This week I’m going to give you a short introduction to the weird, surreal and endlessly entertaining world of new silent cinema. While you might already be familiar with 2011 Oscar-winner The Artist, you’ll soon discover that that film is just the tip of the iceberg of what filmmakers have been doing in recent years in terms of reviving a very old form of filmmaking. Rather than being just a nostalgic gesture, these films show how you can actually be extremely innovative while using silent cinema techniques. Moreover, they offer a really creative example of working with small budgets and of using filming techniques in your favour.
1) Brand Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin, 2006)
Canadian director Guy Maddin’s has based his whole filmography on silent cinema aesthetics – whether by reproducing the style of the short-lived part-talkie (a silent film from the start of the sound era that included some synchronous sound sequences) in Archangel (1990), or by representing the (naturally silent) art form of the ballet as a silent film in Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary (2002), or by following a Russian constructivist style in the short The Heart of the World (2000). Even his more famous sound films such as My Winnipeg (2007) and The Saddest Music in the World (2003) reproduce the look of silent films by using extremely grainy black-and-white photography. While being used to shoot in 8 and 16mm, in recent years he’s adopted digital filmmaking while still reproducing the grainy look of silent films, for example in the hallucinatory The Forbidden Room (2015). Indeed, filming his less successful Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (1997) proved to be difficult. The very grainy and blurry images in his other films meant that he was able to get away with very cheap sets, as the details would not be visible anyway. Instead, the producers of Twilight forced him to shoot in 35mm, which means that the sets look deeply fake and unrealistic. Brand Upon the Brain! is a somehow autobiographical story about Maddin’s return to his fictional childhood home (a lighthouse on the deserted Black Notch island that doubles as a children orphanage) and his conflictual relationship with his mother. It was shot in 9 days with a $ 40,000 estimated budget and it then premiered accompanied by a live orchestra, narration, and Foley artists. This phantasmagoric and compelling melodrama is an example of how to advantageously use silent film aesthetics to create an imaginative low-budget film.
2) The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius, 2011)
With a $ 15 million budget, The Artist is by far the most expensive film you’ll find in this article, and the one that you might be most likely already familiar with. It tells the story of the relationship between a rising young actress and an older silent film star during the transition between the silent and the sound era. The Artist was the first 100% black-and-white film to win Best Picture at the Oscars since The Apartment in 1960, and the first mainly silent film to win since the 1st Academy Awards in 1927. Despite not being an independent film, I included this film on the list because its joyous, feel-good quality (and that soundtrack!) is the best demonstration of how entertaining and crowd-pleasing a silent film can be. Its Oscars win also shows how alive silent cinema is. While it’s a film I’ve definitely enjoyed, all the other films in this list are equally (if not more) as imaginative and creative, proving that having a big budget isn’t really necessary to make a good silent film.
3) Decasia (Bill Morrison, 2002)
Defined as “the most widely acclaimed American avant-garde film of the fin-de-siecle” (J. Hoberman, The Village Voice), Decasia was the first film from the 21st century to be selected for preservation by the National Film Registry. Bill Morrison’s most famous film is a meditation on the decay of highly fragile nitrate films from the silent era. If you’re looking for something a little more accessible, make sure to check out Morrison’s most recent film, Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016). Dawson City focuses on the crazy story of the discovery of 533 silent film reels (they were buried in a swimming pool! Under an ice rink! In the middle of nowhere in Canada!). Instead of reproducing silent cinema aesthetics, Morrison uses archival footage from the silent era in a creative way, with results that are deeply moving and sometimes unsettling. While all of his films are the result of painstaking archival research, many public domain silent films are available on the internet to use for free (here’s a helpful guide on how to do it). If you think your film could benefit from the use of archival footage, this is definitely something to check out.
4) Blancanieves (Pablo Berger, 2012)
Released on the same year as Snow White and the Huntsman and a much better film in so many ways, this reinterpretation of the classic fairy tale transports the story to a romantic vision of 1920s Andalusia. The film recasts Snow White as an amnesiac girl who is recruited by a travelling band of bullfighting dwarves as a promising bullfighter. During their tour around Spain, she discovers her real origins. Director Pablo Berger spent 8 years to try and get enough funding to create this alternatively eerie, melancholic and surreal film. When he finally did, he got the news that The Artist had just been presented at Cannes, meaning that his high-concept of a modern black-and-white silent film as a unique selling point was gone. However, Berger also hoped that the success of The Artist would help creating an audience for another silent film. The film was indeed able to find an audience (and it is now featured in the silent cinema section of the BFI Player). If this list proves anything, it’s that there is definitely space for more than one new silent film – precisely because of how different they can be from each other. As Berger rightly points out, “you never compare two colour, sound films”, so why would two silent films need to be necessarily doing similar things?
5) The Call of Cthulhu (Andrew Leman, 2005)
Distributed by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, this short feature film (47 min) attempts and arguably succeeds in bringing to film what was long-considered an “unfilmable” story – H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Chtulhu”, about the mythical cosmic entity of Chtulhu. It was officially shot as a silent black-and-white film as a way of showing how the film would have looked like had it been made in 1928 (the year of the story’s publication). However, the producers actually admitted that this choice came with the benefit of not having to pay particular attention to the materials and decorations of the sets, as colours don’t appear in the final film. Moreover, like in Maddin’s case, the grainy images mean that details aren’t really visible anyway. It is also a pretty ingenious way of creating monsters, creatures and special effects while working with a very limited budget – who cares if the special effects aren’t detailed or believable? They wouldn’t have been able to do much better in 1928!
Want to attend a full weekend workshop about how to work with little or no budget? Check out Raindance’s own Lo-To-No Budget Filmmaking course!
So, you’re making a film? Film location can tell your audience so much about what to expect from your film and your genre. For example, if you’re setting a film in a forest at night, you’re probably making a horror, right? Or if you’re setting it on a beach at sunset, you’re probably going with romance. Back once again with more first-hand film tips, film lovers (and cheese sommeliers), Dušan Mrden and Kathryn Butt, are going to help you with a little bit of brainstorming and guidance while you embark upon the exciting task of choosing your film location
Why is location important?
