When it comes to making a micro-budget feature film, speed is often your friend. But just how quickly can you actually make a feature film?
Hollywood features are shot over the course of many months, and most larger indie films take 20 – 30 days to produce.
On the micro-budget end, the timeline starts to shrink. True DIY features are commonly shot in as little as 9 days (like my last film) or 12 – 15 days (like my first feature) depending on the crew setup.
While that may sound like the bare minimum needed to pull off a feature production, films have been shot in even fewer days, with great creative and commercial results.
Due to budgetary constraints, scheduling issues, and other factors, a select few filmmakers have dared to schedule productions in as little as 2 days, with many others clocking in at 4 days or 8 days.
Most people are floored when they first hear of any filmmaker pulling off a feature in that tight of a timeframe. After all, it is almost unheard of.
But not entirely unheard of.
It has been done, and in some cases done quite well.
These kinds of features have made money, found audiences, and launched careers. Not all of them of course, but the few that have are incredibly inspiring. It’s amazing to see how much can be done with so little.
If you’ve been considering shooting a low budget feature very quickly to make it affordable, this article is for you.
Below I have compiled three of my original articles originally published on my weekly newsletter, which I highly recommend you sign up for here.
Each article covers a different production schedule length: 2 Day, 4 Day, 8 Day.
These articles are not exact blueprints for your feature film, since every film will have nuanced creative and logistical needs.
Rather, they showcase examples of films or filmmakers that have pulled off the seemingly impossible, along with my perspective on how you can follow suit.
Hopefully this helps you determine the pros/cons of each production setup, and whether one may be a good fit for your next film.
The 2 Day Feature Film Production
Or how Roger Corman shot feature films in as little as 2 days…
I’ve always been fascinated by filmmakers who can produce incredible work even under intense time constraints. And no one has ever done it better than Roger Corman, who shot his most famous feature film – Little Shop Of Horrors – in just 2 days back in 1960.
At the time, Roger had just wrapped up another film, A Bucket Of Blood, which was shot on standing set on the studio lot.
The set was about to be demolished, but in the few days in between picture wrap and the set being taken down, Roger figured – why not just shoot another movie while the set is still up?
He had already shot many of his movies in as little as 5 or 6 days, the vast majority of which were profitable.
So if anyone could pull off a successful feature in 2 days, it would be him. And as history has showed us, clearly the experiment was a massive success. It was even re-made as a much larger Hollywood film in 1986 –
Roger and his team took three days to rehearse the film on set, and then two days to shoot it before the sets were town down.
This resulted in arguably his most famous work – a film that has cemented itself in cinematic history with its cult-like status.
There are a lot of lessons in this for independent filmmakers, not the least of which is the feasibility of creating a great movie with a highly restricted set of resources.
Too often filmmakers avoid making their movie because they’re waiting for the perfect time. They want more money or a better camera package or the ability to shoot over 2 months instead of 2 weeks.
Most of the time, these filmmakers are simply fearful. They don’t want to step up to the plate and fail, and believe a Hollywood-level production is the only chance they have of making a great movie.
But as the studio system has clearly taught us, more money can’t necessarily buy you a good movie. It’s always a gamble.
This is why Roger was all about quantity. He wasn’t overly precious with his work, or with any one single project. He simply aimed to make as many great films as he could (several hundred to date), and in turn diversified his ability to make a profit with that body of work.
He accomplished this type of scale not just by working quickly, but by creating incredible efficiencies – namely by recycling sets and crew members.
Commonly he would get funding to produce/direct one single movie, but would secretly shoot a second feature on his off-days using the same cast and crew. Almost always, he’d get two movies for the price of one.
Not every filmmaker can work this way (or would even want to), but we can all be inspired by this sort of tenacity and overall perspective.
While other aspiring filmmakers were trying to break into the studio system unsuccessfully, Roger took a different path. He broke the rules, made movies in highly unconventional ways, and created his own ecosystem.
