So....how much does it cost to make a movie? Well, that's all relative. It depends on quite a few things: your budget, production needs, your budget, post-production needs, your budget, distribution and exhibition goals, your budget, and most important of all....your budget.
Wait I wrote "your budget" how many times? Believe me when I tell you it wasn't a typo (shocking, right?). Let me put it this way. You have direct control over how much your movie is going to cost. It's not like there is some magical formula out there on Pinterest that can show you how to calculate any of this. You decide how much it costs and you control the expeditures. Of course, this is if you are the independent filmmaker. If you're working for someone else, then obviously they have a say in how the budget will be structured.
Don't fall into the myth that good movies take a lot of money. Sure if you want to have all studio-grade equipment, A-list actors, tons of Special FX, elaborate costumes, and etc., then yeah....you're going to be looking at a few million. However, you can make a fantastic movie on a shoestring budget. My first feature-length documentary, for example, cost just under $13,000. That doesn't even pay for craft services on a Hollywood blockbuster film. I know guys that have done it for less and I know others who have done it for nothing. It all depends on how organized, resourceful, and skilled you are.
The first thing you do before you do anything else is work out a budget for your movie. You need to aim high and then try to undercut yourself by saving money where possible. You want to aim high as a measure of "preparing for the worst" should you need to purchase everything on your list. So, don't be afraid to inflate the figures a bit, but then when it comes to making actual purchases or paying for services, try to save money where possible so that you don't risk your movie running with a deficit. Plan big, start small.
You can search online for budget templates that can help you get started if needed. But one thing is for sure.....you must be dedicated and headstrong in keeping this budget to the penny. You can't just play this off like a New Year's resolution filled with good intentions of making promises (and then not keeping them). You really must be responsible and stalwart in your budget so that you don't jeopardize the success of your film. Remember back in the other post about getting started where I mentioned that most businesses fail because of poor planning, debt, or unable to manage finances? BINGO! You don't want to be one of those guys that starts something great and then declares bankruptcy 6 months later because you can't keep a budget. How embarrassing, right? You created your empire and you want it to stay around for a long time. Unfortunately, money is the sole element that can bring your movie or your business to it's knees. Don't make the horrible mistake of letting things get out of hand.
In order to formulate a good budget, you need to do some cost research and analysis. Get on the Internet and scope out equipment that you need to buy. Scout out people as potential help. Talk to other filmmakers about what their experiences have been. Go window shopping to price mundane things you might need. Be meticulous in note taking -writing down how much an item is and where it is being sold. It is a good idea to do this several months ahead of your filming schedule so that you can watch for sales or free shipping promos. Doing good research pays off big when planning your budget. Just hold yourself to it at all COSTS!
So......codecs. What the heck are they? Well, it's how your movie will be encoded in order to provide proper playback on the device or medium you want the video to be seen. There are certain codecs required for You Tube and Vimeo. There are certain codecs required for burning to a DVD or Blu-ray. There are also codecs that allow you to render uncompressed video footage which gives you the best picture quality available (along with an enormous file size to deal with).
There's a lot of talk going on nowadays about RAW, Pro Res 422, VXCAM 422, DnX 422, 2.5K, and 4K. Where do those file types come from? Your camera. Most DSLR, Consumer, and some Prosumer cameras record video data as AVCHD files (Advanced Video Codec High Definition) -which is a format owned by Sony and Panasonic. In order to get the higher quality RAW or uncompressed formats, your camera needs to have the capability to record data in that format. Cameras like the Blackmagic Design 2.5K/4K, the Blackmagic Pocket, Canon 60D, Canon 5D Mark III, Sony FS700, and etc. You cannot simply take an AVCHD file and upgrade it to 4K RAW. That just simply cannot happen primarily because the RAW format records tons more data and creates a picture size so much larger than standard AVCHD.
So, what's the big deal. Why can't you use just any codec and be happy with it? Well, again, it comes back to your end game. What will you be doing with this video? That will determine the quality you want to have. But, be wary. Some HD codecs can compress your video down so much, that it will have no difference between standard definition and high definition. It is important when choosing a codec to see how big the exported file size will be. The larger the file size (MB or GB), the better quality it has because it's not compressing the data so much. Most software programs will tell you what the file size will be after exporting is complete. If your software does not, then..............get a different software. Adobe Premiere, Final Cut, AVID, Sony Vegas....all let you see the file size before exporting.
