How Feature Filmmaking Without A Crew Is Possible

“Hey, I’ll be taking off for a few months to hike in Nepal … so, if you wanna make this movie, we should probably do it before I leave.”

Those were the famous words that my lead actress said to me prior to filming my feature film, The Cube.

She forced my hand, as I wasn’t ready to move forward… So fast. Following the motto of Virgin Founder, Richard Branson, it was time to “Screw it! Let’s do it!”

I was still fairly new to Portland, Oregon.  That’s where I live, by the way.

Anyway, I was still fairly new to the Pacific Northwest and hadn’t really made any connections locally to assemble a real crew. Venturing into feature filmmaking, I had a few people that might be able to help out, but since this was all volunteer work, I found out you get what you pay for. And for this project that was no one!

Here is the thing. I have over 20 years of production experience behind me, so I was fully aware of what could be accomplished and what couldn’t be accomplished.

I would just have to use my creativity to figure out how to get scenes shot with no one behind the camera and with no one recording sound.

Drum roll forward and — I did it!

Feature Filmmaking Without A Crew

Here’s a quick guide that will highlight how I got into feature filmmaking and importantly, how I made a feature film with no crew:

  • Your story must take place in 1-2 accessible locations. Like your own house!
  • You must own (or have free access to) your own equipment. That means everything, camera, sound gear, lighting kits, and editing software.
  • Actors who are willing to work for free. Friends and Craigslist!
  • You will most likely be one of the actors, so you’ll have to design a shot list of primarily locked-down (stationary) shots, as your camera will remain on a tripod since there will be no operator. Remember no crew!
  • Be sure to get a camera with a flip out LCD screen, so you can see yourself when filming.
  • Use a mic stand as your stand-in to help focus your shots. Again you have no crew.
  • Check your shots after each take to ensure that it was in focus. Haha. No crew.
  • Same principle holds true when you are acting with another actor. Set up the stationary shots, use a tripod to approximate your location. Hit record on your camera and act!
  • What about audio? Buy inexpensive battery powered lavaliere mics, and plug them into small portable audio recorders. Each actor will have their own recorder hidden in their wardrobe. No fussing with wireless technology.
  • Each actor must clap or snap before each take to help with video and audio synchronization. Your video and audio clips will be recorded separately.
  • Avoid shooting around meal times. I only shot in 4-hour increments. I couldn’t afford to pay for meals. Shoot from 9am-12pm or 2pm-5pm. Then again I had no crew!
  • When shooting indoors, I replaced all in-house lightbulbs with ugly bright daylight fluorescent light bulbs that would match the same color temperature of the outside daylight. It looked ugly in person, but the color balance in the camera was beautiful.
  • Take all the footage and edit yourself! Easier said than done, but again I’ve had 20 years of production experience behind me, so that was my asset. Haha, I said asset. Okay, sorry, small child here.
  • Most importantly, don’t take it too seriously, have fun and accept the fact that things won’t be perfect. With no crew, what can you expect?
  • (Here’s a shot where the camera was on the tripod, the mic was on a boom stand, no one else on set, except for me and my lead actress. Just set the shot, hit record and prayed that my acting was just above the “suck” line. Haha.)

The Feature Filmmaking Paradigm Is Shifting

Many times, the thought of feature filmmaking seemed impossible. Honestly, I never thought I could pull it off. But something happened from the whole experience.

It opened the floodgates for me creatively, as I began to see all sorts of stories that could be made in your very own home.

On top of that, I had an extremely inexpensive feature film in my pocket.

Total cost to make it … $500!

Yep, we are talking feature filmmaking for $500 with no crew.

Now that the movie is complete, I’m able to sell my movie directly to audiences online through sites like Vimeo On Demand or Pivotshare.

I bypassed film festivals, because I wasn’t willing to spend the $50 entry fees, as that would double my budget. And I wasn’t even guaranteed to be accepted into any of them anyway.

Feature Filmmaking Success

Nope. I wanted to hit the market right away.

I’ve been following Jason Brubaker for awhile now, and when he was doing some work with Distribber, I had an opportunity to chat with him via email.

Here’s the exchange that took place nearly a year ago:

Hi Jason,

Yes, thank you for answering my questions very thoroughly.

Out of curiosity, what your company is offering and the fact that iTunes
seems to be more open to allowing truly independent content on their
platform is quite amazing and revolutionary.

Honestly, am I correct in thinking that this must be very scary for the
sales agents, producer reps, and all the middlemen of traditional film
distribution?

Best,
Scott

Jason immediately got back to me with this response:

Hi Scott,

While I can’t speak for those professionals, I think it’s safe to say
the feature filmmaking paradigm is shifting.

Please let me know how I can further assist you.

Jason

The paradigm is shifting. Those words rang true to me then and it definitely is true now.

Within a one year period, my original thoughts were to pay an aggregator to get my film up on iTunes, but now companies like Vimeo, VHX.TV, Amazon, Pivotshare, and IndieReign have given us platforms to sell our films directly to audiences, worldwide!

Do any of you know how amazing this is?

