The budget is one of the most important and one of the most difficult components in filmmaking. Many have struggled on working within the limitations of the budget they have and in result, have produced poor films by being overly ambitious and unwilling to compromise. The fact of the matter is that not every production is going to get the equipment or location of their dreams but that’s okay. A film does not have to suffer because it doesn’t have the financial backing that Lord of the Rings had. A successful film is one that embraces constraints and makes them work in the film’s favour. Cutting costs does not lower the value of the film. The goal of this blog post is to prove that films can be successful with little to no budget and provide advice that independent filmmakers have used themselves on prosperous films.

Clerks (Directed by Kevin Smith with a budget of $27,575)

Clerks was the debut feature film for director, Kevin Smith. Before there was Chasing Amy or Dogma, there was Clerks. It has the lowest budget that Kevin Smith has had to work around and yet it launched Smith’s career and won the “Award of the Youth” and Mercedes-Benz Award in 1994 at Cannes Film Festival.

Kevin Smith was able to achieve great success with extremely low funding which proves that big budgets do not make a film great. Filmmakers can do something just as good as big budget features do but with nothing at all. The trick is to embrace your limitations and make them work for you rather than against you.

Use what you have available

Location wise, Kevin Smith’s entire film is based in a convenient store in New Jersey and it’s video rental shop next to it. These spaces are actually places Kevin Smith was working at in the time of production and was given permission to use them during their closing hours. Which is exactly what happened; Kevin Smith and his cast stayed in the convenient store overnight in the span of approximately 21 days to film Clerks. Because the shop was closed while filming, Smith worked it into the script that some kids broke the blinds outside and that’s why they wouldn’t open (when in reality, it was locked from the shop being closed). Throughout the film, there is a large sheet that says “I assure you, we’re open”. The lesson here is to take advantage of the options you have to save money and make it work into the plot. Scripts can be rewritten and made better but budgets hardly ever have that flexibility.

Shoot in Black & White

Shooting in Black & White is a lot easier than shooting in colour because, to put it simply, it’s less colours. The colour grading in post will be a lot cheaper since every frame will look the same because it’s varying shades of black and white. This also makes lighting a lot easier and in the case of Clerks, you can trick the audience into thinking a scene that’s being filmed at night, is a daytime scene.

You also see this sort of technique in Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It. In that film, Spike Lee could only afford so little colourful filming that he used it to indicate a hyper-realism, sort of dream sequence that appears like a fantasy in comparison to all the black & white scenes. This is an example of, again, using your limitations in a smart way and making it go in your favour as opposed to sloppy and cheap.

Cast Yourself

Instead of paying the fees for extras, Kevin Smith cast himself and friend, Jason Mewes as the two men who hang around outside the store. Kevin Smith’s character, Silent Bob has no speaking parts so the characters are relatively small and don’t necessarily carry the plot anywhere, they serve as another comedy element so instead of paying someone to play the small parts, he assigned the roles to him and Jason. This is a good way to save money; typically for extras, people without any acting experience can do just well enough.

Slacker (Directed by Richard Linklater with a budget of $23,000)

Before Boyhood, Linklater was known for bringing attention to a subculture society in Austin, Texas. Slacker was made in 1991 before the young adult bohemian lifestyle was really given any exposure. The film has no plot really; it revolves around short snippets of the people and their conversations throughout the day. The film never stays on one particular person for too long, it constantly moves throughout the city of Austin. The film shows that filmmakers can make it on the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress alongside Citizen Kane and The Godfather while having less than half of their budget.

Natural Light

The use of the sun as your primary light source is one of the easiest ways to cut down how much you spend on your film. Most of Slacker is filmed in the day which of course makes it much easier to limit the use of artificial light and therefore the budget. More than half of the film is filmed outside and the scenes that are filmed inside are contained in rooms with lots of windows that the actors or a particular object can get the most light from what is outside.

Camera

Slacker was filmed on a 16mm Arriflex camera. The 16mm film is a common film type used in most low budget films. It has also been the known film within most home movie making cameras. Sacrificing the quality of film will definitely lower the costs of production without lowering the quality of the finished film as clearly demonstrated by Slacker. Slacker also features a Fisher Price Pixel Vision camcorder in which they used to film the bar scene. The Fisher Price camera is literally a toy camera that Linklater used, with great difficulty, due to its cheap price and to give the scene a gritty texture. Slacker proves that you do not need the best quality equipment to make an important film.

Blair Witch Project (Directed by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez with a budget of $60,000)

Blair Witch Project, which made its UK debut at Raindance Film Festival, is a “found footage” horror film surrounding a local Maryland legend, The Blair Witch. The film has been largely influential in the horror community as one of the first first-person mockumentaries that some people are convinced was based on a true story. It is known as one of the most profitable films of all time, grossing around $248 million with an original budget of $60,000.

Camera

Just like Slacker, Blair Witch Project has embraced their access to cheap cameras by buying dinky consumer cameras in which they equipped the actors with. Because it was a “found footage” film, the audience can excuse the poorer quality (compared to more modern and professional cameras) because it’s supposed to come off as “real footage”. One can excuse the shakiness and grain that comes with a lot of inexperienced filmmaking since it’s supposed to come from a “home movie” type of camcorder. After the filming was completed, on Halloween after the span of 8 days, the producers took the cameras back and managed to get a slight refund which made the budget go even further.

Marketing

Blair Witch Project had it’s European festival premiere at Raindance. The marketing of the Blair Witch Project can attribute to a lot of the film’s success. They decided to promote the film as if the Blair Witch was real, which many locals do believe. Promotion of the film consisted of fake police reports and interviews in order to create a sense of curiosity to draw in audiences. The team even made fake Missing Person flyers for the actors featured in the film in order to attract people to see the film for the actors “last known whereabouts”. It is referred to as one of the most “terrifying and successful” campaigns in film history.

Learn how these filmmakers did it

Raindance has pioneered micro and low budget filmmaking in the UK since 1992. Filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Edgar Wright made their first movies using the pricipals taught in the Raindance signature class Lo-to-No Budget Filmmaking weekend masterclass. Find latest details and course times here: London | Toronto

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About 

Cierra is a recent Essex Uni graduate from Virginia Beach, Virginia (home to teenage Mark Ruffalo, just fyi). She is an aspiring film producer and is passionate about bringing science-fiction and fantasy stories to life. In her quite limited amount of spare time, Cierra enjoys reading the same Cormac McCarthy novel over and over again as well as building her collection of special edition Beatles vinyls.