Filmmaking on a Budget: Tips for Achieving a Cinematic Look | Simon Cade | Skillshare

Filmmaking on a Budget: Tips for Achieving a Cinematic Look

Simon Cade, Filmmaker, Producer

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20 Lessons (30m)
    • 1. Introduction

      1:11
    • 2. Equipment

      0:53
    • 3. Frame Rate & Shutter Speed

      1:43
    • 4. Aperture & ISO

      1:38
    • 5. White Balance

      1:25
    • 6. Smartphone Settings

      0:56
    • 7. Optical Stabilisation

      1:14
    • 8. Basic Camerawork

      1:43
    • 9. Adding Depth

      1:35
    • 10. Focal Length

      2:04
    • 11. What's Around the Camera?

      1:00
    • 12. Getting Location Permission

      1:26
    • 13. Props & Costumes

      2:15
    • 14. Camera Movement

      2:18
    • 15. Using Natural Light

      1:51
    • 16. Motivated Light

      0:48
    • 17. Light Direction

      0:58
    • 18. Light Quality

      2:22
    • 19. Light Color

      1:36
    • 20. Wrapping Up

      1:04
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About This Class

Want to create beautiful, cinematic looking videos without breaking the bank?

This course is about using the equipment you have – whether it’s a brand new mirrorless camera, an old camcorder, or your smartphone – to create a professional, cinematic look.

In this practical 30-minute class, you’ll learn the technical and creative steps required to film well-composed, immersive videos that get that Hollywood-look on a budget. 

The key lessons include:

  • Setting up your camera for the classic cinematic look
  • Achieving great-looking footage with natural light 
  • How to inexpensively DIY your lighting 
  • Choosing the right location and props on a tight budget
  • How to add depth and life to your shots 

Simon Cade is a filmmaker with over a decade of experience in shooting documentaries, short films, and branded content. He started his career by filming on a tight budget and still believes in smart, budget-friendly filmmaking. 

By the end of this course, you’ll be shooting cinematic footage that looks and feels like the real thing!

