The INDIE guide to making movies with no money: Part 2

A Civilised Weapon – The Camera

So you have an incredible idea, but at the bare minimum to make a film you need a camera. Maybe not if you are doing animation, but for anything live-action the camera is essential.

But cameras are expensive, and cinema cameras especially so. What can you do if you don’t have access to a fancy Red Epic or Arri Amira? Well fortunately, you don’t need ‘em!

Let’s start with the simplest option – we all likely have some form of camera in our pocket. Yes, that’s right, your cell phone. Even the most basic phone cameras have become sophisticated enough to shoot decent quality video. Good enough to showcase on a giant cinema screen? Hell no. But that’s probably not where your film is going to end up anyway. Even standard definition video looks fine on the internet – people watch far worse on YouTube all the time. So don’t worry so much about quality, if all you have is the camera on your phone, go for it.

But then there are some phones that actually have the ability to shoot high-quality video. The award-winning independent film Tangerine that premiered at last year’s Sundance Film Festival was shot entirely on the iPhone. Additionally, there are lens adapters available for some smartphones that allow you to vary the focal length of your shots – a key technique in any filmmaker’s arsenal. There is of course a correlation between cost and quality, but you can pick up lens adapters for far less than you can an entire camera.

And then we move on to what has become the hallmark of modern independent filmmaking cinematography: the DSLR camera. Fundamentally, DSLR’s are not built for making movies – they are high-quality stills cameras, which means they have limitations when it comes to shooting video. But the quality you get from a DSLR, not to mention their versatility and mobility, is pretty much unrivalled relative to their cost. For years the Canon 5D and 7D have been used to shoot films that the casual viewer would never know were not made with a real cinema camera. And really any DSLR can do the trick, you just have to know how to work with them.

You will find many articles online discussing the pros and cons of DSLR cinematography, and they are all worth reading to avoid problems that you might otherwise only encounter through experience. There are two key points that come to mind that can be dead giveaways you are using a non-professional camera when shooting with DSLR’s, and those have to do with motion and color.

In terms of motion, DSLR’s have what is called a ‘rolling shutter’. This means the entire image is not captured all at once (though it may appear that way), but is actually captured by scanning across the frame either horizontally or vertically. It happens so fast you usually don’t notice it, but when filming quick motion with a DSLR the resulting image will sometimes looking like it’s ‘rippling’ or ‘skewing’. So you need to have an awareness of the limitations in filming quick motion with DSLR’s.

The other problem often experienced with DSLR video is colour. DSLR video shot with standard camera colour settings can come out looking oversaturated and high-contrast, which does not give you a lot of latitude as a filmmaker to make creative decisions with your image (hence a lot of DSLR video ends up looking the same). A way to solve this is to look for recommendations on colour settings for your camera. Even better, legendary film processing company Technicolor released a cinematic colour profile for Canon EOS cameras called CineStyle that you can download for free.

Finally, if you really feel like you need to be working with a real-deal cinema camera, but can’t afford to rent one, some equipment rental houses will allow you to test a camera on their premises for free. It makes sense – they hope if you like the camera you will rent it from them in the future. While you won’t have a lot of flexibility in what you can do with a camera filming at a rental house, if you have a good relationship with the folks who run the place and can convince them this will lead to more business down the road, it might be worth asking if they’ll let you shoot a short film with their equipment on their premises for free. So start making friends!

At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter what kind of camera you use, as long as you have a camera. The important thing is to do your research and really get to know the piece of equipment you are working with. Having a keen understanding of both its limitations and its strengths will allow you to get the most out of the tool you have, and avoid the pitfalls that might otherwise trash your images. So see what you can get, do some research, then shoot some stuff!

Light Up Your Life

Whatever camera you are using, the piece of the puzzle that is really going to make your images look professional is lighting. Mastery of lighting is the difference between getting wedding-videography-style shots, and taking the opportunity that filmmaking allows you to really craft your images and make the lighting evocative.

Now of course major film productions have gigantic light packages with crews utilizing generators and elaborate set ups. You most likely do not have any of this, but that doesn’t mean you can’t manipulate lighting in minor, but crucial, ways.