Here are some options to consider for export codecs:
There are lots of tutorials out there to help you decide which codec is best for your project, but ultimately you will have to decide which one gives you the quality you are looking for. You also need to recognize that what ever device will be playing your video, it needs to have the proper codecs to decode the video format. DVD and Blu-ray players generally do not support Apple ProRes 422 or XDCAM 422 unless you author the video file onto a DVD or Blu-ray disc. Likewise, online streaming services generally do not accept uncompressed codecs because the file size is too large.
It's always a good idea once you have completed exporting your video to play the video on several different sources to make sure it works on a variety of things.
So….fundamental camera shots. There are a few basic things you need to master about types of camera shots. Really, when you think about it, there’s not actually a lot you can physically do with the camera. No matter what position you place your camera in, it will be doing one of these fundamental shots.
Wide Shot: Generally called an “establishing shot” because it is wide enough that we can visually identify the surroundings of the subject
Medium Shot: If a person, for example, usually from the chest up.
Close Up: If a person, just the head.
Pan Left: Turning the camera left
Pan Right: Turning the camera right
Tilt Up: Tipping the camera up
Tilt Down: Tipping the camera down.
Dolly: Moves camera to, away from, or parallel to the subject
Jib: Camera is mounted on a balanced crane that provides a wide range of motion in any direction
Zoom In: Use telephoto controls to make the image appear closer.
Zoom Out: Use telephoto controls to make the image appear farther away.
Trucking: Matching movement of the camera with the subject so that the subject stays in the same position on screen, but the background is changing.
Rack Focusing: Focusing between near and far objects. Helps to create depth-of-field.
Steadicam / Flycam: Handheld or harness devices that allow for POV or human-like movement.
Sliding: Camera is mounted on a slider which allows the camera to move from side to side.
These are pretty much the only things you can do with a camera, but how you employ them artistically is what makes your video look professional.
When deciding camera movement, ask yourself if it’s really necessary. Everything that the camera does should be deliberate and help to visually tell the story of the script. Too much camera movement, movement at the wrong time, or highly-exaggerated movement will be a distraction. You don’t want to ever do anything to distract viewers from the message of the film. Don't create a camera movement just because you can. That comes across as gimmicky and unnecessary.
There are many video tutorials available online that can demonstrate these shots for you as well as show you ways to make them more creative.
So….let’s talk about framing. What is framing? Well, let’s go back to that family portrait from J.C. Penney that we talked about in a previous post about lighting. Pretend that the photographer actually took a decent picture. So, you decide to frame it and hang it up in your living room for everyone to see.
Ok…that doesn't really have anything to do with camera framing.
Framing is all about the “Rule of Thirds”. If you abide by this simple concept, you will never go wrong. Many amateur or inexperienced filmmakers make the big mistake of centering the subject directly in the middle of the screen. Makes sense right? Keeps things symmetrical with plenty of room on all four sides of it, right? Ummmm…..wrong. Why? It’s boring and in some cases, problematic. That’s why.
Unless you want all your films to look like DMV photos or your 8th grade school picture, you should offset the image that your camera is seeing to coincide with any action taking place or the direction that emphasis or action is coming from.
Take the image in the picture here, for example. See how it is offset? The road is not placed directly in the center of the shot. It is placed to the side which makes the image more pleasing to look at.
The red lines running across the image seen here depict the Rule of Thirds. Wait! It’s a Tic-Tac-Toe board! Yeah….but don’t call it that unless you want to see eyes roll in disgust. Simply, where the lines intersect is where you should frame the subject. Generally, you should always position people in the upper-left or upper-right quadrants where those lines intersect.
If you are doing a landscape, then position the main object of interest to one side –typically towards the side that has the lesser amount of light or the side that doesn’t have any action…like the back of a person’s head.
In order to keep framing consistent if having to shoot multiple takes of a scene, you should put Marks where your talent needs to stand, where the object needs to be placed, or where the camera needs to stop moving. This will get rid of any guess work and make filming go much smoother. That way your actors don’t keep standing or moving in different places and you don’t have to keep guessing where to frame the shot.
Remember that several key elements are working together to create your artistic vision. You have the lighting which sets the look and feel of the shot, you have the camera angle which provides perspective within the scene, and you have the framing which is what the camera will actually, physically capture. If your framing is off, the lighting may not look right or you may have to adjust the camera angle. This is why Marks are so important in regards to framing. Keeping movement or position consistent will lessen the chances of a continuity error occurring or the lighting and camera angle getting off.
