Thursday, October 15, 2009

Production Value on a Budget

The age old adage "Good, cheap, fast. You can pick any two," certainly applies to Indie filmmaking.

You can make up for an absence of money (in your budget) with time.

You can make up for an absence of time (in your production schedule) with money.

Now let's talk about the "good" aspect of filmmaking...

We all want our films to be "good." That's generally a given. What makes a film good is sometimes open to interpretation - but not really.

"Production Value" is that not so little aspect of a film that lay people always seem to take notice of at least on a visceral level. We're not making films for other filmmakers, but FOR the "regular people", and these "regular people" are used to watching movies with multi-million dollar budgets, so to a large extent, that is what we (Indie filmmakers) are competing with.

There is no disclaimer at the beginning of a film that indicates the film was made with a very low budget or mentions the inexperience of the director, so you cannot expect to be cut any slack by a general audience. They don't know or care what went on behind the scenes.

I shot a feature length film once for a first time writer/director. His budget was about $10K and by the time the film was finished and had been rejected by every festival it was submitted to, he was itching to try and self distribute it. He'd invested a lot of his own money and probably some borrowed money into the production, so it's understandable that he'd want to see a return.

I told him to take a "service deal" which would yield zero return, but at least the film would be in distribution. The film would be available to the general public through the normal channels and would appear to be a success. Then at least he could move on with a first film in distribution.

I asked him why people would rather rent or buy a DVD copy of his $10,000. film with a no-name actor in the lead over a DVD copy of an $80 Million dollar film with Will Smith in the lead. I never got an answer to that question, and he's currently selling copies of his first film on his website.

I mention this fail (as I see it), because when you're competing with other films being submitted to festivals and then possibly competing for rental and/or sales, you HAVE TO consider production value especially if you have a weak script and a weak cast (a whole 'nother discussion...)

I suppose then it's possible to create another three tiered dynamic like "good, fast, cheap" using the more film specific elements "script, cast, production value," where a weakness in one aspect can be made up for by an abundance in quality of the other two.

Surprisingly, this works with studio films ALL the time since they do very well with films based on weak scripts because they have mucho production value and the best of the best in their cast.

But, what IS production value?

Production Value is really the overall quality of a film in terms of how it looks, feels, and sounds and is reflected in every aspect of the film's construction. Production value on a budget is achieved thus so:

Consider all aspects of production and make specific plans of attack.

I cannot ever stress the value of pre-production enough. I've seen SO much waste and lost opportunities on film productions based on lack of planning that it makes me want to cry. When literally 30 minutes of discussion with key crew members could save an entire days footage from being unusable, you start to get an idea of how valuable planning is.

Get great looking practical locations and/or build great looking sets.

Nothing says "cheesey" like scenes shot up against walls, in back rooms, basements, attics, or just in ugly looking spaces. You can really up the perceived value of a film by shooting in great looking locations.

Don't stretch your budget and abilities thin.

I see this ALL the time and I've never seen anyone succeed with this approach. When attempting a low budget film project, ALWAYS start with your budget, then the script, then the rest.  What I mean is, you have to tailor your script to your budget or you will fail. Period. And, if you are a beginning filmmaker, DO NOT, and I mean it, DO-NOT, attempt something that is beyond your means as a filmmaker. Keep it simple. Keep it simple. Keep it simple.

Don't start off with a budgetarily unrealistic script.

As mentioned above,  your film will suffer (or completely fail) if you approach a film production trying to squeeze a size XL film into a size S budget. You may think you can cut corners where it won't be noticed (on the screen) but this is an exercise that is best left to the professionals. Numbers don't lie and when you factor in costs and account for time, you will know what you can do and what you can't do. Your script must fit the budget. If you know you only have a certain dollar amount for production, then and only then should you consider what you can do with your budget.

Achieve great sound and cinematography.

How a film looks and sounds is huge, although it will not make up for a weak cast. It can however in my opinion partially make up for a weak script. Beyond just well thought out and compelling cinematography, there are tricks that can be employed that can boost how a film looks. Smooth, moving camera shots and great lighting can go a long way towards separating your film from every other hand held camcorder Indie. 

Sound, or more correctly - sound design, similarly will distance a film from the standard camcorder fare. Not only will recording quiet location dialogue (not easy in practical locations) help you immensely, but creating depth with foley and a real film score will push you way ahead of films that lack these elements.

Get a great looking (and sounding) cast.

The look of your film is what hits a viewer first and most often. Great looking locations shot at the right times of day that are lit well and photographed well are all as important as the faces and bodies and voices that populate your film. If you cannot afford "name" talent, at least try and cast good looking people. And by "good looking" I don't mean models, but I do mean, yes, good looking. Nobody wants to pay to look at ugly, shiny, faces for 90 minutes in a movie. Sorry to say, but that's just the way it is.  Unless you're making a film about ugly people, seriously consider the physical attributes of your potential cast, especially with a feature length film.

Having a great looking cast may sound superficial, but if you doubt this approach, take a look at successful actors and take a look at money making films. I hate to say it, but those of us who aren't gifted in the looks department do much better behind the camera than in front of the camera. 

Also, don't underestimate the value of good vocal quality with respect to actors. This is huge. Good vocal quality is essential in not only hearing dialog but also staying interested in hearing what a character says. Having to listen to characters mumble or fail to enunciate is a drag and will force a viewer to lose interest. And again, if you listen to the voices of successful actors, you will probably notice that they all enunciate clearly and have very good vocal instruments.

©2009 Chris Santucci


JBMovies said...

I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with your post. I think most low-budget filmmakers don't think about what they are really getting into before they start production and then find themselves dissapointed when they don't meet their goal. I also agree that the filmmaker you had helped should have found any way to get his film into circulation of some sort to get their name out there.

But I disagree with the idea of starting with budget and working back to script. I'm tired of the mediocre low-budget films that are based around what they have (highlighting what they don't have). I think with proper preproduction a filmmaker can find a way to make a film that feels like a budget 100x bigger than what they spent. I know because when people watched mine they tried to guess the budget and were always way off the numbers. To always limit ourselves to our budget takes away the artistic and creative element of filmmaking and keeps us in a "box". Take for instance the movie SIGNS. M. Night doesn't show the alien as much as implied. If a filmmaker used creativity they could imply more of their larger budget without actually spending money to pay for all the elements.

My point: we should reacher farther than our grasp but be prepared to pay the time and preparation to pull it off!

csan2c said...

I agree with you. I have mentioned the crucial need for prep to make up for lack of budget in other posts on here (and I think in this particular post too), but I tend to fall back on "The No-Budget Ten Commandments" when giving advice to beginners.

In a perfect world, filmmakers would take the time to prep and consider how they can make up for a distinct lack of budget. Too many filmmaker's either rush into production or they just don't know any better (like you said).

I also tend to shoot stuff that looks more expensive than it actually is BECAUSE (in part) of planning. There are examples all over my website of even commercial work that belie a big budget.