Essential Tips for Filming Indie Sci-fi on a Tight Budget

'Alone'
'Alone'
Worried about getting your next project off the ground? Here's what I learned while shooting my sci-fi film. 

I’ve always been a huge sci-fi fan, so a few years ago I started searching for sci-fi stories I could turn into a short film. Eventually, while reading the anthology series Future Vision, I found Alone, and reached out to author J. Scott Worthington about collaborating on an adaptation.

The catch?

We only had $6,000 to produce a movie that was set almost entirely in outer space, with substantial production design and VFX challenges attached to it. In the end, we not only made our film, but we also got it distributed by Dust.

Here are some tips we learned along the way to bring to your next project.

Time

There’s a saying I’ve heard over and over: “Good, fast, cheap. Pick two.”

I knew I needed Alone to be good and cheap. That meant I couldn’t have it fast. We started pre-production in early 2019, with the goal of shooting that spring. However, two key elements weren’t falling into place: the set, and the lead role.

I knew early on we needed to have a compelling set built, yet over and over, production designers kept saying “no” due to our limited budget. I kept reminding myself, “Good and cheap takes time.” Time is money…

Dir. William Hellmuth with actor Stephanie Barkley

Since we didn’t have a lot of money, we had to wait until we could find the right designer, at the right price. It took almost a year before that happened.

The second hurdle was the intensely personal story. We needed a strong lead actress, so outside of a few fruitless submissions to agencies, I decided to keep searching until we found the perfect fit.

Almost a full year after J and I started pre-pro, I shot a comedy commercial co-starring Stephanie Barkley and thought she had the perfect range to play Kaya.

It’s important while making a film on a budget to keep your production needs in mind at all times, even when you’re doing a seemingly unrelated task. You never know where your lead might appear.

Visual Effects

I am terrible at VFX. I’ve seen a lot of sci-fi films get stuck in post-production hell because the director bit off more than they could chew.

To avoid that, I wanted to capture as many VFX shots in-camera as possible. One of our producers, Julianna Ulrich, connected me with her go-to VFX artist, Rick Cortez, and we spent months designing the black hole in advance, rendering 4K shots ahead of time that showed the view out in space.

On set, we projected these onto a 5-foot screen that was suspended outside of the escape pod window. Not only did this save us time in post, but it also helped sell the VFX, because they were being captured with the actors, in real-time.

'Alone'
On set of 'Alone'

Social Capital

No matter where you’re at in your career, you always have a certain amount of social capital. You might have a few buddies willing to jump on for a weekend to make a movie with you. You might even have 40.

Personally, I have a very tight-knit group of people whom I work with on just about every job, and we’re all friends. There’s a lot of trust between us. Because I’ve spent years building these relationships, they were willing to help make this film for peanuts.

You’re always better off working with people who want to be in the trenches with you, and the best way to do that is to make sure they know and trust you.

Stephanie Barkley plays Kaya Torres, an engineer stuck in outer space

Think Outside of the Box

For post-production, we pulled in crew from all over—the Pacific Northwest, Texas, New York. Most of these relationships were remote.

Since we shot on Blackmagic, we chose to use a DaVinci Resolve workflow (VFX were done in After Effects, sound design in Pro Tools).

Remote collaboration was surprisingly easy, and looping back on the social capital idea, these were people I had built a rapport with online in the past (not as a means to an end, we just enjoyed interacting with each other). When they caught wind of me making my own film, they were excited to jump in, especially since, thanks to 2020, we’ve all been stuck at home anyway.

Above all, when you’re working with a shoestring-budget project, be patient. Try not to hover on specific deadlines, because if you want something good and cheap, it won’t come fast.     

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3 Comments

You should feel very proud, William.

December 11, 2020 at 9:12AM

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Dean
338

Thanks Dean! I'm really happy with what we pulled off.

December 11, 2020 at 8:37PM

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William Hellmuth
Cinematographer
81

Really remarkable what you achieved with such a small budget. Super impressed and inspired. Great job.

December 12, 2020 at 1:09PM

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Bishop
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