Remember that you cannot really adjust framing during editing. You can make subtle changes in position or even zoom in a little, but there are limits on what you can accomplish. It is best to set up the shot and frame while Blocking a scene. Once the right camera angle has been found and the lighting adjusted for that position, place a Mark on the floor for the talent to remember the position and also mark any camera movements so everything stays consistent and fluid throughout filming –especially when filming multiple takes of the same scene.
To help you, most prosumer, DSLR, Full Senor, and Professional video cameras have built in overlays that will show the Rule of Thirds grid on the camera monitor. This will help you frame your shots better and keep talent where they are supposed to be on screen during camera movement. In addition, if you can connect your camera to an external monitor, these monitors generally have the ability to place the grid over the image. Don’t worry, whether you have the grid displayed on your camera or an external monitor, it will not actually be recorded.
Now, are there times when you want to center your subject? Sure…if your artistic direction calls for something specific like that. There is no problem there at all. However, you should not consistently center everything in every shot of your film. It will look strange.
My challenge here is for you to put on your favorite movie and sit down with a pad of paper and a pencil. Take note of how the main subject in the scene is framed. Think of how things are framed when someone is walking or running. How are they framed when talking to someone? How are they framed when looking at something? How is the landscape framed? How is the airplane or the car framed in relation to the direction it is travelling?
I think you will be surprised to note that most things are never centered. Even things you think are centered are usually positioned in the upper-center quadrant –not the dead center….like a center shot of a person. They may be centered in the shot, but their face (the area of emphasis) is actually located towards the upper-center area. You may think that the shot of a sunrise or the ocean is centered, but the horizon is actually positioned in either the upper or lower thirds of the screen. Go ahead. Give it a shot and see what you find out. Another post deals with different camera shots. Be sure to check it out.
So……audio formats. You are probably already familiar with the two most common formats: MP3 and WAV. MP3 is a compressed file that is standard for anything on a CD album, Apple iTunes, and most internet digital download services –basically anything for the average consumer. WAV files are usually not as compressed (or not compressed at all) and gives you a better audio quality. However, when it comes to the world of film, there are LOTS of different formats.
Most portable field recording devices (such as Zoom or Tascam -as mentioned in another post) record in WAV formats and you generally have control over how much it is compressed. It might be good to stop and Google “WAV” at this point to learn more about the intricacies of this format. Basically, if you capture sound at 96kHz in 24-bit, you would have really good, relatively uncompressed audio. Anything less than that and you start to lose quality.
More sophisticated devices and even some prosumer cameras can capture Linear PCM audio. What’s that? It’s purely uncompressed audio. Think of it as the same as RAW for video. In fact, DVDs and Blu-rays use Linear PCM audio. Given the option, you should always choose LPCM over anything else your camera or recording device has to offer. It will give you the highest fidelity –of course the quality also greatly depends upon your recording equipment.
Most video editing software available (stay away from the free or cheap versions…we’re talking pro stuff here) accepts LPCM just fine. You don’t even have to worry about it. There’s no need to convert it into WAV (unless you have a lousy software program). You should avoid using any audio on your film that is MP3 format since it is highly compressed. Sound effects and music should always be in at least a WAV format.
Once you have finished editing your video, you must now edit your audio. Keep in mind that your video editing software is just that….VIDEO editing software. Your program may give you tools to add effects or correct audio, but they generally are just bandaids and shouldn’t be relied upon. To give your video truly professional sound, you must export your audio into an audio editing software program. There are many of them out there and most professional video editing software programs have audio software included with the product. Here’s a list of audio editing programs that come bundled with video editing software:
Adobe Premier – Adobe Audition
AVID Media Composer – AVID Pro Tools
Sony Vegas Pro – Sony Sound Forge
Final Cut Pro – Audio Essentials
There’s also numerous other programs out there for professionals like Steinberg Nuendo that can do much, much more –but have a pretty stiff price tag associated with them.
Another post will deal with how to export and mix good audio.
Learning how to capture and mix good audio is just as essential as learning how to capture and edit good video. Both work together and either one can take the whole project down if not done right.
So… audio. Gosh, this is a can of worms. Audio can either make or break your project. You could shoot the most wonderful video footage with stunning scenes comprised of the most beautiful lighting or special effects, but if your audio sounds like you recorded with a cassette tape recorder circa 1983, you are in very, very,……..very bad shape. There is absolutely nothing you can do to fix badly recorded audio. No software in the world and no sound engineer in the world can fully repair poor audio. Images make up half of your movie. Audio makes up the other half. Both work in tandem to create the artistry you hope to achieve. You cannot have a good film if one of these two elements is lacking.
