I also managed to sell it to a distributor to get a theatrical and digital release... and you can, too.
I made a $30,000 sci-fi feature film. It won awards at festivals. I sold it to a distributor and it’s getting a limited theatrical release and a global digital release.
But I am NOT here to tell you that I took a $30,000 budget and made a feature film that looks like it cost $100 million dollars.
And I’m not here to claim that I think micro-budget films can, if we’re just clever enough, go toe-to-toe with Hollywood blockbusters.
I’m going to share five kinds of obstacles I overcame in idea generation, world-building, production, VFX workflow, and distribution that I hope will make it easier for you to make a micro-budget sci-fi.
But I also want to make an argument that we should rethink why we are making independent films in the first place, especially indie sci-fi and speculative films.
I don’t think we should even be trying to compete with Hollywood. We should be striving to make films that are strikingly different from big-budget films.
Indie cinema and sci-fi are natural partners.
Over the course of four years, I scraped together about $12,000 and wrote and directed a sci-fi feature film called After We Leave. I shot it on nights and weekends with the help of a small but amazingly dedicated cast and crew. Once we had a rough cut, we raised an additional $16,000 on Kickstarter and finished post-production (more hard-working crew, more nights and weekends) in 2019.
After We Leave is a bleak sci-fi crime drama. It’s set in a near-future Los Angeles, wracked by climate change and recession. The film tells the story of Jack Chaney, a man who has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to emigrate off Earth to a better life on the off-world colonies… only if he can find his estranged wife and convince her to come with him. The film is a meditation on the extent to which truly flawed people can change and a speculative exploration of immigration policy.
This micro-budget film won Best Film at Sci-Fi London, Best Director at Berlin Sci-Fi, and Best Cinematography and Best Ensemble Cast at Other Worlds.
It was just bought by Gravitas and will be released theatrically in LA and NY starting February 21st and digitally on Apple and Amazon.
Here’s the trailer:
Whether you love the Marvel and Star Wars films, hate them, or are somewhere in between, there’s no denying that Hollywood studio science-fiction and comic-book movies have become pretty monolithic. They are all basically speculative action dramedies with varying ratios of heart/laughs/thrills.
But sci-fi can be so much more than that. And can cost so much less than those movies.
After We Leave is a gritty, challenging film in the tradition of hard-hitting American indie dramas… but it is also set in the future and has 80 VFX shots. And again, I made it for less than $30,000. And really, I needed just $12,000 to finish production.
You might have even less. I still think you can make an indie sci-fi. I think it’s really important that we have more indie sci-fi in our era of climate change, partisan politics, the rise of automation, income inequality, and the generic blandness of studio films made for worldwide mass consumption. We need a much wider range of science-fiction.
I’m saying this to all filmmakers who think sci-fi can only be done with a ton of money by large studios. And to filmmakers whose sense of style, taste, and tone falls outside the narrow confines of blockbuster cinema. And, as a mixed-race American myself, I’m especially saying this to underrepresented filmmakers. You can and should make sci-fi your way.
My hope is that talking about the challenges I faced and how I chose to solve them will help you make a low-budget but high quality (and dare I say, artistic) sci-fi film.
#1. Brainstorming Phase: What Are Sci-Fi and Indie Film’s Core Strengths?
When I started brainstorming ideas for a micro-budget sci-fi, I quickly found myself banging my head against the wall. I kept thinking about the great epic sci-fi films I dearly love (Bladerunner, 2001, Return of the Jedi, Inception, The Matrix, Children of Men… I could go on and on).
I was sitting there trying to figure out a way to do a film in that mold, but with less money. But that just meant I kept imagining similar films and then removing some of the best sequences because they were too expensive (lots of extras, tons of VFX, etc.). I probably would still be sitting there if I hadn’t thought about another sci-fi film I dearly love: Primer.
We talk a lot about how little money Primer was made for, but what gets lost in that discussion is the fact that there is no need for a bigger budget version. There are, of course, bigger budget time travel movies, but Primer wasn’t an epic Hollywood sci-fi idea somehow made cheaply. It was a totally different kind of film aesthetically. Shane Carruth was not thriftily making a standard film. He was throwing down a cinematic challenge to mainstream storytelling that was made for the amount of money that allowed it to be the best version of itself.
