Stupid Indie Tricks- The Rodriguez List

When the American Director Robert Rodriguez decided to make his first full film, El Mariachi, the first thing he did (even before writing the script) was sit down and make a list of all the possible resources he had available to him.

He did this because he knew if he wanted to make the best film he could for the little money available, he had to make the best possible use of all the resources he could get his hands on. He felt that if he just used what he had, instead of worrying about what he didn’t have, he could produce a much better film.

He was right, El Mariachi was made for $7000, and would later catapult him into Hollywood success as a man who could produce quality work for a budget. He chronicles this in his book Rebel Without a Crew, which is good reading for any aspiring filmmaker.

Later on, in the book DV Rebel’s Guide (also more good reading), Stu Maschwitz would use the term “Robert Rodriguez List” to describe following Rodriguez’s approach and making a list of all your assets and resources before you start to plan your first film.

I recommend you do the same.

Whether you know what you want to make, or are just trying to come up with something worth making, sit down and make a Rodriguez List beforehand. In it, try to include ever single relevant asset you have available to you, up to and including…

  • Camera Gear (Mobile Phone, DSLR Camera, Webcam, whatever can film!)
  • Sound Gear
  • Software
  • Your skills/talents
  • Your strengths and weaknesses
  • Places to film you have access to in one way or another.
  • Vehicles
  • Clothes (especially special or unique stuff)
  • Lights
  • Props (Swords, Wheelchairs, Power Tools, anything useful)
  • Set Decorations
  • Makeup
  • People who can act.
  • People who like you.
  • People who owe you favors.
  • People who know people who can act.
  • People who have equipment you could use.
  • People who have access to locations to film.
  • People who can help you carry your gear or drive you around.
  • People who you can consult/ask for help in your weak areas.

Basically, you’re listing anything or anyone you think might be remotely useful in making a film. It doesn’t matter whether you use it or not, it helps you have a realistic idea of what you can pull off before you even plan. Even if you don’t use it on this project, you might end up using it on the next one!

One tip with shooting locations- remember that what looks boring and commonplace to you might still look exotic and interesting to someone who lives far away from you. Don’t always think you need locations that look exotic and different to you, because they might look boring and uninteresting to others.


Stupid Indie Tricks- You’re holding your phone wrong when taking video.

The Film Artist demonstrates an alternate way to hold your phone when taking video that I’ve never seen before. I tried it, and it seems to improve the stability of my iPhone when I’m filming, so give it a try and it might work for you too!

via Steady iPhone 4s on Vimeo.

Stupid Indie Tricks: Shooting Night Scenes with Cell Phone Cameras

There is a very simple rule- Cell phone cameras and night shots do not mix well.

The realities of the situation are simple- the smaller the aperture of your camera (the hole light goes through into the sensor), the lower the quality image will result because it’s getting less light for the sensor to work with. Newer cameras can actually compensate quite well if there’s a fair amount of light (a well-lit urban environment, for example), but what if you need to shoot a scene that happens in the middle of a cornfield at night?

Well, generally you have two options if you’re not trying to do the “found footage” thing. (Where the audience will just accept the unnatural presence of the camera light because they know it’s a camera.)

1) Shoot at night, but bring a bunch of filters to use over your lights.

This can work, but it will require a lot of effort and likely expensive equipment.

2) Play with your camera’s settings to trick it into simulating night shots, like this guy does…

This guy’s tricks would work well with Filmic Pro for the iPhone. You’d first lock White Balance on something bright orange, and then lock the exposure setting on something bright. You might have to play with it a bit, but then you’d be able to shoot bright scenes during the day and have it look like a passable night shot.

3) Shoot during the day, and make it look like night in post-production.

Because we’re talking about cell phone cameras here, this third one is probably your best bet when trying to capture footage that should technically be impossible to do with your equipment. Whether it’s characters walking through a forest at night, sneaking through a house, or taking a moonlit stroll, this is the way to do it.

So let’s talk about how.

First, there are a few rules to shooting “day for night” scenes.

  1. Shoot on a cloudy day. (This reduces the chance of reflections that might indicate that it isn’t really night in the shot, and also makes your job easier in general.)
  2. Avoid shooting the sky as much as you possibly can. (Try to frame your shots so that as little of the sky is in the shot as you can possibly manage.)
  3. Avoid reflective surfaces like windows, water and anything else that might reflect the sky and ruin the effect.
  4. Make sure you shoot in as high a resolution as you can, because you want the room to be able to manipulate the image without worrying about a bit of degradation.
  5. If you have the option to shoot it using color correction presets, shoot with the camera set for very warm light conditions. (Tungsten Bulbs, for example) This will cause your camera to naturally make things more blue while you’re shooting (to compensate for the warmth of the bulbs) and make your job even easier. But you probably shouldn’t do the exposure trick from #2 as well.

