How to Get Creative with Micro Budget Filmmaking
- January 31, 2018
- Shane Hurlbut, ASC
Author: Sherri Kauk
“When I have more money and more time on the next film, I’ll be able to…” creeps into the headspace. Shoo! Ever had that thought creep into your mind? It’s destructive and limits achieving creative style.
In pursuit of silencing that “if only” voice and advancing head on toward money and time challenges, I want to share a case study shooting Dave Palamaro’s Murder Made Easy (2018).
Connecting to the Director’s Vision
When Dave brought Murder Made Easy to me, he pitched a strong vision – a murder mystery in one location utilizing long, single takes, requiring dynamic camera and talent blocking – an homage to Hitchcock’s Rope (1948).
This is 100% a steadicam feature. We’ll have an operator, focus puller, wireless video and 2nd AC. For lighting the long takes, I’ll pre-rig zones and utilize practicals via a dimmer board, board operator and a pre-rig day. A gaffer, key grip and dimmer operator should cover us for this indie shoot.
Not even close.
Dave then delivers his shoestring budget. Camera is free from a friend. Hopefully, we can shoot with the condominium lights on and if not, what’s the minimum I need to make it work? Dave says he has one penny and one PA a day for camera, grip and electric. He isn’t lying about having only one PA for my entire crew.
So, no steadicam. No wireless. No crew.
Do I want to make this film?
Is this possible?
I love that ‘Rope 2.0’ is the complex, immersive style Dave “settled” on during his own creative process of working through budget and time limitations. Crazy! I really love that he did not choose to deflate his vision, mis-believing that “his next film – the one with the bigger budget and more time – will be the one he does right,” but, rather, found expansiveness in the style of Rope to execute a complete story experience.
This choice to hustle the vision into a creative form that allows for it to live fully is what is working. It’s the center-force of this feature film. Now, can I find an equally creative way to make it possible cinematically?
“My friend is letting us use his place.” You know the pit in your “make beautiful images” stomach when you hear this? It’s legit. That is where we are shooting – a place that is beautiful to live in, but… we’ve got white walls, a multi-level first floor and a “no painting, no rigging” wysiwyg location agreement.
Are you serious?!
The voice snickers: “For the next film, you’ll be able to really shoot it right because you will be able to paint the walls, rig overhead lighting, and use a dolly or steadicam OR BOTH for the long takes…”
Begin operation: “Control light fall-off.” Turn off the overhead house lighting.
The steps of the condo eliminate a dolly being the moving camera answer. The budget cancels out a steadicam. The director does not like the “handheld look.” When Dave says he does not like the handheld look, it is possible that what he is more specifically communicating is this: he is seeking a composed, formal framing style that visually communicates the premeditated component in both Hitchcock’s Rope and Dave’s Murder Made Easy.
Begin operation: “Steadi moving camera.”
No rigging allowed – I don’t know the answer to this one yet.
Begin operation: “Find a solution.”
Dave’s friend has loaned him a Canon 5D and a 24-105 f4 stock lens.
“…the next film will have prime lenses… an Alexa….a….” Shhhh!!!!
I’ve shot a lot of reality t.v. handheld on that lens in white-walled North Hollywood condos, and I know where we will end up if we don’t find a cinematic solution for Murder Made Easy.
I tell myself this camera and lens is a starting point, not an ending point.
I bring my handheld setup to our first prep day and can feel Dave shudder at the thought of handheld. “Oh, that rig? It is just part of my set bag basics. Let’s test all of the resources and ideas we have.”
Begin operation: “What about this stabilizer… that one?”
Here is where the Ronin failed: The set speed of the panning gimbals feels mechanical and non-responsive to the actors’ natural movement in the space; frequently enough, the Ronin gears lock up or “spin out” deep into a long take; carrying the Ronin around for long takes gets heavy; without wireless focus and a focus puller, moving through the space with shallow, dynamic depth of field is impossible.
Dave has a homemade rig that is sort of a counter-balanced, half assembled tripod he wants to test. We are testing everything so let’s test this… we tested it. ☺
A rope-pulley system?
A pass the hot-potato camera approach?
A pseudo mobile slider?
We tested it.
Facing the fear – handheld
I’ve shot thousands of hours of handheld. For small-bodied cameras, I use the ergocine system. The rig rests on my shoulder like an Arri Alexa or Aaton XTR. I can pull my own focus and with the canon lens stabilizer ‘on’ we might sneak into the realm of steadi moving cinematic camera in focus! It’s the one “stabilizer” we haven’t yet tested.
Dave shallow focus in the foreground sitting at the dinner table, I pivot around him and into the kitchen to find Murder Made Easy’s screenwriter, Tim Davis. Pulling to him as I approach, I rest him frame left, composing Dave still sitting, now in the background. It is our first look at handheld – the thing Dave fears most!
