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Let’s Make a Movie: Digital Filmmaking on a Budget

Film camera collection.
Film camera collection. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Visalia Direct: Virtual Valley
June 5, 2015 Deadline
July 2015 Issue

Every weekend a small group of filmmakers I know make at least one three-minute movie and share the short film on their YouTube channel, 3X7 Films.

Inspired by the 48-Hour Film Project (48hourfilm.com), my colleagues started to joke about entering a 48-hour contest each month. Someone suggested that it might be possible to make a three-minute movie every week. Soon, 3X7 Films was launched as a Facebook group and members started to assemble teams to make movies.

The 48-Hour Film Project, also known as 48HFP, launched in 2001 by Mark Ruppert. He convinced some colleagues in Washington, D.C., that they could make a movie in 48 hours. The idea became a friendly competition. Fifteen years later, 48HFP is an international phenomenon, with competitions in cities around the world. Regional winners compete in national and international festivals.

On a Friday night, teams gather to draw random genres, characters, props and a line or two of dialogue that must be used in the short films. The clock starts ticking and teams race to write, film, edit, score and refine their films before handing in the results.

The 3X7 project is more flexible. Scripts are posted to a shared cloud account. Hopeful directors select the scripts they’d like to film and create an event on the shared calendar. The goal is to practice working quickly, while creating the best short films possible.

When 48HFP began, teams needed expensive professional video or film equipment. Today, teams have used iPhones and iPads to film, edit, score and deliver movies to judges. What once required thousands of dollars in equipment and software can be done with a phone and relatively inexpensive software. I wouldn’t recommend using phones and tablets to produce films, but it is possible.

Computing devices make video recording ubiquitous. Our laptops, smartphones and tablets have high-definition cameras capable of recording video. Smartphones and tablets enable their owners to record a few minutes of video and post the results online with a few quick taps. For $4.99, Apple’s iMovie editing software does work well on an iPad.

For better video quality than smartphones offer, inexpensive “all-in-one” cameras and handheld camcorders work well. The quality of GoPro video is also impressive, possibly the best small video cameras available at great prices. I have a friend who edits popular television shows for a network and he has made some great short films using a GoPro and iPhone as his cameras.

Aspiring filmmakers wanting to produce more than two or three-minute videos should consider investing in equipment and software designed for making movies. You don’t need to spend a fortune to make films that equal the visual quality of many television productions. What’s more important is learning to make the most of good equipment.

The independent filmmakers I know use Canon, Panasonic, Sony and Blackmagic cameras. Only the Blackmagic cameras are specifically “cinema” cameras. Some of the best digital film gear was designed for still photography.

Most of the 3X7 film crews I’ve observed use Canon 5D and 70D cameras to shoot high-definition video. The 70D body costs less than $1200 online, with a 55mm lens. The current 5D Mark III costs $2500, and is considered excellent by filmmakers and still photographers. One videographer I know uses both a 70D and a Canon Cinema EOS C300. The C300 records in “4K” ultra-high definition (UHD). More expensive Canon gear is available, such as the Cinema EOS C500 for $16,000.

The Panasonic Lumix GH4 and Sony a7S are also popular among filmmakers. Both of these are “mirror-less” cameras, unlike the digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) cameras of Canon and Nikon. SLR cameras use a hinged mirror to allow photographers to see the image that will be exposed to the sensor (or film). Mirror-less digital cameras rely on either a separate viewfinder or a small screen. With fewer moving parts, mirror-less cameras tend to be smaller and lighter. They aren’t necessarily cheaper, though. The GH4 is $1200 and the a7S is $2000.

Along with a camera, you’ll need two or three lenses, a “shotgun” microphone and a heavy-duty tripod. As you get more serious, lighting kits and other equipment can be added to your inventory. Some 3X7 films have been shot with ambient light, but fill-lights make it easier to shoot consistent scenes. A good three-light mobile kit can be found for less than $1000.

For editing film, 3X7 teams have been using Apple’s Final Cut Pro X (FCP) and its companion applications. FCP costs $299 via the Apple Store. Motion and Compressor add another $100 to the cost of a complete editing and mastering solution. Unfortunately, these tools are exclusive to Apple computers. Adobe Premier Pro is a great alternative to FCP, for a monthly subscription fee. Industry professionals seem to prefer Avid Media Composer, now available for $49 per month via subscription.

Of course, the most important ingredient in filmmaking isn’t hardware or software. You need a good story, told in a cinematic way.

Though there are programs that promise to help you organize your ideas and follow the magical Hollywood formula, good writing takes practice. If you want to make a good movie, you have to write and revise. Once production begins, you’ll find yourself rewriting scenes. Movies are revised as they are filmed and revised again during the editing process.

Don’t spend a lot of money on Final Draft or Movie Magic Screenwriter unless you must have the same tools as Hollywood writers. A few of the professional screenwriters I know don’t use expensive software, proving it isn’t essential. Of the two major applications, I prefer Final Draft for its streamlined interface and the companion iPad version for editing scripts anywhere.

If you’re on a budget, try the free application Trelby for Windows (trelby.org) or the free version of Celtx (celtx.com). My favorite screenwriting tool is Scrivener (literatureandlatte.com), which supports Final Draft file formats for a fraction of the price.

The equipment and software used for 3X7 film projects costs between $3000 and $5000. Though that isn’t cheap, it does make serious filmmaking affordable. Plus, once you own the tools, you can make as many films as your team imagines.

The Central Valley has actors, musicians, videographers, directors, designers and others who want to make movies. If you’d like to make movies, consider joining the Fresno Filmmakers Alliance (fresnofilmmakersalliance.com).

Go make some magic, on a budget.


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