The Zero-Budget Filmmaker's Checklist

The first challenge of independent filmmaking is always finding the budget to do what you want to do. Unless you happen to have a few angel investors in your pocket, you’re going to be faced with some difficult decisions when it comes time to start filming.

What separates successful low-budget filmmakers from failed hobbyists is creativity, willingness to learn a variety of skills, and recognizing which things can be cut without hurting the final product. If you’ve got an MFA in Film you probably have a keen eye for this already, but the time will come when you’ll need to put theory into practice with very little money.

To help focus your efforts on what really matters, we’re proud to present something that should be on every filmmakers’ bookmark list:

The Zero-Budget Filmmaker’s Checklist

In general, aside from technology and location, the biggest expenses in making your film will be hiring professional services. The more of these things you’re willing to learn to do on your own, the more money you can save. On the other hand, becoming a “jack of all trades” filmmaker can stretch you too thin, and certain things really deserve to be done by a professional.

filmmaking no budget

By all means, spend some time researching every aspect of film, from writing to lighting, makeup, sound, and even acting. The more you know about these things, the more easily you’ll be able to identify a professional who really knows his business from a cheap amateur who’ll leave you with an inferior product. Along the way, if you find anything that you’re really good at doing, you can work on polishing those skills.

“Must Haves” for Any Film Project

In any project, there are the things that would be nice to accomplish, and the things that are absolutely vital to the success of the film. Recognizing those categories early on is the most important thing you can do to keep your film within budget.

Here are a few things you can often afford to trim:

  • Multiple cameras. While covering a scene from multiple angles sounds like a great idea, it’s often more trouble than it’s worth. In fact, shooting with just one camera cuts back on a lot of headaches: You don’t have to worry about synching sound, adjusting white balance, worrying about consistency or training multiple cameramen. Whether you’re behind the single camera or you hire someone to handle it, it’s so much simpler to shoot with just one, and using a single camera enables you to spend a bit more money on buying a really nice one.

Multiple cameras filmmaking

  • Special effects. The easiest way to keep your movie affordable is to start with a quiet script that doesn’t call for many effects. Even if you’re shooting an action movie or horror film, though, you can work around many expensive effects. Don’t discount the value of off-camera violence and easy camera tricks instead of pricey CGI.

visual effects on a budget

  • Film. Format doesn’t matter. Shooting film won’t make you more artistic – it will just bleed out your wallet and limit you to the amount of footage you can afford to shoot. Unless you happen to have a high-end camera and a stockpile of film already, buy a decent digital camera and get on with your life.

film reel shooting celluloid

In general, these are a few things that you cannot afford to cut corners on:

  • Sound quality. Poor sound will stop a movie dead in its tracks, and it can be impossible to repair sound in post. Check your sound frequently and re-shoot or record anything that needs fixing immediately so you don’t risk having to scrap everything due to unusable sound.

sound editing

  • Lighting. This is one of those things that you never notice until it’s done wrong. Bad lighting can ruin a shot and screams “amateur” to anyone who watches it. Keep your budget low by sticking with simple lighting choices if you must, but don’t scrimp on the necessary equipment.

Lighting filmmaking

  • Quality talent. Your actors are the thing that the audience will be paying the most attention to, and it’s worth the investment to find good ones. An excellent performance will often redeem an otherwise mediocre film, which gives you some leeway in case other things don’t go as planned.

MFA filmmaking

Bear in mind that you don’t necessarily need high-cost professional actors to get a good performance – newly-graduated students fresh out of acting school are a great source for exceptional yet affordable talent, as long as you don’t mind the extra time it takes to separate the wheat from the chaff.

In addition, one of your greatest skills as a director needs to be coaxing a performance out of your actors. In fact, this may be the single most important thing you can do for your film. Take some time to study live theatre and see how stage directors and actors interact; take cues from this to help you get the most out of your own cast’s performance. In the long run, becoming an “actor’s director” will help you make better movies – and earn you a positive reputation among actors who will be eager to help you on your next project.

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