We watch playback. It is the first stabilized setup to meet most of our needs – selective focus, a naturalistic motion and a mostly stable frame. Dave’s reaction tells me one more thing – it is the first time during all the tests he feels like he’s immersed in a movie. He’s connecting to that intangible way movies have about them, much due to selective, dynamic focus and composed framing.
This setup, however, has three big limitations: Murder Made Easy being a dinner party murder mystery, the camera must move around sitting people a lot. Shoulder handheld is not at the right eye line for a lot of scenes and I can’t “squat and walk” smoothly around a table. Second, to frame up this ensemble cast, the 16×9 aspect ratio shows too much of the set that I can’t control and is not story – the ceiling and the floor. I am also not a big fan of the 4.0/5.6 f-stop of the stock lens because it puts those white walls in focus with the actors. But, we are making ground in terms of turning our stock camera loaner into a cinematic tool through our handheld tests and selective focus.
What is so critical to point out at this phase in my first collaboration with Dave is the amount of trust we are building through an open, collaborative pre-production. Through testing gear and shooting styles, we are putting our focus on judging results – getting theories and opinions out of our heads, into a testing ground and on screen. With each test, we are creating a shared vocabulary, a shared taste and a shared experience. These are the building blocks to lasting, fruitful collaborations.
I know the camera system is not fully discovered yet, but I’ve made big in-roads with Dave in exploring all that smooth handheld can bring to his film at this budget and time level. I let the final unknowns go for now.
Sherri has the ergocine handheld system on her shoulder. The ‘director’s monitor’ is the t.v. logic 5.6 on the back end of the ergocine. The ergo and Sherri’s Alphatron EVS are powered by one Anton Bauer battery which also serves as a counterweight to the canon 5D with anamorphic lens system up front. On frame right, you can see one Leko bouncing into the ceiling. Its blades are set to cut light from bouncing too deeply into the dining room and onto white kitchen walls. Off frame left, there is a Leko bouncing side-light off the right ceiling lip to add dimension to the lighting ratio. The house lights are dimmed to a low level to taste. With the camera system comfortably balanced on Sherri’s shoulder, it is convenient to let it rest there while working out some blocking issues with actors Christopher Soren Kelly and Emilia Richeson. Nicholas Schoonover adjusts a mic and Crystal Nardico waits for ‘last looks.’
As I stand in the middle of the white box condo knowing I will see everything and cannot paint anything, I remember my last film, The Universe is Chewing, co-DP’ing with the wonderful Brett Juskalian. We bonded over our love for Leko lighting, bouncing those lights everywhere. And such love was still on my mind.
By bouncing Lekos on the ceiling and on walls ‘off camera,’ I can extend the fall-off ratio of the light source, create a lighting ratio, and blend the natural location with a naturalistic, soft bounce source feel. For the living room hero couch area, I rent a pancake-thick led beauty disc that I can use in scene practically or off camera. (I also rented (2) 1×1 LiteMats, although I ultimately used them very little because they spill light everywhere and do not blend naturally with the limited grip and expendable supply I have on this shoot.)
Establishing this simple, yet elegant lighting approach shifts the attention where it should be – on the actors’ performances.
Here, again, is where the right tool covers my crew & budget deficiencies: The Lekos allow me to “grip” with the blades and shape the light by sourcing it to particular shapes and sizes on ‘out of frame’ surfaces. Although I cannot rig lighting, I can throw the Leko light across deep spaces into nooks where typically I’d request to hang a grip point.
Being able to find a way to bring in a cinematic, thoughtful lighting approach amid the constraints of the location buys two things: like the camera testing, it’s building confidence and trust with my director in that we are similarly focused in overcoming without giving in.
We will use this newly found trust as our currency for all of our transactions throughout our filmmaking experience.
The ‘big ticket’
It becomes apparent that, in committing to handheld, the must-have piece of gear on this feature is the Butt-Dolly. There is not a substitute piece of gear that works as well in this situation.
Designed by Key Grip Carlos Boiles, the Butt-Dolly has rolled across the top prime-time sets and many indie feature sets. It is the handheld operator’s best friend for scenes at hip level and at tables.
To rent the Butt-Dolly for the duration of our shoot costs almost half of my entire budget! Once we see it in action, though, there is no doubt that with the Butt-Dolly, a stabilized lens, and me handheld-operating and focusing, that we are getting really close to a full-on ‘look’ for Murder Made Easy. I can backtrack-walk a character in and sit them down at the table while sitting on the Butt-Dolly, “track” around the table during their conversation, stand them up, take them to the couch and sit back down – I can push in or pull back for the final button of the scene. This piece of gear on this indie shoestring film delivers big.
