Ways To Keep Your Work From Appearing Cheap

Tips for cinematographers to prevent your work from appearing cheap

Okay; so you’ve got a DSLR, a RED, a Blackmagic Cinema Camera, a GoPro – what’s next? The internet is littered with all sorts of tutorials aimed at trying to reproduce the “Hollywood look”, but where to begin?

Over my time as a cinematographer, I’ve learned quite a bit about putting together things that don’t look terrible. Unfortunately, I’ve learned most of these through the painful process of trial and error. If there’s an item listed in this article, I most likely ended up screwing up in that particular way at one time or another.

A slight disclaimer: I’m a bit of a purist. I tend not to deal with post-production effects except when absolutely necessary. I also hate camera shake, especially intentionally induced camera shake.

With that out of the way…

1) Audiophilia: don’t skimp on sound.

If your sound is terrible, your work is going to be perceived as terrible. It doesn’t matter how artistic your shots are, how talented your actors, or how legendary your vision. Audiences (and critics) can forgive almost anything, but they cannot forgive terrible sound.

Sound makes up half of your deliverable work, so logically you should be spending half your time working on it, but most of the indie productions I’ve seen tend to ignore it as much as possible. Don’t skimp on a sound engineer; if you manage to find a really good one, do not let them go.

Don’t let just anyone operate your boom mic. Make sure they are actually interested in doing it. They should preferably be listening to every take and making sure that you have good, usable audio.

If you really need to, get an ADR and Foley engineer. Or learn how to do it yourself – just make sure that you give sound a reasonable amount of attention.

2) Spastic squirrel syndrome: don’t cut movies like you’ve never seen a movie.

Editing is the “directorial discretion of last resort”. You can make all sorts of changes in editing, including changing the entire mood of your film.

Don’t cut it like you’ve never seen a movie before. I need to reiterate that. Don’t cut it like you’ve never seen a movie before.

Consider continuity. If one of your characters has a bag of chips in his hand one moment and doesn’t the next, it’s possible that your discontinuous method of cutting is making a statement about the transient nature of existence or the fragile mental state of your protagonist – but it’s far more likely that the person in charge of continuity fell asleep at the switch.

Don’t cut movies like music videos. A new trend has emerged where music video directors are being promoted to full length feature direction. Unfortunately, their attention-deficit style of cutting has become the norm for every type of film, even non-action ones. If you can’t keep your audience’s attention unless you cut every 1.5 seconds, you might need to work on your script or actors.

Respect the 180 degree and 15 degree rules. If you don’t know what they are, read a few articles on the basic rules of editing.

Respect the pacing … or at least consider the pacing. I’ve changed pacing in editing, but the resulting pace has to be considered before you finalize an edit.

Too many cooks spoil the soup. Or in this case, the film. Have one, maybe two people at most editing your film. Everyone is going to have a different idea of where it should go or how it should be cut together – do NOT allow a crowd of people to make editing decisions. Especially if they aren’t editors. (Actors can be the worst, as they tend to be concerned with how they look on film, rather than the overall aesthetic.)

3) Read the script. Make sure you really want to make this script.

Not every script should be made into a film. Some scripts barely have enough content or action to cover a 10 minute short, let alone a 120 minute feature film. Some scripts are just horribly written.

Think of the standard distribution curve; going by that, most scripts are mediocre, some are terrible, some are good. You’re going to need to reject the majority of material with which you are presented if you’re only going to make the best scripts into films.

Find an uninterested party (not your close friends, family, or actors who would be potentially involved in the production of it) and describe the plot. If it doesn’t interest them, there’s a very good chance that you may not have a wider audience appeal than your group of friends and family.

I should point out, at this part of this article, that not everyone makes films for mass audience appeal. If you don’t, don’t worry about it. Find someone who specializes in the niche you’re targeting, and ask them for their opinion. It could save you quite a few weeks/months/years on a real turkey of a project.

4) Good actors are not easy to come by. Make sure you find them.

Actors' skill levels also follow the standard distribution curve. Be picky about working with them, if at all possible.

Actors have the very unique ability to completely ruin a scene if even one of them is out of character or “off their game”. Even non-speaking background roles can break the illusion that is your film, so try to be selective in choosing actors. Unless you need a character with a flat affect, don’t use an actor who can’t produce anything other than that affect.

Make sure your actors get a chance to run their lines together and “block” scenes before the day when their scenes are shot. Most actors tend to produce better group dynamics when they’ve had a chance to prepare their material (which is one of the reasons why the \ater actors prepare so far in advance and practice together).

