How to make a low budget movie look professional

Ask any indie film maker and they will reveal that one does not simply shoot a low budget film and effortlessly achieve a professional looking movie. Whether it’s a short film or a feature film, it’s easy to get a bit frustrated somewhere along the way while trying to make a film shot with minimal finances look extravagant.

In fact, even if you have decent film gear and a sizable budget, you might still end up with a low-quality film especially if you don’t know how to use the equipment or plan your budget. But it doesn’t always have to be such a pain in the neck.  

According to Scott Dazzling ( a programmer and an indie filmmaker on Quora), the cheap look that most armature movie maker end up with is mostly because of “a crew that doesn’t know what they are doing, or is not putting in the time required for a quality film”

Even though indie filmmakers mostly do not have access to the best crew or the best set of equipment for filmmaking, a lack of resources is no excuse for not producing killer films on a budget.

As a filmmaker, your natural instinct is to solve problems and find ways that are affordable and effective enough for telling your story.

While on a low budget the best approach towards achieving a quality film is to take time and learn all you need to know before embarking on shooting. This way, you will be able to plan better and use your equipment efficiently.

With that being said, here are a couple of creative suggestions that will put you on the right track towards making your low budget film look amazing.

Write a manageable story

Let’s face it, even with a million dollar budget; no one will sit through a story that is not interesting to watch. If the story doesn’t give you something to anticipate or to get excited about, don’t expect your audience to tolerate it as well.

You can even shoot your entire film on an iPhone or a cheap camcorder but if you have a story that is intriguing and interesting, any audience will sit through the whole movie and be entertained.

Basically, when you think about making a movie, the first step is to come up with a script. Come up with a manageable story if you are on a budget and don’t overwhelm your script by writing scenes that require huge crews and enormous budgets.

But how do you write a cheap script without it showing in the film? Well, an easy way to tell your story without breaking the bank is to make sure your script has natural dialogues and a coherent storyline. Creativity is the variable and it comes at zero cost.

Since your script will determine the entire film, make sure you remove any unnecessary or costly scenes that can be implied instead of acted out.

As a writer for film, it easy to get carried away by the creative and overlook the math that makes it all happen. However, while trying to tell your story in the most creative way possible consider both the creative as well as the math.

Stop romanticizing everything and cut out the scenes that are not significant to the storyline since such behavior can only compromise your entire budget.

To get a better perspective, try talking to a couple of people and consider their opinion after reading your script. You might be surprised how many scenes you can cut out and still deliver the message of your story.

Do not cut corners with the sound

Yes, that’s right, as much as an audience can overlook a film with bad cinematography, if the sound is not up to par, you can bet they will notice.

In fact, when it comes to buying equipment, you can go cheap with different alternatives with your camera and lights but make sure you partition a good chunk of your budget for getting quality sound.

Get a good boom microphone or a wireless recorder. Plus you will need to learn how to best use the equipment or high a crew member who will help you out.

 If you can’t afford to record audio on location, you can create your own sound effects in and edit in post-production. Another option is to download some stock soundtracks and sound effects to enhance your footage in post-production although this will cost you when it comes to paying for copyright.

 Another option when it comes to sound is to change your script and go the voice over way. Many indie filmmakers have managed to tell good stories simply by adding narrations and voice over so as to come up with quality movies and short films on a budget, just be sure not to skimp with sound as it can make or break your entire film.

Scout for low budget or free locations

A manageable script that has a solid storyline will render itself well to the film director’s shooting flexibility when looking for shooting locations. In fact, most of your location needs as an indie filmmaker on a low budget are best met at absolutely no cost.

Yes, that right, make sure you look for a free filming location.

However, there is a caveat to that statement which is that you should not get lazy and end up with a film look that screams ‘free location’ out loud. Get creative, and as obvious as that might sound, be sure to avoid lazy thinking by adding a creative set design that makes your locations look amazing.

Depending on your script, you might have to look for other options apart from shooting in your own house or at your friend’s house. Be sure to rework your scenes if need be so as to only shoot in locations that you can have access to.