Transcripts

1. Introduction: My name's Simon Cade, and I'm a filmmaker who spent the last 10 years shooting documentaries, short films, and branded content. I'm learning and trying new things every day. I'm here to share what I've picked up over the years. I started making films on a tight budget because I had no choice. But even as I started to earn money for my projects, I've held onto a lot of those frugal principles, because I really believe that skill and hard work goes much further than money. This class, when you go through the technical and creative steps we can take to make our footage look professional and cinematic. Will set up the camera and manipulate everything around it to get that expensive look while still keeping costs too much with minimum. You can follow along with most everything in this course with any camera, from a cheap camcorder to a smartphone. But if you really want to get the most out of this course, I'd really recommend that you follow along making a 60 second music video with the skills you learn and just any camera that you can get your hands on. Why not try making many music video that represents a vivid memory you have from your childhood. You can choose your own song to use or download the one that I've provided. 2. Equipment: Now I'll be honest, when I first started making films, I got pretty obsessed with equipment. I would spend more time researching new cameras than I spent using the camera that I already had. I really want to make this clear, this class is not about tech. Regardless of the equipment that we've got, we still need to decide what we're filming. We still need to decide, about the location, and how to film it, how to light it. So to me, the cinematic style has far more to do with those things, everything around the camera, than it does the camera itself. If there's one thing you get from this course, I hope it's that. But before we get into all of that, we've got to lay the foundations. I'm going to just go over some fundamental technical knowledge, before we jump into the more creative stuff. Now these guidelines can work with any camera as longs as we can put it in manual mode, to choose the best settings. 3. Frame Rate & Shutter Speed: Let's start with the frame rate. This is the number of pictures, and we'll say frames from now on, that our camera captures each second. So traditionally, film cameras captured 24 frames per second. So for the typical cinematic look, we're going to do the same. If we wanted slow motion footage, then we'd need to film more frames each second so that when we play them back at 24 frames per second, then the time gets stretched out and slowed down. Now slow motion is fun, but I really do spend most of my time shooting in 24. The shutter speed controls how much time the camera sensor is exposed to light while capturing each of those frames. So if our subject moved during that time, then it will be affected by motion blur. If we record someone waving their hands quickly with a fast shutter speed, like 1/500th of a second, then the movement looks choppy because there isn't much motion blur in each frame. On the other hand, if we change the shutter speed to 1/50th of a second, then the motion blur looks a lot more like our natural vision. Most scenes in nice films have that natural motion blur, which can be achieved with 1/50th. However, some filmmakers use different shutter speeds on purpose for more abstract effects. But a word of caution, if we change the shutter speed from 1/50th to say 120th, then the image will get darker. And that's the side effect of using a faster shutter speed. By reducing the sensor's exposure time, we have less light to pass through and so the image is darker. So to summarize so far, unless you're shooting your music video in slow motion, then you can set the framework to 24 and the shutter speed to 150th for the classic cinematic look. 4. Aperture & ISO: Understanding aperture is essential since it determines two key parts to the look of our footage. When we change the lenses aperture from f/2.82 to f/1.4, that will make the image brighter. The smaller the number, the wider the aperture, the brighter the image and vice versa of course. Changing the aperture has a side effect too. It also affects the depth of field i.e, how blurry the background is. Without getting too mathematical, a wide aperture like f/1.4 means we'll have a shallow depth of field than filming as say, f/4. In other words, the background will be more blurry at f/1.4, than at f/4, or f/8. Lots of people like the shallow depth of field look and the extra brightness from a wide aperture is usually appreciated, but these benefits do come at price. Lenses capable of filming at wide apertures tend to cost more. On a budget, it often makes sense to find another way to make the image brighter. One way to brighten the image without affecting the motion blur, or depth of field is with the cameras ISO setting. Even with the cheapest lens, we can increase the ISO to digitally brighten the image. However, the ISO has its own side-effects. Higher ISO settings tend to make the footage greener, or also reducing the camera's ability to capture a wide range of tones. It's worth testing different ISO settings on your camera to see how far you can push it before the image becomes mushy and grainy, full of ugly noise. I found that it's often a lot cheaper to bring in DIY lights than to buy a camera that can see in the dark, but we'll get to lighting a bit later on. 5. White Balance: It can be tempting to leave the white balance in automatic mode, but it's pretty easy to get it right when you know how. I think that getting a precise white balance reading, is one of the most overlooked parts of the cinematic style. Let's say we're outside in daylight, if we want a gray piece of paper to look truly gray, then we can set the camera's white balance to around 5600K i.e daylight and it will probably look natural. But if we take that same piece of paper in doors, where the light bulbs often