Most filmmakers’ ideal movie would be backed up by an unlimited budget and full-fledged crew. However, a skilled director of photography can use the tools at their disposal to create a beautiful film, even with little—or no—money. To illustrate the point, filmmaker Gray Kotze put together this insightful video that analyzes three films with three drastically different budgets—low-, indie-, big-budget—to showcase the major differences at each level and share tips for shooting depending on your budget.
When it comes to low- or no-budget films, Kotze uses his own work (“Relics”) to show how he used a single piece of equipment, a handheld DSLR camera with video capabilities, to shoot the entire thing. Though limited in technical capabilities, the small camera meant that the crew could easily and subtly shoot in public spaces they wouldn’t have gotten into with massive equipment, and the single-camera shots gave the film a documentary feel. He also suggests shooting in ample natural light, like outdoors or in front of a window, or indoors with flattering or practical light sources since there will likely be no money for specific lighting equipment. Even with monetary and technical limitations, low- and no-budget filmmakers can control their framing, shot selection, and basic camera movements.
An indie film’s budget allows the filmmaker to spend on basic gear, access locations, and pay actors and crew. Kotze still recommends finding natural light where possible, but then using the extra money to supplement it with sources like LEDs, light pads, and practicals. He cites 2016’s “Blue Jay” as an example of an indie that used Christmas lights to create a soft glow in some scenes. The additional sources prevent the background from looking flat, especially in an indoor space with one natural light source. An indie budget may also allow for the use of at least two cameras: one for intimate close-ups, another for wide shots. Dual cameras can make an indie film’s shooting process faster and capture more diverse options for shots of the same moment.
Finally, an industry film is one whose budgets allows filmmakers to buy or rent all desired technical gear, build sets, pay a full crew and take the time to carefully plan and craft shots. Kotze references 2019’s “The Lighthouse” as an example of a film that had a budget to source advanced gear—including custom filters and large, powerful light sources—to create a cohesive “textured, weathered, orthochromatic look” fitting of the time period and mood of the film. He also suggests that those with an industry budget use grip rigs like technocranes and dollies that a crew can operate to create smooth camera movements, something that’s not possible with a lower budget.
The bottom line, however, is that money doesn’t equate to a good film. It needs to be spent wisely by a skilled DP and/or director with a clear vision. And of course, a good DP can create a gorgeous film on even the scantest of budgets.
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