Those of you that follow my Sunday newsletter (micro-budget weekly), know how much I love DIY filmmaking. In many respects, it’s the only type of filmmaking that has ever made sense to me – at least artistically – as it allows for maximum creative control over the final product, with fewer restrictions along the way.
But of course, that creative benefit comes at a price – literally. While less money can “buy you” creative control, it limits the scope of your project, meaning everyone on set (yourself included) works ten times harder. This in turn, spreads everyone on set very thin and can be detrimental not only to the experience of making the film, but to the finished product too.
As I’m currently in negotiations with distributors for my recent micro-budget feature, Shadows On The Road, I’ve had a lot of time to think back on my process, and the lessons learned along the way.
I did my best to distill those lessons into a series of short, fundamental guidelines, that I hope will be beneficial to those of you making content right now.
So without further ado…
1. WRITE AS IF YOU HAVE NO BUDGET
One of the biggest mistakes made by filmmakers when working in the micro-budget realm, is attempting to execute an idea that just can’t work without money. Not every film can or should be made as a micro-budget indie. Some scripts simply require funding, and trying to execute huge technical ideas with limited resources is almost always a bad idea.
Don’t get me wrong, I am all for making your no-budget movie look like it was shot with a million bucks. That should always be the goal. But what you don’t want, is to make your million dollar idea look like a no-budget indie.
If the DNA of your film can’t work within the constraints of a micro-budget, you would almost certainly be better off picking another idea entirely. An action film that calls for a cast of 40 and locations across the globe is probably not going to look all the great if it’s shot with friends for a couple thousand bucks.
A contained thriller on the other hand, might work perfectly well thanks to it’s far more limited scope.
My recommendation, when you’re at the earliest stages of development for your feature is to aim for zero. Pretend you have no money at all. Force yourself to think outside the box, and figure out what story you would tell if you had to work with nothing. How could you still make it interesting? Where could you shoot it? Who could you cast?
If this sounds like a severe creative limitation – it is. And that’s the point. Boxing yourself in to this extreme can actually be incredibly liberating creatively, and can spark truly original concepts. And just as importantly, from a practical standpoint, it will allow you to spend your budget far more wisely, and put more money up on the screen.
2. LIMIT THE STORY’S TIMEFRAME
One way to simplify your production requirements while simultaneously increasing your story’s intensity, is to shorten the timeframe of the narrative. To illustrate the point, consider the logistics required to produce a biopic –
Assuming you are following your main character over the course of his or her entire life, you would need multiple actors to play that character for each stage in their life, period accurate wardrobe/props/locations, and more moving parts in virtually every department. Not to mention, you would likely have to write in a higher volume of scenes, since you are trying to show so many years in this person’s life.
Clearly the biopic is not a genre suited to the micro-budget world, just based on the timeframe alone… But on the other end of the spectrum are stories that take place in real time, or close to it, and can be optimal for smaller productions.
While not a micro-budget film itself, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise shows us just how mesmerizing it can be to watch two people wander around and talk for two hours. Great characters, strong acting, and beautiful dialogue can go a very long way – no bells and whistles required. But in part, what makes the Before trilogy work so brilliantly, is it’s use of limited time…
Shorter time periods make every small incident that a character experiences more important. In Agnes Varda’s Cleo From 5 To 7 we follow a pop singer who has just gotten a biopsy, and needs to wait for 2 hours before she gets her test results back. The entire film takes place in that little sliver of time, and given the context, everything she experiences in those two hours is riveting.
Not every micro-budget film needs to take place in real time, or even over the course of a single day. But at the very least, they should all strive to be as economical (story-wise) as possible, to maximize creative potential without letting the scope get out of hand.
On a side note, I love thinking about shortening timelines as a part of my creative process. Whenever I have a concept in mind (micro-budget or not), I always like to consider – What is the absolute shortest amount of time I can use to tell this story? Is it possible to say everything I need to about this character by just capturing a single day of their lives? If so, what day is it, and how do we make it not only truthful, but also entertaining?
3. WORK IN GENRE
I will never tell anyone what genre to work in (or not), but there is no denying that certain genres – notably thriller, horror and sci-fi – work particularly well within the constraints of a micro-budget. Some of the best genre films ever made probably wouldn’t have the same charm with bigger budgets, so this is one area where micro-budget productions can thrive.
For an obvious reference, consider Paranormal Activity – or any film in the found footage genre for that matter. These films work because of their low-fi production value, not in spite of it. The fact that they don’t look like “movies”, is the whole point.
Now, I’m not suggesting all micro-budget films need to intentionally have low-production value. That would go against everything this site is about! And I’m certainly not suggesting the world needs that many more found footage movies…
But my point is genre films have a lot more leeway with audiences when it comes to budget. A thriller with a cast of unknown actors set in a single location is going to have a much easier time gaining traction (and sales) than a drama that’s been produced under the same circumstances. It’s just how the market is right now.
