As independent filmmakers and content creators, we’re always looking for ways to maximize our production value. We want as much money as possible to actually “go up on the screen”, as the success of our projects will depend on it.
Most of us are well aware of this, which is why we are careful not to write big explosions or set pieces into our micro-budget productions. We’re cognizant of our locations, production design, coverage-style, and a million other factors that we know will ultimately dictate overall production value.
But really, this line of thinking only represents half of the battle. It’s what I would consider the creative side of the equation – ensuring your story, style, and vision are executable on your budget without cutting corners.
These are all extremely important factors, but it doesn’t end there.
The other half of the equation is entirely technical. Everything from choice in gear to technique on set (and in post) will have a massive effect on production value. This is where many films completely miss the mark, and give themselves away as being ultra low budget.
It should go without saying that anything from poor writing to bad location sound can knock your production value down dramatically. There is not one single variable (or even a set of variables) that will make or break your movie.
But for the purpose of this post, I want to speak primarily to visual production value. We’ll save sound and creative choices for another post.
So let’s look at some of the most common technical traps that indie filmmakers fall into, and how to avoid them.
In no particular order –
1. BAD FOCUS PULLS
This is often the first giveaway of a “cheap” film.
Properly budgeted productions have enough resources to bring a professional 1st AC on board to nail those tricky focus pulls. DIY projects on the other hand, are often are being shot by an owner-operator (with no AC), pulling focus right off the lens barrel, or at best using a low quality FF system.
While it’s entirely possible to achieve great results when shooting as a one-man-band, it’s never easy. Technique is absolutely paramount, as nothing screams “do-it-yourself” more than consistently poor focus pulls that distract the viewer and take them out of the experience.
You can get away with some looser pulls here and there as a means to stylize your project. But audiences – even those with no training the craft of filmmaking – will always sense a botched focus pull.
In some cases, it’s better to not pull focus at all than to do so haphazardly.
Many indie features play into the style of “locking the focal plane” for this very reason. That means the focus is set on one spot and characters move in and out of the plane.
The technique is not perfect for every film, but when appropriate it can help deliver a unique style while avoiding messy rack focuses that will only lessen the perceived value of the film.
2. LIGHTING WITH ISO
It should go without saying that poor lighting will make any film look cheap and unprofessional – in fact, this entire article could be dedicated to lighting alone. But I’ll turn our attention to the single most reliable way to degrade the quality of your film: Shooting at very high ISOs without any lighting at all.
There has been a trend in recent years to use high ISOs (largely on Sony and Canon cameras) as a replacement for proper lighting. These cameras have sensors that are incredibly sensitive, making it possible to achieve a proper exposure with little (or no) lighting. Unfortunately though, this never works as a substitute for properly lighting technique – no matter how “clean” your camera may be.
Great DPs know how to harness and shape light – whether the source is natural (such as the sun), practical (a lamp in the room), or just plain old traditional film lights. No matter how much or how little gear they may be utilizing, their focus is always on the shape and quality of light, not simply on exposure levels.
Amateur productions often focus solely on the technical exposure, while neglecting the quality of the light itself. So long as their images are bright enough and clean enough (noise-free), they are happy. But in most cases they have neglected to actually shape the light, failing to design a proper lighting setup.
So while their high ISO cameras are letting them achieve useable results from a technical perspective, they almost never look great aesthetically.
It’s entirely possible to shoot at high ISOs and still produce beautiful images, but that will never happen without still looking for ways to actually “paint” with your light source, no matter how small it may be.
3. BAD TRIPOD WORK
In my opinion the most important tool in any filmmaker’s kit is a great tripod/head system. It’s not as flashy an item as a gimbal or a drone (more on both later), so filmmakers often don’t put much weight into their choice in sticks. But that comes at a huge cost to production value.
If you’ve ever used a proper motion picture tripod, you know why they cost as much as they do (sometimes well into the $10,000+ range). They don’t simply hold the camera in place – they give you the ability to float effortlessly when panning & tilting, and offer an amazing level of precision.
Audiences are used to incredibly smooth tripod shots. They predominantly watch high budget movies and television shows, and have grown accustomed to a certain aesthetic – which is why it’s so jarring when a low-budget production has clearly skimped out in that department. And unfortunately, it happens more often that not…
Nothing cheapens a film quite the same way as a panning shot that has a bit of jiggle to it, or a tilt that feels completely uneven. So if there’s one item to invest in, let it be your tripod system.
If you’re on a true DIY budget, you certainly don’t need to spend top dollar to get a Sachtler or any other high end system (as great as they are). There are plenty of lower cost options out there from companies like Benro that will work for the vast majority of filmmakers. It just comes down to getting the best tool for your budget, and taking time to learn how to operate it flawlessly.
4. POOR HANDHELD/GIMBAL OPERATING
What’s even more frustrating than poor tripod work is sub-par handheld or gimbal operating. I’ve intentionally left steadicam out of this debate, as they are more commonly operated by professionals who own their own systems, and are less prone to visible technical issues for that reason.