have an orange hue, then it would look too orange and this we compensate by changing the white balance to a lower value, like 1300K, or by selecting the camera's tungsten or incandescent preset. In essence, white balance allows us to calibrate the camera to the color of light that's in our environment. To find the correct white balance, we can hold something gray or white in front of the lens while using the custom white balance feature available on most digital cameras. It will then compensate for the color of light that's bouncing into the sensor until the gray card looks actually gray. If we're really in a rush, we can get away with estimating the white balance by looking at the monitor and adjusting by eye. But remember, if we get it wrong, it can take hours to try and fix it with software. For the music video, I'd really recommend shooting with a custom white balance for every shot where the light changes. 6. Smartphone Settings: Now, in case you're filming with a smartphone, setting it up does vary between manufacturers. But on an iPhone in video mode, you can change the frame rate in the top corner and also adjust the exposure by tapping and dragging on the screen. Action. Android phones are mostly similar, you can also tap and drag on the screen to change the exposure, but there are also often manual modes that you can choose, so you can adjust the white balance and the shutter speed with precision, just like a regular camera. If you're able to purchase and download an app such as FiLMiC Pro, then that'll give even more control over the settings, including being able to lock both the exposure and the focus. These apps are available for both Android and iPhones. 7. Optical Stabilisation: If you go to the cinema, most of the shots that you see will have smooth movement so as not to draw attention to the camera. There are hand-held shots and plenty of action movies have purposefully shaky camera movement, but even then, it usually looks much more subtle than the tiny, jittery movement that is common with lightweight cameras. With practice, I do think that anyone can learn to hold a camera steady, but one thing that can help is optical stabilization. Some lenses come with an extra switch that turns the stabilizer on. The switch could be labeled with IS, VR, OIS or OS, but for the most part, they all do the same thing, they compensate for some of those tiny, little camera shakes. Some cameras also have in-body image stabilization, or IBS, which stabilizes the sensor rather than the lens, but it, too, has varying results depending on how shaky the camera is. If your camera or lens already has stabilization, then that's great, but if not, I really wouldn't worry. It's often cheaper and more effective to just use a tripod or other stabilizing equipment that can give us those buttery, smooth movements without needing to buy stabilized lenses or cameras, but we'll come back to that soon. 8. Basic Camerawork: I think most people who have grown up watching movies and television have an instinctive understanding of how to use a camera to shoot a scene, but even with this innate sense, there are still some guidelines worth considering when we're setting up the camera. The rule of thirds is a popular guideline for beginner filmmakers that encourages us to position our subjects on the intersection between the horizontal and vertical lines that would appear if we split the frame into three. There are plenty more framing conventions we might choose to use. Let's go through some of the big ones. Cutting off our subjects' wrists or the top of their heads can look strange on wider shots. Our framing looks a lot more natural if we move the camera back so that the edge of the frame doesn't cross through any joints or someone's head. Next up, the vast majority of movies shoot with a flat horizon. It can look unprofessional if our camera isn't level. So let's adjust the tripod. Now, our horizon is flat, but since our subject is facing to the left, let's pan the camera to the left so that there is space on the side that the character is facing. That space is called looking room. Those are conventionally frame shot following some basic composition guidelines. However, these guidelines are in the starting point. There are plenty of excellent movies that constantly break one or many of these rules for creative effect. If you're new to film-making, I'd encourage you to follow most of these guidelines for the music video shoot, but maybe just see if there are a couple of shots where it kind of feels right to go against the grain. I think it's worth trying the standard and the unconventional ways to see how that affects the shot and the story. 9. Adding Depth: Cinema is all about immersing the audience and our camera work plays a big role in that. A shot that has depth looks three-dimensional, which can help the audience to believe that they're looking into a real world rather than just watching a flat screen. A good place to start with depth is by finding ways to separate the foreground and the background. We could add a simple foreground layer by positioning a character or a prop in front of our camera. Suddenly, the shot doesn't look so flat. Another way to add depth would be to rotate our camera until we're no longer facing a flat wall. Because anytime we see perspective lines reaching into the distance, it's likely that our image will have depth. My last simple trick to avoid flat images is to think about the space between the character and the scenes back wall. In this shot, the character is right up against the wall. So everything we can see is pretty much at the same distance from the camera. But if we move the camera and the table just away from the wall at bit, then the room opens up and it starts to look far more cinematic. This is one of many instances where a good location really helps a cinematography. Because it gives us the freedom to position our scene and our equipment where we want to. Most shots, in most films have a fair amount of depth. But of course, filmmakers sometimes choose to avoid depth on purpose. One example might be if we need the audience to empathize with a character who feels trapped, in those scenarios, we might choose to avoid foreground layers and film straight into the walls to provide that claustrophobic feeling. 