And also it doesn’t hurt if the only place you have access to is your home, there are just so many ways to think out of the box while using what you have. Shoot guerilla style if you have to for your outdoor shoots. Although guerilla filmmaking can be risky, you can plan in advance and weigh all your risks to prevent any mishaps.

Find great actors

If there is one thing we all appreciate from great movies is the great acting. The connection between an audience and the actor is usually significant when it comes to driving the story behind your film and overlooking it is a big mistake.

Sometimes it’s the only reason people go to the cinemas right? Everyone loves their favorite actor and the reason for that is simple, world-famous actors are skilled at their craft and know how to bring out the character in the script so as to give life to your work.

If you are on a budget, it certainly goes without saying that getting A-list actors is hard but not at all impossible. They might not be on Hollywood’s list of top ten celebrity actors but you can surely find great actors who are willing to work for free or on a lower pay than usual.

 As long as your actors can look natural on camera, your audience can forgive other mistakes in your film. Find capable actors who are able to drive your story and the audience will love your work.

Also be sure to get some background actors who will help fill up your scenes for a more realistic look.Not only will this help your audience buy into the story you are telling but it will also give them a familiar perception of a high-quality film.

Just make sure you don’t keep your background actors on set for too long or else you will have to plan to feed them.

Get a crew

Even if you are on a low budget, getting a crew is one of those film production essentials that you cannot simply skip if you what to come up with a great film.

Of course, you don't need an entire crew for your film, but you will need to work with the most crucial members of a crew to make your work easy and manageable. Here is a list of some crucial film crew members that you ought to have for your project.

  • Grip holder
  • Makeup artist
  • Production assistant
  • Director of photography

Although there are other crucial members that are important for a film project to run smoothly, these four members are precisely what you need when you are working with a lean budget. To put it simply, the reason why such a small number works is to not only reduce the cost of hiring a crew but also to increase efficiency as it is better to have a small number of a paid crew than a large number of the volunteer crew.

 If you consider the facts, a crew that is not paid well will not have the motivation to work on your film to completion. So show some faith and even if you don’t have enough to cover their full cost, you can still offer to defer their payments or at least go out of your way to cover their expenses.

Truth is, your crew will drive your project and unlike actors who get some screen time, most crew members usually remain unnoticed. To keep them committed to your film, the best move is to find a way to motivate them.

Consider renting a low budget camera and plan your composition beforehand

When it comes to the camera department, most filmmakers (both new and experienced) make the common mistake of focusing a huge chunk of their budget on the filming gear. It gets even worse when you have no camera background as you tend to overestimate the significance of a camera at the expense of other equipment.

Don’t get it twisted; you will need to have a quality camera if you are going for a look that doesn’t shout “low budget” from the first frame of the film. But spending a huge sum of your budget on a camera is a zero-sum game since you will have less to invest for other gear and yet the difference won’t be clearly visible in the film even with an expensive camera.

You can also rent out a quality camera instead of completely buying one. If you end up buying a camera, you can still sell it at the end of the shooting to recover some of the cash for post-production and kill two birds with one stone. Simple right?

In addition, you also have to think about hiring a cinematographer who has his/her own gear. That way, you get to solve two problems at once. After all, an excellent DoP will make your footage look amazing even when it was shot on an entry level DSLR or a Smartphone.

Also, take your time to set up your camera with the right white balance, and focus to prevent problems in post-production.

Another huge mistake that is made by independent filmmaker, in general, is over-reliance on fixing every bad camera set up and pre-production mistakes in post-production. Instead of quickly moving to change ISO, aperture or shutter speed, get some lighting to your scenes first.

You don’t have to spend a fortune here; you can improvise by opening up some windows or even adjust your shooting schedule to get some natural sunlight for your film. You can also take advantage of the lighting in the room and rearrange your composition to get what you need.

If you are shooting with a LOG gamma curve, be sure to keep your ISO at its minimum. After all, you will only want to finesse your footage in post-production and not have to work extra hard fixing some of the errors you made while shooting.

