December 5, 2016

5 Ways to Make a High-Quality Music Video for Under $1,000

Here's how to utilize resources at your disposal to create the best possible project for under $1K. 

[Editor's Note: No Film School asked Oren Soffer to write about his experience shooting a micro-budget music video.]

“Low-budget” is a phrase that turns a lot of people off, and for good reason—filmmaking is an expensive medium, and it is often quite difficult to achieve high-quality results with limited resources. However, as long as you know how to utilize limited resources and embrace those limitations when coming up with concepts for low-budget projects, you can keep costs low without having to compromise on quality. Ultimately, these low-budget passion projects are the ones that turn out to be the most artistically satisfying, since there are few outside influences guiding the creative decisions.

A few months ago, I was brought on board as the cinematographer on a music video for Amy León, a poet/singer/songwriter. The song, titled “Burning in Birmingham,” is the first off of Amy’s debut album Something Melancholy. Amy had a very ambitious and bold vision for the video (below), which was inspired by the 1963 Alabama church bombings.

But there was a caveat: Amy is an up-and-coming artist, thus did not have access to a large budget. Because the director, Tyler Rabinowitz, and I both saw the immense potential in Amy’s vision as the power of her song and performance, we set out to find a way to create the best possible video we could with the limited resources at our disposal.

Here are five ways we approached creating a high-quality music video for our limited budget—which ended up being under $1,000. This is one of the projects I am most proud of and has led to more success, praise, and quality work opportunities than any of the bigger-budget projects I have shot in the past.

1. Build a concept around things you have access to

This may seem like a no-brainer, but many directors pitch low-budget music videos with ambitious (read: expensive) concepts without a feasible plan for how to execute their vision. This approach typically ends up resulting in massive compromises, ultimately disappointing the director.

On "Birmingham," however, we took the inverse approach: Amy constructed the concept of the video based on locations and people to which she already had access.

First and foremost was the location: Amy’s ties to the Baptist Temple on Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn gained us access to their incredible church space, which was the perfect thematic setting for the song. The church even had a fire in the bell tower in 2010, giving the space a burned-out, desolate quality that further strengthened its thematic significance to the piece. Amy recruited a team of friends and fellow artists who volunteered to help clean up the space and prepare it for filming. Many of them went on to appear as extras in the video itself.

We learned a hard lesson about realistic scheduling on this shoot. 

The rest of the concept was built around a choreographer and dancers whom Amy had known and worked with during her time at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. It was there that she met both Tyler and myself as well, and was subsequently able to bring together a core team of creative collaborators who saw the potential in her vision and agreed to work together—for free—in order to create a meaningful work of art.

Credit: Oren Soffer

2. Know when to call in favors

It is often said that the film industry is built around relationships; this is never truer than when you are putting together a passion project. Because we were working with such a limited budget but still did not want to compromise on the quality of the piece, it was the right time to call in a few favors. 

While asking a favor from someone can be a very powerful tool to make a little budget go a long way, you have to build that relationship and earn the favor before you can go around asking people to donate their time and skills to a project. Because I had pre-established relationships with very skilled crew members with whom I worked on various jobs over the years on a regular basis, I felt comfortable asking them to come help out for a day on a no-budget passion project. And as a result, we got a really great group of people to lend their expertise to the project, including gaffer Rachel Adkins, key grip Dexter Dugar, and 1st AC Kelsey Johnson, as well as editor Zach Terry and colorist Nick Metcalf at The Mill on the post-production side.

We knew we could never afford a full-rate camera and lighting package to achieve the desired aesthetic.

The same principle applied to our equipment package. We had some ambitious goals for the look of the piece; we were adamant about shooting on the Alexa in order to capitalize on the beautiful natural light in the location (without risking compromising the image by blowing out highlights). However, we knew we could never afford a full-rate camera and lighting package to achieve this desired aesthetic, so I asked for a couple favors. Over the years, I've developed a relationship with Panavision New York, which was willing to help us out and provide a full camera and lens package at a deeply discounted rate. A good relationship with Xeno Lights also netted us a deeply discounted Dana dolly and grip support package. If you keep bringing rental houses full-rate jobs down the line and continue building the relationship both on a personal and a professional level, they will usually be willing to help you out on smaller passion projects.