The first step is an awareness of light. Is it hard or soft? Directional or ambient? What color is it? What kind of shadows does it create? And, most importantly, how does it make you feel?

Sometimes, if you don’t have any lighting tools whatsoever, the choice is simply where to take your shot to get the best light. If you’re shooting outside you might want to find some shade so the light isn’t so harsh. This can also create some nice contrast between the background and foreground of your image if the background is brighter than your subject. If you’re shooting indoors one trick for getting nice lighting is to shoot your subject near a window. Windows diffuse sunlight, making it softer and prettier. A subject standing next to a window will likely have one side of their face illuminated by diffuse sunlight, and the other half in shadow, creating an attractive contrast. Shooting indoors at night there are sure to be light sources around, and simply moving these light sources to create contrast or backlight can be incredibly effective. So the first step is just being aware of the effects of different lighting positions, then making a creative choice about what effect works best for your shot.

If you are looking for tools to manipulate light that will enable you to have more control over how your shot looks, there are a number of options available for little or no money. In terms of redirecting or altering available light, you can use a white sheet suspended between your subject and a light source to diffuse that light. The sheet will take a harsh, directional light, like sunlight, and make it much softer and prettier. Then there is the bounce board – a large piece of Styrofoam board with aluminium foil spread over one side. The white foam side can be used to bounce soft light at a subject to fill in dark areas and reduce contrast, or the silver aluminium side can be used to bounce harder light at the subject, possibly even illuminating them. You can easily make one of these boards yourself.

In terms of inexpensive light sources, you can’t do much better than the classic China Ball. Honest-to-God used on major Hollywood productions, you can pick up one of these babies at most basic lighting stores. It’s essentially a light bulb surrounded by a sphere of paper diffusion. You put a high-wattage bulb inside and even add a dimmer switch – you have a cheap, portable, versatile light source wherever you go. Combine a china ball with bounce boards, positioning, and creative use of available light, and you can get as cinematic a look as anything you can achieve with tens of thousands of Rands in equipment.

In Need of Some Stability

There’s this awesome thing about movies – things can move in them! But actually this was something of a revelation for filmmakers back in the day, as at one point film cameras were too large and ungainly to move, so every shot had to be static. But now, of course, we know better, and moving the camera is one of the most powerful tools you have to make compelling, dramatic moments.

While the shaky, handheld look is in vogue now for independent film and can work for the right project, you don’t necessarily want to be limited to shooting everything that way. Another important consideration is the previously mentioned rolling shutter – if you are shooting with a DSLR or other low-end digital camera handheld footage will often come out looking warped and unnatural because of the way these cameras capture their images.

So what other options do you have? Dollies and cranes are elaborate and expensive pieces of equipment, and Steadicam requires a trained professional to operate the camera who likely will cost more than the rig itself.

Fortunately, there are some inexpensive options for moving your camera with stability. The first is very simple: a wheelchair. Not even kidding. As a cheap alternative to a dolly, a wheelchair will do the trick. The drawback is that you need a relatively flat surface, and some stability for the camera while sitting on the chair itself. But you can address both of these issues, one by laying down thin wooden board on otherwise rough surfaces, and the other by putting a small tripod in your lap to stabilize the camera while shooting. It may look silly, but the ability to get dramatic dolly shots will vastly open up your cinematic possibilities.

Another nifty device you can use to stabilize handheld shots is a shoulder rig. Supporting a camera on your shoulder, while far from Steadicam, is still a vast improvement on holding a camera freely in your hands. A shoulder mounted camera allows for smooth, natural camera motion, and minimal shake even when moving quickly. Shoulder rigs can be purchased relatively cheaply, but if you really want to scrimp, why not build your own?

There are a whole host of other rigs you can build yourself, and what you’ll likely find is with each addition of a new tool you will start coming up with creative new ways of using that tool to get the most out of it. Way better than just renting a bunch of equipment you don’t even know that you’ll use, right?

Coming up next time: Sound, software, and finding your audience

Sam Besser enjoys writing about arts and entertainment because he likes pretending people care about his opinions. He is a great lover of film and a casual lover of 15th-century stained glass windows. These interests rarely intersect.