Go back even 30 years and the idea or concept of low-budget (or no-budget) filmmaking was kind of unheard of, revolutionary even. Yet now it has become very common in the indie filmmaking community – in fact, it may even be the best way of making a statement and launch your career!
Diamonds can only be made under extreme pressure, so whether it is out of choice or necessity, here are 7 low budget filmmaking tips for turning your compromises into ways of making the most of your situation:
- Story first, everything else second:
Before you even start production, you have a story. With a low-budget film, there are three things to consider about the script before starting; firstly, the story needs to not only be feasible on a small budget but also suit the budget, there is no point in trying to create a blockbuster on just £3000; secondly, the story needs to be optimised for your budget, you can always change scenes to reduce the budget but preserve its essence; thirdly, the story needs to be good, unlike huge big-budget films, it can’t hide behind special effects and an elaborate production design, doubly so because the audiences which watch low-budget films are usually more astute about films generally.
- Find cameras for cheap:
The cameras used by big studios are expensive. For example, the cost of the 8K RED Weapon, which has been used for Guardians of the Galaxy 2 and Gone Girl, can range from $49.500 to $79,500, with options of leasing it for less.
However, it is highly likely that you or someone you know owns a DSLR or mirrorless camera capable of shooting HD or even 4K. If not, the app and site Fat Lama allows you or others to rent their valuables for a nominal fee, allowing you to rent out a camera for the duration of the shoot, rather than splashing out and buying one.
Of course you main focus should be on how to best use the equipment you have, as no expensive camera can replace talent. Here are some of our articles with filmmaking tips and tricks to help:
- Choose to shoot in free locations
A key part of pre-production is in location scouting. If you’re restricted by cost, then you can adjust your script to be in free locations. Also, use your network! It is highly likely that someone may own just the right kind of house or land to shoot your scene. If outside, consider public locations.
- Use Natural Lighting
Lighting can get expensive, so you can cut costs, save time and reduce equipment needs by simply using natural light – whether that be the sun, moon, or streetlights. Look for locations outside, choose sunny days, and consider using darkness – it’s always cheaper to create darkness than to avoid it.
This is a classic among low budget filmmaking tips, and that is evident in the overall style of indie cinema – where there is an abundance of using natural soft light, and if done well it can look even better than studio lighting.
- Be over-prepared:
A very detailed production script and schedule will help cut costs by helping you foresee and avoid unnecessary costs. However, as with any film, there will be unforeseeable setbacks you can’t prepare for, and will undoubtedly face. Which is why the right approach is so important and will help you cut-down costs in the face of dilemmas; this can be fostered along by over-preparing for the project and by having the right emotional intelligence to make flexible decision-making.
- Share ‘your baby’ to cut costs
With personnel costs being the largest costs for indie film productions, this is where it may be best to cut costs. This isn’t to say sacrifice the quality of your film for the sake of money, but working on favours, goodwill, and mutual benefits, (i.e. making it a collaborative process) can be the best way of dramatically reducing your overhead costs.
If this is the route your go, put your pride to one side, whilst this film might be “your” baby, there is no shame in sharing as much credit as possible. This can even create a much greater sense of ownership for everyone involved, increasing the quality of the work produced.
- Don’t lose sight of why you are a filmmaker
And finally, this shouldn’t need reiterating, but in this incredibly tough industry, we often lose sight of why we even do it. You can have all the filmmaking tips and tricks in the world but get lost in it all and don’t forget to make your project fun, honest, and significant. You’re creating art, and it’s either a break from reality or a reflection of it. If you can keep that idea running through your production then it’ll make the entire collaborative process much more enjoyable, as well as help your crew give their 100%.
Your first feature will likely be made on a shoe-string budget, however, just like how some of the best meals are made in a pressure cooker, some of the best films are made under incredibly challenging circumstances – it seems to push out the best in everyone involved. Take these 10 low-budget films as an example; they pushed their directors to be smart and learn a lot from the whole process, leading them all into incredibly successful filmmaking careers.
Monsters (2010, UK)
Writer/Director: Gareth Edwards
Budget: £ 15,000 est.
With Monsters, writer and director Gareth Edwards both celebrated the forgotten film genre and created a monster movie “set years after most monster movies end”. The film follows a journalist and an American tourist as they try to make it back to safely the American border through an alien-infested Mexico. Just watching the trailer, you wouldn’t believe this film was shot on such a small budget.
Edwards demonstrates what you can achieve by being resourceful – driving your crew around different locations in a van and learning to use your laptop for editing and to create special effects. The specific budget is a rumour on the Internet: “around £15,000”. But even Edwards likely doesn’t know the exact amount. Nevertheless, it led the director to great things (we all know his latest feature is the Star Wars spin-off Rogue One).
Paranormal Activity (2009, USA)
Writer/Director: Oren Peli
When released, the film was marketed as “one of the scariest movies of all times”, and although the style has now been beaten like a dead horse, Paranormal Activity remains a fantastic film for its inventive use of two classic indie movie techniques: one location and handheld camera.
