If you are reading my blog, chances are you are interested in filmmaking. You may be considering going to film school or you have a film degree. It is possible that you are struggling with the idea of how to combine your passion for filmmaking with your compassion for Christ. Are you having a problem finding a way into the film and media industry? You are not alone.
By now you have probably discovered that this is a tough business. There is no real pathway or predictable strategy that you can follow. Recently I talked to a working media professional who lives in LA. He told me that only a handful of his classmates from film school are currently working in the entertainment, media and film industry. That sounds like depressing news. But that’s not surprising. Film schools as well as Christian schools that offer film programs don’t prepare you for the real world. They teach you film theory and lofty cinematic concepts as if you are going to be making $30 million pictures. But that’s not reality.
Let’s take a look at Paranormal Activity shot for only $15,000. It was a HUGE success at the box office. With today’s technology and digital filmmaking, you can get into the game quicker. There is an enormous demand for films. Over 700 movies each year receive some type of distribution, which are not all big studio pictures. Paramount recently announced that they are planning on releasing 10 micro-budget, $150,000 features. Just like Paranormal Activity, a $15,000 feature can turn into a mega hit.
Here’s five points to consider if you are planning on tackling a low-budget feature:
1. Find the right story. The story is always the driving force in low-budget filmmaking. You need a screenplay that can follow the right format. For low-budget filmmaking to work, you need to shoot your feature within a 3-week time span. Essentially, your story needs to be a “dressed-up” stage play. Trust me, everybody is using this format from Tyler Perry movies to movies like Death at a Funeral.
The key to low-budget filmmaking is the ability to move fast. You have to shoot 5 pages a day with the ability to handle 25 – 35 setups per day-- no more than a 6 to 1 shooting ratio. Locations have to be limited to no more than three, with 80% of your film shot in one location. To keep the budget down, have no more than a handful of characters. If you can find a story that meets that criteria, you are in the game. But remember the story has to be solid and have entertainment value.
2. Low-budget is low-budget. Low budget for you is not $1 million. If you want to make a second film, your first film must break even or make money. In order to do that it needs to be “low-budget”. Your rock bottom number has to be less than $150,000.
Recently, someone sent me a script with an $800,000 budget. They have got to be insane. There is no way they are going to raise $800,000. That’s why a lot of film students are not working. They want to start at the top. You have to start at the bottom and prove that you can make a $10,000 feature, then a $50,000 feature. That’s the way the system works.
3. Become an entrepreneur. You’re going to be waiting a long time if you think somebody is going to call you to make your movie. You’re going to have to go out and raise the money. Plus, you will probably have to direct and produce it as well. Most people who make their first movie are able to get the money from their family and friends. However, that won’t work for the second movie. That’s why you have to make Rule Number 2 work for you. If you can build a financial model, you can find investors for your next film as long as you keep the costs low.
4. Make the movie first, then the deal. No one is going to give you a distribution deal without a finished product. Sorry, a script is not enough. For years I read and believed that you get the distribution deal first. It doesn’t work that way. The distributors want you to take all the risks first.
5. Get help. There are plenty of resources available. On our website mediamissionaryschool.com for free you can check out our guerilla code, guerilla principles and our guerilla guide. There are also lots of resources on line. Just be careful that they are not rip-offs. Buyer beware.
Low-budget and Guerilla Filmmaking Principles
Low-budget filmmaking and Guerilla filmmaking are based on some basic principles and concepts. Follow the code and you increase your chances to successfully complete your project. Low-budget does not have to look like low budget. Although you may be forced to make some compromises, it is still possible that your project can look big budget without a big budget. The key is to understand where to put your resources. Guerilla filmmaking requires speed, determination and the ability to execute a plan.
