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5 Tips for Shooting a Period Piece on a Shoestring Budget

Noam Kroll

Period pieces are usually out of reach for low-budget filmmakers, but these five tips will open up the possibility of setting your story in a different era.

It’s tempting for many filmmakers to write scripts that take place in a completely different time period. After all, period pieces open up so many possibilities for telling new stories that just wouldn’t be relevant or possible when set in modern times. Unfortunately, many of these same filmmakers are hit with a big wake-up call when it comes time to actually produce their film, as they realize just how expensive it’s going to be.

When you’re crafting a period piece, everything is more expensive. Not only do your hard costs skyrocket (wardrobe, locations, set dec, etc.), but a lot more time and effort is needed in other areas of the production as well. During pre-production for example, you (and probably your art director/production designer) will need to thoroughly research the time period in which your film is set in so that you can portray it accurately.

5 Tips for Shooting a Period Piece on a Shoestring Budget - Anna Karenina

Even in post-production, things can get tricky. Depending on how good or bad your locations were, you may need to do set extensions, or other VFX work to help sell the setting that you’re trying to emulate. Not to mention, more extensive and specific color correction is often required to really help craft the feel of your world.

With all that said, there are ways to make great period pieces even when dealing with limited budgets. Your options certainly won’t be as extensive as they would be if you were working with Hollywood-level funds, but that doesn’t mean it’s not doable. If you’re willing to take into account the five tips outlined below, you might just be on your way to making your next period piece.

 1. Choose Simple Locations

5 Tips for Shooting a Period Piece on a Shoestring Budget - Downton Abbey

The look of your film will ultimately be determined by the locations that you choose. If you choose the right locations, your work is going to be a lot easier both on set and off. However, if you make less than desirable choices, you might not be able to pull off the look you’re going for and the entire project could fall short.

My rule of thumb with locations on low-budget period pieces is to always go simple. If you’re shooting an exterior shot at the beach, on a farm, or in the forest, chances are there isn’t a whole lot of set dec that will need to be done. The same can be said about a vintage home or train station (that hasn’t been restored). These are just a few examples of course, but the point is that you need to look for locations that work for you ‘as is’. Chances are you don’t have the budget (or research) behind your project to create something from scratch, so look for locations with no discernible giveaways of modern times, and you’re off to a good start.

 2. Get Your Wardrobe Sponsored

5 Tips for Shooting a Period Piece on a Shoestring Budget - Remains of the Day

Wardrobe is one of the best ways to add production value and realism to your period piece. At the same time it can be very costly. Vintage wardrobe items can be really rare and hard to find, and naturally the price can be prohibitive for many filmmakers. That said, if you’re willing to knock on some doors, you might just get it for free.

If you team up with the right stylist, they may just be able to work some miracles for you. Typically stylists have relationships with brands and can pull some really amazing options for you, usually at no cost (since the items are loaned). Rather than spending your wardrobe budget on actual items, invest in a good stylist and it can pay off big time. Here’s a quick video that features Paco Delgado (the costume designer from 2012’s Les Misérables) discussing period piece costuming.

3. Props Are Everything

5 Tips for Shooting a Period Piece on a Shoestring Budget - The Aviator

Without some key props, you won’t be able to create a realistic world to set your film in. The good news is that you don’t necessarily need a lot of props, but just a few key props that can become focal points. For example, if you have the budget to rent a vintage car for a couple of days and can use it to capture all of your driving scenes, your production value just went up immensely.  Much like the wardrobe solution above, you don’t always need to spend an arm and a leg for props. The car example might be somewhat costly, but many other vintage props can be bought or rented for very little if you’re willing to do some digging around.

4. The Right Music is Critical

5 Tips for Shooting a Period Piece on a Shoestring Budget - The new World

Your locations, wardrobe, and props will get you most of the way there when it comes to production, but post is really where it all comes together. One of the easiest, most effective, and inexpensive ways to add to the realism of your period piece is through the use of great, authentic music. By licensing some period specific music (not just for the score, but also for background music, radios in the scene, etc.) you can really help to shape the tone of your film and compliment all of the visuals.

 5. Learn How to Color Grade

5 Tips for Shooting a Period Piece on a Shoestring Budget - Dangerous Liasons

Color grading can be a very expensive part of your process, and in many cases should be left to a professional. With that said, if you have a knack for color and are willing to do some of the legwork yourself, you can make a huge impact of the visual feel of your film with color alone. In the same way music will add a layer of period-specific polish to your film, so will the color. Whether you’re doing something obvious (like black and white) or more specific (like a 60’s technicolor look), the color grade will truly bring all of the elements of your period piece together and will inevitably make it feel far more authentic.

Before you shoot your low-budget period piece, check out these other helpful articles for filmmakers working with limited resources:

Got any tips for capturing historical atmosphere without breaking the bank? Let us know in the comments below!