It’s easy to get discouraged about making your own web series when gorgeously shot projects like Video Game High School and Frankenstein MD exist. But what if I told you that high production quality can exist without a budget?
Below are the 5 ways you, too, can achieve a great-looking project without a great-looking bank account!
A frame from The Feels
Naje Lataillade (@naje.tv), co-creator of The Feels, has a list of priorities he refers to when approaching a low-budget project. Sound comes first, then “good glass,” then lighting, and then production design. Good glass means good lenses, and Naje explains that “even if you’re shooting on a smartphone, there are ways to incorporate nicer lenses to raise the profile of your images.”
He goes on to explain his priority rankings further by saying that “in this ‘Naje hierarchy’ of production value, any item is only of value if the items before it are secured. So good production design becomes relevant if you have nice lighting. Nice lighting works if you have a decent set up for capturing it. And none of it matters if the sound is bad.”
Take Stock Of Your Stock
A frame from I Am Tim Helsing
Or, as Jamie McKeller, creator of I Am Tim Helsing, puts it- “What do you have available to you and how can you utilize it?” For the exciting opening of their third season, they managed to film their hero “storming [a tower] block to fight a very tacky vampire, to chasing down a monster at the farm ending in a horse chase” after only having access to an empty tower block, a farm, and an actor who could ride a horse.
“Literally cost us nothing but manners, time and good cups of tea,” Jamie explains. “We dressed the tower block space with plastic decorating sheets, lit it with work lamps which were diffused by the sheets. That cost us about £5 to put together and it looked great.”
Erik Urtz, head honcho at Snobby Robot, agrees, and emphasizes that “the key is having a great script and great actors.” He’s right- no matter how high-quality your sound and picture are, if your script lags and your actors are stuff, no one is going to take you seriously.
A frame from Brains
As Andrew Williams, director of Brains and DP of Relativity, points out, “DSLRs get beautiful footage and they are cheap enough that SOMEONE you know has one.” Ask friends, family, and coworkers if they have one, and remember that often, they’ll assume it doesn’t have a video function, but it almost certainly does. Never buy equipment when you can borrow, so don’t be shy!
Naje agrees with Andrew and offered advice on sound. “If logistically feasible, shotgun mics [are better than] wireless/lavs. Shotgun mics are generally better quality, and have fewer issues (radio static, lapel placement, scratching sounds, etc).”
No White Walls
No bare walls on the set of Brains
A running joke in the community is that the worst on-camera offense by low budget filmmakers is filming in front of blank white walls, for lack of other available locations. I’m going to let you in on a secret- it doesn’t have to be that way! Keeping an eye on production design, or the curated look of a location, will turn a drab shot into a shot rife with subtext and color. Good production design tells a story just as much as a good script or a good actor, and it rarely costs more than a few bucks in posters and other knick-knacks.
Another way to interpret this lesson is to find more interesting places to film, even if they’re just used for B-roll (supplemental or alternative footage) or transition shots. More locations allow the audience assume your project is more “ambitious” than it may actually be.
Fix It In Post
A frame from The Spell Tutor
Ok, so not everything can be fixed in post-production, but remember that editing can be your friend! Herman Wang, creator of The Spell Tutor, suggests “a well-done contrast will make your production look more like what people are used to seeing in movies and on TV.”
It’s also worth remembering that in traditional movies and TV, stories are often rewritten in the edit. Sometimes, what works on the page doesn’t work on the screen, or what’s performed isn’t working in the context of the episode as a whole. Don’t fight it! It’s all part of the process, and letting your editor make the best cut, not the closest facsimile to the original script, will benefit your production quality immeasurably.
This certainly isn’t an exhaustive list of ways in which you can make a great-looking show without a budget, but it’s a great starting point. Do you have more advice for newbie filmmakers and web series creators? Share your expertise in the comments so we can all learn together!