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Should You Move Quickly or Take Your Time with a No-Budget Short?

Lewis McGregor

Hurry up and film like a crazy person, or take your time? In this article, we examine both approaches to no-budget short film production.

No-budget short films shoots are full of challenges. With a diminished crew (if any), and no financial backing, it can often feel like you’re walking into the wind. As such, it raises the question: should you sprint or take your time?

What do I mean by that? Well, let’s use running as an analogy for filmmaking. When you’re sprinting, you’re moving as fast as you can to reach the finish line. But this is only a short dash, not a marathon. From a filmmaking perspective, you’re theoretically likely to run into fewer issues during a shorter shoot than you would a drawn-out project. You can give it your all without exhausting yourself.

Conversely, if you take your time when making a no-budget short, you can create a longer film. And when you do run into issues, you’ll have time to stop fully address the concern. But the more time you take, the more issues you’ll run into.

Recently, I released a web series that was a labor of love for the last few years. To be frank, I abandoned the initial concept quite a while ago. I envisioned it as a thirty-five to forty-minute sci-fi short film, and in the end, it was a fifteen-minute web series of three- to four-minute vignettes. I realized that a thirty-five- to forty-minute no-budget sci-fi epic, by a solo filmmaker, might have been overly ambitious.

I definitely took my sweet time on this project, and it killed it.

Out the gate, everything went fine. The lead actor had set aside a few days to film, all of our props and costumes were in fully working condition (they decline rapidly over the course of a no-budget short), and we even had a day of shooting at a location with a rusted-out helicopter and an equally eroded army jeep. For a no-budget apocalyptic short, that location felt like we had gone to the next level.

At this point, we were sprinting — filming every day, long hours, getting great results. As soon as we started to slow down at the end of the first week, the setbacks began to mount. Ultimately, I didn’t even wrap filming until two years later.

Instead of working on an overly ambitious project set in several different locations — involving a plethora of complexities — if we had worked on a short film that we could have actually completed in a week, while it would have been different, we would have finished it much sooner and moved on to a new project.

The longer a no-budget project drags on, the more apparent it becomes that it has no budget. And, of course, the one thing that filmmakers want when making a no-budget short is for it to look like it had one. In the end, because we didn’t get the results we wanted from that initial week, we decided to cull most of what we shot and, instead, produced a series of vignettes with a very spare story.

Aesop’s fable “The Tortoise and the Hare” says we don’t need to run to win the race. But when it comes to a no-budget short, I think the faster you work, the better the results.

Cover image via G-Stock Studio.

Looking for more filmmaking tips and tricks? Check out these articles.

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