Indie cinema wasn’t invented to demonstrate the frugal technical and artistic mimicry of mainstream blockbusters.
So I switched gears and started thinking about why I fell in love with both independent cinema and science-fiction.
Indie cinema wasn’t invented to demonstrate the frugal technical and artistic mimicry of mainstream blockbusters. When I think about Reservoir Dogs or Pariah or Napoleon Dynamite, what excites me is how different they are from the mainstream.
Hollywood is very good at making its kind of movies. Why should we try to compete with them with a lot less money? In my mind, the only reason to make an independent feature film is to create a movie that only you would make. A kind of film that wouldn’t exist if you didn’t exist.
I think what independent films can offer are new directions in style, tone, theme, topic, representation, and viewing experiences. They can challenge the mainstream artistically, politically, and narratively.
And lucky for us, that’s also the origin of science fiction. It wasn’t invented to create spectacle… it was created to ask questions, to provoke, to explore big ideas about the world and the human condition.
In other words: indie cinema and sci-fi are natural partners.
It is this partnership that I think you should have in mind during the brainstorming process.
Just start thinking and feeling. Is there something going on in the world right now that you are thrilled about or worried sick about? Take that and imagine the future of that trend - expand it, extrapolate, twist it, pull back the curtain, and tell the story of your fear or hope or anger through a speculative story.
Is there a visual style, specific cinematic language, or tone that you want to see more of on-screen? Are there different kinds of people, stories, ideas that you want to see more of? Dig into that and put that into an indie film.
Do this kind of brainstorming over and over without worrying about whether the ideas are good or logistically possible. It’s too early for that. I know, I know… Robert Rodriguez started from his constraints. He had a guitar case and a bus… I’m not actually knocking that approach. I just want to suggest that the opposite can work too. Don’t constrain your mind until you’ve got 10 or 15 or 20 ideas that you allowed to bubble up without judgment… then look through your list.
Are there two or three on that list that strike you as being tractable given your specific means? Obviously rule out the ones where the world-building or other aspects seem way out of reach. But keep an open mind: Can you actually do more, within your means, than you think? This phase, when speculative worlds enter our minds, is where too many ideas get abandoned as being too costly.
I wanted to tell a story about the impact of visa quotas and the politics of legal immigration. I wanted to express my fears about the future of American cities when it comes to climate change, water shortages, and economic collapse. My aha moment was when I realized I could make a sci-fi version of a film like Winter’s Bone… that kind of worldbuilding and logistics was within my means.
Which brings me to some of the challenges of wordbuilding on a small budget.
#2. Worldbuilding does not have to be expensive.
I’m going to talk about VFX later but I want to separate the idea of worldbuilding and VFX. In Hollywood blockbusters, the worldbuilding is largely accomplished through punch-us-in-the-face massive VFX establishing shots of planets, cityscapes, CG characters, and advanced technology.
But here’s a bit of worldbuilding that cost me nothing: A glass of water (I borrowed the glass, didn’t pay for the water).
The future version of Los Angeles that I imagine in my film is undergoing severe water shortages. This glass is the only clean water we see in the entire film. Every other time characters drink, they drink dirty water or something other than water. I don’t have a shot of a huge empty reservoir. I don’t have a shot of drones “mining” water from clouds. I have one clear glass of water, provided by the most powerful and richest character in the film… and my main character chugs it down. It cost me nothing. But it’s definitely worldbuilding. If I was making a film that used the language and style and narrative approach of Hollywood, a glass of water would feel like a cheat. But in a Debra Granik or Barry Jenkins film, a glass of water can be the exact right thing.
And I quickly learned that every time I established a detail of the world with something like this glass of water, I was freeing up the time and effort needed for a VFX shot and could devote those VFX hours to another story point, hopefully enriching the story and world.
#3. The standard model of film production discourages artistic risk-taking.
