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How to Tell a Video Story on a Very Low Budget

Most great directors began by making a very low-budget film or video in their backyard. If their work showed even a spec of talent, it was often recognized and their projects gradually became larger and more expensive.

For a newcomer, the prospect of making a movie can be overwhelming. The good news is the hardware needed for very good quality production is now quite cheap. In fact, one can make a film on a modern smartphone and edit on free software on any almost computer.

The hard part is not equipment, but defining and executing the story. Don’t start without a story well formed in your mind. When you know the story, then pick the best format to tell it in. Is it a true story best told as a documentary or is it a fictional story suited as a drama or comedy? Is it a short or full-length feature? These are essential questions to ask before beginning pre-production planning.

The best stories come from the heart. Never choose a story because you think it might be commercial. That is a certain path to failure. The old writers’ cliché is true here: Write what you know — not what you think the market wants.

Once you conceptualize the story, outline it before beginning to write a script. Make sure it is well structured, which is another topic in itself. If you don’t have a good sense of story structure, learn about it. No story works without a solid structure.

This is where it gets hard. Define the story. Outline the concept until it works as a complete visual narrative, with an opening, middle and ending. Some writers use index cards to highlight each scene. Then scramble the cards to get a non-linear timeline for the story.

Perhaps the most difficult task is the 15-second “elevator pitch,” or logline. This comes from the old idea that you have a 15-second window to get the attention of a movie executive while on a quick elevator ride. I once did a pitch to Ted Turner while we were standing at adjacent urinals in a restroom!

I once took an eight-week course at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles on how create a short pitch. It may sound easy, but trust me…it’s not.

I used the class to create a pitch for a film I had optioned about the 1938 play, The Cradle Will Rock. I had a huge body of facts that had to be honed down into a single pitch line. This is what I came up with: “The story is about the only time in American history that the military was sent out to shut down a Broadway play.”

That line sold the film (Cradle Will Rock, 1999) to Disney; appeared in the dialog for the Orson Welles’ character in the film; and was used on a poster advertising the film. I went through countless efforts to get there, but it worked.

When the pitch is determined, then begin writing the script. When the first draft is complete, stop for a while. Let some time pass. The script always looks different when you re-visit it with fresh eyes. Edit and edit some more. Stop only when you think it’s finished.

Next comes a scene-by-scene breakdown. This involves making a list of the different shots needed for every line in the script. It leads to creating a storyboard, which are basic sketches of the visual of each scene.

At this stage, it usually becomes clear that some things in the script won’t work. Change the script. Keep revisiting the script, the list of shots and the storyboard until you feel it all clicks.

In writing any script, one of the most important things to keep in the mind is the budget you have to work with. Don’t write what you can’t afford. A period piece with costumes or old model cars can get very expensive. Most first scripts are written for the clothes the actors normally wear. Otherwise, be prepared for higher costs.

Smartphones are a great way to do a first project. Many professional films have been made using Apple’s iPhones using cinema software like FiLMiC Pro. If you want a more full-featured camera, use a mirrorless or DSLR hybrid camera. The image quality of many of these cameras is quite good.

Other important considerations are lighting and sound. At least learn the basics of three-point lighting, which is essential to making any low-budget video. Artificial light can be mixed with natural light. Good lighting can be the difference between high quality video and something that looks drab and unprofessional.

You don’t need professional lighting gear. Many documentaries and small films have been made with basic light fixtures from consumer hardware stores. Also, LED lights are now very inexpensive.

The sound is as important as the image. Don’t skimp on audio. Audiences will forgive a faulty image, but not bad sound. Don’t rely on the camera’s built-in mic. They never sound good.

Rent or buy the best audio gear you can afford. The best choice is shotgun microphone with wind protection on a boom pole. Get it in close and make sure the sound is clean without ambient noise. This will save a lot of time and money in editing when you have to dub in new sound to cover location problems.

On a first video, the creator will probably be the director and camera operator. Though it can be done one-man-band, it is best to have others handle sound and lighting chores. Use the best actors you can find. Many beginners will work for free, but often you get what you pay for.

Typically, when shooting a story for video — whether a short or full-length feature — the camera should be set at 24 frames per second for a more cinematic look. Keep the camera moving and steady. Learning camera movement using the right tools is essential. Use slow motion or other effects when the scene warrants it. But be conservative and don’t overdo any single effect.

Use good camera composition in the shots. Using the rule of thirds works best but breaking that rule can show real creative flare in your work. To protect yourself from mistakes, cover with different camera angles for scenes.

Once the shoot is complete, it is time to edit. If your storyboard was done well, you will have a template for compiling the shots. If something doesn’t work in editing as you planned, backup shots will serve as good cover.

Otherwise, you might have to reshoot a scene. Keep editing and experimenting with the scenes until the story works well.

Finally, when the video edit is finished, color correct the footage. This will give the production a consistent, balanced look that you want to achieve. If a shot is too shaky and sticks out, most editing software allows the image to be stabilized.

This article oversimplifies the entire process, but it is the starting point most beginners take to create a first production. There will be mistakes in any first film, but it will set the video maker on the path to doing professional work.

Frank Beacham
Broadcast Beat - Production Industry Resource