Okay. Here is my experience. When I went to film school in LA, all my classmates rented expensive dollies and cranes to do their senior thesis films.
I was poor. So, as a rebel, I set out to prove that I could do better with a 16mm camera and a tripod. I shot a great story, no tricks.
So, we view all the final films and, long story short, I got the best grade. I told a great story.
Tell great stories.
After working for networks and some time at the studios this is what I learned how to do on a tight budget.
1A) Stop moving the camera on every shot. I get one or two money shots in a scene and it creates the illusion of having a lot of money.
1B) Find single locations with a lot of looks. Moving your crew and actors around all day makes them tired. Often you can shoot one scene in one direction and turn the camera 90 degrees and have an entirely different background. When you are starting out, the last thing you want to do is piss off your actors or make them tired.
2) I shot everything on a jib. Very few shots moved. It is much quicker to move the camera and get an interesting angle and lock it off. DON’T feel the absolute need to move the camera on every shot. Most moves are wasted in editing.
3) Lens choices. This is learned. And, NO, contrary to the DSLR lovers handbook, not every shot has a shallow depth of field. Learn how to use lenses to tell a story, not because everyone else is doing it.
4A) Mmmm. Filters. Yuck. Using the bleach bypass filter on everything you do. No. Makes you look stupid unless there is a reason for it. Don’t cover shitty filmmaking with filters.
4B) Trust your work enough to just make good looking pictures and stories.
4C) A cheap smoker like rock bands use is really inexpensive and good atmosphere. You can’t fill huge rooms, but you can put just enough particles in the air to catch the light.
5) Have the money? Best investment is an older DP that has experience. Saves many hours. Most good ones will actually get mad at you when you want to use stupid or amateur camera tricks. Good. I see too many indie films filled with every film school trick and it shows. Less is always more.
6) Get the best actors you can. Using your live-in roommate that is average is a poor decision. Casting makes you as a director. It also saves a lot of time on the set and in post. Paying a really good actor a little is better than hundreds of hours in post trying to fix a crappy performance.
7) Never use an actor that says they have done porn. Just personal experience. Most are really bad actors. But, I had a boss that loved to hit on actresses. Sex and filmmaking are a bad mix. Think with your mind not your dick.
8) Location sound. Holy shit! My first real job was in the sound editing department at a major studio. Your location sound is paramount. Get the best location sound you can afford. People will forgive a bad shot, but bad sound is really disturbing. You can tell a cheap film by the sound work.
9) Post sound. First, good location sound. Saves a huge amount of time in post. I learned this big time as a sound editor. Big budget sound has many, many layers of ambience, ambient effects, hard/practical effects, foley, and tons of replaced footsteps and clothing rustle. – BUT, it is more than putting those in, the sounds must sound natural for that environment. – Example: Your actors are driving down the street in a Chevy Van and you use the sound from a 1969 VW bus. Bad. – The other thing is that ALL dead air is filled with room tone. – If you can replace a word on set, do it. Don’t ADR only a section of a scene, do it all.
10) Don’t skimp on music. Crappy free music that is all synth, sounds like it. If you do score it, have a few live instruments with the synth.
11) Finally, I disagree with one of the comments here. I rarely use a rim light or back light unless it is motivated. Rim lights can look really cheezy. Find a better way to separate your talent from the background. We tend to use more side lighting or maybe a rim light as the key. Rim lighting is largely an ENG thing. Three point lighting may be taught in school, but it is not done on the set. I see many film sets with 1 key and a reflector or softbox and some interesting background lighting.
12) Oh, yeah. Almost forgot. Actually light it. I see too much work with a dolly shot and the actors are lit poorly. Everyone seems to have got a slider for Christmas, but no lights.
Using dolly shots, jigs and other means to keep the camera moving has a huge impact on differentiating an amateur production from a professional one. But be aware that a movie camera during conversations or other dialog is an inappropriate use of this technique.
Low budget films also tend to miss coverage shots before new scenes, long takes of people taking instead of editing back and forth between the listener and the talker, and some other choices that are made specifically because there is no budget for lots of filming. Perhaps not entirely solvable within a limited budget and number of shooting days, but being aware of it means you can at least try.
1) Deepen your shots. Almost every scene should have at least three things in different light intensity and should occur on at least three planes. The close-up against a wall is the hallmark of cheap filmmaking. Don’t rely too heavily on such simplistic shots. Create a whole scene.
2) Move the camera. If you find yourself panning and tilting a lot… don’t. Rent/borrow/make a crummy dolly and use it as best you can. Jib shots are nice, but dolly is so easy and cheap, while providing (in my opinion) the coolest effect you can give your image. For bonus points, point the dolly at your subject and creep forward smoothly during intense dialog.
3) Avoided handheld unless you are really damn good at it, or if you don’t have enough time to do it properly. Too many filmmakers go for the “handheld look” and achieve the “hopeless amateur look.” Steadicam stand-ins like the Glidecam are readily available if you must run around. You can always add camera shake in post if you want your images to breathe.
4) Learn how to use backlight. I’m assuming a filmmaker has taught herself to light, but maybe you do or do not have money or access to lights. Big, soft sources of light (windows, for example) contribute to gorgeous compositions. You just need a backlight. Get something shining on the back of your actors head, or, depending on angle, on the side of their face, and you will get a three dimensional shot. Even a phone light is better than nothing. Seriously.
5) Decrease the depth of your focus field. If you can control your aperture (as on a cinema camera or DSLR, this means making your aperture big (smaller number=bigger aperture). If you are outside you may need a neutral density filter to reduce the amount of light entering the lens. If you can’t control your aperture, an ND filter is your only hope of convincing the camera to open up. Camcorders often have very small sensors, which means that their depth of field is always very long. That’s why they give you home video results. That being said, don’t be one of those assholes that shoots everything close up with the background blown out. Use this principle according to principle #1.
6) Block your actors creatively. If you always shoot dead on or at profile, you’re going to look like the news. Get at an angle, under them, etc. Don’t line them up with each other. Move them through your three dimensional space. Have them transition from soft to direct light. Much thought goes into this on serious films; plan it out and move through it on set. Be open to resituating your actors if the light speaks to you.
Practice, practice, practice. Get really good at visualizing and executing shots, and these principles will become habit.