There are two possible scenarios when you decide to make a DIY / micro-budget feature film.
Either the minimalistic approach to production becomes your greatest asset or your greatest liability.
Obviously I am a huge proponent of DIY filmmaking, and have seen the benefits of embracing minimalism first hand. But I’ve also seen the pitfalls.
Attempting to produce a low / no-budget feature film as if it were fully funded is always a mistake.
There are never enough resources, and the finished product always looks like a failed attempt to execute a vision that is clearly beyond the scope of the production.
The best remedy for this is a great script that is written with your own resources in mind. We’ve all heard that advice a thousand times, and it’s still as valid as ever.
But it doesn’t end with the script.
The way you set up your production is just as critical – if not even more critical – than how you have engineered the screenplay.
With that in mind, here are a few of the ways you can approach production to ensure a successful outcome:
Aim For 8 – 10 Hour Days
Most film productions shoot for 12 hours / day, often going into over time and shooting 14 hours or more.
Personally, I’m not a fan of unnecessarily long shoot days – even on larger budget productions.
Some producers think pushing cast and crew to the limits every day is the best way to squeeze every dollar out of their budget. But I would definitely disagree.
If you are self-producing a movie, one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself is shorter shoot days. Even if it means you need to schedule an extra few days to make it happen.
On my most recent feature film, we had some days that were shot out in as little as 6 – 7 hours. And in many cases those days resulted in some of my favorite scenes in the movie.
But more importantly, it created a more sustainable environment. By keeping the days short, we could shoot more material over a longer period of time, and no one was worked to the bone.
Keep the crew < 5 people
As many of you may know, on my last feature film I was the sole crew member. That might be too extreme for some, but it taught me a very valuable lesson –
The smaller your crew, the more manageable your production becomes.
But that comes with a big caveat:
Any hired crew you bring on must be able to function as jack of all trades.
Unlike on larger productions where you want specialists on your team, on a smaller production you want generalists. Everyone is inevitably going to have to wear multiple hats.
The goal is to hire crew members who can perform multiple duties, and thrive in that environment.
Like a makeup artist who can also double as a production designer. Or a DP who can also light and pull their own focus.
Most crew members won’t want to work this way, and that’s perfectly understandable. It’s not the traditional way to produce.
But if you can surround yourself with 3 – 5 artists who are skilled in multiple areas and open minded to a different type of production, you can create the environment needed for great work to come out of.
I’ve shot multiple films sequentially now, and it’s always benefitted the production in obvious ways.
This definitely goes against the “rules” that are typically followed in big budget filmmaking, where it’s all about maximizing efficiency and shooting out locations / actors as quickly as possible.
But on a DIY movie that’s been written with sequential shooting in mind, it can be a massive benefit.
From a creative standpoint, it gives yourself and the actors the opportunity to let the story evolve as you shoot it. If you come up with new ideas on the fly, they can be integrated easily without negatively impacting what’s already been shot.
But there are logistical benefits too. Namely, continuity becomes so much easier because you aren’t jumping around between story days and having to ensure wardrobe changes, hair, props, and other elements are consistent.
You don’t necessarily have to shoot your entire movie sequentially, if it doesn’t make sense for your given script or your access to locations.
But at the very least, you can try to shoot chunks of the movie / large sequences in order, to make things easier on yourself and your team.
Work with natural / available light
I’ve talked a lot about my use of natural light on my last feature film, and how it was one of the keys to our film’s success.
Shooting without traditional lighting sped up our workflow more than any other decision, while also creating a unique aesthetic that worked well for the narrative.
The goal on a DIY production is to eliminate downtime as much as possible. And on most film sets, the day gets eaten up with 20 – 30 minute turnarounds in between scenes to re-set the lighting.
Shooting with natural light means you can change setups in as little as 2 -3 minutes. Basically as long as it takes you to pick up the tripod and reframe the next shot.
Some projects may prefer to use traditional lighting for creative purposes, which is perfectly fine too. But I would advise against using anything beyond the barest of essentials.
Even a single LED panel can go a long way in giving you a more “lit” aesthetic, so resist the urge to scale up your lighting kit unnecessarily.
More lights = slower days on set.
Avoid shooting >3 days back to back
On my first feature film, I scheduled the entire production back to back (with almost no time off) and it was definitely a mistake.
Without having downtime in between shoot days, I found myself very stressed out, and pushed to the limit both on set and off.
When you lack resources, you need time to make up the difference. Giving yourself breaks in between shoot dates to re-calibrate, problem solve, and plan for what’s next, will make all the difference.
My general rule of thumb is to avoid shooting more than 3 days back to back without a break (if I am self-producing). This makes the process far more manageable, because I can plan each shooting block as if it’s a short film.
At the end of each 3 day window, I’ll have at least 2 days off (sometimes much more) to review what we’ve done, see what’s working, solve any issues, pivot, and come back even stronger.
It can be tempting to want to shoot everything back to back, just to know you are keeping the momentum up and reaching the finish line that much faster.
But from my experience, it’s always better to treat it like a marathon, pace yourself, and not rush the process.
Hopefully this was helpful for those of your with feature films on the horizon…