Your no-budget indie can still look expensive. Here's how.
While trying to become successful in the film industry, people will always compare your film, feature-length or short, to the best movies ever made.
So how do you create something that’s similar in quality, when those movies have multimillion-dollar budgets, A-list actors, and what seems like an army of a crew? The answer is simple—high production value.
High production value is what is going to draw viewers in and keep them there. In order to duplicate the look and feel of blockbuster hits, all you need is a little ingenuity and movie magic.
I learned a few things to get my career going that will hopefully help you or a filmmaker you know who is just starting out. While making my short film, The Battle at Home, I utilized these tips and tricks to make my no-budget indie look like a studio-backed production. The film helped me land my first job as a producer and an actor on a feature.
1. The Poster, Title, and Logline
These are the three most important marketing tools to get your viewer hooked and boost production value before a single frame of footage is seen.
So do your research and make sure these are clever, brief, and original.
For the poster, I got a friend to come to set with their professional camera to take photos while on location and in costume. If you have an iconic scene, use it for the poster.
For the title, I made something that had multiple meanings in relation to the story, and the logline helped explain that.
Example for The Battle at Home: "After returning home from the armed forces, a young veteran attempts to revive his pursuit of a professional baseball career."
Filming at particular public or private locations will make your film look much more expensive and believable because the sets are real!
Movie sets exist all around us, so keep an open eye in everyday life and write a script with locations that you can gain access to, whether through permit, permission, or a small rental fee.
For my film, just to name a few, I utilized baseball stadiums, a concrete plant that doubled as a war-torn country, and a crowded vacation town’s boardwalk, all with natural, house, or on-location lighting, that looked amazing. The bigger the better.
Get right to the action and drama. People tend to get distracted and/or will judge your work very quickly. Your characters should experience some sort of conflict right away to keep viewers interested. Even if it’s a slow-paced drama, you can create an exciting opening scene. Then, if you bring the story full circle through obvious and not-so-obvious plot points, everything will seem very detail-oriented and intentional.
It seems obvious, but finding people who can look and play the part and are reliable is very important. Having seasoned professionals can really make all the difference, but they don’t always look the part, so sometimes that’s a friend, or a family member that isn’t even an actor, let alone a famous one.
I used my actual brother to play my fictional brother.
The right casting will elevate a production tremendously and contribute to the main story through authenticity.
Color grading is what is going to create an enhanced reality in post-production, but you need to have the raw materials to create beautiful imagery. Your characters’ wardrobe will dictate their personalities or emotions, but should also interact with the colors of the set. This color compliment or contrast will contribute to the overall theme.
Specific color palettes will create a cohesive look and set the mood for an overall more enjoyable viewing experience.
If your scene calls for extras, you better have them, otherwise don’t write that scene. Filming at a crowded public location with a shallow depth of field can be a solution. You won’t see their faces, but you also won’t need releases since they’re already blurred out.
You will have to make sure your footprint is small and your camera and microphones are incognito, because people will always ask what you are doing and then slow down production.
You can also write scenes that only call for a few actors, and then your extras can be crew members in the background or crossing your frame.
Find people who are good at what they do, and then trust them to do just that. You can get talented people involved by writing a script with a positive moral. Once you have a solid crew, give them some freedom and opportunity to make creative decisions.
Filmmaking is a collaborative effort, therefore making us stronger together. The crew should also consist of people who care about the material, are invested, and have similar career goals. This effort will affect the quality of the final product and the journey to get there.
But remember no matter how fun it seems, it’s still work, so profusely thank them.
8. Establishing and Wide Shots
If you can get them, shoot them, and then use them. These introduce the story world and make the whole production look bigger and more inviting.
If you can’t get an establishing shot due to location restrictions or framing, that’s okay. You don’t actually need to be filming at a particular location to make people think you are there. Hollywood does it all the time by filming establishing shots in one place and then the rest of the film is shot somewhere else or in a studio.
You can go online and find inexpensive royalty-free stock footage for your establishing shot, and then cut to the closer angles or your interior scenes so the viewer won’t think twice. Just make sure they match.
9. Time Management
Time and money allow big productions to get all the cool shots they want while on set, but sometimes you only have three hours to shoot something that in reality should take three days.
So what do you do? Create a shot list. I like to make one with a schedule and hard outs, down to the minute.
There’s never enough time on set, but if you have someone keeping track, it helps tremendously. Then when filming, go handheld as much as possible and/or have multiple cameras. This will allow you to get all the specific shots you want and the coverage you need in order for your edit to flow properly. Less camera setup time equals more time on camera.
10. Post Sound Design and Music
SFX and musical scores usually seem like an afterthought for independent films, but they make the whole experience come together. They hypnotize you and make you forget you are even watching a movie. The most popular films and shows have memorable musical scores and cool SFX, so you have to meet that expectation.
For my film, I used an inexpensive royalty-free stock SFX and music site, where some really great artists have their music available for licensing once you have a subscription. Or you can always get a composer/musician who wants to get their work into film.
With limited resources, you can be well on your way to a long and successful career with the help of high production value. All you need to do is create films that look great, sound great, and flow well. Oh, and create an entertaining and enticing story that audiences will love and won’t forget.