The lowdown on low cost filmmaking

The lowdown on low cost filmmaking

Michael Rowney reveals the secrets to filmmaking on a budget.

Long before The Dark Knight Trilogy, The Lord of the Rings or E.T, Christopher Nolan, Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg were making low-budget masterpieces such as Following, Bad Taste and Firelight.

Their early careers testify to one fact: films do not need blockbuster budgets to succeed. Here is a guide to getting the cameras rolling without breaking the bank.

  1. Commit

Before calling ‘action’, be aware of the potentially numerous sacrifices, long hours and the expense of taking a film from script to the screen. Films are time demanding and if you’re at the helm, committal to the project is crucial.

Robert Rodriguez (of Sin City fame) funded his renowned action debut, El Mariachi, quite literally by sacrificing blood, sweat and tears. He took part in clinical drug testing to fund the film. Without this conviction, El Mariachi may never have been made.

To hear his advice for making micro-budget movies, watch below:

Note: taking part in a clinical drug trial is a very extreme way of funding a film, and is by no means the only way!

  1. Shooting a film

Choosing the right camera is important, but not essential. In a time before E.T and Indiana Jones, Steven Spielberg started out with a basic Super 8 camera, and in 2008, the Cannes festival screened Marc Price’s Colin, a £45 zombie film made with a Panasonic camcorder.

Price edited the film with basic software he’d been given with a video card years earlier, demonstrating that the only real equipment needed for making films is imagination.

However, cameras such as the Canon 550D, 650D or 750D can elevate a film from the depths of homemade video to the heights of festival films.

Contrary to popular opinion, learning how to use DSLRs isn’t rocket science. YouTube is useful for learning the ropes, and you can find videos detailing everything from cinematography or editing to lighting and makeup.

  1. Lighting

When done right, production design can lend authenticity to even the cheapest of projects.

Lighting a film on a budget can be tricky, but a few precautionary steps simplify the process. Joss Whedon, director of The Avengers, recently shot his low-budget film Much Ado About Nothing in black and white. Grayscale suits natural lighting better than colour but if it is essential, blocking (placing) your actors near windows is a trick that worked well for Christopher Nolan’s Following.

Additionally, filling a room with lots of lamps can work – it’s a trick used by BBC’s Being Human throughout its five series.

Watch the video below for some tips:

  1. Production design

Using inserts – close-up shots of detail within a larger shot – helps to tell a story or build characters without putting you out of pocket. The creation of props such as photographs, jewellery, letters and newspapers is an element of film that doesn’t change from the smallest production to the largest.

Where you can, stick with everyday objects. Whereas fake guns rarely pass as the real thing, simplicity can sell a film. Charlie Chaplin’s silent films were inexpensive, focusing on acting rather than props. Similarly, The Blair Witch Project portrays the occult with just a bunch of twigs:

Additionally, Hollywood blockbusters are increasingly shooting in London such as Thor: The Dark World, Edge of Tomorrow and Skyfall. The city can provide striking visuals, and it won’t cost much – it could even be free.

  1. Sound

Poor sound quality is a tell-tale sign of a low budget but realistically, it isn’t always avoidable. Having a crew member on hand to monitor audio can ensure particularly bad sound is noticed prior to editing.

Like lighting, there are workarounds. Beginning a film in a contained environment, such as with a voiceover or indoor conversation, is advisable. Christopher Nolan did this for Following and it allowed the crew to capture high quality sound at first, so that the audience were invested in the story by the time the audio deteriorated.

Final thoughts

Filmmaking is a challenging, enriching experience, and there are plenty of opportunities to get started in London.

Try not to overthink everything, you can learn on the job. Members of UCL’s film society can hire a number of Canon 650Ds and Rode Video Mics for free. Throughout the year, you’ll meet like-minded people who can work on your film. RADA is also just a few streets away – perfect for sourcing actors.

In the words of James Cameron: “Pick up a camera. Shoot something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your friends and your sister star in it. Put your name on it as director. Now you’re a director.”

To have a look at what you can achieve on a low budget, you can watch episode 1 of UCL film society’s new web series, Barley Hospital Radio*:

*Audio and credits are not final.


Featured Image credit: Wikipedia

Michael Rowney