Getting High Production Value Even on a Minuscule Budget
Find out how to get quality production value on a feature with a budget under 10,000.
It's easy to become despondent when approaching (or thinking about approaching) the uphill battle that is making a film. And although it is one of the most difficult things you'll ever do, it can be done -- regardless of how little experience, money, or equipment you have at your disposal.
Filmmaker Joshua Caldwell made his feature film Layover for just $6000; he cast his friends, borrowed a Canon 5D, and it competed for the New American Cinema award at SIFF, and he decided to share what he has learned about maintaining high production value while keeping costs down.
What is Production Value?
First off, how about we define the idea of production values.
They aren't values like moral values or family values. Production values are the elements such as lighting, set design and set dressing, costuming, and special effects (the list goes on) that contribute to the overall "look and feel" of a project. Production value is a huge part of the "experience"
High production value typically implies something was glossy, well executed, professional and quite frankly, expensive.
Ah! But there is the rub.
High production value can come without spending top dollar. But how?
This is where knowing the process, being super creative, and having a few little tips and tricks to guide you really helps.
And with that, we'll let Joshua Caldwell lead the way with his story. It's a must read with valuable insights for any filmmaker looking to maximize their dollar. And that's every filmmaker, right?
This is a guest post by Joshua Caldwell.
At the beginning of 2013, inspired by seeing several articles about Ed Burns making sub-$10,000 films, I set out to do the same. It had taken me a while to get there. I spent a lot of time and energy developing and writing projects that required other people to give me money and a green light, instead of creating a project I could do on my own terms. It took me lifting my head up, looking around and saying, “I have everything I need to make a movie for very little money: access to cameras, actors, crew, post-services. So why am I not doing it?”
So, I took an idea that I had floating around in my head about a girl stuck on a layover in L.A., developed out the story and wrote the script. Then, with my producing partner Travis Oberlander, we raised a little bit of money from a family friend (enough to pay the cast, rent a few locations, and food), cast the film with actor friends whom I knew spoke French, borrowed a Canon 5D, set the schedule and over the course of five weekends, shot the film, and then spent another eight months or so editing (off and on).
The entire film was made for $6000. That’s right.
And now, this little film that I just decided to go and make will be having its World Premiere at the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival in competition for the prestigious New American Cinema award. Immediately following SIFF, Layover will have its California/Los Angeles premiere at the Dances With Films Festival as one of only 16 films chosen to screen in competition.
Since shooting Layover, I’ve learned so much about what goes into making a feature. It was definitely a process of shooting first and asking questions later (beyond the basics, I had produced a ton of shorts and such before, so I knew what we had to do).
Here are some of the things I’ve discovered about making no-budget films that aren’t about two characters stuck in one room:
It All Starts with the Script
Whether you’re writing a no-budget feature or a massive $100 million blockbuster, every film needs a story. And to a large degree, that story can be told in a multitude of ways. It’s something I’ve developed called “Modular Storytelling.” That is, the story is the story, whether I have $1000 or $200 million. What changes is how I execute the story.
Layover could have been a massive action adventure drama; it could have been a thriller, science fiction, and more. Any of those could have featured the story of a girl stuck in Los Angeles on a layover.
I chose to execute that story within the budget I had -- which was nothing. However, as you’ll see below, that doesn’t mean I didn’t have my own set pieces.
Write Set Pieces that Can Be Accomplished on a Budget
If you know how to pull it off for no money, you can allow for a few scenes that look expensive but were actually the cheapest scenes we shot. There’s a trick, however, to making some of those set pieces scenes work: don’t write any dialogue or require any performance from your actors.
The reason for this is while you might have a really expensive-looking scene, you may not be allowed more than one take. These are scenes you shoot guerrilla style. Here’s an example: There’s a scene in the film where our main character Simone meets up with a friend and they go to a club in Hollywood. The club is packed, it’s busy, it’s fun, colorful and dark and our editor, Will Torbett edited the hell out of it. Feels like we owned that club.
But we didn’t. We got permission to be there with our camera and film but nothing else. We couldn’t control the lights; we couldn’t control the crowds or anything else. But I knew that would be the case (because we didn’t have the money to shut the place down) so I wrote a scene that didn’t require any dialogue (dialogue requires multiple takes) and only had a specific piece of action to be filmed (Simone seeing her friend). The rest was just girls dancing and having fun.