Tell your story in the right way with smooth camera movements using gimbals, a dolly, a slider or a Steadicam. Even if you don’t have the gear mentioned, you can still achieve smooth camera movements with a simple tripod. Just try not to end up with shaky footage. Even if you don’t have a dolly, you can improvise and either use a wheelchair if you have one or a skateboard to achieve smooth movements that can be refined in post-production. 

In addition, you can plan your composition to balance the information you capture in each shot. This will help you when it comes to blocking your characters and making your film appear more dynamic by adding cuts that pace up the plot during post-production.

If you want your audience to have that familiar cinematic look, consider shooting at 24 frames per second. Normally, this is what most movies use and sticking to this will help your film look more professional. In addition, you can adjust shutter speed for some slow motion while shooting some of your scenes but don’t make the mistake of shooting slow motion scenes at 24 fps. Make sure your shutter speed is twice your frame rate or else you will end up with a mess especially if you are shooting some fast movements.

Film production design on a low budget

Production design is another essential part of film production that can make a difference in your end product with slight adjustments that cost almost nothing.  Yes, you might not be able to hire a production designer dedicated to your film but these tips can help any filmmaker turn low budget cinematography into an exceptional piece of art.

 To begin with When it comes to producing an indie film that doesn’t look cheap, one of the ways you can achieve efficiency and still stay within the budget is to remove every idea that you know cannot be done right on a low budget.

For instance, it will be hard to include a detailed fight scene on a low budget without a professional stuntman. The end results will leave your film looking like an armature movie which is not great.  Reorganize your scenes and imply instead of showing. Showcase emotions leading up to those intense moments where a character is falling off or going into a fight. You can also use sounds and reactions of other characters to imply what you cannot afford to show.

When it comes to framing your shots, be sure to control everything that is in the background of your set. Having some international footage could really help with the visual impact of your film. If you can’t afford that, you can go for insert shots that are captivating without much crew or actors. Check out the time-lapse from “Boys don’t cry” for more inspiration.

Another option is to just blur out the background by reducing the aperture of your camera giving you a tight frame that removes all the unnecessary distractions to your audience. You can also shoot in black and white. Yes that’s right you will be surprised just how effective it can be especially if you are looking to achieve some certain level of vitality to your film.

Speaking of black and white, a bit of color coordination can also go a long way towards impressing your audience with a cinematic look. Remove a couple of stuff that doesn't complement your set and look around for items that enhance the aesthetics of your set. In addition, adding a bit of a color scheme to your entire film will also help achieve a quality look to your film and help tell the story in a more creative way.

TIP: whether it’s a thriller film you are shooting or a simple drama, you can add some haze to capture more light while enhancing the cinematic dreamy look of your film.

Post production, pitching, and presentation

When you are finally done shooting, you can add a little finesse to your film with some LUTs that can help you come up with a cinematic professional look for your film. Just be careful not to go crazy with this. 

Edit on a computer with a decent video card while using free color grading programs such as the Davinci Resolve to fix up your color grading.

Match up your shots by learning a bit of waveform parade and match the skin tones of your footage for the particular look you are going for. In addition, you can also use after effects to get rid of logos, boom poles, and dirt in your footage. Just be sure not to go overboard or else your film will look unnatural.

When editing sound, be sure to get some professional help and preferably score your film on large studio monitors to know exactly how your film will sound like in theatres. Here is where you can add a couple of sound effects to enhance your story and make your scenes more realistic.

If you are concerned about the high-quality demands in theater, you can distribute your film online through YouTube or Vimeo where most of your audience will watch it on their mobile devices. This way, your work will still look amazing and the audience will only focus on the story rather than on the details of sound and cinematography. Sounds great right?

Finally, during the pitch and presentation of your film, don’t give a low quality pitch fit for an armature; instead, be ready to talk about the focus and motivation of your film. By being confident and calm while you pitch your film, you will be able to convince investors especially if you have followed a strategic plan to come up with a low budget film that is professional and entertaining.

What other tips and tricks do you know that could help indie filmmakers achieve more professional looking films? Share your thoughts and opinions with us in the comment section!

  • Updated a few months ago