Pre-Production – Can you make a feature film on an ultra-low budget? There will be critics out there telling you that you can’t make a film on a low budget! It’s impossible to do, and it will turn out horribly if you try!
Making a feature film on a low budget is not easy. Some moments during the film production may cause you to have a mental breakdown and throw everything you created into a huge bonfire and watch it burn.
But don’t let that stop you from chasing your dreams and completing a film project.
This is the fourth article in my series of the 7 steps to making a film on a low budget; I will discuss, in separate posts, steps that filmmakers should do to make a successful film regardless of the budget.
In this post, we will discuss the topic of pre-production. How To organize and prepare for your shoot.
If you have missed any of the steps to making a low budget film before reading this post, you can click one of the following posts below:
Pre-Production – Now that you have your story/screenplay completed, and figured out how you will shoot your low-budget film, it’s now time to start pre-production.
If you haven’t made any short films yet, and reading this series to make a feature, please for the love of god make short films before proceeding to the big time of making a full-length feature.
Shooting short films not only provides you with invaluable experience when it comes to planning and shooting a film, but it gives you exposure. This way that you have some credibility as a filmmaker that others will be willing to sacrifice their time and effort to help you make a bigger scale production.
If you have shot some short films and are ready to make the big leap to a full-length feature, which shooting schedule are you looking at? Are you looking at a 21-day shoot where there’s less room for error? Are you looking at an intermittent film shoot where you can break your film into blocks and break up your production over months? Or, are you willing to do the insane fast-paced 3-4 day filmmaking shoot where you might have a nervous breakdown from a possible crew mutiny?
The key thing to remember is regardless of which shooting schedule you have decided upon, you will be working on limited funds if it’s an ultra-low-budget film and you will be working the job of five people. But don’t panic!!!!
It’s all about baby steps. Focus on the goal, and that is to complete your film successfully. Now, how will you accomplish this?
Starting with your low-to-no budget film means to start small – small crew, small kit list, small cast, small location list, and so on.
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Here are some common tips to help you get a start in the pre-production process of your film.
- Keep it simple. If you have been following Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series of the important steps of making a low-budget film, you will know that you will be working on limited resources. So, don’t get bogged down on stuff that isn’t essential to your film production. Think of it as a solo hiking trip. You won’t have help carrying large gear from point A to point B, so would you bring a 10 person tent and a backpack full of equipment that will just tired you as the days continue? No, you shouldn’t. So when it comes to low-budget filmmaking, you need to strip down the non-essentials and be as lean as possible or you won’t make it.
- Contracts. Even if you trust your crew and feel their word is their bond, always have it in writing. I have seen a few filmmaker friends got a verbal ok from a novelist, a crew member, or location owner to use their idea, time, or property for free only to come back years later and demand money from the filmmaker because the film turned a profit. So, If you intend to sell your film to the public, make sure everyone tied to the film signs release forms allowing you to use their work, image, or property. You can’t get distribution from film buyers if these contracts are unsigned.
- Be efficient. If you can write your screenplay with minimal locations involved throughout the film, it means less traveling for you and the crew. Also, try keeping costume, make-up, props, and so on to a minimum. Make sure you go through the script, line by line, and find items you need every scene and see what you can lose to make shooting easier. Always have in mind when doing this is, does an item, location, etc. make a difference to the story, if it doesn’t, then get rid of it.
- Stay Away From Trademarked Items. Stay Away From Trademarked Items. If you are looking to distribute your film to the public, using trademarked items in your film without permission will cause trouble later on. For example, if you want to use an iPhone in your film, and you have a character texting, make sure you get Apple’s permission beforehand. If not, you will be fixing this in post. Go through your script and make sure you don’t mention any brand names, or use brand name products as key props in your film that might come back to haunt you. It is getting easier in post-production to remove logos and copyright-infringing images by blurring them in post. But do you want to add that extra burden in time and cost?