K: Deciding on a location for your film arguably could be the most important thing you do – can you imagine the screenplay for Gravity being written before deciding the location? Sandra Bullock and George Clooney are stranded in *IKEA*… Locations can be central to your story, as often your narrative will develop based on situations that would arise in that location (e.g. Swedish short-film Ten Meter Tower– set in one location and the stories arise from this scenario). When considering your location, you need to think about practicality – can you make your script work if you can’t get the location you need? And how will you get your cast, crew & equipment there? If you’re a film student, it’s sometimes easier to decide on your location first and then work on your script. If you set your heart on an underwater action sequence, you’re probably going to end up disappointed and your student loan will have taken a sizeable hit…
D: If you are working on a budget (as most of us are) be sure to set aside a reasonable amount of money for your location. Locations and food for cast and crew usually tend to be the most expensive aspect of shooting a film. If you are just starting out and have limited funds, think about Hitchcock’s Rear Window as an example – try putting your character in one place for starters, and then try to unravel the story from there. Sometimes all it takes is one location and a great character. But with saying this, I do believe that shooting on location is a great way for new filmmakers to understand the process and also a way to learn how to organise your crew and your time.
Tom at the Farm (2013), 12 Angry Men (1957), The Party (2017), Miss Julie (2014)
How to find your location?
K: Once you’ve decided on your location, it’s time to start looking for your ideal setting. No need to panic! Here’s a list of tips to find your film’s location without draining your budget completely…
K: Student houses can be a clear giveaway – so can the holiday photos of you & your mates plastered across the wall, so heed this advice! The fire door signs and shatter resistant glass will signpost your film as a student project and therefore instantly less professional than if you’d used another location. I did some pre-selection of student films at a film festival last year and it’s incredible how much difference a location makes to the reading of the film. Even just asking friends/family to borrow their houses, or renting a house for a day will be worth it to make your film more realistic.
D: Kat has a point – but in my experience, student accommodation can sometimes be the only answer. If this is the case, make sure you ask about filming and get permission and find time to shoot when people are not sleeping or resting.
D: A lot of film schools and academies tend to have their own studios – some smaller, some bigger. It would be worth calling them up and going on a recce to see if any of their studios would fit in with your project. Film school taught me how to be resourceful and create the space I need in a studio – your imagination has no boundaries!
Extra point from D: Why not contact some art schools and speak to young designers or art directors to collaborate? Adding people to your production can definitely be a blessing because it adds another layer to your project – somebody else’s input. Many artist would love to have the opportunity to dress a set and make it look good for you on camera.
John Ward studio at London Film Academy dressed and stylized in different ways for films
Facebook Boards & Groups
D: In my experience with the filmmaking community, Facebook groups have shown to be one of the most effective ways of actually reaching people you need for your project. After some time, you start to recognize the people you have worked with or have heard about and a lot of them have had an ample amount of experience. Everybody today spends time on Facebook and Instagram so you will definitely meet the people you need.
K: Also, if you’re stuck for location ideas, posting on local groups for suggestions can help a lot. Maybe attach some photos of location inspiration, and hopefully people will point you in the direction of the locations you need. Also, you can utilise everything from Google Images to Pinterest to help communicate your location ideas to people who know the area. Even comparing it to other films in that genre can help you find a location that could work for you.
Get on the phone
K: If you can’t find rates online or they don’t have an email address – don’t give up! Enquire at locations on the phone to see if they are available/how much they are. It can save you time by getting instant responses rather than waiting for emails if you’re on a short schedule. Don’t wait too long to contact venues either, otherwise you could find somewhere ideal that you find out is out of your budget or unavailable when you want to shoot.
D: You need to speak to your Director of Photography, your Art Director or your Producer and explain to them your vision. You as a team need to start scouting for locations, looking through prices and spaces that would benefit you the most. If you are searching for locations through websites like AirBnB always make sure to ask the landlord if they are fine with you shooting there – and don’t forget to get a permit!
K: Never underestimate the importance of a location scout. You need to consider the space, the lighting conditions, and any issues you could have with sound (building works next door could be a deal breaker). Also, it’s easy to forget but check for power sockets! You don’t want to turn up with your whole crew complete with 3 lights that all need power outlets. Even Amazon Prime can’t get extension leads to you in time to save your shoot then.
D: Power sources tend to be one of the trickiest things about shooting on location – think about it thoroughly. If you are shooting in a park, where will you charge the batteries for your equipment? And don’t forget toilets.. Toilets are a must have when shooting on location.
Book in advance
K: If you’re hoping to shoot in a location that is usually empty, you may not think you need to book it. However, it’ll be just your luck that you turn up and there’s a Zumba class right where you want to film. And no one wants that…
D: Last year while shooting one of my films, we were looking for a big theatre space and my producer found this great one in Green Park. The only problem was that we could be in there from 10 to 6 only, so we had very limited time to unpack the equipment and pack it again so we could leave by 6. If we had found the location a bit earlier we could have stayed longer – mostly because they had already rented it out for an evening class!
K: How will everyone get there? It’s easy if its near public transport, however, if you’re looking to shoot abroad or in a remote village in the countryside, you need to decide if it’s worth the extra cost/time. Is there a way around that? If you need to be on a beach in Barbados, can you find an alternative? Shooting inside a beach hut that you can construct in a studio is a lot cheaper and simpler. Unless its crucial to your story, try to work around it.
D: When you’re scouting make sure that the location is also near a station or that there is parking for your van hire or even Uber to be able to save time and unload everything.
Permits / Safety (aka the boring stuff…)
K: It’s worth researching what permits you’ll need. For public places, such as swimming pools, you will probably need a permit and permission from various staff. I once shot a film in our student union, and we ended up needing two pieces of written permission from department heads, the bar manager’s permission, printed signs on the entrance to the bar and even after that, we weren’t allowed to shoot the bar area or bar staff. It’s worth doing your research. You’ll also need to think about location security and whether you’ll need public/traffic marshals. You’ll also have to do that trusty risk assessment, especially to minimise any risks if you’re shooting in a hazardous place.
