The INDIE guide to making movies with no money: Part 3

Sound Off

To be completely honest, the area where a lot of no-budget films fall short technically has nothing to do with visuals – it’s in the audio. You might not think so, but in watching movies we are far more likely to forgive visual problems than audio glitches. Often when streaming video online (especially in South Africa) resolution and visual quality can be drastically compromised compared to how the film is supposed to look. But we watch anyway. However, if audio is poorly mixed and if we have difficulty understanding what people are saying, that is movie-killer.

And unfortunately, audio is a challenge even for films with major budgets. It can be difficult to record clean audio in noisy locations even with cutting-edge equipment, and many many films need to bring actors back in the post-production phase to re-record dialogue in a process called ADR.

So what can you do to get good audio? Well, if you have no other option the audio recorder on your camera is fine, you may just have to get many more takes to ensure you have one with clean audio. The problem you will never get away from, however, is this onboard microphone on your camera is far from your actors, and even a directional mic will pick up a lot of background noise. Some camera mics, especially on DSLR’s, even pick up the sound of the camera itself. So avoid using your camera microphone if you can.

The best option for recording audio on set is a separate audio recorder. They can be pricey, but the benefit is that you can position the recorder or microphone just off-screen (much closer to the actors than the camera) and get much better quality audio. Potentially, you could try using the voice recording feature on your smart phone, if only because you can position it closer to your subject and it’s designed specifically to pick up sounds in the human vocal range. Just ensure that if you are recording audio with a device separate from your camera that you have a way to sync the audio with the video later. The easiest way to do this is to clap your hands in front of the camera at the start of every shot, then when editing you just have to sync up the moment when the hands connect to the clap sound on the audio track. Easy.

Ultimately, if the audio you get on set sucks, you may have to do some ADR of your own. You really want to avoid this because it can be difficult for actors to get back into the performance sitting in a room long after the shoot has wrapped. But if you need to do ADR make sure you find a space that will provide the cleanest possible sound (i.e. minimal reverberations), and record with the highest quality microphone you have available (which may be your computer microphone). It will likely take some work matching the sound to the original production track so that it doesn’t awkwardly stand out. A good way to mask ADR is to lay other sounds over it, like ambient noise, which is also useful in masking audio jumps caused by cuts in the edit.

Audio is always going to be a challenge. The best way to judge the soundtrack in your film is to be able to watch the film without the audio pulling you out of the story. If you are watching the film and noticing the audio that probably means there’s a problem, and it’s definitely worth your while to fix it because audiences are going to be far less forgiving.

Software’s Not Hard

Okay, this is entirely untrue – software can be a hard for some folks. There used to be a time where all you needed to edit your film was a pair of scissors and some sticky tape. That doesn’t mean it was easy – it was damn hard – but it was cheap. Then you could you use a purpose built tape-based machine to edit, a system that was slightly more sophisticated, but still linear. Then came the computer, and non-linear editing changed everything. Editing a film is easier now than ever before, the drawback being you need specific software to do so.

Fortunately there is a range of software that is free and relatively easy to use. Whether you are using a Mac or Windows system, either should come bundled with a basic video editor: Windows Movie Maker or iMovie (if you are using Linux… why the hell are you using Linux?). The problem with these programs is that they are built for the general consumer who wants to put together a home movie/holiday montage with minimal headache which, ironically, makes these programs a headache for anyone trying to do more significant video editing. You will likely find yourself fighting the software to do certain things, but conversely, it should be relatively easy to jump in and pick up the basics of cutting a movie with these options.

If you are looking for something a little more robust (but still free) I have heard tell that Lightworks is a good option. I have no personal experience with this software, but it looks to be more similar to professional video editing programs like Avid, Final Cut, and Premiere Pro, so if you are planning on taking video editing seriously it might be worth taking the time to learn this more sophisticated system. There is also a paid version of the program if you decide to make an investment down the road.

Whatever software you are using, editing programs always seem intimidating. Don’t let them bully you. These programs are designed to be user-friendly, it’s just a matter of coming to grips with the fundamentals of how these programs work. Look up video tutorials on YouTube for your specific software to get the basics, then import some footage and start playing around. That’s always the best way to learn.

Find Your Audience

So you’ve done it. You’ve made your film. Bought, begged, or stolen everything you need. Pushed through the blood, sweat, and tears. And now, you have it. A movie of your very own. Freakin’ radpants. You are a real deal filmmaker. The question is, what now?

While this isn’t really a question of resources or funding, it is a problem of equal measure that assaults the independent filmmaker – what do you do with your hard-earned work once it’s completed?

There is unfortunately no simple answer to this. In most cases, very few people will see your film that you haven’t sat down in front of your computer and forced to watch A Clockwork Orange-style. But in most cases, that’s okay. Each film you make will be a learning experience, a stepping-stone on the way to finding your unique voice and realizing your vision. Until you get there, until you’re ready, you may not even want many other people to see what you’ve made.

But let’s say you have it – your masterwork, your magnum opus – and you know people will want to see it. How do you get it out there?

In the traditional film model you would need a distributor to help you market and promote your film and put it into movie theaters. This is how most major films roll out and how they make money. Even with independent films this is often the case – a film will premiere at a major film festival at which distributors will see it and decide if it’s worth distributing. Then, if they like its commercial potential, a distributor will pay for distribution rights (or agree on a share of the revenue) and work to find the biggest audience possible for the film.

But if you’re a small independent player, the likelihood of landing a major distributor (or even a minor distributor, which in some cases is worse than nothing) is very unlikely. Even most film festivals are not always worth the entry fee, and the major ones that are unfortunately rarely make their acceptance decisions based on the quality of the films alone.

So what does all this mean? It means you’re going to have to find the audience yourself. Fortunately, this miraculous internet has democratised film distribution to an extent. Vimeo is not only a fantastic free video hosting site that feels far more polished and professional than YouTube, but they also recently started their own Video On Demand platform called… Vimeo On Demand. This, of course, relies on you marketing and promoting the film yourself, but it is possible to be your own DIY distribution company in this digital age.

At the end of the day, you will most likely want to use your solo film to springboard your career to the next level, which means proving your talent to producers and financiers to get help making your next project, and finding an audience to connect with that will come out to see that next film. It’s all about building your brand, and that’s an entirely different conversation. But, if making films is what you love, you will find a way to make it work. Just keep exploring the new and emerging technologies and possibilities across the filmmaking process and, as Orson suggests, don’t let limitations be your enemy. You have something far more valuable than limitless resources – you have freedom.

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.