Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #30

Think of it as “Contemplative Time”

If you can’t cut around bad acting, the best you can hope for is to be saved by your cutaways, and by the reaction shots of other actors. Another alternative is to rewrite the scene on-the-fly to be one of those moody contemplative scenes with billowing cloth and slow-motion cigarette smoke. I suggest you grab lots of cutaways, though.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #27

In a nutshell: Watts = $$

If you find extension cords for sale, especially long ones, get a bunch. Use a sharpie and write your name and contact information on each one, at each end. If you can, get a weird color (I have a purple extension cord that I have never lost), but if not, definitely mark them at each end. And it’s probably the case that you can’t have too many.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #26

Hell, I’ve been tempted to put my own name in the hat…

Have prize drawings for extras, if you have more than half a dozen. Everybody puts their name in a hat, and at the end of the shoot, draw for prizes. Movies are good prizes. Must be present to win. Helps ’em stick around longer, too.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #24

Beware of Werewolves, However

To simulate a full moon, try strapping a 1K Lowell DP, at the end of your longest tripod or C-stand to the top of a fully extended extension ladder. It worked surprisingly well for us. We were able to cut the light through apple trees, which made for even niftier shadows. Gel it if you want. Spooooooky!

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #23

But Never Surprise Their Bank Accounts!

If you’re going to trigger a cue with a countdown and decide to trigger it early to get a better reaction of surprise, you should be confident your actor(s) can handle the unexpected so you don’t have to reshoot the scene should they break character.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #22

The Great Red Eye of Disturbance!

If your actors absolutely cannot act whatsoever, or freak out once the camera’s on, make a big noise about your DP turning the camera off while you run through some off-camera rehearsals. Have the DP filming this secretly (“Just pulling focus, guys — don’t mind me!”). No matter how crappy an actor might be, they can usually be themselves with some reasonably convincing skill.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #19

…or hate it, but I recommend against that.

Making movies is fun. Never forget that. Maybe some folks do it only for the money, but I doubt it. I think they still want to have fun, and making movies is fun. If you’re not having fun, you’re probably not doing it right. Don’t get me wrong — it can be hard work, but the big picture is that it should be fun. Have fun!

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #16

Plus, ringtones are embarrassing.

On every shoot, there’s at least one person whose phone rings. The first time it happens, there’s a little bit of razzing, and then you move on quickly. The second time it happens, it’s trouble. If it’s not you that first time, use that tiny bit of razz-time to make sure your phone won’t go off. Even if you’re sure, check again. The second phone must never be you.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #15

It’s part of the foundation, y’see…

If you don’t have a dedicated makeup person, try to get one. If you can’t, let your actors know as soon as possible, so they can plan ahead. You definitely don’t want them showing up thinking there’s going to be makeup, and then having to do their own at the last minute with whatever tools-on-hand they happen to bring.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #14


Always be on time. Better yet, try to be a little early. Move heaven and earth to make sure you are not the one holding up Production. And if it’s not you, then be a little patient with whoever it is — it’s always got to be somebody, and your patience with that fact can help get things done later. This isn’t the Death Star, y’know…

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #12

Preparation is the antonym of frustration

Get the script to the actors as soon as possible. Give them time to learn their lines. If they ask about their characters, talk with them and make sure they have all the character notes from the writer. The more they know, the better their performance will be.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #11

There’s honor, and then there’s practicality

If anything goes wrong, the Director takes the bullet. If anything goes right, the Director thanks whoever did it. It’s unfair, but that’s the way it is, so if you’re the Director, suck it up and move on. Anyone who does it opposite comes across as an asshole and no one likes to work for assholes. Unless they pay a lot of money, but then it wouldn’t be a low budget movie.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #10

But not the single malt.

Sometimes, after a late shoot, when everyone’s busted hump and created Great Things, it’s okay to overspend the Craft Services budget and treat ‘em to a few beers, or a hot meal at the nearby tavern. Everybody can use a little occasional decompression time with the gang.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #9

The Director’s supposed to notice these things…

If you notice something that nags at your brain while you’re shooting, fix it then. Learn to trust that little voice. If you don’t at least speak up, then forever afterwards, you’ll see that same glitch and cringe inside. Chances are, three other people have noticed, but no one wants to be the first to say anything.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #8

Practice, practice, practice!

Rehearse scenes before shooting. If possible, at least a day ahead to give people a chance to work out the kinks, and if not, give them a few hours break between rehearsal and shooting. Actors need to work on their roles, sleep on ’em, and dream a bit. It’s usually worth the effort.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #6

Although we might need a gritty reboot of Gilligan’s Island.

Pick one person to figure out what the actors are wearing during each “day” and to keep track of that for everything you shoot. Give that person the authority to keep costumes and props with them. Unless you’re shooting Gilligan’s Island, people change clothes once a day. The viewers will notice.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #5

Where the buck actually does stop!

The Director determines the mood of the set. If the Director is cheerful and having a good time, chances are everyone else will be, too. If the Director is being bitchy and fussy and demanding, everyone else gets that way, too. It’s a law of nature.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #4

Sand makes for a terrible foundation

Make sure the story makes sense and the script makes sense before you start. Cause and effect should make sense. Motivations should be pretty clear. What happens at different times and places should be obvious. The script is the blueprint, and everybody uses it. Where it’s weak, everything else is weak.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #3

Of course, without a broom, you’re hosed…

Get it right on set – fixing it in post takes ten times as long and is twenty times as expensive as doing it again right there. Probably more, by the time you read this. Yes, I’m guilty of saying “we can fix that in post.” And for each of those instances, yes, I suck.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #2

Jump in the Line…

Rehearse any physical effect or stunt. Film the rehearsals in case you need some handy pickup footage. If people are rehearsing a physical effect or stunt in costume, even better. After a half dozen rehearsals, you may find that you have the footage you need, with everyone relaxed and focused during shooting. But that’s just a bonus. Rehearse the crazy stuff regardless.

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