The exciting thing about technology is that it’s easier than ever to create and distribute amazing content without many resources. The terrifying thing about technology is that because of this, it’s harder and harder to get away with your content looking amateur. If the first season of The Guild came out today, it probably wouldn’t have gotten six more. Point is, technology has outmatched newcomers to the digital filmmaking realm, and the barrier to entry is rising fast. Thankfully, it’s easy to trick people into thinking you have more experience/money than you actually do, so here are 8 tricks you can employ to immediately increase your series’ production value.
Seriously. Just shoot literally anything outside of a house, classroom, or apartment. If possible, make these shots prettier than your indoor ones, so that your foray outside of the main location has the most impact, but honestly, just the act of filming in an inherently more interesting place will give your production value a bump.
We also got bonus points for filming in the rain
Film At Magic Hour
Magic hour is the transitionary period between day and night, during which sunrise or sunset occurs. There’s usually about an hour of time during which the sky is more interesting colors, the shadows have more depth, and every frame you capture is 100x more picaresque. If you’re shooting outdoors and it makes sense for your story, try using this to your advantage! Look at this frame, from one of my favorite web series, The Feels, during magic hour:
Honestly, how dare they
A few tips:
- Since during magic hour light changes quickly, limit the number of angles you’re shooting from. It’ll be very difficult to match the light from cut to cut, which sort of defeats the purpose of upping your production quality.
- Make sure your actors have rehearsed beforehand so that you’ll require minimal adjustments once camera’s up. You’re unlikely to get multiple days to shoot the same scene, so don’t waste time changing blocking or performance at the last minute.
- Get everyone there an hour early, just in case. Magic hour is magic because it’s fleeting, and you want to make sure any tardiness has a grace period so you don’t miss your shot (pun mostly intended).
Sneak in Silhouettes
Another easy lighting trick to fake being more experienced than you are is to incorporate a silhouette somewhere early on. It just looks cool and adds drama and mystique literally by not being able to see an actor or object. Check out this silhouette from the premiere of my web series’ second season:
It’s of the series’ villain, who appears by surprise at the end of the hallway, backlit by a massive window we found while scouting this location. The show is found footage, which means that often we aren’t able to get the most cinematic shots in service of the functionality of the camera in the scene, but here, the silhouette is enough to make up for the incidental framing issues we might encounter. This is the first time you get to see the villain after the cliffhanger of the previous season, and it makes her newly uncovered evil all the more sinister. It also didn’t require anything past a standard location scout to make it work, thus proving you don’t need a big budget to make a big impact.
Move the dang camera
Even if you’re making a literary-inspired narrative vlog, there’s really no excuse to not move the camera every once in a while. I don’t just mean adding a second location (though that’s also good advice for increasing the production value), I mean physically move the camera for a shot so not everything is static. Perhaps you follow an actor as they walk:
Or you could simply follow a character into frame:
In any case, add some movement that isn’t an actor to your frame, because it implies you have more than just a tripod and a camcorder, but a crew big enough to employ a DP or camera operator. Might just be a random person walking by or a friend who’s never laid eyes on a camera before, but as long as you rehearse the move and keep the camera as steady as the scene calls for, it’ll do the trick.
In a recent AMA with Binge DP Justin Morrison, he offered the advice that if your characters have to be seated on a couch for story or budget reasons, an easy way to make that show better would be to move the couch away from the wall. Similarly, try to avoid putting your actors against walls in general- giving them some depth makes the location seem bigger and the placement seem more purposeful.
If you can, try to also incorporate some depth of field focus as well, meaning that other than your subject, the rest of the frame should be blurry. It makes the focus seem sharper and the frame seem more deliberate, but it’s literally just getting a lens that can only focus on one thing versus many at a time.
Another The Feels example
You can also stagger your actors to make a frame more interesting, if your location or camera placement is limited. Depth of people can sometimes work just as well as focus.
Try rack focus
A rack focus is when you start a shot focused on one object or character and, without cutting away, change the in-camera focus do a different object or character. Professional productions sometimes do this multiple times, pulling focus back and forth as characters in frame speak, but for your purposes, one focus change is probably good. Again, this is a pretty basic focus trick that, well, tricks your audience into believing you spent way more time and money on this shot than you actually did. It also just looks really cool.
Go ultra wide or ultra close
The mark of an amateur filmmaker or film is a project played entirely in sensible medium shots, like this:
This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t use medium shots; they’re an important, non-distracting way to put together a scene with heavy dialog. But when you can, try something dramatic. Either go really close, showing off every twitch in a character’s eye, or really far, dwarfing your character in the frame. Since these aren’t frequently used, especially for low budget projects, they’ll break the visual monotony and make the frame seem, to use the word again, deliberate. This cannot go overstated: a deliberate camera choice is almost always more interesting than one that simply “does the job,” and the more interesting a shot is, the more effort and money people assume went into it. Thankfully, that doesn’t actually have to be the case.
Don’t shy from shadow
For amateur filmmakers, lighting is often a mystery, but most subscribe to the theory that if the subject is lit, it’s good enough. However, sometimes the most effective lighting look is one that doesn’t need a California vlogger’s set up. In the vein of the above tricks dealing with silhouette and depth of field, under-lighting a scene or part of frame adds really cool depth to an otherwise flat frame, and emphasizes only the most important areas, rather than everything. Playing in shadow can cover up ugly locations and lackluster production design while also adding drama and intrigue, depending on the genre you’re working in.
So those are my (mostly, if not entirely) free and simple tricks to make your web series more cinematic! Not everyone will be able to accomplish all of them, but not every series calls for that. What are YOUR tricks to making more interesting shots with negative budgets? Let me know in the comments, and as always, points for pictures!