How to make an indie film on a low budget
We need more films that pass the Bechdel test, and maybe you could make a difference by making a short indie film that’s about 5 minutes long!
There are several factors you need to decide upon before you embark on your quest to become the next Jane Campion, though. Script. Location. Budget…
What is an indie film and why make one?
An indie film is defined as one made outside of a major motion picture studio. It has independent backers, and at the lower end of indie films (like yours) it’s often self-produced with everyone taking pay cuts or no pay at all.
Making an indie film means you can be experimental in your subject matter. You’re not required by Fat Cat studios to bring in profit, so you can make it about anything you’re genuinely interested in. LGBTQIA+ romance? Eerie gothic horror? Both? Something else entirely? Your call.
If, for some reason, the viewing public don’t want to sit through 120 minutes of 1920s flappers dancing round a mournful elephant, ’tis very much their loss.
What will your indie film be about?
Well, only you can decide. But it’s a good idea to watch as many indie films as you can. You’ll start to get a feel for the subject matter. You’ll also watch those films with a director’s eye. Did they choose a topic that could easily be filmed with just a few actors in the local area? Did they try to have special effects in their films? If they did, how did they get around the problem of having no budget? Did the indie films focus on great performances, or on beautiful landscape? Were they shocking? Did they have happy endings? Did they revel with poorly-made sets and exploit their lack of budget, or did they do clever things to hide it?
You’ll basically be looking at: How to make an indie film with no money, and what techniques are used to make the audience think it’s a wonderful film even though no money has been spent on it.
How to write an indie film script or screenplay
There’s no getting round it – every film needs a script, including your indie project. Scripts take time, even for a five minute short. Check out www.filmscriptwriting.com for everything from creativity hypnosis to character development.
You are writing for a visual medium. You are showing your audience a story, not telling it to them.
- Your characters have to show and say what they are thinking.
- Use real-life experiences to keep dialogue natural.
- Don’t over-complicate the plot line, especially if you’re planning on making a short film.
- Know your limits. Lack of budget should make you think about what you can achieve. Are you aiming for a period drama? This will be hard work if nobody you know has any period clothes, you can’t sew and you live in a sea of modern blocks of flats. Will your friends work for free? If your friends tend to be busy people, forget about epic crowd scenes – it’ll be hard work getting them all in the same place at the same time.
Shooting an indie film takes tiiiiime
How much free time do you have to dedicate to the film? Would you like it to be a one month project or a one year project? Can you commit to working on it every weekend or every weekday?
It really helps to set a schedule. It’s easier for your actors and crew (if you have any crew) to commit to a project if they know how long it might take and how often they can expect to work.
There is a rich tradition of film shorts nowadays. You can think about making a five minute film short to begin with. The screenwriting, shooting and post-production will still take more time than you thought. But, if it’s your first effort, it means you shouldn’t go disastrously over budget. Your actors won’t get bored and run away after six months of shooting in the rain. And you get to see those magical words ‘THE END’.
Actors – You can’t pay them and you can’t shoot them (unless it’s with a camera)
Do you have budding stars in the making in your circle of friends that are waiting for their ‘moment’? This may not be it, but encourage them to participate in your film anyway!
Oh, and make sure they are the sort not to break your supposed-ever-lasting friendship over artistic differences… we wouldn’t want to have to re-cast and re-shoot now, would we?
If you want to network and get inspired, check out www.shootingpeople.org, the world’s biggest indie film network. You could find all kinds of amazing creatives and work together on some really exciting stuff.
Indie films on a shoestring budget
It’s possible to make a low budget (and even zero budget) film look high quality these days. So how much money can you spare? Let’s say you’ve got practically no money at all. If nobody gets paid for working on this film including yourself, the budget is likely to go on equipment, setting, props and costume. The film is most likely to look professional if the budget goes on equipment.
If you don’t own a video camera, you can hire equipment from companies like Kays, who will provide any film making paraphernalia you could imagine, from backdrops to choreographers.
If you have an old video camera dug out from a box in the attic that your parents used to film every Christmas when you were a kid, don’t worry – the handheld camera effect is used in big budget films frequently nowadays.
If you already know the cinematography is going to look a bit ‘home movie’ because of the equipment you’re using, consider working that into your script or the film’s atmosphere somehow. Turn that limitation to an advantage.
