Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Here are some important lessons all producers of micro-budget films should learn

Gear hoarders beware! The last thing on your list of priorities should be the latest camera. Here's why.

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Many of the trials and tribulations of low and micro-budget films could be mitigated, if only there was a re-ordering of priorities.

Anyone who’s worked behind a camera has had the experience of watching the results and grimacing at the realisation that things aren’t quite the cinematography Oscar-winner that had been intended. If you’ll forgive a digression into philosophy, the world contains people who react to this in one of two ways: there’s people who curse themselves for poor framing, poor lighting, and for failing to notice the coffee cup. Then, there’s the sort of people who look at a noisy, grim shot of someone’s white-walled spare bedroom lit by a single, overhead, badly colour-balanced LED bulb, and think…

…all it needed is more resolution.

If there’s any value in film school – which is plenty dubious from a financial standpoint – it’s that some film schools will give ingénues an Alexa for a while, so that they can find out for themselves just how much it isn’t about the big-name gear.

That’s at least cheaper than it was on film. Take a 35mm film camera with the world’s best lenses, stock, processing and transfer into everyday circumstances and you don’t get something that automatically looks like a summer blockbuster. You get something that looks like a particularly sharp 1970s holiday movie. Film teaches the same lesson, albeit for a higher price.

The ARRI ALEXA LF
The Arri ALEXA may look beautiful, but unless you prioritise your budget properly, no camera in the world is going to make your film look like a Hollywood blockbuster!

The inverse proportion rule

It’s not as if directors of micro-budget films don’t want to build huge, spectacular sets spend big on production design. It’s almost a rule – the first law of independent filmmaking, perhaps – which states that the ambition of a director is inversely proportional to their means for achieving it. That doesn’t make it quite clear why some directors, realising that it’s impossible to secure a city centre location for a shootout, spend what that would have cost on cameras.

Someone’s back yard still looks like someone’s back yard no matter what you shoot it on. In fact, we might almost say that it looks more like someone’s back yard when rendered in 4K HDR than it would have done on 35mm anamorphic, which was at least fuzzy enough around the edges to let the viewer’s brain sketch in flattering details.

The fascination with particularly fashionable bits of older gear is another key symptom of underfunded-director syndrome. Inexperienced directors might easily find a way to duct-tape a glorious 1970s anamorphic prime onto a DSLR. Problem is, the modern tendency to wind the aperture ring all the way around to wide open and leave it there is not necessarily a great approach with forty-five year old optical design.

There is a level at which “characterful” becomes “fuzzy” and lenses from back in the day were not designed to be run wide open all the time, even in the days of ISO 100 film stock, because there was an expectation that things would be lit. Put that on your 4K camera and, err, realise it’s now an 0.5K camera.

ARRI Fresnel light
You don’t need the latest low energy lighting to be effective. An old school tungsten Fresnel is a highly versatile light to use, and on the used market they are often as cheap as chips.

Lighting tech

Even lighting isn’t really about having the best technologies all the time. If you’re putting a hundred spacelights into a huge studio, low energy consumption makes a huge difference to the amount of crew, time and gear involved. If you’re a microbudget production lighting an area six feet square, you’ll do a lot of shoots before you’ve spent on power what you would have spent on low-powered lighting, environmental issues aside.

If this seems like a polemic against quality gear, it’s not. There’s a happy medium, to which many of the people at the very bottom of the industry should aspire, at which things like low-energy lighting allow shoots to be scaled up, to do more, to go more places and show more things.

Nobody should be unhappy about the fact that essentially all cameras are now good enough to shoot major motion pictures. People doing micro-budget action movies can now have high frame rate from their conventional production cameras, and improved noise and dynamic range makes it easier to get away with the less-than-ideal.

One of the biggest advantages of the very best gear is also that it handles bigger mistakes without the compromise to quality being visible. That’s all reason to keep up to date with gear, but it shouldn’t be that controversial to say that gear generally makes much less difference to a shot than what’s in it.

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