Several years ago, I shot a web series. I sold it to a distributor and won some awards. Everyone around me viewed it as a success, but I couldn’t stop thinking about my first day on set. I had shown up with every single shot scheduled and storyboarded so that I could competently execute my shotlist in the allotted time. As we got ready for the first shot, I felt ridiculously calm. I could see the entire day in front of me and could see the footage we would get and knew it was going to be fine. Everything went as planned, we made our day exactly on schedule, and I went home and wanted to cry.
I didn’t choose to do this crazy thing with my life, moving to Los Angeles to devote myself to an art form and career with so much volatility, in order to competently execute shot lists within the allotted time and get footage that was fine.
I did this because I fucking love cinema and I wanted to take risks, blaze new trails, and at least take a shot at making something sublime. I had read this interview with Conan O’Brian where he said that if 20% of his opening monologue jokes DON’T fall flat, he knows that he and the writers aren’t taking enough risks. And that night, I understood exactly what he meant.
The reason they gave up their nights and lunch hours and weekends to work on After We Leave was that I was offering them a chance to try things they normally didn’t get to try.
I promised myself that from then on I would always be reaching and risking. That I would always have butterflies in my stomach when I showed up to set.
But, as many of you know, the central tenet of traditional film production (in Hollywood and on most indies) is “stay on schedule.”
A director is often faced with two choices on set: a choice that is super cool but risky and another that is pretty good and guaranteed to work and keep things on schedule. The system is always telling us to play it safe.
When I was making After We Leave, I wanted to always be able to try the crazy idea that might fail... so I decided to shoot the film very differently.
Inspired by No Film School’s DSLR guide, we bought a Canon DSLR, two prime lenses, and some ND filters and shot the entire film with just that gear. The most important thing we got out of that purchase was not something technical. It was freedom from the standard model of filmmaking.
We shot in bits and pieces. A few hours here, a weekend there… over the course of four years. We did it in-between the paying gigs we were all doing. We had bought the camera and sound gear so we wouldn't have to rent per day or week.
We could choose to just try one crazy complicated shot, exactly at sunrise, and then we’d all go off to our day jobs. If it didn’t work we could try again the next morning. There was no downside other than our time… and because we were fitting it in around our existing work and lives, even our time wasn’t too costly to spend.
This way of working was, in fact, the thing that convinced collaborators (some long time friends, some new) to work on the film. They all had day jobs that paid way better than I could. The reason they gave up their nights and lunch hours and weekends to work on After We Leave was that I was offering them a chance to try things they normally didn’t get to try. To reach for things in a way they normally didn’t get to.
Freeing Up Actors
Two of my key collaborators, DP Julie Kirwkood and lead actor Brian Silverman (both of whom are producers on the film), were with me for every single moment during those four years of filming. What kept us going was, quite honestly, the sheer joy of creating in this new and open and experimental way.
I asked, Brian, as an actor, what he wished was different about indie film shoots. He asked that we try to always do another take if the actors had something different they wanted to try. So, we limited the pages per day and I had the time to refine performances and to let the actors improvise.
There are obviously indie films with amazing performances shot in 7 days where the actors only got one or two takes. It’s possible. But having the flexibility to do more, increases the chances that all the performances in your film are great, and even more importantly to me, it increases the chances that unexpected performance moments will emerge.
Some of the greatest actors in the world are in today’s blockbusters. So again, it seems hard to compete with Hollywood in the excellent execution of exactingly constructed dialogue and plot. But go watch a film by Jane Campion or John Cassavetes and you will find sublime and strange acting moments that only emerge when you make space for them.
Freeing Up the DP
I also applied this overall approach to the visuals. Julie (Destroyer, Limetown) loves natural light photography. I realized that our flexible approach meant we could shoot a beautiful movie with (almost) no lights because we could take the time to find the perfect moment to shoot each location and explore alternative coverage.
I learned the hard way how difficult it is to shoot a long dialogue scene entirely in the ephemeral and gorgeous light just after sunset. But then I realized that our process could solve that. We had no problem shooting for only 45 minutes in a day, a few days in a row… so we could spread the shooting of a single scene over a few days, just after sunset, and get a total of three or four hours of “45 minutes after sunset” dusklight.
One final thought about the value of rejecting the traditional production model. One of the biggest sacrifices on indie films is locations. As guerilla filmmakers, we spend a lot of time obsessing over sensors and lenses, but there are films shot on iPhones that are gorgeous because of the locations and natural lighting. That stuff really really matters.
