filmmaking hacks

A Guide to Getting Your First Film Made (On The Cheap)

Alright, so you’ve just graduated and you’re eager to make your first feature film. And you’re broke. Let’s just assume everyone reading this is broke. Where do you go from here?

Here are some tips to help you get started on your quest to create your own low-budget feature film, outside of the comfort of school:

Rule #1: Make a List of Everything You Have

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So you have a script written, but you need actors, a cinematographer, editor, costumes, craft services, and maybe even a director.

We all know that filmmaking is expensive, but if you’re a first-time filmmaker on a shoestring budget you’re far from a Hollywood level of production quality. So take some time to make a list of all the locations, equipment, actors, crew members, or props you might already have access to for little or no costs at all.

See if any of your friends have time or tools. Got a camera? That’s somewhere to start! And once you’ve made a list of everything you have that you can make a film with, that leaves…

Rule #2: Make a List of Everything You Need

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Reverse budgeting works: figure out what or who you need. That’s all a budget is. Now, itemize everything and everyone on that list. Do your research. Figure out how much you’re able to get for cheap or zilch.

There are three ways people pay for the budgeted line items:

  • pay now (cold-hard cash)
  • pay later (deferred payment based on profits made from the film)
  • pay through product placement (sometimes referred to as “in kind,” or the “you scratch my back/I scratch yours” deal).

Rule #3: Locations Are Expensive

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Ever wonder why so many low-budget movies seem to take place in just one location? Rodrigo Cortés’s “Buried.” Steven Knight’s “Locke.” Steve McQueen’s “Hunger.” Michael Snow’s utterly sublime Wavelength. Even Barry Jenkin’s Oscar-winning film “Moonlight,” with a story that takes place throughout many decades in a character’s life, only has a handful of on-screen set locations throughout.

Every time you add a location to your story, you add in more costs and even more time. Keep that in mind when budgeting. Always remember your paperwork too. Paperwork is super important.

Rule #4: Sound is King

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You may be fretting about whether you have the most streamlined, high-tech, newest and hottest camera on the market for your first film project, but we’ll let you in on a little secret: Having good sound is equally important.

Just look at any documentary to see how good-quality audio can make a professional difference. You can find more creative solutions to shoot compelling visuals with a cheaper camera or very little lighting equipment, but audiences will be far less forgiving if your audio is impossible to listen to.

Rule #5: Have the Rights to the Music

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If you know someone who can do your soundtrack, if you can hire someone for cheap, or if you can make music yourself, go that route for sure.

But definitely, definitely do not use music that you have no rights to.

There are so many urban myths surrounding fair use laws and licensing, but the simple truth is that you can’t use anyone else’s music effects or soundtrack without their permission. Charles Burnett’s “The Killer of Sheep” wasn’t released for nearly 30 years for this very reason.

Get permission in writing if you can.

Rule #6: Thinking On Your Feet Is Okay

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If you went to film school or made some short films in the past, you’re probably well aware that it is often the case that things don’t go as planned when on set or in the editing room.

You may have spent months or even years writing the perfectly crafted script or creating storyboards and shot lists that are detailed to the teeth, but all of that is likely to change any given minute you spend on set. Let’s be real: problems happen all. the. time.

All legendary filmmakers have had to deal with this. What is their secret? They see these “problems” as creative opportunities. And as most film junkies know, some of the best scenes in movie history were completely improvised.

Rule #7: Marketing

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For most filmmakers, this is the hardest part. You’ve spent sweat, blood and tears making your baby, and now you need to deliver it to the people.

The toughest part after your film is made is getting people to care. We wish there was a catch-all tip for marketing indie movies, but there isn’t. However, we will say that marketing is something you need to be thinking of from day one, when you first begin writing the script. Throughout the process, reach out to professionals and hire a professional if you can.

What is your best advice for first-time feature filmmakers? Let us know in the comments below! And learn more about filmmaking at the New York Film Academy.