10. Focal Length: So as well as considering the Camera's Orientation in a Scene, which think about how Zoomed In we are, which is determined by the Lenses' Focal Length. The Prolific Cinematographer Roger Deakins, says he uses a 32 Millimeter Lens most often. Martin Scorsese, Orson Welles, and Steven Spielberg, all said that a 28 Millimeter is one of their top choices. So let's have that as our approximate midpoint for a neutral look that's similar to Human Eyesight. If we Zoom Out or change to a wider lens like a 18 Millimeter, then the camera can see more of our scene and vice versa when using a Telephoto Lens that zooms in to something like 85 Millimeters. However, moving further away from our subjects can also change the Field of View but in a different way. So if we set the camera far away from our subjects and use a Telephoto Lens, it looks dramatically different from being close with a wider lens. The wide lens close up to our character will expand the distances, stretching out our subject's face. Whereas filming with a Telephoto Lens from a distance actually flattens the subjects and makes the background appear closer, which is an effect called Compression. We could film all of our wide shots on a 24 Millimeter Lens and all of our close ups on a 50 or 85 and we get a pretty typical Cinematic Look without needing to buy any extreme wide or Telephoto Lenses. That being said, there are no rules in Film Making and we might actually choose to use the Compression for Creative Effect. We could use a wide lens up close to our actor during a scene where the character has an intense headache, the wacky distorted look could help the audience feel that something isn't quite right. On the other hand, the distant Telephoto look is often described as Voyeuristic, maybe because it's similar to what would see looking through Binoculars. In short, there are two ways to change how much the audience can see: by moving the camera, or by zooming. Watching movies and experimenting with lenses can help us decide which one works best, for our scene. 11. What's Around the Camera?: We could have the most beautiful camerawork, but if every scene has dull base walls, then our films were really miss out on a huge part of visual storytelling. For example, do our characters spend most of their time at home, in expensive restaurants or smoky bars playing pool? Answering those questions is really only beginning. The location, the props, and the costume are given a lot of attention in Hollywood movies, and there's no reason why we can't do the same when we make a simple, no-budget music video. For example, the audience knows exactly how it feels to stand in the rain, waiting a bus stop, and how horrible it would feel to get splashed with filthy street water. These kind of ideas pop up in films all the time because they evoke a visceral reaction that connects us to the character in a sensory, primer way. So what's around the camera, can make our films look far better, but it also helps immerse the audience. 12. Getting Location Permission: Depending on where we're living, it's usually free and legal to film outdoors in public spaces, so long as we're not causing a disruption, that's pretty easy to do when you don't have lots of equipment and a huge crew. We can use Google Street View to help us find the right streets and scenery, and then visit in person to make sure that it's appropriate for filming. Indoor locations are little more complicated when you're on a low budget. Usually, the best place to start is by considering the places that we already have access to. Can we film where we live? Does our friend have a big house that would fit the story? Do we know anyone who owns a business or some land? It's far easier to call in a favor from a friend of a friend than it is to call in a favor from a stranger. If that doesn't work, then we just have to start asking around. If you're a student or you're working on a charity project, then businesses and landowners are a lot more likely to let you film in their space for free, but for the rest of us, we'll have to try and make it really easy for them to say yes. Can we film at a time when they wouldn't be using the space anyway? Can we give them some behind the scenes photos so they can show their customers how they support the creative community? If we're not going to spend lots of money, then we've got to expect some rejection. I remember calling 27 different takeaway restaurants before one finally agreed to let us film for a morning, sometimes, that's just what happens on a low budget. 13. Props & Costumes: Putting some extra thought into the props is probably the cheapest way to make a film look cinematic. It could be as simple as arranging some papers on a desk until it looks messy like the real world. We can of course, go deeper with the props, connecting them to the character. Like thinking about, what car does our character drive? Are they the kind of person who really has to have the latest smartphone or do they still use an old brick? The items that surround people tell the audience so much about characters background, personality, wealth, and even what they care about. It's not that every item has to be a poetic metaphor, but using some meaningful props like an engagement ring, a suitcase full of money, or a framed photo of the character's family can be used as classically cinematic ways to tell a story without words. The same goes for the costumes that our characters wear. Would they go out to a bar wearing plain baggy clothes, even if they're surrounded by people wearing their smartest outfits? Maybe they would. A character with a shaved head and tattoos is obviously going to make a different first impression compared to