[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 SpeedCredit: 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.