Hi you! Yes you: A prospective filmmaker daunted by the Hollywood ideal and a lack of personal means. Don’t fret! For, though having no budget and a tiny crew may seem daunting, you might be surprised what you can pull off. We at Thought Plane Media have been doing it for years! Read ahead to learn our best tricks for no-budget filmmaking…
I’m sorry to break it to you but, on a no-budget movie with limited crew, you’ll basically have to do a little of everything, whether you’re good at it or not. Case in point: I’m a writer by trade who also has to shot-list, direct, build costumes, act, do some basic editing and market my films. If that sounds like a lot, then that’s because it is. But if you’re lucky enough to have friends/ colleagues with specific skill-sets and a good attitude, they can easily help take the pressure off of you.
Maybe you know someone great with hair and makeup, or somebody with a sewing machine (who can make costumes); perhaps you’ve got a friend with a great mind for planning, or someone who can write really well. The more people you know, the less you’ll have to accomplish all on your own. And if you’re lucky, they’ll even have multiple skills they can bring to the table. Later on I’ll give you recommendations on where to find people like this for super cheap/ free.
If you learn nothing else from this article, please keep in mind that PLANNING IS KEY. Without sufficient preparation, filmmshoots tend to fall apart. Actors and crew get upset when they have to wait around too long, you lose daylight, the camera batteries die, your brain spontaneously combusts from the anxiety… It’s OK. I’ve been there. And I learned my lesson so you don’t have to. PLAN YOUR SHOOTS BEFOREHAND. That’s super vague, so I’m gonna explain how:
Step 1: Script
You’ve probably got an idea for a film already, and that’s awesome! But unless the whole thing is meant to be an improvisation, you ought to write a script. Even if the whole film is improv, I’d still recommend writing a script. Now, that’s not as scary as it might sound. Really all you need to do is make a rough outline of what happens. At the bare minimum a script will ensure the story has some flow and provide direction for what you’re doing.
If you can get some proper software, that’d be great. I use Final Draft, but that costs money. Here’s a free one to get you started:
NOTE: Remember that a page of script (IN A LEGITIMATE FORMAT) roughly equals a minute of film. So that 120 page screenplay you wrote will end up at least 2 hours, if not longer.
Being a writer (and having taken a few University classes on Screenwriting), I’ve learned some solid techniques for writing screenplays. I could write an entire article on that subject alone, and I probably will another day, so for now I’ll simply leave you up to your own devices. I trust in you; trust in yourself.
Step 2: Shotlists and (optionally) Storyboards
Now, let’s assume you’ve got a full script ready: dialogue, action, story and all. That might be enough to start shooting, but I’d suggest you do more planning before the cameras roll. Shotlists are essentially a step-by-step text of what shots you’ll be filming. They describe the dialogue, camera movements and framing of each setup. And they’re a LIFESAVER.
Not only do they save you the hassle of figuring out logistics on set, but they also save a load of time in setups. Moving the camera is, in my experience, the most time consuming part of the production process (yes, even longer than sitting through tonnes of bad takes). Shotlists help you move the camera less. For example: say there’s a shot with a closeup on me, and I know (based on the list) that there’s another shot exactly like this later. Why move the camera after the first shot? Just do both while the camera is in one place and then setup for the next framing. Does that occasionally make the continuity harder to keep track of? Sure. But, as long as you’re paying attention to such things, it’ll save you tonnes of time in a day.
Another benefit to Shotlisting is that it helps you schedule your actors and crew. Ex. If you know you’ve only got an actor for one day, you can focus on shots they are in. This may mean putting off entire chunks of a scene for a different day, but it’s better than failing to get the necessary work done because you had to film in a certain order. Might this be confusing? Yes. But you can’t always control people’s schedules (especially when you have little to no budget) and you’re going to have to work with what you’ve got. I’m just telling you how to do that efficiently.
If you want to upgrade your planning game (and you don’t mind dabbling in art), add storyboards next to your shotlists. Storyboards are pictures of varying detail which accompany your shotlists and provide a visual representation of your words. For many people, the visual is a lot easier to comprehend than a text description of a shot. I especially find that it works best for camera operators when you’re describing what you want them to do (especially if they have little experience operating a camera).
NOTE: Don’t use your shotlists/ storyboards as a 100% hard structure. Sometimes the sets you work on necessitate slight deviation from the plan (if the layout is different), or you come up with something better while you’re actually filming.They’re just a guide to keep you roughly on track and help plan the day out.
OK– everything thus far mainly relies on your own creativity and patience for planning, but now I’ve got to cover the more practical aspects of filmmaking. First up:
Step 3: Locations
I can’t lie to you: this one can be super difficult. Fact of the matter is the best places to shoot films cost money or require more control than you’ll ever realistically achieve (ex. Elaborate set decoration, crowd control, re-directing traffic to clear out an area, etc). But not all hope is lost. Most of the time, you can get by on the use of public spaces. Just walking around streets in your town or city, parks, parking lots, and many more places will get you decent enough backdrops. If you need more rugged terrain, you can always visit a campground or hiking trail. Take a look at a map. I’ll bet there’s more unique areas in your region to film at than you’re aware of.
