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Upping Your Value with Production Design and Camera Testing

Good production value is one of those qualities that’s easy to spot but hard to define. We can tell that Christopher Nolan’s films have high production values, and we know that Cinemax After Dark has pretty low ones. Sure, money and equipment play a role, but millions of dollars and the best cameras won’t matter without anything visually stimulating in the frame. Your production’s value starts with your production design, and deliberate camera/lens choices.

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Production Design

A lot of first-time directors and producers forget about production design. Sometimes this results from the need to wing it in the no-budget world, but a production designer is almost as important as the director to the overall look of the project. In fact, for filmmakers working without a ton of cash to spend, production design is an area where a little goes a long way. While camera equipment might be expensive, costumes and props are relatively cheap and will reveal more about the characters and story. You and your production team can get really excited about having that RED Epic Dragon, but the audience will care more about why the flowers on the table have wilted and what this says about the protagonist’s emotional state. So maybe it’s a good idea to spend a little time with your production designer thinking about those flowers, not to mention the vase and the table.

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Good Art Direction is Informed Art Direction

Art direction begins at the script level. Writers tend to leave set descriptions somewhat vague for the sake of the reader. This means the art director needs to visualize the set within the world of the story. For instance, if a character says green is her favorite color, we might expect to see some green objects in her apartment. Color is also a good way to spark visual interest within a scene without going crazy on the budget side. But good art direction goes beyond mere set decoration. Most of the time, characters won’t say what their favorite color is, so the art director needs to understand what it would be and why. So take our green-loving girl from earlier….now she has green furniture, a green vase and green curtains because she prefers nature over her life in the city. A clever art director could then reveal more about this character by giving her fake plants (as long as it fits the story and tone, of course). In the end, art direction is more than just something to fill the scene.

Create a Look Book

In addition to your storyboards and shot lists, you can also create a look book – a collection of images that reflects the tone and style of your project while also providing some basic information. This can be particularly useful if you plan to let your production design team run wild. A look book can reference everything from the particular appearance of a character to basic color combinations, and yes, it probably will end up looking like a random Tumblr blog. In fact, you could even set yours up as a Tumblr page if you really want to save time and money. Of course, if your producer wants to use it as a selling point, you might have to spring for the printing costs. If that’s the case, make sure to include these in your look book. Or if you’re really felling ambitious, you can even create a multimedia look book.

A Couple of Tips

  • Color and texture can go a long way in making your sets more interesting without spending a lot of money. A deep red will absorb and reflect light quite differently from a light grey. The surface interaction with specific temperatures and types of light will also play an interesting role in shaping a mood.
  • Be “practical” with your lights. Practical lights (lights seen inside the frame of your shot) are instant depth and color. Here’s a short film (Fran’s Daughter – Eric Martin) that is great at using limited space and practical lights through windows and dimly lit lamps. Pay attention to the mirrors, not only are they providing even more depth to the shots, but they present an interesting frame for conversations.

Budgetary Considerations for Production Design | Wardrobe | Hair and Makeup

It’s illegal to “steal” shots by filming in locations without the right permits. However, locations do a lot for production values. If you do accidentally film in a forbidden location, be really careful. Try to get releases from people whose faces are clear in the shot. That whole 15 minutes of fame thing still goes a long way in certain parts. You can also find interesting buildings to add some visual flair to your film. However, if you’re in any location, especially certain types, make sure the crew doesn’t destroy the place. Airbnb have enough regulatory issues to deal with as it is, so don’t add media productions into the mix. And when filming anywhere, always be kind, polite and respectful to the neighbors, especially the really horrible ones who will cause the most trouble for you.

Camera Testing and Exploiting Your Lenses

Alright, now it’s time to talk about those cameras, and maybe lenses while we’re at it. While it may be tempting to think of there being better cameras out there –Alexa, anyone? – you don’t want to fixate on price tags or even overall status within the industry. Every camera has a unique set of characteristics, so decide which will capture the look that best fits your project. Then make sure to have the right lenses!

Research

Because there are a lot of cameras out there, you’ll need to do some research. Will a simple DSLR work for your project? Or do you need something bigger and more professional like a RED? Is your director an old school purist who demands to shoot everything on 35mm film stock? You probably don’t have the time and resources to field test all the options, but thankfully people post a lot of videos online these days. A clip such as this one does a nice job of breaking down the difference between the Canon 5Dmiii, 35mm film and the RED Dragon.

Study the images carefully in relation to what you envision for your project. There’s definitely a big disparity in the cost of those options, but if your cinematographer can push a cheaper consumer camera to its limits, you may be able to get professional quality images. And if even a couple thousand bucks is going to ruin your production…well, even then you’ve still got the Sony A7Sii or your iPhone, right?

Talk to Your DP

And before you spend hours looking at camera tests in online footage, you can also talk to your Director of Photography. Because this is their livelihood, DPs can probably break down all the research about the visual characteristics of cameras for you. This will give you more time for the thousands of other responsibilities and tasks this production requires. Be sure to remember that whole being honest and not a total control freak thing.

Don’t pressure your DP into using a camera just because it’s cheaper, or even because it’s more expensive. Unless you have spent as much time working as a DP, assume the person you’ve hired to do this job knows more than you. At the same time, you don’t want your DP to force you into getting the Ferrari when a Toyota Corolla will get you home just the same. So if you get any red flags from your DP, maybe do that research after all.

For more on exactly this, check out Lauren Haroutunian’s tips on the Director/DP relationship in Pre-Production here.

Lenses Matter in More Ways Than You Think

Maybe you’re wondering why lenses can sometimes be more expensive than the cameras themselves. Well, sometimes the lens you use is actually more important. So first off, should you use zoom or prime? Like pretty much everything else here, it depends on your project. If you go for more of a hand-held, street-level, documentary style look, a zoom lens offers fast focal length changes to quickly adjust. Zoom lenses can also be useful if you need to work fast to meet a time schedule. On the other hand, if you have time to carefully set up each shot, a prime lens will offer a better image. If money matters more than time, figure out which lens you’d ideally be using, then type “[NAME OF IDEAL LENS] vs.” into Google and scan through the results. Seriously, this trick will work. Certain lenses can also provide different effects. For example, if you only have a few extras but need a crowd for your scene, use a telephoto lens and film from further away. A longer lens squashes the image into the frame, while also stacking the foreground and background to make everything in the shot appear closer together. A wide lens on the other hand will make everything seem further apart. Of course, all these lens characteristics will probably go the way of the VHS tape when the next great camera technology gets released. But if your story is safe from technology, that’s really all that matters.

Budgetary Considerations for Camera and Lens Choices

Cameras and lenses are important to the overall look of the film, but keep in mind what else can affect the visual aspects of your production. When you arrive on set to call lights, camera, action…what kind of lighting will there be? Have you thought about the neutral density filter, the diffusion filters, the gels – maybe it’s time to sit down with your lighting department, not to mention the director of photography? And about that camera…is it mounted on a tripod for stability, a dolly for movements…yeah, you get the picture. If these decisions seem overwhelming to you, a grip truck can solve a lot these issues. There are different packages and prices for grip trucks, so figure out which works best for your project. Drones are also relatively inexpensive now if you need some aerial shots – just make sure to brush up on those FAA regulations unless you want a visit from Homeland Security.

For More on Pre-Production Planning:

For More on Establishing Vision in Pre-Production:

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