(The Turk: from the music video “Blame It” by Coyote Love currently in production.)
The mighty Wiki states that:
“Guerrilla film making is a form of independent filmmaking characterized by low budgets [no budget], skeleton crews [no crews], and simple props using whatever is available. Often scenes are shot quickly in real locations [friend's apartment, bar, neighborhood woods] without any warning, and without obtaining permission from the owners of the locations [keep shooting until they kick you out].”
Going guerrilla is a necessity for all amateur filmmakers. We can’t afford permits or insurance. Don’t have time for location scouting or casting. We travel light and usually make the shots up as we go along.
Sometimes it can be liberating. Limitations in any art form tend to produce the best creativity.
And sometimes (most of the time) it can be daunting.
But that doesn’t mean guerrilla filmmaking needs to look like amateur filmmaking. There are a few tools we have at our disposal to achieve great shots.
Rent what you don’t have but need:
When I upgraded from my Canon T2i to the 5D Mark II, it became apparent immediately that my 50mm 1.4 lens wasn’t gonna cut it. It’s a great lens for taking photos but it lacks impact when shooting video. There’s just something about the framing that’s best suited for photography. However, having just dropped $1500 for the 5D, I wasn’t going to be purchasing a $1500 35mm 1.4 lens any time soon.
Though you can rent a 35mm lens for about $35 a day.
And that’s what I’ve been doing for the past several projects. Places like CSI Rentals have all the necessary gear to help get great shots at guerrilla prices. You don’t need to own it to be able to use it.
Compact lighting solution:
I’m still guilty of carrying around my Smith and Victor lighting kit. They’re big, clumsy and usually way more light than I need, so I also have to carry around different wattage bulbs. And since they need to be powered, I also need to carry extension cords and power strips. It can become a mess, especially if you’re working in a public place.
LED lighting is an alternative lighting solution that does away with the bulk and the power problem and can be used in most shooting situations. Since these lights are small and run on AA batteries, they’re out of the way and quick to set-up. And for only $30 a pop, inexpensive enough to have a few on hand.
Being smart about the shot:
Everything in the frame matters to the audience. If it’s in the frame, it should either propel the narrative or convey an emotion.
The Godfather. 1972.
It’s a deceptively simple shot. Nothing but a car among the weeds with the Statue of Liberty in the distance. However, the weight of what Coppola was expressing has made this scene iconic. As Gustavo Mercado states in his book The Filmmaker’s Eye, “the framing of your shots should reflect your understanding of the story in a way that convey your perspectives, your values, your idiosyncrasies, your vision. [Coppola] was adding his perspective to this event…commenting on it. What do you think including such a recognizable symbol of freedom, the American Dream, and the immigrant journey says about the killing of the man in the car.”
Story is everything:
The true elegance of the above shot is that there’s hardly anything there. But it’s true impact is the story behind it. Without a good story, it’s impossible to know what the camera should do.
Take for example one of my cinematic guilty pleasures, Topsy Turvy.
I am no fan of Gilbert and Sullivan, however, this movie is so smartly written and acted that it becomes less about “low burlesque in a small theater on the banks of the Thames” and more about the creative process.
The clip below shows how the director Mike Leigh guides the camera to show a moment of creative inspiration.
Inspiration Scene from Topsy-Turvy Movie (1999) | MOVIECLIPS.
Up until this scene, Gilbert was in a bit of a rut. Sullivan had grown tired of his partner’s stories of “topsy turvydom” and was refusing to set Gilbert’s latest work to music. His wife, Lucy, insisted they get out of the house and check-out a Japanese exhibition that was visiting London. Begrudgingly, Gilbert escorted his wife to the exhibition and was quite taken by the experience and even purchased a samurai sword.
Afterwards, Gilbert paces in his office late one night due to a bout of insomnia. The camera paces with him. The sword drops almost hitting him and he engages in some boyish play. Setting the sword down, the camera pulls toward him and he begins to see the seeds of a new story begin to spout. The camera looks up at him as all the confidence he lacked previously returns and with a brilliant turn by Jim Broadbent, he breaks the fourth wall and smiles at the audience.
The way Leigh directs this scene is so understated and whimsical, it’s impossible not to get caught up in the moment. Story and direction acting in harmony.
- Filmmaking can be expensive. However, there are smart ways to spend your (or your producer’s) money and one of them is renting equipment. Not only is this an inexpensive option, it also teaches discipline because you’ll only have whatever gear your renting for a finite period of time so being organized and smart about your shoot is essential.
- Lighting can be cumbersome and a public menace. But a bunch of cheap, well placed LED lights can make a shoot less conspicuous and be easier to work with.
- Think about the framing of the shot. What’s inside as well as where the camera is looking. It all matters.
- A good story can transcend guerrilla filmmaking techniques and be the inspiration for the way the camera moves through the film.
(Contract hit #1: from the short film “Retrograde Motion” currently in production.)