 

10 Tips for Making More Polished Student Films

Let’s be honest: Many student filmmakers don’t have the time, money, or knowledge to produce a film of professional quality. Students at the New York Film Academy have access to high quality camera, lighting and sound gear, but it never hurts to know a few extra tips and tricks to create a more polished looking film on a shoestring budget.

Check out these student film hacks, below:

1. For Static Shots: Get yourself a tripod. Seriously. When you need a shot to be static, having a rock steady tripod really makes a difference.

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2. For Moving Shots: Build a homemade dolly. Get your hands on a couple of PVC pipes, fasten some tiny wheels (like from your old skateboard) to a wooden plank and you have yourself a homemade dolly on the cheap.

3. For Smooth Handheld Shots: Can’t afford a steadicam? Build your own. Homemade steadicams can be surprisingly affordable.

4. Work with Natural Light: It’s been said by many professional cinematographers that the best lighting is provided by nature. Just check out the stunning work of cinematographer Nestor Almendros on “Days of Heaven,” for which he won an Academy Award. All it requires is the discipline and patience to be at the right place at the right time of day.

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5. Work with Practical Lights: Practicals are the actual lamps and lighting fixtures found on location. As much as we would all like to use professional lighting units, that’s not something a shoestring budget usually allows for. But a well-placed practical not only creates a natural lighting effect, but gives you the added flexibility of turning the light on and off during the shot. In addition, cheap dimmers can be purchased at almost any hardware store and will allow you to creatively set the light intensity you want. If you’re shooting indoors, check out how available lamps look on screen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S_50Yy1vDT8

6. Diffused Lighting: Naked bulbs are perfect when you want hard-edged shadows, like a basement scene in a horror film. But if you’re looking for softer lighting, there are a number of inexpensive products that can replace the need for expensive gels. Wax paper and frosted shower curtains are just two examples. These items are not only cheap, they’re lightweight, can be cut into any size you need, and are easily disposable when you’re done.

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7. Sculpting and Shaping Light: One of the keys to lighting well is sculpting and shaping the light. On professional movie sets, this is done with a grip kit. Grip kits contain flags, nets, silks and scrims — expensive tools used for this purpose. But with a little ingenuity, cheap substitutes can be found. Here are just two examples: When you need to block light from part of the set, black poster board can be cut and bent into any shape you need. It has the added advantage of being lightweight, enabling you to hang it in place with painters or gaffers tape. And aluminum foil can be wrapped around a light to focus it into a spotlight or even a pinhole of light.

8. Balancing Colored Light Sources: When mixing daylight with artificial light, the results can sometimes look unprofessional because daylight is bluish (colder), while lamp light is more red (warmer), and fluorescent lights tend to be green. You may like this fruit salad of color, but if you want a more professional look you’ll want the color of your light sources to match. One way to achieve this is to replace all the light bulbs with daylight-balanced bulbs. You can purchase these at a lighting supply store but less expensive versions can often be found at supermarkets and drug stores.

9. Everything Looks Good in Black and White: This may be more of a opinion-based tip, but even with the noisiest, grainiest, lowest quality of video cameras, black and white can act as a last-minute savior! Black and white will also cure problems of mismatched color from your lighting sources.

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10. Cheap Lighting Effects: Need your actors to look like they are being lit by a TV screen or a fireplace? These effects can be easily produced with some inexpensive supplies. Randomly moving a piece of black poster board in front of a soft source of light can reproduce the intermittent flickering of a TV screen. The traditional method is to put a piece of blue gel over the light.

Similarly, by taping strips of orange gel to a broomstick and then gently waving it in front of a soft source of light, you can reproduce the flickering of a fireplace. In both cases, sound effects can go a long way to enhance the effect. Until you have the resources and funds available to get your hands on the gear the pros use, these hacks will do the trick.

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By the way, it isn’t just student filmmakers who can benefit from these tips — low budget and indie filmmaker have used these low-budget techniques for decades. And don’t let these tips be the end of your experimentation: With a little imagination and ingenuity, you can come up with all kinds of startling effects.

Ready to learn more about filmmaking? Check out the New York Film Academy’s programs in filmmaking.