Last night marked the end of production for my latest short film If Only. I think everyone is relieved that we have finally wrapped. This particular project was plagued with delays and some unexpected problems, but I feel confident that we will make a solid film with high production values.
I have made several short films over the years and I have learned a lot about no-budget independent filmmaking. So, for those who also share my passio, allow me to pass on a few lessons that will hopefully help you in your endeavors.
Don’t let the lack of money prohibit you from getting out and making films. If you have something to say, then say it. But also remember that low-budget
- Low budget doesn’t mean low production value. The fact that you have little or no money doesn’t autmatically mean that your film will look horrible. But you have to study the ins and outs of cinematography. Ask questions. Practice your craft. Learn by watching what others are doing. Solid execution will give the impression that you spent more than you actually did.
- Surround yourself with knowledgeable people. In 2004 I wanted to produce a short comedy. However, I was just getting back into production full-time and I didn’t know too many local filmmakers. So I decided to take on every behind-the-scenes role myself. I was the writer, director, producer, editor, cinematographer… I did everything, and as a result the quality of the film suffered. When you make it a goal to direct your film, recruit others to work in key positions. For example, having a talented DP on set to light the scene and run the camera will give you much-needed time to rehearse and direct your actors. It’s easy to get caught up in the technical details and neglect the performances from your talent, unless you have others working with you on set.
- Things will not go as planned. This is true of even the biggest Hollywood blockbuster, but even more so on low-budget short films. Expect the unexpected. A location will not be available when you need it to be available. An actor will have to reschedule at the last minute because of a conflict with his or her day job. You will get rained out. The police will tell you to shut the whole thing down. You will be forced to eliminate certain camera set-ups (or perhaps entire scenes) due to uncontrollable circumstances. That’s just the way it goes.
- Always have a plan “B.” This point is a direct result of point #3. When things go wrong, you need to have a contingency plan in place. If it rains and you have to be outside, how can you re-work the story to incorporate the rain? When the owner of a location needs to pull the plug on you for some unforeseen reason, what can you do to complete the scene? A good producer will help you think through these potential problems before they even happen, so it’s important to go over these issues in pre-production.
- Maintain a comfortable pace while in production. When everyone is getting paid thousands (or even millions) of dollars to be involved with a movie, you can afford to work everyone for 16 hours a day, six days a week. However, when you’re on a low-budget short and everyone is working for free, it’s important to remember that they are doing you a tremendous favor by being involved with your film. Pad out the shooting schedule so it isn’t too demanding. At the same time, be up front with those involved and remind them that filmmaking is a time intensive process. You can’t shoot a five-minute film in thirty minutes. Be respectful of their time, and be honest about expectations.
In my experiences as an independent filmmaker living in Birmingham, I have met a lot of gracious, wonderful people who are eager to see the production industry thrive in this region. And I’m certain that in your own film projects, you will be just as fortunate. Be professional, prepared, courteous, and respectful, and people will want to work with you again and again.