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How to make a film look cinematic on a low budget

Can you make your footage look cinematic without expensive gear? Yes, here’s how.

Watch the video:

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free guide (with examples) on how to find the best camera angles for dialogue scenes when your mind goes blank.

In this video and article I want to share the things I do to make my footage more cinematic.

What is “cinematic”?

Cinematic means – it looks like it were shot for cinema, or nowadays, Netflix. To be honest though, for me, the best definition I can get for cinematic is:

Video that doesn’t look corners were cut in terms of camera or production values.

How well can you hide your shortcomings – that’s the true level of cinematic.

Hiding things comes with experience. At the beginning you just point your camera and it records everything as is. Slowly, you learn what needs to be done, chip by chip, until your tastes are refined, and your skills develop on par with your tastes.

It’s like riding a bike or swimming. One day you are struggling, the next day you suddenly can balance or swim. The line between something being impossible and easy doesn’t exist, and it doesn’t in cinematography either. Sometimes you have problems you can’t overcome, but you push through, and one day you will overcome them. Not everybody grows in the same speed.

I’m going to share seven things I think will help you hide the mistakes you’ll most likely make. Even if you have a cheap camera, and a cheap lens, you can still use these techniques to really change the look and feel of your videos and films.

The first is the simplest –

1. Shallow Depth of Field

I’ll be honest, I hate the shallow DOF look. It just makes the background look like mush, but that can be useful when your background is not worth showing!

And let’s face it, most low budget filmmakers don’t have good sets or locations. Most times you’re shooting in somebody’s home, and that home looks on camera as it looks in real life – a mess.

You could do a lot to make it interesting, but you’ll most likely never make it look cinematic – so hiding a lot of it is the best strategy.

You don’t need expensive gear to make shallow DOF. Instead of buying a kit lens, buy a 50mm f/1.8 (Amazon, B&H) and something like a Canon 850D/T8i (Amazon, B&H) can give you really shallow DOF. You could shoot an entire film with just one lens.

2. Never have white walls

Something about white walls just makes bad lighting and camera work look worse. You need a lot of skill to make white walls interesting. And that’s impossible for low budget filmmaking, where either you don’t have the skills, or the tools, or the space to make things interesting.

You’ll see a lot of YouTubers paint their background walls black or blue or some other color so they don’t have to light well. It works in films too. If you are forced to shoot in your own apartment or a friend’s place, the least you can do is paint the walls. Even if you have a landlord they shouldn’t object if you’re doing a tasteful job. If they disagree, just paint it back – it’s still cheaper than building a set or paying for a location.

And it will make a mountain of a difference to the way your film looks.

Another simple trick you can do is to use blue gels (Amazon, B&H) on a background light to make a white wall blue. Everything looks blue, but it’s better than nothing, because it hides white walls.

The other problem with white walls is lighting becomes hard in a tight space. You turn on one light and it bounces everywhere. There’s nothing much you can do if everything is white, including the ceiling. You’ll have to do a lot of flagging to make it work, but that’s hard for most people. 

Exclusive Bonus: Download your FREE list: 25 Proven DIY and Cheap Lighting Gear that actually delivers cinematic results (PDF file optimized for mobiles and tablets).

Moral of the story? When you can’t light, paint.

3. Use a Variable ND filter

Let’s face it, most people can’t afford fixed stop ND filters. I use these ones from Formatt Firecrest, on an Arri Matte box.

You could buy cheaper photo filters and matte boxes, or you could buy screw on filters. As you probably know, prices vary from almost nothing to a whole lot of something – maybe even more expensive than the lens you have on camera!

So what I recommend is you buy a decent variable ND filter for your one or two lenses. Tiffen is good enough (Amazon, B&H). Look at the filter sizes and you might need step up or step down rings, but you’ll have one filter and that’s it.

A variable ND filter actually has two pieces of glass, and you turn one it goes black, and you turn some more, and it’s not so black. I won’t bore you with the technicalities. Suffice to say this baby is handy.

Outside or inside, when you want shallow DOF you need to open your aperture. If you have a 50mm lens you open it to f/1.8 and you’ll find everything’s overexposed.

And we already established you absolutely have to shallow the DOF out of your background to hide it. The variable ND filter solves your problem, and does it quickly.

4. Shutter Speed at 1/50s

I’ve explained pretty much everything here:

Bottom line, when you’re totally new, keep your shutter at 1/50s for 24/25p and 1/60s for 30p.

5. Move the Camera

Moving the camera is an art form, but you can start by buying a cheap slider (Amazon, B&H) and practicing.

6. Camera Coverage

Cover a scene in its entirety – for every shot. E.g., if you’re covering a scene in this manner:

  1. Long shot or master
  2. OTS and reverse OTS
  3. Close up and reverse CU

That’s five shots. Repeat the scene from beginning to end in every shot. Do it until you know when not to do it.

Exclusive Bonus: Download my free guide (with examples) on how to find the best camera angles for dialogue scenes when your mind goes blank.

7. Find Good Actors

Beg them, pay for them, inspire them. Do whatever it takes (ethically and legally) to get them on board. Proceed like your life and career depended on it.

I hope you found this useful. What do you think?

Do you have any tips of your own to make footage look more cinematic?

4 replies on “How to make a film look cinematic on a low budget”

Hi,

Thanks for those tips. One more time it’s very useful. What about a good scenario to look cinematic ? The more I think about movies I like, the more I think that a good scenario is the heart of a successful project. Whithout it, you could have the best crew, the best gear, the best images. If the scenario isn’t convincing enough, the audience won’t hook on it and will focus on the mistakes a beginner does.

What do you think about that ? I would be interested to know your opinion.

Thanks again for your work.

I wish you a nice day (from France).

Joe.

Absolutely. The problem is you only know if a script is good or bad after it has been completed. It’s very hard to predict what’s going to happen, probably impossible.

Lots of good directors who don’t really place that much importance in the script.

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