10 Ways Low Budget Shoots Differ from Micro Budget Ones

My camera and lighting crew for last year's feature
My camera and lighting crew for last year’s feature

I’ve been working in the film business for 16 years now, but until very recently I hadn’t really worked on a ‘proper’ production, one that had a budget above five figures. Here are some differences I noticed stepping up from micro-budget to low budget…

  1. Formal crew structure. There is a proper separation between departments, even between camera and lighting (which is quite strange for the DP, in charge of both). Woe betide anyone who moves set dressing without asking the art department, or who plugs something in without checking with the sparks, or who stores equipment in a room without asking locations.
  2. Proper production and locations departments. The feature I worked on last year had two producers, a line producer, a production manager and a production co-ordinator, plus a locations department. I’m used to productions where one person does all those jobs, and often directs as well. Figuring out which person to approach about any given issue was fun! (Creative Skillset’s website is a good place to check if you’re not sure who does what.)
  3. Advance prep. With a large crew, time cannot be wasted waiting for things that could have been pre-rigged. Heads of department are expected to think ahead and splinter their crew if necessary to be ready for things coming later in the day or week. For a DP this most commonly means pre-rigging distro and/or lighting.
  4. Delegation. Aside from operating the camera, I did little hands-on work on the recent feature shoot. Lens changes, grip rigging and lighting set-ups are all handled by other people on the instructions of me, and of the gaffer and the 1st AC. Sometimes this means the DP can go and have a cup of tea, but often it provides important thinking and planning time – an opportunity to reccie the next set and design the lighting, or to review footage in the edit room, or reccie a possible location with other HoDs, or discuss the afternoon’s shots with the director. It’s impossible to do this sort of forward planning if you’re changing your own lenses and setting your own lamps up.
  5. Hard wrap times. On micro-budget shoots the wrap time is a theoretical concept, with no more relevance to reality than an episode of Sponge Bob Square Pants. On a bigger production, you wrap at wrap time, because if you don’t then the gaffer might pull the plug. Occasionally the crew will be asked if they are willing to go over by half an hour, say, in order to complete a scene. But everyone must agree, and that half hour must be deducted from the next day.
  6. Lunch break, not just lunch. In micro-budget land, getting lunch at all is not a given. But when you do get it, you’re often expected to eat as quickly as possible and get straight back to work. On a bigger production you get your hour lunch break come hell or high water. And there’s proper catering. With desserts!
  7. Reliance on the crew. If you’re working with a small camera and mains power, you can stay late with the director and steal a few extra shots, if necessary. But when everything’s run off a generator, which only the gaffer is qualified to operate, and your camera package is almost too heavy to lift onto your own shoulder, and you have no idea how half the bits and bobs connected to it work because your ACs always deal with it, you really can’t do anything on your own.
  8. Permissions and qualifications. For insurance reasons you must have qualified people overseeing the electrics and the rigging. You must also check with the locations department before using any space or equipment or filming in any area that was not discussed and signed off in preproduction.
  9. Paperwork. Most HoDs seem to have some kind of daily paperwork to do on a larger production.The DP happily escapes this (the ACs handle the camera reports), though they do have to complete a risk assessment before shooting commences.
  10. People management. Because of the size of the team under you, people management becomes a major part of an HoD’s job. I’ll go into more detail on this in a future post.
10 Ways Low Budget Shoots Differ from Micro Budget Ones

Stop/Eject Postproduction Budget Breakdown

Back in November 2012 I posted and analysed the preproduction and production budget for my short film Stop/Eject, a 17 minute fantasy-drama which was shot on a DSLR. Now I’m going to do the same for the postproduction budget, including distribution and marketing. We’re currently selling Blu-rays and digital rentals of Stop/Eject, to raise money for further film festival entries, so please support us by buying a copy if you find this blog useful.

Download the budget here as a PDF (35kb).

As you can see, we had almost £2,000 available to us in post, some of which was left over from production, but most of which came from a crowd-funding campaign. You can read my evaluation of that campaign in an earlier post.

Mixing Stop/Eject at Alchemea College in Islington
Sound mix

None of the cast or crew were paid at any stage of making Stop/Eject, and indeed I tried not to spend anything at all on postproduction. The VFX artists worked on their home computers, editor Miguel Ferros used his own Mac-based Avid system, colourist Michael Stirling used his company‘s DaVinci Resolve projection grading suite, sound editor and designer Henning Knoepfel used his own Mac for the audio work and pulled in a favour to get a free studio day for the ADR, and re-recording mixer Jose Pereira used the studio at the college where he lectures. Scott Benzie composed the music in his home studio and we recorded it for free with four live players at Worcester Tech College.

