How to make a music video for £85

“Lisa’s asking if there’s any coke.”

“What?! No, it’s not that kind of shoot.”

“No, I think she means–“

“It’s not that kind of band, even.” 

“No, I–“

“Apart from that one time…”

“Coca-Cola.”

“Oh. I see. No, there isn’t any.”

“Or chocolate.”

“Chocolate?”

“She said maybe a Yorkie?”

“Do they still make those?”

“Any kind of chocolate.”

“There’s water and there’s some sandwiches, tell her.”

“Right…”

“Because this is no-budget. That means no chocolate and no coke. This isn’t The fucking Avengers.”

This is Day One of what will end up being a three day shoot for Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s “Archaeology” video. We’re in the dilapidated Sergeant’s Mess at the recently vacated RAF Uxbridge, which we have been given use of as a favour and which is unbelievably cold. The aforementioned sandwiches and bottles of water have been bought at a service station on the A40. Over the course of the shoot this “catering” will cost around about £85.00, bringing the total budget for the entire video up to a grand total of… around about £85.00.

I started doing jobs like this a few months ago, as a way to take a break from the big machinery of TV production. On a video like this one, I use my own kit (in this case, a Nikon D800, a set of lenses, lights etc) and no crew, unless you count volunteers Jim (spent the day feeling ill in the car) and Mat (shot the bare-bones of a making-of documentary that would have confused the shit out of Salvador Dali). 

The last few years have seen the means of video production become cheaper and more accessible to the point that you really can make a short film or music video for next-to-no-money. I’m certainly not the first person to point this out, but it seems rare that anyone actually explains HOW they did it, so, at the risk of boring the shit out of you, I thought I’d take the opportunity to do just that. 

First off, though, here’s the video we made, so we all know what we’re talking about:

It may be that you’ve just watched that and now feel that £85 represents something of a horrific over-spend. If not, here’s the essential breakdown of how we did it:

THE IDEA: I’ve never been the most prepared director in the world but even I know you’d better have a rough idea of what the fuck you’re doing before you turn up on set. In this instance, the band and I threw some thoughts around until we came up with the concept of the ghosts as a way to represent the song’s central theme of memories and regrets. We figured the band needed to be unified as ghosts and that we’d therefore need someone outside the band to be our protagonist; someone who doesn’t know she’s dead and needs to be helped to the “other side” by members of a British electro-folk band (TOP TIP: It’s a music video, not Citizen fucking Kane). My first choice for this ghostly guest star was…

 LISA FAULKNER: Another top tip; your friends don’t need paying. If you don’t know Lisa Faulkner, it would cost you an arm and a leg to get her to schlep out to a disused airbase on the M25 and tit around for days pretending to be unaware of her own demise. If you DO know her, it costs you a bottle of Coke and a Yorkie and, as previously noted, even this payment can be deferred. The point is surprisingly valid, though. You know someone who can act, or you know someone who knows someone. That someone that someone knows might even be someone famous. Or they may know someone famous. The mantra that is core to making something ike this happen, and is relevant to every aspect of the process is:

 IT NEVER HURTS TO ASK.

 THE LOCATION: RAF Uxbridge is a disused MoD base which is now used as a film location for shows like Silent Witness, New Tricks etc etc. Those shows all pay good money, sometimes thousands of pounds a day, to use the place. However, many locations like this will charge a lot less, sometimes nothing, if they know that you have no money, are going to cause no disruption and are able to work around their schedule. Again, it never hurts to ask. On a previous promo (Sweet Billy Pilgrim’s “Joyful Reunion”) we were able to get the Phoenix Cinema, the oldest purpose-built cinema in London, to let us have their auditorium during off hours WITH a projectionist on hand AND the use of their cafe for a tiny fraction of what they would charge a “proper” production. Even I didn’t think it would be possible until I finally just picked up the phone and asked.

 EQUIPMENT: And here’s where it gets a little sticky because on this video I was using a Nikon D800 which is about as good an HD camera as you can get for realistic money. (It costs nearly £3000 so by “realistic” I mean it’s cheaper than the £100,000+ cameras we use on TV and film). The lenses I use were mostly bought second hand on ebay, but they’re still not necessarily cheap. HOWEVER, you don’t HAVE to use an expensive camera. With the right handling and with some creativity, you could shoot a pretty damn good short or music video on a domestic camcorder, a Flip or even an iPhone. The key to doing this is…

 LIMITATIONS: Specifically, knowing what your limitations are an exploiting them. The Nikon, in common with most DSLRs, doesn’t like to pan fast. It has something called a “rolling shutter” which makes panning shots judder horribly. There are software fixes for this, but none of them are very elegant. The solution is simply DON’T PAN. In the same way, the Nikon is a pig to operate and focus at the same time, or at least I can’t manage it; I can’t have someone walking directly towards camera and keep them in focus the whole way. That’s a hard thing to do and very talented people are paid very good money on film sets to do just that. I can’t afford to have a professional focus puller with me on a shoot like this, so I adopt a similar solution to the one used in the panning problem; I don’t pull focus. You see those shots of Lisa walking towards camera where she only comes into focus when she arrives at her end position? Well guess what, I can’t pull focus so we make a virtue out of that and call it “art”. 

