Making a short film is difficult enough, what with the need to be concise in almost every aspect of filmmaking it seems rigorous decisions have to be made early on about the film’s direction, style and pace. Shooting a short film with a low budget complicates things further, as every obstacle that was previously mentioned is not only compromised by the length, but also by the newfound struggle in affording any desired effects for the film. Having said that, a low budget does not make things impossible, and should definitely not be a reason for one to surrender in their venture to make their film. In the way that everyone loves an underdog story, the low budget market has grown to release some very successful films with the lack of funding being one of its biggest charms.
If you were to Google low budget films that became smash hits you would still get ridiculously high figures between the hundreds of thousands up to millions of pounds, but that is simply not always the case. Though not a short film, the highly unique sci-fi Primer won a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and received a cult following shortly after, all with the budget of $7000. To put it into perspective, if a director has to sell their car to make a feature-length film, the sacrifice for a shorter runtime will definitely sting less. To ensure that the financial sting stays light, here are some tips and observations of the world of low budget filmmaking for short films.
The first piece of advice that seems to come from everyone precedes the process of filmmaking. That is, if you’re going to shoot something in the first place, the idea has to be good. Frankly, if your concept has to rely on outer factors to even begin to sound interesting, unless you can pull a rabbit out of a hat you can forget the film. The idea for a film should be enough of a drive to push someone to achieve their vision, and having something that is more of an excuse to make a film will not go down well. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying effects, writing, editing, sound and other factors can’t make a film better, but on a short budget there will already be plenty of risks to take, let alone beginning a film with a weak idea that will rely on things you can’t afford.
Another point is a well-rounded phrase to keep in mind at all times, and that is to be meticulous. Whether it’s about shooting in different locations, choosing music for your film or even having the right script or camera, there is no higher danger with limited resources than to take things for granted. With a low budget, the most intelligent thing one can do is see what amount of money will go where in the process of filmmaking, or if there is no money involved, there should at least be some time spent on trying to figure out loopholes for things that would usually necessitate money. For example, if location (or reaching locations) becomes an issue, it would be wise to work with cinematography, angles, lighting and editing for some time before shooting the actual film. Getting extra footage through these different ways might help you to find something that would work instead of a location you couldn’t afford to reach. To bring back Primer as an exemplary model, director Shane Carruth was responsible for all of the music in the film, taking it upon himself to handle an aspect that would usually rely on the help of others.
Be prepared for the worst. Justin Minich, a Seattle-based filmmaker tackled and gave his own advice on low budget work in films. Under the topic of “Always have a Back-up Plan” he says: “I originally planned to split up the shots each day so there was an even mix of difficult and easy set-ups. But a couple of days before the shoot my special effects artist and co-director informed me that she could only be on set for half of the 2nd day due to work, so I rearranged the shooting schedule accordingly”. There are quite a few ways to stay safe when balancing a low budget: assure that you have enough free time to work around other people’s schedules, while also being able to keep a consistent deadline in order to stop the film from needing more time (and more money) to be filmed. If your film requires certain effects, maybe shoot from several different angles and approaches to ensure that when the effects are added you have variety and no need to revisit the shot. If location is paramount, take into account weather, noisiness, the amount of people that frequent the location and how early the sun goes down or comes up depending on the scenery. Everything requires a plan B, whether or not it will be needed in the end, and accepting that fact beforehand will save you a lot of grief on the way.
The final and most common tip is also what probably gives low budget films their appeal. Once you get away with taking shortcuts to make the film, reveal these shortcuts to no one. The beauty of low budget films is in the eye of the beholder; the audience is bewildered at the magic they see on-screen while aware of its lack of major funding. So simply enough, don’t reveal how you made the film work, the film should be able to stand alone by itself, unless it’s some kind of performative art that involves other mediums.
Realistically there are several more things that have been missed out here. But the purpose of this article isn’t to stand as the be-all and end-all set of instructions for short films and low budgets. The main idea here is to get filmmakers to understand how less money doesn’t equate to less responsibility. Though one should be careful with how they choose to spend a great sum they might have, it stands likewise the other way round. You can only do so much before the cost of your vision gets in the way. Nevertheless, a lack of money allows for an opportunity to show one’s true creative colours, to thrive in an area that is known to deliver some serious flops, and to create some interesting illusions through the label of “low budget”.
By Thomas Rososchansky