I watch a lot of independent cinema. When my friends are talking about seeing SUPERMAN at the multiplex, I’m scouring Fandango to see where FRANCES HA might be playing. But one issue I have with so so many indie films is the way they are shot. Lighting flat, always too bright, and framing that makes me want to scream.
For exampled: saw a great little indie recently. Well written, nicely acted. But the way it was shot drove me up a wall. For example there was one scene of a couple in their bedroom. They were each on their respective electronic devices. And a night table lamp was turned on. Yet despite all this wonderful ambient light, there was another lighting source (a ceiling light, perhaps), which served no purpose other than to illuminate just how little set design money they had. And think about it, who lies in bed looking at their iPad with all these lights. The ceiling light should have been eliminated. And honestly if they wanted to make the scene really interesting the lamp should have also been shut off. With today’s amazing DSLRs the light from the two electronic devices would have been more than enough, and made the scene look so wonderfully cool. (I lit two scenes in BROKEN SIDE OF TIME with a Zippo lighter. Just a Zippo lighter. And in its first film fest, the film won a cinematography award.)
Indie filmmakers seem to be afraid to allow their characters to fall into darkness. It’s as if they need to the audience to see every damn pixel of their frame. Or that perhaps if there’s not enough light the audience will know the filmmakers had no money. Whatever the case, it’s ridiculous. It’s not real life. In real life there are dark corners to every room. Often times you only see half of someone’s face. It’s a hell of a lot more interesting. As with sensuality, what we can’t see is often more intriguing. In a room at night most times we have on a lamp and a TV. Light your scene that way. Break the goddamn ceiling light. No sane person watches TV with the ceiling light on. Even in an office. Go for a close up with just the desk lamp on. Or just the light from a computer screen. Kill the damn overheads. Hitchcock said movies are life with the boring parts cut out. I’m pretty sure he’d likewise agree, movies are life with the ceiling lights turned off.
I’ve posted a few random images here where lighting is used beautifully to that effect. Captivate your viewers. Make them wish they could hang a frame of your film on their wall as a still photo. Try working with one existing light. Or one lighting source. You’ll be surprised what you can do with it. Force yourself to be creative. Isn’t that what indie filmmaking is all about.
As for framing. CENTER IS BORING. When I see something framed dead center I literally want to reach into the film, past the actors and slap the cinematographer upside the head. Really that’s all you can come up with. Flush your characters right, flush them left. Put just their head popping up at just the bottom of the frame. Cut off their face. Let us watch them out of the corner of your eye. Don’t be afraid to let them get lost in a gorgeous wide shot. Or an extreme close up. Show us just their hands as they’re talking. Or their feet as they’re sitting next to each other on a sofa. Show them in silhouette. It’s ok to go out of focus. BREAK THE FUCKING RULES. Otherwise you’re shooting a bad soap opera from the 70s. If you want your film to look like that you have no business making films.
And if you ever have a cinematographer mention to you the “Rule of Thirds” fire them on the fucking spot. I would. They have no right to be behind a camera. Because despite the notion that the rule of thirds is supposed to stop people from center framing it also stops you from thinking, from feeling, from being an artist. There should be no rules to framing other than what feels right to the scene. What takes your breath away. Ceiling lights, and everything perfectly even and in focus takes no ones breath away.
Look at great still photography (Pinterest is an amazing source) that could somehow lend itself to the film you are about to make. Steal from these masters. Otherwise, even if you have the sweetest little film in the world, people will still be saying, too bad it looks like shit.