How to Create Sci-Fi on a Budget by Working Within Your Constraints

Take a low-budget lesson from Tom Pike's Personal Space, where a single shot inside one room pulls off a spaceship on a budget.

Pining to create something magnificently sci-fi, but stymied by your lack of funds? Tom Pike and his frequent collaborators Dana Shaw and Zach Wallnau had always wanted to make a science fiction show in space. The only thing stopping them? The money! Compiling a budget for a 500-person spaceship with multiple locations and space battles was out of the question. Instead, they got creative with what they had available.

“Making one set look really good is doable,” Pike told No Film School. With the limit of filming in one room, he got an idea from the preposterous real-life Mars One campaign, which stated it would raise the funds for an actual mission to Mars by way of reality TV show taped during the trip. The story for his one-room-sci-fi? Astronauts on a deep space mission (played by the late Richard Hatch and Nicki Clyne of Battlestar Galactica fame) have their therapy sessions unknowingly broadcast as reality TV. 

“It was primarily motivated by trying to write a good story within constraints," continued Pike. "We feel that’s preferable to rebelling against constraints and wishing you didn't have constraints – that's the quickest way to show your audience that you had constraints that you wanted to ignore!" Pike sat down with No Film School to give some practical advice based on his experience creating Personal Space. The entire series is now available for free streaming on Amazon Prime.  

First, come up with a story that is "doable"

Coming up with a premise that's simple enough to achieve on a low budget, but still believable and exciting it not as easy as it sounds. For Pike, the concept was to house the series in the vlog convention. But right away, he knew that it had to be thoughtfully written, as all too often vlog concepts can translate to audiences as contrived or stale. The old, why is this person conveniently broadcasting all this expository information right when the camera is on?

But Pike was up for the challenge. “You can tell a compelling story vlog-style,” he advises, “as long as your characters are magnetic enough, your writing is good enough, your actors can carry it. You can't hide behind a gorgeous location, you can't hide behind spaceship battles and special effects, because there's nothing to distract people from the story that you're telling. That's a challenge, but that's a challenge that we were capable of rising to: it didn't cost money, it just took time getting the script right.”

Actors Richard Hatch and Nicki Clyne on the three-wall set of 'Personal Space' created by Dana Luery Shaw, Zack Wallnau, Tom R. Pike.Credit: Personal Space

"That's a challenge that we were capable of rising to: it didn't cost money, it just took time getting the script right.”

Then, build a really good one-room set

Since the script called for one room where all the characters would record their therapy sessions, Pike and his team needed to create that one room, or rather, three walls. “I got an email one day, subject line was: Fwd: Spaceship. Basically, it was, "Do you want to buy a spaceship?" Obviously, not a real one, one made out of wood and painted, but it looked really good.” Gambling about $2,000, Pike decided to buy it and then fix it up to match the exact look Personal Space was going for. 

“I would say if there was a teachable moment there, it's: just be friends with people that make stuff! I think we spent another two thousand on other materials, and set dressings, and props. Really, there's nothing in that set that the script didn't call for, because we simply didn't have the money,” he recalls. 

Now, the three final walls were very convincing, but when Pike eventually signed on experienced actors to be in it, he made sure that the star field out the window was actually there for actors to stare into. “Many of our actors are from Battlestar Galactica, and Stargate and Sons of Anarchy – shows with sets that cost as much as our whole budget! I wanted them to feel like it wasn't a cheap show so the star field is not a green screen, it is a projector. There's basically a tunnel built out of black fabric that extends about twenty feet behind the set to a projector screen so actors could stare into real stars during production.”

Keep re-writing the script until it gets you good actors

From the beginning, Pike and his team had made a long list of science fiction TV actors. “Part of the list was motivated not even by wanting to get the actors, but as a writing exercise,” says Pike. “I always like to picture a specific actor in my head when I'm writing a role. I used to think it was an indulgent habit, but now I swear by it. For one thing, it gets your voice out and it puts another person's voice on the page, which helps distinguish the voices of the characters. For another thing, you never know if that person is going to say yes!”

Even getting one of the actors on their list would have been a dream, and as it turns out, they got almost all of their first choices. “To this day, I'm surprised these people opened the emails. Part of it was that we had done development. We had done the screen test in the closest and we had figured out what worked and what didn't. It was between twenty and twenty-five drafts that the script had gone through before we showed it to any of these actors. Once we got those two first yesses, then the whole world changed.”

In his last role, the late Richard Hatch joined Nikki Clyne, both having been actors in the 'Battlestar Galactica' series, seen here getting roped up for a zero-gravity episode of 'Personal Space' by Tom R. Pike, Dana Luery Shaw, and Zack Wallnau.Credit: Personal Space

"It was between twenty and twenty-five drafts that the script had gone through before we showed it to any of these actors." 