“So, the built-in mic on my camera isn't good enough?”, you might ask? Absolutely not. If you want all your dialog to sound like monkey poo, then fine, go ahead. Otherwise you are going to have to invest in some additional resources to get that high-quality, professional sound that people expect to hear.
You have probably seen behind-the-scenes movie footage of someone next to the camera holding a long pole with a microphone attached to it. Why does the dialogue in movies sound so good? Because of that guy right there. He is pointing a highly-sensitive, directional microphone right at the chest (That’s right….you never point mics at people’s mouths. You point them at the chest.) of the actors to capture what you hear on screen. Sure an audio engineer will sweeten things later in post-production, but this guy (called a “Boom Operator”) has one of the most important jobs on the set.
If recording good audio for major blockbuster movies is imperatively essential, then your small-time operation better follow suit. Audio will help distinguish your videos from others whose audio quality appears very poor and amateur. Plus people will appreciate the extra time you put in before filming to make sure audio levels are good and that there are no unwanted background noises. Keep in mind that high quality microphones are much more sensitive than your ear and therefore hear things that you do not. This is why it is essential to have a good set of headphones with you so that you can listen to the environment as well as to the dialogue.
To help you get started, here is a rundown.
Since you will most likely be recording audio to an external source, this means that you will have to sync your audio and video together in your video editing software program. This can be a painstaking process, but a vital one nonetheless. People will find it distracting, comical, and frustrating if you don’t have your audio track properly synced with your video track. This is very unprofessional and just a big “No-No” that you must avoid at all costs. There is software available that can sync your two files together, but none should be trusted completely. It is also best to manually check and not just assume that the software got everything right. Me, I always go for manual syncing.
Now, there is a good/easy way to go about syncing and there is a bad/hard way of going about syncing. If you want to go the easy route then it takes just a teeny, tiny step during filming to make a ginormous difference in syncing.
You’ve all seen the guy who holds a slate in front of the camera just before filming. He often says something like “Scene 5, Take 8” and then claps the slate together. Well, the slate performs two functions. One, the slate identifies the Take so that during editing you can easily identify which footage you want to use AND the actual clapping noise that the slate makes serves as an audio marker!! Holy Cow!! Amazing isn’t it?! So, all you have to do is match up the audio clap with the video frame where the slate comes together and…..VIOLA!! Tracks synced!! Easy as pie. Then just watch the rest of your footage (especially towards the end) to double check that everything looks right. Pay attention to people when they say letters like f, m, v, p, b…any sound where the mouth closes since the sound and action of the mouth is more recognizable.
Slates can be bought pretty cheap and make a world of difference during editing. If you don’t have a slate, or forgot to bring it with you on a shoot, then just use your hands. Stand perpendicular in front of the camera, extend your arms out in front of you and give a big clapping motion by moving your arms. Make sure your hands can be seen by the camera. This serves the same purpose as the slate for creating an audio marker. Then, go through the same process in your editing software for syncing the tracks together.
If you fail to do an audio marker while filming…….then I’m sorry. There’s no easy way to say it, but you are going to have one heck of an experience trying to get the tracks lines up correctly. Use the method explained above in looking at letters people pronounce. You may also be able to find a sound effect somewhere in your audio footage that could serve as an audio marker. Something like someone putting a glass on a countertop or a balloon popping. Matching an abrupt sound with a very precise action in the video will help you in this regard. However, it is going to be painstakingly time-consuming. So be warned and be prepared!
Please note that when syncing audio and video tracks together, it is best to zoom in on your timeline so that the time increments change to individual frames (you might have to zoom in a few times to get there). That way, you can make the smallest adjustments possible to get the tracks lined up as perfectly as possible. Depending on the program you are using, you might have to change the actual settings in your project to display frames instead of time. Most programs change automatically once you have zoomed in far enough.
Next to your camera, good audio equipment should be your most important investment.
Please see the accompanying post for Audio Formats which will give insights into which formats will give you the highest quality, which are compressed and uncompressed, and which are universally accepted by most software programs as well as DVD players.
So…lighting. Good lighting is absolutely essential if you want to record good images. Think of when you go to have your adorable family photo taken at the local J.C. Penney or Sears. Yeah…all those lights are there for a purpose. If you have bad lighting, you will have bad image quality. It’s that simple. No video editing software on the planet can help you compensate for bad lighting –even RAW cameras that capture incredible detail cannot fully compensate for bad lighting mistakes.