Frame grab from the music video, of singer/songwriterCredit: Amy León

Our final camera package was a super-stripped-down ARRI Alexa classic with Panavision Ultra Speed prime lenses. To keep costs down, we only rented three focal lengths—17mm, 29mm, and 50mm—and one TV Logic 5.6” and a 17” Panasonic for on-set monitoring. In the grip department, we had to rent a 6500w Honda generator to provide power to the location (which unfortunately did not have any electricity) as well as the aforementioned Dana dolly and just a small handful of grip support items: a couple of C-stands, two apple boxes, some wedges for leveling the Dana dolly and sandbags to weigh it all down. The final piece of the puzzle was a DF-50 hazer, my favorite heavy-duty haze machine.

For lighting purposes, we only had four 1K Par Cans provided by my gaffer, which we only used for nighttime scenes. The rest of the piece was shot entirely with natural light during the day. (This brings us back to the first point: work with what you already have!)

17mm Panavision Ultra Speed Credit: Oren Soffer

3. Schedule realistically

Part of working with limited resources requires understanding the boundaries of those limitations. In this case, because of our limited budget, we knew that we would only be able to pull this off, rent the equipment, gain access to the location, and pull in all the favors from the crew if we kept the shoot limited to one day. This further reinforced our decision to shoot entirely in one location, since company moves can be one of the big time-wasters on lower-budget projects.

We learned a hard lesson about realistic scheduling on this shoot. We had originally planned to shoot the entire video on the Dana dolly, giving each shot and image a smooth, cinematic, and composed look and feel. However, a couple of hours into the day, we found ourselves behind schedule, since moving and re-setting up the dolly was taking way more time than we had anticipated—along with nailing the choreography with five dancers who had limited rehearsal time.

We didn't realize how unrealistic it was, schedule-wise, to shoot the entire video on dolly and sticks. 

As a result, we made the call to take the camera off the tripod head and start shooting more of the coverage handheld in order to move more quickly through the shots. This was not our original vision for the video, but ultimately the piece benefits from this decision, which lends the video a more urgent and dynamic energy. That said, this is a decision we could have come to earlier in the process if we had realized how unrealistic it was, schedule-wise, to shoot the entire video on dolly and sticks. 

Ultimately, we ended up getting everything we needed—including daytime and night looks—in only 10 hours, which gave us plenty of time for load-in and load-out and to get everyone home at a reasonable hour.

Going handheld while 1st AC Kelsey Johnson pulls focus. Credit: Marcos Sotomayor

4. Make sure you budget for the unavoidable costs

No matter how low-budget your passion project, there are a few immovable mountains as far as budgeting goes that you have to keep in mind before setting out (and particularly before you ask people to come on board for free or for a very low rate). 

The first is transportation. The equipment, props, and production equipment all need to get from various origins to the shooting location, and for that, you will most likely need to rent a cargo van (or truck, if you have a lot of gear). There are various services that rent these vehicles for relatively cheaply, including CC Rentals in New York. The rates for cargo vans from U-Haul, Budget, and other moving companies are also often very competitive.

The other important thing to budget for is food. When you have cast and crew working for free on a passion project, it should be a priority to provide good food on set, both for meals as well as crafty. Coffee and water are a must, and a nice treat (such as cupcakes, which we had) or beers at wrap (but not a moment before; I don’t condone drinking while on set!) will never go unappreciated, either.

Individual clips from the music video in Da Vinci Resolve. Credit: Tyler Rabinowitz

5. Do it in post

This is often considered to be a blasphemous thing to say in the film industry, but when you are shooting a low-budget passion project—particularly something more freeform, such as a music video or a documentary—often times the best thing you can do is maximize your limited shooting time by getting as much varied coverage as you can, even if some of it is imperfect. Confidently knowing that a wall or background that is a little bright can be brought down in the color grade is not the same as making a mistake that you assume you can fix later but ultimately can’t. That’s why I prefer to say that we will “Do it in post” as opposed to “Fix it in post”—it implies planning ahead to use post-production tools rather than fixing a mistake.

I prefer to say that we will “Do it in post” as opposed to “Fix it in post.”

The other part of this equation, of course, is ensuring that you have a talented post-production team lined up on the back-end whom you can rely on to deliver a really great final product. As I mentioned earlier, we were very fortunate to work with editor Zach Terry and colorist Nick Metcalf from The Mill who, like myself, believed in the project and saw the potential and strength of Amy’s vision. They were willing to donate time and resources to create a strong piece. This team allowed Tyler and I to be confident in our decisions on set regarding how much coverage to get of certain moments of choreography, when the lighting was “good enough” that it could be further tweaked in the color grade, and even when to steal an unplanned shot or two that we thought could be useful in the edit. (Unsurprisingly, pretty much every extra unplanned shot that we got ended up in the final piece).