The film tells the story of a couple who move into a new suburban home only for a ‘paranormal’ presence to begin haunting their nights. Writer and director Oren Peli used his own house for this. Also eliminating the need for a camera crew by making the camera ‘diegetic’ (i.e. actually in the film), as the couple films their own hauntings and discussions – something that only increased the film’s believability. The film also focuses on the raw ‘scare factor’ rather than on gore and action. Thus working to contain the budget and establish empathy and a sense of “familiarity” with the audience.
The Blair Witch Project (1999, USA)
Writer/Director: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez
Most low budgets gather an audience based on word of mouth, but this film used the new and emerging technology of the Internet to create a viral campaign. This led many people to believe the events in the film to be true, as they portrayed it as a true documentary. The film grossed $248 million in the end, making it one of the films with the highest ratio of box office sales to production costs. It also managed to inspire a new wave of horror films, using handheld footage.
Pi (1998, USA)
Writer/Director: Darren Aronofsky
Pi tells the story of a quest to find the meaning of God through numbers. However perplexing the film is, it is masterly crafted and wonderfully filmed by ones of today’s most prominent art house directors, Darren Aronofsky. As the paranoia and obsession of the main character takes hold, the film follow suite, surging through mind-bending metaphors and sequences. Aronofsky, determined to see the project through, sold shares to his family and friends, which managed to fund a majority of the project.
Living in Oblivion (1995, USA)
Writer/Director: Tom DiCillo
This meta-film shows filmmakers that their struggles making a low-budget film could be so much worse. The film follows a director having to deal with intoxicated actors, script changes, and just about everything going wrong. Shot in only 16 days, and completely financed by the friends and family of DiCillo, goes to show that when you have a strong enough idea, everyone is willing to help out – the actors of the film even worked for free, and some in fact contributed to it initial funding.
Clerks (1994, USA)
Writer/Director: Kevin Smith
Clerks tells the story of a group of friends, set mostly in the humble setting of a convenience store. Crafting a script full of humour and witty dialogue, Kevin Smith chose to shoot his film in black and white to bring his writing to the foreground. Young and unenchanted college students and adults were drawn to this simple slacker comedy; it being a truer reflection of their own lives than any big blockbuster. Smith did everything he could to finance his film, from maxing out all of his credit cards to selling most of his comic book collection. The risk was worth it in the end. Since its debut in 1994, Clerks has led Kevin Smith to a extensive career in writing and filmmaking.
El Mariachi (1992, Mexico/USA)
Writer/Director: Robert Roderiguez
The lowest budget of this list is Robert Roderiguez’s pinnacle of independent film, El Mariachi, famed being funded by drug trials Roderiguez went through. The film follows a mariachi band player who is mistaken for an infamous Mexican criminal. In Roderiguez’s book, “Rebel Without A Crew,” he details how he was able to produce a film ‘without a crew’, explaining that, along with Roderiguez, the other actors in the film would operate the film equipment when they were off camera. The film’s ingenuity and creativity continues to be an inspiration for independent filmmakers.
Mad Max (1979, Australia)
Writer: George Miller and James McCausland
Director: George Miller
Budget: Australian $350,000
Hearing that a film can be made for less than half a million dollars, and go on to earn $100 million world wide, and spawn two sequels, is madness (unless you’re talking about Mad Max or Paranormal Activity, or The Blair Witch Project).
Set in a post-apocalyptic Australia, and focusing on the collapse of society helped to launch the careers of both lead actor Mel Gibson and director George Miller. Also helping to open up the global market to Australian film scene.
Eraserhead (1977, USA)
Writer/Director: DAVID LYNCH!
David Lynch’s debut feature sets an appropriate tone for his oeuvre, it being perplexing and revolting and fascinating, no matter how many times it is viewed. The story behind the film almost just has surprising; because of shoddy funding the film took about 5 years to complete filming. Lynch’s friends (like actress Sissy Spacek) and family helped to finance the remaining money not covered by the American Film Institute. But the long delay was well worth the wait as the film produced remains the most iconic “midnight movie”.
Aguirre: Wrath of God (1972, Germany)
Writer/Director: Werner Herzog
Conveniently chronological order has left the most incredible film until last, also made under likely the most incredible circumstances of any film – ever!
Werner Herzog wrote the script in only two and a half days, and whilst traveling on a bus with his football team. The film depicts a Heart of Darkness-esk story of the insane ‘Aguirre’ as he travels through South America. Just as life imitates arts, so too did the filming begin to become insane; the use of stunt men and special effects not in the budget; the crew had to deal with moving all the equipment around in the extreme heat and dangerous landscape of the jungle; and the temperamental main actor Klaus Kinski actually shot off the finger of an extra.
The film later inspired Apocalypse Now, which (yet again) famously suffered many disastrous setbacks.