Georgina does some ADR
ADR

So except for a suite of clock sound effects, which Henning convinced me were necessary to help the audio tell the story, the main costs in postproduction were those incurred by people travelling so that we could be in the same room for some of the work, and eating lunch on those occasions. It’s important to at least make sure people are fed when you can’t pay them a fee. The most expensive of these days was the ADR session, which involved me and two lead actors travelling from Hereford, Birmingham and Bath respectively to the studio in east London.

Even in today’s digital world, some files are just too damn big to send online, and such was the case with the Avid media output by Miguel ready for the grade. I therefore purchased a USB hard drive, which ended up being couriered across London a couple of times to get to where it needed to be. After the film was completed, I used the same drive to archive all of the Stop/Eject assets and project files.

In order to run the crowd-funding campaign, which lasted for most of postproduction, we needed to build our own website and cut a trailer using library music. We also attended several events to promote the campaign and the film in general, one of which charged an entry fee.

Glossy script book
Glossy script book

The £79.47 spent on producing the crowd-funding rewards (a.k.a. perks or gifts) was racked up mostly by the hardback glossy script books, costing about £25 each (ex. VAT). The sponsorship level required to qualify for one of these books was £100, and since you also got a DVD, Blu-ray and premiere invite for that amount, there can scarcely have been £60 left of the donation for us to spend on actually making the film! It just goes to show that you should carefully cost up your rewards before you offer them.

DVDs & Blu-rays
DVDs & Blu-rays

That £79.47 isn’t the whole story though, since the next three items listed – the screening venue hire, Blu-ray stock and dupes – were all partly for sponsors as well. (A £10 donation got you an invite to the premiere, £30 got you a DVD and an invite, and £50 got you a Blu-ray, a DVD and an invite.)

£25.61 bought me fourteen blank Blu-ray discs, most of which I got through in trial and error as I authored and tested my first ever BD. The £265.30 spent on dupes got us 60 DVDs and 50 BDs, all with full colour on-disc artwork, inlays and cases. 20 of those discs went to sponsors and approximately 50 to cast and crew, with the rest being reserved for press and festivals.

I deliberately completed the discs in time for the premiere so that I could hand many of them out in person and reduce postage costs. For those that I did post, I used only pre-loved jiffy bags which I had been collecting for some time.

All in all, I’d say almost 11% of the £1,584 raised through crowd-funding was spent on creating and delivering rewards, a little more than I would have liked. Ideally you want to spend no more than 10% of your budget on rewards.

Stop/Eject press kit
Stop/Eject press kit

As detailed in another post, I created Stop/Eject’s Digital Cinema Package at home using free software, but did have to buy a hard drive for it and a flight case, since I intended to ship it to international festivals for screenings.

To promote the film at festivals and beyond, we had 50 full colour folders printed, each containing five single-sided monochrome pages of text. We also paid £10 to submit Stop/Eject to The London Film Review, the hope being that good reviews would increase our chances of festival selection.

And that only really leaves the festival entry fees themselves. We’ve entered 25 to date, and the money we’re raising now should allow us to enter another 20 or so. In a future post I’ll provide a list of the festivals entered, their deadlines and fees, and the selection results.

Stop/Eject Postproduction Budget Breakdown

How to Make a Fantasy Action Movie for £28,000

The last of the Soul Searcher anniversary featurettes is a completely frank and open breakdown of the budget. Find out how I raised the money, what I offered my investors, what distribution deals were put on the table, how much the film made worldwide and how much of that money came back to me (you may be shocked). Most importantly, discover exactly what was spent on each element of the budget, from travel and catering to make-up and lighting.

Corrections: 1. UKTI stands for UK Trade & INVESTMENT, not Industry; 2. After completing the programme I discovered two more distribution contracts I was offered, both from Californian companies. Neither offered an advance. One proposed taking a 25% cut of the profits, the other 40%; 3. I misspelt Kevin MacLeod’s name, apologies. Visit his website at http://www.incompetech.com

For more information on film distribution I recommend The Guerrilla Filmmaker’s Movie Blueprint by Chris Jones.

How to Make a Fantasy Action Movie for £28,000

Planning VFX

A few years back I taught a module on Visual Effects for filmmaking degree students at the SAE Institute in north London. Rather than getting into the nitty gritty of how to actually do VFX, it focused instead on how directors and producers should approach and plan for them.

Here is one of the examples I gave, using a shot from my 2005 feature Soul Searcher. Joe Fallow (Ray Bullock Jnr.) sprints down the platform of Hereford station as the Hades Express departs, bearing away the villain of the piece and the kidnapped love interest.