- Crew: Try keeping your crew to a minimum. Even if your crew is volunteering their time, they still need to be feed. Plus, depending on where your locations are in relation to where your crew lives, you may have to cover gas costs. Plus, the more crew you have the more chance that some of them don’t show up on time or head to the wrong location. This just adds more time and costs to your production. Plus, it can make your first assistant director go insane by constantly babysitting your crew. Trust me, I have been a first assistant director on more productions than I want to, and that is always my biggest concern.
Pre-Production – Deliverables are a checklist of items you need to deliver to a distributor when they buy your film. While most of these items are common, some companies will have different demands. Like the type of camera allowed for a Netflix original production.
Netflix demands only certain cameras to be used for streaming on their platform. If your film is shot on a camera that is not on the list of Netflix-allowed cameras, it could cause problems later on.
A deliverable list from a distributor can be quite daunting for a low-budget filmmaker. That’s why it’s important to make sure during pre-production to make sure you get your film as ready as possible for the distributor market.
When it comes to deliverables in pre-production, during production, and during post-production, it will be up to you to figure out when to worry about the deliverable checklist.
But it is possible to make your film for almost nothing and then look for funding later to polish it into something sellable. If you are planning to sell your finished product, you should pay attention to what the deliverables are before you start filming.
Here’s a sample deliverables checklist as a reference of what distributors would expect from your film. This list is a little outdated in terms of technology, but you will get a better understanding of what’s expected.
Trim The Fat
Pre-Production – Shooting with a zero to low budget means that, you as the filmmaker, need to go through everything to keep it down to the absolute bare minimum that you can make a film with. I remember shooting Camping Discovery that we shot scenes with no lights, no make-up, and no special equipment and still get the production completed on time and budget.
You just need to go through your script eliminating everything you possibly can from the script that doesn’t need to be there, do it again. Remove more stuff. There is always fat to be trimmed right up to the first day of shooting.
When I refer to eliminating things from your script, I mean actors that can be eliminated and combined into one character, multiple locations that can be combined into one location for multiple scenes, and so on.
Strip the fat off your screenplay down to its most efficient version. Just by doing this, you will end up with a better script and a better film. Why? Because it will force you to think about the narrative and discover what’s at the emotional core of your story.
Number the scenes
Pre-Production – When you are going through your screenplay, make sure to number the scenes of your script. This helps with creating your schedule and keeps you organized throughout the shoot. Using Final Draft (industry standard) and other scriptwriting software, they can help to add numbers to the scenes in your script.
There can be some complications when adding or deleting scenes after you have done so. But, there are ways that the film industry uses to keep track (which are incorporated into Final Draft and others), which involves adding letters to scenes and so on.
I try to avoid getting into this situation with my low-budget filmmaking because this type of lettering system generally happens with larger productions. If your crew is small, and there aren’t many changes to the script, adding a lettering system to your script overcomplicates things.
Pre-Production – Now that you’ve streamlined your production down to its most effective version, you can begin planning your schedule and creating your shot-list breakdown.
While there is great scheduling software available from companies like Studiobinder, Celtx, and Entertainment Partners, you can simply use Google’s free Drive (docs and sheets) to create your production plans.
The great thing about google docs is you can customize them to your needs, can easily share them online, via email, and easily updated so everyone is constantly in the loop.
What you should include in your schedule(call sheet)? Here is a simple breakdown of things to include in your schedule(call sheet):
- Times for everyone to arrive on location
- Time to start filming
- Scene numbers for each scene
- Estimated time to complete scene
- Breaks (meal breaks or location moves)
- Character/cast name for each scene
- List of props for each scene
- Scheduled end of shoot time for each day.
Keep in mind when sunrise begins and sunset ends for the day of the shoot, as this will decide some shooting times.
Want to see some of the documents used during the production of a low-budget film?
Schedules, location plans, cast contracts, and more can be found here.
In the next post, I’ll discuss Step Five: Production. What methods, tips, and tricks are available to make the most of your limited resources while filming?
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About the author: Trent (imdb | Youtube) has spent 10+ years working on an assortment of film and television projects. He writes about his experiences to help (and amuse) others. If he’s not working, he’s either traveling, reading or writing about travel/film, or planning travel/film projects.
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