Unlocking the Secrets to Micro-Budget Filmmaking
Indie filmmaker Noam Kroll has incredible advice for making a low-budget feature from start to finish.
Noam Kroll has worked on almost every side of film projects, including as a colorist, editor, writer, cinematographer, director, and more. His latest feature film, Psychosynthesis, was shot on an extremely low budget in just nine days.
Kroll took some time to answer our questions about how he approached the feature, maintained control of his limited budget, and achieved the film's gorgeous visuals. He shares what he learned on the quick shoot, and what he'd do differently. He also talks about the importance of self-marketing and his VOD plans.
Any filmmaker wanting to take on an ambitious project with a limited timeframe and budget and still achieve a polished look can benefit from Kroll's insight.
Let's get to the advice!
NFS: Can you tell us about your development process on Psychosynthesis?
Noam Kroll: Absolutely. The first spark of an idea came from a newspaper article I read about a phenomenon called “cellular memory." It detailed these chilling accounts of various people who had heart transplants and then began to feel a change in their identity. Some of them would inexplicably develop a new musical talent or a taste for a food they used to despise.
As someone who has always been fascinated by psychology, these stories really piqued my interest. I bought a whole bunch of books on the topic, did a ton of research, and ultimately began writing an outline inspired by these unnerving stories. My instinct was to lean on some of the darker, more contemplative, haunting elements of these individual’s experiences. I also really wanted to explore the idea of losing your own identity or feeling like a stranger in your own body.
Once I had these basic parameters set, the rest of the writing process and development as a whole fell right into place.
NFS: Did you approach the idea as something you needed to shoot very cheaply and quickly from the beginning?
Kroll: Cheaply, yes. Quickly, not necessarily. I had been developing a longer-term, higher-budget project (which is still in progress), before Psychosynthesis ever existed. This is a project that requires substantial fundraising and a much longer timeline. But rather than sit on my hands for a year or two until I was able to pull the funding together, I wanted to tackle something more immediate in the interim.
I’m a big believer that limitations can be a huge creative asset.
This meant I would have very little time to fundraise, and my budget would need to be kept to a minimum. I was very comfortable working this way, as I’ve directed many other micro-budget projects and love the challenge of working within constraints. I’m a big believer that limitations can be a huge creative asset, as they force you to solve problems in unique and unexpected ways.
As for the schedule, I didn’t initially picture shooting the movie in just nine days—that happened out of necessity. Some micro-budget films are able to be shot with a longer schedule if the logistics line up the right way.
In our case, taking time really wasn’t an option based on the way the story was structured. 95% of the movie takes place in two different houses, each of which we needed to rent at a fairly substantial cost. That alone dictated keeping the days to a minimum and called for us to shoot an average of 10 pages per day.
NFS: You crowdfunded this project. What was that process like, and what did you learn from it?
Kroll: This was definitely one of the most eye-opening parts of the process for me personally, as it was my first experience with crowdfunding.
One of my biggest takeaways was just how much sweat equity it really takes to run a successful campaign. We ran our crowdfunding through Seed&Spark, who make everything really straightforward. They work with you to ensure your campaign is optimized before you launch, and provide a lot of education and guidance along the way. This is all incredible, but it’s still up to you as the filmmaker to actually get eyes on your campaign.
I think some filmmakers assume crowdfunding will be an easy path to financing, but it can be as challenging as raising money through more traditional means.
I thought I’d have a head start in this department, as I’ve been building an audience for over seven years on my personal blog, and more recently with my podcast and newsletter. Tapping into this resource definitely helped us land some contributions (and find our amazing EP), but that alone wasn’t enough to get us greenlit. Ultimately it came down to a lot of emails, personal outreach, and even Facebook advertising to bring us to the finish line.
It really can’t be overstated how much work it actually takes to pull it off. I think some filmmakers assume crowdfunding will be an easy path to financing, but it can be as challenging (if not more) as raising money through more traditional means. If you’re willing to do it, though, you can benefit by maintaining 100% ownership in your film and building up your audience along the way.
NFS: Can you talk about the grant you received from the Duplass brothers?
Kroll: At the time of our crowdfunding campaign, Seed&Spark was running a rally called “Hometown Heroes,” which we decided to take part in. This initiative gave filmmakers with qualified campaigns the ability to pitch to Mark Duplass and Emily Best to receive financial backing for their films. One of the projects in this rally was ultimately EP’d by the Duplass brothers, and a few others were awarded the “Oh, Shit” grant, which we were lucky enough to be chosen for!
This was definitely a big milestone for all of us on the project. When you’re first setting out on a creative project, you’re kind of just going on a whim. You believe in the project, and hopefully, you’re surrounded by some friends and collaborators who do too... but outside of that, you don’t really know how it’s going to be received.
