Low Budget Filmmaking: Make Features In Your Living Room

Low Budget Filmmaking: Make Features In Your Living Room by Bojan Dulabic

Robert Rodriguez once said: “take stock of what you have and make a film around that.”

This is the philosophy of low budget filmmaking.

It seems so simple but does it really work? A lot of us think that movies need all kinds of fancy things in order to be engaging. They don’t.

If you have a well written story and actors who can deliver you can set your movie anywhere. . .  Yes even in your own living room. It can still be engaging. This is the essence of low budget filmmaking.

Two years ago I asked myself “what do I have?”

Well, I have an apartment. I have filmmaking gear and access to actors.

Perfect, let’s use this stuff to make a movie.

In July of 2012 I started production on my first feature film called Living Life or Waiting to Die with a budget of $4000.  By most indie standards this qualifies as low budget filmmaking.

To keep the cost down I took on the following jobs: Writer/Director, Executive Producer, Camera Operator, Director of Photography, Editor and VFX.

My fiancé (girlfriend at the time) produced it with me. She helped me with casting, she was the Script Supervisor and did Wardrobe/Costume.

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Low Budget Filmmaking: How I Made a Feature

When you decide to get into low budget filmmaking, you won’t be able to hire people. And since I couldn’t afford to get a crew, I got a bunch of friends and family to help out for a few hours here and there.

I was also able to get a few makeup people to help out.

On average we had about seven people on set any given day. There was me, my producer, one makeup person, one person recording audio, and 2-4 actors depending on the day.

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For casting I had everyone send me self taped auditions. That way I didn’t have to book a room to hold auditions, which can cost money. Because all of us have some kind of a camera nowadays (cellphone, laptop webcam etc.) it’s very easy to self-tape for actors.

The videos didn’t have to be high quality, as long as the actors were visible and I could hear them reasonably I was happy.

I did the callbacks in my living room where we would shoot most of the movie anyway. Also, in order to keep the cost down I decided to shoot the entire film in 8 days.

When you get into low budget filmmaking, the other thing you need to think about is scheduling and locations. We shot our movie on all weekends. Even with only a few location changes, traveling to any location is very ambitious for an 85 minute film. This meant we were, on average, shooting 10 pages a day.

Just to give you an idea, a standard Hollywood production usually shoots 2-3 pages a day, on a good day.

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I knew in order to pull this of and do it right I had to spend money on certain things and this is what I spent it on:

1. Actors
2. Food
3. Gear
4. Music

Actors

My film has four main actors. There are two leads and two supporting characters. Additionally, the movie features two side characters and eight extras. The two leads were on set for all of the shoot and the other two were there for 3 and 5 days.

Because low budget filmmaking involves a big time commitment, I decided to pay all main actors $50 a day. It wasn’t much by any means and they deserve a lot more. But I knew that’s what I could afford based on my budget (or lack of budget).

Since I am a web designer, I also gave actors the option of me designing a website for them instead of paying them, which one actor took. I would highly suggest that if you have a skill offer some sort of barter as an option instead of money. This might save you a few bucks.

The other actors in the film were only needed for an hour or two. I made sure not to waste their time.

Food

One must-have in low budget filmmaking is food.

Make sure you feed your cast and crew. Film shoots usually go from 12-14 hours a day, which is what we had on my film.

We shot on average about 13 hours per day. And I made sure that my cast and crew had a homemade meal everyday and that there were plenty of snacks and sandwiches for in between.

In my case I bought all the ingredients and I had my mom cook the food.

If you don’t have access to an Eastern European mother don’t worry. There are plenty of options to get cheap but good food. The first weekend my mom wasn’t able to cook so I went to Costco and for $50 I was able to buy food for 2 days for 15 people in total.

There are too many filmmakers who don’t think about food. Creative people cannot be creative on an empty stomach. And they should never have to pay for food themselves, especially if you get them involved in low budget filmmaking!

If you need actors and crew to be on set all day don’t be a douche and have food.

Gear

Because I have been into low budget filmmaking (making short films and documentaries) for over a decade I had most of the gear needed.

Initially I was going to shoot the film with my Panasonic AG-HMC40, which is a great run and gun camcorder shooting AVCHD 1080p footage.

However, my biggest problem was the fact that the lens was not interchangeable.

I decided to get the Canon T3i camera because I loved the depth of field DSLR cameras display. I bought it with a standard lens kit (18-55mm) and bought a prime lens f1.4 50mm. I used the prime lens for all close ups and medium shots and used the 18-55 mm for all wide shots and masters.

