5 Rules For Effective Low Budget Filmmaking

5 Rules For Effective Low Budget Filmmaking

When it comes to filmmaking, the most common concern that new filmmakers have when thinking of making a film is a lack of funding. Beginner filmmakers are discouraged because they believe that no film they will make will match the quality of big-budget Hollywood productions.

When it comes to making a film, however, your budget does not determine how well your film will perform; rather, your story does.

For example, filmmaker Kevin Smith made his first feature-length film ‘Clerks‘ for only $27,000.

In 1990, Richard Linklater made his first full-length feature film, ‘Slackers’, for only $23,000, and filmmaker Shane Carruth made ‘Primer‘ for only $7,000.

Even though these films were mostly self-financed low-budget projects, they were all instrumental in launching the careers of these directors.

However, before you start romanticizing the potential of low or no budget projects too much, it’s important to remember that for every success, a massive pile of movies never find an audience, either by chance or because they’re poorly made.

In this post, I’ll go over 5 tips that I believe will improve the strength of your filmmaking without breaking the bank, giving your low-budget films a fighting chance at gaining recognition and laughing your way through your career.

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5 Rules For Effective Low Budget Filmmaking

Play to your strengths

5 Rules For Effective Low Budget Filmmaking

When working with little or no money, you must accept and embrace the fact that you will not be able to control every aspect of production. So, always play to your strengths and work with the resources you have to make your film.

For example, Dave Klein, Kevin Smith’s director of photography on Clerks, initially envisioned shooting the project in color, but practical considerations prevented this from happening.

By shooting in black and white, sure you’ll have to deal with fluorescents and windows, but with tungsten lights mixed with fluorescents that may be readily available in a location, and if you can close the shutters to avoid outside light from getting in, you’ll be able to speed up time in step up and blocking, which is something that independent filmmakers really need, and that is extra time.

Christopher Nolan’s first feature, ‘The Following‘, was shot for the exact same reasons. Instead of choosing a color and fighting with color temperatures, a lack of control over color palettes, and a lack of control over lighting, you can play to your strengths by embracing black and white and focusing solely on lighting contrast.

Another simple way to play to your strengths is to pick your shooting times wisely throughout the production. Always plan to film your project when the natural lighting is at its best.

The most effective way to play to your strengths is to first determine your budget, then sit down and properly allocate your resources. Your best friend is planning.

Of course, you may have a cinematographer who insists on spending all of your budget on lenses and a slew of massive LED light panels, but it’s critical to remember that your loyalty should always be to the story.

That is why, even if it is a difficult decision, the film budget should always be focused on getting experienced actors or locations rather than renting or purchasing the best filmmaking equipment available.

It’s better to film with an inexpensive Mirrorless Camera like the Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera and a solid cast of actors than to spend your entire budget on an Alexa Mini paired with an expensive set of anamorphic lenses and then end up casting your family as the dramatic leads to save a few dollars.

DIY filmmaking principles

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5 Rules For Effective Low Budget Filmmaking

Because you don’t have a lot of money, your film doesn’t have to look bad. If you use a DIY approach to creating your film while adhering to the same cinematic principles that high-budget Hollywood films adhere to, it’s a great way to increase the production value of your low-budget film. 

This can be accomplished by using camera rigs to move the camera or adding practical lights or DIY lighting fixtures assembled from a hardware store or on Amazon, which can add to your cinematic look without spending a lot of money. Locate some halogen lights and experiment with bouncing the light off of subjects or areas around the set.

Check out this article on how to light your locations on a low budget for more ideas on how to light cinematically without a budget.

Learning how to color grade your footage in the editing suite using free software such as DaVinci resolve or monthly subscription software such as Adobe Premiere is another great way to improve the look of your film without spending too much money.

Create a look and stick to it!

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5 Rules For Effective Low Budget Filmmaking

Creating a cohesive look or form for your entire project and sticking to it is probably the best way to stand out or add production value to your film project. 

If you look at the film primer, you’ll notice that the look of the film was a super high contrast black and white look, or in the case of Slacker, the use of long, linked takes, or in the case of Sean Baker’s film ‘Tangerine,’ which was shot entirely on a smartphone. 

If you decide to begin adding different types of cameras, different rigging camera moves, and so on to the original look you wanted to capture during production, you will appear amateurish and your film will look disjointed.

Have a set of rules to follow, such as only using natural lighting throughout your film or only shooting your film with wide-angle lenses, to establish what you, as the filmmaker, are trying to achieve with your film’s vision. This does not imply that you must make it look like a Hollywood blockbuster. 

There are various ways to be cinematic and create a cohesive look or interesting form that works for the story. Consider The Blair Witch Project, the entire film was shot on 16 mm to give the film a found footage look, which added to the suspense.

Small Scope Stories

Film pre-production

5 Rules For Effective Low Budget Filmmaking

When it comes to making effective low-budget films, the script is your most valuable tool. It’s exciting to imagine and write ambitious screenplays with car chases, lots of guns, and an ensemble cast.

However, if you’re just starting out or don’t have a lot of money to work with, and you need to be realistic, write stories that are small enough in scope for you to shoot effectively.

The simplest way to make a bad film is to attempt to produce a story with a larger scope than the budget allows. The simplest way to make a successful low-budget film is to come up with a great concept that can be executed somewhat easily.

Some ways to reduce the scope of your story include shooting in limited locations with a smaller cast, using limited or simplified set pieces, and setting a story in locations that you will have access to.

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Nail the basics

5 Rules For Effective Low Budget Filmmaking

Filmmaking, like any other form of art, allows you to express yourself in any way you want.

However, a good rule of thumb is to be confident in the fundamentals before attempting to be too experimentally ambitious. Without the fundamentals in place, a film is doomed to fail. Even if it is shot in a single take with very technical blocking and lots of fancy VFX work.

Don’t try to run before you can walk; instead, make sure your cast is great, the performances are engaging, the dialogue sounds good, you don’t overshoot with the camera, your locations look real, and your story is strong.

Only after these foundations are solidly in place can you begin to take risks.

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About the author: Trent (IMDB Youtubehas 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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