Speaking of theater actors – they’re a great source for acting talent. Most communities have community theaters, and they are usually stocked with a wide variety of talented characters actors. There are some differences between film and theater work, but their “acting chops” are worth the extra work that needs to be put in.

5) Do not rely on inserts for the bulk of your movie.

There’s nothing wrong with insert shots; they tend to add a bit of spice and variety, as well as giving your editor something to cut away to if there’s some continuity issue between takes.

Do not rely on them for a majority of your film. They tend not to tell much of a story, and overuse not only gives a feeling of claustrophobia, but is one of the telltale signs of low-budget indie films.

Like many other suggestions I’ve made here, this isn’t an ironclad rule. There are many art films which make extensive use of insert shots to tell a story in a particular way.

6) There is a setting on your lenses other than “wide open”.

Ever since “bokeh” made its first appearance in the photographer/cinematographer lexicon, there has been a proliferation of extensively thin DOF shots. These can be used to great artistic effect, and can produce beautiful images – but, much like other tools in a cinematographer’s toolbox, it shouldn’t be the only tool you use. All of your characters should generally be in focus when they’re having a conversation in most circumstances. Constantly focus-pulling between two characters because you have a tissue-thin DOF tends to give off the impression that you have no lighting budget, or that you don’t know how to use your lenses.

On top of all of that, most lower-cost lenses tend to not be as sharp as higher grade lenses when they’re used wide-open. If you’re a fan of cheap Rokinon / Samyang glass, it performs quite well – but not necessarily across the entire frame wide open. Stopped down to f/4, it compares favorably with high-end Zeiss and Canon glass, so if you can stop it down a bit further, you’ll get a better quality image.

7) Time: There’s never enough of it. Corollary: The enemy of the good is the perfect.

There seems to be an inverse relationship between location availability and the time consuming nature of the shots in a scene. I have tended to find that when I spend more time setting up a shot, I will get better results than when I “run and gun” the shots in a scene. (Like every other concept, this has exceptions.)

Try to make sure you’ve metered and scouted your location properly before placing actors in front of the camera. You’ll avoid a lot of time-wasting adjustment and blown takes, which will translated into better looking shots and a better end product.

As far as “the enemy of the good is the perfect”: it is rarely going to be perfect. Deciding how much time to spend on that one insert may be the thing which keeps you from rushing through the rest of your limited time at a location. This is as much about time management as anything.

8) Prepare.

I’ve joked that my pre-production time on a film is longer than the actual filming time. For the most part, this is actually the case.

Walking onto a set with no idea of what you’re going to do or how you’re going to do it will lead to amateur errors, rushing, and a poor end product. Preparation, be it storyboarding, notes, location scouting, or anything else, is going to save you from some of the easy pitfalls which produce a cheap end product.

9) Listen.

You’re one person in (presumably) a fair sized crew of people. If you’re directing something, you’re the decision maker. You’re the one who has to decide how something is to be done and who is going to do it, or at least delegate that to someone else.

If you’re a cinematographer/DP, you’re responsible for the visual aspect of the film. You have to make the decisions as to how the cameras are set, or at least delegate that authority.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t listen to other people. Some of my favorite shots have come from suggestions I’ve gotten from other people. The ability to look past your own hubris and take suggestions under consideration from other people can open up your ability to shoot or direct better – and that shines through in the final product.

10) Do not assume you can “fix it in post”.

“Fix it in post” has been a joke amongst my crew, since I’m not a big fan of the filmmaking ethos centered around correcting everything in editing and post production.

(I’m shooting with a rig which requires a fair amount of post production to bring the footage to its final form, and to be clear, I don’t dislike or hate post production. I dislike the idea of relying on it for things which you could have done on set.)

Blood effects are a great example. Any monkey with a licensed (or unlicensed) copy of After Effects can make a blood spatter effect, but it’ll look like a low budget horror movie. If you’re going to do blood, do it with practical effects. Squibs aren’t difficult to design, even on virtually no budget. People have made them with such inventive materials as condoms and fishing line. Just because we’ve entered an age of digital cinematography doesn’t mean we have to throw out practical effects.

11) “One more for safety.”

My cast and crew have been so used to me saying this phrase that they gave me an etched mug with it on the side. No matter how well you think you’ve gotten a scene on film, there’s always a chance that you’re missing something. There is no worse feeling in editing than when you realize that you’re missing something in one of your takes and have no fall back.

