Friends don’t let friends make movies: A Simple Guide to Micro-Budget Filmmaking

1. Posters

      Make a poster before you shoot your film. You’ll be able to use this poster to pitch your project to everyone you talk to about the film. A poster makes your film feel like a real thing even though you have not shot it yet. You’ll be using your poster to pitch investors, for crowdfunding, to convince crew members to work with you and to help you, and everyone working with you that this project exists and is worth their time.


2. Teamwork, collaboration and compromises

      Everything in filmmaking comes down to teamwork and collaboration. The less money you have the more this rings true for the success of your production. As a filmmaker you have to be ready and willing to let the best idea win. Every stage of you filmmaking process will involve compromises. If you remain realistic and flexible you have a smoother time getting to the finished project, then if you take on a single minded attitude. Only through teamwork and collaboration with every member of the crew will your project get across the finish line.

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3. Filmmaking is paperwork

        Over the three to five years it takes to get your micro-budget film off the ground you will spend 20 to 30 days on set with a crew and cameras. Every other moment of those three to five years will be spent making paperwork for grants, business plans, budgets, schedules, crowdfunding… The paperwork is endless. Learn to love paperwork or find someone to work with you that will help you with the paperwork. As a filmmaker, it would be a mistake to hand over all the paperwork and producing duties to someone else. You should be involved with the paperwork so you have a better idea of what documents are actually required for you to properly paper your film with the correct legal documents. Filmmaker, producer they-self.


4. Make short films first

    Attempt to make a few/several short films before you make a feature film. The short films can be scenes from a bigger project or self-contained ideas. Walk before you run.

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5. Keep re-writing the script until it’s ready

        Don’t stop at your first, second or third draft and start shooting. Take notes from everyone, find a story editor if you can, and make sure your script is ready before you shoot. As a micro-budget film, limit locations, limit cast and do not plan on special effects. Marketability matters. You are creating a product that must be sold. Do market research and make sure there is a market for what you’re trying to make. 

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6. Locations

Make a list of all the locations you have access to and write a story around those locations. Be flexible with locations so they can be moved to any location that allows you to shoot in them. Limit the number of locations you use and try not to have multiple location days unless you can’t avoid it. Even with a small crew, moving from one location to the next in one day will not always work out as smoothy as you think. Maximize your locations by using every room and wall available. Every room has four walls and four corners, with the right change of lighting and props that can turn into eight different locations. Move past your limitations by accepting them and using them to your advantage in creative ways.

7. Permission-based art

    Do not rely on grants, script contest or lottery tickets to fund your film. If you wait for a grant, your film may never get made. Stop asking permission to make films and just make something. Start with a short film and go from there. 

8. Budgets

Make multiple budgets that reflect the reality of the different situations you might find yourself in different budget levels. One budget that is the ideal budget where you have the funds needed, a second budget where you have some of the money you need (where you make the cuts required), and a final shoestring budget where you’re making the film with very little funds or almost no funding.

9. Art Direction

       Micro-budget films are allowed to have art direction. Choose a colour palette for your film and stick to it. Low budget films can still use colour to add meaning. Create a lookbook with a series of images that can help communicate with your director of photography what you’re going for. Having photographs and paintings to build from help gets all the crew on the same page. Images below show the painting of Jack Vettriano and the final stills from the film Drowning.

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10. Festival Plan

    Before you start shooting your film you should have a film festival plan in place. Have a list of all the film festivals you might be sending the film to and their deadlines. Do not submit to the late deadlines, get your film to the film festival by their regular deadline or sooner. Earlier is always better. The cost of sending films to festivals, traveling to film festivals and marketing will very quickly exceed the cost of your micro-budget film. For most short films the film festival costs can eventually exceed the cost of the actual budget you used to make that short film.

11. Sound

     You won’t be able to fix the sound in post. It just costs too much. The sound person is one of the most important people on set. Don’t try to save money on sound, you’ll pay for it later.


12. Pre-Production and shooting order

        The less money you have the more important your pre-production planning is. Have a meeting will all crew members to clarify their needs, especially the Director of Photography. It’s important to discuss every location with all crew members. Pick a realistic number of shooting days, don’t try to shoot a feature in five to ten days. Give yourself more time, work with a smaller crew so that you might be able to shoot for more days and not blow the budget. Shoot your wide shots first, light in one direction at a time. Sometimes the basics go out the window when your rushing and running out of time. Remain calm and shoot things in a logical order. Avoid situations where you’re fighting against a sunset; the sun will set and you’ll have lost the day. Trust your DOP to give you the real times of what it takes to make your day. Don’t over schedule the day to save money; give yourself the time you need. You have less money so you need to give yourself more time.


13. Extras

    Try not to have empty locations without extras. Empty restaurants and public spaces scream low budget film. Do what you can to fill your wide shots with extras. Schedule all the extras for that hour you’re doing the wide shots and just make it happen.

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14. Life Film balance - Finish what you start

      You need to find a balance between the work you want to do in film and the actual time you have to do it. How many days a week can you work on your film projects and how many days do you need to devote to paying your bills? Until you find a balance you should not move forward with any film project. Do actually math, not just on the money you’ve raised, but on the physical time you have to work on your micro-budget film. Do you have the minutes, hours and days required to finish what you start?

Film poster below show the amount of time each film took to finish.

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