This post was written by ETA.
A director, DP, and a 2-person G&E team (also splitting duties as Line Producer, Assistant Director, and Focus Puller) walk onto the set of a cramped three-bed and one-bath apartment with a budget under $5k for a 30-page horror short with aesthetic aspirations of Atlanta and Hereditary.
Fortunately, there’s no punchline here and we walked out with a completed short in hand… barely.
Here are the lessons I can share from this trial by fire so that you can walk out of your micro-budget at least partly unscathed and with the coverage you need and the look you want.
Every filmmaker has their own growth journey–some come more polished, and others need the reps to refine their process. If you’re the latter, be sure to come in with measured expectations and focus on the details to ensure everything’s in place to serve the story. There’s nothing more debilitating to the product than getting lost in the clouds and losing sight of the meticulous work ahead of you.
Keep ten toes on the ground, and most importantly, make sure your key creative team’s doing the same. Not doing so can expose your project to any holes of inexperience any one member has and, subsequently, makes your vision vulnerable to those precarious growing pains.
Crewing Up / Pre-Production
A lot of us directors are searching for "the one.” I’m more non-monogamous–I’m seeking a soul family of DP’s (crew and talent as well) that help me crystallize my visual aesthetic for each individual genre-fluid project.
Sometimes, you take a chance on someone and are pleasantly surprised. But, usually, even if you find "the one," just like any relationship, that shorthand doesn’t happen overnight. It takes communication and practice.
Come up with the "rules of engagement" and make sure your team reads and comprehends them. Support that with detailed mood boards and make sure to communicate why you’re including those references. Top that off with physically photo-boarding your shot list.
If you have a small rag-tag group working family-style that’s rarely or never worked together, make sure you’re holding creative meetings and sharing references with the unit as a whole, not just the Department Head, so everyone’s ready to work in the same direction.
Create space for collaboration and fluidity, but leave no room for misinterpretation–especially when those bottlenecks inevitably arrive and time’s ticking away, you’ll all be singing the same tune or at least, the same key.
Speaking of bottlenecks… save precious budget on equipment and invest in additional crew. Assess your vision. If you knowwhat you want, stick to that. If you know the dynamic range of an Alexa doesn’t justify its bulk, go smaller.
If you knowyou only want long shots, why get wide primes? If you know a certain scene is a low-lit one-shot only relatively important to the story, don’t let Video Village test out a lighting rig that’ll drain hours of production time away–time that can otherwise be utilized for coverage elsewhere.
Know what’s important to you and learn to say "no."
Having the "flexibility" and "options" that extra lighting and rigging allow can lead to indecision, miscommunication, and time wasted trying out "toys." Simplify the process and put that money toward an experienced Best Boy, other crew, or knowledgeable PAs. Buy more time.
This all being said, communication and practice are superficial exercises. Finding "the one" is as much an intuitive gamble. Reels don’t paint the full picture of a key creative and you can’t teach others your sensibilities. Make sure you share similar tastes and have aesthetic overlaps.
Let’s return full circle to expectations. Keep them practical and realistic. We’ve all had to wear multiple hats to get our micro-budget made and to the finish line.
Just remember, these are test runs for us to refine our craft and are meant as vessels that tangibly hint at our potential and vision. Working at this scale, you can’t have it all. Either make sure you hire out a Line Producer, Custome Designer, or Prop Master/Set Dresser, or be OK to sacrifice the onscreen quality of those departments. Go in knowing what’s most integral to your directorial style. For me, it’s the visual aesthetic.
During production, I handcuffed myself with producing, costuming, set dressing, PA duties, and even, catering, so that by the time I finally arrived on set, it would cost too much time to make tweaks and changes.
Time we didn’t have for all the reasons above.
Now go make time to make yourself a good movie.
This post was written by Erik Ta (ETA).
Follow @etawashere for film festival screening updates to their award-winning, Blumhouse Patrons Circle Pledge recipient gentrification horror short, WHITE GAZE, and support its crowdfunding campaign on Seed&Spark.
ETA is a first-gen Vietnamese-American genre-fluid filmmaker raised in Tustin, CA by refugees of the American War in Vietnam. Their debut lo-fi feature, Stockton 2 Malone, premiered via AFROPUNK and was lauded for infusing “intersectional, diverse identities into the mumblecore genre.”
Confluence, their documentary short exploring ancestry and identity through first-person testimonies and live musical performances, has screened at several film festivals around the US and abroad, including Oscar-qualifying Busan International Short Film Fest and SF DocFest, Viet Film Fest, and NewFilmmakers LA.