Tips and Tricks for Your Low/No-Budget Blockbuster!

Hello again, ladies and gentlemen. As of this writing, it has been some time since I last graced your eyes with the writing that was born of my mind and sculpted by my hands. Some of you may have missed my presence, most may not have noticed; alas, I have returned! 

Several months ago, some friends and myself decided to begin working on a new short film that we hope to release in December (it was originally scheduled to be done by July and in festivals during September). It has been around 5-6 months since the idea came into fruition, and we are still not finished. 'Truth,' as it has been christened (catchy and intriguing, I know) has been nothing but a slapstick thief's getaway of roadblocks and ways around them. However, all is not lost. Five leading actor replacements, Three secondary lead actor replacements, and Six location cancellations later, we still have to re-shoot 50% of the film. That is not the point. When making films, if you truly love making them, you have to keep pushing on no matter how much it sucks. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. There have been occasions when I felt like throwing in the towel, calling my right hand man, and saying "I think we should drop the project."

However, after a 30 minute nap, I start to find solutions to problems I didn't even know I had, and these provide workarounds when something "doesn't feel right," or "is illegal." So, here are the top 10 things I have learned while working on this project, and I hope they can help you with your projects in the future. Please note: This is only intended as a collection of observations for those who are just beginning to work in filmmaking, not hard and fast rules.

#10. Plan, plan, plan some more.

This should come as a given, but you need to plan your heart out for these projects. Your plan A needs a corresponding B-Z, and that will never be enough. I firmly believe in Murphy's Law: whatever can happen will happen. Actors will get sick or fall off the face of the Earth. Locations will back out on you. Your audio will turn out too quiet. Shots will be underexposed and overexposed at the same time. Your funding will run out (making a film will cost you money, but where you get that money is the difference between low and no budget filmmaking). When you can, plan to pay for things. This prevents (or strongly discourages) people from backing out on you at the last minute. I have made this mistake at least four times on 'Truth,' and am paying for it now.

#9. Budget your film and inflate it for investors, but don't pop the cash bubble.

When 'Truth' started out, Andrew Corrado (my AD and right hand man, as well as the latest star of the film) and I decided on a budget of $2200. We figured that would get us all the cool things we needed to get the job done. As of this writing, 'Truth' has a price tag of around $600 to make, not including labor, but that is mostly me at my desk editing away at a laptop. I have begged and borrowed for this movie, and that helped me get away with not having to spend almost four times what I only had to. Look for ways to save money. Ask politely for locations. Ask friends. Call acquaintances. Talk to businesses. After 99,000 replies incorporating the word "no" into them, eventually, you will get a tentative "maybe." Once you get a maybe, assume that it means yes when talking to the person, but add "assuming it is okay" to the end of every idea you have. This has some sort of psychological effect on people, and will (hopefully) get you an "okay" on whatever you are trying to get.

#8. Post fixes all, except when it doesn't.

I hesitate to talk about "fixing it in post," especially with the fact that this article is geared towards younger filmmakers, like myself. There is no excuse for bad filmmaking, but when you are the director, DP, 1st AC, 2nd AC, and lighting technician, something may slip through the cracks. Your palms may be sweaty, your knees are weak, arms are heavy, and that leads to some unfortunate mishaps on camera. In 'Truth,' I failed to realize that a shot in which an actors head is slammed into a wall was a less than stellar performance by my actor. When reviewing in post, it was almost comical to watch, even with sound. Alas, After Effects came to my rescue, and with a bit of Time Remapping and compositing, I was able to crack drywall with the head of a man. Post can also fix bad acting depending on what you decide to show when. One of my actors didn't memorize his lines (he was unpaid, so he gets a pass), and so I had to edit around him looking down at a notebook. It wasn't entirely convincing, but I will be reshooting that scene and some other weak ones in a few weeks. Contrary to all of this, bad editing can make a stellar performance look like it was drug through and then left out in the mud for a few weeks. Always try for a great performance in camera, but don't fret if the dailies look slightly less than perfect.

