DIY : Zero Budget Cinematography – Martin R. McGowan – Medium

Alexa Looks on a T3i

(As pretentious as that subtitle is, bear with me please.)

Last week I finished shooting my second short film. 
“Short” is a bit of a misnomer though, because we shot 63 pages of scenes in five days, which by all accounts is God damn crazy.

Pictured: God damn crazy

As I was winding up to get into editing, I shared a few images from the film to a pretty great reception from friends and peers. 
I even received a number of questions about how I made a T3i look better than it’s $300 price tag might have had them expect.

Now while a lot of these were from other zero-budget filmmakers from around the world who were in similar boats financially as myself, some of them came from people who were just curious.

The simplest answer is I used a Helios 44–2, and an ND filter.

Can’t say the cinematography is bad if no one can fucking see it.

Throughout filming we were under the gun, with tight schedules, long complex scenes, and lots of monologues. 
This left precious little time to move lights around, so we kept artificial light use to a minimum.

Luckily for me we were shooting in the summertime day, meaning we had plenty of sunlight for plenty of time. Even luckier, a lot of our locations had massive windows to let in loads of ambient light, that was almost all diffused by trees or buildings before coming into the room where we’d be shooting.
I had experience with using natural light in fleeting moments during weddings and photo-shoots, so it was just a matter of taking that knowledge and applying it to a situation I could control.

This led to 100% side and back-lighting.

It’s like David Fincher if he dropped down to 1080p and wasn’t nearly as good a director.

A lot of the look design of the film was centered around a pseudo-noir lighting scheme, letting a lot of the frame fall into shadow. 
The only color work I wanted to do in post was flattening out the shadows to give a faded-film look, and to mitigate the amount of banding and block-noise present in my 2011 cameras 8-bit codec, plus some light color tweaking to give each location it’s own feeling.
The key philosophy was I wanted to be enhancing instead of adding, since trying to pull a 180 in post would be extremely difficult, and ultimately not look nearly as good, on the limited codec of the T3i.

To help get the look where I wanted it in-camera, I tweaked the white balance of every scene to reflect that color. 
For example, a character named Delilah has her home associated with the color green, and that’s where the frame above comes from. 
The temperature and vibrancy of the green may change, but green remains consistent.
Likewise, the character of Frank (below) is associated with blue, Jamie with a brownish-purple in the shadows, and Charlie with a faded grey cast.

It’s all a process of finding the best fit for the scene before I shoot, then enhancing it, as opposed to shooting flatter than flat and figuring it out later.

Also, lights flare GREAT on the Helios.

Another aspect about the look of my (2) films is my hatred for blown out highlights. 
I really dislike how digital sensors (specifically my T3i) handle the over-exposed parts of an image, often as a very clean, sharp transition from color to blown out white.
This leads to me underexposing a lot of the time, again working with the knowledge that it’s far easier to retrieve information in the shadows than it is to pull anything from highlights.

Bonus: your actresses can turn into Aliens.

One of the huge benefits of shooting with a 30 year old Russian bootleg of a 1930’s German lens (try saying that five time fast, Jesus) is that the glass is imperfect, and flares in unique ways. 
It also softens and blooms out the highlights in a way that none of my more modern lenses do, while still remaining sharp enough to look good on a larger screen.
It’s one of the main reasons (besides the swirly bokeh and oval aperture mod) that made me decide to shoot the entire film on the Helios.

This means that since it blooms out so nicely, I can take it further in post instead of trying to fix it in post, which almost never works.

As Carla steps in, she is completely silhouetted against the bright light down the hall, until coming into the light to deliver her line.

I also never ran the ISO higher than 400 for the shoot, and even went into complete blackness for portions of the shots instead of trying to push the ISO or add more light in situations where time was not our friend, the idea being that if I did it with confidence, people would go along with it and think it was intentional rather than a workaround.

I also didn’t worry too much about eyelights. I like them as much as the next guy, but unfortunately they become a pain in the ass if you’re on a tight time-frame and need to get out of somewhere quickly.

This isn’t a huge problem for me, but I’m sure someone somewhere will review the film and deduct a star for lack of eyelights.

This entire 5-page scene was shot in two hours. Eyelights were a happy accident, rather than planned for.

The other HUGE visual aspect of the film is the effects that need to be done. In the story, there’s a character that’s manifested through dreams, and will be almost entirely a digital effect.

On top of that, there’s a mountain that the plot orbits around. 
That mountain does not exist. 
This means that for a particular wide shot, I’ll be creating the mountain from scratch and placing it into the scene.

An initial test. The giant mountain, possibly obviously, is not a part of the original photography.

The effects, much like the effects in my first film are meant to be invisible, but unlike Abigail they are significantly more complex. 
There’s even a shot in the film crucial to the plot that will be 100% digital, utilizing the program Blender and my own under-developed CGI skills, which I’ll be talking about more in a future article.

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Now this, meaning the CGI or possibly the whole film, may blow up in my face, but it’s important to remember that fucking up is okay
It’s necessary to the process of learning and growing at anything.

I’m twenty two years old at the time of this writing, and while to me that seems old, I know for a fact my life has barely begun. 
Whether I ever get to the point that I’m directing Mission Impossible 12 on the moon isn’t really important, but if I do get to that point, I don’t want to be making stupid, basic mistakes while strapping Tom Cruise to a space shuttle. Now is a great time for me to fuck up, while no one is watching and while those who are watching don’t care. 
I want to take risks throughout my career for as long as I can do it, but that doesn’t mean I like the idea of failing publicly, so for now I’ll enjoy my anonymity and if the day ever comes that I become Hot Shit™ I look forward to failing in brand new, beautiful, and unique ways.

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