D: I had the opportunity to be a part a friend’s film two years ago, and we shot on many fantastic locations all around London. One was a very busy station, so that meant that the heads of departments had to do a safety and regulations session for about an hour and a half – make sure you check all of this in advance if you are to pick a popular location.
K: Ensure you have everything prepared so that you can make the most of your allotted time on location. Planning ahead and making your call sheet as precise as possible will help you keep to time and get the most from your location.
D: Many different things can happen or go wrong when filming on location, so make sure you give yourself time to get all the coverage. Your AD needs to have a strong voice and be very organized and prepared to deal with any situation, especially when filming somewhere for the first time. Also take into account that your cast and crew also need to rest and not be stressed.
You can do it!
K: Hopefully you’ve found these tips handy, and we’d love to know how you get on! Send us a link to your short film or let us know your experiences below.
With the credit crunch destroying lives – don’t let it destroy your career! See these films that launched careers. Learn how those who have trod before dealt with minimal budgets and launched hugely rewarding careers.
Remember, Raindance Film Festival is open for submissions. Get the low down on how to submit here:
Monsters 2010 UK
Writer/Director: Gareth Edwards Budget: £ 15.000 est
Writer and director Gareth Edwards said he wanted to make a monster movie “set years after most monster movies end”. Monsters follows the journey of a journalist and an American tourist trying to make it safely through alien infested Mexico to the American border. Even just by watching the trailer, you would not believe that this film was shot on such a miniscule budget. Edwards shows what you can achieve by driving your crew around different locations in a van, learning to use your laptop for editing and to create special effects, and being resourceful. There is a rumour on the internet about the budget being just $ 15000, slammed by some who say that that is way too little for a movie of this kind, even if low-budget. The debate is still open…). And of course Gareth’s latest features is Rogue One
Writer: Chris Sparling Director: Rodrigo Cortes Budget: $ 3.000.000
Buried is the story of an American truck driver (played by Ryan Reynolds) who is attacked by a group of Iraqi insurgents and wakes up buried alive in a coffin in the company of only a lighter and a mobile phone. Shot in 17 days, the whole film revolves around the protagonist and his struggle to save his own life, and utilises the age-old human fear of being buried alive to set in motion a story which works on an emotional and psychological level more than through special effects and visual action.
Cortes had very few tools and very limited space with which to create this film – but he managed it very powerfully.
Marketed as “one of the scariest movies of all times”, Paranormal Activity utilises two classic indie movie expedients – one location plus handheld camera – to tell the story of a couple who move into a new home only to start acknowledging a presence who manifests itself at night and seems to be following them. Writer and director Oren Peli used his own house for the shooting, and eliminated the need for a camera crew by leaving the camera sitting on the tripod for most of the filming – something which increased the story’s believability and thus worked two ways.
The film focuses on the raw ‘scare factor’ rather than on gore and action, and this also works in containing the budget, showing that establishing empathy and a sense of “familiarity” with the audience doesn’t cost much but works very well when you want to scare them senseless.
While traveling on a bus with his football team, Werner Herzog wrote the scrip for Aguirre in only two and a half days. The film depicts the insane Aguirre as he travels through South America. It quickly became a masterpiece, which justified the intense shooting. Not only was the use of stunt men and special effects out of the budget, but also the crew had to deal with moving about in the extreme heat of the jungle, as well as with temperamental actor Klaus Kinski, who shot off the finger of an extra. When you have a low budget, you take what you can get; and in this case, it worked out perfectly.
Writers: Ken Hammon, Tony Hiles, Peter Jackson Director: Peter Jackson Budget: $ 255,000
It is always interesting to see where big name, blockbuster directors got their start. Peter Jackson, director of the “Lord of the Rings Trilogy” and “King Kong,” got his start making a cheap film filled with blood and guts, all about bad taste. His first film was an over-the-top story about aliens searching for human flesh for their fast food chain. The film was made on the weekends over the period of four years, with friends and family helping out; all of the alien masks we made in Peter Jackson’s mother’s oven. Buy Bad Taste Amazon here
The Blair Witch Project 1999 USA
Writer/Director: Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez Budget: $ 22,000
While most low budgets build on word of mouth, this film created a viral campaign, making many people believe the events in the film to be true, portraying it as a true documentary. While the hand-held cameras made some theatre goers sick, it didn’t stop too many from coming, as the film grossed $ 248 million, making it one of the few films in American history to have one of the highest ratio of box office sales to production costs. Not only did it manage to make a large some of money, it also managed to create nightmares in the minds of the audience. My 30 year old sister still cannot go into basements because of this film. Buy The Blair Witch Project on Amazon here
Brick 2005 USA
Writer/Director: Rian Johnson Budget: $ 475,000
Writer/Director, Rain Johnson, spent seven long years to get Hollywood to produce his script, but constantly failed as most producers found the material too unusual for a first time director. The apprehension was perfectly understandable, as the film was written in the style of Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled detective stories, but set in a modern day high school. Rian Johnson was finally able to bring his film noir style thriller to life independently, as friends and family of Johnson helped to fund his project. He then also managed to use his creative abilities to figure out difficult ways to film his demanding script. For instance, in some circumstances, he would shoot some scenes backwards and play it forwards. To save money, the film was even edited on a home computer, and the score was recorded over iChat. All this hard work paid off, as “Brick” was awarded a special Jury prize for originality of vision at the Sundance Film Festival. A large cult following has developed for this hugely engaging and smart thriller. Buy Brick on Amazon here
Clerks 1994 USA
Writer/Director: Kevin Smith Budget: $ 27,000