I still ended up using my Panasonic camera to simulate a cellphone camera in a few scenes. Also, another reason for getting the DSLR and the prime lens was the fact that I had virtually no crew and only two lights and using DSLR cameras gave me great low light performance. I got a few other small accessories for the camera and the rest I already owned.

For more info about the gear that I use check out my Filmmaking Today playlist on my YouTube Channel.

Music

Learning how to navigate music is an essential part of the low budget filmmaking process. I am used to shooting and editing my projects and I enjoy both of those things. I also do these things because I’m good at it.

My strength is in editing, shooting and I know my way around basic visual effects (painting out objects, doing motion tracking and graphic design related things) which is exactly what I did on this project.

I have scored all my previous short films and documentaries. But for this project I decided to hire Dave Chick from www.gethatched.ca, a professional film composer here in Vancouver, Canada to do the score. Dave gave the film a certain depth and took you on an emotional roller coaster which I would’ve never been able to do had I scored the film myself.

I firmly believe that in filmmaking, particularly in low budget filmmaking, we have to do whatever we can to cut down on cost. However, there are things that we need to budget for.

What they are will depend on your story and your strengths as a filmmaker and how resourceful you are so take stock of what you have and build your story around that. These are the things I did to make a feature film for $4000 which I do think is very engaging, funny and technically speaking can compete with films that have budgets 10 times higher.

And here it is!

For more info about the film and also to download a free sample, which includes 8 minutes of it, visit the official site for Living Life or Waiting To Die.
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Bojan Dulabic is a Vancouver based actor, filmmaker and content creator at www.FilmmakingToday.com a blog dedicated to empower filmmakers to make their own projects by talking about current low budget filmmaking techniques and gear used today.

Comments

  1. says

    Hi Brad –

    Thank you for commenting. Making a feature with no budget is totally doable. First, my film budget was actually $4000, not $7000. Technically I could’ve made it for no money had I used my other camera, because I spent part of the budget to get a new camera and had I not paid my actors and music guy and bought food for the cast and crew. That’s pretty much where my budget went.

    Problem with that is, if you are not paying your cast and crew it’s not fair to keep them all day and ask that they buy their own food. Normally if they are not getting paid or fed you keep them for only 3-5 hours a day. So that means your movie will take a lot longer to shoot, which is not the end of the world, depending on your location. If you are not paying for the location that can work. Also, keep in mind when you don’t pay anyone you do get what you pay for so quality can suffer. I needed a professional composer because I didn’t want the movie to suffer and it worked. He did an awesome job which elevated the overall quality.

    I still think that $4000 for an 84 minute feature film is nothing in today’s world. Also, when I say I had on average 7 people on set, you gotta understand that includes the actors. In terms of crew, I only had myself, my producer, makeup person and on some days a sound person but none of them could help me with the technical side, and there were days where it was just me behind the camera. The rest were actors who you will need anyway.

    Unfortunately, with certain things I do believe we should spent money on in filmmaking because it will elevate the quality of the final product. However, the amount is significantely lower than it was just a few years ago and that is awesome.

    If you have more questions about how to keep the budget down but still maintain the quality always feel free to email me at [email protected] or check out my blog where I talk about those things at http://www.filmmakingtoday.com

    Take Care

    Bojan

  2. Brad says

    What if you only have yourself?

    You said you had 7 people on set in a given day along with a budget of $7,000. That’s still a stretch for some of us.

    For a guy like me, I have a camera and sound equipment with some basic lights. But I don’t have people, no people of any kind. I’m pretty good with editing, I would simply need to clone myself in the editing software if I wanted my characters to be able to interact with each other.

    So yeah, I guess that’s my only option for making a feature film.

    But hey, if I ever get to a point where I feel like actually spending money on getting a film made, I’ll definitely try this whole thing out.

    Here’s a real challenge, try to make a feature on no budget. You may not think it can be done but I’ve actually read a few places where it has been done before. So there’s that option as well.

  3. Bojan Dulabic says

    Hi Guys

    Thank you so much for the feedback, really appreciate it.

    I will actually have an article out very soon about my experiences with VHX and Vimeo. My film has been on VHX now for about 3 weeks and Vimeo on Demand for about 1 week. So far, I really like both of them for different reasons.

    I’ll share all my pros and cons about both platforms.

    You’ll be able to check it out on my blog at http://www.filmmakingtoday.com

    Bojan

  4. Patrick says

    Hey Bojan, congrats on making a feature film on such a small budget. The trailer looks really good, and have a feel beyond your budget level.

    Great article too, some amazing advice.

    How are you liking Vimeo and VHX as distribution platforms?

    Thanks
    Patrick

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