What does crunching the numbers mean for the visual style of a project?
Even with the democratization of filmmaking in full swing, shooting a feature is going to cost money. As independent creators, we try to find ways to stretch our budget with guerilla-style filmmaking, DIY rigs, or asking favors to get us to the finish line. But are there other techniques that can save us money without it crippling creativity? A sometimes overlooked answer is shooting black and white.
What usually separates cinematic films from the group is the ability to shape lighting. If you want to make it far as a cinematographer, learning everything you can about lighting is crucial. Budgets may not always be able to afford a gaffer (or grip), so you'll be the one stepping up to not only create the visual style that supports the director's vision but act as the lighting technician creating those rigs, placing fixtures, and managing the entire lighting setup.
When you understand what kind of budget you're working with, you can then start to consider your options. Sometimes budgets will inform the shooting style, as is the case with Netflix's The End of the F***ing World. Rules were devised which blended the best way to visually style the narrative around its low budget. If you only have a certain amount of money, it doesn't make sense to put all of it towards a camera body. There needs to be a balance. If you have this expensive camera but no lighting, your film is going to look flat and uninteresting.
Even shooting black and white, there should be layers of texture and mood and shadow. It gives the film a visual energy that connects the audience to the story in a subliminal way. But bear in mind, shooting black and white can require even more light than shooting color. When Kevin Smith shot the cult classic Clerks, he used black and white to his advantage. It allowed him to shoot just about any time of the day since matching black and white footage tends to be easier than color. The look also played to the idea that we're watching this story unfold through the security camera of the convenience store. This is a great example of a budget that dictates shooting style but also adds meaning to the look of the film.
Smith also added a clever story point that actually allowed him to take advantage of the main location. When Dante (Brian O'Halloran) shows up for work and finds that gum has been jammed into the locks not allowing him to open up the shutters, that was done by design. It allowed production to shoot all hours of the day (and night) without needing to worry about the position of the sun. It's something small, but those little things can go a long way when it comes to production. So don't be afraid to speak up if you have an idea.
In Depth Cine looks at 3 different budgeted films that were all shot in black and white. Let's take a look at what tips we can learn from those projects.
Natural light is your best friend
Natural and practical lighting is going to be your savior. When you scout locations it's important to not only look at the space to see if it makes sense for the story but to find out how the light plays in the room.
Using apps like Helios Pro can help you figure out the position of the sun at any time of the day. You're also going to want to think about the blocking in terms of how the light moves through the location. Just by moving the talent a few feet can save you hours lighting the room or eliminate the need for lights at all. Cameras today perform exceptionally well in low light conditions, especially the Sony Alpha series in the mirrorless world and Panasonic's VariCam on the higher end. Block so it takes advantage of the available light in the room. Then use bounce and/or diffusion to add texture and mood. Sometimes all it takes is shaping the light a little to give your shot that extra punch.
Consider shooting with multiple cameras
When starting out many of us are happy to own a single camera. When shooting with it, you get to light, block, and frame for that single sensor. All the magic surrounds that one camera body and it's wonderful. But modern productions today shoot with multiple cameras as a way to save time because of shortened schedules. So why not bring that idea to your next indie project. Director Alex Lehmann did so for his feature Blue Jay.
Using multiple cameras he was able to cover multiple angles while shortening the shooting time. Covering multiple angles at once also allows you to squeeze in a few extra takes because you don't necessarily have to move the cameras as much. The one caveat to doing this is it can affect how you light a scene and you might have to compromise in the image. So before you bring in a second camera, be sure it makes sense for the scene in terms of continuity with lighting and the action.
Do you have any tips for filmmakers? Share them in the comments.