20 Low Budget Filmmaking Tips

low budget filmmaking tips

Low budget filmmaking has become an option available to everyone. Independent fimmakers can make films much more cost effectively than the majors. The budgets are relatively modest so independent filmmakers can afford to make a movie that fails (unlike the majors). And finally, in this brave new movie world, everyone wants in – the studios want in, the websites want in, traditional TV want in, the gamers and app builders want in, the big banks, the big brands and hedge funds want in. Everyone wants in. The studios and distributors, websites and television broadcasters all have the hardware to play movies. What they lack is the software – the movies. And if you are able to make compelling content, you will make money.

Here are some tips on how to create something good with low or no budget.

1. The Story Is Everything

Nothing glues you to the screen more than a good story. If the story is there, does one really care about the budget of the film? Stories and screenplays have four main elements:

Firstly, your story must have characters with a specific goal. A specific goal is one that can be measured, so at a point in time we can see whether or not the character achieves or fails to achieve the goal. For example, if your character’s goal is to move out of London – this is a weak goal. But if the goal of your character is to leave London by noon tomorrow, or else… then we have a goal that is easily measured.

Secondly, your story has a setting. The setting can be usual or unusual. Thirdly, there are the Actions of the main characters and finally what they say, or Dialogue.

The trick of a good storyteller is to weave these four elements together so the seams do not show. When a writer achieves this, we say they have mastered the craft of storytelling. But not necessarily the art of storytelling.

2. Use Film Software if Possible

Use film software to make your job easier. It works wonders.

There’s lots of great tech out there now. Pick up Celtx or the ShotLister App to organize your shoot. Buy Gorilla Software or Fuzzlecheck to dig deeper and totally streamline your schedules and productions. Go pro with Movie Magic Scheduling and Budgeting. Organization equals success. Don’t wing it. Ever.

3. Location Scout While Writing the Script

Location scout and secure before you write or rewrite your script based on the actual shootable locales. Rewrite for clarity, geography and filming availability. Try to make each location work as two distinct locales. Can you film more than one scene there? How can you avoid unit moves? Every time you move the crew and cast you lose time. Less unit moves equals more shooting time.

4. Number of Locations

There are two expensive components to a film shoot. Image capture (camera) and the locations. Moving a cast and crew from location to location is time consuming, and expensive, regardless of your budget.

For low budget filmmaking if you can reduce the amount of location moves, or eliminate them altogether, then you are a huge step closer to reducing your budget.
Locations in this scenario suddenly have a huge impact on the script. To learn how, we need only to look at some of the most interesting films of the last few decades: Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It , Orin Pelli’s Paranormal Activity and George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. These films have one thing in common: limited locations. In fact, they would each make excellent stage plays. The trick, it seems, is to take a bunch of actors to a limited location and chop them up. When you do this, you will essentially be filming a stage play. But a stage play filmed as a stage play is boring. Turn your limited location script (which is essentially a stage play) into a movie successfully, and you will have, what the moguls in Hollywood call, Talent.

5. Group Scheduled Film Based on Location and Actor Availability

Break down your script and shoot out actors and locations as quickly as possible. Don’t return to a location that you don’t have to. Don’t bring back an actor you can shoot out in a day. Film every scene required at a specific location in one day as soon as possible. Leave the scene clean when you go.

6. Schedule Shooting on Weekends

Most suppliers of camera and lighting gear will cut you a one day rate for a weekend. Pick up Friday and return Monday. Check with rental facilities to see if they offer this option. Negotiate.

7. Get Organised

Nothing is more disheartening than showing up to help out on a mate’s shoot only to spend an hour looking for a screwdriver. Disorganisation is totally unforgivable and easily preventable by advance planning. Make sure you know where everything is, and make sure everthing and everybody shows up at the right place at the right time. If this is not within your organizational ability, partner with someone who is.

8. Be Prepared

Anticipate work slowdowns, actor delays, crew concerns and acts of God (and Satan!). There will always be problems. Don’t act so goddamn surprised when things fall apart. Embrace the chaos. Boogie down with the sickness. Know that how you react to a problem makes all the difference.

9. Image Capture

Choosing the camera that suits your script and your budget is simpler than ever before. Most likely you will be shooting on a digital camera. Two elements of any camera you should look out for are: compression and lenses. Remember that all digital cameras generate the same signal. What influences the image quality are the lenses you film through and the numbers of pixels per frame (compression).

10. Sound

It isn’t the look of skin on skin that turns you on in a sex scene. It’s the sound of skin on skin. Professional filmmakers spend much of their time considering and creating the sounds that go with their pictures.

It is a fact too that our brains are wired in such a way that when we need to strain to hear what the actors are saying, the picture goes dim. Good clean sound with interesting effects added in is the quickest way to make your images, even those shot on your mother’s humble video camera, look great.

11. Music

The fact of film revenue and distribution is that the main revenue streams are from the sound tracks for your film. This is because the musicians unions are much stronger than the actors, writers and film unions. After your film leaves the cinema (if it was lucky enough to get there in the first place) the main revenue streams a movie generates is for the mechanical copyright royalties for the sound track.

Filmmakers are usually the last to understand how music royalties are decided, registered and administered. Explaining music copyright law is something that falls outside this article.

