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10 tips to get high production value on a shoestring budget

Your no-budget indie can still look expensive. Here is how.

In trying to succeed in the film industry, people will always compare your film, whether it is a feature film or a short film, to the best films ever made.

So how do you create something of similar quality when these movies have a multi-million dollar budget, A-list actors, and what looks like an army of crews? The answer is simple – high production value.

High production value is what draws viewers in and keeps them there. It just takes a little ingenuity and movie magic to recreate the look and feel of blockbuster hits.

I’ve learned a few things to kickstart my career that will hopefully help you or a filmmaker you know who is just getting started. While I was making my short film The fight at home, I used these tips and tricks to make my no-budget indie look like a studio-supported production. The film helped me get my first job as a producer and actor for a feature film.

1. The poster, the title and the logline

These are the top three marketing tools to engage your viewer and increase production value before a single frame of the footage is seen.

So do your research and make sure these are clever, short, and original.


Recognition: Poster design by John DeStefano Jr., photo by Mark Milano

For the poster, I brought a friend with her professional camera to the set to take photos on site and in costume. When you have an iconic scene, use it for the poster.

For the title, I did something that had multiple meanings in relation to the story and the log line helped explain that.

example for The fight at home: “Upon his return from the armed forces, a young veteran seeks to reinvigorate his pursuit of a professional baseball career.”

2. Locations

If you’re shooting in certain public or private locations, your movie will look a lot more expensive and believable because the sets are real!

Movie sets are all around us, so keep an open eye on everyday life and write a script of places you can get access to, be it through permit, permit, or a small rental fee.


‘The Battle at Home’ cinematography by Matt MahoneyRecognition: John DeStefano Jr.

For my film, to name a few, I used ballpark stadiums, a concrete factory that doubled as war-torn land, and the promenade of a crowded vacation spot, all with natural, house or suburban lighting that looked fantastic. The bigger the better.


“The fight at home”Recognition: John DeStefano Jr.

3rd story

Get the action and drama right away. People tend to get distracted and / or judge your work very quickly. Your characters should get into some sort of conflict right away to keep viewers interested. Even if it’s a slow drama, you can create an exciting opening scene. Then when you close the loop of the story through obvious and not-so-obvious plot points, everything will seem very detail-oriented and intentional.


“The fight at home”Recognition: John DeStefano Jr.

4. Actor

It seems obvious, but finding people who look, can play a role and are reliable is very important. Having seasoned professionals can really make all the difference, but they don’t always look like it’s sometimes a friend or family member who isn’t even an actor, let alone a famous one.

I used my real brother to play my fictional brother.

The right casting will add enormous value to a production and contribute to the main story through authenticity.

5. color

Color grading is what will create an enhanced reality in post production, but you need the raw materials to create beautiful images. Your characters’ wardrobe determines their personality or emotions, but should also interact with the colors of the set. This color compliment or contrast adds to the overall theme.

Specific color palettes ensure a cohesive look and create the mood for an overall more pleasant viewing experience.


“The fight at home”Recognition: John DeStefano Jr.

6. Extras

If your scene calls for extras, you’d better have them or don’t write that scene. Filming in a crowded public place with shallow depth of field can be a solution. You won’t see their faces, but you don’t need any publications either as they are already blurry.

You need to make sure your floor space is small and your camera and microphones are incognito as people will keep asking what you are doing and then slow down production.

You can also write scenes that only require a few actors and then your extras can be crew members in the background or traverse your frame.


“The fight at home”Recognition: John DeStefano Jr.

7. Crew

Find people who are good at what they do and then trust them to do just that. You can involve talented people by writing a script with positive morals. Once you have a solid crew, give them some freedom and opportunity to make creative decisions.

Filmmaking is a collective effort and therefore makes us stronger together. The crew should also consist of people who take care of the material, are invested and have similar career goals. This effort affects the quality of the end product and the way to get there.

But remember, no matter how fun it seems, it’s still work so thank them richly.

8. Establishment and wide-angle shots

If you can get them, shoot them and then use them. These introduce the story world and make the entire production look bigger and more inviting.

If you’re unable to take a picture due to location restrictions or cropping, that’s fine. You don’t necessarily have to be filming in a specific location for people to think you are there. Hollywood does this all the time by shooting established footage in one location and then shooting the rest of the film elsewhere or in a studio.


“The fight at home”Recognition: John DeStefano Jr.

You can go online and find inexpensive royalty-free footage to add to your tapping and then crop to the closer angles or your interior scenes so the viewer doesn’t have to think twice. Just make sure they match.

9. time management

Time and money allow big productions to get all the cool shots they want on set, but sometimes you only have three hours to shoot what should really take three days.

So what are you doing? Create a list of recordings. I like doing one with a schedule and tough outs, to the minute.

There’s never enough time on set, but when you have someone to keep track of things it helps a lot. Then when filming, handheld and / or have multiple cameras as much as possible. That way, you can get all the shots you want and the coverage you need to get your editing going right. Less time to set up the camera means more time to spend with the camera.


“The fight at home”Recognition: John DeStefano Jr.

10. Post sound design and music

SFX and sheet music usually seem like an afterthought for independent films, but they make the whole experience come together. They hypnotize you and make you forget that you are even watching a movie. The most popular movies and shows have memorable music scores and cool SFX, so you have to meet that expectation.

For my film, I used an inexpensive, royalty-free SFX and music site that has some really great artists making their music available for licensing once you have a subscription. Or you can always find a composer / musician who would like to film his work.

With limited resources, with the help of high production value, you are well on your way to a long and successful career. All you have to do is make movies that look great, sound great, and flow well. Oh, and create a fun and enticing story that audiences will love and remember.

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