Take the extra few minutes and get another take of that “perfect take”. You’d be surprised at how often you can avoid embarrassing cuts and amateur looking transitions.

12) Context: understand when you’re doing something just for the sake of doing it.

“Quadracopter” is a latin word which means “I need to wow my financial backers”. Well, not really, but it could be, judging from the way they’re used.

Just because you have a certain rig or piece of equipment does not mean that you should necessarily use it for everything you do. If you’re adding a shot specifically to impress people instead of telling a story, your film is going to suffer.

Sometimes you need a crane shot. Sometimes you need an overhead shot. Sometimes you need a snorricam shot. There are plenty of things you can do, but your job as a filmmaker is to be able to determine when you should.

Film is about emotional connection and content. If you have a hollow work with a lot of style, you’ll impress a certain crowd, but it’ll be devoid of any sort of deeper meaning. Stick with your artistic integrity for as long as you can – you can always make money, but once you’ve sold out your integrity, you don’t get it back.

13) Equipment hubris: never assume your equipment will save you or make you better.

The most important piece of equipment you have as a cinematographer is your eyes; everything else is much, much less important. I’ve seen films shot on RED EPIC bodies which look like a high-schooler shot them, and films shot on DSLRs which rival anything out of Hollywood.

Never assume that a new equipment purchase will make you a better cinematographer. The only thing that will do that is time.

“Equipment hubris”, as I call it, leads to bad and amateur shots. If you just received a new rig, make sure to log some hours using it before you bring it on set. Screwing up a basic setting on a camera is a very easy way to destroy an entire day’s worth of filming … or more.

14) The low-light disease, or why I learned to light and stopped hating my work.

With the rise of the Sony A7 series, with ISO sensitivities of 100k+, and other low-light and no-light cameras, we’ve also seen the rise of the no-lighting production.

Hollywood lights the hell out of their films. Despite certain films trying to portray a low-budget look, you can bet that they have a tractor-trailer full of lights and lighting modifiers making each shot look good.

Stop assuming that you need speed boosters, faster lenses, and tricks to shoot with less light. In all but a few cases, you need to add more light, not make your camera accept more light – and that’ll take away the “cheap” quality which comes from not using enough light. ETTR is the way to go – as long as you don’t blow your highlights, you can always decrease the amount of light in coloring/post-production, if you’ve taken that into account ahead of time.

15) Coloring / color grading.

Coloring / color grading used to be referred to as “color correction”, but now that so much more is done with it, “coloring” or “color grading” works as well as anything else.

Hollywood films go through a round of color grading with people who spend their professional lives doing it. You can’t just “apply a LUT” or “apply a curve” to something and have it magically look like a million dollars, any more than an Instagram filter can make a picture look better instead of just making it look like it was taken with a terrible camera from the 1970s.

Color grading / coloring is a time-consuming, iterative process. It’s awful to do, but it’s a necessary evil. It allows you to correct lighting problems (assuming that your base footage has enough latitude to withstand the corrections, of course), change color temperature, punch certain colors, and even correct moving objects or flaws in the camera. It also allows a final look and feel to be given to your project, which can help take away that indie low-budget feel to your film.

Color grading / coloring won’t save a terrible film, but it can take a good film and give it a look and feel which will keep it from being dismissed as looking amateur.

16) Framing: stop cutting off peoples' heads.

One of the things that immediately jumps out at me about low-budget film projects, and cheap cinematography in general, is framing. If you’re not paying attention to the framing of your subject material, the edge of the frame becomes a knife which slices at your subjects and surroundings.

If you’re going to use a special aspect ratio / crop bars, make sure that you’re framing according to those bars. I had a project on which I had DP’d where the decision to adjust aspect ratio was made after principal photography had concluded. This left a bunch of shots where the actors looked decapitated. These are all things to consider before you choose your focal length, camera position, et cetera.

17) Don’t ask for money unless you really, really need it.

This is more of a personal pet-peeve. Pay your crew if that’s your arrangement. If you’re paying one actor, you pay them all. If you’re doing a senior thesis project, or a festival piece, or something else which isn’t slated for distribution, please do NOT go on kickstarter, gofundme, or any of the other funding/begging sites to ask for 10-50k$ of money. If you end up with a chunk of bad publicity and unhappy financial backers, it’s going to reflect poorly on your film.

(I’m aware that this isn’t a “look and feel” thing, but permit me my slight digression from the topic at hand; I feel that it is important enough to mention.)