In Praise Of Directing On A Low Budget - Raindance

Directing your first film is going to be taxing. Directing low budget even more so. You don’t have money to throw at mistakes. Here’s some elements that will add to the stress, and quite possibly strain your relationship with your producer.

See if you can minimise them!

1. Too many locations

Each location adds wear and tear to the production budget, and to the crew. It takes a long time to move from one location to another, establish a new production office, and unpack to get ready for the day’s shoot. While all of this chaos is swirling around you, remember that you need to keep a cool head – and then the news breaks: traffic jam/train wreck – and you will be without half your crew and a key actor – and it the only day you have got.

Basically, the Raindance advice is: get a location over which you have complete control for the duration of the shooting days you have scheduled. And then have a really hard look at your script: are there any scenes that could be doubled up? Are there any locations that can be used in different ways to make them look like titally different sets without stretching the Art department too far?

And finally: consider Reservoir Dogs: essentially three locations. Now wouldn’t that also work as a terrific stage play? Come to think of it, how do they make a stage look so interesting for an hour and a half? Hmmm.

Maybe I can take my ‘stage play’ and make it look like a movie.

For some advice on how to run and organise a low-budget shoot.

2. Too many speaking parts

The fewer speaking parts, the easier the film will be to produce, and the fewer headaches you will have as a first time director. In most cases, films rely on three or four main characters, with a supporting cast of less than a half dozen.

As a writer/director it makes sense to eliminate extra characters at script stage rather than waiting until your harried producer tells you the night before that you won’t have an actor for character number 18.

Remember as well that each additional character brings its own complications: another salary, another mouth at meal time, per diems, costumes, travel expenses and so on.

For a simply superb film with an excellent cast of just four main characters (and a fifth character in about two minutes) see the excellent French film LEMMING, directed by Dominik Moll, starring Charlotte Rampling.

3. Special effects when directing low budget

Any visual effect you cannot capture with the camera are classed as opticals and should be used sparingly. Titles superimposed over footage, dissolves, cross fades, slow-motion,reversed shots, can be expensive. Be aware of the costs and film accordingly. Sub-titles can be very effective, however. Ie: TEN DAYS LATER instead of a series of montage shots to denote the passage of time.

Until recently, CGI was considered the domain of the wealthy filmmaker. With the advent of new programmes such as SHAKE and AFTER EFFECTS, CGI can now be done on a laptop for little more than the cost of electricity. This has opened the scope and possibilities for new directors on a limited budget. The trick is to find the right operator – someone who understands the software, and who is also responsive to your creative vision.


Any physical action that could endanger the cast or crew, or any action an actor is unwilling to perform, should be considered a stunt. Remember that seemingly simple actions, like a trip, a fall or a slap are stunts as well as the spectacular car crash, man exploding etc.

Stunts take a lot longer to film, and to edit. A typical one page dialogue script with no stunts could be shot in an hour, and take a morning to edit, whereby a fight scene, also a page long, could take a week or more to edit, and two-three days to film.

Sex scenes should also be considered like stunts. The actors will require movement coaching or choreography, and you may need to find and hire body doubles. The set will most likely need to be closed if nudity is involved, creating security issues.

Any object which needs to operate on cue is called an effect. There’s a thin line between who may be responsible for certain effects. Sometimes the props person can handle it, sometimes you’ll need a professional special effects artist. If you require a prop to do anything specific or unusual on cue, it could be either one. Obviously, effects are expensive to rig and time-consuming to shoot.

Scenes involving explosions and gunshots need to be handled with great care.

Whenever gun-powder is on the set, the producer must engage the services of an armourer (in the States known as a gun wrangler) in order to ensure health and safety requirement are met. This can be very expensive. In addition, a licensed props master must be hire to wire the explosives to the actors, a special effects artist needed to wire the “hits”. These crew work under the direction of a Special Effects Co-ordinator. Sometimes you will need to hire fire trucks as well as extra off-duty policemen (if the stunts are to be conducted in public).

4. Public exteriors

You are supposed to get police and local government approval before you shoot on public property. Your producer will almost certainly need police control as well. You need to be aware of the complications and financial consequences.

If you are shooting on a sidewalk, your producer will need to get the permission of local shopkeepers and homeowners as well.

You may also need to hire extras (atmosphere personnel) who will need to be paid, fed and transported, adding to the cost unless you can shoot guerrilla style to create a cinema verite feel.

5. Night exteriors

All of the complications of shooting outside, with the addition of lighting demands. The Raindance advice is to try and use “practicals” ie: available light (streetlights, car headlights and so on) thereby reducing the equipment and attendant labour issues.

