It’s sometimes said that if you have a small budget you shouldn’t try to look like a Hollywood movie. But all movies seem like low-budget movies when you’re in the heat of battle. You’re always fighting the weather, the clock and the budget. That’s why A-list directors work the same long, stressful hours as the more independent directors.
When the big guys’ films look good, it’s not because of the money they have, but how well they used that money. Every cent you spend should be seen on the screen. Whatever your budget, try to make your film look like it cost 10 times that amount. The big directors do that every day, and you can, too.
Here are 10 almost-cost-free tips that will massively increase the production value of your film. These are the subtle tricks that become second nature to big-name directors. With these tools you can make sure that all the dollars you spend—whether $1,000 or a $100 million—look better than they have any right to look.
1. Intensify • Most first-time moviemakers choose a medium lens and set the camera up a medium distance from the actors, at an average height. They block the actors at a medium distance from each other, in the middle of the room. The result is that everything feels average.
Movies are about creating a hyper-reality, so push things to their limit. Why stand your actors a few feet apart when you can push them right next to each other? Or have them on opposite sides of the room? If you’re shooting a close-up, why not try an extreme close-up? Rather than having your actors parallel to that wall behind them, put them at 45 degrees. Look at every aspect of your set-up and see if you can turn up the intensity.
2. Enrich • Let things get in the way of the camera. Your aim should not be to get a clear shot of your subject, but to get a beautiful shot. You can do this by letting things get in the way of your camera. When shooting in a forest, shoot through the branches of a tree. When shooting in a bedroom, let the edge of that lamp into the frame. If you’re shooting with a short lens, foreground objects (such as those branches in the forest) help to create a sense of rushing motion. With a long lens, the foreground objects will blur. Many directors do this for no reason other than because it looks good. Also, if your camera is moving around your actors, that movement will be exaggerated if you shoot something in the foreground, such as pedestrians walking past.
3. Reflect • The best directors will show you what’s happening in two directions at once by using reflections. Watch a film such as Munich, and you’ll see how Steven Spielberg uses mirrors to show you the actors’ faces and what they’re seeing during one long move, without a single cut. Glass windows rarely provide good reflections, because they are designed to reflect as little as possible, so use them with caution. Instead, make the most of highly polished surfaces such as car bodies or marble.
4. Look • Whether you’re using a full set of prime lenses, or a digital SLR camera with a zoom lens, the focal length you choose has a huge effect on everything in the scene. Some directors leave lens choice up to the director of photography, but if you want input into the look and feel of your film, you need to know how lenses work.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that a lens only affects how much of a scene is in the frame. In truth, lens choice affects how fast things appear to move, how distorted they look and how focused the background appears to be. For a crash course in lenses, go out and shoot the same scene, from the same position, with every lens you have (or at various settings on your zoom lens).
5. Stretch • Once you know how to use lenses, stretch things to the extreme. Avoid mid-range lenses, such as the 50mm (which are close to normal vision), and use really short and really long lenses instead. The contrast will give you instant Hollywood.
Be wary of falling into the trap of thinking that short, wide-angle lenses are for landscapes, and long lenses are for close-ups. Try shooting a close-up with a short lens, like Peter Jackson does, and shoot a landscape with the longest lens you have. It costs nothing at all to choose the best lens, but when you get it right, it adds immense quality to your image.
6. Move • The first thing they teach you in film school is to put your camera on a level tripod. It’s good advice, but you’ve got to get that camera moving again if you’re going to get the Hollywood feel. There are many cheap ways to move a camera, from lightweight dollies and cranes through to the smaller Steadicam models.
Never move your camera for the sake of moving it, but use motion to enhance the emotion or momentum of the scene. The worst thing you can do is put in an occasional moving shot, then leave the camera still for all the dialogue. Find ways to move the actors and the camera as they talk, so that your whole scene flows.
Although you should get your camera moving, don’t assume that handheld is going to make you look hip. Handheld is supposed to add energy, and has worked wonders for J.J. Abrams, but it can be tiresome to see everything wobbling. It draws attention to the camera when you would rather the audience be watching the characters. Handheld has its place in certain action scenes or in the middle of an argument, but too much can leave the audience exhausted.
7. Level • It’s easy to fall into the trap of shooting everything on a level with the actor’s faces. Get out of this habit. Every time you set up a scene, ask yourself what it would look like if the camera was at waist level, looking up. What if it was on the floor? Or would it be good to look down on the characters? You don’t even need a crane to change the levels; getting low is as easy as lowering the tripod, and you can shoot from higher angles by raising the tripod. You can get even higher by using stairs or balconies.
Shooting actors from different levels can have a profound effect on a scene, so don’t change camera height for the sake of adding visual interest. If you look up at one character and shoot the other from head height, think of the effect that’s going to have on the power balance in a scene. You can use this to your advantage, and even show the power shifting, by changing the camera level as a scene progresses.
8. Locate • An interesting location costs no more than a dull one, but too many films are shot in ordinary parks and on ordinary streets. Of course, your film might be about an ordinary street, but if you’re trying to show mundane, make it the most mundane street you can find. Too many locations seem to be chosen by default, or to keep things simple. A Hollywood film feels like it’s expensive because of the layers of detail. No single thing makes a film look expensive, but good locations are a good starting point, because they inspire the crew, the actors and even you.
9. Trust • Put trust in the various departments that work for you. As a director, you get asked several thousand questions a day. It’s your job to answer them, but rather than create an environment where everybody wants your rubber stamp of approval, show them when they can be trusted. You will get the best results out of your hair, make-up and costume departments if you let them know they are as valid as production design or cinematography. Find the time to talk to these people; trust them to experiment and you will get a loyal crew who improve the look of every shot.
10. Ask • You are supposed to be the authority on set, the one everybody turns to for answers. This works well, but it works better when people know they can share their ideas with you from time to time. If you ever feel that a scene is not quite as interesting as you’d like it to be, reassure everybody that they’re doing a good job, and then ask them if they have any ideas on how to improve things.
Whether you ask the DP or the make-up artist for his or her opinion, you’ll usually get a lot of feedback. These people are usually storing up their thoughts and ideas on how they would shoot the scene. If you let them get this off their chests, you get a more inspired crew and you often get ideas that you can genuinely use. If you find you’ve opened the floodgates a little too wide, let everybody know you’ve been given as much inspiration as you can take for one day, and start running the show again. MM
Christopher Kenworthy is a working director and the author of the number-one bestseller, Master Shots.