The most revered independent filmmaker in the United States, Kevin Smith has an unadulterated cult following. His groundbreaking film, Clerks, tells the story of a group of friends set mostly at a convenience store. Crafting a script chocked full of humour and scintillating dialogue. Smith chose to shoot his film in black and white, to emphasize the writing rather than the visuals. College students and young adults alike latched onto this simple comedy. Smith pulled out all the stops while trying to finance his film. He maxed out all of his credit cards and sold most of his extensive and expensive comic book collection. Smith also had to put up with the pressures of an inconvenient schedule, forcing him to make creative decisions. Most of the film had to be shot at night, during after hours at the convenience store. Smith had to figure out a way to sell the idea of a shop looking closed, but was still open for business. So Smith wrote in a scene where a character places a sign on the outside of store with the words, “I assure you, we’re open.” This proves that any unfortunate situation can be turned into an asset. The risk was worth it in the end. Since its debut in 1994, Clerks is still thought of as one of the best independent films, let alone comedies, of the 20th century. Buy Clerks on Amazon here
Cube 1997 Canada
Writer: Andre Bijelic, Vincenzo Natali, Graeme Manson Director: Vicenzo Natali Budget: CAD $ 365,000
Made before the “Saw” franchise, “Cube” was original and frugal in a way that it was set in a limited space. The space appeared to be several different cube rooms, which adds variety to the limited set. The story is well known: a group of strangers are picked off one by one by booby-trapped rooms. One room was built for the entire productions, and in order to create the illusion of different rooms, sliding panels were added to change the colour or the room, and different traps were used to add a little spice of variety. Buy Cube on Amazon here
Night of the Living Dead 1968 USA
Writers: George A. Romero and John A. Russo Director: George A. Romero Budget: $ 114,000
Dawn of the Dead 1978 USA
Writer/Director: George A. Romero Budget: $ 650,000
Both of Romero’s first Dead films completely changed not only the way people viewed zombies, but also the way they viewed horror films. Each film is a well-crafted thrill ride, full of blood and guts, but also provides plenty of social commentary about modern life. These films also brought new life to the zombie idea, as before this, no one knew why they were supposed to be afraid of zombies. Thanks to Romero and his horror ways, zombies now plague the dreams of millions. All these nightmares started on a very low budget film. In order to create the gruesome effects of zombies feasting on flesh, chocolate syrup was used as blood and roasted ham was flesh, a wonderfully delicious combination, as most extras threw up after takes. Buy Night of the Living Dead on Amazon here
Writer/Director: Robert Roderiguez Budget: $ 7,000
Robert Roderiguez’s pinnacle of independent film, El Mariachi, is famed for its ultra-low budget of only $ 7,000, was funded by drug trials Roderiguez went through. Roderiguez was able to create a very compelling story about a mariachi band player who is mistaken for a notorious Mexican criminal. In Roderiguez’s book, “Rebel Without A Crew,” he details how he was able to produce a film without hiring a film crew. Along with Roderiguez, the other actors in the film would operate the film equipment when they were off camera, thus solving the problem of a film crew. Roderiguez used his ingenuity and creativity in order to make up for the lack of props, lighting and camera equipment. El Mariachi stunned audiences and has become the paramount of independent filmmaking. Roderiguez’s story continues to be an inspiration for independent filmmakers. Buy El Mariachi on Amazon here
Eraserhead 1977 USA
Writer/Director: David Lynch Budget: $ 100,000
From the enigmatic and perplexing mind of filmmaker, David Lynch, comes perhaps his most erratic, bizarre, and simply disturbing tale in his oeuvre. It is so twisted, no matter how many times it is viewed, it will never completely be understood. It is pretty much a nightmare someone would have on acid. It is remarkable that the film was actually made, because of shoddy funding, the film took about 5 years to complete filming. Friends, like actress Sissy Spacek, and family helped to finance the remaining money not covered by a grant from the American Film Institute. The long delay was worth the wait as the film captures the attention and imaginations of the audience, not to mention, making them become vegetarian and putting them off from having kids. It is always worth a chance to experience truly different film, and on that point, Eraserhead will not disappoint; and for you Pixies fans, you can finally understand and see where their song “Lady in the Radiator” comes from. Buy Eraserhead on Amazon here
The Evil Dead 1981 USA
Writer/Director: Sam Raimi Budget: $ 375,000
Long before his was bringing everyone’s favorite webslinger to life, and producing wretched horror films, Sam Raimi was king of campy horror films. Raimi started by writing and directing the cult classic, “The Evil Dead.” Raimi’s outrageous gore fest was shot over a one and a half year period with problems following every turn. Cast members left the production halfway through the shoot, which required Raimi to hire stand-ins for important shots. Bruce Campbell, the star and hero of the film, endured harsh shooting conditions which often included going home in the back of pick up trucks covered in synthetic blood and guts. However, Campbell did stay true to the project, following Raimi until the end, and even acted as a stand-in for missing actors. For his loyalty, Raimi has since given Campbell cameos in all of his “Spider-Man” films. Amid the various problems during filming, the movie has since become a gold standard for independent horror flicks. Buy The Evil Dead on Amazon here
Following 1998 UK
Writer/Director: Christopher Nolan Budget: $ 6,000
Christopher Nolan, the man behind such films as The Prestige, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, and Memento, debuted as a filmmaker with a little film called Following. The film tells the story of a struggling writer who tried to find stories by following random people who eventually becomes the mentor of a masterly thief. Using the same sort of techniques as Robert Roderiguez with such a tight budget, Nolan chose to film in his friend’s and family’s homes for locations, used natural light instead of expensive lighting equipment and rehearsed the scenes extensively before filming on expensive stock. Buy Following on Amazon here
Halloween 1978 USA
Writers: John Carpenter and Debra Hill Director: John Carpenter Budget: $ 320,000
Much like “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” four years earlier, this low budget film help to bring about a surge of slasher films, whether you like it or not. The film relied on word-of-mouth to gain a following, and to grow into a cultural phenomenon. The film employed a various use of camera angels, effective music, and a lack of actual graphic violence capture the attention of audiences for years to come; unlike its forgettable and unneccessary sequals. Its classic status was gained on a very low budget. Money was so tight that all of the actors used their own clothes, as there was no money for wardrobe, and a cheap Captain Kirk mask was repainted and refurbished in order to create Michael Myers iconic mask. Buy Halloween on Amazon here
Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer 1986 USA
Writer: John McNaughton and Richard Fire Director: John McNaughton Budget: $ 110,000
The film was shot only over the course of 28 days. In order to film that fast and with a small budget, friends and families of the cast and crew were used, as well as the filmmakers own possessions. The film takes an interesting path, as it focuses on the main characters sick fantasies rather than the actual crimes committed.
