This Shorts Filmmaker Gives You a Full Budget Breakdown, Tips for Finding Crew, and More

Matthew Barnes in 'The Jungle' (2021)Credit: Josh Jacobs
Learn all the behind-the-scenes secrets of this $4,000 short.

This post was written by Josh Jacobs.

Hi, I’m Josh, an LA-based filmmaker. I work as a writers’ assistant and script coordinator on TV shows, and I direct my own short films. By far, the most valuable thing I’ve learned about storytelling from big-budget shows and indie projects alike is that just two elements—the actors and the script—are way more important than everything else.

This lesson helped me save money and make The Jungle, my cheapest (but, alas, still around $4,000 in total) short film since college, which was selected for the 2021 Austin Film Festival.

You can watch the full short, which was shot pre-pandemic in 2019, below. Then you can learn how I made it and where my money was spent.

Learning from my first two shorts

My first post-college short film, Outside the Lines, cost about $15,000. Most of it was crowdfunded, and I got the rest from a bit of savings. I pulled out all the stops on that film, naively thinking, This has to be the film that makes my career. (Spoiler alert, it didn’t.)

It was nice to be able to pay crew, and the budget was not too far out of control given that it was a four-day shoot on Alexa Mini. But we definitely overspent in almost every category.

'Outside the Lines' (2016)Credit: Josh Jacobs
If anything, the film taught me what I didn’t need to spend money on—where I could cut corners, do things myself, or go without.

For example, our 1st AD was awesome, but in retrospect, paying for an AD wasn’t necessary. Scheduling isn’t that hard to plan out for a modest short film shoot, and during production, one of my other producers could’ve kept me on track. I also didn’t need walkies for crew, and I could’ve paid less for insurance.

On top of that, I didn’t know many people in LA yet and didn’t have the confidence to walk away from a crew deal or a location if it got too expensive. I was in over my head, anxious to lock things into place—I valued the security of having a certain production need dealt with and in the bag, when in reality I could have taken more time, made more calls, and examined my options more critically.

Behind the scenes on 'Outside the Lines' (2016)Credit: Josh Jacobs
My next short, Whip It, was a lot cheaper, mostly because it was only a one-day shoot. Also, we made it in Dallas, Texas (I was there for a few months for work), so costs were lower than they would’ve been in LA. But we still shot on Alexa Mini and rented a grip truck, so it wasn’t shoestring/run-and-gun by any means.

The biggest production lesson I learned from Whip It had to do with the location. The film took place at a little league baseball game. At first, I was planning on shooting at an empty baseball field and recruiting 30+ extras. I tried working with the local little league coordinator to make that happen, but we just weren’t getting the numbers.

So instead, he suggested, “What if you just shoot on a patch of grass behind the ballpark during our real-life little league games and post signs that give people a heads up that you’re filming?”

We did that, and it ended up being 1.) cheaper, 2.) less logistically stressful, and 3.) way better-looking than if we’d tried to create that look from scratch.

Behind the scenes on 'Whip It' (2017)Credit: Josh Jacobs
After Outside the Lines and Whip It, I was really starting to feel the frustration of the rigidity that can result from shooting on an expensive camera with a large camera/grip package. It took so long to reconfigure the camera rig and adjust lighting setups—on both of those films I’d come away feeling like I wasn’t able to get all the shots I wanted, like I wasn’t able to fully express the film’s ideas from a visual perspective, even when working with talented and experienced cinematographers.

I missed the college filmmaking days when we’d shoot on a simple DSLR rig. Sure, it didn’t look as polished or cinematic, but we had the flexibility to move quickly and put the camera wherever we wanted. So I knew I wanted to try stripping down the scope for my next film.

'Whip It' (2017)Credit: Josh Jacobs
As I was learning how I could reduce production costs, I was building up the aforementioned two most important aspects of filmmaking—cast and script—through my day job, getting to know actors on set (including Matt Barnes, who I’d go on to cast in The Jungle) and working in my first TV writers' room, learning more about what worked and didn’t work on the page.

I also joined a writers' group and had friends I could send each of my script drafts to—I’d say their notes and support were as invaluable as the insight gained from the writers' room.

Behind the scenes on 'The Jungle' (2021)Credit: Josh Jacobs

Starting on The Jungle

The Jungle came together because 1.) my actor friend (Matt) happened to be back in LA and we’d wanted to make something together, and 2.) I already had a location in mind for my next film—a plant nursery.

