by Anthony Q. Artis
1. Get Free or Inexpensive Equipment
One of the easiest things you can do to shave some dollars off the bottom line is to beg, borrow, or maneuver your way into the equipment you need to shoot your project. Free or cheap equipment is all around you. You just have to sniff it out. If you find a DP, crew member, or friend with their own equipment or access to equipment, you can (a) convince them to work for free, (b) barter for their services, (c) borrow or offer to rent their equipment, (d) negotiate a good rate for their crew services and their equipment.
The other route is to maneuver your way into a free equipment situation. Hands-on filmmaking workshops are one way, but there are also multiple jobs at TV stations, film/video rental houses, colleges, production companies and in corporate video departments where you may borrow equipment as a standard perk. Imagine that! Play your cards right and you can actually get paid to borrow the equipment you need for your project. Now that’s resourceful filmmaking!
2. Get Free or Low Cost Crew
Crews working for free are pretty standard for tight budgets. Non- filmmaker friends and family are cool to use, but only for non- crucial positions such as P.A., driver, or craft services. Chances are you are not going to find many experienced film professionals willing to work for free. More importantly, look for people who are serious and take a professional approach to their job, even if they have less experience. You want those hungry and ambitious people who are more concerned about practicing and stretching their skills than getting paid at that moment. Seek out the Boom Operators looking to move up to Sound Mixer. Look for the Assistant Camera Person that’s ready to be a DP. If you have production skills, you may also barter your services for those of your colleagues. It’s a fairly standard practice for small groups of indie filmmakers to just take turns cooperatively working on one another’s films for free. If you enroll in a film school or workshop, there’s a good chance you’ll get a free crew. Everyone on the crew should be offered a film credit, meals, transportation reimbursement (i.e. gas money or a subway pass) and a copy of the finished project. If you pay any crew up front, first in line should be the DP, Sound Person, and/or Editor as these are your make or break positions.
3. Get Free or Discounted Meals
If they’re working for free, at the very least, you need to provide good food. Feeding your crew good food can get expensive, especially with larger crews and longer shoots, but there are a number of ways to shave some food dollars off the budget without resorting to hot dog carts or fast food. As any hungry college student knows, free or cheap food isn’t too hard to come across if you know where to look and who to ask. Hit up the local restaurants, enlist friends and family to cater, break out the grill and have a cookout for lunch, barter for free appetizers, desserts or drinks for large orders, and grab as much free napkins, plates, utensils, cups, ice, etc. as the restaurant is willing to give you. (See my article in the April issue of StudentFilmmakers for more specifics.)
4. Use Cars Instead of Production Trucks
I don’t know about where you live, but here in New York City cargo van rentals top $100/day and Cube Trucks rent for almost double that. Add in the price of gas and insurance and you’re talking about a good amount of change. Since most DV equipment is fairly small and portable, a cheaper more practical alternative for many filmmakers is to just use cars for transportation of crew and gear whenever possible. If you empty out the trunk first, you should be able to easily accommodate a DV camera, sound gear, light kit and accessories. Even if you don’t own or have access to a car, renting a car or SUV is always cheaper and more fuel-efficient than renting a van or truck. I know it’s cool to pull up in a big cube truck, but if you really don’t need it for your small production, put that money up on the screen.
5. Shoot and Travel Over Less Days w/ Less People
This is simple mathematics. The more you shoot and the longer you travel, the more your film will cost. Knowing when to stop shooting and start cutting is often difficult with unfolding subject matter, but many projects such as historical docs or reality shows can be scheduled and planned ahead of time. Do the math for each shooting day and look for shoots that can be eliminated or combined. Travel is a necessary part of shooting, but you want to make sure your travel is cost-effective in terms of the value it adds to your project. If you are traveling for 6 hours and feeding and putting up a five-person crew in a hotel just to shoot some B-roll of your documentary subject’s hometown, is that a wise investment of your resources? Can you just shoot it yourself or with your DP only? Could you also interview key family members and figures from your subject’s childhood or stage another major scene while there? Do you really need video of the house they grew up in or would a few still pictures suffice? Ask yourself these questions when evaluating decisions to travel and house crew. Make travel count. Take as few people and stay only as long as necessary.