This film shows independent filmmakers that there trials and tribulations of making a film could be a lot worse. “Living In Oblivion” follows a director’s attempts at making a film, having to deal with narcotic actors, script changes, and nothing going quite right. The film was only shot in 16 days, and completely financed by the friends and family of the filmmaker. The actors of the film felt so strongly about the project they worked for free, and in fact contributed money to help produce the film. When you have an idea that is strong, anyone is willing to help out. Buy Living in Oblivion on Amazon here
Lord of the Flies 1963 UK
Writer/Director: Peter Brook Budget: $ 250,000
Few films can be considered respectable adaptations of classic novels, but Lord of the Flies manages to do so, but only loosely following the story. Brook let the children run wild, encouraging improvisation, creating a natural and primitive feel to the film, matching the tone of the book.
Writer: George Miller and James McCausland Director: George Miller Budget: Australian $ 350,000
To think that a film can be made for not even half a million dollars, and go on to earn $ 100 million world wide, and spawn two sequels, is beyond mad. This film about a post-apocalyptic Australia, focusing on the break down of society helped to launch the careers of star Mel Gibson and director George Miller. The film was also significant in that it helped to open up the global market to Australian films. Buy Mad Max on Amazon here
Napoleon Dynomite 2004 USA
Writer: Jared and Jerusha Hess Director: Jared Hess Budget: $ 400,000
Love it or hate it (hopefully hate it), there is no denying the power this low-budget film has. Despite being filled with an assortment of strange characters, offbeat choices, and relatively plot less nature, it quickly found an audience in theaters, becoming a sleeper hit, grossing over $ 40,000,000 domestically. Who would have thought that a film made for less than half a million dollars, centering on a pathetic nerd, would go on to become a pop culture phenomenon. Buy Napoleon Dynomite
Once 2006 Ireland
Writer/Director: John Carney Budget: €130,000 (approx. $ 160,000 at the time)
While the storyline and structure of “Once” is fairly simple and a tad clichéd, it is completely earnest and raw, strong enough to overcome its shortcomings and tug at your heart. The strong performances, fairytale setting, and all of the great bittersweet showcase the power and greatness of the film. The film caught the attention of the Academy Awards, as they honored it with an Oscar for best originally song. A film may not have the most money, and many may not have seen it, but if a film has some great qualities, ones that are not necessarily affected by money, people will take notice. Buy Once on Amazon here
Open Water 2003 USA
Writer/Director: Chris Kentis Budget: $ 130,000
Much like “The Blair Witch Project” before it, “Open Water” uses a minimalist approach, as it was shot on cheap digital video, not necessarily to save money, but to increase the terror. One gets a sense of real and urgent terror due to the low budget look of the film, as if they are watching actual events unfold right before them in real time, a couple lost at sea is made even more terrifying, it slowly creeps under your skin. Just because one has a low budget, does not mean they cannot take advantage and embrace it. Buy Open Water on Amazon here
Trying to figure out a mathematical equation to why you might like PI might be as impossible as the main character’s quest to find the meaning of God through numbers. However confusing the film is, it is masterly crafted and wonderfully imagined by today’s leading art house director, Darron Aronofsky. As the paranoia and obsession takes hold on the main character, the film swings into full action through mind-bending metaphors and sequences. Aronofsky, determinated to fund the project, sold shares to his family and friends, who managed to fund a majority of the project. Buy Pi on Amazon here
Primer 2004 USA
Writer/Director: Shane Carruth Budget: $ 7,000
“Primer,” tries to defy all the time travel science fiction flicks that have come before it. Shane Carruth, who starred, wrote, composed, produced, edited, photographed, and directed certainly had his hands full with this unconventional film. This probably accounts for the extreme lack of funds, as to save from hiring extras hands. Although many would feel the pressure of manufacturing a film single-handedly, Carruth is confident enough to pull off an excellent story. Carruth’s trust in the audience to think intelligently about his movie is one of the most endearing aspects of this film. The script does not allow for dumb, plot filler sequences, but meticulously converses about time travel in a lucid and unforgettable dialogue. It was a hard task to accomplish for a first time filmmaker, who never went to film school, nor had any previous film experience.It all paid off in the end when it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance FIlm Festival. Buy Primer on Amazon here
Slacker 1991 USA
Writer/Director: Richard Linklater Budget: $ 23,000
Serving as a direct inspiration for Kevin Smith to become a director, and his film “Clerks.” “Slacker” follows a band of young adult bohemians in a day around Texas. From the filmmaker who gave us “Dazed and Confused,” Richard Linklater produced this misfit and unexpected comedy which had given Linklater the chance at fame.
