How To Successfully Make The Ultra Low Budget Film You Want
If You Read One Article About Ultra Low Budget Filmmaking Read this One
I’m not a guru and will never be! The method I’m going to describe in this article is from many years of working with low and ultra low budget movies and and seeing what produces spectacular results and what doesn’t. This is one of the most controversial (for some at least) technique on Ultra Low Budget Filmmaking that I will show you in my blog, but it’s a must read if you want to get your feature film done regardless of how much money you have in the bank (or in your wallet!).
Not only done, but done well.
Let’s say you have close to $50k? You’re rich! 20k? Great! 5k? No problem. It’ll work either way.
That’s a huge promise and I’ll probably take some heat! But what can you do?
First things first: “My movie looks like, well… very low budget!”
We’ve all experienced it. We go shoot our ultra low budget film and we start making compromises. The script says “xyz” but we end up doing “abc.” The reasons? Many, but I would be willing to bet that the “demands” of the script were not in synch with your budget, actors abilities, locations, props, crew experience, planning, etc… but you thought you could “be creative” or “fix it in post.”
The end result is far from what was originally in the script, and in most cases we end up with a film that looks like crap and it has that “very low budget” look and feel.
It doesn’t have to be that way…
… but before we get into it, I need to debunk some common assumptions you may have.
BS #1 – The Script is King
Unlike everything you’ve heard before in blogs, film-schools, books, seminars, forums, experts, semi-experts, and your “Hollywood connected” friends, you shouldn’t start an ultra low budget film from a script.
Yes, you heard right and let me repeat. To make a successful ultra low budget film you don’t start by writing a script, or from an existing script.
Maybe right now it sounds crazy to you. It’s OK. Considering we all have been brainwashed with the idea that the script is King!
BS #2 – The typical film production flow works fine for ultra low budget films
In a normal, well-funded production, you follow this flow (more or less):
- A script is written
- A producer creates a budget
- Funds are secured – sometimes this takes years
- Talent is secured – Step 3 and 4 are kind of a chicken and egg situation but “we” don’t care about this right now
- A Crew is secured
- Locations are secured
- Shooting dates are scheduled
- Etc. etc. etc.
In this scenario the Script is King. It drives everything. It’s the foundation of the entire production and that’s fine, but in our ultra low budget production it’s not. Actually not even close.
When you have only 5K (or whatever you have) you cannot make a movie following the standard film production flow. You need something different.
What happens is that in order to adjust your little budget to your script, you begin to cut corners. Maybe you can’t shoot in a restaurant, so you settle for your friends living room (Yes! Great idea! Let’s make Jimmy’s apartment look like a restaurant!). Maybe the chase scene could be replaced with people just watching it and going “Oh, Wow! OMG! Did you see that?” — Very “creative” don’t you think?
The end result, most likely, is a movie where you can clearly see that the filmmakers had to cut corners. Then you hear comments like “The movie was kind of OK, but the production value was pretty bad. Actually kind of laughable sometimes.”
Bottom line: You want to avoid butchering your film to adjust to your little budget. It just doesn’t work. The standard production process is not ideal for an ultra low budget production.
The “Go backwards to move forward” method
Instead, this is the ultra low budget process I want you to follow. I call it going backwards, because you will… only to move forward.
Step 1: Start with a vague idea or a concept
Let’s say you want to make a love story and you have 2 main characters in mind and somewhat of a story forming in your head. Or maybe it’s a horror film, or a thriller. Great!
Do not try to develop the story at this point. Instead do this:
Write a 25-word concept of your story. Write it down very quickly and leave it there. Then go do something else and forget about the story for that day.
Next morning take a look at it again. Do you still like it? Does it make sense? Is it saleable? Sexy? Compelling? Do people would want to watch that movie? Do you want to watch that movie? At this point just re-write it to make it better. Show it to friends and acquaintances. Do they like it? Use their feedback to improve it and do not go over 25 words. This is important!
Repeat this cycle until you’re happy with your description.
Step 2: Secure whatever amount of money you can
In an ultra low budget film you use whatever amount of money you can get.
Money is King! Forget the script!
Or in our case:
“Very little” money is King! Forget the script!
Let’s say you’ve got $10k (maybe you sold yourself to science, inherited money from your uncle, borrow it, whatever), then $10k is your budget. Period. Or $5k. Or 50k.
This step is very important because whatever amount of money you have, or will get, will drive what you do next.