So for us, to have filmmakers we admire so much review our pitch and select us for this grant meant a whole lot. It definitely put a lot of wind in our sails and gave us some added confidence as we moved into production. And personally, it was a reminder of the importance of supporting other filmmakers and giving back where you can -- it’s amazing how far gestures like that can go.
NFS: You wanted to give this project a unique look. Can you talk about how you achieved that, and the choices you made that influenced the style of the film?
Kroll: While developing Psychosynthesis, I had been watching a lot of classic foreign films that were really blowing my mind. In particular, I was revisiting a lot of Ingmar Bergman’s work, and found some thematic similarities between our story and his masterpiece, Persona. The visuals in that film are so striking, and just stick with you forever.
This inspired me to take a stylized, but a traditional approach to the film’s aesthetic, and to set some visual parameters before even writing the script. I decided from the onset to frame the film in a 4:3 aspect ratio and shoot every single shot from the tripod. I wanted to avoid gimbals at all costs (as that would work against the classical look), but even dolly moves or handheld shots felt out of place given the subject matter.
Our main character had been bed-ridden for years, so restricting the camera movement helped ground us in her psyche. Still, I still wanted the visuals to feel dynamic, so I decided to shoot the entire film on zoom lenses (Angenieux Optimos), so we could push in and out during scenes to add tension or reveal things subtly in the frame.
We also played around a lot with color temperature, shifting from warmer to cooler palettes as our character experiences her transformation. This was largely done on set through lighting and white balance adjustments in-camera. We had to shoot everything in ProRes 422 HQ (not RAW) to be more economical, so this meant we needed to nail the colors as much as possible on set.
Haze played another big factor in our final look. I’ve never used much haze in any of my other projects, but this entire film is supposed to feel dream-like, soft, and very surreal. We ran that hazer practically non-stop during production -- took about a month to get my hearing back!
NFS: What resources did you draw upon to keep the budget low?
Kroll: First and foremost it started with building the right team.
Crewing up for a micro-budget production can be really tough, as you’re looking for collaborators who have both experience and creative talent, but who are also open to working on a smaller scale. I was fortunate to have found the best possible collaborators I could have asked for—from my producing team (Jennifer Stulberg, Ryan McCarvill, Katrina Cebreiro, Christian Hubbard) to our camera crew (Matteo Bertoli, Taylor Clemons, and Casey Schoch) to our sound recordist (Scott Vanderbilt), everyone really brought their A game.
When you make an indie film, your crew is your biggest resource.
When you make an indie film, your crew is your biggest resource, but there are of course other hard costs too. Gear is a big one, but we were able to mitigate this by primarily using equipment already owned by the crew. For instance, I shot on my Alexa Plus 4:3, and the lighting was supplied by our gaffer. Our production designer Jon Stanley made many of the props himself or brought props he already owned. All of this collectively helped keep the costs down in production.
But the biggest savings was probably in post-production. Having worked as an editor and colorist for a long time, I was able to tackle many of the post-production tasks myself. In the end, I handled the picture edit, color correction, audio mix, and some VFX myself. This saved a ton of money, but of course, required a lot of my time.
NFS: You shot Psychosynthesis in nine days. Why did you decide on that timetable, and what challenges did you overcome on the short shoot?
Kroll: Our biggest expense during production were our two main locations, which essentially dictated our shooting schedule. Had this film been set elsewhere, we likely could have added another five to ten shoot days, and configured an even smaller crew to spread out the cost.
But because this film was set entirely in two houses, those houses really had to be right. I didn’t want to just shoot at my place or at a friend’s house—it may have given us more flexibility, but wouldn’t have served the story nearly as well. So we had to pay a considerable rate to each house per shoot day, which afforded us five days in one house and four in the other.
One of the biggest challenges was scheduling in all of our additional shots, outside of our main A-cam coverage. There’s a recurring motif in the film that involves security camera footage, and those security shots had to be captured during the same nine-day window.
This meant for several of our scenes, we were really shooting twice as much material per page. There was the main footage from the scripted scene, and then a completely separate security camera scene which had to play out simultaneously.
We pulled this off by shooting all the security footage on an iPhone that was rigged up to a C-stand. After wrapping key scenes, before we had time to mess up the continuity of the set, we’d sneak the iPhone in and knock off a few security shots. That made our days really tight, but we got it all done.
There were certainly other issues too.
One day our Alexa froze up mid-shoot, and ARRI was kind enough to supply us with an Amira loaner while it was being fixed. Still, we lost about three to four hours of shooting time that day and had to make some tough choices on which material to shoot and which to cut. Oddly enough, though, some of my favorite scenes in the movie are the final scenes we shot that day, which were extremely rushed. Sometimes working under that kind of pressure brings out more instinctual, stronger choices.
