Secrets of Indie Filmmaking

Secrets of Indie Filmmaking: Shooting in Natural Light

Ardent Partner Christopher Comrie talks about keeping it simple and the pleasures of foregoing equipment and shooting in natural light.

Sunlight is pretty. That is almost the extent of this post.

One of the things that can hang up an indie filmmaker is equipment envy; the idea that you can’t make a legitimate movie without a couple of trucks of gear. But that gear costs a lot of money, and money brings it’s own set of problems and limitations. What a big budget, a lot of gear and crew buys you is control over as many aspects of your shoot as you can afford.

But sometimes the sense of control is only an illusion. In the end, you always have to make do with what you’ve got, whether it’s 40 bucks or 200 million. So it’s a good practice to learn how to get the maximum out of whatever you’ve got.

There is a lot to be said for shooting with minimal equipment. To this day, my favourite Canadian film is still “Goin’ Down The Road“, which was shot documentary style with only what could fit in the back of a station wagon.  I made my first feature with only what I could fit in two duffle bags.

When I worked on the Norman Jewison film “The Hurricane“, I was fascinated by the commitment of the great cinematographer Roger Deakins who gave up his Christmas holidays to prowl the just completed enormous jail set in the studio, endlessly examining the vast lighting array and making detailed notes for improvements. The finished film is visually stunning, as all his movies are. “Dog Day Afternoon” was shot with only natural and practical lighting (everyday lamps and fixtures). It also is beautiful, in a very different way.

Money, gear, and crew enable you to dominate a location, shut it down, inconvenience people, erect lights, scrims, bounces, cranes, what have you. With low to no budget shooting, you have to insinuate yourself into an environment, create as little disruption as possible, and get out while the getting is good. And this encourages you to think on your feet and to open yourself to all the possibilities of any location and lighting situation. Prior to shooting a narrative scene under these circumstances, always head to the location with a shot list and some basic blocking in mind. Upon arrival, it can all go out the window as you adapt to take advantage of the available light and shadow. Get the camera in your hands and explore the shot from every angle until you find the best shots.

My first couple of times out, I missed great shots because of temporary environmental noise that was beyond my control. In post production, as I discovered how effective and seamless well done re-recording of the actor’s voices can be – just in my improvised recording studio which was essentially a tent made of sleeping bags – I decided that I should be willing to sacrifice usable live dialogue recording for a good shot.


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