08/30/2011 11:31 am ET | Updated Oct 30, 2011

The Rights and Wrongs of No-Budget Filmmaking

Last weekend, I attended day one of No Budget Film School's "The Art & Science of No-Budget Filmmaking" at Raliegh Studios in Hollywood. The event was run by Mark Stolaroff, who probably knows as much about no-budget filmmaking as anyone. Mark used to be a principal at Next Wave Films, the former low-budget financing arm of IFC that helped launch the careers of Christopher Nolan, Craig Brewer and more. Mark's also out in the trenches producing films, so the information he has to offer is up-to-date and relevant.

I've been thinking for a while that a lot of filmmakers focus on the wrong aspects of moviemaking when there are only limited funds to spend. (ie., You don't need to devote your entire budget to a RED camera or Arri Alexa in order to create quality content.) Mark brought clarity to this notion, and I'd like to share some of my top takeaways with you. Without further ado, I present "The Rights and Wrongs of No-Budget Filmmaking":

  • A "no budget film" refers to making a movie with the amount of money you can get together right now or tomorrow. If you're planning on mortgaging your home to finance your movie, you're no longer in the arena of "no budget filmmaking." Don't go into debt.

  • There's really no need to obsess over the latest or best technology. If you can shoot in HD and obtain quality audio, you'll be able to make do.
  • Embrace your limitations and refuse to spend money wherever possible. How much money you spend is directly related to how good your movie will look, not how good it will be. If you don't have the money for a big crew, that's fine. You'll be able to move more swiftly with a small crew, anyway.
  • Make sure everyone involved in your production embraces the do-it-yourself (DIY) style. If members of your crew do not and you foresee them being a distraction, cut them out like a cancer.
  • Your film won't suffer for what it doesn't have. If you try to emulate the look of a big studio film on no money, there's a strong chance it won't turn out well. Aspiring to keep everything on an even level -- production value, sound, acting, etc. -- will keep your expectations realistic, whatever your budget may be. (It's the relative lack of money, not the absolute.)
  • Write for what you have. If you only have access to X number of locations, actors, shoot days, etc., write for those limitations...and make things feel true. Create your story to meet your available aesthetic.
  • The no-budget films that end up going places (like to Sundance or South by Southwest) are usually the ones that are most unique. It's important to take a step back and ask objectively, "How unique is the content I'm setting out to create?"
  • When it come to production value, it's a myth that your no-budget film film has to look great for it to be a success. (After all, great production value without a good story is worthless.) It's far more important to focus on story/script/dialogue and performances than it is to obsess over whether your camera shoots in 4k. If you're going to obsess over production value, concern yourself with locations and production design before over having to use the expensive camera.
  • Coverage. Plan accordingly so that you can get plenty of it. If you shoot with two less expensive cameras instead of one that's expensive, you'll be thankful when you're in the editing room. If you're only shooting with one camera, allow for enough time so that your DP can capture all the angles you'll need later in post-production.
  • Don't shoot on film. 35mm and 16mm are expensive! Solid state (and DV tapes) = much, much cheaper.
  • Rather than rent, buy or borrow your camera. When you buy, you obtain leverage and independence, and you'll be able to shoot whenever you'd like.
  • Never be afraid to ask for anything. Whether it's locations, equipment, etc., the worst response you'll probably get is "no." (Or "get the hell of my property!") You'll be surprised what you'll be able to obtain for free.
  • Work with actors who are committed and are happy to be there. While it never hurts to have a known name or two attached to your project, if they're not up for your DIY approach, it's not going to help your production flow smoothly. No budget films are about launching careers; they're showcases for what talented filmmakers can accomplish on micro-budgets. You can work with some more well-known actors on your second film.
  • If you have extra money to spend anywhere, it doesn't hurt to put it into your audio. Audiences are forgiving of a funky image; bad audio can be unbearable.