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.