How to Make a Professional Short Film for $80 (Part II - Production)




Introduction: How to Make a Professional Short Film for $80 (Part II - Production)

About: I am a filmmaker, student, and tinkerer. I love designig and building devices instead of purchasing them. Instructables is a great way to do that and share with others how to do the same...

Okay, if you haven't already seen the prequel to this instructable then go here:

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.

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Step 1: Lighting

I have to admit something, I pretend to know a lot more about lighting than I really do. Actually, I hardly know anything. If you want to be a professional gaffer or best boy then you probably would benefit by NOT reading this guide. The rest of you who just want to get rid of that grain and make it look like your film was shot with a camera from 2008 instead of 1988 then feel free to continue.

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.

Step 2: Cinematography

This section will remain relatively brief as I know your eyeballs are weary after that novel you just read - unless you are one of those esteemed few who will become our professional gaffers and best boys!

Okay, I am still assuming you have a tripod. If you don't, you might as well skip this section, but don't feel high and mighty like our would-be lighting specialists did. They were excused, you are banished - at least until you go buy one. They're cheap, you can get a basic one from Wal-Mart for $15 give or take.

The hallmark of home video is shakiness. Stop! I know every reader simultaneously yelled that their favorite action flick (yes, I hear you Bourne followers) takes the shake and makes it look awesome. Well, good for them. They also have millions of dollars of equipment and talent to make it look awesome. What do you have? Now, I am not completely disparaging hand held video, I do it myself in my film, but it must be used sparingly and effectively.

When a viewer first watches your film, they make a snap judgment in the first 30 seconds (probably more like 5 or 10) as to what it is. If you start out like it's an earthquake then they'll say to themselves (as they type you a comment) "tis is a n00b videoh i cant se waht is hapenning." You don't want that. Start out with a nice fluid panning shot, or a stationary tripod shot of a highway, or something that looks big budget and awesome (minus the cranes and dollies and effects and etc).

Is it time for that awesome handheld action sequence? Great, put your tripod on the camera. "Wha?" you exclaim, "I said HANDHELD." Great for you but if you leave the camera on your tripod and close up the tripod legs, you lower the center of gravity for your camera and though you have become rather clumsy, your shot will be smoother but still retain that handheld feeling. This imitates expensivesolutions rather poorly but it is better than nothing. As a side note if you have $14 left over after you spend your $80 you can make the amazing $14 steadyca which works moderately well.

Another pet peeve of mine is poor framing. Now, you may say to yourself "self, this scene is about my hero, Harry the 10 foot tall poodle raising giant, so I am going to stick his head in the exact middle of the shot because he is the most important thing. WRONG. Watch a movie, you'll notice almost never is someone centered. This is because it looks like garbage. Likewise, there is almost never tons of empty space above someone's head. This is because it also looks like garbage. Let me introduce you to the rule of thirds.

"The Rule of WHAT?! I hate fractions." Of course you do, but you will grow to love this one. Basically, divide your frame up into a tic-tac-toe board (many cameras even have a setting to put this grid up on your LCD). You now have three sections left to right and three sections top to bottom - or three sections right to left and three sections bottom to top or some similar combination depending on how unique you have to feel today. Regardless, you want to put your subject in one of these intersections, preferably one of the top two. You also want to make sure that it is a natural placement meaning that if your subject is facing left, you don't put him or her on the left side leaving a bunch of negative space. If you put him or her on the right side then all the space to their left is positive and filled with the intense emotions they exude - or something like that.

The best advice I can give is to watch your favorite movie (that is shown at theatres open during the day) and notice how they frame their shots. You will learn a lot quickly. Also plan out your shots - but you already did that with all of your storyboards right?

I can tell you how to build super cheap cranes and dollies to get professional movements but that is outside the scope of this general guide. However, there are several fine guides on instructables and the internet that detail the processes splendidly. If the demand is high enough, then I may create an instructable or two...

Step 3: Camera Settings

So I lied. The last section was long as well (except for those future lighting professionals who don't own tripods). This one will be short - I promise.

Turn off all digital effects on your camera. Turn of Black and White. Turn of mirror. Turn off solarize. For god's sake turn off Sepia. Seriously.

Also, if your camera has a contrast or color effect setting, put it on neutral or whatever setting gives you the flattest most boring picture. But I don't want my film to flat and boring. FANTASTIC! Then you are reading the right guide (just the wrong section) and have learned well. A flat and neutral image will allow us to do more color correction in post. If however, you don't have access to a program that can do color correcting for what ever reason, then go crazy with all the settings you want.

Also, NEVER EVER use LP (long play) but ALWAYS use SP (short play).


Step 4: Directing

Let's face it. You're an amateur, you're actors (and actresses but actors is shorter to type) are amateurs, I am an amateur (albeit a highly attractive one). Doesn't matter how good you are, the best directing in the world is not going to create an Oscar worthy performance but with some simple tips you can at least get your actors to outperform Keanu Reeves...

Actually, just one tip.

Let's take a hypothetical scene. You need your actor to sneak across the room to steal Harry's (the ten foot tall poodle fanatic we discussed earlier) prized Begonia. You turn to your actor and say, "I need you to sneak across the room to steal Harry's prized Begonia. ACTION!" What do you get? More than likely a poor imitation of the pink panther.

Take Two. You need your actor to sneak across the room to steal Harry's (the ten foot tall poodle fanatic we discussed earlier) prized Begonia. You turn to your actor and say (with a dramatic whisper), "I need you to walk across this room without making a single sound," you turn towards the crew (AKA your poor friend) and whisper, "action." What do you get? A guy sneaking across the room without making a sound.