Finished shot from Soul Searcher
Finished shot from Soul Searcher

The train was a 1:18 scale miniature and was dropped into the live action plate by means of a simple, static matte drawn in Photoshop – essentially a splitscreen effect.

But what if I, as director, had chosen a different camera angle?

Alternate angle 1

To achieve this version, the model train would have needed to have been shot against a green screen to make it appear in front of Joe and the platform. This would have complicated shooting the miniature slightly, as lighting for a green screen can be quite time-consuming.

Alternate angle 2

Here we have the opposite; now Joe is in the foreground, so he’s the one that needs to be shot against a green screen. Since he and the station are full size, the green screen would need to be much bigger and would require much more light. And remember we’re now talking about an impact on the main unit’s time on a location, rather than a small model unit in a studio, so the cost implications are magnified.

Alternate angle 3

Finally, what if I’d gone for a camera move? Now we’re into motion control rigs, to record the camera’s movement on location and applied a scaled-down version of that same move to the camera shooting the miniature. Either that or the live action plate has to be 3D-tracked in post-production, and that tracking data fed into the motion control rig that shoots the miniature. More time, more people, more equipment, more money.

This is the first step in planning for VFX: understanding how your choice of shots influences the techniques required to achieve them and therefore impacts on the schedule and the budget. Stay tuned for more on this topic, and remember you can watch Soul Searcher in full for free at neiloseman.com/soulsearcher

Planning VFX

Stop/Eject Production Budget Breakdown

The one that got away was this big...
Delivering the Derby fundraising lecture in March

This post has been created and published because the total raised in Stop/Eject‘s post-production crowd-funding campaign has passed the £1,100 mark. I’m going to look at how the money you all contributed in pre-production was spent in order to get Stop/Eject in the can.

Stop/Eject was originally meant to be filmed in autumn 2011 under the auspices of another production company. Prior to the project’s postponement and subsequent resurrection as a crowd-funded movie, Sophie and I spent some money on set dressing (£149.76), costumes (£206.20) and travel (£60). We absorbed these costs personally and they’re not included in the budget.

Download the budget here as a PDF (34Kb).

(If you don’t follow my blog regularly, you may wish to check out the following resources first so you have a clearer picture of the project I’m discussing: the trailer, a blog post summarising how the shoot went, an evaluation of the shooting schedule, a playlist of behind-the-scenes videos from the shoot. Stop/Eject was a twenty page script that took five and a half days to shoot.)

As you can see, the crowdfunder.co.uk campaign was the main source of income, although a significant amount was donated after this campaign closed, in cash or via the Paypal button I had on this website for a while. Two of the three Soul Searcher lectures were failures, with few or no attendees; only the Derby lecture (done as part of a Five Lamps Film Night) took more cash than it cost me to travel there. Selling Benedict Cumberbatch’s costume from The Dark Side of the Earth’s pilot was the last part of the pre-production funding jigsaw.

Costume designer Katie Lake models one of the outfits purchased in 2011.
Costume designer Katie Lake models one of the outfits purchased in 2011.

Moving onto the expenditure, the first thing you have to do with any type of fundraising is deduct the costs involved in that fundraising process – in this case crowdfunder.co.uk’s fee and the production and postage of the rewards/perks for sponsors. These costs represent less than 8% of the budget, which I think is pretty good value.

Under pre-production you can see that more props and costumes were purchased in 2012, in addition to those we’d already bought in 2011. The total costumes outlay across the two years was £407.94, making it one of the largest costs of the production. This was due to the high number of story days in the script (eleven), each of which required a new outfit. A significant chunk of the props budget went on 400 cassette cases for the scene in the Tape Archive, while the construction materials included the wood and antique doors which the alcove set was made from. Auditions were held at Conway Hall in Holborn, London, owned by the very strange but pleasingly cheap South Place Ethical Society.

If you have a problem, if no-one else can help...
If you have a problem, if no-one else can help… (photo: Colin Smith)

Travel is the biggest expense under production and indeed for the entire project, totalling £1,049.49 if you include the van costs and the pre-production and 2011 costs, even though some of the local crew waived their mileage and parking expenses. The high travel expenditure was partly due to many key cast and crew members living at least a two hour journey away from where we were filming, but even on more local projects I’ve often found that travel can be the most expensive element (assuming you’re not paying anyone fees). Hiring the van was relatively cheap in the grand scheme of things, and was worth every penny and more. Without it we couldn’t have moved the alcove set or some of the larger props around, and squeezing all the equipment into cars would have been a nightmare.