Do you any additional ideas on how to be smart and strategic about achieving high-quality results with low budgets and limited resources? Please join in the conversation in the comments below!     

Featured image: Alex Schaefer

Oren Soffer is a Cinematographer working in New York and Los Angeles. He had two feature films distributed theatrically and on VOD earlier in 2016. During his studies at NYU’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, Oren was nominated for the ASC Gordon Willis Student Heritage Award, and was a finalist for the Arri Volker Bahnemann Award for Cinematography. Oren has also shot dozens of short films, commercials and music videos, worked for a variety of clients including Discovery Channel, Bloomberg News, Time Inc, Refinery 29, Target, MTV, Nickelodeon, L’Oreal and Skype, and has worked on multiple feature films studying under acclaimed Director of Photography Reed Morano, ASC.

Your Comment

30 Comments

I had never thought of trying to get as much free shit as possible. Really great tip.

December 5, 2016 at 5:06PM

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Jake
357

With mentions of Panavision New York, Alexa, and The Mill, I realise that my experiences of "under $1,000" are depressingly far from this! But good on you for building those relationships and taking advantage. The same principles can apply to us all.

December 5, 2016 at 7:32PM, Edited December 5, 7:32PM

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Stephen Kilkie
Filmmaker
74

Thanks! Appreciate the kind words. I know it seems very removed to mention bigger institutions like that, but in smaller markets, you can replace "Panavision" and "The Mill" with "that super talented local filmmaker whom I admire who owns an Alexa and is a really good editor." The point really is about building relationships and a network as opposed to just doing it yourself - not that there's anything wrong with that, but I really believe in the strength of such collaborations and think it's a really great thing if people build and take advantage of them with whomever they can!

December 5, 2016 at 10:49PM

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Oren Soffer
Director of Photography
2125

Great article, love the “Do it in post”; such a diferent meaning than fix it...

December 5, 2016 at 8:51PM

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Jonathan Maniaci
i.e. Director of Photography
74

In talks to shoot 3-5 low budget projects in jan/feb. this nearly a word for word of things i experience and try to convey to productions

December 6, 2016 at 7:56AM

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Jason Kraynek
Director of Photography, Director, Editor, Colorist, Writer
90

"5 Ways to Make a High-Quality Music Video for Under $1,000? Sounds like it'll have some great tips for working with really limited resources and lower-end gear for emerging filmmakers!"

Shot on Arri Alexa pulled in from favours by industry professionals.

ಠ_ಠ

December 6, 2016 at 11:30AM

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Kori Reay-Mackey
Filmmaker
178

I was thinking the same thing. If you are well connected you can do a ton with under $1000. :)

December 6, 2016 at 12:35PM

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Tom Lim
96

It's not about the gear! This one happened to be shot on Alexa, I'll be the first person to say that it didn't have to be. Favors can be pulled in from anyone and anywhere :) I wasn't born well connected, these are relationships you can build yourself, with anyone. Good luck out there!

December 6, 2016 at 10:29PM

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Oren Soffer
Director of Photography
2125

It is about the gear when youre talking about Alexa though. I've shot on Alexa and on C300 and FS7 and C100, 5D even back on old sony DVCAM when i first started, and yes you can shoot really nice stuff on all of them, but do you think this would have looked half as good shot on a 5D? You would have needed so much more light creating fill, the highlights in the window would have blown out, the fall off into the shadows would super harsh and the skin tone you've got wouldnt be as nice. It can be done but not with entirely natural light through a window and some haze. There is some good advice about doing what you can in post and building connections and such but the under $1000 low budget is a bit of a laugh.

July 26, 2018 at 8:35PM

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Jordan
91

Very nice work in the budget mentioned. I would like to see 'behind the scene'. Every low budget projects are a research paper in itself. I do lot of very low budget videos. You will be surprised to see the kind of utility an object has other than what it is meant for. One gets very innovative. The word 'Doing it in the post' is rightly phrased here in context. Thanks a lot for sharing the thought.