I grew up buying plants with my dad, and I thought the vegetative environment felt cinematic. So I contacted a few nurseries in LA in order to explore filming at them. I bought one of those nursery owners lunch, and he was nice enough to sit down with me and talk about his history with the shop. He granted us permission to film there in the future with a modest crew (he was wary of bigger, higher-budget crews who had shot there in the past and made a mess of things) and we left it at that.

So when I learned Matt was coming into town, I reached out to that nursery owner to see if we could make good on the offer. He said yes. I only had a few weeks to write the script and cast the other two roles.

Behind the scenes on 'The Jungle' (2021)Credit: Josh Jacobs
So The Jungle’s feasibility came from a confluence of factors—on the cast front, working in TV had connected me with a talented actor. On the location front, I had built a relationship to be able to film at a location without breaking the bank. On the script front, through the flawed shorts I’d made, the films I’d been watching, the writer peers I’d exchanged drafts with, and the shows I’d worked on, I was learning what translated to the screen and what didn’t, and I felt a little bit more confident crafting a contained and solidly-structured narrative.

And a big shoutout to my friend Willie who pitched the twist ending that’s in the film—I was stuck, and his idea made everything click. On the production front, I was more confident in how to reduce costs, knowing that while the film would look less polished than my previous shorts, I’d have more flexibility to shoot what I wanted to shoot on a compressed timetable in a compressed physical space.

I think there’s no way we could’ve shot 8 pages in one day of filming on Alexa Mini with a big lighting package—I was sad we didn’t have more time to shoot the office dialogue scenes in a more visually interesting way, but at least we got it done.

And at the time, having been in LA for over four years, I had more friends and former colleagues I could reach out to in order to try to get things done at lower rates (I think this lesson is applicable in any place, not just LA. The more rooted in a community you are, the more favors you can call in). 

A side note on casting, in case it’s useful to anyone else. I keep a Google Doc, and when I watch short films or movies/shows, and I like a lesser-known actor’s work, I add their name and photo to the doc. That way when I’m looking to cast my next short, I have a list of talented people I can start from.

Behind the scenes on 'The Jungle' (2021)Credit: Josh Jacobs

Breaking down the budget

Below is a breakdown of various aspects of the film and how I saved money and made it work, followed by a full budget breakdown.

Location

As mentioned, this came from a relationship formed well in advance of shooting. I offered to pay them a few hundred dollars because even though it was just one day with six people (me, the sound mixer, the producer, and the three actors), it’s still a burden to have a crew film. We shot during business hours, which eliminated their worry of losing income, with minimal disturbance to customers.

Shooting at an open place of business did present challenges for us. We had to start and stop a lot because of noise from customers talking or employees going about their work. While we were filming the office dialogue scene, the sound started to become unusable, so we had to pause and go and shoot some other pieces and then return to film the rest of that sequence later when there were fewer customers. 

Production design

Since this was a real-life location, we didn’t do much design work. The owner’s office had so much texture and specificity already, it kind of spoke for itself. There were some challenges in post given that the film was set in 2003 and we had some modern-day elements I didn’t think to frame out on the day (e.g., a modern HP printer logo, a Tesla logo on a car in the background, a wall calendar with the year 2019 on it), but thankfully a talented friend did minor VFX paint-outs and was able to correct those things for us. 

Allye Spencer in 'The Jungle' (2021)Credit: Josh Jacobs

Props/costumes

Some items the actors brought from home, other things (such as Matt’s suit and the old TV for the office) I bought from thrift/antique shops in LA. I went around and browsed for items that could be fun for the characters and the world. Also… shh… a strategy I sometimes use on films is to order stuff on Amazon and then return it after shooting.

Cast

The film was registered with SAG, but the actors agreed to “defer” their pay (I understand this to mean they waive their daily rate unless the film ever makes money in the future). I did pay them for their overtime hours as well as some other fees SAG requires.

I used Breakdown Services/Breakdown Express to find the other two roles. Shoutout to Alan McRae and Allye Spencer, both incredibly talented actors.

Note—I forget if I paid a small fee (about $25.00 or so) to get the breakdown listed on Breakdown Services’ website.

Camera/gear

My friend let me use his GH4 for free. I used ShareGrid.com to rent supplemental gear.

