The secret of low budget filmmaking is communicating effectively and taking the steps to be completely prepared. When you do not have money to invest the only option left to you is to invest your time. When embarking on low budget project you must lead by example. If you cannot communicate clearly and quickly what you want from your team you’ll have a very difficult time recruiting people at a low or no rate and you will quickly lose the people who are already on board. You have to do the work, all of it, all the time.
If you are serious about embarking on a long journey of DIY, Low Budget filmmaking you need to learn a filmmaking skill. Sounds obvious right? But do not be that person who has an idea for a project and expects everyone else to do all the heavy lifting. When I first started out and to this day when I show one of my films someone will come up to me excited by what they see I created independently on a low budget and want me to help them make their half baked idea a reality. Low budget filmmaking is such an insane amount of work and time along with the utilizing of hard earned contacts, why in the world would I spend all that time and potentially burn my contacts for someone else’s project? But what I am more than willing to do is share what I’ve learned and help you get started making films for yourself.
As a Low Budget filmmaker most likely you are focusing on writing and or directing. Sorry to tell you, those don’t count. As the writer or director at the end of a project, it has your name on it and you will represent it. When you go to festivals you will speak for it and ten years from now it is a solid director or writer credit on your IMDB. That is your compensation for the time and effort you spent. Everyone else just wants to get paid and if they are not getting paid they need to be excited about the opportunity your project provides them. They need to clearly see the value in offering you their time and effort.
Since writing and directing do not apply here I recommend learning editing. To begin to learn how to edit, you can subscribe to Adobe Premiere pretty inexpensively. Certainly, alternatively, you can learn photography, sound recording or sound designing which is great. But if you are starting from zero as a camera person there is a lot of gear to buy and understand. To practice that skill you need projects or need to schedule the time to shoot. With editing, you can just sit at your computer at home and practice. You can even hang out in the park or coffee shop with a laptop. Sound design is more akin to editing in that context but if your aim is filmmaking picture editing makes more sense.
But I need a project or source material you are saying. I hear you and this is what I suggest. A good exercise is to make a music video from the royalty free archival footage, I like the Prelinger Archives. Also, kill two birds with one stone, ask a local or independent band if you can use one of their songs. If you have a friend who is a DJ edit video to one of their tracks. That way they get a music video or projection video and will most likely share it. Your first credit as an editor. I made this music video for a band I really admire Vanish Valley for free, but it wasn’t free was it? It cost my time. But I loved the song and was excited to make something with the footage I found. Passion and drive are key because there is not money motivating you, in fact, it’s costing you money.
The most important reason for learning to edit is for practical reasons. You should learn to edit because you will spend the most money and time on editing. And as they say, a movie is made three times. First when you write it, second when you shoot it and third when you edit it. As a low budget filmmaker, I am guessing you are writing and directing so you might as well round it out. If you are just starting to write have a look at my writing article.
keep in mind you are just learning you do not need to master any of the skills but you should have a working knowledge of them. I stress editing because I will repeat, it will save you the most money and in my opinion, give you the most fulfilling creative experience. When you do one day get an actual workable budget and you sit with your editor you will understand the job and know how to communicate your ideas. And now we get to the point.
When you are paying people little or no money you need to be able to communicate effectively to them what you need. Simply understanding what they do even if is beyond your abilities goes a very long way. Let’s say you are learning to edit but you are not up to speed when it comes time to make your project. I can guarantee you will have an easier time getting an editor if you just do the prep work yourself. With digital filmmaking, there is a lot of raw footage generated. If you hand over a hard drive with 1TB of raw footage to an editor you are not paying. Trust me he or she is not running home to dig into that. If you have a basic knowledge you can load your footage into an editing project file. Organize the footage and make simple selects of the takes you like. After that process, you have a very clear handle on what needs to be done or a very clear idea of what you are lost at sea with and need input on. If you give an editor a project that is organized and all your best takes are selected they will go straight home and dig in. By taking the time to organize the project you communicated to the editor one, you do not expect them to do all the work you want them to contribute and two, you communicated what you are looking for in your edit by making the selects. Also, it is always good form to mention these are your suggestions nothing’s in stone and encourage them to try their own ideas. Now you placed value on their time.
Perhaps you have nothing but burning desire to tell your story as a movie. You still need to get people excited and interested in helping you. You have the most basic elements at your disposal right now, a paper and pen, well most likely a laptop and word processor. Paper and pen just sounds more dramatic. You write your story out long hand. Your characters are here they go there, he said, she said. Then you take your story and turn it into a script, exterior day, stage direction, character dialogue. Next, you make storyboards, draw in rectangles how you see the scene, stick figures and arrows are fine. This is your directing rehearsal, your practice for communicating with the camera person and actors. Finally, do a paper edit, make two columns and in the right column put the dialogue and action in the left column put the description of what we see on screen. This is your editing rehearsal, your practice for communicating with the editor. By the time you do all this work you will be bursting with clear ideas and direction. You can now get potential collaborators excited about your idea and clearly communicate with anyone who agrees to be involved in your project.
In closing, I will say always be gracious and never loose you cool. It is a process, one project at a time. With each project learn a new skill and build friendships with the people you’ve gathered around you. If they had a good experience they will always be up to working with you again. Which means on the next project that’s less of your valuable time you need to spend.
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