What kinds of lights do you need and how many? Well, that’s really up to your Director of Photography (or you -if you are doing everything yourself). There are a few different kinds of lights to choose from and they each have their own benefits.
Tungsten Lighting: These are typically halogen lighting systems that are super bright and are hot (both temperature and exposure). You usually have to use Tungsten lighting with reflectors and diffusers to minimize or soften the amount of light needed on the scene. These lights create a warmer look on camera –usually creating a yellowish hue which you have to compensate for with white-balance.
LED Lighting: These are also super bright, but do not get temperature hot. LED is also low-wattage whereas Tungsten is very power hungry. But don’t let that fool you. LED lighting can be just as blinding. These lights create a very cool look (almost sterile) and create a bluish hue that you will need to compensate for with white-balance. LED light intensity can also be controlled with dimmer knobs usually built onto the module. This is incredibly helpful and decreases the need for reflectors and diffusers. You can also place gels across them to help with saturation. A bit pricey, but well-worth the investment.
CFL Lighting: On a cheaper budget, these work ok. However, CFL bulbs have a warm up time. When you first turn them on, they are dim. After several minutes they finally reach their full capacity. Because of that, you will want to make sure all lights on set are turned on at least 15 minutes prior to shooting. A big drawback is that if the temperature at the location suddenly drops (cool breeze or A/C), the lighting will dim until the bulbs warm back up.
Fluorescent Lighting: Also a cheaper alternative to Tungsten and LED. Beware of flicker on camera from fluorescent lighting. You may have to adjust your camera’s frame rate to eliminate the flicker if it appears.
How do you set up good lighting? Basically, you want to follow the fundamental 3-point lighting technique and then expand from there as necessary. If nothing else, you want your Talent and the objects they interact with to be well-lit and look good on camera. Everything else is secondary to that priority.
The 3-point lighting rule is made up of 3 lights that serve different purposes.
The camera is always placed in between the Key Light and the Fill Light. If you are using a backdrop, be sure to place the subject far enough away from the backdrop so that you don't get hard shadows.
Once you have lit your subject well, then you can take a look at what else in the scene needs brightened. Is the background behind the subject too dark? Does a piece of furniture look like a black or brown blob in the background? Background lighting should always be subtle. Placing too much light on a non-essential object will create a distraction for viewers. Keep in mind that our eyes tend to focus on things that are bright.
Lighting a scene takes time and a whole lot of patience. Scene Blocking is essential in order to figure out beforehand where your light needs to come from. If you’re filming on a soundstage, you will have to provide all light sources. If filming on location, you will most likely have the sun as a resource –but do not expect the sun and clouds to cooperate the day of your shoot. Always have backup lighting on hand just in case it’s overcast or stormy.
Once you get the lighting set, it is good practice before filming to study the image on the camera. You want to look for a few things that may be causing problems. Things that take a well-trained eye to detect. Some things like lens flares are obvious, but sometimes a light source can be reflecting off an object in a way that creates a hot spot in the image. You don’t tend to notice these -which is why you need to carefully study the image on your camera or an external monitor to see them. Things like lights reflecting off mirrors or glass are usually noticeable, but flat surfaces or objects at just the right angle can create unwanted reflections as well. Reposition the light, use a diffuser or reflector, or adjust the intensity to correct the problem.
You also need to pay heavy attention to shadows. Where are they? Are they causing an unwanted distraction? Do you get weird shadows as the Talent acts on scene? Are people or objects casting strange shadows on walls or floors? Just as important as it is to light a scene properly, you also need to control the darkness –which helps create depth-of-field and makes people/objects appear more 3-dimensional on screen.
If your camera is moving during the scene, do test shots to make sure that as your camera angle changes, the lighting doesn’t create issues from other positions. If using multiple cameras, study the images from all of them to make sure that the lighting is even and issue-free. (Multi-camera filming is covered in another post.)
Taking the time to get the lighting right will pay off in a big way. It will produce better image quality and your videos will have that professional feel to them. You again need to ask yourself the question “What kind of filmmaker do I want to be?” in order to decide what lights (and how many) will work for you.
Copyright 2018 Steven Vest. All rights reserved.
All images on this site are Creative Commons, listed as Public Domain, purchased by, or are the intellectual property of Synergy Digital Filmmaking.