Not long ago I released a podcast outlining my recommended 6 month schedule for taking a micro-budget feature from concept to completion, and many of you wrote in afterwards with great follow up questions on the process as a whole.
With that in mind, today I’m going to outline my approach here in written form and expand things in more detail. So let’s jump right in, starting with a look at why 6 months is the sweet spot for many micro-budget productions…
BENEFITTING FROM TIME LIMITATIONS
I’ve always been a big believer in the power of constraints and limitations when it comes to the creative process, and there is perhaps no better constraint than time. I almost always deliver better creative results when working under pressure, specifically when I just barely have enough time to get something done, and I’ve heard this sentiment echoed countless times by friends and colleagues of mine that work in creative fields.
When we have a limited amount of time to get anything done, we tend to work off of instinct. We don’t have time to second guess every decision we make, procrastinate, or lose momentum. Instead, we tap into our intuition and even our subconscious, ultimately allowing us to get our creative ideas out into the world with minimal interference.
That’s really the essence of this 6 month schedule.
Many people would consider it crazy to go through every stage of the filmmaking process – from concept to script to production to post – in only 6 months. And I can’t argue that for many film projects it would be a crazy idea, or even reckless.
But we’re talking about making micro-budget films here, not Hollywood tentpoles, and most micro-budget filmmakers share one common goal: To complete a strong feature and leverage it to further their careers and unleash new opportunities.
If this is the goal, then why not expedite the process? Why not reap the benefits of working off of instinct under time constraints, while also having something to show for it within only months of starting the process?
Some filmmakers spend years trying to raise funds for an ambitious project that ends up dying development hell, when they could have directed several micro-budget features during the same time. Even if it took 2 or 3 films until a filmmaker was able to truly find success with any of their projects, they would still ultimately be way ahead of where they would be if they spent years developing a single project that never got off the ground. They also would have spent a lot more time actually working, and honing their voice in the process.
So with that in mind, it’s important to recognize that my breakdown below is certainly not meant as a blanket approach for all budget levels. It is specifically geared towards the micro-budget filmmaker that is ready to tackle a feature and thrives off of positive pressure.
Here we go –
THE WRITING PROCESS (2 MONTHS)
It’s worth pointing out that the one part of the creative process that I am not including in the 6 month schedule is coming up with the basic idea, premise, or concept of the film.
This very first step is so crucial, and without a strong concept that is truly executable within the constraints of a micro budget production, the rest of the process is at risk of failure.
It’s ultimately up to you to know when you have an idea that is ready to go. You may already have one now, or you may spend months a deciding on what to move forward with. Either way is okay, as long as the idea that you pick can be done within your means and is something you truly believe in.
In other words, don’t make a movie just to make a movie. Do it because you genuinely have something to say, and truly feel that it’s a story that needs to be told. Remember that even though you may be able to complete a feature in just 6 months, you will spend months (or years) afterward living with the film at festivals, throughout the distribution process, and beyond. So make sure it’s the right idea!
Once you have your idea down though, it’s time to move fast. Starting with the first month, where you will spend 1-2 weeks outlining your film (in treatment or beat sheet format, whatever your prefer), before spending the remaining 2-3 weeks writing your first draft.
I know 2 – 3 weeks for a first draft sounds like nothing, but consider that the whole point of this exercise is to move quickly and work off of instinct. It’s okay if it’s not perfect right away. It’s okay if there are spelling mistakes or grammatical issues. After all, this script isn’t your end game. This isn’t the type of script that should take a year to write (although many screenplays could and should take that long). It’s simply a blue print that will take you through to production.
By spending a couple hours a day, aiming to write in and around 5 pages each session, finishing a first pass – or what some might call a vomit draft – in this window is realistic. Especially considering that your script should only be 80-90 pages to make it more feasible for production.
Moving into the second month of the writing phase, your main focus should be on revisions. If you’ve written your script with specific actors in mind, this is a perfect time to do a table read and work through dialogue issues. This is also the window of time that you can use to clean up story issues, inject new ideas, and make other revisions based on feedback from anyone willing to read your work that you trust to give you good notes.
At the end of this second month, your screenplay should be much closer to being ready to shoot, but it still doesn’t yet need to be perfect. There will continue to be opportunities to revise and tweak it over the course of the next phase –
PRE-PRODUCTION (1 MONTH)
This schedule allows for exactly 1 month of pre-pro, during which everything not yet in place, including: casting, crewing, locations, rehearsals and gear prep, must be taken care of.