The final pin
I know I am still bugging about the look. It is not yet complete. To fix the 16×9 field of view, I can frame and crop to 2.40. I know that. But those walls are still in focus. I can rent a 24-70 2.8 lens perhaps, but it isn’t stabilized. I can rent one stabilized prime lens and shoot the film on one prime. Well, if I am going to rent one prime… I quote out renting one Hawk Anamorphic Lens and the cost is prohibitive.
On Vimeo, I keep coming across the Iscorama 36 1.5x Anamorphic Lens while researching color tones for Murder Made Easy.
Iscorama 36 1.5x Anamorphic Lens – image © EOSHD.com
Isocrama Lens © Ben Coughlan – Flickr
The images it produces have a muted, textured look similar to the style I am pitching to Dave. If I dared to quote a single Hawk Anamorphic, I can dare to test the feasibility of shooting an entire feature film using a poor-man’s anamorphic process, right?
This Isco-36 anamorphic will give me a 32mm horizontal field of view (remember I’m using a full frame sensor though) with a 48mm depth of field – pushing my walls out of focus, allowing for ensemble cast framing and graphic framing choices using foreground, middleground and background. Shooting Dave’s feature on a single with this setup is a big pitch. Remember all of that trust and good will we’ve established throughout our prep? Time to dive into another unknown and shoot some tests.
With the possibility of anamorphic framing, I know we have discovered fully our film. Dave is weary and for good cause. The image is no longer stabilized, so we have to overcome that hurdle – again. Having to cover close-ups to wide shots without a zoom lens during these long takes, relying instead on actors and camera to move in and out of frame sizes is complicated, possibly limiting. I know this ‘limitation’ will give our DSLR, condo-location film the visual foundation it needs to bind all of the indie uncontrollables together.
Remember how dreaded handheld was to Dave in the beginning? Now I’ve got his movie on a handheld camera with a single 1.5x discontinued anamorphic prime lens screwed onto a Russian 58mm still photo ‘taking’ lens with no stabilizer, scooting around the condo on a Butt-Dolly! Terrifying. Even for me, it’s terrifying… and thrilling 🙂
We test some more.
Facing more unknowns
I put the test image thru Adobe Warp Stabilizer at 2%. I apply the color correction I am pitching for a final feel and present it to Dave. Dave, I must say here, comes from an editing background. He knows the limits of “fix it in post.” To pitch a post fix (stabilization) as part of the production seems crazy. It is. But it is working. The tests look and feel like a movie – our movie, it is just unnerving how far away it is from the 5D stock lens on Ronin Dave had originally imagined.
The actors arrive tomorrow for a final on-location blocking rehearsal. We will test the camera set-up with them, run it through post again, and make our final decision after.
Shoot Day 1 arrives
I am handheld with the ergocine supporting the 5D, Helios 58mm taking lens, and Isco 36, pulling my own focus, sliding-gliding-Butt-Dollying in socks through 12 minute takes with seven actors in the frame. It is a blast. Dave, having forgone wireless video because of budget, is often behind me glancing at my TVLogic 5.6 onboard monitor, often key gripping me around objects, up the stairs, onto the Butt-Dolly, and then ducking out of frame behind the couch trusting the images we are all creating – him, me, the actors, sound-booming mixer – even when he cannot see them in real time. It is a dance – a dance of performance, a dance of craft, a dance of technical achievement, and a dance of trust. It is a dance capturing the creative vision bravely imagined.
It is clear: Murder Made Easy is a film unique unto itself in its visual style, directing style, and performance pitch.
The final big win
The trust and respect built on the success of the shooting of Murder Made Easy leads to the final cinematography puzzle piece: the colormix. I call it colormix, because in this instance we are not ‘correcting’ the images or going crazy with looks – all of that we did in camera. This colormix, like sound mixing, is the fine-tuning of all that was accomplished on set. The colormix was not originally budgeted, and is not part of this article’s budget coverage. But, after such a successful production and collaboration, Dave trusted, again, his cinematographer’s assertion of its importance. We completed colormix with the phenomenal Peter Swartz of Color Space Finishing.
The real case study
With indie filmmaking – all filmmaking – being rich on trust, mutual admiration, and bold vision beats being rich on money and time. And, honestly, how often have you heard or shouted celebratorily,
‘We have so much money and time on this shoot!’
Not I, yet!
Attacking the time and money challenge head-on is how creative craft develops.
Here is the final camera and lighting budget for Murder Made Easy:
Murder Made Easy completed production mid 2016. It premiered and won at The 2016 inaugural Women in Horror Film Festival.
Sherri Kauk has a master of fine arts from the American Film Institute. She has lensed 5 feature films and worked in over 30 countries.
Her work airs on Netflix, CBS, A&E, Lifetime; has screened at SXSW, Frameline, Guadalajara, Tel Aviv International Film Festivals; and shortlisted at Cannes, Sundance and Berlinale.
Articles about her work appear in the Huffington Post, LA Times, the BBC and Variety.