t sweat it. A trip to the local Goodwill or thrift store should do the trick. What are you hunting for? A wheelchair. Wheelchairs are manufactured to provide a smooth, lateral movement for the rider. If the ride is smooth for a passenger, it will be for a camera as well. Brand new, wheelchairs sport hefty price tags. That’s why it’s smart to bargain hunt. If the two sources above are dry, check classifieds. A call to clinics and hospitals in your area is a good idea too.
When using a wheelchair, it’s best to start the shot after movement has begun. The initial push of a wheelchair will produce a slight jerk. It may be barely noticeable to you. Your camera isn’t so forgiving. Practice the move several times before you actually shoot the scene. Be sure to remove any small obstacles that might produce a bump in the ride. Also adjust the camera in such a way that you can hold it without pressing your eye on the viewfinder. You are more likely to create a bumpy shot with your head pressed against the camcorder. Holding the camera out and away from your body insures a smoother recording. You probably can’t be pushed as fast as someone can run. The speed of a shot can be increased if you are being “dollyied” through a hallway or through doors. Whenever the camera view obviously travels through space, the effect of movement is heightened.
Just like the ladder, alternatives to a wheelchair exist. A shopping cart is a good substitute. It’s a little harder to maneuver. Running should certainly be done with caution. For straight, walking follow-shots, a shopping cart works pretty good. Shooting from a car produces fairly efficient dolly shots as well. You can only get exteriors with this method. Actors walking on a sidewalk passing storefronts is always easy with the car window technique. Be sure the driver is doing just that, driving. Someone must pay attention to the road ahead at all times. It’s tempting for the driver to check out the action of the scene, ignoring his primary responsibility. I’ve had the unfortunate pleasure of dropping a camera as the vehicle I was riding in collided with a parked car. You’ve been warned!
The Value of Time
Often, production value is a product of spending more time with a video than money. It’s very easy to become a hack in this business. That’s not meant in a derogatory way. What I’m trying to say is that it’s a lot simpler to rush through scenes, especially dialogue, than to take the time for more interesting set-ups. Back to the initial opening scene from your dinosaurs on the romp epic. Let’s eliminate the ladder shot. Even that is too high budget for your resources. We’re left with two people talking with each other. Instead of the tired two-shot or over-the-shoulder set-ups, why not try something new? Rereading the script, you discover there are certain lines which a heavy emphasis on the listeners reaction is stressed. Go in for an extreme close-up of this actor’s eyes. Record his twitches as he hears the news of his forthcoming isolation. Or how about a super-slow zoom in on the speaker, intercut with a super-slow zoom in on the listener? Watch for visual ideas in Hollywood films. Imitate the way in which conversation is handled. Sure, sometimes basic, back-and-forth cutting is the right thing to do. But more often than not, a unique shooting style will add pizazz to the production.
Framing actors in their setting is another way you can increase the quality of your video. Orson Welles said that in Citizen Kane, he framed each scene so it could stand on its own as an interesting still photograph. If you watch the film closely, you’ll find this true. And this was Mr. Welles first film! Say you’ve got an actor walking through the woods looking for food. Many novice videomakers would shoot this scene as it were on a stage. The actor would be in the foreground with the forest foliage behind him. You are not on a stage. The purpose of video is to re-create the reality of the world. Use that to your advantage. Place the actor within the woods. Shoot from between two branches with the leaves from one dangling in the foreground of the shot. Consider what elements would induce the viewer into believing the actor is in the forest. Add interesting elements to the foreground and background of your shot.
Production value of your film increases with the variety of footage gathered. In the forest walking scene, shot variety is virtually limitless. A close-up of a foot splashing in the mud, the actors shirt caught on a thorn, a dizzying, low-angle view of the actor wiping his brow and extreme long shots to show the magnitude of the forest are all ideas that will create more quality in the production. Examine the script. Jot down any and all interesting shot ideas for every location. Some may be wild and unusable. That’s O.K. The point is to brainstorm. When it comes time to plan a scene, the bigger the list you have to choose from, the better.
“Just aim that light at her face. She’ll look fine.” Boy, if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that on a low-budget set…. Lighting is without a doubt the one area in which a greater expenditure of time will certainly be rewarded. Distributors and most of the general public can spot lousy lighting in a second. Scenes that look like they were shot through a murky aquarium are all too common in low-buck video productions. Bad lighting is a dead give-away for amateur work. And more often than not, it’s the result of rushing the shoot. Lights are fairly affordable. Yeah, the slick sets cost a pretty penny. But good, old painting reflectors found in any hardware store will make-do in most situations. It’s the bulb inside that counts. Make sure they’re color-balanced photofloods- and you’re off to a good start.
An in-depth lighting discussion would fill this whole magazine. So keep it simple. Two practices should get you acceptable lighting; three light set-ups and using a monitor. With the basic three light method, you have one key light on the actor, a fill to soften shadows and a back light to separate the actor from the background. In videomaking, it seems you can never have too many lights, so take that in heed. Use a monitor to keep a constant check on the appearance of the scene. I know it’s a lot of extra work, especially during exteriors. But being able to monitor the lighting always pays off. Too many times I’ve been on a night shoot where the idea of lighting is to fire up another one of those halogen units and aim it at the action. That’s fine if you want it to look like you’re shooting on the moon. You’ll end up with an overlit foreground and a black abyss for the background. Always back-light or set-light your location.
Try using “cookies” and colored gels. A “cookie” is a large piece of wood or cardboard that has abstract holes cut into it. This is placed in front of a lighting unit to create interesting shadow effects on the scene. Rarely in nature is light projected onto something unobstructed. Your lighting should reflect this phenomena. Colored gels are another way in which to add quality to your lighting scheme. Placed over lights either for realism or effects, the gels help create a “mood” for the scene. Back to our forest walker. After his extended hike, he decides to set-up camp for the night. This of course involves a camp fire. While the light that comes from the fire may look nice on his face, it may not be sufficient when recorded to tape. Aiming a couple of low-angle lights with orange or yellow gels at the actor will enhance the believability of the setting. That’s a realistic example. For a more effected look, use gels to set the mood. If there is a bad guy in the script, try using red gels to give the actor a more sinister look. Experiment with different colors in different scenes. One caution–don’t overdo it. You don’t want your video looking like some LSD-nightmare.
If you just can’t (or won’t) slice a favorite scene from your script, buy the setting instead. Purchasing stock footage is a great way to add production value to your flick. I know I said this would be a low-budget discussion, but sometimes you have to spend a little money. Maybe at a key part in your script, a volcano erupts, unleashing the modern-day dinosaurs. Not wanting to get all messy with the baking soda and vinegar, you decide to buy an eruption instead. It’s easier than doing it yourself and a heck of a lot more believable. I know of a flick shot on Super VHS that took this technique to the extreme. “Galaxy of the Dinosaurs” from Tempe Video was made utilizing 14 minutes of animated dinosaur footage. The producers wrote a story and shot dialogue and action scenes to intercut with their “bought” footage. The final 75 minute production pretty convincingly composes the stock footage with the new video. The film boasts shots where the actors throw spears at an unseen dinosaur, which was then cut together with stock footage of an animated dinosaur getting hit with a spear! It comes off quite seamlessly. There are countless stock footage houses with widely varying prices. Be sure they handle your format before making a purchase.
Production value doesn’t always require heavy spending. Knowledge of your craft, proper planning and some ingenuity are all adequate stand-ins for cash. If you begin thinking and producing like a professional, your work will perform like one.