standard-gauge-still-2When I was nine or ten years old, and not busy seeing movies I was far too young to be seeing (thanks, indulgent parenting!), I haunted the film section at any available bookstore, buying scripts, biographies of my favorite directors, books on technique and craft -- it didn't really matter, so long as it was film related. Sometime in the mid-90s, this indiscriminate process resulted in my discovery of the classic, Feature Filmmaking at Used Car Prices. The author, Rick Schmidt, had written it several years before, and its premise was that for the average cost of a used car (around $6,000), it was eminently possible to make a feature film. Recently, I reread the book, and there's no time like the present to catch up with the past, so put on your jodhpurs, grab a megaphone, and let's make a movie, what say?

The DSLR revolution has changed more about filmmaking in the past ten years than had occurred in the previous thirty. Examining the steps in Schmidt's 1988 book (which has gone through two revisions, in 1995 and 2000), it's possible to see just how drastic the change in filmmaking has been; everyone knows that there has been a revolution, but we're at a point where many young DPs have never shot on film, and, in all probability, might go through their career without handling a roll. Technological developments were the order of the day for decades, but at a point, film plateaued, in the sense that almost every novel development was an improvement on some preexisting element, rather than something new.

Studios could have Panorama, Cinerama, or any other larger format, but the limits of the medium became known quantities, and no matter what sort of film you were making, it involved a camera that moved rolls of film (usually at 24 frames per second) through a series of spools, and exposing each of these 24 frames to light for the exact fractional moment needed to achieve the desired effect. The light entered the camera through a lens, and the only change for many years was that the lenses got wider, and faster (e.g., the lenses retrofitted by Kubrick for Barry Lyndon, one of them 36.5 mm/f .07, capable of filming scenes by candlelight). Film got faster, too, and these two developments, combined with more portable gear (originally used, for the most part, by journalists) gave rise to an independent film movement every bit as important as the one today, except the average indie filmmaker in 2014 has a totally different technical filmmaking experience. Starting with the fact that usually, there's no film involved.

Film Ain't Free

Schmidt used the figure of $6,000 as a hypothetical budget, which, adjusted for inflation, would be $12,088.40 in today's dollars. Now, that had to cover everything in the production, from preproduction to post, and the books does a great job of walking a filmmaker through all the steps necessary to complete their film. Indie filmmakers have always had to beg, borrow and steal, but in 1988, things were much more difficult, and that's chiefly because in 1988, film was the only game in town. Most Hollywood features are still shot on 35mm film, and film isn't cheap. A 1000' roll of 35mm (roughly 11 minutes of footage) is going for about $650-700 new, and about half that used (which is always dicey, since there's no way to know what you were getting until you had shot and developed the film). This leaves 16mm, or Super 16, which is the same as regular 16mm except for a wider frame size, since the optical sound track is photographed, because these films are designed for video, not film, release. A roll of 16mm, which gives about 11 minutes per 400', goes for anywhere from ~ $80 for recanned stock (again, risky) to $150 new (or $75.44, in 1988.)


This meant that an 80s' filmmaker had to be very cognizant of their shooting ratio; the book puts it that 12 rolls of color stock (Eastman 7291, precisely), or 4,800', would be sufficient to make a feature film. And the image, while beautiful, required a much more involved lighting schema than DSLR, which tends to be more forgiving.

A little multiplication makes it becomes apparent that the filmmaker had just 132 minutes of footage with which to cut a film with a running time of anywhere from 70-90 minutes. At its harshest, 90/132 meant that for every 22 minutes filmed, 15 would end up in the final product. Today's filmmaker, who can shoot almost infinite takes, and for whom physical film isn't an issue, would find it hard to imagine the pressures of this sort of filmmaking, which, of course, had to be scripted, storyboarded, rehearsed, and blocked within an inch of its life. As for plot, the advice was to think of a story that took place in one location, preferably during the daytime, and centered around a very limited cast of maybe four people, tops.

All this was of course shot on a 16mm camera with a crystal sync motor for synchronizing picture and sound, which rented for about $70-125 a day. The best deals were on the weekend, and a camera package would include lenses, which was usually a zoom for a shoe-string shoot. Furthermore, film requires lots of light just to make a watchable image, so every camera package needed to come complete with lots of clunky lights; and, unless you had a great DP, the chance of messing up and looking totally amateurish was high. A big-budget look often required a big budget and/or a wizard of light.

The alternative was to shoot with a "fast" stock, which could produce a suitable image (the less grain, the better) in natural light. Once you shot the film, you wouldn't know what you had for the usual several day wait (just imagine waiting more than a few minutes to see your footage today) until it came back from the lab, where you sent your only copy of your movie. Then they would give you back either your original film, or a cheaper, lower quality 'work print' on which you would make your cuts, usually storing the original in controlled conditions. One of Schmidt's friends was filmmaker Wayne Wang, who would later go on to direct films like Smoke, and whose Chan is Missing, from 1982, is exemplary of this style of filmmaking, though the budget was slightly larger, at $22,000:

Sound and Editing

In 1988, sync sound was recorded on 1/4'' tape, which, thankfully, was not nearly as expensive as film, but which required a high quality recorder, like a Nagra, equipped with a motor that allowed it to get "speed" and hence shoot at the 24 fps speed of 16mm (this is the reason for the clapper, and the calling of the scene and shot) -- the first frame of the clapper is lined up with its sound, and then they are locked and marked with a grease pencil, but we're getting ahead of ourselves. This tape first had to be converted to mag track, which was what you used to edit the film. In 1988, if you were shooting and cutting on film, that meant you had to find access to a flatbed editing machine, like a Steenbeck or Movieola.

