One of the most common questions I get relating to producing micro-budget films is: How big of a crew should I have on my feature film?
Another version of this question is: Who are the most essential crew members to have on my micro-budget production?
Of course there is no easy answer to either of these questions, as every production has different requirements both creatively and logistically. With that said though, having directed and produced many micro-budget films in the past, I have come up with a breakdown of my ideal 5 person crew that I use as a starting point when crewing up any project of this scale… It is designed to be a baseline to work from, and is then augmented as needed based on the specifics of the project at hand.
Micro-budget films – which by my definition are films that are shot for anything from $1000 to $50,000 – often fall into one of these categories when it comes to crew size:
- 1 – 2 Crew Members
- 5 – 7 Crew Members
- 15+ Crew Members
On the ultra micro-budget side, you have the 1 – 2 person crews, which almost always consist of a director/DP/producer rolled into one, and perhaps a sound recordist/co-producer/co-writer as the second member. While it is extremely challenging to produce any film like this, it can be done… That is, so long as the script allows for a certain level of tactical freedom while filming. The most famous example of this is Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi.
On the opposite end of the spectrum there are the “higher end” micro-budget films with budgets upwards of $50K. In many cases, these productions are treated very much in the same way as larger productions (often with crew sizes of around 15), but are simply scaled back in terms of shooting days, locations, and cast in order to come in on budget. While this is certainly a viable option for some, from my perspective a lot of money and time can be unnecessarily wasted when dealing with this large of a crew on such a small budget.
It goes without saying that every single crew member from PA to DP is essential on any production, and no crew member should ever be seen as disposable. However, when money is an issue (and on a $50K it certainly is), sacrifices need to be made. On a ten day shoot for instance, the cost of feeding and paying a 15 person crew alone will eat up most of the budget. Not to mention, other costs go up too – locations fees, parking, transportation, expendables, etc. Ultimately this makes production more stressful and leaves less wiggle room to be creatively spontaneous. It works for some, but again – in my opinion – it’s not optimal.
And then there is the happy medium… The 5 – 7 person crew.
On most micro-budget features (let’s say those with budgets between $5000 – $50,000), this is the sweet spot. From my experience, a 5 person crew working on a micro-budget film can often get more done than a 15 person crew in the same day, largely for reasons I’ve already outlined above.
Less crew + less logistics = More time shooting and less time coordinating.
On a project with a larger budget of $100K – $250K+, a crew of 15 or more would be ideal… Certainly much more so than a skeleton crew of 5, as there is of course a breaking point where you need enough staff to handle the demands of your production. But the key is not to over-staff at the expense of your creative freedom.
So if you are directing or producing a micro-budget feature film right now, and want to keep your crew size to 5, here is how I recommend breaking it down:
Unless you are a producer reading this, this is probably you.
Much like the other crew members on this list, as the director you’ll be doing double or triple duty at all times… One of the big challenges I’ve encountered when directing micro-budget projects is juggling all of the many hats you need to wear (from PA to Producer), while still ensuring you are meeting your primary objective: Guiding your crew to work toward a singular creative vision.
It can be extremely psychologically taxing to try to balance all of the right-brain/left-brain tasks over the course of your shoot… But thankfully you do have one saving grace: Your 1st AD.
2. PRODUCER/1ST AD
Some of you will likely produce your own films (in addition to directing), while others will have a dedicated producer on board.
If you have a dedicated producer on board, this person will likely act as your 1st AD during production. If not (and if you’re producing yourself), then you absolutely need to go out and find the best 1st AD willing to work on your project. Your 1st AD will ensure your production stays on track, you get the shots you need, paperwork gets done, meals are served on time, and so much more. If you don’t have one, you are doing all of this yourself… And as I mentioned above it is exceptionally taxing to attempt to handle these types of tasks while also working in an intensely creative mind-frame.
Never skimp out in this department – you always need an AD!
It’s extremely tempting for directors to act as their own DP’s on micro-budget films. I know, because I’ve done it myself many times… And while it certainly can be done, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are shooting under very specific circumstances.
It’s one thing to be your own DP on a larger film, as you are somewhat sharing your responsibilities with other crew members: camera operators, G & E crew, and so on. But on a micro-budget film, if you are directing and DP’ing simultaneously, that means you are also spending a lot of time setting up your camera, dealing with the media, lighting your shots, moving grip gear around, and much more…
This almost always comes at the expense of spending time with your actors and with the rest of the crew. So in my opinion, unless you are shooting a film that requires very little lighting, has been impeccably well planned, and doesn’t call for a lot of handheld work, I would always suggest bringing a dedicated DP on board. And if you really want to shoot the film yourself, at the very least have one grip/gaffer and possibly a second operator with you to help pick up the slack.
4. LOCATION SOUND
It goes without saying that one of the most essential crew members on any production is the sound recordist, and there is no exception when it comes to micro-budget productions. Even on a 2 person crew, one of those two people needs to be a sound recordist, so even if you have the right gear and are well versed in audio recording, don’t even think about doing it yourself.
On a few rare occasions I have recorded my own audio – including on a recent pickup day for my feature and on a short film I directed about a year ago. These instances were the exception, not the rule, as I had no other choice due to logistical issues, cost, or other variables. Not to mention, even then I only let myself do it because these were single day shoots… I wouldn’t even consider entertaining the thought on a feature.
Location audio recording is an extremely technical job. The time, energy, and mental effort that it takes to set up/keep track of gear, and most of all monitor the recording throughout the shoot is highly demanding. It’s virtually impossible to do this well while also directing, so don’t go down that path!
5. PRODUCTION DESIGNER
I would argue that one of the biggest giveaways of micro-budget productions these days is poor production design.
Almost any accessible camera these days – from a low end DSLR to a mid level cinema camera – is capable of delivering beautiful images. The gap in quality (at least visually) between micro-budget films and big budget films is getting smaller and smaller every year, yet one of the few remaining giveaways of a micro-budget film is poor production design.
Many filmmakers mistakenly associate a production designer with much larger productions that require large sets to be built and dressed. But in the case of a micro-budget film, a production designer is often most effective when he or she is simply working with a small list of props & wardrobe, and existing set pieces already at real locations. It’s not that a massive amount of heavy lifting needs to be done, but rather that it should be someone’s sole responsibility to focus on the look of the production. Something as simple as swapping out a bottle of wine in the back of a shot for a carton of orange juice can make a huge difference… But if you don’t have a dedicated Production Designer on board, those things are likely to get missed.
The bottom line is the devil is in the details, and no one has your back when it comes to details more than a production designer.
While the 5 crew members listed above are what I consider to be the most critical roles to fill on a micro-budget production, that’s not to say that other positions (such as Makeup Artist, Grip/Gaffer, PA, etc.) aren’t all just essential in their own right…
At the top of this article, I listed this crew category as 5 – 7 people, not just 5 people. In some cases, 5 may suffice, and in those cases, I recommend going with the 5 listed above. But in other cases, you may have specialty requirements such as stunts, complicated lighting setups, or special effects that will call for additional crew members. Assuming you have your bases covered with your 5 core crew members, you should have enough wiggle room in your budget for an extra 1 – 2 crew members (at least on some days), which will ideally fill in any gaps in production that you may have.
If you feel like you would need significantly more people on board to bring your film to life, you might want to revisit your concept. See what changes would need to be done to simplify locations, cast, or other parameters to allow you to shoot with a smaller crew, as opposed to spreading yourself too thin.
What are your thoughts? Let me know what your ideal crew size/setup is in the comments below!
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