Digital cameras have changed the face of the industry and it’ll be far easier for you to make a decent quality indie film on a digital video camera than getting hold of standard film recording equipment.
Great indie film locations
Consider if you’ll be filming close to home or would rather spend a two week trip in the Scottish mountains to film your final scene. Draft an estimate and keep a running tally of equipment hire, hotel rooms etc. If you’re making travel arrangements for location, be as prepared as possible to make sure it’s a wrap by the end of the trip. That means you have an idea of what locations you’ll find up there, you’ve made back-up plans if the weather doesn’t go your way, and you’ve got a firm but flexible idea of how you’d like to shoot the scene(s).
Where possible, rope friends in to help you for free. Why stay in a Highlands hotel (that’s you, the crew and actors) when you have cousins up there with a farm who might be able to put you up?
Filming in your local area
This is your best bet if you’re on a zero budget.
If you’re filming close to home, do a little location research. Use the internet and library to find out if there are places in the area that might be of interest – abandoned hospitals, closed down railway stations, old quarries… You’d be surprised. You may be able to write a nice letter to the authorities and get permission to film there.
Also get your friends to assist you. Tell them to walk around and take snaps of places they find that might work for locations.
Setting and Props
If your film requires props, get a group of friends around one evening and supply them food and drink and let them assist you on your way to prop greatness.
If you’re looking for period or fantasy props, see if any of your friends are live roleplayers or steampunks. Maybe you’re doing a gritty near-future urban sci-fi short? Any cosplay friends you know could help out. Bring your friends into the project early and they can help shape the theme early based on what (free) props and costumes they can offer for filming purposes.
What about horror movies? Indie horror films can rely on suspense, or atmosphere, or kitsch… check out Mookychick’s tips on cheap indie horror film effects for ideas on SFX, indie horror film locations and more.
It will really help if you ask someone to take on the role of Continuity Assistant. If you have to film on more than one day, your Continuity Assistant will take snapshots of what positions the props were in and what the actors were wearing and how they did their hair and what time of day it was. That way, you can match the props and setting if you have to film on another day. Genius!
Lights, Camera, Action!
For your first film, you won’t want to be worrying about filming from different angles and switching between these during the editing process. Get your scenes down, and have fun during the process.
Be warned that if your actors have not actually had any previous acting experience, there will be lots of giggling and laughter and unfinished scenes. Keep these! They’ll make for a fun gag reel.
Film-making tips: When you watch films, watch how the simplest thing is shot. When an actor comes into a room do they film the whole opening/closing of the door or just a bit of it so as not to slow the action down? You’ll find that films use all sorts of tricks to keep the pace of the film focused on the interesting things that are happening, not the boring things.
And again, at a later stage you WILL be wanting to think about filming from different angles. When a conversation unfolds in any film, watch how the camera is used. Does it jump from person to person or is it filmed continuously? Does it use close-ups? You won’t be able to afford two cameras. But if you do want to go to the next level, you might decide to film a conversation twice, from a different angle each time – and then you can splice these together in post-production to make it look like you filmed with more than one camera and got some classy angles in there. Very nifty.
Many companies like Adobe have free versions of their editing systems on their websites that you can download.
What does post production mean to you? It might just mean that you place some opening credits on your film. It might mean adding a soundtrack (see below). It might mean that you splice together two bits of filming to create a snazzy whole (see the idea for filming a conversation above). You may be adding special effects (be warned – this will probably look rubbish. But you never know – it may be fun, and it may be perfect for your movie!)
If you wish to include a soundtrack in your film, be it for a full scene or simply the opening/closing credits, there are plenty of royalty free music websites who charge per song download.
It’s a wrap!
Invite everybody you know to the first screening of your very own indie flick. Provide plenty of popcorn and enjoy…
Promoting your film short
With all this hard work, determination and the company of most excellent friends and family, you are guaranteed – that many sleepless nights, cups of coffee and cold slices of pizza later – your film will be finished!
Google ‘film shorts’ and you’ll find a number of community websites dedicated to hosting film shorts. Simply follow the procedure to upload your film short and have it rated and viewed by the general public.
If you’re really, really good you’ll want to research into getting funding for your next movie, or getting your film short selected for viewing at mini film festivals.
Sundance Film Festival awaits!