October 17, 2014

9 Cinematography Tips for Directors with No Space & No Budget

Cinematography for Directors - Ryan Gielen

Over the past few years I've contributed articles focused on my experience independently promoting and distributing my previous two features, The Graduates and Turtle Hill, Brooklyn. But before an indie filmmaker can distribute their film, they have to shoot it, and one of the biggest challenges on features of any size is the cost of creativity -- the demands of production can make it extremely challenging to take the time to visually articulate moments, scenes, sequences and themes the way you dreamed up in pre-production. 

On my most recent feature, Drinking Games, we faced this challenge constantly -- we made the suspense-filled drama for under $100,000 in twelve days, on location inside a real dormitory. My cinematographer Andrew "Tank" Rivara had to light tiny rooms for the RED, while the budget and the clock were working against us from the beginning! While touring the film at various colleges and film schools prior to our digital release, the audience reaction was incredibly positive, and two big questions kept popping up: 

  1. How did we create a film look on a low budget?
  2. Was it hard to film an entire feature in such a small space?

Given the challenges we faced, the questions we received, and our success (I admit, I'm biased) in making the film work, I decided to put together a series of five to ten-minute videos focusing on the scenes that best highlighted our use of the limited tools we did have -- a jib, a dolly, the RED, good lenses and creativity -- to help those who may face the same challenges.

Playlist - Cinematography for Directors
The playlist Cinemtography for Directors at youtube.com/RyanGielenDir

My hope is that whether you like the film or not, the thought processes behind these nine sequences help you make decisions when preparing to shoot your narrative short or feature with too little money and too little time. Feel free to post any comments, questions or feedback in the comments section and I'll reply over the next couple days. 

UPDATE: Drinking Games Cinematographer Andrew "Tank" Rivara sent me a nice, detailed note about his approach to lighting and shooting in such a small space. Great blurb and a must-read if you're interested in the videos below!

"I mainly used the desk lamps that were in the room because we didn't have the time to move around a fresnel unit, not to mention the space and heat issues. We controlled the desk lamps with lighter diffusion grades and black wrap, and all practicals were hooked up to dimmers. We swapped out bulbs regularly. Notably, we used clear glass bulbs for Noopie driven scenes later in the film to get harsher key lights. Sometimes this came out a touch uglier, but these bulbs felt right. We rewired the top fluorescent fixtures and rigged up a China ball that we jammed into the ceiling panelling, which was then controlled by the switch on the wall that actors could control. This was our main ambient light for the beginning of the film. We grip armed in 10'-18' China balls often, including a red polka dot one from Pier 1 that gave us a heavily saturated red fill light. We used small bounce and neg fill items often. Another interesting lighting issue was keeping out the daylight from our window, but still slow for Noopie to throw the phone out this window. All dorm room scenes were shot during the daytime, so this was a problem. Fortunately, the dorm room was located on the first floor, so we chose to build an 8'x8'x8' duvetyne box outside the window so that Rob could interact with it."

Thanks, Tank!

Ep. 1: Slow Dolly

Ep. 2: Introducing Characters

Ep 3: Marrying Set Design w/ Shot Framing

Ep 4: How To Use Whip Pans

Ep 5: When To Use A Spinning Shot

Ep 6: F*ing With Physics

Ep 7: Enhancing Conflict

Ep 8: Breaking The Fourth Wall

Ep 9: The Mirror Trick!

Your Comment

27 Comments

That mirror trick is super interesting. Thanks, NFS.

October 17, 2014 at 9:56AM, Edited October 17, 9:56AM

14
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Matt Bastos
Filmmaker/Writer
765

Thanks Matt- my cinematographer Tank Rivara (TankLightsYouUp.com) came up with that when he saw how small the dorm rooms really are. Glad you enjoyed.

October 17, 2014 at 11:24AM, Edited October 17, 11:24AM

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Ryan Gielen
Contributor
Producer/Director

Your welcome, friend. I really enjoyed your vision of meaning and symbolism with your set as well.

October 17, 2014 at 1:32PM

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Matt Bastos
Filmmaker/Writer
765

Thanks, very thoughtful!

October 17, 2014 at 2:06PM

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Ryan Gielen
Contributor
Producer/Director

Thanks Matt, theses tips are awesome !

October 17, 2014 at 12:54PM, Edited October 17, 12:54PM

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Bruno Marchand
Director/Motion Designer
147

I mean Ryan. sorry.

October 17, 2014 at 1:10PM

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Bruno Marchand
Director/Motion Designer
147

I will check these out. Thanks.

October 17, 2014 at 5:48PM, Edited October 17, 5:48PM

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Not filing the light in these episodes.

Much love <3

October 17, 2014 at 11:02PM, Edited October 17, 11:02PM

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Alex Zakrividoroga
Director
3841

My DP Andrew Rivara (TankLightsYouUp.com) lit the rooms with *mostly* enhanced practical lighting and I *think* the occasional kino, but I could be butchering that. He could tell you better than I could, but the lighting was extremely minimal because we simply didn't have space to light anything. Tank and AC Chris Falkowski (who also edited the film) hid small lights all over the place, but again, I would butcher it if I tried to describe how and where and why. I will see if they can weigh in.

October 18, 2014 at 12:43PM

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Ryan Gielen
Contributor
Producer/Director

What was your light kit outside of the practicals? And what was the decision to use that. I'm imagining that space and budget had a lot to do with those choices. Especially with the wide variety of camera moves and pans. Did you end up hiding lights in creative places a lot or just forego them for the most part?

And these videos are awesome by the way. I appreciate the time you put into them.