Briefly, filmmakers can get cheap or free scores by composing and performing it themselves. Remember that there are three music copyrignt streams: composers, lyracists and performers. Or, by getting an unsigned band to perform, or to acquire the movie rights to an existing band by contacting them through their agent, or estate if deceased.

12. Your Friends Cannot Act

It is always tempting to get a few friends together to make a movie and use them as actors as well. This usually leads to peril because your friends are not trained actors. They may have spent hours and hours with a video camera in front of the bathroom mirror, but they will not know how to act in front of a camera on a set. When your friends think they are acting well on set, you will probably be so shocked at their hammy performances that you will be unable to direct them without running the risk of destroying your personal relationship.

Far better to advertise for actor/collaborators at local theatre and acting schools, hold rigourous auditions until you find a stellar cast of talented unknowns than use your friends.

If you have a suitable script and some money, you can approach a casting agent who will then pimp your script and your project out to established actors who might be willing to do it for nothing if they like the script, their role, and have been offered a suitable cut of the profits.

13. Ask Cast to Provide Their Own Wardrobe

Ask cast to provide their own wardrobe and reimburse or replace if needed.

Actors have lots of clothes. Ask them to provide you options. Reimburse or replace items if they are to be bloodied or destroyed. Purchase multiples for any wardrobe destined to be trashed or used for run of show. Bag all items. Clean as required. Label them and keep in separate wardrobe bags per actor. Keep track of continuity on all paperwork, call sheets and label bags with corresponding info.

14. Affordable Props

Use thrift shops, Ebay and discount stores for props and wardrobe.

Show online and dumpster dive at local thrift store for all props, set decorations and wardrobe. Revise script to allow for minimal wardrobe changes. Keep your costs low by borrowing needed items. Rent props if you can. Trade, swap and barter with other film folk for needed gear. Augment sets rather than build them. Often one key item is all that is needed to define a space. Detailed props can go a long way to establishing verisimilitude.

15. Cash-only Spending

Don’t go into massive debt on your credit cards. Sell your treasures for money to spend on your film. Don’t borrow money and end up with crippling interest rates and payments. Don’t rent or purchase gear you don’t need. Return wardrobe, props and other onscreen items for department store cash refund as applicable (and legally possible).

16. Food & Gas

Food, gas and locations will be your biggest expense. Feed people well or it all falls apart.

Pizza is not an option. Healthy, energy laden meals are essential. Cases of bottled water and an industrial strength coffee machine are essential items. Reimburse actors and crew gas money always. Make sure that you have a film team that recognizes you care. Have Vegan, Veggie, and allergy free food for all. Check if your team are allergic to specific items. Feed everyone on a regular basis or pay the price. Make that one person’s sole responsibility.

17. Record Costs and Taxes

Always know your “hot costs” – how much you’ve spent to date and what you have to spend next. Have a check book, a debit card and cash in your pocket for day-to-day expenses. Be prepared to cut a check on the fly or pay off a location shakedown if necessary. Just make sure you keep a list of your film expenses.

18. Build A Following

In the good old days (pre-YouTube era) filmmakers would submit their films to a series of film festivals and tour with their film building the hype for their film until they received sufficient distribution offers to finance their next project. By making and touring film after film, a filmmaker was able to build up a loyal fan base which would guarantee them and their producers a predictable revenue stream.

The explosion of social media has changed the landscape and created two types of filmmakers: those who loathe and abhor social media, and those who embrace it.

Contemporary filmmakers can use social media to create a following of people eager to sample and appreciate their latest work. Astute filmmakers employ two producers: one who deals with the traditional production work flow, and one who deals with social media.

A first step for any filmmaker is to register the domain name for their production company and film title, as well as Facebook and Twitter profiles. Often these are sold on to eventual distributors, as was the case with Paranormal Activity.

One way to build a following is to attend industry events.

A great way to build your list is to comment on relevant articles, like this one. You can comment below.

19. There’s No Such Thing As Luck

Luck is earned through a combination of hard work and karma. If you maintain your integrity and your passion, success will surely visit you.

It’s easy to spend money in the wrong places when shooting your own film. Any attempt to look like a “professional” must be avoided as that usually means you are spending money in all the wrong places. Concentrate on what you are getting onscreen and the most cost efficient ways to do that.

20. Are You a Filmmaker, a Content Provider or a Communicator?

Whatever your goals are, remember that you need to decide what it is you are doing.

Filmmakers make films and hope to cruise the festival route until they are discovered and become festival darlings.

Content providers are professional filmmakers who deliver movies whether dramatic, corporate or documentary at a price per minute.
Communicators are filmmakers and content providers who have something to say using the power of moving images with excellent sound, well crafted stories and good sound tracks. Communicators will also consider a host of different mediums including short two and three minute episodes for mobiles (mobisodes) or internet (webisodes). Gaming and phone apps also provide interesting storytelling possibilities with a host of different strategies for monetizing current content being debated around the world.

 

DIY filmmaking doesn’t have to be bare bones brutal. By planning, prepping, watching every penny and being flexible enough to deal with the everyday perils, you can be an efficient microcinema unit. On all my pictures, we eat well, trust one another and there are no surprises as we know well in advance what to expect and what our responsibilities are. Your job is to communicate, to collaborate and to care for your team and it will pay off onscreen every time.

Sources: Raindance, IndieWire

For more blogs on similar topics, check our category Filmmaking.

Related posts