As filmmakers, we all dream of being given the opportunity to direct a film with a big budget, unlimited resources, name actors, and a solid (and expensive) marketing and release plan. But those opportunities are never just handed to you. They’re earned. They’re earned by making film after film after film, turning a profit (hopefully) and steadily building up a body of work. Odds are, that first feature film you direct will have a limited budget of some kind: $200k, maybe $500k. Me? I had $6000 and a crew of four people. And the funny part is: I did it on purpose.
In January of 2013, inspired by a series of articles I read about Ed Burns making $10,000 features, I set out to do the same. After trying and failing to put together projects in the six-figure budget range, I had grown tired of not directing films. I was a filmmaker, not a speculator, so it was time to start putting that to action. I was going to make a film.
In May of this year, that film, LAYOVER, a French-language drama set in Los Angeles, had its World Premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival and was nominated for the New American Cinema Award. It was made for a budget of $6000 and shot on a Canon 5D. And now it’s available to buy through our own direct distribution at LayoverFilm.com. And since you’re reading this, you can use the following link to get $1 off the purchase price of the Layover DIY Bundle, which includes the film, commentary, interviews and more! https://gum.co/IZup/nyfa
Here are some things we learned making a film for no budget:
It Starts With the Story
When you’re making a film for $6000, you’re making a film that is all story and character, and it’s important to focus on those. What it doesn’t mean is that you have to make a film with two people in one location. LAYOVER is filled with a number of characters and locations all over the city. We were able to accomplish this for two reasons:
- Modular Storytelling. Think of a movie camera (film or digital, take your pick). At its most basic, it’s a lens and a camera body. However, because of how a camera is designed, you can add on extra items like a rails system, mattebox, follow focus, monitors, and gadgets of all kinds. But adding those things doesn’t change the fundamental nature of the camera itself: a body and a lens. And even if you can’t afford all those other add-ons, you can still use the camera.
The camera body and lens is your story. No matter how many things you add on to the story (locations, characters, set pieces, props, explosions) or take away, it doesn’t affect the fundamental nature of the story. Thus, you can still tell the same story at any budget level. The only thing that changes is the execution.
For LAYOVER, I knew the story I was telling could be told regardless of the scale of execution because I wrote it with the next point in mind:
- Writing Within Your Network. I wrote a film that took place within my network of resources. I knew I could get actors that spoke French, a motorcycle (I own it), houses, a club, plane tickets, a hotel room and more. Even if I didn’t know the specifics of say which club I could get, I knew I would get into one of them and make it work. Now, every filmmaker has different resources available to them. If your uncle owns a Ferrari dealership and is willing to loan you a car? Bam! You’ve got a Ferrari (added production value!) in your film. That’s writing within your network. Point is: don’t write a film about Jamaica in the 1860s (or anything in the distant past, unless you have a time travel machine), but don’t let the lack of money limit your creativity.
What this means for your no-budget film is that you can choose the props, locations, and elements that make up your story based on availability or how inexpensive they are, rather than whether they’re the perfect thing or not. You can choose the cheapest location that still works instead of blowing a ton of money on the only location that works (arbitrarily dictated by the script).
Select a Camera Best For Your Production, Not Just Budget
I’m sure we all want to shoot a film on the ARRI Alex and RED Epic. Who wouldn’t? They’re amazing cameras and 6K footage? Incredible. And you might find that you have access to one for a little to no cost – which is great on a limited budget. However, what a free camera doesn’t take into account are the other costs required to use the camera properly. In addition to more crew and camera accessories needed because these cameras can only go up to a certain ISO (800 or 1600) before the image starts to fall apart, you’ll have to bring in significant lighting and grip equipment, especially if you’re shooting at night. It’s not impossible to use on a limited budget, but I’m not convinced the increased resolution is worth the trade off.
We shot LAYOVER on the Canon 5D, and I’m not sure I could have used any other non-DSLR camera, save the Canon C series. We needed a camera that could shoot at a high ISO in order to take advantage of existing lighting. Because of the Canon 5D’s light sensitivity, we were able to set up our minimal lighting and get shooting as quickly as possible. We traded resolution and potentially limited takes and footage for a completely satisfactory 1080p resolution and plenty of time to get as many takes as we needed and capture a variety of coverage.
