What I Learned Making a Shoestring Sci-Fi Comedy

Karen Olrich-White as Marie Credit: Jonathan Wilhelmsson

Written by Jonathan Wilhelmsson.

Considering shooting a sci-fi feature? Here are some helpful tips.

My name is Jonathan, and I’m a filmmaker from Sweden. My friends and I just released our new short film, Untitled Earth Sim 64, a sci-fi comedy about a woman who discovers that our universe is a simulation. 

The project stemmed from a film we were going to shoot in Hong Kong early last year. Our bags were literally packed when COVID-19 hit. Forced to cancel, we decided to come up with a new project that we could shoot closer to home—something short and sweet, dealing with existentialism in a lighthearted and hopefully comforting way.

We didn’t want to get stuck applying for funding, so we set it up as a shoestring budget project that we could get off the ground on our own. Our small team consisted of fellow friends and filmmakers who regularly help each other for free on our different projects. As a favor from my old workplace, I was also able to borrow most of the equipment for free.

We shot the film during two sweltering summer days in Gothenburg with a skeleton crew of three people behind the camera and two actors on set—British actress Karen Olrich-White and Swedish actress and pro wrestler Aya Frick. The Australian actor James Fraser joined us virtually as the voice of an alien researcher, pre-recording his lines so that we could have playback on set.

After a few months of post-production and many late nights working on the film’s extensive visual effects, the film has finally been completed.

The following are some of my biggest takeaways from the experience. 

Storyboard—New and Improved!

In the prepping, I decided to take a new approach to the storyboard process. Instead of the crude drawings I usually make, I decided to do simple composites based on real photographs, most of them taken at the actual locations.

This allowed me to form very accurate ideas about shots, compositions, and lens choices well before the shoot, which was especially helpful since I was juggling a lot of roles on set and wanted to be as prepared as I could.

I put it together into what was almost a weird comic book version of the film, with all the dialogue and necessary descriptions. It also meant that I essentially did a first cut of the film before filming even began, as all the intended cuts were clearly represented.

It was received very favorably by the team who got a much clearer idea of what I was going for compared to my old hand-drawn storyboards. It actually ended up becoming a better representation of the film than the screenplay itself, and as a result, it was the only document we ever referred to on set.

Credit: Jonathan Wilhelmsson

Blue Hour—Beautiful but Risky

The final scene of the film was a night scene that we shot on our teammate Ellen’s beautiful balcony (use what you have, and all that). I was going for quite a bright and colorful film, so I decided to shoot it during blue hour—those beautiful 30 minutes just after the sun has set, when the sky is really vibrant and the surroundings haven’t yet been hidden in darkness.

I knew there was no way we would be able to capture the entire scene in that time window, so as part of the blocking, we had our actress Karen slump to the floor for part of the scene. We shot that segment after the light was already gone, making it easy to hide the sky and to add simple sky replacements.

Still, we had a lot of shots to capture during those 30 minutes, and I have to say it was a close one. We rushed like crazy, and by the time we got the last shot, it was very dark.

It was actually quite a challenge to color correct the scene, as the light was constantly shifting, and the difference between the first and last shots was massive.

We didn’t really have a plan B had we not made it, because Karen had to leave for a different city the next day. Fortunately, we were lucky this time, but it’s probably a good idea to have an extra backup night if you’re going to shoot extended scenes at blue hour!

On set with Jonathan WilhelmssonCredit: Jonathan Wilhelmsson

Time—the Secret Sauce to Low-Budget Filmmaking

I really think that time is an incredibly valuable resource we have as low-budget filmmakers that isn’t as readily available for bigger productions.

When you’re renting tons of expensive equipment and have hundreds of crew members on the payroll each day, there’s a massive pressure to do everything as quickly as possible. That’s true for low-budget films as well, but not to the same extent.

It isn’t as big of a deal to add an extra shooting day, and quite often having the time to do an extra take, playing around with the scene, and spending more time with the actors is worth more than any equipment you could think of.

But I think the biggest way we utilized time as a resource was in post-production.

It’s quite a visual-effects-heavy film (67 of its 73 shots are effects shots), so it could have become quite an expensive affair. I didn’t have the budget to afford a VFX crew. I didn’t have the budget to afford any post-production crew, in fact, but what I did have was time.

Over a period of about five months, I finished the entire post-production on my own on my laptop. It was certainly a challenge, especially as I have my day job and mostly had to work nights and weekends, but it was a lot of fun, and I think it’s a good example of how accessible filmmaking has become.

More money would have made it possible to finish the film faster, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it would have been better. I think this is the way that certain genre films and effects-heavy projects that in the past would have been a no-go for low-budget will become more and more achievable, using time as a resource.

Behind-the-Scenes Content Is the Key to Happiness

Okay, maybe I overstated that, but I was really struck by how rewarding it was to make a behind-the-scenes film for this project. To me, a good BTS can be just as enjoyable if not more so than the actual film, so we tried making one of our own for the first time.

Straightaway, I noticed what a morale booster it was on set, because it was so much fun, filming silly interviews with each other and doing little comedy bits. It made for a really nice breather from the work, and it also allowed crew members who would otherwise have been hidden to share some of the spotlight with the actors. It generated a lot of positivity that the actual film really benefited from.

As I’m writing this, we have just released both films online and have already noticed how much extra value the BTS film is giving the main film. A lot of people have reached out and echoed my thoughts that the BTS is almost more entertaining than the actual short, and it’s given them a whole new appreciation for the work.

Filmmaking is difficult, and it’s also the most exciting job there is. I think there are massive benefits and joy to be gained from more of us showing our craft.

Let us know your thoughts in the comments!     

For more, follow my YouTube channel here

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3 Comments

Thanks so much No Film School for featuring our project! Please let me know if I can answer any questions in the comments.

May 6, 2021 at 6:08AM

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Jonathan Wilhelmsson
Director / Cinematographer / Editor
88

Could you talk a bit more about the new storyboard process that was tried out? Are you deciding on your frames and then compositing stand-ins?

May 7, 2021 at 9:38AM

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Daniel Cho
DP, Gaffer, Grip
147

I had a friend with me on the location scout that I used as a stand in and that helped me deciding on most of the frames, but I also took a lot of background plates that I could use to create new frames after that fact. I actually used simple stick figure characters rather than real humans in the composite. Even for the shots that I had with my friend I always took an empty plate and added a stick figure instead. There’s so many things that can be read into a human face that I thought it was better to have more of a blank slate, especially for the actors. It was also easier to play around with things and create new shots with stick figures. Check out the segment starting at 1:12 in the BTS video and you can see a little bit of what it looked like.

May 7, 2021 at 10:32AM

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Jonathan Wilhelmsson
Director / Cinematographer / Editor
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