None of this covers “inside scenes” though. I mean, maybe you’ll get lucky and find some places that don’t care about cameras rolling. At a restaurant, for example, as long as you order something and don’t cause a commotion, I can’t imagine too many people caring about a small filmshoot (especially at casual places like fast food restaurants). There’s so many cameras operating everywhere in the world nowadays. Depending on your equipment, people might not even notice anything’s going on. Malls or shopping centres are other good locations with similar rules.
For domestic scenes, however, it helps to have supportive friends and relatives, or other people who might want to help you. Unless you’ve never left your block, you probably know folks who live in different kinds of houses (apartments, suburban– maybe even country homes, or mansions if you’re lucky). Even if people just let you film in their yard, you’re still ahead. Most of the time, you’re probably gonna be stuck filming at your house, or the houses of your crew. Once again, if you have some money to blow, you can always rent a space out for a couple hours (usually not for too great a cost either) but, otherwise, this is the best you can do on no-budget shoots.
Step 4: Finding Actors and Crew
So you want to find good talent/ crew for free, huh? Well, I can suggest multiple ways to get free talent/ crew, but not necessarily “good”… That requires some level of luck. But let’s assume everyone you hire is gonna be the next A-list of Hollywood, alright? I’ll tell you how I got my start with actors: family. As a kid, I’d get my brother to play act with me and my mother to film us. When I got a little older, I roped in my best friends, and we started making short videos as a hobby.
In highschool, I made friends in the Drama department and got them to perform in my films as well (many of them enjoyed the opportunity). I also made a few friends in the Audio/ visual technology classes (Justin) and they had technical knowledge which I found invaluable. While I never explored this avenue personally, maybe I could have talked to friends in the school band and gotten some composers on crew.
By the time I got to film school, I’d already had plenty of rough film experience, but in my first year I met a tonne of likeminded people who helped me get even more. In dorm, I was neighbours with at least 4 film students, and we’d all work with each other from time to time. That’s how I got my start. All valuable cast and crew, and every single one of them worked for free.
Maybe you’re a little too old to find highschool or college-aged help, or ask your family to step in. Not everyone who makes low-budget films starts as a teenager and I can see how these tips might be awkward if you’re not. Well, in that case, join filmmaking communities or clubs and meet as many new people as you can. And don’t neglect the people close to you either. You can also try to hire people online, though that’s not as reliable (sometimes people say they’ll show up and simply don’t). Like I said up top: anyone you meet with a skill you require can be a contender for crew.
In any case, if you’re not paying people anything, try and make the shoot worth their while. Bring food so nobody starves, or maybe pay for people’s lunches. A no-budget film probably won’t have that many people working on it anyway. Hopefully you can afford a lunch or two. Also keep the hours reasonable. People are patient, but they’re not saints. Don’t make them work for more than 2-4 hours if you can help it. If they aren’t getting paid, they don’t have to be there.
Read the room. If the crew isn’t feeling it, don’t push them or you’ll just make more trouble for yourself later. Better to have multiple short and happy shooting days than 1 big and miserable day. Also, I hope this goes without saying, but give everyone a credit. Sometimes people are working for free to show prospective employers actual samples of their work. The least you can do is acknowledge the help you get.
And be sure to communicate properly with the crew. Let everyone know at least a week beforehand when and where they need to be, what scene they’re doing and what they need to bring (if anything) to set. It also helps to email them PDF copies of the script (or at least their scenes) so they can study their parts.
Step 5: Costumes
This one’s easy: scrounge whatever old clothes are around your house (or maybe even your grandparents’ houses if you need something multiple decades old). I’ll bet you’ve got old props laying around from Halloweens past too. Anything might be valuable. Here’s some samples of costumes I made of stuff just laying around:
If you can’t find what you’re looking for in your home, or in the homes of your friends and relatives, I highly recommend visiting a thrift store. There’s gold on those racks if you look hard enough– especially for period-specific pieces. Alternatively, your actors or crew might be able to bring their own clothes. Why should you have to do all the looking yourself, right?
Step 6: Hair and Makeup
*Nervously clears throat* Ahem… I’m probably the wrong guy to ask about that. Here at TPM we have extremely limited experience in such areas. Just make sure whatever you do is consistent. In other words: don’t take so long to film that all your actors go from looking like the Beatles in 1964 to the Beatles in 1969 (especially if the story doesn’t span very long).
Their music changed a little bit too
Additionally– best not to take on anything you can’t reasonably pull off. So no elaborate monster makeup or crazy disfigurements, and you’ll probably want to stay away from prosthetics too.
Step 7: Lighting
Once again, I have extremely limited experience in such things. My films don’t often make use of lighting techniques (it’s a blindspot I hope to fix, but not just right now…). Shoot in daylight if you can. If you want to fake that your scene is at night, just turn your camera’s brightness settings lower or use a lens designed to make the setting darker.