But it’s so expensive to secure locations that a whole genre has come into existence: the single location indie film. There are some masterpieces in this genre, but there are also way too many movies filmed in the director’s plain white-walled apartment.
I wanted to create a visual piece of art. And convey a real sense of the city of Los Angeles in the near future. I wanted to be outside, on the street, capturing many different settings. So I “scouted” for hours on Google Street view looking for rundown and beautifully gritty locations… and then I placed small scenes in each of them.
Here are some of the places we shot.
As you can see, we shot all over Los Angeles. We didn’t get a single permit. We didn’t need to because we didn’t care if we got kicked out of somewhere… it wouldn’t throw off our schedule or make us cut the scene or waste a ton of money. We’d just film it next weekend at a different location. And the truth is, most days we were a crew of three people with a DSLR, a Zoom recorder and a mic, plus one or two actors.
We shot in 25 different exterior Los Angeles locations and were approached only once by the police and twice by private security. And in two of three of those times, they weren’t telling us to stop filming… they were making sure we were safe in what they perceived to be a dangerous location.
#4. VFX don’t have to cost a lot of money, they (just) cost time.
At the end of the day, even with everything I’ve just written, there were parts of my story that required full-on visual effects.
But I’d seen friends of mine go into debt paying Hollywood VFX houses to do effects on their indie films. And maybe even scarier to me, was the thought that making a movie with VFX would reduce my ability to move the camera, have the actors improvise, or make other organic and artistic cinematic choices.
These fears about money and the way VFX can kill improvisation are outdated. We have to stop thinking this way.
My brother, Blaise Hossain, a self-trained VFX artist, did all 80 VFX shots in my film by himself on a single desktop computer. It took almost two years of off-and-on work (whenever he wasn’t booked on a big Hollywood movie or trailer job). All of his design and compositing was done in After Effects. He did 3D work in Cinema4D.
Low-Budget Films, High-Quality VFX
We need to think of VFX and big budget as being two different aspects of a film. There can be low-budget films with high-quality VFX!
For me, the starting point was learning, from my brother, how much can be done in After Effects alone. I recommend taking the time to learn After Effect or to find someone who has. Look for someone who is just starting out or an experienced person who normally only gets to do one step of the process in the VFX assembly line. If you are offering them a chance to swing for the fences and try things they don’t normally get to do, they will often work for cheap. They don’t need to live near you. You can trade files back and forth via Dropbox or Google Drive quite easily.
The big lesson I learned is to only do what I felt we could do well and to pick a story that makes use of that.
You’ll notice I didn’t say adjust the pre-existing story accordingly. To return to my earlier rant, I think if we’re shooting a movie in the traditional Hollywood mold and we reach the point where a giant spaceship should land in the front yard... and we try the old “indie trick” of “we’ll do it with offscreen sound”... we’re fooling ourselves if we think that’s a clever solution. Audiences feel us cheating.
But if we’re shooting an intensely claustrophobic and unhinged film… something like Eraserhead… the DNA of that film will demand we use the off-screen sound version. A big expository VFX shot would feel out of place. That’s the sweet spot for us as indie sci-fi creators.
But that still leaves my other fear that so much of the VFX process undermines the creative process in indie film.
Rotoscoping and Motion Tracking
I hate green screens. Even when you’re just using a green card on set, it breaks the reality of the scene in a big way. When my brother heard my list of why I hate it, he didn’t flinch. Instead, he clued me in to a very important fact.
In the last 10 years, rotoscoping and motion tracking in the Adobe Suite have gotten a LOT better (especially since Mocha Pro was added to AE) and they are amazing in Nuke and other higher-end but commercially available software. And rotoscoping and motion tracking are what allowed me to overcome all of the things I feared about the VFX process.
Rotoscoping, for those who don’t know, is the frame by frame (largely manual) cutting out of sections of the footage to create space to insert VFX between foreground and background items.
You can see an example of rotoscoping in the skyline shot at the start of this sizzle reel VFX breakdown my brother created.