someone wearing a suit and tie. I think one of the best ways to study costumes and make-up, is by watching a movie that you've already seen, but with the sound off. When did the characters costumes change? Do they fit in with the other characters in the scene? Which colors do they usually wear? If we're on a tight budget, our costumes can come from our own wardrobe, or they can be borrowed from friends and family. But most of the actors I've worked with on micro budget projects have all been happy to wear their own clothes while filming, which definitely helps with making sure that the clothes fit. But outside of that, we can try thrift stores, charity shops, or even renting clothes to keep their costs down. The professionals usually hire art directors and costume designers, but we can save money by just spending our own time handling the props and costumes or by asking an artistic friend to help us out. If we really don't have any money to spend, we can always write a story based on the props and clothing that we already have access to, which might rule out stories involving swords or expensive cost from the 60s. But it still leaves plenty of options. 14. Camera Movement: A moving camera is quintessentially cinematic. That being said, on a budget, we probably can't afford to have a constantly swirling, spinning, rotating camera. That would usually be too expensive. But luckily, the cinematic look doesn't have to include constant movement. Hand-held camera movement is pretty common in movies, and it's great for low budget projects, since it's flexible and saves time and money compared to setting up lots of fancy equipment. But a tripod is really the foundation of most cinematic shots. Tripods simply hold the camera steady with the option of panning and tilting, which can be enough movement for an entire film. To see the true power of a tripod, all we have to do is watch some classic movies from the fifties or earlier. Back then, the cameras were so heavy that they pretty much had to stay on a tripod. But seeing what they could do with just pans and tilts, its real masterclass in camera placement and character movement. Films with lots of camera movement do tend to look more expensive and impressive, but those things are typically not the filmmakers top priority. I like to think of movement as a form of punctuation for our film. In writing, we can use an exclamation mark to help communicate shock, anger, excitement. So if the camera moves towards our subject during a key moment, it can have a similar effect. We might also choose to move the camera because it was motivated. A motivate camera move is when the camera follows something specific in the scene. So if our character stands up, then we might simply tilt the camera up so that we can still see their face without needing to cut to a new shot. Lots of the camera moves in mainstream cinema are motivated by movement within the scene. It really makes the cameras motion seamless. However, the camera movement on its own is rarely powerful. It's the combination of the script, the excess performance, and every other creative decision that the filmmakers have made, that brings out the full impacts. We don't have to use a shaky handheld camera every single time our character is feeling nervous. We don't have to follow every movement that the characters make. If a moving camera and film is like punctuation in writing, then we should remember that the sentence itself does most of the work. Punctuation is only there when we need it. 15. Using Natural Light: Lighting makes a huge difference to how our films look, and it's a storytelling tool as well. It really took me a while to appreciate the power of lighting, but now I think it's one of the easiest ways to improve the look of a film. The nice thing is that it works with any camera, any lens. Plus you don't even have to own lights in order to improve your lighting. Let's start with the light that's naturally available to us. It is completely free and can be just as effective as the most complex lighting that costs thousands. With natural light, we don't need to set up lights and cables. Instead, our main job is finding the best areas to film in. If we are indoors, we could set up the camera and actors next to a window for a beautifully soft but naturalistic look. We might hang up some black cardboard or thick fabric over the other windows to shape the light, and we might turn on different light switches at the location to see what looks best. Outdoors, we've got to consider the sun's direction when we are deciding where to place our cameras and our actors. We can use Google Earth to find out exactly where the sun will be. We just enter our location, date, and time to see the sun's position. Now, typically the sun can create some unflattering shadows depending on which direction we're filming. Often it's better to move into a shaded area and hang up a large dark sheet on one side of the actor to cut light on that side rather than trying to add a new light that's bright enough to compete with the sun. As the sun starts to set, it typically looks more flattering and soft. That golden hour look is very popular to filmmakers, but it doesn't necessarily suit every single scene. We've really got to consider what kind of lighting best represents our characters and our story, and then plan a time and location of our shoot accordingly. 16. Motivated Light: I really loved filming in natural light, but sometimes we do need a specific look that's simply not possible without adding iron lights. We've practice, we can learn to totally transform a shock by changing the light's direction, quality, and color. But when there's that much control over the lighting, it's all too easy to get carried away, just blasting everything with light and that can lead to an unnatural or over let look. My favorite way to combat this is by using motivated lighting, where we start by simulating the light that would exist in the real world. We can set up our lights as if they are windows or doorways, or other practicals like table lamps. When our decisions are motivated by real world lighting, it helps the scene to look natural. 