See the distinction? If not, complain in the comments because I cannot verbalize whatever it is that I am thinking. Instead I am going to give you some critical jargon.

Start rolling tape: READY (wait for the rolling response from your crew or you may miss some action)
Start the scene: ACTION
Stop the scene: CUT
Last shot of the day?: MARTINI SHOT
And of course: THAT'S A WRAP

There's tons more but if you are that interested I am sure you can go look it up.

Step 5: Audio

DID YOU KNOW THAT a large portion of the audio you see in movies is redubbed later? NOW YOU KNOW. </Bill Nye Reference>

Ever hear of a film called El Mariachi? If you are making short films, you should. Even though I don't particularly like it - it is a prime example of low-budget independent filmmaking in a time when it was relatively impossible. The film, made by Robert Rodriguez, cost $7000 to make (though several hundred thousand to prepare for release by the studio). All the audio was redubbed. Am I saying you should dub your audio? Well, if you have poor location audio, yes. But let's avoid it as it is no fun. So how do you get good location audio?

If you have only a camera and no external microphone stop reading (unless you're interested in procuring one). I am extremely sorry but there is nothing we can do during production to help your audio woes. You may want to go into a quiet room and redub all of your audio by setting your camera down and talking into it from about three feet away but aside from that, you're out of luck.

Still here? If you are looking for a microphone (and I am assuming you don't have XLR mounts - if you do, you don't need my help) then there are a few options. Best in class goes to the RODE VideoMic. It retails for $250 but can be found universally for $150 and often for $120. This is a shotgun mic and can be used with boom poles. If you want a lavalier (what is generally used in news and documentaries - you know, the clippy microphone on their ties) then I recommend Giant Squid Audio Lab (and not just because of their name) who makes professional sounding mics for cheap ($25 - $90 and all you need is a mono mic - probably powered).

The key for audio is to get as close as possible and record it as loud as possible. If you have a shotgun that means use a boom pole. If you have a lavalier that means plant it on the talent or do like they did in the first talkies and stick it in a plant or something. You can record to Mini Disc, many mp3 players (I think iriver has an input), your camera (if it has a mic input), and one of many digital audio recording devices. If you are recording to your camera, you will probably need a 3.5mm plug extension cord of about 20-25ft. If you are recording to an external device, make sure to record an obvious sound and action (as in a clap board) so as to sync your sound. Camera mounting is also an option but you may pick up motor noise depending on the quality of your camera's seal.

Audio will get more time in Part III as I will discuss sweetening and hiss removal.

So, that's a wrap for Part II, at least until a remember all the stuff that I forgot. If you remember first, please let me know! Look forward to Part III - Post-Production within a week or so!

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    12 Discussions


    6 years ago on Introduction

    When will you be coming out with the part III of this ible? I am trying to make a youtube video series and would like to see the post production stuff as well!! I am anticipating it excitingly!!!


    7 years ago on Step 4

    I think what your trying to say here is: Let you actor act as normal as possible. Don't try to stress (Or. . . . Over stress) the importance of the act. Acting isn't exactly doing things different. Acting is doing things normal on stage, camera, etc. Your saying: A good way to get your actor to act, be as descriptive as possible! Instead of saying things like: Sneak across the room, say things like: I need you to get by this guy, but I don't want him to notice you. Can you just sneak through there as quietly as possible?

    It's especially best for those friends who like to screw things up a lot.



    9 years ago on Step 5

    "The key for audio is to get as close as possible and record it as loud as possible."

    Actually, not entirely true. there is a limit to how high you want it. in this crappy diagram:


    You want the audio to average at the end of this sentence!

    other than that, great i'ble! Hope this helps!


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Amazing Film....but am I the only one waiting for the part on post production?
    (Part III that is.)


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Awesome movie True u look kinda like vin diesel (well think it was u lol) i was like Get on the train Now now now Lol Make another !!!

    Loved it. And thanks for the mic links, me and my drama class are actually working on a documentary (about the drama class, appropriately), and we've been searching high and low for good mics on the cheap. We don't get much funding from the school. So anyway, thanks.


    Nice job hermes, a few things that should help one low budget film making (did plenty myself, including a whole three minute backstage film which was continuous shot around a school, which limited us to handheld. First of all tie a string to the camera, hold the camera up at the right height you need and tie the other end to a belt loop or your belt, this seems weird but it basically steals the principle from the string tripod, it's not hard to do and when still will give you a very steady shot in comparison, it also makes handheld panning much smoother.

    For low budget lighting I've always had a lot of luck with sunlight bulbs, their wider spectrum and sunlight colour temps makes them great for photography and cinematic work.

    Though dubbing never goes perfectly you can record the audio separately using a voice recorder or external mic MP3 recorder, if you record the sound and the scene well at the same time lining up is easy, one trick is to slap a wall or desk in the scene while recording as a reference. I learnt these things after doing the school play DVD, we stole all the mic input from the actors mics and used a set of three cameras to put it all together. However if you try dubbing afterwards then it's very hard to get the actors to say it the same again.

    As far as a tripod goes it's always a necessity in the end, even if it's homebuilt it's important, granted one of our most interesting productions was an hour of messing about, around five minutes of video around the school, mini tripod between my legs while I was on a computer chair, following the actors around.

    I liked your bit about directing, many amateur films fall down because people are either very silly or do something almost parodying what you told them to.

    One last thing is that it's always easier to darker in editing and will look better but don't over blow the image with light, interestingly digital darkness is easily retrieved even if rougher but washing out to white is irreparable.

    Nice job again, I'm looking forward to the rest of the series...