How to Collaborate with Your Director of Photography on a No-Budget Shoot

No money, but ambitious ideas? I’ve had experience tackling that problem. It was not easy, and compromises were made. In fact, be prepared for everything to go awry. I’ve written and directed multiple web-series and web shorts with a budget that consisted of bagels and cream cheese. But how do you tell you story and get what you need, even if you use a shopping cart as a dolly? (Yes, we did!)

Time to rack focus on the Director of Photography. Find a good DP who you can trust and collaborate with, and who understands working with a limited budget.

I was lucky to work with two talented DP’s who alternated on a four episode web-series. The production meeting with the DP’s was key. I was honest about our budget and what we had available. When we went through the script shot by shot, looking at my crude stick figure storyboards, we were both open with each other about what was do-able. Because of our budget, we had to shoot 8-9 pages at multiple locations in one and a half days. My DP’s suggestions on squeezing down and economizing the shot list to speed things up helped. Time was an albatross hanging around our necks.

Once we got to the locations, everything changed again. We had to steal one location, a cemetery, as this was no-budget guerrilla filmmaking. Quick in and out, with barely time for most of the shots I wanted. A night scene in a small bakery that was loaned to us proved challenging because of the small space and limited angles possible. We had minimal lights, a boom mic taped to a broomstick, and one person was an AD, Grip, Boom Operator, and Script Supervisor. We made more adjustments to the shots, i.e. lots of handheld roaming camera action, which also moved things along. That would become the theme of the project. Another location in a living room during the day required some skillful camerawork, as it was supposed to be a crowded party scene. The problem, we only had three extras available to mix in with the three main characters. Some tighter than planned shots were improvised to really cheat things.

A short-hand developed with the DP that I worked with the most. Each shoot got faster and faster because I knew I could trust their lighting, composition, and coverage. They made suggestions on the fly of what we could do when something went wrong. Such as having to shorten an office scene without losing the meat of it when one of our two actors had to unexpectedly leave early.

The lesson learned is: no matter what, find a flexible DP you can work closely with, as if they were family, because you’re going to spend a lot of time together, and they can save your ass. In the end, have fun and be creative.

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