Dear Lifehacker, I want to get started making YouTube videos and maybe even a short film, but I'm not sure what I need to get. I also don't want to spend a lot of money. How can I get started on a budget? Sincerely, Aspiring Auteur
Media costs money, and video/film sits all the way at the top. That said, equipment and software prices fall with every new product release. You can make incredible stuff without investing your life savings in equipment. If you need proof, just look no further than this short musical video created with an iPhone. You can do a lot with a little so long as you know how to use it well. Let's take a look at how you can make use of what you already have, and how you can acquire and create useful tools to round out your video arsenal.
Get a Plan in Motion
Before you start a new video project, it helps to plan. While you could purchase expensive software like Final Draft to write a screenplay and make a non-visual storyboard, you can do one better with two free online tools.
First, check out a web app called Logline. It not only walks you through the outlining process of creating a screenplay with each project, but it helps you write summaries and treatments. When you get to writing the script itself and finish your work, you can export to a PDF (or even Final Draft) file to share with anyone. For those of you with creative partners, you can even collaborate online. While not the only free screenwriting software out there — Celtx and Adobe Story Free work great too — you have a powerful online tool in Logline that offers just the right features for pretty much any project, whether with a team or by yourself.
Second, you'll also want to explore a web app from Amazon called Storyteller. It helps you make storyboards quickly, whether you can draw or not. It provides existing images to help you compose your shots and create a visual outline of the video you want to create. Amazon made it as a tool for Amazon Studios so aspiring storytellers could pitch their work more easily. Whether for Amazon's benefit or your own, you can use the tool to map out your next project.
Find a Cheap Camera
As mentioned before, you can shoot a great film with your phone. Almost any decent HD camera will do so long as it offers some level of control. While you certainly could make a movie with a Flip or GoPro, you should find an option that gives you a little more flexibility. A smartphone camera will do the trick, but you can get a lot more mileage out of a cheap dedicated video camera or a DSLR.
The Wirecutter offers a variety of helpful recommendations for video cameras, DSLRs, and less-expensive mirrorless point and shoots that create beautiful video. Depending on what you choose, you can end up paying as little as $300 for a pretty good piece of equipment. Of course, if you can't afford much, you should see what you can pick up used or refurbished. Cameras — especially handheld video cameras — have a poor resale value because they don't incite high demand in the first place. They also tend to last a while though, which means you can get a very functional camera for cheap if you look on eBay and Gumtree.
Learn to Light Your Subjects
What camera you use doesn't matter as much as you may think. You can get a lot of mileage out of any decent HD option with the right lighting. Time and time again, people demonstrate how they can get professional images out of an iPhone thanks to good lighting (which, in some cases, can mean nothing but a well-placed lamp). While professional lights will look better, you can pick up cheap lamps with adjustable heads at any department store and use them instead to get similar effects. You won't have as much control with just a lightbulb, but if you learn the basic lighting setups for video you'll know how to make good use of what you have. Remember: don't aim for shadowless shots with an even brightness across the entire frame. Use your lighting to strike a tone and help to define the purpose of your shot.
Expand Your Toolkit with DIY Projects
Film equipment costs a lot because studios will pay for the good stuff. And while the good stuff is, well, good, you can make better-than-average alternatives for a lot less money. Here are some favourites:
- Three Impromptu DIY Camera Stabilisers: Perhaps, by now, you've noticed the importances of stability. Shaky shots just make people nauseous, so you generally want to avoid them. These three DIY stabilisers also help at a moment's notice.
- Build a PVC Pipe Shoulder Rig: When you want a sturdy, more professional piece of equipment, you ought to build a shoulder rig. PVC pipe comes in handy here.
- Make a Portable, DIY Green Screen: Need a background you don't have? Make yourself a green screen, light it well and insert any background you like.
- Use a Tripod and Furniture Sliders as a Dolly: This is, quite possibly, the best, cheap DIY video hack of all time. You stick you tripod on three furniture sliders and glide it around the room. This works better on smooth surfaces, of course, but it still functions in other places. For just a few dollars, you can get shots that look just like you spent thousands on a professional dolly. You'll spend a tiny fraction of the time setting it all up too.
These projects just account for a small portion of what you can create for next to no money. If you have something specific in mind, search YouTube. Someone probably made a video that'll show you how to make it.
Acquire Editing Software
With all the right equipment, you can shoot a bunch of video but that won't help you much if you can't edit it. Video editing software tends to cost a lot, but low-end programs can do most of what you'll need without a large cash investment.
Windows users should check out the Sony Vegas line of editing applications. While you can spend several hundred dollars on the high-end versions, cheaper ones exist for a lot less. If you'd like something completely free, however, you should check out LightWorks. While it'll provide far more features than you'll likely need and the interface takes some getting used to, you won't pay a cent for it.
OS X users should already have a copy of iMovie on their Macs. While it still offers a fairly bizarre interface that strays from the usual, it can manage quite a bit. For those who prefer the traditional timeline, however, Screenflow — our favourite screencasting software — also doubles as great, simple video editor. You can get a copy for just shy of $US100.
For those who need to learn to edit, we can help you with that! Just set aside a couple of hours and make your way through our basics of video-editing course.
This overview scratches so little of the surface. Making video encompasses so many different skills and talents that you could spend a lifetime and never master them all. It always helps to collaborate and to keep learning. If you want to read a few traditionally helpful books on filmmaking that'll get you thinking about story and image, check out Robert McKee's Story, Bruce Block's The Visual Story, Linda J. Cowgill's Writing Short Films, Steve Stockman's How to Shoot Video That Doesn't Suck, and Joseph V. Mascelli's The Five C's of Cinematography.
Good luck, and happy video-making!
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