When you cover a tank in sheets of white cardboard to make it look like a United Nations vehicle, you pray it doesn't rain. But it does.....all day long on your only shooting day! Luckily the budget set dressing doesn't fall off and you manage to get all your scenes of an indie war film.
Making Indie films is hard enough. Making indie war films are even harder, especially when you try to do more than a few pals running around the woods in reenactor uniforms. Here are a few tips of the trade for budget war films.
Accuracy. You will always (and I mean always!) get those commentators on YouTube who find every last historical inaccuracy in your indie war film, regardless of the micro-nano budget available to you. These are "rivet counters" and "armchair soldiers", folks who will argue the toss about the least important technical specification. These people exist and will provide their "expertise" regardless, so just focus on the accuracy of the story. Go research actual military battles and events and craft a script around something that actually happened.
or actions that a soldier or sailor would actually take.
Dialogue. An indie war film with 95% action, shooting and a few cliché army lines gets boring fast. Find a few volunteers who can act fairly well and teach them how to be a soldier with all your collected gear. Remember, film is a medium for telling a story and a good story focuses on human emotions.
Costumes and Props. This is an indie war film, not a military reenactor gear-porn video so when you are on a tight budget, create costumes and props that help tell your story. The gear is NOT the story. Remember that unless you are doing a close up for longer that 1-2 seconds, basic props and costumes will easily pass muster. Go look at the original Star Wars costumes for Luke and Vader - they were horrendously made and uber cheap but you wouldn't notice in the film.
Film is trickery (its not real) so you can get away with an awful lot. Tom Hanks' team on Band of Brothers made a German tank on top of a British FV432 APC chassis. We also used an FV432 covered in white card to mimic a Canadian M113 in UN Croatia. The shots are close ups and don't focus on the vehicle (its just a prop) so you can trick the viewer into thinking they are seeing the real deal....except the rivet counters who will dissect every second of your film!
Set Scope. Three guys in uniform in the woods is not a war film (unless the story is literally about three lost soldiers). Try to find local museum collectors or even reenactor groups who may have vehicles or even mock battlefields and sets that you can film on. If you don't have any set decoration that says "war film" its best to use tight shots (mid-shot, close up) rather than wide empty shots. If you are lucky like we were in our Vietnam war short film, they will have a bunch of volunteers to act as background cast.
Weapon FX. Guns are meant to be dangerous, but not on film sets. There are plenty of accident stories about guns on film sets so use dummy prop guns (aka replica firearms) or better still use airsoft guns. High quality and affordable muzzle flash effects are available to add in post. Study how the real firearms react when fired to see real muzzle flash, smoke or barrel recoil and replicate those in VFX. We have a page on prop guns for more information.
Camera. Find a good DoP or camera operator who can get good low light or a crew with a focus puller. Shaky camera or out of focus shots are only nice to watch for a short while and only for specific action scenes. A decent DOP will be able to help you with getting the best action shots and add to your film quality. Don't forget about audio either; a great film with bad audio is a bad film.
Dirt. Soldiering is dirty (unless you are doing an AirForce film in which case it should be in a clean hotel ;-). Too many indie war films have guys running around in clean fresh reenactor gear like soldiers fresh out of basic training. Its not realistic., trust me (I spent over 5 weeks in the same gear in Iraq and I stank!). Weather the gear properly by putting it in a bucket of mud and water for a few days. Iron those pant creases flat too! Use an electric sander to wear out patches of material (if you own them).
So there you have it but this isn't an exhaustive list. Go make something and take the time to make it as realistic as your budget, skills and available crew can afford. We made a short Battle of the Bulge film in one day with one guy, a 3D printed M1 Garand rifle, woods, a lot of Canadian snow and a few fireworks at the start of the pandemic. It won an award at a film festival for 'merit' (meaning they appreciated that we made the effort).