A freelance filmmaker’s guide to moving shots on a dirt cheap budget
Being a freelance filmmaker can be tough work. Most of the time you are working on a tight budget, and every project can determine whether or not you get another one. You need to do your best every time and show your clients what you can offer.
Often, you are working alone, with a colleague, or someone you hired. You have to make things work. If you rent or buy expensive equipment to make your video better, you are likely deducting it from your pay. Is it worth it? You can only keep sacrificing your own wellbeing for the sake of your work, for so long. You’re trying to make a living doing what you love, and equipment needs are endless, expensive, and tempting. It’s time to find another way.
You can argue that a gimbal is all you need, and yes, they are becoming cheaper and they can work in most situations where you need a moving shot. But they certainly are not cheap, especially compared to the options that will follow.
When your budget is restrictive and your money needs to go elsewhere, when you are just starting out, when you usually don’t need a moving shot except for this one time, you need to do it the dirt cheap way.
Handheld moving shots
These shots give you the chance to move around freely (well, as freely as you can move when filming) so are often the go-to for documentaries and event capturing. You can follow your subject without having planned a route beforehand, you can vary the height of your shot in a way you can’t when on a dolly.
You take up less space because you are holding the whole camera (and sometimes sound) set-up. Often, the movement these shots inevitably have can be desirable even in films due to the feeling they give the audience (think of the camera style in the popular sitcom Modern Family or the film The Blair Witch Project).
Make sure that handheld shots work with your on-screen subject, or you risk cheapening the overall look of your footage.
Now, handheld shots are usually not done by just a handheld camera. The shake is too intense and rarely is the desired effect. You want to steady your shot. This is usually achieved by having a grip on your supporting system, not on your camera, and adding weight to the vertical axis of the whole thing, in order to absorb bumps. When you can’t afford a professional steady-cam or gimbal, here are the best ways to do it:
Make your own stabilizer
You can achieve this with tools from your local hardware store. Basically, you want to connect a fairly long rod (50-70 cm) to the bottom of your camera in a secure way and have weights at the bottom that closely match the weight of your camera. Find the ideal place to hold the rod (usually right over the middle and you can make a grip there too) and touch the camera only to manipulate the lens and such.
Things you may have that can stabilize your camera
If you can’t make your own glider, you can use your tripod folded up or a monopod in order to weigh down your camera.
Aside from weight, tension can also help with stabilization. Simply keeping the camera strap around your neck and stretching it by pulling the camera away from yourself, can help your handheld shots. Or you can attach an elastic cord (like a bungee cord) to your camera and stand on the other end if you don’t plan on walking or hook it onto your belt if you do. The elastic pull along with your careful push can get rid of bumps! You can attach it to the strap loops or use the tripod shoe if it has a D-ring.
Friends of mine have used the tripod by wedging one leg over their belt on their hip and the other legs pushing into their shoulders. A small tripod is best for this. I’ve done this a couple of times, it can work, but is a bit inconvenient, not to mention uncomfortable.
Pro tip: Learn how to do the twist by not moving anything above your ankles and you can move side to side smoothly (albeit a little slowly).
Dolly and tracking shots
When done properly, these shots are steadier than handheld shots and can really give you a brilliant cinematic look. Generally speaking, you have to plan your route, practice it, and it’s usually easier when going in a straight line. Some of the following options will require the help of at least another person. Not suitable for all shoots because some need set up or planning.
Make your own dolly
A good dolly can be very expensive. You can make your own for a fraction of the cost and you’ll be amazed at how well it works. You’ll want to use it the whole time. You will make a base for your tripod and PVC pipes are great for tracks and super cheap, you can even use two broomsticks when your movement is small. Again, weight is your friend and can be an easy fix for small bumps.
For movement shorter in length, you can build your own slider as well. It’s very portable and easier to set up. That bit of smooth motion can really make your shot special.
Ready to use as a dolly
Another cheap dolly option is a furniture dolly with good smooth wheels. This is much less portable than the DIY tripod dolly, but has three big advantages you sometimes need:
- With a furniture dolly big enough and with handles to push it, you can adjust the focus on the lens and use the tripod head for pans and tilts, as someone else focuses on moving the whole contraption that holds the camera and you.
- You can keep the floor on screen if you want to because there are no tracks to ruin your shot.
- You are free to turn without having to meticulously create a bend in your tracks, although your turn will be rather big in order to stay smooth.
An appliance dolly can turn easily and usually has good soft wheels, but is very tiring for the one pushing and can be hard for the operator/rider to do anything but hold the camera.
Other things commonly used as cheap makeshift dollies (that do the trick) include:
- Wheelchairs. One person sits in it with the camera, another pushes it.
- Cars. Very common if you’re shooting outdoors.
- Upside-down carpet or cloth to drag the tripod on, best over smooth floors.
- Shopping cart. If you mysteriously happen to acquire one, it can move nicely if you lubricate the wheels and you weight it down with a person and the camera. Not the most silent option though.
- Roller skates. Honestly, I’m not sure, but I always loved the idea.
- Use your imagination! Get moving shots by setting a scene on a bus and shoot out the window, or film the bus to add motion to your still shot. Put your camera on a lazy susan or strap it onto your dog’s back and throw a tennis ball towards your subject. You never know what will work for you.
Other things to keep in mind for moving shots
Choose a wide angle lens if you can, the shake is less visible. Don’t even consider a telephoto lens.
The WD-40 you keep in your film set toolbox can fix a stubborn wheel and wrapping a hard wheel in layers of duct tape can soften it and absorb some of the shake.
Remember not to wear very loose clothing that can get caught or stuck anywhere and wear shoes that permit soft, practically silent, footsteps.
When to move
Don’t forget that dirt cheap moving shots should not look dirt cheap to your client. The more expensive your shots look, the more expensive your services can be and the more professional you look.
Just because you can move your camera nicely though, does not mean you should, as tempted as you may be. Always think of what your scene needs, whether it’s in a film, a documentary, a wedding video, or a commercial. You are making a statement in the way you shoot, so shoot wisely.