Don’t do things that you cannot pull off successfully. In order for low-budget filmmaking to be successful, you must convince your audience that what you did is what you had in mind. In other words, it was an artistic decision over a monetary or financial decision. That’s why you have to pick the right story. Remember, you are not trying to produce a blockbuster. Christians often fail in filmmaking because they violate this first principle by trying to produce films that are too large in scope and size. You cannot create the end of the world on a low-budget and expect your audience to believe what they are seeing is real. Look for a story that fits the guerilla or low-budget model. That’s why Paranormal Activity, Open Water, and Blair Witch Project were successful.
Do the Basics
There is no excuse why you cannot perform the basics just as well as big budget films. That’s why you have to follow the rules and understand how they work. The 180 Rule, Line-eye match principle, coverage, and rules of third are all basic concepts you should be familiar with. There may be a time to break these rules but not now. Have a reason why you do what you do. There’s no justification for spending all day on a complicated camera move if it is not essential to the storyline or character development. You have just wasted your time. Doing the basics also requires an understanding of depth of field. What makes movies look cinematic is the ability to create a shallow depth of field that isolates your subject. Stay away from zooms and pans as much as possible. They will make your efforts seem amateurish.
Watch Your Focus
The worst mistake that low-budget and guerilla filmmakers commit is soft focus. Nothing is more irritating than to look at your work and realize it is out of focus. It happens with the big boys with huge budgets, and it will happen to you if you don’t pay close attention. Never trust the viewfinder.
Make It Look Like Film
Chances are if you are a low-budget filmmaker, you will be shooting with a digital camera. Your goal is to make digital video look like film. Get the best camera possible, preferably a camera that you can shoot in 24P with interchangeable lenses. Film is a chemical process which creates grain and texture. It has a quality that can be described as a portrait or painting. The trick to digital video is to create a grainy appearance versus a realistic portrayal that tends to look like news coverage. The best place to spend your money is to get a competent Director of Photography who understands lighting and the camera you choose for your production. There are some places you can cut corners, but this is not one of them. Get the best camera you can afford and someone who knows how to maximize its capabilities.
Know Your Audience
Big-budget filmmakers know exactly who they are making their films for. They understand their genre as well as the rules they must apply within the genre. They know exactly what their audience expects or demands. That means you must apply the same rules and the same approach to your filmmaking. Who is your audience? Hopefully, you are not making the film just for you and your friends and hoping that the audience will like what you are doing. If you plan to stay in this business for any length of time, you need to decide who your audience is.
There is absolutely no excuse for not being organized. The truth is you cannot afford to be disorganized as a low-budget filmmaker. If you are working with a three-week shoot, you must have a plan because you do not have the money for extra shoot days. A plan means storyboards, shot lists, call sheets and production boards. Find a production manager who can develop production boards that will keep you on schedule.
Keep It Simple
Most low-budget projects fail because the filmmakers add too many layers of complexity. Simpler is better. That means limit locations, actors, set-ups, lighting, special effects, and complex shots. Most guerilla filmmakers use a run and gun approach. Get in. Get out. Fast. That may work in a public location such as a park or street, but as soon as you use a tripod, odds are you are going to need a shooting permit. Although it makes the process more complicated, you may not have any other choice. You can take your chances, but you may very well have your tape confiscated. Other things to consider are insurance, tax credits, and other more complex issues. Your best move is to get expert advice on these matters. Remember your goal is to keep this process as simple as possible. Don’t be your own worst enemy.
The Money You Have is the Money You Have
If you have $150,000, it has to get you through the entire process from development, preproduction, production, postproduction, and, ultimately, to film festivals and possible distribution. Don’t expect to raise any more money than you already have because it never comes in. As a low-budget filmmaker, you have failed if you spend all of your money in production and cannot complete your film. The money you have is the money you have. That may require you to make some tough choices. But facing the truth will allow you the best opportunity to complete your project. Make a budget and stick to it.
