A Guide To Low Budget Filmmaking: Part I

Although making films are what I love to do, just like many other up-and-coming filmmakers, me and my bank account have a very tense love-hate relationship when it comes to financing my film aspirations. So I thought I would make a guide that all of you aspiring Spielberg’s out there can reference before you outstretch your bank account, and your dreams.

First, let me give you a little backstory on my own production experiences.

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I produced my first film in 2016 while in college. Later that Fall semester, I traveled to Brooklyn, NY with right-hand production engineer Gary Murray to shoot another short film starring my fellow film enthusiasts from college Dylan Murphy and Matt DeTitta. Throughout my final semester of college I also produced a couple other projects for friends looking for a cameraman. Since then, I’ve written, produced, directed, and consulted on over a dozen projects through UpStream Productions and freelance work.

Also after college is when I really learned the concept of low budget filmmaking. I have produced a Pilot (Tenants) and a feature that ended up a short due to budget restraints. All in all, I have spent less than $10,000 total on all productions combined. And if you ask me, the amount of time put into each project far exceeded the monetary investment.

With that said, let’s start with the most rudimentary element of any film – the budget.

BUDGET

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Once you have decided on a concept and are ready to begin writing the script, the first thing you should do is figure out how much it’s going to cost you. That means everything. From equipment, props, wardrobe, makeup, location or permit fees, and travel arrangements when applicable – just to name a few things you should have on your checklist.

In a nutshell, the budget of your project should include every expense you foresee as a necessity in making and promoting the film.

Typically, the budget has two classifications – principal and background. The principal budget consists of every vital piece used to produce the film and will be the higher dollar amount in comparison to the background budget. So principal actor salaries (anyone with a speaking role), equipment and location expenses, special effects, etc would all fall under the principal budget. The background budget would include expenses for extras, supplementary crew members, and anything else having to do with the background production of the film.

Unless you’re working on a studio project, the principal budget will be your primary focus for finding financiers… which brings me to my next point.

Where to find the money for your budget.

FINANCIERS

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You know when you’re watching the credits at the end of a movie and you see all those names listed as “Executive Producer”? Yeah, those are the big wigs with deep pockets that financed the film.

Of course, working on a low budget project, you most likely won’t find an executive producer outside of yourself or granny.

With this in mind, make sure you have a realistic outlook on what you plan to shoot and what you are actually able to shoot. For example, if you live in Wisconsin and your project is about a guy lost in the Amazon, you are probably going to have a hard time finding anywhere that looks like the Amazon in that region. Instead, alter the concept to something like a guy lost in the Siberian wilderness or frozen tundra of Antarctica to ease the stress of finding an appealing location. 

As a writer, I myself have made the mistake of getting lost in the most gripping storyline that I overlook the reality of the filmmaking process. It is a tedious one, and going into it without a firm grasp on knowing exactly what to shoot will make for an insurmountable headache accompanied by overbearing stress.

This leads me to the next topic of this Part I guide to low budget filmmaking – planning.

PLANNING

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Like legendary Steelers coach Chuck Noll said, “Pressure is only what you feel when you don’t know what you’re doing.” And if you don’t know what you’re doing when the cameras are ready to roll on the first day of production, you’re definitely going to be under a lot of pressure.

I have come to the realization of being able to effectively coordinate time and people in the same location is essential to running a smooth production. However, this is no easy task when you are working with cast and crew members that most likely are not getting paid.

The best way to get everyone on the same page is by providing a thorough script, holding a read-through of the script with all cast and crew, and altering the script to cater to location accessibility prior to the start date of production.

Notice, I said the word script a lot there, and for good reason.

The script is the backbone of every low, medium, and high dollar project. If the script is not good, your cast will surely not give a good performance. If the script is too long, you surely will exhaust yourself trying to wrap up production. And if the script calls for unattainable locations and special effects, your script is surely to be impossible to shoot.

Notice, I said the word surely a lot there – that’s because a shitty script will surely deliver a shitty film.

It can be difficult to write a script for a low budget film if you despise the realm of print, but do not let this stop you from writing the script yourself. A good rule of thumb when writing a screenplay you plan to produce is to make sure your scene locations are easy to access. If your script calls for a space you end up having to rent, be sure to check the rates of all the places that would suffice.

All in all, when it comes to planning, stick to the script. It’s your production rubric, and without it, you’re sure to fail.

Next, a little pace never hurt anybody, did it?

PACING

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Of course it didn’t! Keeping a steady pace throughout is essential to ensuring you get everything done you set out to get done. A good way to stay in tune with pace is always accounting for the amount of sunlight remaining in the day. This may sound elementary when it comes to keeping tabs on time, but it’s extremely important to every production.

Light is essential to filmmaking and the position of the sun never lies. Also, the amount of natural light available is a good gauge on how much artificial light will need to be positioned for each scene. And if you’ve ever been on a production set with artificial lighting, you can attest to the amount of time a crew can waste on adjusting light from scene to scene. However, keep time and the use of artificial lighting in realistic perspective. You’re most likely not shooting the second-coming of “Lincoln”, so try and set up for the upcoming scene while the current scene is being shot. 

Another principal to keep in mind when it comes to pacing is – work smart, not hard.

Improvisation will be required – I guarantee it. Whether it be in pre-production or when cameras are rolling, there is going to be something you need to change on the fly. Don’t panic. Don’t get frustrated. It’s all a part of producing a film on a low budget.

You never know, you just might save a couple dollars and shoot an even better scene by switching things up on the fly.

WRAP-UP

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My final tip in this guide is to be mindful of the cast and crew you are working with.

From my personal experiences, I always recommend choosing a production crew who are people that share the same passion and vision for the film as you. It also helps to have at least one other designated producer present to run background or handle the technical side of things. Regardless, producer or not, you should make sure to have a “brain”, or someone knowledgable about equipment on hands at all times.

A proven technician will save you a lot of time, and if you can also find a skilled gaffer, your production is already on the road to stardom. But I will divulge more into the depths of cameras and other equipment for low budget filmmaking in the second part of this guide.

For now, it’s time to try your hand at a script and begin planning your production, just make sure to keep it all within the realm of possibility, and you might just find this whole filming for cheap thing comes a lot easier than anticipated.

Happy Filming!