Indie Filmmaking: How Not to Suck!

The low cost of film equipment and the digital revolution have brought filmmaking to the masses. However, there is still a great divide between making films that look and feel like professional movies versus somebody’s backyard hobby. When you watch a professionally made film, even a bad film, you can tell the difference right away from an amateur one.

Filmmaking is an art just like painting is an art. Even if you can afford paints and a canvas that doesn’t mean you can just paint something like the Mona Lisa. Fortunately, with an investment of hard work, studying and yes money, filmmaking can be an art form that more people can do and do well.

The first and most important thing is recognizing that film is not an easy art and that you need to put work into making a decent film.  I say this from experience. Even though I am not a world-class filmmaker, but I have spent a lot of time studying and making films as an amateur and took some hard looks at reality to see what my own shortcomings are.

Let me start with what may seem obvious but took me a while to really sink in. Good movies have to be much more than people speaking words in a front of a camera. I used to think that it didn’t matter if people didn’t always sound overly dramatic because real people don’t always talk like that. But you have to accept that movies are not a portrait of reality. Movies are the most interesting parts of reality, polished and refined and even exaggerated to tell an interesting and entertaining story.

If a film doesn’t look serious, then people won’t take it seriously. So how do you make a serious film without serious money? First, you practice. You start small, learn, and then get better and bigger, but never stop learning and never think you have learned enough. What does that learning process look like? Attention to detail and never just accept the idea that because you don’t have a lot of money that you can skimp out on the details.

I’ve watched a lot of low budget films over the last five years and let me tell you the one thing that sticks out to me right away. It’s when the actors are standing or sitting in front of a completely white wall with lighting that looks like home movie footage. This looks cheap and like there was no effort. There are some quick remedies for this problem. Pay attention to where you are shooting and find ways to decorate your set appropriately. Film from an angle that helps tell the story, and use enough lights that the camera can pick up all the details of the space and the person’s face. This won’t win you an Oscar, but it’s a start.

Let me outline the five basic pillars to transitioning from a movie that feels like an amateur production to one that actually feels like a film.

Make film as visual art. Ideally, you want every frame of every shot to tell your story and to look professional. Every frame should stand on its own. Even if you don’t have millions of dollars to spend on costumes and props and sets, there are a few simple things you can and should do.

  • Make sure every shot is chosen on purpose.
  • Make sure every scene is well lit.
  • Follow basic framing rules, like the rule of thirds.
  • You can do other angles but don’t break the standard rules until you know why they exist.
  • Show a variety of shots. You don’t have to switch things up every second, but get different angles of the scenes and if possible, get shots of the location and close-ups of the actors’ faces and focus at times on their body language.

Tell a quality story, not just a story that goes from point A to point B. Tell a story that is enjoyable on its own. Don’t just write your story down and go film it. Write it, rewrite it, have others tear it apart and then think about what your critics have said. They won’t all be right but get a multitude of opinions to hear what other people are generally getting from your story. Don’t ask them if it is good or bad, ask them what they got out of it and how they interpreted the story, and ask them what made sense and if they cared about the ending. Be willing to take your time to make changes and rewrite as often as necessary. The more time you spend and think about the story the better it will be.  Also, take some time in-between rewrites to get some perspective because you can be too close to the story if you don’t.

Don’t be afraid to direct your actors. Don’t just give them lines, but give them a character and if need be show them what that character is like and how the character would walk and talk. Along the same lines, don’t just give your actors words to say that take them from point A to B. Give them dialogue that sounds real but that also has punch. Not every word has to have a deep meaning but each sentence should tell us something about the character and how he relates to the world.

Focus on sound quality. Don’t overlook this part of filmmaking. Do more than just making sure you hear your actors. Make sure you hear them without any reverb or echo. This means getting a good mic close to your actors. You also must work to avoid the humming of lights or the fridge or the buzz of passing cars. Keep a consistent volume, even professionals have a hard time getting this right but your audience will appreciate it if they don’t have to keep reaching for the volume button on the remote. Make sure you use appropriate sound effects for the situation. This also includes not having ADR that has no room tone, it sticks out like a sore thumb.

Use your edits to tell the story you want. I have heard it said that a film is actually three stories: the one that is written, the one that is filmed, and the one that gets edited. You may have a great story that is written down but if you don’t get it on film, it doesn’t matter. Similarly, if you don’t put it together in the editing room correctly, the story won’t come through. Poor editing can change every single bit of the film. Keep your cuts mostly simple and keep the action moving. I’m not a fan of switching angles every two seconds but you shouldn’t stay on one shot for ten minutes either. Put all of these things together as best you can with your heart in it to tell a good story and you can and will make films of increasing quality. However, you do have to put money into filmmaking. Gear does cost money and while some people have made amazing films on iPhones, those filmmakers are pros who live and breathe filmmaking and they know how to make more with less. You can get there too, but it takes time. In the meantime, invest in basic equipment that you can learn and grow with, and upgrade when you can afford it and after you have learned everything about the equipment that you have. A lot of people like to rent equipment but if you don’t have equipment on hand, you can’t learn with it.  And when others see you invest your own hard earned money, they will know you’re serious and you will take yourself more seriously. I’m not saying go broke making films because you easily can, but you have to have some skin in the game as they say.

Take heart, everything I’m writing is to help others but I’m also writing to myself so that I will focus on getting better as well.

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