I had an interesting experience while shooting my last narrative short for my film class at the University of Utah. While I've never really had a ton of time to finish any project, this time out I had even less. I was given about a month to crank out a narrative and two weeks to create a documentary. Since I have no desire to attach my name to anything that is slapped together, I went full speed and produced two short films that I am proud of. It wasn't easy (especially with a full-time job and family commitments), but I did learn some interesting stuff.
Planning, of course, is paramount in the no budget world, but this time out I found myself often flying by the seat of my pants and improvising. I was at a real disadvantage not having actually visited my locations, which made it somewhat difficult to plan the shots out in my head. I had storyboarded anyway, but what you see on the stick-figured page is rarely what you get.
Make sure you arrive on set early, long before anyone else.
On my first of two half days of the shoot, I made sure I arrived as early as possible to the bus stop location. This gave me time to look around and plan out my shots more thoroughly. Funny thing, even though I had determined (with the help of my actress and her mother) this spot would work, I decided to drive along the bus route to see if there was something better. There was. The original stop was in front of a church, but just down the road the bus was going to stop in front of a vacant lot. Much better to show the void between the characters that would eventually meet there. A couple of phone calls directed everyone to the new location and we were off.
Sometimes, natural lighting IS really all you need.
I really hate cheap lighting setups. This seems to be a hallmark of microbudget fare, but I want no part of it. When I wrote The Payoff, I knew I only wanted sunlight or ambient lighting to illuminate my subject matter. I did this for two reasons. First, it lends to a more "realistic" feel of the visuals, and it is a lot faster. Time was my enemy on both my shoot days (I had about four hours each day) and had to go very fast. I had written the motel scenes in a room that faced the sun, and thats what I got. Drawing the first transparent curtain acted as diffusion and lit the room nicely, casting soft shadows (or a noir-ish silhouette) on my lead actor.
I was even more fortunate for the exterior shots. We were having a lot of overcast days, and I was praying they would stick around for my exteriors at the bus stop. Sure enough it held just long enough for me to get my shots. I did end up playing tag with the sun, but the more harsh lighting can only really be detected in the last shot where it worked anyway (I like to think of it as the "heaven approves" shot).
I didn't even have a bounce card for either of my shoot days (dumb, I know), but it didn't matter. The lighting looked great and since I used and HDV camera, it was forgiving enough to make everything look really good.
Shooting in sequence can help unmuddle your head.
When I was in the motel room (on the second day), I sort of got lost as to what I needed to get. I had my storyboards, but quickly became disoriented about what I still needed to shoot. As a result, I did something very unconventional: I began shooting in sequence. This easily allowed me to play out my movie in my head, revealing what shots I still needed. It also had me improvising quickly which allowed me to move through my shot list very fast. I never had to repeat anything, and I again got every shot I needed.
Take advantage of items at your location to avoid transporting your own.
At the motel, I knew I wanted some dolly shots. The first long shot in the film is inspired by Hitchcock's Notorious, as well as a tracking shot in the hallway that goes all Vertigo. Since I was in an introductory class and was not allowed a real camera dolly, I opted to use a wheelchair, which can be a nice substitute on a smooth surface. Problem was, I wasn't able to get back to school to get a chair before my shoot days. I banked on the fact that most motels provide wheelchairs for their customers and I was right. This gave me my a dolly that I didn't have to lug around in my car, which saved me setup and strike time. I know I gambled here, but it worked and my film looks all the better for it.
Keep your cast and crew as small as possible.
I know we all dream of the big production and cast of thousands, but I like a more intimate production that is conducive to speed and less stress. The more people you ask to show up increases the odds that more of them will cancel. Pare everyone back to the bare minimum. I think you only really need a DP (which in my case is me) a sound guy, and a grip/gopher. A costume and makeup person is also great, but sometimes you don't need them if you can do that job too (or involve your actors in this area). My actress did her own bruises with the aid of Kara, one of the camera assistants (or grip/gopher in the above scenario).
Place your shoot in between meals and you won't have to feed anybody.
This is a tricky one, but if you are willing to sacrifice time, you can pull it off. Feeding people who work for you for free is very important. You can't expect folks to be at the top of their game if they are weak and undernourished. However, if you can have brief shooting days of four to five hours or less, you can get your work done fast and release everyone. Hold them longer than that and you had better cave with some food or they won't come back. Just make sure you tell them to eat before coming to the set. I know four to five hours won't always work, but if it does (as it did for me), there that much more you saved. Plus, you won't completely drain people and they will remember that as a positive.
When you are put in a box like this, it forces you to be creative and resourceful in ways you probably weren't even aware of when your started. This is a good thing, and will only make you better. One thing I really like about filmmaking is that I learn something from every project that makes me stronger and brings me closer to my goal of doing this for a living. I just have to keep doing it.