On the other hand, handheld rigs and gimbals (like the DJI Ronin) are more often misused by filmmakers who have simply invested in the gear, but don’t have any real operating experience. And these filmmakers learn quickly that neither handheld or stabilized gimbal shots are not as easy to nail as they may seem.
A great handheld camera operator is worth their weight in gold. They know how to add or reduce movement to suit the needs of the scene, and how to dance with the actors to create shots that are intuitive for the audience to follow visually.
The same goes for professional gimbal operators – They can replicate specific camera moves with an amazing level of precision, and pull off shots that often seem unimaginable. They make it look easy, but trust me – it’s not.
Indie filmmakers often neglect to recognize the importance of technique, and simply want to rely on their tools – whether a simple shoulder rig or a rented Movi – to do the heavy lifting for them. But this leads to handheld shots that wander aimlessly, and gimbal shots that lack any sort of real purpose.
Personally, I would rather watch a film with no camera movement at all, than watch one with amateur camera moves. Poor operating can make an otherwise great film look unprofessional, and often distracts the audience more than engage them. So no matter what you may be using to support or stabilize your camera, remember that Technique > Gear.
5. UNNECESSARY DRONE FOOTAGE
Everyone and their mother now owns a drone, thanks to some incredibly low cost, high quality tools out there like the DJI Spark.
In many ways this is great, especially considering how expensive it was to capture drone shots (or helicopter shots) just a few short years ago. But as the technology has come down so far in cost, the use of specialized drone shots has become more and more frivolous.
With the exception of very specific projects that may benefit from the heavy use of drone shots, most are better off practicing restraint. Higher budget films will pepper in the occasional drone shot, doing so very carefully and purposefully to make the visuals more dynamic and add production value.
Lower budget films seem to get a bit trigger happy when it comes to drone use, often flooding themselves will an unnecessary amount of aerial shots. Two or three shots carefully placed throughout the course of a film might add some great production value and make for a more dynamic visual palette. But an over-use of these shots can scream “style over substance”, and will take the viewer out of the experience.
Not to mention, if the drone footage isn’t color corrected properly and doesn’t match the main material, things get even worse. More on that below…
6. MISMATCHED FOOTAGE
It’s not uncommon for low-budget productions to shoot on a variety of camera systems as a means to save time and cost. In some cases, this means shooting with a multicam setup – an A & B cam rolling simultaneously to cut down on coverage.
The caveat to this approach of course, is that shooting with more than one camera can create shot-matching issues. These are most obvious when the A & B cameras are from different manufacturers (such trying to match Canon to Panasonic for instance), since each camera and sensor has its own unique properties.
Even if all the settings on both cameras are identical and the same glass is being used on both cameras, they almost certainly will not match perfectly.
In fact, even cameras from the same manufacturer sometimes have matching issues, which can be a challenge to correct in post, even for a seasoned colorist.
Thankfully though, these issues can largely be avoided by making the right decisions in pre-production and on set. Personally I’ve done everything from shooting color charts to designing custom LUTs to match two separate cameras while shooting and in the edit.
Audiences are never looking for inconsistencies in color, but they always sense them – and when they do it reflects poorly on the quality of the film. So no matter what your setup may be (multi-cam or not), always do your prep work and ensure you’re capturing raw footage in a way that will be as consistent as possible before you even start coloring. Then, anything you do in post will be icing on the cake.
7. UNEVEN BLACK LEVELS
This is largely a post production issue, and one that I have seen plague more independent features that I can count. Just as mis-matched footage can distract an audience, so can inconsistent black levels.
Every film will have some variance from scene to scene in terms of overall luminance (brightness) levels. For instance a scene shot in the middle of the day under direct sun can and should look different from a nighttime interior scene.
But if there isn’t a common denominator that ties together every scene, the film will lack any sort of anchor point that would otherwise connect all of the shots. This is something I talk about at length in my Color Grading Masterclass.
I believe the key to solving this issue is to focus on the black levels – making sure the shadows are even across the entire project. You can choose to crush your shadows or lift them – there is no right or wrong creative approach – all that matters is that they match shot to shot and scene to scene.
So many other variables will change from one scene to the next – color balance, brightness, and saturation in particular. But if you can keep you shadows in the same arena across the entirely of the film, it will help tie everything else together and make it uniform.
So before exporting your master file of your movie, don’t forget to go through it shot by shot (preferably with a scope on DaVinci Resolve) and make sure your shadows are all landing in the right ballpark. If you can nail that, your audience will thank you!
I’ll be sure to write a follow up to this post at some point in the future focused on some other factors – like creative choices and sound – that affect production value too.
But for now, if there’s anything I’ve left out on the technical side, leave a comment below and let me know!
Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker, and the founder of the boutique production house, Creative Rebellion. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. Follow Noam on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook for more content like this!