December 7, 2016 at 7:58AM

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Dibyendu Joardar
Director of Photography
702

"Make a High-Quality Music Video for Under $1,000"
then,
"camera package... ARRI Alexa classic, Panavision Ultra Speed prime lenses. TV Logic 5.6” and a 17” Panasonic."

Ludicrous, laughable and completely misleading!
The title, almost reprehensible, is pure click-bait bullshit!

Please stop making these posts that are subsidized by deep connections within the industry and the favors born of such. I'd venture an estimation that 99% of the NFS readership does not, and never will, have connections like these.

December 7, 2016 at 9:51AM

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Richard Krall
richardkrall.com
1430

Couldn't agree more. Aside from the issue of personal connections, I'm scratching my head wondering how $1000 was enough to even cover paying the crew. The most important part of producing a truly professional video is paying your crew. I don't want to get into the math for this particular video, but the subject probably deserves attention in the article.

December 7, 2016 at 12:16PM

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Yeah this post is a bummer if you are actually looking to do what this post says it is illustrating. I have worked with budgets around this amount occasionally, and while the general principles of "Work with what you've got" etc. are helpful I suppose, showing a piece of work that was shot with this kind of equipment and crew based on industry favors as the example of "what you can do with $1k" is really discouraging and alienating if you are not super hooked up and already making a great living in the filmmaking world.

A much more practical (and brass tacks) set of guidelines for shooting projects under $1k, based on this price range would be:

1. Focus on working with a camera that has the highest dynamic range you can find, not resolution. I love the Black Magic Pocket camera for this reason. It's $1k to buy and usually very cheap to rent.

2. Use vintage 35mm lenses, don't worry about cinema glass. You can buy them on eBay or elsewhere for very cheap, usually under $100.

3. Don't be afraid to buy and return a critical piece of gear after shooting if you need to and have no other option. Most camera stores have 14-30 day return policies. So does Amazon.

4. Use natural light and bounces. Artificial light is expensive, increases your crew size and takes up a lot of time.

5. Collaborate with people and put their name at the top of the project. People will give more of their time if you aren't dictating what they should do but have creative input and feel the project is a passion project for everyone involved, not just the person directing.

7. Trade services for gear or help you can't afford. It's way classier than asking people to work for free on a passion project.

December 7, 2016 at 1:25PM

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Avery McCarthy
Director/DP/Editor
77

Thank you Avery! This is what the article should have been written about. The original was pretty elitist.

December 7, 2016 at 5:20PM

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Your point is well taken. Also not everyone gets to go to NYU. "The rest of the concept was built around a choreographer and dancers whom Amy had known and worked with during her time at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts."

December 7, 2016 at 5:22PM

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Exactly. A real micro budget video is a director/dp/grip/editor/colorist showing up with his (maybe) GH4 with 1 lens... I've witnessed worse. ARRI Alexa.... Pfff.

December 9, 2016 at 10:25PM, Edited December 9, 10:26PM

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OMG Beautiful work!!!
Besides the budget on the Tech and equipement part, wow, the vision, the energy, the angles an the videos overall is beautiful!!!
greeeat job.
Thanks for sharing!

December 7, 2016 at 2:12PM

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Guilllermo Castellanos
Videographer/Photographer
208

Meh. I shot this 7 years ago in my studio apartment in the east village. Total cost was 60 bucks. No favors asked.

https://vimeo.com/5916935

December 7, 2016 at 2:38PM

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Roberto Serrini
Director • Editor
604

I'll never click.

December 9, 2016 at 10:27PM

0
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Good job Roberto. Gotta say - liked it better than the feature video

December 11, 2016 at 8:28AM, Edited December 11, 8:28AM

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Woah! Things now changed in this thread - from beautiful work to questionable budget. In my early post I mentioned my interest in 'Behind the scene' vid. Now I am interested to see the actual expense sheet though :)
Me too have worked many times at very low / no budget videos but not with those kind of equipment shown here. We did all the shooting on dslr, handycam, GoPro and mobile phones. Edited on laptops with free NLEs. Little tweak here and there in camera, NLE, color grading can pull the looks and feels. One needs to know the cons of their equipment and things can be managed.

December 8, 2016 at 3:58AM

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Dibyendu Joardar
Director of Photography
702

I agree that the title is a bit misleading (high end equipment and post production services for free?), but I want to make a not about 'not having connections'.

