In my time, I’ve watched quite few indie action projects, hundreds if not thousands by now and there is always something that sticks out about most of them, something that just didn’t sit well with me. It’s only in the last year that I finally was able to pinpoint this flaw as it were, as I continued to expand my own skillset as a filmmaker. That flaw is a lack of Visual Theme.
As an Indie filmmaker, having a visual style, a particular way of creating a film, is really important because style is visual information and we as artists work in a visual medium. This is known as “Mise En Scene” or “Visual Theme” in traditional filmmaking and it’s something I wish more indie action filmmakers took seriously. Too often, indie action films are visually bland, even if the other aspects of the film are on point. It’s like going to a high end restaurant and ordering the 100$ steak dinner only to have it served to you on a paper plate with a spork as your only utensil. Sure the steak may still be good, but presentation is how you get people to come back.
“But this is indie action cinema, Nick, no one has any money. You need money for those things, right?” Wrong. You don’t need money to make a good action short film nor a good looking one. It’s really a matter of being particular on what you want to present visually. Two weeks ago I released my newest short film, Black Betty. The film required a very specific location as it was written to be a “NightClub” run by Sergei, a Russian gangster. For the final film we managed to get a restaurant location as a special favor for the planned two day shoot, we then adjusted our plan to fit the space since we didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth.
We wanted to present the idea of our lead gangster, portrayed with great fun by Deviant Children’s own Chris Montague, as wealthy if a bit garish. The location was vitally important to getting that idea across. By getting what we did, we achieved a large part of our Visual Theme. All of our gear was either donated or bought from Amazon to be returned after the shoot. That saved us a LOT of money and made the most sense since we only needed the gear for the shoot. Take advantage of the things you have access to. Oh and Amazon’s awesome return process. Seriously, it was the best idea ever and something we will likely do in the future.
And this is where I segue into a bit of rant. Filmmakers, please light your shots. Yes, cameras have gotten better at seeing in low light but that doesn’t mean you don’t need any lights. It doesn’t have to be a lot, one light can do wonders. And get a really good light, with a nice amount of output and is dimmable. There are lots of affordable lights that do those two things. I’ve lit a good number of my shorts with just one light, but because I got a really good one with those two features for less than 200 bucks, it’s become my workhorse light. I also took the time to make sure that one light is perfectly placed within the scene, adjusting only as needed, but mostly leaving it alone once it was up. Adding specific lighting to your films is what separates your films from others.
How does one determine the Visual Style of their film? Emulating your favorite films is a good way to start. With Black Betty, we wanted to emulate the same style as John Wick and Atomic Blonde, with the use of longer takes, lots of color contrast, a very visually dynamic look. We used rented lights that had color changing capabilities to really saturate our main sequence. From Amazon, we bought really cheap LED tube lights to place around the space to act as area lights and used lots of haze for atmosphere. My wife, who was also my Assistant Director, just happened to own a strobe light from her days as a Theatre Lighting Designer. Like John Wick, we shot handheld as well as using a rented dolly and tripod when needed.
My goal was to create a film that FELT like it could fit into that world that Chad and David created, but applying the things that I like to do as a filmmaker. I’d like to think we were largely successful as Black Betty is currently at almost 1500 views and caught the eyes of quite a few influential filmmakers in the industry.
Developing a style is one thing, but PERFECTING a style, that takes time and its only with time that your own style will begin to take shape. Watch all sorts of films to see what you like best, study them in all aspects. Try to understand things like composition, lighting, color, depth, etc. All this information and more is free to find on Youtube.
Now let’s get to work.