Making a film is one of the most demanding things you can do. Here are some filmmaking tips you need to think about during each stage of your produciton.
Be realistic. You’re a low budget film maker. Keep the number of actors and locations in your film to a minimum. Simple, well-executed ideas often make the best films!
Write a treatment. Writing a story outline is a great way to work out your ideas before committing yourself to a complete screenplay. A treatment is simply an outline of the story from beginning to end. It might incorporate important dialogue but it’s not necessary to script every conversation at this stage. When you’re writing the treatment, make sure you’re creating something that’s achievable and interesting. At this stage, it’s very easy to reorder events and add scenes. It will be a lot harder to restructure your film later on. Don’t commit yourself to writing the screenplay before you have a treatment that works!
Write a screenplay. If you’re serious about screenwriting, there is also a great piece of software that you can use called Celtx, which incorporates screenwriting and story boarding features side by side. This software is available for a variety of platforms. Whichever software you end up using, make sure that your screenplay is written in Size 12 Courier. This is a clear, monospaced font. Your pages should also be numbered for quick reference on the set. Make multiple copies of your screenplay and give copies to your actors with their parts highlighted.
Storyboard. Visit the location and carefully storyboard your shoot in advance. Think about where you’re going to set up the camera and where the actors are going to be. This is known as blocking. Principal photography will proceed smoothly if you have a very clear idea of what you want to do on location.
Create a shot list. A shot list is a list of all the shots in your film. As you are filming, you can mark each shot off so you don’t miss anything.
Select an appropriate location. Be aware that if you want to shoot in particular public places, such as a train station, you will need to get permission to do so. Choosing an appropriate and accessible location becomes particularly important if you need to re-shoot scenes. Avoid noisy locations. If you’re planning to film a scene near a busy road, there is very little you can do to reduce the noise of surrounding traffic. When shooting outdoors, even a slight breeze wreak havoc with your audio.
Use age appropriate actors. If you’re planning to make a film about a senior citizen or middle-aged woman, enlist the help of older relatives. There’s nothing more unconvincing than your teenage friends pretending to be in their mid-thirties. No one is going to believe that your pimply, younger brother is successful businessman, father or career gambler. If you don’t have access to older actors, don’t write parts for them in your film.
Ensure actors are given scripts well in advance so they have time to learn their lines. There is nothing more frustrating than actors who can’t remember their dialogue. If possible, organise a time to rehearse a scene before going on location to shoot it. If the actors know their lines in advance, principal photography will run smoothly. It is always inconvenient and time consuming to arrange another shoot.
Along with the script, provide an information sheet for the actors and crew, detailing the time, date and location of shooting.
Contact the actors and crew a week before the shoot. The night before, give them another call to ensure that everyone will arrive on time.
Make multiple copies of the screenplay. Bring enough for all of the actors. It’s a good idea to number the pages of your screenplay for quick reference.
Use a shot list. Put your shot list in a clipboard and cross off each shot when it’s completed. This will ensure that you aren’t missing any coverage when you start to edit your film.
When filming, it is important to do multiple takes from multiple angles. In the film making business, this is referred to as ‘coverage’. You want to get as much coverage of a scenes as you possibly can so that you’re not short of footage during post-production. If you’re filming a dialogue scene, shoot the entire conversation from a distance. This is often referred to as a ‘master shot’. Then film each side of the conversation in close-up. During post-produciton, you can cut from your master shot to the close-ups and back again. If there’s any problem with the footage, you will always have another take to cut to. Another good idea when you’re filming a scene like this is to capture several cutaways. A cutaway is a shot separate from but related to the action in your scene. For example, two characters might be having a conversation over coffee. You could shoot a cutaway of a character holding their coffee mug. If there’s any difficulties during the editing process, you can always cutaway to the coffee mug, then back to the action. The audience won’t notice and you’ve saved the time and effort of a re-shoot. Likewise, when you’re filming dialogue, always capture a few shots of the characters responding to each other. This way, if there is a problem with one of the shots, you can cut to the other character – perhaps nodding in agreement or listening attentively – and back again. Once again, you will have avoided a time consuming re-shoot.
Sound. It is a good idea to take a pair of headphones to the shoot so you can monitor the audio levels while you’re recording. Before you start shooting and the actors arrive on the set, listen to the ambient noise through your headphones. Often there are sounds – like refrigerators or air conditioners – that your ears don’t pick up but can ruin the quality of your audio. Perform a few tests with the actors. The sound of their voice should be clearly audible above any ambient noise. Poor audio quality is very difficult to fix in post-produciton. If possible, use a directional microphone or separate audio recorder to improve the quality of your audio track. When you are filming dialogue, the camera needs to be as close to the actor as possible. When you are recording with an inbuilt microphone, don’t go for anything apart from a close-up when recording dialogue.
Lighting. If you’re shooting indoors, make sure you turn on the lights and open windows. Ensure your characters aren’t backlit or the camera is pointed directly at the light source.
Framing. Ensure your characters don’t have too much headroom and there isn’t anything distracting in the background. If you divide the frame into thirds, the points where these lines intersect are where you should put the important parts of a shot. Having everything centred is boring. Using the ‘rule of thirds’ is the best way to create a nice looking shot.
Tripod. Using a tripod is one of the best ways to make your film look professional.
Smooth camera movement. Even if you have a tripod, become used to using the camera in a very disciplined and smooth way. The best way to achieve smooth camera movement is to put one hand under the camera and one on the side to keep your shot steady. Keep your arms and the camera close to your body to reduce shake.
Effects. Programs like iMovie and Final Cut Pro provide a range of effects and transitions. Keep it simple. There’s nothing more amateurish than multiple effects or gaudy transitions. You can create a brilliant film using simple cuts, cross dissolves and fades.
Copyright. If you want to use copyrighted music in your production, be prepared to pay a considerable amount of money to obtain the rights. If you choose to exhibit or distribute your film without first obtaining the rights to music, you risk legal action. As a low budget film maker, it is a much better decision to find music from emerging, unsigned artists. MySpace is a great place to make contact with new and emerging artists who are, often, more than willing for you to use their music as long as they are credited. Although social networking sites like this are great for connecting with small bands, it’s unlikely that Coldplay or U2 will return your email. Another option is to write your own music using program like Garageband or FL Studio. Be aware that your audience will often recognise loops. Do everything you can to make your music unique and different.