 EMBRACE THE LIMITATONS: With a camcorder and a few actors, you can’t make “Avatar”. But you CAN make “Paranormal Activity” or “Rec” if you use the limitations to your advantage.

 LIGHTING: For me, lighting has always been the scariest discipline. Standing on a TV or film set as a director, peering at a set of monitors, I’ve always been confident in saying what I do or don’t like about the lighting but I had NO IDEA how the effects were actually achieved. To try and fill this gap in my knowledge, I got into shooting stills a couple of years ago and that taught me enough about f-stops, exposure and histograms (don’t ask) to provide some sort of foundation of knowledge. I’m still barely scratching the surface of what I’d need to know to be even a bad Director of Photography but I can kinda sorta get by. One thing I’ve learned shooting these low-budget bits and pieces is that, if it doesn’t quite look right on the day, it’ll look even worse when you get it into the computer. Spend the time to tinker and get something that looks halfway decent. 

 Wherever possible, I shoot with available (natural) light. It’s just easier to position people where they’ll look nice in the room than it is to light them single-handed. RAF Uxbridge has no electrical power, so it wasn’t possible to put big lights in there without a generator, which we couldn’t afford anyway, so once again, we embraced our limitations and I brought along three battery-powered LED lights. These things are generally frowned on by professionals because they’re so cheap (only £25-35 each. Weirdly, you can buy pretty much the exact same thing for £1000 a piece and apparently THOSE ones are perfectly aceptable – whatever) but the simple fact is that they work, they provide enough illumination to stop your shadows going complete black and plonked on a stand or on a shelf high up somewhere (in our case, sellotaped to the top of a door) they provide a perfectly acceptable backlight. In the video, there’s a shot of Lisa in silhouette, walking down a corridor. As she gets close to camera, the light from a doorway catches her and lights her up really nicely: that was one of these battery-powered lights, propped up on a broken chair. 

 A mix of natural light and these same LED video lamps was used on this video for Piefinger. I mention it here because it was shot on a much cheaper camera than the D800 but I think it still looks good:

And that brings us to…

BLACK AND WHITE: Given the limitations we have in terms not just of lighting and camera equipment but also make-up, costume and production design, it’s generally a BAD IDEA to shoot colour if you want to be able to control the look of what you’re doing. Colours clash with walls, lipstick clashes with nails; it’s all horrible. More to the point for us cheapskates, colour temperature is a problem when you shoot colour; daylight rates around 5600k (nearly white) while a bedside lamp will be much warmer (more orange). Light doesn’t usually mix very nicely in colour. HOWEVER, colour temperature is NOT RELEVANT when you shoot black and white which means that you can light the thing with a mix of daylight and any household lamps/torches/whatever and it will still look good as long as you give some thought to positioning of lights and subject and exposure etc. 

 CAMERA MOVEMENT: Unless you have money to burn, don’t spend thousands of pounds on some kind of steadicam rig for your camera. The money buys you the equipment, not the ability to use it; professional steadicam operators get paid a fucking HUGE daily rate on movies for a reason. Most of the “Archaeology” video was shot on a tripod, partly because the ghost effects we were doing need the camera to be “locked off” to shoot background plates (shots of the empty room) that could them be composited together with the shots of the band. The tiny bit of handheld work was done on one of THESE, which costs about £20 and does a pretty good job. Again, embrace the limitations and don’t try to pull off fancy camera moves if you don’t have the equipment or know-how; you’re much better off framing a nice shot on a tripod.

 What else? Oh yeah…

 PLAYBACK: Music videos normally need to have people lip-syncing to a backing track. In the professional world, that means a sound man, equipment, digislates and all sorts of peripheral bullshit. Luckily, we’re enthusastic amateurs and we can make do with an iPod and speakers or a laptop doing playback. The ONE BIG TIP for this, though, is to have playback loud enough that the microphone on your camera will pick it up clearly. Even though you’re going to replace it in the edit with the real track, that recording on your camera will allow any number of different editing programs to sync the audio waveform from the camera recording to the clean track and low-and-behold, you have perfect lipsync without breaking a sweat. 

 Okay, I’m bored writing this, and I can only imagine that the three of you still reading must be suicidal by now, so I’ll save editing and post-production for another post if people are interested.

 If you take nothing else away from this, PLEASE remember the mantras:

 – EMBRACE THE LIMITATIONS and plan your shots accordingly

 – DON’T BE AFRAID TO ASK, for locations, for actors, for equipment; you’ll be surprised at how many times you’ll hear “yes”.

 Okay, wake up. I’m done. It’s over. Go make something.