Writing Movies Within Your Means, pt. 2

Writing Lighting ☛

 

In my previous piece I discussed how decisions about the location of your screenplay can help bring the budget down. This time I’ll focus on how your general approach to story can save you money on camera and lighting.

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‘Festen’: a symphony of video noise

Time was that picture quality was the first thing that would tell the audience that they were watching a low-budget film. During the ’90s the Dogme filmmakers said “to hell with it!” and embraced deliberately low-end digital video when making films like Festen, which was shot to feel like the outtakes of a wedding video.

Around the same time, found-footage horror became a genre of its own, following the success of The Blair Witch Project. The idea was that the material you were watching had been shot by the characters, often on consumer-grade cameras, and found some time later after they had died or disappeared. These movies didn’t just get away with shooting on cheap cameras, they created a dramatic bonus from it. The footage tended to have a rawness and unpredictability about it, not least because the cameras were often wielded by the actors, rather than a professional cameraman. The roughness of the image quality brought to mind the look of videos the audience might have shot themselves.

In narrative terms, there were interesting restrictions too: the writer couldn’t show the audience anything unless there was a character with a camera present to film it. You were absolutely tied to seeing things from a specific character or characters’ point of view. This added to the personal immediacy of the story. It also gave the writer greater licence to withhold: it provides an excuse for events not to be shown – the camera wasn’t there. The audience have to fill in the gaps themselves. I’ve co-written a found-footage script myself – Nitrate – and while it’s not always an easy genre in which to write, it can be a lot of fun.

Variants on found-footage films are still being made and in other genres from horror. 2012 saw End of Watch, a police drama filmed mainly from the police characters’ body cameras and the dashboard camera of their patrol car. There was even a big-budget alien invasion found-footage movie, Cloverfield and fantasy monster movie, Troll Hunter. Given that video cameras are everywhere these days there’s still a lot of potential for new ideas in this form.

Since the 90s, however, low-end digital cameras have been improving at an extraordinary rate. The difference between affordable and professional is now as small as it’s ever been, which means that there’s less reason to look for elaborate ways to justify a lower quality image.

That said, a cheap looking image isn’t just the result of a cheap camera –Hollywood movies look the way they do mainly because a lot of time and money has been lavished on the lighting. In the UK the social conscience filmmaker Ken Loach has for many decades avoided this prettification, opting instead to shoot in such a way that his films appear to be unlit, like documentaries. Real. His example has established an aesthetic embraced by other filmmakers seeking to present an unvarnished reality… and to save themselves a chunk of change on lighting.

This ‘documentary look’ uses the same principle as Festen. That film wasn’t actually pretending to have been shot by one of the characters, it was merely using that style to suggest a world of drunken family members behaving erratically. This less literal approach to picture style could mean that any subject matter which we’re used to seeing through the lens of a low-grade camera could benefit from being shot with that aesthetic. In a world awash with video cameras, the list of these scenarios is growing.

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‘Cat People’ by Jacques Tourneur, the prince of darkness.

Picture quality or style aside, paradoxically it is sometimes the case that lighting can save you money through a skillful use of darkness. This was employed by low-budget filmmakers back as far as Cat People in 1942, where the monster remained always in the shadows. As a result every shadow in the film developed the potential for menace. That said, darkness is not quite as cheap as you might think: it’s not just a case of having no lights: that just gives you a murky or underexposed image. To create shadows and use them creatively, you need lights. Even so, this approach could still save you money if what is hidden by those shadows would be too expensive to show, or to show convincingly.

Filmmakers will always look for cheaper ways to make a film: I’ve heard of movies entirely shot on iPhones. But one truth remains constant: movies that embrace this lo-fi style of shooting will always work better if there’s a compelling reason for them to look that way. There are as many tricks as there are filmmakers; as always, if you know of any good budget-saving tips for screenwriters, do please share them.

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‘Tangerine’: is there anything that a bloody iPhone won’t do?

In the third and final part of this piece I’ll be looking at how the way scenes are written can affect the budget, and how to save money by writing things unseen.

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Copyright © Guy Ducker 2015

Edited by Dr Sara Lodge

 

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