You might want to make a short film, but feel like you can’t because you don’t have a RED camera or know anyone who does. You might believe that because you don’t have access to professional sound and lighting, you won’t be able to make anything good. Basically, you might think it’s all about how expensive your equipment is.
You’d be wrong.
It may have been true even 10 years ago, when digital was still not the norm, and you had to deal with actual celluloid — there were a lot more logistics to handle back then. Now? Honestly, you can do it all on your phone or iPad. Seriously. You can shoot using your iPhone’s video, edit using the free iMovie software, and upload right to YouTube, all without ever needing any other devices or equipment.
Of course, there are some technical limitations to that approach — sound and lighting could be limited, and your movie will have that high frame rate iPhone video look. Here’s the thing — you can come up with a story to make those limitations work for you, just make it a feature of the story, e.g. your short could be a “found footage” movie based on video that your characters have been shooting.
One of the key skills you need as a low budget short film director is making your limitations a virtue. Since equipment costs money, it’s usually the case that you need to work around visuals, sound and lighting, to some degree. We’ll go into detail on that in a second, but back to the camera itself.
You can use an iPhone as is, or you can start tricking it out, depending on your budget. The two things you can do are use apps to film the movie, instead of the phone’s native video function, and add lenses to the phone. Both of these can immediately give your short a more cinematic look and feel, and for a relatively low price. For example, the critically acclaimed Sundance movie Tangerine was shot on an iPhone 5, using the FilmicPro app and the Moondog Labs anamorphic lens for iPhone. The lens is around $150, the app is $10 or so. Still an expenditure, but a relatively affordable one, given that a RED camera will set you back a substantial five figures.
If the phone isn’t an option for you, consider regular digital cameras/camcorders, which you can get hold of for a couple hundred bucks, although if you don’t already have one, you almost certainly know someone who does (and hopefully they’ll lend it to you!). This can be an easy, low cost way to get decent quality shots. Put it on a tripod, MacGyver a dolly track of some kind (that’s basically a way to move the camera through a space smoothly) to give you more fluid movement, and you’re on your way.
When shooting, you also need to think about sound and light. If you know your camera, you’ll know what kind of light it likes — basically, what light conditions does it perform well in. If you’re not sure, take it out for a spin and find out. We’ve covered lighting before, but if you don’t have a professional you can work with, or a student cinematographer, then do lighting tests to work out how you can work with everyday light sources. You’d be surprised how far you can get with some well placed lamps, funky-cool IKEA lights, and even strings of lights. Experiment until you find the perfect blend of natural and artifical light that gives your actors enough of a glow so that they don’t look washed out or overlit. And so that your movie looks cool. Improvise.
You can record your sound using the phone or camera onboard mic. It won’t be the best quality, but as with all of the above, remember this: what will really hook viewers of your short is a good story and good performances. Those are the top priorities for you. Remember we talked about the Duplass brothers’ Sundance-winning short in a previous post. That used on-camera sound. And won Sundance. It can be done. If you prefer to step it up a notch, you can buy a microphone to mount on your camera, as well as a boom pole to get your mic much closer to the actors, for under $200. This will make a noticeable difference in your sound quality, and again, is fairly affordable.
With all of these things, of course you can spend more. Your budget will dictate whether you spend low three figures or north of four on equipment to shoot the short. The key thing is to make use of what you can get your hands on — and make it work for you.
Once you’ve shot the movie, you then have to edit it. We’ll get into the art of editing another time, but you do have to decide how you’ll edit. As mentioned earlier, you can do a lot with iMovie. It has a timeline to allow you to edit clips and move them around. You can add filters to give your movie a certain look (including black and white). You can add songs and sound effects from Garageband, and you can upload to YouTube. Very simple, very easy, and free.
If you want something more robust which will give you more control over your picture, consider Adobe Premiere, or Final Cut. Both of these feature a complex and exhaustive array of sound and visual editing capabilities. Final Cut, for example, which is what we use, gives you extensive sound editing capabilities, so if you were forced to use on-camera sound, you can clean it up to a certain extent. Same for the visuals — there are sophisticated color correction controls that really let you give your shots a filmic look (even if they were taken on a camcorder).
Final Cut also allows for “plugins” — paid extra functionalities that you can “plug in” (see what they did there) to the software, to give you additional editing powers, like cleaning up visual noise from low lighting conditions, or even more advanced sound enhancing options. Some are free, some cost money. Final Cut itself is $299, so not cheap, but if you plan to make more than one short, it could be a sound investment.
The point is, you can have access to all the equipment you need for under $500, or under $1000, depending on what you already have or what you can borrow. You might have everything you need right now! Of course, an awesome script and wonderful actors are pivotal, but we’re assuming you took care of that. Now you just have to make sure you do your story justice, and make your actors look good. And the good news is, these days, it’s very easy to do that for free, or close to it.
Or as JJ Abrams put it recently in a Star Wars Twitter Q&A when asked if he had any advice for aspiring directors:
— Star Wars (@starwars) December 5, 2015