If you’ve picked a story idea that is truly conducive to the micro-budget format, and have reflected those intentions in the screenplay too, your work during this phase should be achievable in the 4 weeks allotted. This of course is because you would have likely written in minimal locations, a small cast, and avoided scenes that would require complicated logistics.
Even sill, there is no denying that pre-producing your film in just a month will be challenging no matter what, but it can be done. I did it on my feature Shadows on the Road, and while it was a crazy month, in the end I wouldn’t have done it any other way. There’s something about a tight timeline that truly gives other collaborators a sense of urgency, and that equates to less time wasted negotiating with cast, crew, location owners, rental houses, or anyone else that may need to be motivated to make a critical decision to come on board. It’s now or never.
All that said, I still recommend making this month easier on yourself by pre-emptively taking steps in earlier months to lighten the workload during this phase. For instance if you were to write your film around actors you know and trust, that will mitigate time that would otherwise need to be spent casting, and perhaps even rehearsing. Similarly, if you’ve written around locations you have access to, and crafted scenes that don’t call for specialty gear/crew, your overall workload will be that much lighter.
PRODUCTION (2 WEEKS)
One of the shortest phases of the 6 month process is production, which takes place over the course of 2 weeks, give or take. How you choose to schedule out these 2 weeks is of course completely up to you, and highly dependent on the needs of your project… But as a general rule of thumb, a 2 week window is an optimal amount of time to allocate to productions of this scale.
I recommend referencing my 12 day micro-budget filmmaking schedule, and modifying it as you see fit. This schedule is built around my philosophy of shooting relatively short days, and increasing time off in between each break from production to allow everyone on board to recover and maintain stamina, since production often gets more challenging as it nears the finish line.
It also goes without saying that before stepping into production you should identify every possible efficiency. For instance in the case of my feature, I opted to shoot with primarily natural light and a handheld camera in order to minimize downtime on set. I also chose to work with a cast and crew that I was familiar with, as that created a certain shorthand that allowed the days to run on schedule for the most part.
PICTURE EDIT (2 MONTHS)
Once again, we step into the post-production phase with a very ambitious schedule that calls for a picture lock in only 2 months. I recommend approaching this phase much like the writing phase, in that the first month should be focused on a basic assembly edit, and the second on polishing.
In order to stay on track with this timeline, I highly recommend doing whatever you can during the other stages of the process to ensure no time is wasted once you get into the editing room.
For instance, ensuring you have a high quality audio feed running straight into your camera during all takes while shooting, or jam syncing your camera and audio recorder to allow for easy syncing in post are just a couple of easy ways to minimize time normally allocated to prepping your edit session.
The goal is to be able to actually start editing as soon as possible, so whether that means having an assistant editor log your footage as you shoot (if you can afford it), or shooting your scenes with minimal coverage, do whatever possible on set to make things simple for yourself in post without sacrificing the quality of your work.
Once you get going, set aggressive targets to ensure you are cutting enough minutes per day to allow you to reach a basic assembly after your first month or so. If possible, aim to screen this assembly cut with temp (or final) music cues to trusted friends or colleagues about halfway through the picture editing phase. A quick test screening with some honest feedback can go a long way as you get closer to a picture lock, which you will ideally arrive at by the end of this 2 month window.
FINISHING (2 WEEKS)
Finishing is of course any post production work that takes place after a picture lock, including color correction and audio mixing. Clearly 2 weeks is a very, very short timeframe to get all of this done, however if you have enough collaborators on board with the project, you can be working on all phases of finishing in tandem, which will ultimately help you reach the finish line in just a couple of weeks.
You could always take longer with finishing if you need to, but there are some big advantages to working this quickly that can’t be overlooked. The biggest being your ability to work with professionals who will be more open to collaborating with you if the time commitment is minimal.
In other words, for the same money you might spend on an amateur colorist for 3 weeks of work, you may be ale to spend on a senior colorist for just a week. And in this single week, you will likely get more creative bang for your back as you are working with someone who really knows their stuff, and can potentially deliver superior results in much less time.
Once this 2 week period is up, you’ve officially reached home plate. You went from concept to completion in 6 months, and you’ve done what most filmmakers never do – you’ve actually made a feature.
That’s not to say you can’t ever go back in and perfect your audio mix, or make adjustments to color… You may still feel some minor tweaking needs to be done even after this 6 months is up, and that’s totally fine! But at the very least you will have a version that is extremely close to completion (if not all the way there), that can be sent out to festivals and propel you to your next project.