BUT that was also the point of the scene. For Simone, this is the point in the movie where she starts to let go and have fun. So it became the perfect character-based set piece and it really increases the production value of the film.
What’s your Special Sauce?
Since Reservoir Dogs, there have been a multitude of scripts featuring guys sitting around and talking about things (I should know, I wrote one right after I saw Reservoir Dogs). A majority of them were never filmed and those that were died in obscurity.
What was their problem?
They didn’t have that special sauce, the thing that made them rise above the basic story they were telling. In the case of Reservoir Dogs, the special sauce is Tarantino himself, his ear for dialogue and his talent as a writer/director.
For Layover, our special sauce is that the film is 95% French language; and no, I don’t speak French. So, why would I make a film in a language that I, the writer and director, neither spoke nor understood? Because it immediately elevated the film.
Narratively, the story of a girl from New York who gets stuck in LA on a layover doesn’t seem that interesting. By having Simone only speak and understand French, it made her character that much more complex and presented some really great obstacles to her nighttime journey. Beyond the narrative, it becomes a really interesting talking point and raises a question: “Why would you make a film in French if you don’t speak it?” And then we’re off talking about the film.
Before I go onto the next one, I just want to point out that everything up until now is free. It doesn’t cost you any money to think about these things and craft your story around them.
Shoot on a Format Appropriate for Your Level of Production
Notice I didn’t say your budget level. You might be able to afford, dollars-wise, to rent an ALEXA or RED, but that doesn’t mean your production can handle it. To shoot on an ALEXA or RED properly, you really need a DIT, a camera support staff, lighting, insurance, coloring workflow, etc.
You might be able to afford, dollars-wise, to rent an ALEXA or RED, but that doesn’t mean your production can handle it.
Now, that’s not to say you can’t shoot a low budget feature on those cameras. You can and people do. But for me, on Layover, it wasn’t possible. So I chose to shoot on a format I was comfortable with and I knew could get the job done: DSLR. We shot all of Layover on the 5D and a little bit on the 7D (for some slow mo).
Layover takes place entirely at night, so while the 5D doesn’t have the resolution of a RED or ALEXA, it works magnificently in low-light and wouldn’t require massive amounts of lighting gear (I did have to be willing to live with a higher ISO on some scenes, which I was). In fact, our kit only consisted of a couple of china balls, several 250-watt bulbs, several cheap can lights from Home Depot and two light panels our DP owned. Everything else was natural light.
While DSLR doesn't tend to provide the same level of resolution as the RED or Alexa or even the C300, I'm okay with that. I look at it like this: 1080p DSLR is like 16mm (albeit, with a full 35mm sensor) and the RED and ALEXA are like 35mm. It can be an aesthetic choice, one that I embrace. I think too much is made over the whole resolution game. And while, yes, both the 6k RED and ALEXA images look amazing, there's a lot that comes with getting those. For a run and gun filmmaker like myself, DSLR (16mm) is a little more manageable while still delivering stunning results.
Shooting on the 5D allowed me to focus on capturing the performance, shooting long takes and getting a massive amount of material, rather than sitting around waiting for lighting to be done. It allowed me to make the film quickly and efficiently.
And now I’m taking those learnings and applying them to the next two films in the planned LAX trilogy, of which Layover is part one. The other two stories follow completely different characters, but all of them have similar thematic elements and all of them begin with a character arriving at LAX.
Now that we’ve shot one for no budget, we want to take the others to the next level while still maintaining the DIY approach.
One more thing, since it's so close -- if you're in the L.A. area and would like to come out and see Layover, our L.A. premiere of the film is on Wednesday, June 4th at 9:30pm at the Chinese Theatre. For ticket information, click here. We'd love to see you there!
Joshua Caldwell is an accomplished director, writer, producer, former digital exec and MTV Movie Award winner. He has worked with a number of high-profile producers, including CSI creator Anthony E. Zuiker. His award-winning short film Dig, starring Mark Margolis of Breaking Bad, was featured in numerous film festivals. Most recently, released his latest short film Resignation and his debut feature film Layover will have its World Premiere in competition at the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival.