The Three Elements That Make Most Micro-Budget Films Fail
As low cost cinema cameras dominate the independent film scene, high level filmmaking has never been more accessible than it is today. That said, it takes a lot more than the right camera and gear to actually make a film that is worth watching.
Many up and coming filmmakers are scared to make a film with no budget. They often don’t have the experience to know how difficult it is to raise the funding to make a film, and won’t even consider making one on a limited budget.
While there is nothing wrong with aiming to raise a substantial budget to make your first feature, the truth of the matter is that it is extremely difficult to do so (even for seasoned filmmakers). You don’t necessarily need that money to make an excellent film today. Not to mention, in order to raise that kind of money you need to have a calling card (usually in the form of a low/no budget project) so producers will trust you with their money.
Image from Wikimedia
The good news is that making a film with little or no money can still yield great results that are comparable to any well-funded film, so long as you are creative and adopt a solid strategy for yourself. As we all know from watching studio produced films over the last several years, more money doesn’t necessarily translate to better movies. If you’re eager to make a film, but money is tight, here are three considerations that you should never overlook.
1. Story is EVERYTHING
Technological breakthroughs in all the various facets of filmmaking have completely changed the world of cinema and digital production. While in many respects, these great advances have opened up a new and exciting world for filmmakers from all walks of life, I would argue that the quality of independent films have greatly suffered over the past several years. It used to be that a great story/screenplay got your film made, but with easy access to digital cinema cameras and post-tools, simply owning the right gear (or knowing someone with the right gear) is enough to get your film made, even if it doesn’t have a fully developed story.
Understanding cinematography, editing or particular uses for gear, is critical to your success as a filmmaker. However, your camera and all the various ‘toys’ you utilize throughout production are simply there to enhance your story. You may think that you need to hyper focus on developing your skillset behind the camera or in post in order for your film to have a cinematic quality, but you need to put just as much emphasis on the story and concept. After all, a great idea with poor production value will go a lot further than a poor idea with great production value.
Look at a film like ‘Clerks‘ by Kevin Smith. Yes, that example is going back a couple of decades, but even for itts time the quality level of that film was extremely poor. It was black and white, grainy, poorly lit, badly composed…but guess what? It was a success because the writing and the story were on point.
2. Immaculate Location Audio
Nothing is more detrimental to your film than poorly recorded, amateur audio. If you’ve already made a film or two, you should clearly understand how critical great location audio is, and also understand that poor audio can completely ruin your project. Not having a big budget is absolutely no excuse for not capturing great audio, as it really just comes down to prioritizing it, rather than taking a ‘we’ll fix it in post’ attitude. For whatever reason, even though most filmmakers know how important great audio is, the audio department is one of the first things that’s compromised on low budget films.
A great tool that I use for smaller productions, which I strongly recommend, is the Zoom H6 Handy Portable Digital Recorder. It is a relatively low priced field recorder, with most of the features you’d find on similar, yet more expensive recording equipment. It takes 4 XLR inputs (up to 6 with an added module), and has many of the same features built-in that you would find on a more professional level audio recorder. In an ideal world, you don’t want to be rolling your own audio (a dedicated sound recordist is always a far better choice), but in a pinch you can get great results with a device like the Zoom H6 and a couple of high quality mics.
No matter if you choose to hire a sound recordist or do your own location sound, make sure that you put just as much effort into the sound as the image. After all, it’s been proven time and time again that audio influences an audience’s experience far more than imagery.
3. Understand Your Limitations Early On
If you’re shooting a film with little or no money, you need to identify your creative limitations early on, and keep your head out of the clouds when it comes time to develop your idea and screenplay. So often filmmakers with small budgets will want to write a script with car chases, explosions, exotic locations and other extraneous elements, and don’t realize until it’s too late that this just isn’t feasible.
Personally, I welcome limitations when I make films with very little money. In fact, there are times when I find it easier to work with fewer resources. This gives me the opportunity to strategically utilize what I have around me and quickly dismiss what is not in the realm of possibility for my film. For example, if I have a certain location in mind for a scene but the permit to shoot there is too expensive, I may change the scene around to take place in a different part of that same location, where I could get away with guerrilla shooting. At first, this may seem like a compromise, but more often than not the scene will actually become stronger and more unique by changing it around, since the shooting limitations can force originality and uniqueness in the scene.
There are many great tips and suggestions that I could make to no-budget filmmakers with regards to lighting, casting, camera choices, and so on. However, most of these elements are secondary and the success of your micro budget film will rely very heavily on having a vision and maintaining your focus. Your ability to focus on a well told, proactive story is critical – and thankfully this part of the process doesn’t cost you a dollar.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to shoot on a great camera, or having a preference for the visual elements of your film, but at the end of the day whoever is viewing your film is going to be captivated by the story, the sound, and the execution far more than the technical merits of your visual production, so always keep that in mind!