I was very surprised how little we spent on food and catering. £248.33 fed about ten people for five and a half days. Many of the meals were cooked in advance, frozen and reheated on set or cooked from scratch on set by Katie or Debs, but we bought takeaways for everyone on at least two occasions. That figure also includes supplies like plastic beakers, disposable plates, bowls and cutlery and a thermos flask. We borrowed a fridge and a hotplate and brought our own microwave along.

When drawing up a new budget for Stop/Eject after its initial postponement, accommodation seemed like a killer cost that might prevent the film from ever being made. Research indicated that I could expect to pay around £2,000 to hire a holiday cottage large enough to house everyone for a week. As it turned out, we found Magpie, not only a brilliant location for the shop and many other settings, but also a place where some of us could stay (albeit in less than ideal conditions). The owner asked just for a token amount to cover the utilities costs, and with Sophie’s spare room also put to good use we only had to hire one hotel room for one night.

If you’re wondering where I got the public and employers’ liability insurance from, the answer is Essex Insurance Brokers. They specialise in short-term policies for low-budget filmmakers and you can get a quote and activate a policy in just a few minutes using their web form. If that sounds like a blatant advert, let me counter it by saying they were utterly unhelpful and a bit rude when I tried to get insurance for The Dark Side of the Earth‘s pilot from them.

Steve Lawson's kindly-lent jib in action outside Magpie. Photo: Paul Bednall
Steve Lawson’s kindly-lent jib in action outside Magpie. Photo: Paul Bednall

Finally, a word on the stuff we didn’t spend money on. None of the cast and crew were paid, which caused lots of stress and hassle in the month leading up to the shoot as several crew and both lead actors pulled out in order to do paying work that clashed. As a result I’ve sworn never to do anything again but simple little one-day shoots unless I can afford to pay people. Feel free to remind me of this if I ever seem to be going astray. We also spent nothing on equipment hire. Most of it (camera, lenses, tripod, dolly, shoulder rig, smoke machine) was mine and the rest of it was borrowed. Thanks to Steve Lawson for loan of the jib, Colin Smith for the Glidecam and additional lights, The Rural Media Company for an additional light and some sound kit, and Ian Preece for the sound recorder.

When all the figures were totted up, I was as shocked as anyone to see we’d come in more than £400 under budget. This meant we were able to set our post-production crowd-funding target at £1,500 rather than the £2,000 we had planned. We’re now less than £400 away from that target, so please help us get there by toddling over to stopejectmovie.com and hitting Donate. And if you’re curious to know how the budget of a indie feature film breaks down, choose the £10 “Line Producer” reward and you’ll get a full and detailed analysis of Soul Searcher’s monetary ins and outs.

Stop/Eject Production Budget Breakdown

Chasing Cars

A decade ago I was editing The Beacon, my stupid Malvern-based action movie made for about £3,000. The Cardboard Chase is most people’s favourite scene, but a close second for me would have to be the car chase:

Setting up car-mounted cameras
Setting up car-mounted cameras

Pretty silly, huh?

The car chase was shot over three days, mostly on Castlemorton Common in Malvern. It was done totally guerrilla style – no permissions, no insurance, no safety briefings, no stunt co-ordinator. The red car belonged to one of the crew, whilst the blue one was purchased secondhand for the production at a cost of £120, then taxed for £90 and insured for LJ, the lead actress, to drive at £235. (This was just standard car insurance so she could drive it on the road legally, and in no way covered it for film stunt use.)

The crash was shot on private land. The white car belonged to a friend of mine who was going to scrap it anyway. Crazy cast member Si Dovey offered to double for LJ driving the blue car towards the white one (sorry, I know nothing about makes of cars so colours will have to suffice to identify them) and miraculously came out alive, despite not even wearing a seatbelt on the second take. Getting the wrecked cars towed away afterwards (which was a major hassle) cost £75, bringing the grand total for the sequence to £520.

So an action-packed car chase can be shot pretty cheaply, but of course you shouldn’t try it under any circumstances because it’s extremely dangerous and highly illegal on public land.

Additional (27/10/11): By the way, you can download the whole budget for the film, if you’re so inclined, from The Beacon page.

Chasing Cars

The Dark Side Guide to Building a Set

Essential viewing for any producer or director considering shooting their next project on stage, this featurette covers all the issues you’ll encounter in planning, building and striking a set – including the all-important question: how much will it cost? I share everything I learnt about working with sets while making the demo sequence for my fantasy-adventure feature The Dark Side of the Earth, starring Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock), Kate Burdette (The Duchess) and Mark Heap (Spaced, Green Wing).

The Dark Side Guide to Building a Set