With that out of the way, welcome to part II of how to make a "professional" short film for $80. We will be discussing the production process.
So you have your cast, equipment, location, and script. Notice I neglected to say crew. Well, for $80 we won't be hiring any big name cinematographers so congratulations on your new title you Producer-Director-Screenwriter-Location Scout-Technical Director-Casting Director-Cinematographer-Cameraman-Gaffer-Best Boy-etc multi-talented prodigy you. Even though your talents are prodigious in nature, you may want to bring a friend or two along as well - extra hands never hurt.
We will discuss lighting, cinematography, basic camera settings, basic directing, some audio tips, and whatever else pops into my head as pertinent in this section. Did I miss your favorite part? Shoot me a comment and I will amend this instructable as soon as I can.
Quick disclaimer - If you get arrested, injured or in anyway dead-ified (it is now a word) don't sue me - it's your fault. Apologies to various websites from whom I liberated pictures from and Keanu Reeves.
Let's get started.
If you haven't seen my $80 "professional" short then check out the trailer HERE and the full film HERE.
Step 1: Lighting
The fundamental and most basic form of lighting that is used commonly professionally is called three point lighting. Essentially you have a strong and focused key light, a weaker and widespread fill light, and a soft backlight. This is commonly used in interview environments and gives a nice even look.
Doing an interview for a documentary and what that dramatic and foreboding look? Try something called limbo. Difficult to pull off, it creates a really fantastic look. What you try to do is modify the three point lighting so that your fill light and key light only light your subject - you must minimize all spill to the background (which I seem to have neglected should be a black or dark tarp, cloth, wall, curtain, etc.). You then take the backlight and pull it up high pointing just as you would with a three point setup. I think they did this for interviews in Saving Private Ryan but I haven't seen that film in a while so let me know if I am wrong.
Since I seem to be talking about interviews let me give a quick tip - pull your camera back and zoom in (unless you are doing limbo and only if you have an external microphone). This will blur out the background a bit. It also helps to have your subject far from the background. It may feel weird but it should provide a more cinematic look albeit within the confines of the limited depth of field consumer camcorders provide.
When on the set, try and use as much practical lighting as possible. Practical lighting is lighting that actually appears on the set and the scene - lamps, overhead lights, flashlights, etc. This will give you a lot of light without it being obvious that you are using extra lights. Honestly, I almost always depend on practical lighting and natural lighting (the sun) when filming... Not a good practice but I can be impatient.
Incandescent, fluorescent, and sunlight have different color temperatures. Ever taken a picture at night and the lights appear green? That is because your white balance was set for an incandescent or sunny mode instead of fluorescent lighting. Beware that if you mix types of lights (incandescent + fluorescent) you may have a funky white balance and different parts of your image may have different colors.
I get lots of questions about green screens. Let me say first that if you can then don't use one. If you have to though, get the biggest one you can find. Make sure it is not shiny (ie held together with clear packing tape) and make sure it is extremely well light but at angles so as not to bounce the green into your talent. What we want to avoid is getting any green on our talent that would make part of their outline disappear. Light the green screen well, light the talent well - from both in front and behind, and pull them as far forward away from your green screen as you can. Even professional production houses sometimes have problems with their green screens so don't expect stellar results immediately. However, it is possible and fun to try so don't let my warnings intimidate you.
The main thing to take away from this is that you should get as much light in your image as possible. Most consumer camcorders have automatic gain control meaning that as the image gets darker, the sensor is made more sensitive to light brightening the picture but introducing nasty grain that is nearly impossible to remove. You all know what I am talking about, the dancing digital dots that instantly give away that your film is actually nothing more than a brilliant (or worse) youtube video. You can always (and easily) make a scene darker in post but brightening always creates hideous results.
Whew, what a mouthful. On to cinematography.