Rotoscoping has been around forever (since the early days of cinema) but improvements in software in the last few years means that you can do it easier than before. It doesn’t cost money, it just takes time.
If you’re relying on a green screen, you need to have the space and gear to light the screen and avoid green light spilling on other objects. And it’s very hard to be an invisible guerilla filmmaker on the streets of Los Angeles if you’re carrying around even a small green screen.
Rotoscoping gets around those limitations. Rotoscoping means the actors can move how they want. If you are on set and have an even better idea about where you want to place a VFX element, you can usually do it because you’re not tied to a certain placement by the size or shape of your green card.
The second game-changer is how awesome basic motion tracking is these days in the Adobe Suite. I would throw up a few pieces of tape for tracking marks (way less distracting than a green screen) and then be free to shoot handheld. I knew my actors were going to improvise sometimes. If they stood up and the camera operator adjusted, I didn’t need to worry about a background VFX element getting screwed up.
Here’s an example of a shot we rotoscoped and tracked (and designed, composited, and animated) entirely in After Effects. You can see my tape marks on the wall in the raw footage.
For anything that is 2D, and even for stuff that is 3D but doesn’t involve much change in parallax, you can do everything in Adobe. It gets harder in After Effects to do 3D stuff where the camera is shifting and the VFX elements are extending into the depth of the shoot, but more advanced software, like Nuke, can handle this amazingly.
#5. There is actually a huge advantage to being micro-budget when you reach the distribution phase.
Most people are familiar with the downsides of micro-budget films at the distribution phase.
When I finished the film I didn’t know how to get anyone to pay attention to it. I didn’t have a major actor with a huge social media following. I didn’t have money for marketing.
I was overwhelmed by how challenging it seemed to find an audience. I even considered just putting the film online for free right away to see what would happen.
Submitting to Festivals
In the end, the only thing I really knew to do was submit to festivals.
I started with the big ones. I struck out at Sundance and the other top 5 festivals. I’d been tweeting and writing about the film and, out of the blue, an obscure distributor offered to buy the film with a decent upfront payment. However, the film would be released only an obscure VOD platform and only in America.
And at that moment, I realized there is an upside to being super low-budget at the distribution phase.
I needed to make back less money than other films.
I know that’s obvious, but I hadn’t appreciated that this meant, yet again, when faced with trade-offs between risky and safe, I could take the risk. When faced with tradeoffs between short term cash and long term audience building/prestige/earnings, I could choose the latter.
I had the freedom to turn down that offer.
Instead, I waited and kept applying to more festivals. And after being rejected by 22 festivals in a row, I got an email from Sci-Fi London raving about my movie. I gave them the world premiere and After We Leave won Best Feature Film there and everything started to change. We went on to Berlin Sci-Fi, Other Worlds, Boston Sci-Fi and won a number of awards and got great reviews.
My success on the genre festival circuit caught the attention of several distributors. Someone from A24 even watched the film (they didn’t buy it… but hey, even the small interest felt like a win). I accepted an offer, with an advance, from Gravitas and the film is getting a small theatrical and global digital release.
The turning point was the film being embraced by these festival programmers and the small but passionate audiences at the genre festivals. And I know, from Q&A’s and conversations, that the reason I started finding success at sci-fi festivals was that I hadn’t made a film that emulated mainstream sci-fi. More than one festival director told me how desperate they were to showcase a different kind of sci-fi. I had made an artsy, gritty sci-fi crime drama.
And that’s the irony… by avoiding mimicking the films that try to appeal to huge audiences, I actually created a film that resonated with audiences. After We Leave is never going to compete with the viewing numbers of Rise of Skywalker, but in terms of eyeballs per dollar spent, we’re going to do pretty well.
So that’s what I’ve got. Now go watch (or rewatch) Primer and Upstream Color and The American Astronaut and Fast Color and Donnie Darko and Advantageous and even bigger films like Stalker or A Clockwork Orange or Ex Machina (because you could a lot of what is in those films on a low budget).
Do the kind of deep personal thinking I talked about earlier for brainstorming.
And then, no matter what, use what you have to make a sci-fi film that is uniquely from you.
We need those films now more than ever.
And I’m excited to see them.
So let’s get to it!