If you ABSOLUTELY have to film at night, for whatever reason, stay in well-lit areas or bring lighting equipment. Your phone isn’t going to cut it and neither are flashlights, unless you want really harsh shadows. If you can’t afford any equipment at all, try to experiment and find something that will provide a mellow glow on your subject. You want something bright enough to see on camera, but not powerful enough to create noticeable shadows.
Step 8: Audio
Audio is probably the most important thing you can cover on a film shoot, professional or otherwise. A scene with terrible lighting or composition is offensive but occasionally forgivable; a scene with bad audio is not. Now, can audio be dubbed over or otherwise added in post? Yes. But trust me when I say it’s a lot harder than you think and it’s a far better use of your time to get it right in the first place.
For most of this how-to, I’ve tried to give you good cost-saving/ skirting methods, but in this instance I highly recommend buying a good quality mic of some sort. And bring extra batteries for that mic. Nothing’s worse than the mic dying in the middle of a shoot. You may as well just pack up and go home at that point…
SIDE NOTE: I use RODE mics myself, so there’s a decent place to start your research. Remember there are different mics designed for different purposes. They don’t all work the same way.
Don’t be afraid to do a little foley work if you can’t get all the sounds you want on set. A quick lesson on that: foley is audio created in a studio (or maybe your house). Think Monty Python and the Holy Grail‘s use of coconuts for horse footsteps. That probably would have been foley work if they’d used actual horses. Get creative with this process. The fun in foley is finding weird ways to make things sound like other things. Star Wars is another great example. The iconic sounds of lightsabers and blasters didn’t just exist in the world before someone created them.
Step 9: Editing
Nearly done! Your film’s been shot, and now you’re ready to cut it together and watch the completed motion picture. Well, hold up a sec. Editing is arguably the hardest part of the entire filmmaking process! It’s here you realize your film is either way better than you hoped or total trash (and yes– those are the only two options…). Editing is the period of the process where all your prior planning will save you. Having organized yourself early on with shotlists/ storyboards, you already have a road-map for how this thing will look when put together.
Editing is another one of those unfortunate parts of the process where you won’t get very far on no-budget… If you want to do anything more with your film than simply cutting the movie together (and I mean anything, like even simple audio editing), just shell out the money and get a decent program like Adobe Premiere or Sony Vegas Movie Studio. Consider it a long-term investment in your career.
I can’t help you much more than this today. Editing is another subject I could write an entire article on and barely scratch the surface of what I think is important. Just play around with the system. You’ll figure it out soon enough.
Just one thing I want to say: please don’t use copyrighted music in your projects. It’s so easy to do that, but just don’t. Not to say I haven’t done that myself, but copyrighted material usually gets you in more trouble than its worth. At best, you’ll never make money off your work because you’ll get in legal trouble, and at worst you can’t even find a place to post the project (YouTube is ridiculously strict on such things). It’ll save you a lot of headaches if you just use royalty free music or write your own.
Here’s a link to the site I use:
Step 10: Marketing and Release
Now that you’ve finished your film, and it’s suitably awesome, you’ve got to release that thing to the world. First, you’ve got to build up some hype. Post promotional images on your social media and tease the coolest moments or shots (or the parts you’re most proud of). Don’t show too much, cause you don’t want to spoil any surprises early, but you want to get people interested. Later on you can post a trailer. Throughout this process, get cast, crew and literally anyone you know to share these things. The more something pops up on the web the more buzz it can get.
Finally, release the film, sit back, and feel proud of yourself. Although, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. I still haven’t shared with you the different options to release your film. YouTube is the obvious choice because of its brand recognition but, frankly, that platform doesn’t cater very well to narrative-driven short/ feature films. It might be worth a shot, but don’t expect your project to blow up. There’s always other sites too.
Or, if you’re really adventurous and don’t mind spending some money (for admission), you might want to put your film into a festival. There are tonnes of film festivals everywhere around the world and, if your film is good enough, you might get into one. Accomplishing that immediately gives you more industry credibility than posting on YouTube.
Final Step: Temper Your Expectations
Remember that, even if you follow all these steps, you’re probably not making anything Oscar-worthy. Don’t worry about it; most of the movies that win Oscars aren’t Oscar-worthy. What no-budget films are good for, above all else, is experience. You learn a tonne through the process. And any mistakes you make, you’ll probably learn to avoid them when real money is on the line.
Speaking of money: no-budget films are projects you complete so that you’ve got something to show potential investors when you’re trying to up your game: “Hey, look at this! I made it for next to nothing. Pretty good huh? Give me some cash and see what happens then. So what’dya say?” Would you give money to the person who has no experience or proof of potential, or the person who made something half-way decent out of nothing?
Finding a job in the industry is notoriously difficult as a new talent. Even a bad no-budget film is more proof of your talent than your word alone. Getting hired is hard, and it probably won’t happen over night but, until it does, keep improving your craft on no-budget films. Can’t hurt.
Hopefully any of these tips were helpful to you. Best of luck! If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Be sure to like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!
Till next time,