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Producing a Short Film with a Limited Budget

written by: Andrea Smith•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 2/12/2010

A guide on how to produce your first short film on a limited budget.

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    Guide to Producing a Film

    The glorious, and laborious task of filmmaking can be very rewarding, however, unless you have the best preparation it can be frustrating too. Every good filmmaker starts with a basic checklist of what they have and what they need, and how they will go about getting and using those items. This guide will serve as a cheat sheet of everything you need to know about getting a short film from your brain to the screen.

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    The Script

    The first thing you’ll need before shooting is a script to shoot. You literally have nothing if you don’t have a script. Simply wanting to film a movie for the sake of filming isn’t enough for a serious project. Writing takes a great deal of creativity …so brainstorm! Let your creative juices flow, take your time, and revise, revise, revise. Remember, great scripts aren’t written overnight. If you’re reading this article you’ve probably already found something passionate to write about, which is the first step in putting a script together, all you need now is time. Once you’ve got what you think is a perfect script, you’re ready for what’s next.

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    Low budget films are called that for a reason, and most are no budget. Big studios have amazing producers to find financing, but odds are you don’t, so prepare accordingly. It is important to go into your project knowing you’ll need basically everything, and cutting your expenses to the bare minimum.

    Things you’ll have to spend money on:

    • Craft services
    • Film
    • Transportation
    • Music clearance
    • Actors/Extras
    • Equipment
    • Crew

    If you have good networking skills you may be able to work with local production companies and cut a deal with them so that they’ll slash the rental fee for equipment. Local schools with A/V techs can also prove useful. When all else fails, good old-fashioned fundraising (bakes sale, car wash, lemonade stands!) does the trick, even if you don’t come away with thousands you’ll get more than what you started with which is better than nothing. You could also consider hosting a funding party to raise money for your production.

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    Crew and Equipment

    Unless you’re George Lucas you probably don’t have an extensive budget to hire industry professionals. Luckily many inexperienced but enthusiastic budding filmmakers, have their own equipment and will be willing to offer their services.

    The essential roles to fill are as follows:

    • Director
    • Camera Operator
    • DP (Director of Photography)
    • Sound recorder
    • PA (Production assistant/Gopher)

    It is not uncommon for a director of photography to work for expenses and a copy of the film, especially if you are genuinely passionate about the project and can arouse their excitement with the script and description of your vision of the film.

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    Aside from the camera, items such as lights, colour gels, tripods, etc. are essential to your film, so take care to find a fairly good quality materials. Dolly and Crane work create a pretty smooth cinematic effect but if your budget doesn’t allow for it, skip it. It also helps to get innovative (a chair with wheels doesn’t look like a dolly but…), makeshift equipment works just as good as the real deal in the hands of a creative director. Occasionally you’ll be able to find a good deal at universities, and pawnshops. There is no end to the network of possible equipment hook-ups available if you look hard enough.

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    No film would be complete without the principals and extras. Principal actors are the main characters, and extras are in the background. It usually costs industry bigwigs major bucks to hire a casting agency to cast actors. But the beauty of low budget filming is that you can turn to those who love you most for help. Once again, that low budget innovation comes in handy! Don't get me wrong, casting will probably be a nightmare for a first timer, but the experience is unavoidable. Everyone has to cast their own film once, it's a rite of passage! As annoying as casting is, with help from friends and family you can cast all the major characters you need. Local high school and college drama classes, the crazy guy on the street that always wanted to be in movies; extras are everywhere!

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    Location, Location, Location

    Now that you have the story, the money, the equipment, the crew and the talent, where are you going to film? A lot of the money you’ll spend will probably be on finding and keeping a location. Your basement may seem fine, but you want to create a realistic atmosphere, and may end up just renting a space. No matter where you’re filming it needs to look like the setting you created.

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    You need to make the most of what you have. You can’t spend any money, so be as creative as possible. You are really going to have to get anything and everything that could remotely be construed as helpful. Utilize objects/props that you have access to and make them a part of your film. Look at everything you have access to and let your imagination run free, no limits! Think of how to make good use of your possessions. What do you have hiding around the house?

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    Schedule and Shoot

    Ok, so now you have your cast, crew, equipment, locations, script and props in place, its time to shoot. You need to devise a schedule now so you know what you are shooting, where and when. Keep in mind that the cast and crew are not being paid, so the shorter your schedule the more likely people will be willing to work with you for nothing.

    In order to shoot your film in the time allotted you need to have a very clear and intimate knowledge of your film. You need to know the film shot by shot, which angles, where you cut. Your vision is most important at this point. Once your vision is crystal clear, write a shot list of only the shots you need to be able to cut your film together. I’m not going to spend time elaborating on the different camera angles, by now you should have some basic knowledge of them. Shooting is the most tiring process but can be very fun as long as morale is high.

    As the director you will be stressed but you must remember that everyone will be tired after shooting all day, which is why Craft Services is a must! Good meals inspire the cast and crew to keep going, and it makes them feel valued that you are willing to take care of them. Every single shoot I’ve worked on has gone over schedule by as little to a day to a full 2 weeks! The best way to stay on schedule is to give yourself more time than you need, the crew will be happy to finish “early" and commend your excellent directing skills.

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    Post Production

    Editing is a labor of love, and seeing your film come to life during this process is what every director loves about film. Luckily we are in the digital age, where a good editing system can give us professional results. Now, you don’t have a ton of money but if you have a Mac, they have editing software available on their site, and Adobe as well. If you don’t have a computer you will find that most film school students relish the opportunity to work on films, and could teach you how to cut your masterpiece.

    Editing takes time and the more time you spend looking the more continuity errors, and anachronisms, and useless dialogue you’ll find. Most filmmakers create more than one finished copy so that they can compare which is best. I myself always end up with two or three versions incase I want to expand on them at any time. Post is also a chance for you to fool around with effects and colors, now is the time to spice up your cinematic art.

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    It’s A Wrap!

    My Favorite Phrase!

    Finally you’re finished product is here, but don’t stop now! There are festivals, and contests, and even agents calling your name! You may be finished with shooting, but your film is just the beginning!

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    Oh, and don’t forget to…

    • Make copies for the cast and crew, they worked just as hard as you… and for free!
    • Keep the contact info of everyone who helped you because hopefully you’ll be doing this again! Be sure to get model releases and keep them on file.

    Remember: This article is just the first step, but you won't get anything out of simply reading an article, you'll learn even more once you get out there and start shooting. Get dirty, shoot around, make mistakes, and keep the camera rolling. You may just be the next Tarantino!

    Happy Casting, Shooting, and Editing…