Build a Team
Build a team that reflects your view of filmmaking. Guerilla filmmaking is about moving fast. You need a mobile team that is accustomed to working long hours with a limited crew. Most low-budget filmmakers are more effective with a smaller crew because they can move faster. You may want to limit volunteers because they could very well slow you down. Finding crew members that buy into your philosophy of filmmaking is your best hope to execute your plan. Crew members that are used to working on big-budget projects may be more of a headache than a resource.
Also, you need to find people that have a reason to work on your film or project. Remember nobody is going to have the same passion or vision for your project as you do. Figure out what will motivate them to join your cast and crew. Most likely it will not be for financial reasons. Actors may be interested because it offers them a title role, which can be used in their demo reel. For some crew members, it is an opportunity to move up. For example, a first assistant camera operator might be interested in accepting the position of Director of Photography because of the experience your project will offer. Make absolutely certain that they are competent and capable of moving up to the next level. Don’t compromise your project.
You do not have the luxury of blowing up or having a meltdown in front of the cast and crew. You set the tone on set. As an independent guerilla filmmaker, if you create an atmosphere of anxiety, stress and tension, more than likely your project will fail. You are the leader, and your cast and crew will look to you for the appropriate attitudes and behaviors expected during the entire production. And trust me. Something will go wrong during your production, and you will be tested. A positive attitude will go a long way in getting you to the finish line.
Stay on Schedule
Time is money. As an independent filmmaker, you are short on both. If you fall behind schedule, it is unlikely you will be able to recover. The number one reason why productions fall behind schedule is because of too many takes. Actors will always push for more takes. You, as the filmmaker, must remain firm. Get two good takes and move on. Get your master shot, a couple of cut-aways and a couple of over-the-shoulder shots. Keep your coverage to a minimum. If you let your actors dictate the pace, you’re finished.
Know What Things Cost
If you are going to control the cost of your production, know what things cost. How much should you be paying for film stock or rental equipment? Do your research and ask around. Find out what others are paying and never pay the full retail price. Get a deal. Get the most value out of your dollar by negotiating the best possible price.
The Guerilla Code
The Guerilla Code is low-budget filmmaking for film school in the real world. Know the following code.
Simple, Small-scale Stories
Remember, you are not making a blockbuster. But that doesn’t mean your stories have to be simple in plot, subtext, metaphors, or symbolism. Just pick a story that can be told with minimum effort.
Find a story that can be told in three or less locations. Remember that 80% of your shoot should be centered around one single location. Each time you move from one location to another, you’re burning time and money.
Handful of Characters
Have no more than five characters in your story because you don’t have the money to pay for a large cast. Following the guerilla code is primarily a three-week, 18-day shoot. The less characters involved the easier the process.
A Plot with Twists and Turns
Most low-budget films are designed to keep you guessing. Without multiple locations, special effects, car chases, and a host characters to keep things interesting, you have to rely on your story to drive your project. Without a great script, the independent filmmaker is dead on arrival. Your screenplay needs to feature plenty of twists and turns. Get the viewer to think the story is going one way and then take the story in a completely different direction. Then surprise them with an unexpected complication. You get the picture. It’s the double-cross, the triple-cross, etc. Remember the only thing you have going for you is your story.
A Strong Story
Not only should your story have twists and turns, but it also must be compelling. Is your story intriguing, mysterious, or dynamic? Does it deliver an emotional impact? Chances are you don’t have the money to show a lot of action on screen. You must create action through your characters by the emotion they are expressing.
Interesting and Quirky Characters
Characters in big-budget films often look generic and uninteresting. Hollywood actors don’t necessarily reflect what real people look like – too handsome, too attractive or too young. Most low-budget films are character pieces and character driven. Your characters are your friends. Make them interesting. Who wants to be normal? There is nothing in life that can be described as average or normal. Make your characters unusual and quirky, just like real life. Never commit the crime that Hollywood is often guilty of—stereotyping people into neat categories. There is nothing more interesting than depicting so-called ordinary people in your film.