6. Get Corporate/Agency Sponsorships or Product Placement Deals
Making a documentary about the history of video gaming? Why not see if the good people at Atari or Activision want to pony up some dough to support you? Want to highlight the plight of teen mothers? Why not seek funding from a national charity that shares the same mission? Does your entire script take place in a bakery? Maybe Billy Bob’s Organic Bakery will let you shoot there for free and even provide breakfast as long as you show their logo and location onscreen. Look for natural allies in your mission who have deeper pockets than you. While not appropriate for many films, you may seek a product placement deal for characters or subjects to wear, use or show a sponsor’s product onscreen in exchange for value. Don’t count on getting any cash for product placement if you’re an indie or student. It just ain’t gonna happen, especially if you don’t have guaranteed mainstream distribution.
However, you can get sponsors to supply specific budget items such as food, car rentals, hotel, airfare, wardrobe, props, locations, etc…
7. Use Original Music
Why pay an expensive licensing fee to use a popular song or stock music from a library, when there are thousands of independent musicians looking for exposure? Most of these fellow indie artists will gladly give you pre-recorded songs. Better yet, you can easily find talented musicians that will create original music for your project for free or a fraction of the cost of the average music license. Original music tailored to your project can be an inexpensive, but powerful storytelling aid.
8. Use Public Domain Footage
Did you know that there are hundreds of hours of footage and thousands of historical photos and musical recordings available for anyone to use (even sell) free of charge. This is mostly historical material whose copyright has expired. In other words, it is in the public domain. Try a Google search for “public domain” photos, footage, or music. You will have to pay to have material transferred or copied, but it’s still a great bargain. In the same vein, you can investigate whether doc subject’s or actors have appropriate old photos or home movies they’d be willing to let you use for free.
9. Use Natural Light & China Lanterns
You can avoid some of the cost of rentals and the hassle and set- up time needed for professional lighting instruments by using available lighting instead. Staging your shots outdoors during daylight hours is one way to get around lack of lighting gear.
Another way is to position your doc subjects strategically near lamps or stage your scenes around the available lighting on location. If you’re shooting on video or high-speed film, you can get some beautiful lighting using simple household instruments or inexpensive china lanterns and reflectors. This approach favors tight shots and close-ups.
10. Log and Transcribe Your Own Footage
Transcripts are indispensable for documentary work whenever you’ve got hours of unscripted footage including dialogue and interviews. Professional video transcription is pricey for an independent doc, even on the low end. If you have 20 or so interviews to transcribe it could break your budget. Enlist an intern, a good friend, or just do it yourself. You’ll be more familiar with your footage and save hundreds or even thousands of dollars to boot!
The 10 tips in this article are just starting points to stimulate your guerrilla brain. In virtually every area of your budget there are ways to cut back on costs without cutting back on production value. The trade-off is usually extra time and energy spent doing things in a non-conventional manner. It’s a tired cliché, but in order to shave money off your budget without compromising production value, you really do have to think “outside the box” of traditional filmmaking.
I teach a guerrilla filmmaking approach based on my theory that, “It doesn’t take money to make films… It takes resources.” That is to say, if we put two filmmakers on two different islands for a week and I gave one filmmaker a pile of cash and the other filmmaker production equipment, a crew and actors- only one of them is coming back with a movie.
Understand this, money is just a tool to get the resources you need to make your film. Money is simply the middleman to the camera, lights and all the other resources you need to make your film happen.
If you cut out the middleman and go straight for the source whenever possible, you will find yourself with more and more dollars to spend in the areas that matter most to your film.
Scrutinize every item in your budget and ask yourself, “How else could I get this resource?” Every answer you come up with that works out in the end is value you can put back up on the screen. Money is the tool traditional filmmakers use most often to secure their resources. Creativity and hustle are the primary tools guerrilla filmmakers use to get their resources. Free your mind and the rest will follow. Happy guerrilla filmmaking.
Anthony Q. Artis is a 20-year veteran of the film and TV industry and the author of “The Shut Up and Shoot Documentary Guide” and “The Shut Up and Shoot Freelance Video Guide” published by Focal Press. He is also the co-host of The Double Down Film Show podcast.