This also puts you in a position where pick-ups and re-shoots become doable. You won’t have to go out and re-rent a ton of equipment to pick something up. You can easily borrow a Canon 5D for a couple hours.
The other thing I’ve learned: audiences don’t really care. They want a good story. Potentially sacrificing story and performance for resolution isn’t worth it. Use what will help you deliver the best story not necessarily the highest picture quality.
Keep Your Crew Size Small
Big crews are fun and can help make it feel like you’re making a movie, but I find that most of the time they get in the way, especially when you’re having to move quickly or shoot guerilla style. For LAYOVER, our main crew consisted of four people, sometimes only three. It was myself, directing and operating the camera; Travis Oberlander, producing, AD’ing, doing whatever to help support the shoot; Vertel Scott, another producer who also ran sound; and finally, our director of photography William Wolffe (who incidentally is an alumnus of the New York Film Academy). On two occasions, we brought in extra help; but for 10 of the 12 days we shot, that was it.
As a result, we were able to move quickly and efficiently. We all pitched in when needed (even Karl E. Lander, one of our stars, was game to hold a light or help out if he could). This also helped us save on food costs. For some reason, a lot of people have asked me how we could afford to feed people on a $6000 budget. Well, when you have 6 or 7 people on set (crew plus cast), and Subway is on the menu, you’re only looking at $35/day. And because we were shooting nights (8pm to 4am), most people didn’t always want a meal. And because we were all friends and everyone was there because they wanted to be, it was easy. “Hey, do you want something to eat?” “No, I’m good.” We always made sure to ask or offer, but often the circumstances just didn’t require it.
Seek Out Emerging Technologies and Equipment
It goes without saying that sound is a huge part of whether your film will be successful or not, and I’ve always done what I could to get the highest quality sound whenever I could. Usually, a sound recordist is the first person I hire.
On LAYOVER, we decided early on to use a big chunk of our budget to pay for sound, but we had a hard time finding someone that would work with what we had available. We finally found someone, but his daily rate was more than we could afford. Without other options, we went ahead and hired him. After the first day, it was apparent that we weren’t going to be able to afford him throughout the production. We needed another option. Vertel (one of our producers) mentioned the H4N Zoom. I had used it before, unsuccessfully. In fact, it nearly ruined a production I was on, so I was immediately skeptical. But Vertel was confident it would be fine, and he was right. In fact, it was better than fine. Our sound mixer, upon hearing we recorded with the H4N Zoom, mentioned that our raw audio sound better than 90% of the stuff he gets from professional productions. So there you go.
One other thing regarding sound. I’ve learned over the years that lavs will give you the cleanest audio – at least, I prefer it to the sound of a shotgun mic. Either way, you’re best to be running more than one mic. We had a couple of situations where the rustling of clothing against the lav mic was saved by using the audio from the boom.
The idea here is put you in a position of removing the obstacles that typically prevent people from making a film: don’t have money, don’t have a RED camera, can’t get enough crew, etc. Do whatever you can to make a film. And then make another one. And another. And another…
Now that you’ve read about it, want to see what a $6000 feature looks like? Use the following link to get $1 off the DIY Bundle, which includes commentary, interviews and more! https://gum.co/IZup/nyfa
Joshua Caldwell is an accomplished director, writer, producer, and MTV Movie Award winner. He has worked with a number of high-profile producers, including CSI: creator Anthony E. Zuiker, for whom he produced CYBERGEDDON, the online global motion picture event for Yahoo!, and directed all of the film’s ancillary content for its immersive website. His award-winning short film DIG, starring Mark Margolis of BREAKING BAD, was featured in numerous film festivals, and his latest short RESIGNATION screened at Comic-Con. His debut feature film LAYOVER had its World Premiere at the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival where it was nominated for the New American Cinema Award and is now available at LayoverFilm.com. Follow him on Twitter @Joshua_Caldwell.