The nice thing about ShareGrid is that you can purchase insurance cheaply on a case-by-case basis for each piece of gear you rent, so you don’t have to pay like $700-$1,000 for an insurance policy for the film overall. I had some cinematography experience from college, and I liked the idea of shooting things run-and-gun to maintain flexibility and control, so I DPed the film myself. I rented a matte box and some Tiffen Soft/FX filters since a DP I really looked up to (who I’d cold emailed in the past after I watched a Netflix show he shot) told me he used those on his show.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get strong enough filters to really make a difference with the image, but it was fun trying something new.

Production sound

Our on-set sound mixer was great. I met him because he shadowed the mixer on a TV show I had worked on. But in the past, when I haven’t been able to find a sound mixer through personal contacts, I’ve had success going on Short of the Week, combing through the credits of some of my favorite shorts, and finding those people’s websites or Instagram profiles.

I will say, our mixer later told me it was hard to properly lav the actors and find ideal boom mic positions given the rigorous pace we shot at. So we did spend more time and money than expected in post cleaning up some lav fuzz or enhancing the clarity of certain takes. I’m not sure if hiring a support crew member for our mixer on set would’ve made a difference, or if this is just a tradeoff we needed to accept given the pace we were moving at.

Side note—I’ve never done ADR on my short films because I don’t have a fancy mic, and my limited understanding is that you need to rent time in a studio to do it right. If anyone’s done effective ADR for cheap on indie projects, I need to learn from you!

Crafty

A friend did a Costco run so my producer and I could focus on filmmaking duties. I gave him a number, said, “Spend about this amount,” and then paid him back. Another friend lent me his cooler for free. Plus, pro tip—I emailed a few company reps who donated free snacks in exchange for us posting on social media to thank them.

On this particular project, my producer was nice enough to pay for our group lunch, but in the past, I’ve gotten places like Chipotle and Panda Express to donate food for free. 

Reshoots

After I assembled a rough cut and got notes from friends, I decided we needed to get some pickup shots. The actors and the nursery owner agreed to another few hours of filming at no extra cost. In particular, I wanted a wide shot to further sell the physical “fight” scene, but Matt wasn’t in town, so my friend David came and stood in wearing the suit that Matt had worn. Save your costumes in case you need pickups.

Alan McRae in 'The Jungle' (2021)Credit: Josh Jacobs

Color correction

A colorist from a TV show I worked on agreed to color the film for free—the benefits of an industry day job. But other friends have found colorists at reasonable rates through perusing the credits on Short of the Week films, or they’ve just learned the software themselves.

Post-production sound

I hired a friend of a friend who had done a great job on another short I’d seen.

Post sound was one of the most expensive aspects of the film. It can cost a lot to get it right, and it’s very time intensive.

Score

This also ended up being one of the most expensive elements. I decided to spend a big sum—$500—to hire a composer whose work I really admired (and still do), but it turned out the tone of the score was tricky to get right, and he was too busy to experiment with a lot of iterations.

I decided to start over with another composer who was more willing to spend the time to try out a bunch of approaches until we felt we nailed it. Sadly, I wasn’t able to get any of my deposit back from the first composer, but I’m still glad I switched. The best collaborators, as I learned, are not necessarily the ones who objectively have the most experience (in this case, the first composer had been nominated for a major award). They’re the ones who are yes, still talented, but who are also willing to work alongside you as a peer and put in the time to mess around and take creative risks and get it right. 

A note on post

The post process was very very slow because I didn’t put much time pressure on my composer, colorist, VFX artist, and post-sound mixer. They were all working at indie rates and had other projects to attend to. But the slow workflow ended up helping my editing process. I think there’s a huge benefit to stretching out the post process because a few scenes took a ton of time and massaging to get right rhythmically in the edit. One scene didn’t get to a stomachable place until the very very end of post, well after we locked picture (to my sound mixer’s chagrin).

Pro-tip—your post team will be rightfully annoyed if you keep unlocking and relocking picture. But sometimes it’s necessary for the sake of the film.

Full budget breakdown

Here's the full breakdown of the budget.

At the end of the day, as filmmakers, we’re constantly learning how to streamline production demands and hone our crafts. It was exciting to be able to implement a number of lessons I’d learned over the years through trial and error to make something that I could be proud of and screen in Austin.

Thanks for reading, and good luck with your next film!     

View more of Josh’s work on his website and on Instagram @joshjacobsfilm

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Great read!

October 4, 2022 at 1:53PM

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