Look no further than Primer by Shane Carruth as an example. His micro-budget sci-fi feature was shot for a meager $7000, but that didn’t stop it from winning the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2004…
I don’t mean to imply your micro-budget film absolutely must be genre. If you don’t like horror or sci-fi, don’t make one! But at the very least, if you are going to make a micro-budget drama, know what you’re up against. Know there are more hurdles along the way. Know your casting needs to be impeccable, and your story needs to truly be bold.
Your awareness of the uphill battle will push you to fight harder, and an even stronger film might emerge as a result.
4. ONE LOCATION, TWO ACTORS, FIVE CREW
The oldest advice in the book when it comes to micro-budget filmmaking is: Shoot everything in a single location. Which is almost always followed by: Keep your cast and crew to a minimum.
Both suggestions clearly hold a lot of weight, and when followed can help make your project a reality faster.
A single location saves you time and money in virtually every department. It’s not just the obvious benefits, like minimizing location scouts, company moves, etc. But the hidden benefits too – Easier coordination with cast/crew, and more fluidity on set as the days go on, thanks to a familiar environment.
By the same token, keeping your cast to a minimum has the same benefit. I would go so far as to suggest limiting your main cast to two, which will not only save you money, but will also make the process more logistically sound. Fewer people on set is almost always better, especially on a micro-budget indie.
With regards to crew, I highly recommend keeping your team at 5 people or fewer – including yourself. It’s incredible how efficient a crew of 5 can be, particularly when everyone on set is an expert in their field. I’ve written about this at length in this article, outlining why I believe most micro-budget crews should consist strictly of: Director, Producer/AD, Cinematographer, Location Sound, and Production Designer.
Crews of this scale require double duty from everyone – including actors who need to apply their own makeup, and the DPs who are their own G&E team. But it’s what is often necessarily to keep your overall footprint to a minimum, and save you the time and money needed to make your film a reality.
All of this needs to be a consideration from the get go – as early as the concept phase – as most fully fleshed out screenplays can’t be paired down to one location and two characters, and still work as-is. In some cases, you might be able to extract a part of a finished script, such as a sequence or a relationship, and then build that out using these parameters. But most of the time, to really get it right, the one location/two actors rule should be considered from inception.
5. SHOOT 8 – 10 DAYS
Some micro-budget features have been made is as little as a single day (crazy, right?). Others have been shot over many months… But most find their sweet spot right around the 8 – 10 day range. There’s something about a schedule of that length that affords many DIY films just enough time to get it in the can, while still keeping the project’s (minuscule) budget in check.
You might assume that shooting a feature in even fewer days (let’s say 3 or 4), would be even more cost effective… Because logically, less days = less cost. But that’s not really accurate, as it doesn’t take into account a whole host of other variables. For example –
If you need to shoot 20 – 30 pages per day, you have no time to refine performances, tweak camera placement, or adjust sound on set. For most projects, that’s just not going to cut it, as it can lead to some major issues down the line.
Technical mistakes will need to be solved in post, re-shoots or pickups may be required if the performances suffered, poor audio due to rushing could require ADR… and the list goes on. Whatever problems pop up along the way, they will certainly be both costly and frustrating. For most filmmakers, an extra couple of days on set would be the better option.
There is no one size fits all approach to scheduling for any feature. However, where micro-budget filmmaking is concerned, 8 – 10 days is often an optimal goal. The pace of the schedule allows for fewer pages to be shot per day (9 – 10), but not so many extra days that the projects loses efficiency.
On Shadows On The Road, we shot for 12 days (plus a couple of pickup days), but in retrospect we could have shot longer days and captured everything in 10, if not fewer. Next time around, I will certainly be shooting with a more aggressive schedule, and only adding days when absolutely mandatory.
6. AUDIO MUST COME FIRST
It’s been said many times, but I’ll repeat it here for good measure: It’s better to have poor visuals and flawless audio, than gorgeous imagery and horrible sound.
You should always strive to capture best images possible, but an equal (or greater) emphasis needs to be placed on the audio department. Sounds accounts for more than 50% of the movie going experience, which is why a poor audio track will destroy your film faster than bad cinematography… Audiences just have no tolerance for bad sound.
I would have to assume that more independent films are rejected from festivals, distributors, and buyers, based on poor audio quality than any other factor. At least that’s what I’ve picked up over the years from festival programmers, sales agents, and other professionals that I’ve come across.
But audience perception aside, your entire process will be negatively affected when you don’t prioritize sound.