You are going to shoot 80% of your project in one location, so find someplace unique. Yes, I know that it requires effort and research, but it will help you stand out from other media projects. What do you have in your home town that that nobody else has. Find something unusual. Have you ever seen it in a movie? This could be your location. Low-budget and guerilla filmmakers based in Los Angeles often use the Mohave Desert for their locations. It’s simple and accessible, but it also serves as a character in their films. There is something intriguing and mysterious about the desert. It’s also a cinematographer’s dream due to the texture and moods that the desert scenery creates. You may not live near a desert but you may have a unique location at your fingertips. Your goal is to discover it and build a story around it.
Keep Night Shots to a Minimum
Guerilla filmmaking works best with simple-shot setups. When you decide to shoot at night or use atmospherics such as wind, rain or fog, you are violating the guerilla code. You don’t have the time or money for the complexity these shots require. If it’s in your script, you may want to consider a rewrite. If you cannot find a way around it, keep it to only one occurrence in your project.
Use Natural Lighting
The golden rule is to use available lighting so find natural lighting sources. When you set up complex lighting elements, it will require a significant amount of time. Low-budget filmmaking works best when moving quickly from scene to scene. When you build your story around daylight shooting, it will save you time and money. If you are shooting indoors, use sunlight from windows and doorways.
Find a Niche
Build your story around a topic that is fresh and original. Maybe your character has an interest in building and flying model planes. Perhaps, there is an annual competition. This could make an interesting story. Find a niche—something that has never been on the screen before. Maybe your story is about a comic book writer who views the world as a comic book. So create a world in which his comic books becomes reality. As an independent filmmaker, you have to think differently and see the world in a different light than the big-budget filmmakers. Look for the unusual.
Cinematic Tips for Low-budget Filmmaking
The goal of every filmmaker is to create a cinematic experience. The big screen presents a challenging environment that must captivate the audience. How do low-budget filmmakers fill the screen with images and sounds to compete with mainstream Hollywood’s unlimited resources? Films become movies when the filmmaker can make them cinematic and appealing to a broad audience.
What makes a movie a movie is sound. Most filmmakers will fail because they do not understand the importance of sound. In production, it is not possible to capture sounds that the audience expects to hear on the big screen. Most filmmakers are visually driven and overlook the importance of sound. Your audience wants to hear footsteps and the sound of a door opening. Find a competent sound engineer who can help you in production to capture clean and usable sound. Have enough money in your budget for recreating sound effects, sound editing and sound mixing. Without them, you do not have a movie. They are essential in creating reality in your film.
Have you ever watched a movie and felt that you are watching 3 or 4 different films? What kind of movie was the director trying to make? Was it supposed to be funny or dramatic? Why was the theme in the first act completely missing from the rest of the film? Why are the characters’ personalities changing for absolutely no reason? Films fail because they lack a unified vision. You as the filmmaker must understand what the movie is about and what type of movie you are making. If you don’t know, nobody else will. It’s your job to understand the script backwards and forwards. You have to know the characters as if you have known them for your entire life. What’s the point for each scene? What are the motives for each action of your characters? How does one scene connect with the next? Having a unified vision for your movie requires effort and commitment. Know what your characters want and why they want it. What do they want from whom? And what do they need from whom? The low-budget world offers filmmakers the best opportunity to have a single vision because most often it is the filmmaker’s personal journey and life experiences.
The big screen demands good acting. Your job is not necessarily to find great actors but to find actors who can play the characters in your script. The world of low-budget filmmaking is full of solid actors who have yet to be discovered. It’s great to have a named actor, but it is probably out of your price range. You can find competent actors just about anywhere in the country. Your local film commission is a good place to start. Another tip is to check local theaters as well as talent agencies.
Now that you’ve shot 120 minutes of footing, do you use it all? Not if you want your movie to be viewable. Good filmmakers will trust their editors to make decisions that will tighten the film and give it the proper pace to hold the interest of your audience. You may have to lose scenes that are your favorites because they do not work within the flow of your movie. Good editors know where to cut. A few frames here or there can make the difference between a solid movie and a disaster. This may be a cliché but editors often say that they helped save the movie. Sometimes filmmakers have to be willing to discover the movie in postproduction.