17. Light Direction: The first element of lighting we can control is its direction, and my favorite way to learn about this is by pointing a flashlight at someone from different angles. If we pay attention to the shadow that the nose casts, then you can really see how much you can change someone's face with nothing but light. We've the lights motivation in mind, we might choose to set our lights at eye level and off to one side if we're simulating window light, which would make one side of the face brighter than the other. Whereas, if we're filming in a workshop at night, we'll probably expect the light to come from above as if it were from fluorescent ceiling fittings. This would probably illuminate the hair and casts some shadows over the eyes. With practice, we'll be able to just look at an image and figure out the light's direction from looking at the shadows. Once we can do that, then we'll be able to figure out how they let shots from any of our favorite films, and then recreate that cinematic look precisely. 18. Light Quality: After the light's direction, we've got to look at the quality of light, which is determined by the size of the light source relative to the subject. Outside, on a clear day, the shadows are crisp and clear. Even though the sun is huge, we can think of it as a small light source that creates hard light because it's so far away. Whereas on a cloudy day, the shadows are much smoother and there's less contrast. That's because the clouds are really spreading out that sunlight across the whole sky as if the clouds are the new light source and it's much closer. That's the key thing with the softness. It's all about the size of the light, but also its distance from the subject. Let's try it out, but without spending lots of money. The hard light look is pretty easy to replicate. We can just get some inexpensive but powerful work lights or clamp lights from a hardware store. After connecting the brightest regular house-bulb, we can find and making sure that the room is nice and dark, then we just point the little bulb into the scene from a distance and we'll get those hard shadows. But in cinema, softer lighting is really common, probably due to it being more flattering on faces, and because we rarely see such harsh, dramatic shadows in day-to-day life. To get the soft look, we'll need to increase the relative size of our light. Now moving it closer would be a good start. But it's still going to be a relatively small bulb. The fastest way to soften the light is by pointing it at a white wall or ceiling, and that way, if we get the angles right, the light that bounces back will be our new and larger, softer light source, just like the clouds. But staying close to white ceilings and walls can be limiting. A more portable option is to balance our light from or even shoot through a white bed-sheets, shower curtain or towel, that's hanging on a couple of cheap light stands or pinned to a door. Since soft light tends to bounce in all directions, it can sometimes flatten out a room, losing any of the nice dark corners. For this shot, I dropped some black fabric over my laundry work, which really helped to limit the light so that it was more focused on the character. Now we've got soft, bright light in any room and we can move it around or block it to control the direction and quality. 19. Light Color: In mainstream movies, the majority of shots use fairly neutral colors. If the motivation of our light is from a window during the day, then it would be unconventional to have the light cast a green or red hue over our scene. But that said, there are plenty of times where you still might want to use color. If we're filming a night scene and our light's motivation is moonlight, then we can consider that the light's direction would be from above and perhaps coming in through a window if we're indoors. The quality would be hard, creating crisp shadows since the moon is of relatively small light source, unless it's cloudy, of course, and the color would be blue, a cool. If there's a lamp one in the scene, then it would probably look a lot warmer, and any candles or firelight would be warmer still. To get these different kind of looks, we can swap our light bulbs for a different color or we could purposefully use our camera's white bands to make the whole scene look cooler or warmer without spending a single penny. All of those ideas are grounded in the motivation of the light. We typically wouldn't see any red or green light unless our scene is in a location like a bar or a club, but of course, filmmakers don't have to be limited by reality. If you want to have unconventional or abstract lighting, that can still be cinematic. There's still a lot more to learn about lighting, but I do believe that once we have a good grasp on the light's direction, quality, and color, along with its true to life motivation, it's far easier to achieve that cinematic look regardless of the equipment that we're using. 20. Wrapping Up: I really hope this has been helpful. Of course, the best way to learn is to get out there and try this stuff. If you haven't been shooting already, then I really encourage you to grab a camera, set up following those guidelines, and start shooting. Keep an eye out for depth in your compositions while considering the focal length, but taking even more care with what you're filming, and what's around the camera. Do shoot in natural light, but find the spots where the light works, and if not, start changing the direction, quality, and color, to fit with your creative vision and the real-world motivation of the scene. If you practice doing all of that, I think you'll be well on your way to having really cinematic footage, and the audience will have no idea that it was filmed so inexpensively. Well, thanks for watching and please do stay tuned for more classes soon. See you next time.