No company moves, no re-lighting, just one well-chosen shot

Part of the genius of the therapy-session-broadcast premise is that it essentially translates into one shot for the entire show. “Shooting a vlog-style show is really quite simple, because there's only one set up,” explains Pike. "You just have to pick the single-most interesting way of looking at this room. The focal link of the lens had to be very flexible, because we didn’t want to rack focus, it would be too distracting between cuts. So, the challenge was getting that angle right, getting the focal length right, getting the lighting right and not being able to change anything. I was like, ‘Oh god, no one knock over a light.'"

He adds, "I would say vlog-style requires a lot of attention to detail for the set itself, and for the camera set up. What it does not require are any company moves, construction of many different sets, lighting and re-lighting. Once you get it set up, you can just breeze through material."

Befriend people who can do things you can’t 

What would a sci-fi set on a spaceship be without…a spaceship? There are some elements you must to come up with to tie the one-room premise together. The signature ‘generation ship’ exterior in Personal Space looks like something that would be involved to make, and it came by way of Pike’s friend, Alex Moser. “The lesson to learn there is make friends with people who do things you can't do,” said Pike. “Because I don't know anyone else who can do what he does at the level he does for asking for the money that he does! He was on the project since the beginning, so for three years he just iterated, and iterated, and iterated until it is what you see today.”

The computer generated 'generation ship' created by Alexander Moser for 'Personal Space' created by Tom R. Pike, Dana Luery Shaw, and Zack Wallnau.Credit: Personal Space

Pick something you can do justice to within your own constraints

Whatever you want to do on a budget, pick something that makes sense. For Pike, something in the science fiction realm was always a natural fit. As it turns out, his sister is an astronomer, his brother is a sub-contractor for NASA, and dad used to be employed by NASA. A story set in space was something he could do justice to!

“What do you have in your life, who do you know who has an interesting job, or what relationships do you have to the people around you, what is your personal story?” asks Pike. “You can always do a more personal, intimate character study on a smaller budget than you can a big, action movie that you don't actually have the money to do properly. Ask yourself, 'What story can I tell really well with these constraints, not in spite of them?'"     

Check out the entire series of Personal Space streaming free on Amazon Prime or Share TV, and get your own sci-finspirations!

Featured header image is a still of Richard Hatch in 'Personal Space' created by Tom R. Pike, Dana Luery Shaw, and Zack Wallnau.

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5 Comments

I fully encourage to give talented people a chance at something they're passionate about. An illustrator who wants to be a matte painter, a 3D artist (cg lighter) with an interest in physical lighting (gaffer), a photographer dying to become a cinematographer etc. Since you already know that they have succeeded in their original field and they really want to do an outstanding job at the "next" thing, you can give them the chance nobody else is willing to risk. Plus, who wants to join your team as what they already do professionally and work for free or at a discounted rate. Hard to motivate an actor who has proper imdb credits and gets "real" job offers that pay the bills, to come onboard and do a fantastic job. Even if your script rocks, they know that your budget won't do the production justice in the end. So, think outside of the box when "befriending" your crew and finding your cast because a hard-working talented individual who believes in your vision is worth more than the premium artist doing you a favour.

April 3, 2018 at 4:56PM, Edited April 3, 4:56PM

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Milan Schere
Director
189

The ship is beautiful! The set is really nice too but only one set? I think you should be more ambitious with your sci-fi movies. Just write what you want and figure out how to make it. Why settle? They didn't need to spend so much money on name actors. It's not going to add much to your story (although you might get more views). I made Space Trucker Bruce for $10,000. https://youtu.be/kcOaAqGBWLo It has 7 sets built out of cardboard, several dressed locations, 5 spaceship/station models, a space suit, robots, and lots of rendered space shots. Granted, the quality and acting is lower but I told the story I wanted.

April 4, 2018 at 2:38PM, Edited April 4, 2:38PM

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Anton Doiron
Creator/Filmmaker
983

If I could do it again I'd add a few extra camera angles and even more props. Maybe a security feed outside the door and an extra wall in front of the actors so we could do reverses and give the actors a few extra angles to work towards. Sean Persaud (who I've seen do stage work) really worked the entire space during his scenes, and those props and nooks gave him things to chew on.

May 3, 2018 at 7:16PM

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Zack Wallnau
Cinematographer & Tinkerer
581

Reminds me of this but on a smaller scale!
https://vimeo.com/88183638
https://vimeo.com/88094235

April 6, 2018 at 11:25AM

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P T
100

Oo, never saw that, but I love love love practical effects! Props to them for getting good BTS. We actually worked out a spacewalk sequence and a few other locations but we were already way over budget and unfortunately had to cut them. We managed to keep the zero-g wire work which was absurdly fun to shoot.

The shoot that convinced me we could pull it off on a budget (which I backed!) was https://vimeo.com/58429056 "C (299,792 km/s)" which is really quite beautiful.

Also, plug for Star Trek Continues. Those guys are next level. Their attention to detail is up there with The Love Witch.

May 3, 2018 at 7:11PM, Edited May 3, 7:19PM

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Zack Wallnau
Cinematographer & Tinkerer
581