His 2 day feature film (Little Shop Of Horrors) was a complete experiment – A bet that Roger could pull off a full length film in practically no time…
It wasn’t overthought or over-planned. It wasn’t supposed to be a masterpiece or a cult classic – it was simply created. And the rest is history.
That said, it only was what it was because of how Corman pulled it together. He maximized his resources by:
- Maintaining a single location production
- Keeping cast minimal
- Working with cast/crew he had a shorthand with
- Shooting on an existing production set
- Rehearsing extensively beforehand
- Shooting minimal takes
- Capturing limited coverage
Films of this nature are usually approached more like theater than cinema. Often contained to a single location, they can read (and be rehearsed) like stage plays. Once the actors know their lines and the crew know where to be, it’s just a matter of rolling camera and sound.
Remember though, the fewer shoot days you have the more prep work you should be prepared to put in. Those looking to produce a film in 2 days have their work cut out for them in pre-pro and post, but under the right circumstances it can be a viable option.
The 4 Day Feature Film Production
Believe it or not, numerous feature films have been shot in 4 days, many of which have had successful festival runs and even launched directing careers.
Joe Swanberg is a perfect case and point. A renowned filmmaker who has shot dozens of ultra micro-budget features, famously pulling off 4 day productions on select feature projects.
Here’s an image from Autoerotic, one of the 6 features he made in 2011 using this type of setup –
These small, quick-turnaround films allowed Swanberg to refine his craft as a filmmaker, build a network of fans and collaborators, and eventually move on to bigger budget productions – like Drinking Buddies, starring Olivia Wilde, Jake Johnson, and Anna Kendrick.
But why would someone choose to shoot a film in 4 days, even if it is possible?
Usually it comes to budgetary constraints.
Many of us (like Swanberg) have a goal of making feature film, but simply don’t have the time or money to shoot across 12 – 15 days like most other micro-budget productions.
In this scenario, we often abandon the feature idea and shoot a short film instead. After all, with a couple thousand bucks and a few days to shoot, it’s possible to make a really great short without killing yourself in the process.
But if your goal really is to make a feature film, sometimes pivoting to a short isn’t the best path. Sometimes your best bet is to think outside the box and figure out how to shoot using unconventional tactics – like a 4 day production window.
It goes without saying though, that not all micro-budget films are suitable for a 4 day schedule…
Every micro-budget feature needs to be written with scheduling and logistics in mind. Especially when your target is 4 days.
A script for a 4 day feature film shoot should typically contain a maximum of 2 locations with no company moves on any day. It should have minimal characters, sparse dialogue with room to improvise, and ideally a setting that can utilize natural or practical lighting.
If you can come up with a strong idea that meets those criteria (and better yet uses those parameters to enhance the story and bring about originality), you might just be on to something.
And don’t forget to keep the page count down.
I would recommend writing a script in the range of 80 pages.
If you go much shorter you’ll end up with a really low runtime, especially if you end cutting a lot in the editing room. But much longer (say 90 pages or above) can be problematic too, as you’ll have too much material to shoot each day.
Even at 80 pages, you are shooting 20 pages a day – which is insane!
This means that you will likely need to shoot the majority of your scenes as masters (with no coverage), or you will have a b-camera there with you to shoot cross-coverage. It will also mean that you will only have 1 or 2 takes for each setup, and virtually no downtime in between setups.
In order for this to work, you need to prep the film to death. Almost as much as you would on a 2 day feature.
Rehearsing extensively with your actors heavily beforehand is crucial, as there will be little (if any) time to tweak performances as you go.
If you are using any lighting at all – even if you’re using practicals – you will want to pre-light your set so you can hit the ground running on the day. And most importantly, you want to “pre-edit” the film in your mind before you shoot.
With only 1 or 2 takes per shot, you need to get it right the first time around. You need to know exactly what to capture, and effectively pre-visualize the cut in your mind before you ever step on set. This will help you trim the fat and will allow you to actually execute those 20 pages in a single day.
