How To Make A Micro Budget Film

Here are a few very important things to keep in mind if you want to make a film on a small budget.  The first thing I would say is seriously consider thinking about breaking a feature up into 8 sequences or mini movies. In other words you could film 8 shorts and tie them together to make a feature. Sequencing has been done in some of the best films such as pulp fiction and toy story. In the end it all depends on the script. If you have a great story to tell the quality becomes a lot less important. As long as the sound is decent there will be a lot of forgiveness.

  1. do it yourself. if you don’t have money then you can’t pay people and if you have people working for free ask yourself is that fair. Making a movie involves a lot of hard work. You can’t expect all that hard work for nothing. Even trading a back end won’t deliver the kind of motivation needed. If your directing run the camera. Use a mic on the camera or mount it. you can do that stuff yourself. Especially if you are filming a series of shorts. Use your cell phone camera film during the day or use natural lighting. Learn how to edit video yourself. even for small budget films trust me. you can’t hire someone on a small pay scale to edit a movie and do a good job. I would say this also.  If you are doing it yourself and not paying actors. You probably don’t have money to feed them. Keep the days short. You can get there early and setup and have everything ready to go for when the actor gets on set. The actor arrives you do a rehearsal or two and some blocking and start filming.  Lets do some math. 90 minute feature film. 8 mini movies is 12 minutes each. That translates to 12 pages. Let’s say you do 3 pages a day. That means each short movie would be only 4 days of filming. That’s two weekends in a row. With an entire week to edit and get preproduction ironed out. Get one mini movie right before you go on to film the rest of the film.
  2. locations. This is something that is a big cost driver on small budget films. On a million dollar budget. You could easily spend $500 day on a location. write and pick locations that you can use with out spending money. If you film at home be sure your significant other understands what that means. Note that when a location is free you might only get one day and on day two your no longer welcome. So write the script accordingly.  also keep sound in mind. noisy locations require looping and lots of folly in post. Be sure you know how do do that if it’s required. test the sound edits before filming.
  3. Food. unfortunately the film industry has a habit of 12 hour days. In fact I have on many occasions worked 16 hour days. Try doing that with no fuel. It doesn’t work. This is why food is generally included on film sets. Now lets imagine you film from noon to six pm. After lunch and end before dinner. Then you can get away without food. I would recommend water. gallon bottles even and dixie cups won’t break the bank. Some snacks are nice. Even a bag of apples or some bananas go a long way to refuel. If you can’t afford food. Be clear before you start. Also recognize meal times and don’t film during them. Even filming from 7pm to midnight. You can get away without food. Just let them know that it’s not provided.
  4. shooting schedules. If you have short shifts you get people rested and with energy. Keep in mind work and school requirements.  Weekend filming is a good way to go. Just don’t expect people to commit to multiple weekends in a row without pay. Adding a week day night shoot for a few hours works for most people with full time jobs. It allows them to squeeze filmmaking into their lives without losing their job or going broke. I also recommend having a separate one page contract that actors sign agreeing to a reshoot day at some time in the near future. You can do a rough edit and figure out what needs to be reshot. Be sure they know this is required up front. When you tell them there is no food.  Give them all the bad news at once up front. Get a commitment.When you write your script think about how many shooting days each character will require. Split it up from conception in the script to limit the commitment. If the lead is in every page or even 90% of the film. 90% of 90 pages is 81 pages. If you are filming 3 pages per shift that requires over three weeks of days from a specific person who isn’t getting paid.  Good luck completing your film under those conditions. If you have an actor in half your film then you better cast your best friend or blood relative or your significant other.
  5. Extras. Don’t do it. Don’t have scenes that need a ton of extras. If you are not paying for the day then good luck finding 10 people to work as extras. Even if you tap your friend list. My prediction is you won’t get 10 people on the same day.
  6. Hair makeup and wardrobe. Keep the clothes simple.  Think James Dean and white t-shirt and jeans. You might want to hit a thrift store and have the actors change out of the clothes and keep them with the rest of the props and equipment. Otherwise things disappear. In fact it’s always a good idea to have two especially if you need them for a number of filming days. Hair and makeup can be an issue. Makeup people take forever and can blow through a large part of your six hour filming shift. They also cost money because they have to buy makeup and brushes to do the makeup.  If you can cast a few female leads and costars that are capable of doing their own makeup and arriving to set ready to go you will save yourself a ton of time and money.  Keep in mind that makeup consistency can be an issue so keep it simple.  If you are filming over a long period of time be sure your actors with long hair commit to keeping it that way until the film is finished.
  7. Pay. In an ideal world you would have enough money to hire sag actors. They get paid daily from their first day on set until their last. It’s usually not as expensive as you would think but in order to get a SAG release for their ultra low budget contract you need insurance which can be expensive. If your not using an actor with a name that will sell movie tickets you shouldn’t be paying them. I know it sucks to say this but they gain experience and footage for their reel. I usually agree to give them a copy of all the raw footage and a release for them to use it for their reel for free. The nice thing about filming a feature as a bunch of mini short films is that you can also promise to provide them with a short film in a reasonable amount of time. My suggestion would be to get them that short in 30 days after filming ends. That will motivate them to show up for reshoots. A nice thing to do is provide favored nations status for all actors. This means a flat rate for everyone that compensates them for some gas money. Even $25 for the short won’t break the bank and will go a long way to getting cooperation.
  8. Props. My suggestion is not to write props into the script. You don’t have a budget for an art department or a prop master. Props can add expense and create logistical problems. Only write props or art design into the story if you are sure you have it already or can create it easy. I wrote a scene in a horror movie that a lock was supposed to be opened by a ghost. I had to buy locks and it took forever and in the end it looked terrible.  Keep it simple. Be creative and come up with other ways to telling the story without having to buy props.
  9. Characters. Think about each mini movie as having one lead and don’t require them to be in all the other mini movies. The idea situation would be 8 actors. One stars in one mini movie and has a few cameos in the others.I think most serious actors could commit to 8 short shifts over a period of two or three months. If you film 3 pages per day that would translate into 24 minutes of screen time per actor. Finding 8 quality actors who will work for free and actually have some ability to perform is a tough task. Keep that in mind.
  10. Idiot mistakes. Here are the common mistakes that idiots make on their first films when they have no money. Camera dolly or pans. Night  shots that require a lot of lights. Lots of dialogue outside. Filming a story that requires a child, animal, gun, FX or fancy CGI stuff that is done in post. Period movies with lots of art design. Fire is another stupid thing. Car chases or any scenes that take place in a car because it’s not safe to drive and act.