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4 Low Budget Film Techniques You Can Learn from The Shawshank Redemption

Great inspiration can come from watching your favorite films
Photo of Shawshank Redemption

If you’re an independent filmmaker or an aspiring filmmaker, great inspiration can come from sitting around and watching your favorite films—as long as you know what you are looking for. In a new video from Epic Light Media below, Thomas Manning walks viewers through some of the low budget filming techniques he learned from watching one of his favorite movies, The Shawshank Redemption.

Pope in the Pool

“The Pope in the Pool” technique is a creative device for getting the audience to pay attention to boring dialogue by making the action while it’s happening something you simply can’t look away from. In Shawshank, it happens on the roof in a scene between Andy Dufresne and one of the prison guards. Thanks to the camera moves and the perspective of the action, the stakes of this scene feel incredibly high: Andy could be tossed off the building at any moment. But if you pay attention, the dialogue is quite boring—the character is talking about finance and tax law—something the audience might have trouble staying focused on if the action wasn’t so intense. Ultimately using “The Pope in the Pool” technique is a great way to keep your viewers engaged while delivering information that’s important, but maybe not the most exciting information.

Using Crowds

Because Shawshank is set in a prison it’s no surprise the movie features a lot of crowds. However, if you watch carefully you’ll realize the majority of the scenes in the film don’t actually feature that many extras, aside from a few key overhead shots that were captured in the prison yard. Shawshank is incredibly creative about how they utilized these crowd shots to create a film that looks much higher budget than it actually was.

In a scene featuring a crowd of reporters, the director uses a moving overhead shot to make the crowd look much more expansive than it really is. The camera movement makes the crowd feel massive, while in reality it was only about 20 extras that were used in the shot.

The shots that appear in the prison yard appear at very different times of the film, but if you watch closely, you will realize that these two moments were shot either the same day or only a day apart from one another. Filmmakers shoot out of sequential order all the time in order to utilize extras while they have them.

Use a Window

Placing subjects near a window or in a room that has a window is a great way to create nice cinematic lighting. Doing so will create a mixture of dramatic shadows on one side of your subject’s face and nice soft light on the other. It also keeps your sets clear of lighting equipment for simplified setups. This is a technique that we see get used over and over again in Shawshank.

Use Objects

A few well curated props can be used to communicate emotions and thoughts in a more powerful and simple way than dialogue. There are a number of significant objects in Shawshank that we see characters using throughout the film that come to signify something about their internal thoughts. Andy Dufresne has a rock hammer that we see him use throughout the film and watch it degrade over time. This simple object implies that he has been in prison for a long time, and that he is a character with a lot of patience and determination. The warden’s object is a bible, which implies the duplicity of his character. It also adds an extra layer of evil when he uses this holy book to justify the terrible things he is doing to the prisoners in Shawshank. Think about how you might be able to use objects in your own films to tell a larger story.

Check out the video below for more filmmaking lessons that can be gleaned from The Shawshank Redemption.

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