Making a film, whatever the budget, when you put aside story and actors and location and just about everything else, surely has to be about what an audience ends up actually seeing…doesn’t it?
What I mean is that the ‘look’ of the film, the way the camera interprets the vision of the director. This must be, in my opinion, of paramount importance. When we make films with little money and much faith, what we shoot on and how we shoot it becomes all the more vital.
These days, of course, we can shoot on our phones, although that really depends on the kind of story you want to tell. But how we ‘paint’ our picture is where the artistry lies and even with limited funds, or none at all, we can still find ways to conjure our vision and create our world on screen. Otherwise, what’s the point of doing it?
So how do we do that? Well, first we decide on what we want to convey and then we do everything we can to stay true to that idea. We take our time, we stubbornly refuse to compromise and we always stay true to the tone of the film.
It’s so easy to become distracted, to listen to well-intended advice, and then, defeated, take it. Getting lost in the process is something that can happen to any director, at any stage of their career. Take a moment and think of some of your favorites who failed you.
Some films are purposefully light on style, or at least the absence of presumed effort becomes the style, as nothing is ever as innocent as it might seem…see French cinema.
But sometimes I like a film where the style is so poetic that I can barely breathe. Where every frame seems intended to break my heart, ruin my life or make me forget my name. Is this an impossible task for filmmakers without the budgets for Janusz Kaminski or Emmanuel Lubezki? Well, they had to start somewhere, and I’m a great believer in the artist in all of us. So I think that if you truly want to achieve beauty in every frame, you will, even if it takes you a month to shoot a scene.
For us low-budget filmmakers, what we lack in money we can almost entirely make up for in time. We just need to insist that we deserve brilliance, as much as, or perhaps more than, anyone else…whatever keeps you at it really.
You need to study. There are hundreds of videos on YouTube about lighting, framing and focus. You need to watch the films you love, and even some that you don’t, with a scholarly eye. Take notes, be conscious of technique and steal everything else! Everyone does, it’s called “homage.”
I've seen so many well-executed and thoroughly produced films, especially low-budget ones, that miss their mark, not because of bad performances, lack of enthusiasm or really anything particularly specific. But there is something missing. Something lacking…an artist's soul.
Of course, if you want to make the next “Power Rangers” then go for it, but there could be artistry to even that if your passion is embedded in every frame.
Who am I to judge!? But I feel so strongly that the longer I am alive and the more I see, that what I see, how I see it and what it does to my very being is more important than anything else really.
It’s not even about perfection. Because perfection is usually boring. No, it’s about having a reason so strong that when you are on set with everyone standing around you, waiting for you to say “action,” that you hold for a moment and really give it the significance that it deserves. Move the chair a little to the right, dim the light just one stop more, change the actors lipstick shade, have them lean more to the left, change the lens, raise the tripod, add a slide to the shot, stop everything to whisper something revelatory in an actors ear. Pay attention, whatever it takes for you to do it, to make the difference between art and meeh, pay attention.
You can make a film in a day, and I have, many of them. You can make something truly wonderful in a day too, but at a certain point you can also move on, change your approach and take a year to make something else, something more, maybe better, definitely different, but, most importantly, something that stops your breath.