Neglecting audio on set inevitably means you’ll need to spend more time in ProTools fixing your mistakes… Which is never entirely possible. If you’ve hired an audio editor, you are now spending more money on additional hours, days, or weeks on their time, simply because the audio wasn’t recorded properly. And you’ll likely need some ADR too, which again is another time commitment and expense.
Whether you’re working with a dedicated sound recordist, or you are running audio yourself – there is little room for error. You don’t need the highest end audio equipment to record theatrical sound, all you need is great technique and attention to detail. So make it a priority and succeed where so many indie films don’t.
7. USE THE CAMERA YOU HAVE
Besides entertaining the audience, anyone making a movie for little to no money has one goal: Make it look professional. This is why we all tend to obsess over camera choice, and lust after the most expensive toys on the market.
And in many respects, there’s nothing wrong with that. After all – why shouldn’t we all want the best for our films? If we know an Arri Alexa looks better than our iPhone, why wouldn’t we do everything in our power to shoot on one? Or at the very least, why not rig up a more affordable cinema camera or DSLR to create a similar look?
Maybe we should. But maybe we’re not taking everything into account when deciding what camera to shoot on, as there are so many other considerations that matter just as much as image quality. And I’m not just talking about cost…
You have to take into account the ergonomics, media requirements, camera weight, rigging, and a thousand other things that all affect your process. All of these considerations require your time and attention, which are in very short supply as you’re in the thick of producing your movie.
If you happen to own a cinema camera that you’re completely familiar with it, by all means shoot your film with it. But if you find yourself struggling to put together the funds, crew, or resources needed to shoot on your dream camera – forget it.
Chances are, you already have a camera far greater than some films that premiered at Sundance and Cannes. That may be a DSLR, or it may even be an iPhone… Whatever the case, it’s could likely be the right tool for the job. Not just because you own it and you’re familiar with it, but also because smaller, less professional gear can be more creatively liberating.
Filmmakers like Stephen Soderbergh are now shooting on iPhones, not because they’re cheap, but because they can be the right choice. They’re less invasive, allow for more freedom in some ways, a much faster pace, and a specific look. And for some filmmakers (even those with $1MM+ budgets), it’s the camera they choose.
Making a feature takes a tremendous amount of effort and willpower. You need to reserve as much of that as possible for the aspects that live or die by the attention you put into them… That includes the camera department, but is not limited to it. So, shoot on the best camera you can, but avoid wasting time, effort, or money, chasing Alexas down a rabbit hole.
8. EMBRACE CREATIVE LIMITATIONS
Most of what we’ve discussed so far involves limitations. Whether we’re talking about budgetary constraints, scaling back cast/crew, minimizing locations, shortening the time frame – it’s all about working within a very limited scope.
But that doesn’t mean your ideas need to be stifled. In fact, it should be the very opposite. I’ve written in the past about directors that have all the resources in the world, but still actively seek out ways to use limitations to enhance their projects. They may choose to shoot an entire feature film on a single lens, or create a rule that every scene needs to be shot from the POV of one specific character.
Limitations are our best friends as creatives, and in the case of micro-budget filmmaking, there are no shortage of limitations to work with.
From concept development onward, every limitation needs to be identified, and seen as an opportunity to think outside the box, and do more with less.
The best creative ideas often come from having to solve tough problems… The tougher the problem, the better the solution needs to be. So when you’re challenged by the limited scope of your project, just remember – the solutions you come up with will strengthen your film, and will be the very thing that makes it unique.
9. ALWAYS BREAK ONE RULE
I’ve outlined a lot of “rules” here, or guidelines as I’d like to think of them… But my last rule, in a sense, is to always break one rule.
If you don’t follow the vast majority of advice on this list, and you try to make a feature film for little or no money, you will probably have a very, very hard time… If the film ever gets made. Trust me – I know from experience, falling on my face and learning these lessons the hard way!
But at the same time, filmmaking isn’t supposed to be easy. And I’m a firm believer that every micro-budget feature could benefit from breaking at least one of the rules I’ve outlined above, so long as the rest are followed.
For instance, maybe your film is shot entirely in one location, takes place over a single night, and is written with genre in mind… But you want to have a cast of 20, not 2.
If that’s what your story really needs and you can pull that off, more power to you. It will certainly add logistical challenges (and costs) to your production, but if the film wouldn’t be the same without a large cast, then it may just be worth breaking that rule.
On my feature film Shadows On The Road, I broke the location rule. We shot in a different location every day, which is a far cry from the “shoot everything in one place” mantra. That was by far the most difficult aspect of the project, and a choice that at times, I kicked myself for making. But in the end, it actually added a lot of production value to the project, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Don’t break all the rules, because some of them will help you. But don’t marry yourself to any one of them either.