That said, you can and should be using a fairly normal lighting setup to make sure that your subjects are well lit and clear. You want the sharpest and best possible image so that you have more room to play with in post-production.

Once you’re done filming and take it back to the editing room, you can then fire up video editing software and get to work. In short, you’re going to be playing with the contrast and colors to try and give the footage a blue tint that simulates night without making it took dark. Remember that we’ve actually be trained by movies and TV to interpret a strong blue tint  as representing low-light/night conditions (yeah, the pros are also using this technique). So, since your audience is already taught to interpret it that way, go ahead and use it!

Poking around, you can find tutorials on YouTube to do this for almost any video editing software out there. I use Adobe Premiere Pro CS6, but I actually found this tutorial for Adobe Premiere Elements to be one that produced the results I liked better than the CS6 tutorials I saw.

Here’s a more complex version for Adobe Audition Pro CS6, which you might like better than I did…

Of course After Effects can also do it. This guy below is doing it manually, but I understand there are a number of pre-sets you can download out there for free which will also do it instantly if you can find them.

Sony Vegas apparently has this effect as a preset under Color Curves, according to this video…

And for you Mac users, there are tutorials for iMovie…

and Final Cut Pro.

I hope this helps!

Happy filming!


Stupid Indie Tricks: No-Budget Audio Recording for Indie Filmmakers

“If it sounds good, it looks good.”

This is a Hollywood mantra which should also be engraved in the heads of everyone who wants to shoot a film of any kind. It doesn’t matter if it’s a narrative film or a documentary, nothing will turn an audience off from watching your film faster than bad audio.

But, what if all you’ve got to make your whole production is a couple of smartphones?

You’re in luck, because that’s exactly what you need!

Cellphones are designed to capture fairly good quality audio and send it winging off through the airwaves, so they’re fine for recording sound for your movie too- provided that you keep a few simple things in mind:

  1. Cellphone Mics are designed to be short ranged, because they’re supposed to be focussing on the owner’s voice and not the ambient noise around them. The makers of Smartphones assume their owners will be walking through crowded urban areas and talking on them, and design accordingly.
  2. Cellphone Mics are directional, so they’re designed to pick up sound in a cone out from the bottom of the phone. (Where the owner’s mouth is most likely to be found, if they’re human.)
  3. Cellphone Mics are mono, since the designer assume that nobody needs stereo sound during a normal phone conversation.

If you remember these things, and plan accordingly, you can then start to use them to capture sound for your film.

First, however, you will need a recording App for you phone. If you’re using an iPhone I recommend getting a copy of the R0DE Rec LE App, which can do pretty much everything you need and is free! It’s one of those Apps that doesn’t have a crippled Free version, but which has a Pro version that just unlocks a lot more features.

If you’re using an Android, you might try one of these Apps.

Once you’ve got an App and a phone, you’re ready to go!

So here’s a few tricks you use to seriously improve your sound quality…

Trick One: Doubleshot

For this trick, you simply film your scene twice, once in close-up, and once farther away at whatever distance you want the majority of the scene to be at. Then, when you edit the scene you use the close-up audio (which has the better quality) with the farther away footage. Ta-dah! You have the sound quality of being close up, but you have the distance away from the actors you want for the scene. You also have two sets of distances you can jump between to make the scene more interesting visually.

When doing this, I also recommend using an elastic to attach a credit card or some other card to your phone to make your sound more directional. The video below demonstrates why….

One minor thing to remember, though, is that both takes need to have almost identical delivery by the actors, otherwise the close-up sound won’t match up with the footage from farther away.

Trick Two: Multi-Phone Recording

Generally, the best recording will almost always be done not by the Camera Mic, but by a separate Mic located on or near the actors or subjects. Since most people have more than one phone available to them (use a friend’s or relative’s!) you simply record video with one phone and audio with another, and then join them together in post production.

This video shows the advantages of this technique…

But, this technique is also useful on-set and in quieter locations, and in fact that’s where it really shines.

As Lee says in that video, you can place the phones on the actor’s bodies to function as Mics, and use things like the Earbud Mic as a mini-lapel Mic to hide on the actors and get better quality audio. I’ve experimented with placing my iPhone upside-down (with the Mic facing me) in my shirt’s breast pocket with pretty good results. You might need to use more than one phone to record, and then mix all the audio sources together in Post-Production, but that’s still a huge improvement over the sound you might get otherwise and produces totally useable results.

One last trick you can use with this method is to hide the additional phone being used to record somewhere on the set near the actors with the Mic pointed up and towards the actors. Say, if you have two people at a table and then slip the phone behind a box of tissues or a picture so that it can pick up the sound while remaining hidden. Of course, since it’s in contact with the table it may also pick up vibrations from the actors touching the table, so use carefully!

These aren’t my tricks, but things I’ve picked up while I’ve researched Cellphone Filmmaking, so I thought I’d put them together and pass them along. Try them out, and if they can make your audio sound better, you’re halfway there to producing a higher quality film!