Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #109

And who really needs a highly trained cat with what CGI can do these days…?

Seagulls will act for breadcrumbs. So will pigeons and doves (even in slow motion!).

Dogs can act for their favorite treats (for example, bacon, which could indicate I was a dog, too, I suppose).

Good luck with cats, iguanas, snakes, spiders, or anything else.

I hear cats can be trained, but I probably won’t be counting on a decent cat trainer being nearby when I need a highly trained cat.

Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #108

Everybody pays attention to loud rain.

If you’re filming something that’s supposed to take place when it’s raining, get everything wet. Roads, sets, actors, everything. People might or might not notice rain on the video, but they will notice things not being wet.

If it’s cloth, sometimes you can get away with murder, but if it’s vinyl or a rainslicker, or a windshield, you’d better plan on sprinkling it, because people will notice.

Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #103

“…This one’s eating my popcorn!”

Punchlines work best at the end of the joke. This goes for a verbal punchline, a visual punchline, a story punchline, whatever. Set it up with the audience, let them build up a little interest in the Anticipation Bank, and then deliver the punchline.

It’s a trick I picked up doing stand-up and improv. It’s weird to think that there’s a mechanical aspect to comedy, but it sure seems to work.

And by “punchline,” I include non-comic things as well. Even in a dramatic moment, unless you’re very, very Memento-style clever, there’s a “punchline,” a place where something is revealed that makes sense of what you’ve already seen in a way you didn’t expect.

Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #101

Avoid international castigation.

Unless there’s a voice coach involved, really think about it before you use non-native accents. People are usually excited being in a movie and will go overboard and their lines pretty much become unintelligible.

Don’t get me wrong — everybody’s got at least one Dr. Who fan film in ’em — but just consider doing takes without the accents, too. You won’t regret it in editing.

Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #98

Or buy a typewriter, ya pansy!

You don’t need fancy software to write a script — any word processor will do. The thing to remember is that no matter how much you spend on software and learning curve time, you’re basically producing a document that’s supposed to look like it came out of a 1920’s typewriter.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #94

It sure would save time if we could really do this, though…

Security camera footage usually comes from high in corners. Please don’t just re-use normal footage when simulating a security camera. Strap a Handicam or something up in the corner and do it right. It’s just another angle.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #71

We’ve got the pow-ah!

Your location owner might have to lock their doors after a certain time, but if you ask nice, they might let you run an extension cord or two out through a little hole. Then, you can leave ’em coiled up after you’re done and come by in the morning and pick all your cords back up.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #62

But order it in advance!

If you have to rent a van, rent a van. It’s only about a hundred bucks a day, but think of what that hundred bucks gets you: You don’t have to worry about who’s bringing what piece of gear. Everybody just brings everything the few nights before to one location, and the night before, you pack it all in one van.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #53

The Wind Sounded Great!

ADR (depending on who you ask) is Automatic Dialogue Replacement. That’s when your actors come in to the studio and record lines over the outside crappy recording from on set. Pretty much every time you record outside, or in a noisy environment (such as a non-studio), you’re going to have to record ADR. Just plan for it.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #41

Except when they’re in the bathroom.

When writing a script, keep track of each character, and always try to know what they’re doing at any given point in the narrative, even if we never see it in the script or in the movie. Doing this helps keep the timing right, and the rhythm of the movie benefits from it.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #40

Or even a Furby!

Anyone who thinks animation has to be hyper-realistic in order to be emotionally connective never cried watching Bambi. Conversely, the more realistic an animation is, unless it is indistinguishable from real life, the creepier it is, even if it’s supposed to be happy. At best, you can achieve a creepy sort of happy. Usually, that becomes a “fail.”

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #38

Yes, even a nuke.

If you must have a live weapon on set, such as a pistol, or a shotgun, or a nuclear weapon, have one expert dedicated to babysitting that object. They must never let it out of their sight. Pay attention to what they have to say. If they say the actor is being unsafe, fix the actor — don’t shush the expert.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #37

You Can Always Shake it in Post!

Get a tripod! Battlestar: Galactica was a fluke — if you don’t lock that camera down, you’re going to make your viewers queasy. You can pan and tilt and even dolly if you have one, but unless you have a real good compelling reason, please, please, please get that camera on the sticks!

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #36

Even at the dollar store!

If you can’t pipe your sound into your camera, borrow a camera with a microphone jack and use that to record audio. There is no real difference between a ’spensive 16-bit digital recorder and a 10-year old Handicam that records sound in 16 bits. Except, well, cost.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #32

The operative word is “steady”!

A cheap-ass steadicam you built using $15 worth of parts is better than no stabilizing tool at all, especially if you practice diligently with it, but it’s not a $1000 Steadicam, and it’s not realistic to compare the two. Make do with what you’ve got.

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Low-Budget Filmmaking Tip #31

Get. The. Shot.

There are three words that should drive everything in Production: “Get the shot.” The only two types of activities on set are activities that help get the shot and activities that are preventing the shot. Keep the former going, and minimize the latter. Food belongs to the former category, by the way.

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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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