#7. Think outside the box

There are an infinite number of ways to accomplish any task, so try to look at all of them. There is always a cheaper, more realistic option that involves less work. However, making movies is a difficult hobby, business, and lifestyle. When faced with having my main character jump out of a window, I had to decide: do I try the stunt Mission Impossible style (have Andrew jump out of a real window), do I make the glass break digitally (very difficult to get looking right), or is there a better option? Obviously, I didn't want my unpaid actor (and dear friend) to be harmed in the making of the film, so I knew that compositing glass would be the way to go. However, digital didn't work out, either. I combined the two options, and it looks better than I could have ever hoped. With $2 worth of scrap glass from a hardware store, black fabric, and a hammer, I was able to break the glass as though Andrew had jumped out of the building. I was even lucky enough to have the glass break exactly where his shoulder first hits, making it even more realistic. This was then composited into the shot, and voila: for $2 and about an hour of prep, I got what would normally run me around $100 for a window, or about 6 hours of rendering time on my laptop.

#6. Patience and understanding are the keys to happiness. 

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Nine times out of ten, a small production will not be paying its actors; I certainly did not have the option, with our budget was stretched thin as it was. In order to get the best performance out of your actors, invest time into them. The shots I sat down with them on turned out beautifully, and those that I rushed mimicked that. There is no such thing as too much prep, so make sure everyone knows exactly what is going down in the next shot, and be prepared for multiple takes.

#5. Get multiples, backup shots, and B-roll. 

While shooting day two of 'Truth,' I ran into the issue of time constraints. I've of my actors had to leave the set in 30 minutes, and we had saved a tricky dialogue sequence for last. Luckily, Andrew and u made a last second decision to shoot the scene in 6 takes instead of trying to get two perfect ones, and kept the camera rolling for longer than was necessary. This allowed me to go back in editing and insert cutaways to hide bad acting or awkward cuts and pauses. I also used shots that didn't have the correct words in the video to provide a quick cut while the actor's mouth was moving. Had you not kept the camera rolling, five seconds of the dialogue sequence would have ruined the whole scene.

 #4. Don't be afraid.

The greatest isues with 'Truth' thus far have arisen when I doubted and second-guessed myself. Doubt creates dissent in your crew, and can create less than ideal performances from your actors, sound operators, and even yourself. Because filmmaking is a team sport, one man's attitude can impact the whole group. Don't be afraid to shoot more takes, and don't be afraid to reshoot if necessary. Self doubt can break the morale on set, and that bad mojo carries through the camera and into the audience.

#3. Always be courteous to others. 

When working on micro-sized budgets, it is important to remember that everyone is donating their time, money, or brain power for the sake of your art. When at a location, leave it as you came, and thank the owner profusely. Cinema takes time, money, and dedication, and when one of those is missing, the other two can usually make up for it. When you have no money, people donate their time to your work, and you must realize that they are putting their best (under the circumstances) work forward.

#2. Work with a buddy.

Nobody can do it alone. All art, but film especially, is a group project. Other people will always influence your work, and in film it helps to have a buddy. For me, I had two buddies when writing 'Truth'.  The first, as mentioned earlier, was Andrew Corrado, a personal friend who aided me in writing and shooting 'Truth'. Not only was he able to provide valuable creative input, he also aided me when things looked bleak and morale was low. My second helper was Trent Reznor (no, I did not actually meet the genius behind Nine Inch Nails). I always write with music (shout out to Ryan Connolly), and Mr. Reznor's work on 'The Social Network', 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo', and 'Gone Girl' provided the ambient backing the story has been driven by. If you can't find anybody to work with, or you don't feel comfortable sharing your work with others, connect with creative geniuses by working with music on.

#1. Never not be (healthily) afraid.

It was Ralph Waldo Emerson who said, "Always do what you are afraid to do."  This could not be truer in filmmaking. If you are afraid of editing your film, launch into the editing bay and learn all that you possibly can with regards to editing. For 'Truth', my demon has proven to be sound design and music. I have recently turned to my brother and another personal friend for sources of music, and have tried to learn as much as possible from sources around the internet for sound design. Healthy doses of fear can keep you sharp, focused, and able to think outside of the box. Fear is a tricky line to walk, as too little can result in sloppiness or carelessness; too much results in crippling anxiety and mistakes made. If you can manage the fear into a propulsive force, art will flow.