NFS: Is there anything that you would have done differently during this shoot?
Kroll: Creatively, I’m incredibly happy with our final product and extremely proud of our team for pulling it off. Not just our crew, but our astounding cast as well, led by Stephanie Pearson, Brandon Alan Smith and Johnny Day.
Tactically-speaking though, there’s a lot I would change—namely wearing fewer hats myself, and giving our production team more crew support.
Everyone gets spread so thin on a micro-budget production, and if you’re not careful, that can really hurt the creative vision. In our case, we got really lucky and pulled it all off, but I’m not sure I would take that risk in the same way again.
Having extra bandwidth on set (usually in the form of additional crew or more time) can be so crucial. It can make the difference between your key crew members having the ability to perform their main function, or getting pulled aside to take care of someone else’s job.
Leaving that extra margin for error, whether with respect to crew setup, contingency in the budget, or prep time is essential.
Kroll: I’ve edited features, shorts, and loads of other content with virtually every NLE [non-linear editing system], and they all have their strengths and weaknesses. That said, when it comes to cutting narrative projects, FCP X has truly been unmatched for my needs—it’s simply faster and more efficient.
Many of the tools that editors were initially concerned about—namely the magnetic timeline—are some of my favorite aspects of the software. This feature in particular lets you re-arrange scenes, shots, or audio clips with a single click. If you want to completely re-order a sequence or take out an entire scene and drop it somewhere else in the timeline, it takes virtually no time.
This makes it an optimal creative tool for me, as I rarely go into the edit knowing exactly what the finished product will look like. I want the flexibility to experiment, and FCP X has a toolset that is very conducive to that.
Just as importantly, it’s extremely reliable. It’s been nearly a year since I first started editing the feature, and to this day the project file runs so smoothly. There have only been two crashes in that entire time, and in both cases, I didn’t lose any work, as FCP X saves the project every time you click your mouse or make a keystroke.
If you haven’t yet given FCP X a fair shake, it’s definitely worth a second look.
NFS: Now that you're in post on Psychosynthesis, what's your plan for the film? What advice would you give to others as far as targeting festivals and distributors?
Kroll: We’ve just begun submitting the film to festivals, but that’s really not a part of our distribution plan. Unless you premiere at a top-tier film festival (Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, etc.), it’s extremely unlikely that you’re going to draw interest from larger distributors. Especially with a micro-budget production that doesn’t have star talent attached. So while we have submitted to a number of festivals, we aren’t factoring that into our distribution strategy, as there’s no real way to quantify the outcome.
Getting your film on iTunes or Amazon is easy. But getting people to actually watch it is the hard part.
Instead, we will be taking a hybrid distribution path—working with a distributor (rather than an aggregator) to bring the film to various TVOD/SVOD/AVOD platforms, while handling DIY theatrical engagements beforehand.
If there’s anything filmmakers (on this budget level) should know about this step, it’s that they will almost certainly be responsible for their own marketing.
Getting your film on iTunes or Amazon is easy. But getting people to actually watch it is the hard part. You need a great trailer, awesome key art, a solid logline, and most importantly an actionable marketing plan that will get people interested in watching your film on day one.
In our case, we’ll be holding a theatrical premiere here in Los Angeles on Friday, March 13. We’re putting a lot of effort into marketing this event and plan to leverage it to enhance our eventual VOD release. This event will allow us to gain more reviews and publicity, hold Q&A sessions, livestream the event to people who aren’t local, and incentivize those who attend to pre-order our film.
This is just one example of something we’re doing ahead of the VOD release to make the biggest impact possible. Too often, filmmakers finish their movies, publish to iTunes and do little else to promote its existence. To launch successfully, it takes months and months of planning, audience building, advertising, and awareness. Only then can a film really shoot up the charts on VOD platforms, and hopefully gain enough momentum to stay there for a while.
Never leave your film’s fate in the hands of someone who cares about it less than you do.
There’s really no one way to market or release your film, and this is certainly still a process of experimentation for me. But so long as you realize you have your own destiny in your hands, that’s what matters most. Never leave your film’s fate in the hands of someone who cares about it less than you do.
What's next? Learn more about Kroll's film and low-budget directing
If you’re interested in attending the Los Angeles premiere of Psychosynthesis, you can learn more by signing up for Kroll's mailing list. You’ll get weekly articles from Kroll, all about micro-budget filmmaking! You can also follow Psychosynthesis on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
We've got more on micro-budget filmmaking, too! We've got a crash course on budgeting and everything you need to know before you start. You could also try spending $100 on your cinematography. Need some night shots? Try following this team's lead.