I just made 2 short films for combined total under $2000. Biggest things I spent money on were food and post-production (one is a fantasy film that requires some very basic vfx). I was able to pull this off because of an amazing cast, crew, and composer that donated their time and resources for free, including my DP who owned his own camera, lenses and lighting equipment. But I have NO "industry connections" I literally just graduated from college. I found all of these people online through various local filmmaker websites and Facebook groups. I had never met 90% of these people in person before asking them to come onto my projects. Just sharing this so that people don't be afraid to reach out and meet new people, even if you have never worked with them before! Of course it can be risky to meet online, so I do recommend grabbing a coffee first or something.

Also of note I live in MA which has eager filmmakers with not so many opportunities to make cool projects. Not sure if my advice applies in places like NYC and LA.

(P.S. check www.jumaiyusuf.com for info on these 2 films if you're interested.)

December 9, 2016 at 4:46PM

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Jumai Yusuf
Director, Producer
96

I have young musicians coming to my shop multiple times a year asking to shoot music videos for $300-$1000. When I tell them we can't do it for that budget, they almost always pull out articles like this one and say, "but look what these guys did!" At which point I have to show them the fine print about friends in the industry, deals for equipment, working for credit, etc.

Can a gorgeous music video be shot for $1000? Of course it can. A music video can be shot for nothing but food money (or not even that) if you can find a friend or someone willing to donate time and gear. But this is not a workable scenario for a professional trying to make a living.

I would love to see two "real world costs" budget breakdowns for this music video, one plugging in the actual rates cast, crew, rental houses, etc. would normally charge if they were hired by someone off the street, and one showing everyone getting paid at scale. How many people are involved? Exactly what equipment/personnel worked on the shoot in post production? How much time was involved in planning/rehearsal?

This would be a more realistic look at the costs involved, and could then be contrasted with the "but, if you can get freebies and use your connections and are willing to work for free, this is what you might spend" version of events.

December 13, 2016 at 7:49AM

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jamie
81

That would be interesting to do, actually, the budget comparison. I'll see what I can come up with. My point here wasn't to encourage people to skimp out on paying others for work - on the contrary. It's about how to identify opportunities to create art without limitations and how one can go about doing that without compromising quality. There is always a balance!

December 14, 2016 at 4:25PM

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Oren Soffer
Director of Photography
2125

Then the title of this post should have been different!
You used sensationalism to garner readership.

I encourage you to do a follow up post with a cost analysis that reflects what would have been the true cost of your production without the favors.

December 15, 2016 at 10:53AM

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Richard Krall
richardkrall.com
1430

These are great tips for filmmakers in general! My features have all been produced from favors, connections, love...and very little cash.

Just remember to pay back those favors!

January 1, 2017 at 11:20AM

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Michael Saul
Producer / Director / Animator
81

Here's something I made much under $1000. Few ARRI 650 plus lights, a small smoke machine and the low light king Sony A7S

https://vimeo.com/195161570

January 1, 2017 at 11:34AM

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Ayas
81

Good article. And to anyone who doesnt have access to a handful of skilled professionals for favors, or the money for the equipment; it's really all about the principle, don't think that you can't create anything because you dont have "enough"

January 1, 2017 at 5:03PM, Edited January 1, 5:03PM

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Ehab Eazy Ismail
Director/D.O.P
105

The footage is grainy, as in heavily graded because it is very underexposed or it was shot with really high ISO. Using Arri with Panavision glass for this kind of project is not an overkill but plain insanity and a ripoff of the client. An a6300 with samyang lenses would have done the same job, after all it's not like it's gonna be played in theaters or sold on bluray. The song is BLM like propaganda and hate spreading so I kinda don't mind for the Arri/Panavision ripoff :D

April 28, 2017 at 11:15AM

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First music video I ever did was for 2000$ of random peoples 50-100$ donations and was a 15 minute, Rap Opera with 7 songs. We shot over 3 days, 21 hours each. Borrowed a RED One MX, and Steadicam in return for free PA/Grip work in the area.

May 22, 2017 at 3:55PM, Edited May 22, 3:55PM

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doman nelson
Director, Editor
225

Can anyone help me with some connections for a high def muisc video in houston? I have a $2000 budget. I need something like this https://youtu.be/6R5i6wQCOCQ
Please feel free to contact me 508 858 9998

June 23, 2017 at 3:36PM, Edited June 23, 3:36PM

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