Using these machines was incredibly difficult, with tape and film flying like spaghetti if you didn't thread it just right, and each cut having to be made with a razor blade and tape, or glue. Your film was marked with edge numbers to keep track of the "selects" that you had in a bin and had to keep organized. Here's some footage of Martin Scorsese, his longtime, Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and an old flatbed (it looks like a Kem), which was renting in NY for $900 a week around the year 2000, and is now used to decorate the waiting rooms of many production houses. Overnight, they have become furniture, and now an NLE can edit a feature on a laptop.

Then there are opticals (shoot your titles on location, do every possible effect in-camera), sound mixing (try to limit your location sound as much as possible, since a voice-over or dubbed dialogue is much cheaper) and conforming, which meant using your work print (if you had one) and the edge numbers to conform your original film to its edited copy. From that the lab would then make the 2 reels of 16mm, complete with optical track, that would constitute your final product. This was your final chance to find any mistakes, e.g., poor color balance, missed fades, or titles that had been developed improperly. Schmidt's feature film is budgeted to have 2 actors, a director, DP, and sound guy working a 4-day shoot, with 75% of film shot making it to the final cut. There is also the assumption that you have cut every corner and called in every favor, and that most of your equipment is coming from reserves of local universities, including your editing room.

The final shooting/editing budget of Schmidt's hypothetical film:

  • 12 rolls of Color Negative 7291 stock:$912.00
  • Processing and Work Print of 3/4 of stock: 792.00
  • 12 rolls of 1/4'' sound tape: $55.08
  • 4 rolls (1,200'' each) mag track: $200.00
  • Camera package, 2 weekends: $500.00
  • Sound person with Nagra, mikes, day rate: $80.00
  • 2 actors' stipends: $160.00
  • Food (4 dinners for 5 people): $140.00
  • Gas: $30.00
  • Edge numbers (3,600' work print, 3,600' mag): $108.00
  • Flatbed Editing machine (10, 12 hour sessions): $250.00
  • Editing Tape (1 roll picture tape, 1 roll sound): $16.00
  • Titles (shot on location): $0
  • Black leader: $300.00
  • Conforming (done by filmmaker): $0
  • Answer Print (70 min./2,500'): 1,713.00
  • Sound mix, misc., taxes: $663.32

Final Cost: $6,000

The Indie Scene

Filmmakers like Morris Engel, whose Little Fugitive inspired the French New Wave (Truffaut cited the shoestring budget film as a direct inspiration for The 400 Blows); John Cassavetes', whose 1959 film Shadows was largely improvised, controversial, and full of handheld 16mm cinematography; and even Stanley Kubrick, whose first feature, 1953's Fear and Desire, was shot with money he borrowed from family members, have been making indie narrative films for decades. This is to say nothing of art films, which have their own, rich tradition. 

The world of 1988 was a world of limited opportunities, but also a smaller playing field with far fewer filmmakers, and fewer places to have your film seen. Today's glut of content has made getting seen more difficult, but now there are infinitely more places to make your work known, and even by the time Schmidt published his first edition, the modern indie filmmaking scene was taking off; within a few years, directors would be the new rockstars, and 16mm films would take Sundance by storm.

Robert Rodriguez spent $7,000 making El Mariachi (though several hundred thousand were poured in later when the film was picked up), but Rodriguez kept the shooting budget low by shooting in Mexico, dubbing dialogue, having the actors double as the crew, using minimal lighting and shooting single takes that were "frozen" while the camera moved to a new angle, which, when combined with skillful editing, gave an illusion of shooting complicated action scenes from multiple angles and setups simultaneously. His book on the subject is a marvel of ingenuity, as is this video, in which he explains in his so-called "Ten Minute Film School" some of the low-budget tricks he learned while making the film:

In the end, Rodriguez actually saved two of the $9,000 he had budgeted, which is almost unheard of, particularly considering production values that are, quite frankly, unbelievable, once you realize how much pressure he was operating under, and how that pressure forced him to think of ways to solve his problem in the most imaginative way possible. That skill is one that any filmmaker should possess; a director makes decisions and solves problems, and someone who can spin straw into gold can do wonders when given gold to work with. Great art is often produced, not under the most congenial, but the most trying of circumstance, and in the end, indie filmmakers of any era have known how to solve problems with their minds, and not their wallets.

The story is the thing that must be told, and the way it is told and shown to the viewer should always be the guiding force in filmmaking. Story is the one thing that will always be there, and it is the thing that makes a film great, unique, and unforgettable. And every filmmaker would be wise to remember that without it, the most advanced equipment in the world would be useless.