In this step you can use any method you want, including crowd funding since you already have a concept of the story.
However you get your funds and when, the important aspect of this step is to 1) be realistic and 2) set your budget now.
Step 3: Go find your locations, props and vehicles
Time to look for locations!
“What? How can I find locations if I don’t have a script? You’re crazy dude!” – you say.
Exactly! Based on the 25 word concept you wrote, imagine where such a story would take place.
We are wired to respond to visual stimulation and this is one reason why this method is so powerful. Just look around and don’t limit yourself. Look at different possibilities. Any location is fair play right now.
Let the locations speak to you.
The beauty of this approach is that because you are not constrained by a script you are completely free to find anything that clicks. Trust me, this process it’s incredibly liberating and stimulating.
Locations are great story idea triggers.
Recently I was looking for an apartment for an idea I had, but instead I found a house by a lake. It completely changed my mind about the story and this location instantly created a ton of new possibilities.
The right location adds character to your story
Maybe you find an abandoned school, or an old hospital. Or maybe someone told you of an interesting farmhouse with tons of places to hide, “Hmmm”. Or maybe you’re lucky and your friend has a friend who has a friend who owns a mansion, or a luxury apartment… and he’s never there!
Take lots of pictures
Once you find the locations you like take lots of pictures. You want many angles and details. Take pictures of every room, every hallway, the backyard, the stairs, the kitchen, and anything you find interesting. It’s important also to take pictures of different lighting conditions like in the morning, in the afternoon and at night.
Your head should be exploding with ideas right now! You feel high! You’re going to make this movie!
Find your props and vehicles
While you can be flexible with props and vehicles, it’s also important that you look and find props and vehicles that you can use in your story. Let’s say that you’ve found a gun collection in one of your locations, or a hidden safe; take note of them and see how you can incorporate them into the story. Same with cars, trucks or motorcycles that you may have access to. Think of all of that as idea triggers that you can use when you get to write the script.
It should be obvious by now how much richer your script will be by just re-ordering the production process. Your movie will look like you actually went and build sets! Your production value will be noticable and you won’t feel restricted when shooting your movie… but it gets better!
You now have a couple of interesting locations, some cool props and vehicles. You’ve got them for free, or close to free. You’ve got your pictures. The owners are cool and the locations are perfect for shooting using the ultra low budget lighting techniques I discussed in other posts; you’re ready for the next step.
Step 4: Find your actors
By know you should have an idea of your main characters. Go find them. Get a few actors for consideration. Get to know them. Study their personalities.
Tip: Let’s say that for your main character you have in mind a punk or gothic girl. Find an actress who is actually into the punk or gothic life style. She’ll bring a level of reality to your movie that will be hard to match.
Actors will probably ask you for a script. Just show them your 25-word description and all you need to say is “I’m taking a different approach to filmmaking and the script will be available later. Actually, the reason I want to know you better is because I want to incorporate into the character some of your personality and traits.” They’ll love that because it’s almost like saying “I’m going to write a script for you.”
The importance of this step is two-fold:
- You’re getting ideas for your characters from real people.
- The acting will be more natural because they will basically play themselves.
By now your story is probably taking shape in your head and you have a million ideas. It happens all the time and you feel amazing and fired up. Great! You’re ready for the next step.
Step 5: Mental pictures and how you’re getting closer to write the script
So far you have a very clear mental picture about the most important aspects of your script.
- Where the action will take place, in excruciating detail
- Who are the characters, with personality details and traits from real people
From a psychological point of view you will now be writing a story from things you already know. Your imagination should be stimulated and the writing process will be easier.
By having a clear picture of your locations, like how many rooms you have in the locations, where they are located, how they smell, what kind of furniture you have, how the light works during the day and night, etc. you eliminate a lot of guess work. You are empowered now to create a story and shoot it exactly as you wrote it! No need for compromises because everything you’ll write, you already have.
Do you see how powerful that is?
Imagine now the normal approach. You write a script, all imagined in your mind, and then you go look for locations. What happens if you can’t find exactly what you wrote? Or you find something similar but you need to pay a lot of money. Or it’s only available for 2 days and you need it for 5. Or worse, you need to compromise and go back and make changes to the script.
Hollywood can build a set. You can’t. Do you see the point?
This method of going backwards frees you from the headache of matching locations and actors to the script and keeps the production under budget.