It’s liberating! It’s exciting! It’s revolutionary! But here is the thing. It all comes down to marketing :-)

And Jason has been evangelizing this point for some time now.

Remember: Film production is no longer a barrier. (Hell, I just made a feature film for $500, with no crew!)

- Film distribution is no longer a barrier. Just pick any direct distribution platform and you’ll have access to the same audiences that the big studios do!

- Marketing is the last remaining barrier. There’s a lot of noise in the feature filmmaking space – and we’re all competing for people’s time.

Gear For Feature Filmmaking

The new filmmaker must build the stamina to endure not only production of their film, but the longevity of marketing their film. This is the extra gear we need to succeed.

Here’s the strange thing, marketing can be just as creative and fun as making your movie!

The reality is, marketers are trying to become better storytellers in order to compete on social media.

If we’re any good at storytelling, we should be killing it as marketers! Seriously, why not?

There is a hella-lot of great free material here on Jason’s site. Be sure to devour it. As, for me, if you wanna know what equipment I used to make this feature film with no crew, then all you have to do is head on over to www.FREEGEARGUIDE.com

Thanks for your time … and as Jason says, “Go make your movie!”

– – –
Scott McMahon is the Director of Content Marketing for The Film Trooper, a website for helping filmmakers become entrepreneurs. Scott recently made the feature film The Cube that was made for $500 with no crew.

Comments

  1. rory sopoci-belknap says

    Hi. I like your attitude and I definitely sympathize with the idea. I have considered doing the same, and using recorders with lavs on each actor. My question is, how did you do the sound effects? did you plant mics? or did you go back and just do all the foley work seperately afterwards, like footsteps etc. and add it all in? or did you have stereo recorders planted in various places? did you have one of your actors run sound when necessary? if you can give me any guidance on this aspect i’d really appreciate it. i was also considering doing scenes twice. once recording video and once doing the same thing, but with lavs connected to lower parts of actors and getting things like footsteps, doors opening etc.

    its unorthodox, using lavs for sound effects, but what do you think? thanks for any help you can give on this. (basically how to get ambient, and sound effects, without a crew)
    thanks
    rory

    i was thinking

  2. says

    Thank you all for the wonderful and supportive comments.

    I didn’t think that I could pull it off … but once I did, the creative floodgates started to open, as I was seeing things in a whole different light.

    As Tessa was saying about locations, yes … it never hurts to ask. Haha. I should clarify, that since I knew I would only be filming in short 2-3 hours increments, I needed to have access to locations that would allow me to go back to … time and time again.

    I’m a lazy filmmaker. Haha. I hate being stressed out by all the moving parts that can go on with production. So, I just eliminate the headaches and challenge myself creatively how to solve a problem with the most limited resources.

    I must say though, since I live in Portland, Oregon … production value is easy. Just plop your camera outside and you’ll get shots of some of the most gorgeous, lush landscapes around.

    Good luck to everyone! I’m working on my next film and it’s even smaller. Haha. It’s just one character … my daughter, alone in the house when things go bump.

  3. Kris Kemp says

    Terrific article. Thank you for writing it.

    I’m a writer (screenplays, musical, ebooks, soon-to-be-published novel) and actor, and I finished a short suspense thriller script that I plan to film at low-budget or no-budget. Your article is really encouraging for someone like me, in that I feel I can actually get my movie started and get it finished.

    Thank you,

    Kris Kemp

  4. Brian Barnes says

    Super-impressive work, Scott. I’ve shot loads of short films with no crew, but I wasn’t acting in them myself too, so my hat’s off to you. I come from a corporate video background, where we shoot a lot with no crew, so it looks as if that’s great training for the new feature film paradigm!

    Best,

    Brian

  5. Patrick says

    Great guest post. It really should serve as an inspiration to not only first time filmmakers, but those who have worked for years in the industry and who want the ability to jump into a feature, without the worry of large production costs.

    I also agree with Tessa, lots of great locations out there that you can get for free, or close to free.

    Also, I think part of the process as you begin to make more movies, is learning WHERE to spend what little money you have. For example, if when Scott makes another movie maybe he’ll have a little more money to spend. If so it would be interesting to see where it’s spent to increase production value etc.

    Thanks Scott and Jason for the info and inspiration.

  6. Nico says

    This gives me the needed inspiration for the script I wrote learning how to tell a story which was also a FREE online course and acting as an extra in a few TV programs and one feature film. I saw the HUGE crew used for the making of Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie, and I thought “Sh…..t how will I, an unemployed wannabe ever be able to make my very own movie?”. But now I honestly have the courage to get my friends as actors and juts do this. Thanks Jason and Scott.

  7. Tessa says

    Hi Scott, I belong to a crew of three of a feature film in Venezuela on no budget financed by freelance jobs, which also had to feed the three of us.I love all your points, but disagree a bit with the locations bit. There is more out there than you think, if you just ask around and are ready for a no. We filmed in two hotels, in downtown Valencia after nightfall with police support (and a few nights without!), from the top of malls, appartment blocks and inside offices. We were never afraid to ask, and to keep on looking for that perfect spot the script demanded.

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