Micro-budget filmmaking is all about breaking the rules of how movies should be made, and using the limited resources we have to make something amazing. This applies equally to films shot with $50,000 on a 15 day schedule, or $1000 on a 4 day schedule.
So if you really want to make a feature, and you only have the time and resources to pull off a 4 day production, don’t rule it out just yet. It will be a wild ride, a stressful journey, and an insane experience across the board, but it also might just launch your career.
The 8 Day Feature Film Production
Now let’s turn to the 8 day feature film schedule, which offers one of the most straightforward formulas for production on the micro-budget level.
In many ways, this is the formula I would recommend to the majority of DIY/micro-budget filmmakers who are making their first feature. It’s the perfect happy medium.
Even well budgeted indie productions (like Locke with Tom Hardy) have been produced in 8 days for good reason –
Some filmmakers get tempted by the shorter 4 day schedule, assuming that fewer days will lighten the workload. But a 4 day schedule leaves practically no room for error. If one scene goes off the rails, the whole production can crumble down.
This doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted of course, but you need to be somewhat experienced to work with such little margin of error.
For a first time filmmaker, having extra days to compensate for unexpected hurdles is a good thing. This is why I often recommend aiming for an 8 day schedule as a starting point.
Not to say that shooting in 8 days is a lot (it’s still nothing!), but it’s certainly more manageable than a 4 day schedule, and likely more affordable than a 12 day schedule, just as an example.
Like any micro-budget feature though, an 8 day production can only be pulled off with the right screenplay.
I’ve written at length on my blog about the writing process, and often suggest that micro-budget filmmakers base their screenplays around 40 beats (or scenes). Most films have 4 acts (Act 1, 2A, 2B, 3), which means each act should consist of exactly 10 scenes.
This makes the math relatively simple when it comes to scheduling an 8 day shoot.
Assuming your screenplay generally adheres to the guidelines above, you will be shooting 5 scenes per day. That translates to one act every 2 days.
Ideally all of your scenes should average out to be around the same length (1 – 3 minutes), with some exceptions, so that every day is somewhat uniform.
If you aim to shoot 5 scenes every day, but one of those days includes 3 scenes that are each 7 minutes long, you’re in trouble! So to make this work, each scene has to be relatively close in duration.
Or at the very least, each half of an act should be approximately the same length, since you are essentially shooting half an act (5 scenes) every day.
It’s okay if one of those 5 scenes is 15 seconds and one is 6 minutes, as long as the sum of every scene you shoot on a given day is roughly equal to 10 minutes of total screen time.
From a logistical point of view, this makes things really easy, allowing you to break down your script into bite sized chunks. And in many ways, this kind of process resembles a short film production (just expanded upon), which is much more familiar territory for most filmmakers.
An 8 day schedule could even be approached as a series of weekend projects over the course of a month. You could shoot 2 production days every weekend, and in 4 weeks you’ll have a full length feature is in the can.
Spreading the 8 days out over the course of a month has other advantages too.
For one, it can make it far easier to call in favors with locations, cast, or crew. Asking someone to help you out by donating a location or working at a reduced rate for 12 days straight is not very enticing. But asking them to pitch in over a weekend? Much easier.
You can also engineer your screenplay so that each act takes place in a different location.
Maybe weekend #1 you’re shooting at your home. #2 you use a friend’s office, #3 you’re in an Air BnB (with permission of course!) and #4 could be an exterior guerrilla shoot.
Thinking of each weekend as it’s own mini-production will not only make things more feasible logistically, but it will likely make the film more dynamic too.
This will obviously put some constraints on the writing process, but in my opinion that’s a great thing, as limitations are the best friend of creativity.
Not to mention, if you have 5 days off in between each shooting block, that’s a whole lot of time to review your footage, re-write material (if needed) for the next weekend, and even get a head start on editing.
These are just a few of the ways than 8 day schedule – spread out over a month – can offer one of the easiest entry points for filmmakers looking to crack their first or second feature. It’s not going to be a perfect formula for every idea, but for those that can work with these parameters it will open up a tremendous amount of potential.