The script is not the king, but rather it’s a king in the making!
By providing your mind with a real structure, real walls and real people, you will write a better script and your imagination will skyrocket
You’ll feel unblocked and free, and you’ll concentrate on the actual story; a story designed for the locations and actors you picked. As a consequence, the production value, regardless of the budget you started with, will be amazingly improved. You’re tailoring your movie to your budget, rather than the other way around. You’re not cutting corners anymore; you’re just shooting a story that makes sense for your financial situation. The locations will make sense. The actors will make sense. The script will make sense. Life makes sense! Why? Because you are in control.
I want you now to print all the pictures you took and place them on a wall.
Look at them. Study them. Visualize your movie taking place in those pictures. See your characters come alive. Think of the story, the dialogue, the scenes, the twists, and take notes. Build your story around those pictures on the wall.
Expand the story from the 25-word description into a synopsis, or a mental graph, or whatever method you like best. Do it fast. This step shouldn’t take you more than a few days. Don’t worry about details. Just get the story down in a few pages as fast as you can.
Step 6: Write the script
Congratulations! You’ve got %50 percent of what’s needed to finish your script.
You should notice by now how clear and real everything has become. That clarity will help you write the script super-fast. Your mind is now free to concentrate on the details of story. And the beauty of this method is that your budget is all built in!
I want you to spend only a month writing the script, and another month polishing it. You need to go fast through this step and you should.
I don’t have to mention that story and characters are everything. There are plenty of books on the subject that can help you in this process. You now have the mechanics, all you need to do is put your soul into writing the best possible story.
Just keep in mind the following when writing your script:
- Keep costs down. Write about what you have. Resist the temptation of introducing a new prop, or a new car, or anything you don’t have. It may seem restrictive but in fact it’ll help you come up with unique ideas.
- Avoid too many actors
- Avoid special effects
- Avoid situations that would require time consuming and costly lighting setups.
- Don’t write over 80~90 pages.
- Limit dialogue to only a few lines per page. We want to see action. Things happening, not talking heads. This is also important in order to shoot fast.
Step 7: Get the “right” crew
In parallel to writing the script begin looking for the right crew.
- It must be small
- Should have experience working with natural lighting techniques and strategic lighting setups.
- They shouldn’t work for free
I cannot tell you how important it is that your crew, even though small, should be experienced. You don’t want to be teaching folks on the job. Not only that but when problems come up, an experienced crew will know how to resolve them and keep shooting.
The right crew will move fast and will know how to do minimum lighting setups that look amazing
Step 8: Shoot the movie
You’re now ready to shoot your movie but before you do that we must do some math.
You should be shooting 8~10 pages a day. If you don’t, either your script or your shooting strategy is not complying with ultra low budget filmmaking techniques. So you’ll need to revise them.
If your script has 80 pages, and you wrote it to shoot it fast, you should have your movie shot in 10 days max.
If your total budget is 5k, you have $500 dollars a day to spend. Be realistic in this process or you’ll get in trouble quickly.
Your crew and actors must agree to shoot at this pace and you should have a well-rehearsed plan. Test your script to see if this possible before you start. Make sure your strategic lighting is all in place and you won’t spend time with lighting setups. You should come to the location and shoot good stuff quickly. It should all flow very well, and in order to do that you need to plan.
For instance, bring your actors to the location and rehearse the entire movie in one day. If you can’t finish rehearsing it in one day you’re not ready. Maybe there is something in your script slowing you down so you need to revise it.
Of course if you have $50k you can do more and maybe take longer time shooting some scenes and in more locations. I’m using this extreme case of 5k to illustrate what you need to be aware of.
This method is flexible; it completely adjusts to your budget.
By now you have everything in place to go shoot your film within the budget you have. Just keep applying the ultra low budget filmmaking techniques I talk about throughout FilmDoer and your “dream” movie should become a reality.
The most important take away from this article is that your script should not mandate what your assets (locations, props, etc.) should be, but rather your assets, including your budget, should dictate how the script will be written.
Rather than starting with a blank page you start with a structure of where your story takes place and who your characters are, plus a ton of ideas. That frees the mind to concentrate on the story, rather than having to come up with everything at once. But most importantly, you’re writing exactly what you’ll be shooting and that’s priceless.
What the “going backwards” method does is to give you full control, which will translate into a better film.
The worst thing you can do is do nothing. You have the blueprint here; all you need is to apply it.