6. Weather and seasons

Filming with artificial rain or snow, lightning and wind makes a producer’s life difficult. Hiring rain towers, wind machines, snow machines, water trucks, fake icicles, snow blankets as well as experienced crew who understand how to handle the equipment.

Here’s how to make fake snow

7. Specific music

It is an urban myth that a character can recite a couple of lines from a well known song, or walk by a transistor radio with a Beatle’s song playing on it – for free. Music rights need to be acquired for any music not created specifically for your film. To find out how to clear music.

8. Period pieces

Period pieces can be fantastically compicated and draining to shoot, especially when the 1970’s Carnaby Street blooper high heels go missing from wardrobe. Again, beware of the complications.

9. Animals and children

Animals and children may add a great deal of production value to your film, but are expensive. A novice producer may try to save money on animals, but in my experience this has proved peeny-wise pound-foolish. Your Lassie might freeze up under the lights, especially with 30-40 crew staring at her, and with orders being given by a complete stranger. I don’t mean the scenes where she has to rescue an orphan from the blazing cabin, but a scene where she has to sit still, or stare in a certain direction, or bark on command. An improperly trained animal may come cheap, but will batter your production schedule to smithereens.

Children can only legally work a certain number of hours per day, and generally require much more time for their takes due to inexperience. They also need expensive guardians and tutors. 

10. Trains and automobiles

Shooting in any kind of vehicle can be expensive. Scenes are usually shot in a stationary vehicle with the grips reproducing the movement of the vehicle and the art department re-creating what the characters see out the window. When shooting in camera-cars, remember that you will also need a police escort. 

11. Uniforms, special vehicles

Certain items, like police uniforms, can be rented cheaply by the day, but other items like a vintage ice-cream truck will be expensive, and time consuming to dress, rehearse and shoot.

12. Heavy make-up or hair demands

Scenes requiring heavy makeup, be it for bruises, or specialty items like dentals (vampire fangs) take a long time to prepare. You also need to make certain that the effects can be recreated on different days, sometimes months later leading to continuity issues.

13. Errors and omissions insurance

E & O insurance is insurance that will be required for the film to assure your investors that they will be protected in case the production is sued for slander or improper use of a copyright.

Virtually every item in your script that has not been invented for the film needs to be cleared. Your producer needs to get written permission every time you use a brand name, a photograph, a celebrity name or likeness. The E & O insurance company may judge that the product or people you featyre in your script will not suffer from defamation, and agree to allow you to proceed. However, it makes sense for the art department to mock up drinks cans, magazine covers and so on. However this does take more time and money.


An example of a low budget shoot is this Raindance Film festival trailer. It was shot in a day, but even then presented technical difficulties:

The girl needed to dance in time to the music, which meant that portable music needed to be arranged. The director also wanted some slow-motion which meant that the sound track needed to be re-mastered so the dancer would still be in sync during the slow-motion. And finally, the square in Tokyo where this was shot had to be secured.

The cheapest way for this was to get everyone at the square early in the morning. Unfortunately, not only was there no daylight early morning when pedestrian traffic was minimal, and the actress was only available after school, meaning that extra security and production assistants needed to be hired – making this relatively simple shot quite complicated.

To watch the trailer click here.

Recommended Low Budget Films

See if you can get your hands on these films made with minimal budgets by first time directors:

The Following (Chris often stored his equipment in our office during the 9 month shoot)
London To Brighton
Night Of The Living Dead

Why not come to the Lo To No Budget Filmmaking weekend class. I will show you how to take your screenplay and put value for money onto the screen with dozens of low-budget shooting tips. On the second day I will show you how to raise the cash, and how to use free PR to turn your movie into this year’s cult classic.

What are you waiting for? Lo To No Budget Filmmaking



Photo Credit David Martinez / BIFA 2018

Few people know more filmmakers and screenwriters than Elliot Grove. Elliot is the founder of Raindance Film Festival (1993) and the British Independent Film Awards (1998). He has produced over 700 hundred short films and five feature films: the multi-award-winning The Living and the Dead (2006), Deadly Virtues (2013), AMBER (2017), Love is Thicker Than Water (2018) and the SWSX Grand Jury Prize winner Alice (2019). He teaches screenwriting and producing in the UK, Europe, Asia and America.

Raindance BREXiT trailer 2019

Elliot has written three books which have become industry standards: Raindance Writers’ Lab: Write + Sell the Hot Screenplay, now in its second edition, Raindance Producers’ Lab: Lo-To-No Budget Filmmaking and Beginning Filmmaking: 100 Easy Steps from Script to Screen (Professional Media Practice).

In 2009 he was awarded a PhD for services to film education.

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