Writer: Jon Favreau Director: Doug Liman Budget: $ 250,000
Long before helming such projects as “Elf” and “Iron Man,” Jon Favreau penned this indie masterpiece. Long regarded as one of the top comedies of its generation, “Swingers” managed to catapult many up and coming artists to the big business. Vince Vaughn was quickly hired after “Swingers” debuted to star in Steven Spielberg’s “The Lost World,” Jon Favreau was acknowledged as a well-respected artist, and Doug Liman went on to direct such films as “The Bourne Identity” and “Go”. The real gem of this movie is Favreau’s script. It is intensely funny and uses character interaction for comedy more than plot, which makes the entire film very quote-able. The film follows a couple of actors who dream of making it to the big leagues, but manage to become regulars at the classy neo-lounge scene. Buy Swingers on Amazon here
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 1974 USA
Writer: Tobe Hooper and Kim Henkel Director: Tobe Hooper Budget: $ 83,532
Having been banned for a long period of time in the United Kingdom, it is not exactly clear why. While the title suggests a blood bath, of victims being sliced and diced, the film actually shows very little, leaving all the gore and torture to your imagination, making it all the more terrifying. The film creates a unnerving and tense atmosphere, that never lets up. Even with its small budget, it has become a corner stone of not only the horror and thriller genre, as it has become one of the most referenced and imitated horror films, but it also of exhibits the art of low budget filmmaking, as it is an intelligent and absorbing film. Forget about all the pathetic, half-assed, sequals and remakes, the original is still the best. Buy The Texas Chainsaw Massacre on Amazon here
Welcome to the Dollhouse 1995 USA
Writer/Director: Todd Solondz Budget: $ 800,000
While films like “Napoleon Dynamite” use young social outcasts to create completely unrealistic humorous and feel good moments, “Welcome to the Dollhouse” cuts to the bone, creating a painfully realistic look at adolescence. The film poignantly explores the horrors of an unattractive and unpopular girl trying to survive middle school, never letting up with the cringe worthy, and all too uncomfortably familiar moments, and pitch black humor, even up to the very downbeat end. Its hard not see yourself in, the unfortunately named, Dawn Weiner. While the film may not have grossed nearly as much as most films about adolescence, it has developed a deservingly huge cult following, and serves as a reminder that although your childhood might have sucked, nothing compares to what this girl went through. The film won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Dramatic Feature at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival. Buy Welcome to the Dollhouse on Amazon here
Theare are the films that launched careers both big and small. See if you can find a common denominator that you can use for guidance in your own career.
There are all sorts of articles on the internet about compromises low budget filmmakers make. Usually it is all about the types of compromises made during the actual shoot. I read stories of how film crews were stuck together with gaffer tape, horrid working conditions and clapped out gear.
Let’s start at the very beginning and see if we can see the sorts of compromises low budget filmmakers make.
Are you starting off making a film without much money? Let’s look at the elements of a script that cost money:
Firstly, numbers of actors. The more actors the more mouths to feed. How many actors in the first Paranormal Activity? Or in Buried? Compromise number 1: Limited actors
Compromise number 2 – special effects are expensive. or are they? If you want ten thousand camels running you better get a lot of money together – or research the capability of micro budget special effects. It could be cheap enough to be within range.
Compromise number 3 – Locations. The thing that really ramps up a budget is the number of locations. Everytime you move from one location to another it costs time and money
Here’s the script that seems to launch every single career of writer/directors: A bunch of actors in a house that get chopped up. Isn’t this George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead? Or how about Reservoir Dogs? When Michael Madsen was at Raindance Film Festival he told us how all of the locations were a short walk form the warehouse making this essentoially a one-location movie. Thus very cheap.
But beware. Writing a confinement movie, or single locatiion movie puts you into a load of competition becasue everyone is doing it. So now you need to think how you are going to enhance the story. A common sub-genre of confinement movie is the homw invasion story – something Raindance created successfully with the Mark Rogers script Deadly Virtues directed by this year’s filmmaker in residence Ate de Jong (Drop dead Fred).
There are three ways no-budget filmmakers pay for the stuff they need and the people they need. Cash, of course the simplest way. Deferred, meaning people and equipment suppliers get paid later, out of profit (if any). And in-kind – in other words perks are exchanged for good and services. This is very common in so-called product placement deals. and of course it is the basis of crowd-funding campaigns.
Each of these payment methods can cause heart-ache if not handled correctly.
There are loads and loads of money-saving tricks you can use in your film. these tricks-of-the-trade are what I discuss in my weekend masterclass Lo-to-no Budget filmmaking.
Here’s a simple one: If you are shooting outside at night- take a watering can and wet the pavement like we did in this Raindance film Festival trailer written and directed by Mark Williams.
Compromises Low Budget Filmmakers Make in Marketing
Lack of cash is not one of the the main compromises low budget filmmakers make. It’s once the film is made that the competiiton for eyeballs, distribution and more importantly money. It’s here that a filmmakers resourcefulness is challenged. There are three main compromises low budget filmmaker make:
Advertising is hellishly expensive. Ads in newspapers, bus shelters, website banners, radio and TV spots are nearly impossible for a low budget filmmaker to afford.
It is possible to convince a brand to advertise your project. Fedex paid money for Castaway with Tom Hanks, and Harley Davidson paid for Ewan Macgregor’s round the world bike trips. So-called product placement only works if the brand sees a marketing hook and brand extension values. Setting these relationships up is very time consuming. Raindance is very fortunate to have such a relationship with Lexus.
Marketing is one of those three-cornered relationships like the ones you see in supermarkets. You know what I mean. Buy the ketchup get the potato fries half price. Again this is time-consuming to set up, but when it works it can be an effective way to get your film out there.
A successful marketing campaign combines online and offline advertising. Some projects, especially issue based films suit this apporach well. We are currently working with our Postgraduate film degree students dagmura and Andy who have a documentary about the Woman’s March the day after Trumpo was inaugurated. The march where five million women marched in cities all over the world. They are hoping to tie into the marketing of the different womens groups around the world. You can support We Still Rise Movie here.
It’s with publicity that low budget filmmakers can have a real edge. Creative use of marketing assets like posters, trailer and campaign images can quickly go viral if handled correctly. the so-called ROI or Rate of Retun easily outdoes the equivalent metrics in advertising and marketing campaigns.
The Blair Witch Project screened at Raindance in 1999. The publicity created for this micro budget movie is easily the best example of what publicity can do for your film and is easily the best of all time. This film scored huge media presence in the days before Youtube and Facebook. Here’s how The Bair Witch Project did it
In summary, it’s great you want to make a movie. Having little or no money need not be a problem. Compromises low budget filmmakers make? View limited resources as an opportunity to exercise your mettle to solve a series of challenging creative opportunities.
“should budget be considered when you’re an unrepped writer workin on a spec? Or just best poss story?”
The easy thing is simply to say “Write the best story possible.” But screenplays are not just stories. They are movies. And movies cost money to produce. A studio’s production budget is pretty much a zero sum game, they only have so many dollars to go around, so it’s possible you could write a great story, but price yourself out of a deal because what you’ve written is too expensive.