October 18, 2014 at 12:08AM

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Michael Markham
Actor/Filmmaker
836

Thanks! My DP Andrew Rivara (TankLightsYouUp.com) lit the rooms with *mostly* enhanced practical lighting and I *think* the occasional kino, but I could be butchering that. He could tell you better than I could, but the lighting was extremely minimal because we simply didn't have space to light anything. Tank and AC Chris Falkowski (who also edited the film) hid small lights all over the place, but again, I would butcher it if I tried to describe how and where and why. I will see if they can weigh in.

October 18, 2014 at 12:43PM

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Ryan Gielen
Contributor
Producer/Director

This movie looks good. Where can I watch it?

October 18, 2014 at 1:24AM, Edited October 18, 1:24AM

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Thanks Ian- Drinking Games is available on the following platforms:

iTunes
Hulu
Vudu
Roku
some cable on-demand outlets in USA & Canada

October 18, 2014 at 12:44PM

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Ryan Gielen
Contributor
Producer/Director

I just got the film from iTunes.

My thoughts:

What stood out most was the writing and acting (It was excellent) Secondly was the cinematography. The challenge of setting a movie in a dorm throughout the length of the film without being looking visually "mundane" is a challenge indeed. But you pulled it off, and you did it well. (The best scene was when Melony told her story to the camera with the snow falling indoors)

I had a couple questions about the the audio.
The sound quality was great. What did you do to achieve this? (And what type of gear was used?)

-Ian

October 22, 2014 at 3:02PM

12
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Thank Ian- apologies for the delay writing back, just seeing this question now. First, thanks for the kind words! The sound quality was due to the great work of our location sound team of Justin Harrison (JBH Sound) and his assistant Nicole Aleles, the beuatiful score from singer/songwriter Sonia Montez and the excellent mixing from Justin in post. I don't know what gear he used, but you can email him directly for bookings and advice (justin at JBHsound dot com).

The sound was a HUGE prioirity for us for two reasons- 1, it's true what they say, there are no indie movies only movies that sound indie (this is not literally true, but the message is important), and 2, in this tiny space, we did not want to make a tiny film. We wanted to add as many layers as possible through the mix. So we got great location sound and Justin of course did a lengthy and focused mix. Lazy filmmakers like to skimp in this area, and that is a huge mistake. Put the money into good sound.

January 6, 2015 at 2:14PM

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Ryan Gielen
Contributor
Producer/Director

Thanks, Ryan, for these tips. The power of mirrors is great. In narrow spaces, you may also use them to redirect lighting, even reflect sunlight.

October 19, 2014 at 4:04AM, Edited October 19, 4:04AM

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Frank Luchs
Writer/Director
195

GREAT tip. Especially for low budget/indie shoots. Thank you!

October 19, 2014 at 12:47PM, Edited October 19, 12:47PM

1
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Ryan Gielen
Contributor
Producer/Director

From my DP Andrew "Tank" Rivara, in response to the lighting questions we're receving (must-read!!):

"I mainly used the desk lamps that were in the room because we didn't have the time to move around a fresnel unit, not to mention the space and heat issues. We controlled the desk lamps with lighter diffusion grades and black wrap, and all practicals were hooked up to dimmers. We swapped out bulbs regularly. Notably, we used clear glass bulbs for Noopie driven scenes later in the film to get harsher key lights. Sometimes this came out a touch uglier, but these bulbs felt right. We rewired the top fluorescent fixtures and rigged up a China ball that we jammed into the ceiling panelling, which was then controlled by the switch on the wall that actors could control. This was our main ambient light for the beginning of the film. We grip armed in 10'-18' China balls often, including a red polka dot one from Pier 1 that gave us a heavily saturated red fill light. We used small bounce and neg fill items often. Another interesting lighting issue was keeping out the daylight from our window, but still slow for Noopie to throw the phone out this window. All dorm room scenes were shot during the daytime, so this was a problem. Fortunately, the dorm room was located on the first floor, so we chose to build an 8'x8'x8' duvetyne box outside the window so that Rob could interact with it."

October 20, 2014 at 1:41AM, Edited October 20, 1:41AM

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Ryan Gielen
Contributor
Producer/Director

Great series of tips!

October 20, 2014 at 2:31AM, Edited October 20, 2:31AM

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Crystal McGhee
Director/Writer/Producer/Actor
121

Thanks!

November 5, 2014 at 12:06AM

2
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Ryan Gielen
Contributor
Producer/Director

Ryan,

Thanks for sharing your tips and tricks - I'd be really interested to see some stills or footage of exactly how/where you placed the mirrors relative to the actors, camera position, etc. Thanks again

October 24, 2014 at 10:13AM, Edited October 24, 10:13AM

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Kirk Lohse
Director of Video Production
81

Hi Kirk, not sure how to do that on here but email me and I'll respond: ryan at believeltd dot com.

November 5, 2014 at 12:05AM

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Ryan Gielen
Contributor
Producer/Director

Ryan you are awesome, period.

November 4, 2014 at 10:17PM, Edited November 4, 10:17PM

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Tommy Plesky
Director / D.P / Editor
1950

Welp, definitely upvoted that. Thanks man, glad it was helpful.

November 5, 2014 at 12:05AM

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Ryan Gielen
Contributor
Producer/Director

This guy is pretty stupid.

November 23, 2014 at 12:32AM, Edited November 23, 12:32AM

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DewlparHawl
Director, Screenwriter, Cinematographer
139

Having a longer ASL is also beneficial when filming in a time and financial situation.

January 5, 2015 at 3:56PM, Edited January 5, 3:56PM

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Justen Noll
Director for JN Films
88

Hi Justen,

I'd love some more details. Can you elaborate?

Thanks,
Ryan

January 9, 2015 at 8:30PM

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Ryan Gielen
Contributor
Producer/Director