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TopTenTips for Movie Production and Guerilla Filmmaking

Some production hints, tips, and advice that I've picked up over the years.

  1. Turn the camera sideways or upside down – This technique has been used in more movies than you can imagine and still works as well or better than many CGI simulations. Need an actor to walk across the ceiling? Build a floor that looks like a ceiling and turn the camera upside down. Need a creature scuttling across the wall in defiance of gravity? Construct a floor that looks like a wall and turn the camera on its side.
  2. Realize that different angles of the same scene don’t have to be shot in the same place – A very common film technique that is often overlooked by beginning filmmakers using different locations for the same scene. For example, say a character just got out of prison and is met outside by a criminal buddy and they discuss a new criminal endeavor. As a guerilla filmmaker, sets are hard to come by and they tend to be expensive. However, filming a long scene outside a prison without the proper permits might get you thrown in one! This scene could be done by parking a car (with the film crew inside) across the street from a prison. After your actor stands by the entrance for a moment, he begins to walk beside the prison wall. Now you have the setup. Find a readily accessible wall that visually matches that of the prison (maybe even make one) and film the entire dialogue scene there. If done properly, when cut together in editing, the audience won’t be able to tell the difference. This technique is especially useful if you are a writer/director. You can script scenes for this technique to add scope to your film that your budget could never afford.
  3. Water the streets – An old cinematographer’s trick for filming exteriors on asphalt or concrete (especially at night with street lights around) is to water road surface. The reflections and street glow add a lot of depth and character to a scene.
  4. Fake sweat with petroleum jelly – If you need your actor to appear to be sweating, spread petroleum jelly lightly over the area to be photographed and spritz with water. The general shine plus the beading of the water will pickup very well on film. Note that you should find another technique for lengthy shoots. For one, the actor will become uncomfortable under the hot lights when sealed under a layer of jelly. Also, since the jelly will seal the pores, long scenes with it on will cause acne and other undesirable skin effects over a several day shoot. It takes a lot of extra makeup to disguise the blemishes you created in the first place (as I found out on a shoot).
  5. Use preplanning and holidays to maximize your budget – If you are a guerilla filmmaker, you probably have more time and inventiveness than money. Be sure to take advantages of the various holidays (particularly the day-after-holiday sales) to maximize your film budget dollars. Halloween is the best filmmaker’s holiday with inexpensive fog machines, costumes, wigs, and make-up (although most Halloween make-up isn’t good enough for film work, you can always use some extra spirit gum). The fluorescent orange plastic jack-o-lanterns are perfect for making no-budget road pylons. Christmas is excellent for cheap lighting (background cinematography effects, set decoration), reflectors of all sorts, electrical equipment, and sales on camera equipment. Thanksgiving provides table clothes (backdrops, simulated drapes) and kitchen equipment (timers, barbeque paint, heat-resistant items for use with lights). Easter has numerous inexpensive dyes (great for the Art Department for everything from fabric to aging/distressing work) and other useful items such as pavilions/tents. Of course all holidays are good for cheap candy/crew food ;-).
  6. Simulating ice crystals – If you need to have a surface that is covered in frost or ice crystals, add some glitter to whatever you are coating the surface with. With just a little bit of light, the glitter will shimmer and provide both a visually interesting and convincing surface.
  7. Use markers to speed your writing - When writing a script and you’re stuck on what to say, just type three letters (such as xxx) and continue writing. That will keep you moving forward. Later when you’re editing, you can search for the xxx key sequence and fill in the missing content.
  8. Authoring DVDs and player compatibility problems – When you burn a DVD-R on a personal DVD burner, you might wonder why the disc doesn’t play on nearly as many brands of DVD players as some one-off DVD-Rs burned by companies (I’m not talking about the DVD-ROM pressings used by the big studios that work on almost all DVD players). There are actually two types of DVD-R discs: DVD-R-General and DVD-R-Authoring. While DVD-R-General discs are estimated to work on about 80% of DVD players, DVD-R-Authoring discs are estimated to work on around 90%. That 10% might not seem like a lot, but when you consider the Authoring discs cut in half the number of players that WON’T run your DVD, you see the advantage. Unfortunately, DVD-Authoring burners (such as the Pioneer DVR-A03) are much more expensive than a home DVD burner and use more expensive media. However, if maximum playability is what you want for your movie, consider outsourcing the burning to a place that can do the DVD-R-Authoring discs instead of doing it yourself.
  9. Color timing and color matching – Color timing (a.k.a. color grading) is used to set the color palette of a film so that the colors appear as desired when played on various displays (so white walls appear white to the viewer or perhaps they appear red, depending on the desired artistic/lighting effect). Try to avoid doing any color timing on flat screens (and especially laptop computers) which don’t provide nearly the color fidelity of a color tube monitor. Further, the color tube more closely matches the destination medium (presuming the destination is some type of television).
  10. Don't say "We'll Fix it in Post!" - Problems during production are usually far more difficult and expensive to fix in post production than initially imagined. Whenever you can fix a problem while on set, do it! All the problems you declare can be fixed in post will generate your biggest headaches.