In general, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to wear a producer’s hat along with your screenwriter’s hat, at least be aware of some elements that drive up the cost of a script. To wit:
If you are writing a mainstream, big budget movie, it is what it is, and so you’re probably less concerned with budget. But if you are writing a small indie film, perhaps something you want to direct or act in yourself, you absolutely have to be concerned with budgetary issues. Also you may come up with a contained thriller script like this one:
A down-on-her-luck woman stuck in her apartment must fend off waves of Yakuza assassins sent by her ex, who is a dangerous mob boss.
That recently sold as a spec and as I understand it, the entire movie will be shot in the woman’s apartment. One location. That right there saves a boatload of production dollars. Even major studios will take a bite at a low-budget script like that hoping to strike gold like Paramount did with Paranormal Activity.
So in general, the conventional wisdom still holds true: “Focus on writing the best story possible.” But don’t forget to don that producer’s hat from time to time and at least be cognizant of some pricey script elements. Depending on the project, where you are in your career, and what your goals are, you could benefit from taking into account budgetary concerns.
This is the last in the current round of GITS reader questions. I believe this has been the most questions at any given time (upward to 20). I keep thinking folks will run out of questions to ask, but evidently not.
I will open up another round in a month or so. In the meantime, if you have something you want my two cents on or you think might be a subject the GITS community would benefit from, please feel free to email me with your inquiry. And as always, you can check out the archives: GITS Reader Questions. I believe there over 200 Q&As in there at this point. That’s a lot of content. Worth checking out.
Zero budget filmmaking may sound like a terrible idea. After all, if you look at the marketplace as it stands currently, you’ll see all the super-heroes squishing everyone else out of your local cinema, you’ll see the hundreds of millions of dollars shine in the spotlight and relegate anything else to the background.
However, if you look at the names of the filmmakers that are now directing tentpole blockbusters, you’ll also find that they are not just Hollywood hacks that are just here to be manipulated by the money people. Yes, money people do pull the strings, but what they buy is not just an industrious outlook on an artistic endeavour, it’s a creative vision. And since that can’t be bought, it means you can achieve it on zero budget.
Small is beautiful
“Small is beautiful” is a phrase that comes from the field of economics and is the title of a 1973 book that greatly criticised the way that Western economy was running. The subtitle was: “A study of economics as if people mattered.” The principal thesis of the book is that an adequate and targeted use of technology which would simply fulfil human needs without going further into greed or the search for profit for profit’s sake would make the economy sustainable. That idea didn’t percolate really well, as the next decade saw the liberal economic policies of the Reagan era and corporations becoming “too big to fail”.
In a seminal talk, director Steven Soderbergh argued that, for purely financial reasons, it made more sense for studios to make bigger films than to spend time doing average-sized movies, once you include marketing and other costs. What that means is: the film business is following the same trend as most Western societies today, which is extreme polarisation between those that are “too big to fail” and those that are small and beautiful —in our case, the blockbusters that are guaranteed to gross over a billion dollars at the box office, and the tiny indie fares.
The mean streets of zero budget filmmaking
Getting money into the bank has always been the struggle of independent filmmakers and public funding cuts that are happening at the moment are merely another iteration of that struggle. However, content creators have an opportunity here. There was a time when the main difficulty was getting your hand on equipment -which was the struggle of masters like Scorsese and Cassevetes, in the days of Who’s That Knocking on my Door and Shadows, respectively. Nowadays, you can shoot a film on your iPhone, the struggle has moved to distribution and getting your film seen -and that can be done with smart social media strategising and very small resources.
There are many ways of leveraging technology and whatever resources you have at your disposal to make your small budget go a long way. For instance, Christopher Nolan on his first feature -which was the zero budget Following– shot a lot near windows in order to use natural lighting. You’ll notice that he did the same on his $ 250 million blockbuster The Dark Knight. The original Star Wars film was an independent film at heart and had a very emotional core that went far beyond the equally enjoyable but less emotional notion of man versus nature that drove the narrative of the oft-compared blockbuster Jaws.
Crowdsourcing your film
Making a film with zero budget means that you, a bright up-and-coming independent filmmaker, have to find more creative ways of breaking into the film industry. That means crowdfunding, that means social media, and that means also how to do things with that principle of “enoughness” that underpins the notion of “small is beautiful”. You may not have plenty, but you will know how to use it. If you desperately something extra (money, gear, a post production studio you can use after office hours): you know where to ask and who to call for favours.
That implies that you’ll need to angle your film towards a niche from its inception. Tangerine was not just an incredible technical achievement, it was also a film that represented a disenfranchised group, transgender people of colour, beautifully and humanely. Therefore, the film had a strong echo in the LGBT community at a time when the world was ready for intersectionality to leave the offices of gender studies and/or subaltern studies researchers and leap into the world.
Embracing zero budget filmmaking may seem like a constraint -but be assured that even films with huge budgets are tempted to ask for more money. You certainly have resources you can harness. The question is how to do so, and to what end. When is not even a question: the time is now.
The budget is one of the most important and one of the most difficult components in filmmaking. Many have struggled on working within the limitations of the budget they have and in result, have produced poor films by being overly ambitious and unwilling to compromise. The fact of the matter is that not every production is going to get the equipment or location of their dreams but that’s okay. A film does not have to suffer because it doesn’t have the financial backing that Lord of the Rings had. A successful film is one that embraces constraints and makes them work in the film’s favour. Cutting costs does not lower the value of the film. The goal of this blog post is to prove that films can be successful with little to no budget and provide advice that independent filmmakers have used themselves on prosperous films.
Clerks (Directed by Kevin Smith with a budget of $ 27,575)
Clerks was the debut feature film for director, Kevin Smith. Before there was Chasing Amy or Dogma, there was Clerks. It has the lowest budget that Kevin Smith has had to work around and yet it launched Smith’s career and won the “Award of the Youth” and Mercedes-Benz Award in 1994 at Cannes Film Festival.
Kevin Smith was able to achieve great success with extremely low funding which proves that big budgets do not make a film great. Filmmakers can do something just as good as big budget features do but with nothing at all. The trick is to embrace your limitations and make them work for you rather than against you.