Transitions is the process through the use coverage shots that help to get you from one place to the next. Most filmmakers don’t think about this during production. Most scenes are shot out of sequence over the course of several weeks. It’s easy to get lost in the process. Without thinking about transitions or how the film flows from one scene to the next, you could be looking at a complete disaster. Movies require a change of time and a change of place. As a filmmaker you must make this seem fluid. If the audience doesn’t understand how the scenes tie together, you are in deep trouble.
How to get good at this is to watch a lot of critically-acclaimed movies to see how they handle transitions. There’s no reason in the low-budget filmmaking world that this should be a problem.
Films look cinematic when you move the camera. There’s just something about putting a camera on a dolly with tracks to shoot your scene. It looks big league. I realize the tendency in low-budget filmmaking is to go for handheld shots. Resist the temptation. At least put your camera on a tripod if you don’t have the time or money for dollies and crane shots.
You need your own unique voice. Does your film have a presence? Is there a constant tone or atmosphere that defines your movie? Or are you just serving meatloaf? Nothing wrong with meatloaf as long as you add some salt, pepper, and spices in order to create a unique flavor. Every filmmaker wants to stand out in the crowd. What makes the film, Fargo, unique? Why does it have style? Is it the dialogue? The location? Speech patterns? Cinematography? Whatever it is, you need to find it for your film. Make it your own.
Let’s face it. In the world of low-budget filmmaking, the audience will not be dazzled by your usage of special effects, chase screens, explosions, and action sequences. Your film must be about something. You project requires weight. In other words, you need substance.
Explore some issue that has never been presented on the screen. You may care about the issue, but will your audience? Does it make people care? Will it challenge your audience? Have you started a dialogue? Movies with substance are capable of moving their audience and impacting them emotionally. Is your theme important enough to be a movie?
Lighting and Contrast
How you handle the contrast between light and darkness will determine how much your film will express a cinematic presence. There is a good chance you will be shooting in a digital format. All video cameras, no matter how good they are, have problems with contrasting light sources, especially when you are shooting a scene with dark and light images present. Work around it as much as possible so you don’t get yourself into trouble. Try to shoot scenes with balanced lighting to avoid under- or over-saturated images.
I talked about this earlier in the low-budget filmmaking principles. But it is so important in order to achieve the cinematic experience. In fact, it is the holy grail of filmmaking. All screens are two-dimensional. The trick is to fool the audience into thinking there is a third dimension existing in a two-dimensional world. The ability to manipulate depth-of-field creates this illusion for the audience. Without a 3D pop, images feel flat and lifeless. If you are not thinking about depth-of-field while you are shooting your film, you are wasting your time.
No matter what the format, whether video or film, without color correction, there is no cinematic appeal. Real life looks uninteresting and boring. Color correction helps to create a mood and presence that does not exist in the real world. You can over saturate, under saturate or completely change the color scheme to convince your audience that you have created a unique and fascinating world in which your characters move through and exist in.
Christians and the World of Low-budget Filmmaking
So where does the Christian fit into this process? For years, most Christian filmmakers have been making low-budget features. But the problem is they have violated practically every low-budget principle and every element in the guerilla code. That’s why the films often look cheesy and one-dimensional. We need Christians who can embrace low-budget principles and create a new kind of film.
What if we stop making Christian films and decide to make redemptive films. What would they look like? Would they speak to a broader audience? By applying low-budget principles, we can use the same strategy that the independent film industry has been using for years. We now have the keys. All we have to do is present Biblical truth and tell stories that will engage our audience. Isn’t it time that filmmakers who have a passion for Christ make their entryway into Sundance or the Toronto Film Festival. The independent model could provide a better way to reach our audience than the big-budget studio system of Hollywood.