Use what you have available
Location wise, Kevin Smith’s entire film is based in a convenient store in New Jersey and it’s video rental shop next to it. These spaces are actually places Kevin Smith was working at in the time of production and was given permission to use them during their closing hours. Which is exactly what happened; Kevin Smith and his cast stayed in the convenient store overnight in the span of approximately 21 days to film Clerks. Because the shop was closed while filming, Smith worked it into the script that some kids broke the blinds outside and that’s why they wouldn’t open (when in reality, it was locked from the shop being closed). Throughout the film, there is a large sheet that says “I assure you, we’re open”. The lesson here is to take advantage of the options you have to save money and make it work into the plot. Scripts can be rewritten and made better but budgets hardly ever have that flexibility.
Shoot in Black & White
Shooting in Black & White is a lot easier than shooting in colour because, to put it simply, it’s less colours. The colour grading in post will be a lot cheaper since every frame will look the same because it’s varying shades of black and white. This also makes lighting a lot easier and in the case of Clerks, you can trick the audience into thinking a scene that’s being filmed at night, is a daytime scene.
You also see this sort of technique in Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It. In that film, Spike Lee could only afford so little colourful filming that he used it to indicate a hyper-realism, sort of dream sequence that appears like a fantasy in comparison to all the black & white scenes. This is an example of, again, using your limitations in a smart way and making it go in your favour as opposed to sloppy and cheap.
Instead of paying the fees for extras, Kevin Smith cast himself and friend, Jason Mewes as the two men who hang around outside the store. Kevin Smith’s character, Silent Bob has no speaking parts so the characters are relatively small and don’t necessarily carry the plot anywhere, they serve as another comedy element so instead of paying someone to play the small parts, he assigned the roles to him and Jason. This is a good way to save money; typically for extras, people without any acting experience can do just well enough.
Slacker (Directed by Richard Linklater with a budget of $ 23,000)
Before Boyhood, Linklater was known for bringing attention to a subculture society in Austin, Texas. Slacker was made in 1991 before the young adult bohemian lifestyle was really given any exposure. The film has no plot really; it revolves around short snippets of the people and their conversations throughout the day. The film never stays on one particular person for too long, it constantly moves throughout the city of Austin. The film shows that filmmakers can make it on the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress alongside Citizen Kane and The Godfather while having less than half of their budget.
The use of the sun as your primary light source is one of the easiest ways to cut down how much you spend on your film. Most of Slacker is filmed in the day which of course makes it much easier to limit the use of artificial light and therefore the budget. More than half of the film is filmed outside and the scenes that are filmed inside are contained in rooms with lots of windows that the actors or a particular object can get the most light from what is outside.
Slacker was filmed on a 16mm Arriflex camera. The 16mm film is a common film type used in most low budget films. It has also been the known film within most home movie making cameras. Sacrificing the quality of film will definitely lower the costs of production without lowering the quality of the finished film as clearly demonstrated by Slacker. Slacker also features a Fisher Price Pixel Vision camcorder in which they used to film the bar scene. The Fisher Price camera is literally a toy camera that Linklater used, with great difficulty, due to its cheap price and to give the scene a gritty texture. Slacker proves that you do not need the best quality equipment to make an important film.
Blair Witch Project (Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez with a budget of $ 60,000)
Blair Witch Project, which made its UK debut at Raindance Film Festival, is a “found footage” horror film surrounding a local Maryland legend, The Blair Witch. The film has been largely influential in the horror community as one of the first first-person mockumentaries that some people are convinced was based on a true story. It is known as one of the most profitable films of all time, grossing around $ 248 million with an original budget of $ 60,000.
Just like Slacker, Blair Witch Project has embraced their access to cheap cameras by buying dinky consumer cameras in which they equipped the actors with. Because it was a “found footage” film, the audience can excuse the poorer quality (compared to more modern and professional cameras) because it’s supposed to come off as “real footage”. One can excuse the shakiness and grain that comes with a lot of inexperienced filmmaking since it’s supposed to come from a “home movie” type of camcorder. After the filming was completed, on Halloween after the span of 8 days, the producers took the cameras back and managed to get a slight refund which made the budget go even further.
The marketing of the Blair Witch Project can attribute to a lot of the film’s success. They decided to promote the film as if the Blair Witch was real, which many locals do believe. Promotion of the film consisted of fake police reports and interviews in order to create a sense of curiosity to draw in audiences. The team even made fake Missing Person flyers for the actors featured in the film in order to attract people to see the film for the actors “last known whereabouts”. It is referred to as one of the most “terrifying and successful” campaigns in film history.
If you need a light kit but don’t have the funds, this $ 250 LED kit might be right up your alley.
Even though there are many ways to save money on lighting, sometimes you do need to bite the bullet and drop some dough on some lights. However, this can be a scary process, because 1.) lighting is important and not all lights are created equal, and 2.) you may not have enough money to get your hands on ones that are powerful/accurate/functional enough. But Caleb Pike of DSLR Video Shooter is here to give you some suggestions on some dirt cheap LEDs that will give you the most bang for your buck. Check out his video below:
This is actually the second video Pike has made about budget-friendly LED light kits, the first one having a maximum budget of $ 500. So for this video, he took it a little further and cut the budget in half for those that really need to pinch their production pennies.
The rich, cinematic look of ‘Before I Fall’ belies its modest budget.
Ry Russo-Young’s Sundance premiere Before I Fall achieves success where many films of the coming-of-age oeuvre fail: imbuing its execution with a certain level of depth. Russo-Young, who has helmed two previous Sundance features, You Won’t Miss Me (2009) and Nobody Walks (2012), made this film in part because of the chance to tell a layered story about teenage girls.
Based on the YA novel by Lauren Oliver, the film follows an incessantly repeating day in the life of high school senior Sam, played capably by Zoey Deutch, after she has been in a presumably fatal car accident. Each time we see the loop, it changes slightly based on Sam’s own actions and reactions. The story touches on themes of afterlife, friendship, and morality, and contemplates a fundamental question of humanity: can we change?