How To Make A Short Film On A Low Budget

Poster for "Same Ghost Every Night"  (Photo by Chin-Azzaro | Art Consulting + Commercial Photography)

How can I make a short film with little funding? This is a question pondered by many a first-time filmmaker, and hopefully this article can offer some inspiration.

We asked filmmaker Gus Péwé to talk us through the making of his microbudget short Same Ghost Every Night and to offer any tips and advice from what he’s learned.

Although this article isn’t a crowdfunding how to, Gus also shares some advice based on his own funding campaign on Kickstarter.

 

Idea

In 2011, while working on my second short film, My Favorite Planet, I emailed some filmmakers I respected to ask them about their process. One was a guy named Brent Green, who makes these really beautiful stop-motion animations set to his music and poetry.

He said he’d like to see My Favorite Planet when it was complete, but particularly if it had “bears on bicycles or haunted food”. He was just goofing around, and although ..Planet contained neither, I thought it was a funny idea and since then I’ve wanted to make a film based around those two things.

So that’s where the script for Same Ghost Every Night came from. The idea eventually spawned into a film about death, broken hearts and loneliness. I really love balancing between absurdity and profundity.

Wardrobe

I wear a bear costume and ride a bicycle in the film. My father is a professional sculptor and he welded a lightweight metal frame into the form of a bear head, and sewed canvas and faux-fur over it. There was a small hole to see out of at the base of the head. I rode the bike because I didn’t want anyone else having to risk crashing the bike in the suit. There were a few close calls, (one that will probably make the final cut of the movie), but I never crashed or fell off.

Same-Ghost-Every-Night-kitchenThe body of the suit was sewn by my mother. She utilized a long trench coat with a fur lining we found at a thrift store, and more of the faux-fur (some of that same fur was actually previously used to give a woman horse-legs in my last short The Big West).

The main character was supposed to wear a note-worthy jacket in the film, and we were looking at all kinds of different stores to find the right jacket. We wound up finding a corduroy jacket in the bargain basement of a local used clothing store, for a dollar! I don’t think we could’ve tailored a better fitting jacket for him. So, often the exact prop you need is sitting in a thrift shop somewhere close by – for a dollar.

Getting Cast & Crew

My friend, Robert Hoxie, was Executive Producer and Director of Photography for The Big West. He assumed the same roles for Same Ghost Every Night. It’s a pretty unusual pairing of jobs, but he’s very good at fulfilling both.

Same-Ghost-Every-Night-standingThe lead actor, Sawandi Johnson, is a server at a Denny’s restaurant that Robert and I go to fairly often. He knew I made movies, and told me to let him know when I was having auditions for my next movie, so I had him read for the part, and he was a very good fit for the role. Also, Sawandi has a son, and he briefly appears as Sawandi’s character in a flashback – that couldn’t have worked out any better.

The love interest is played by a girl we know through her working at a coffee shop near Robert’s apartment. We asked her if she’d want to play the part, and she was up for it. It worked out very well. She’s perfect for her part, too.

The ghost in the movie is played by a friend who’s appeared in music videos I’ve directed, and she also had a small part in The Big West.

My friend, Tommy Colangelo, who was the lead in The Big West, has a supporting role in Same Ghost Every Night, and so does my younger brother, Carl Péwé.

There was another guy we know who helped out quite a bit as a grip for a few days, but he could only make it for a few days of the shoot. The crew, more or less, was just Robert and I.

Getting The Locations

A friend’s father owns a small vacation house in Homer, MI, which is pretty close to where I live. We asked if we could use it as the main character’s house in the film, and he agreed. He was very generous and let us shoot there for a week for free.

Some scenes take place in a grocery store, and we had a difficult time finding a store with the right look that would also let us shoot there. We wound up shooting in a local place in Hanover, MI. We paid the owner a few hundred dollars as compensation for us sticking around after closing time on a Sunday to do the shoot. He might have let us shoot there for free, but we really wanted to lock down the location, so we offered money.

We didn’t need permits for the house or the store. We tried contacting village offices to let them know we’d be filming in town, but they never got back to us, and we didn’t have any problems anyway. What’s nice about making independent films is that should you run into trouble like that, you can just pretend to be oblivious-to-it-all film students. That was our back-up plan. Haha.

Budget Properly For Catering

I do wish we’d raised a little bit more money on Kickstarter. We estimated too low when budgeting for gasoline and food for the cast. We went a little over budget, but Robert picked up the extra expenses as the producer. I’ve heard as soon as you start feeding people on set, your budget goes way up, and that proved to be true on this shoot. The Big West was made with a $500 budget, for Same Ghost Every Night, we raised $2000 on Kickstarter. I think any more than that would have, personally, felt kind of excessive.Same-Ghost-Every-Night-bear-flowers

I like to have things done for very little money, but look as if we had a larger budget we you see the final product on screen. What’s nice is, with independent films, especially when shooting digital, you hardly need any money at all.

Crowdfunding Advice

When figuring out what your Kickstarter goal should be, you should estimate a little high when factering in the cost of making the rewards for the donors and the shipping.

I tried to avoid using crowdfunding perks which involved making things, but I did offer illustrations of anything the donor wanted, drawn by me as the $25 dollar reward. I think that was the most popular donation amount.

I also offered to have the donor’s name or likeness hidden somewhere in the film for $100. Since we were in pre-production at the time I had time to print things out and alter props that we needed in the movie anyway, like magazine covers and cereal boxes, and put the donors’ names and faces on them. It was a lot of fun figuring out where to hide people. You wouldn’t notice them unless you’re looking for them. It’s subtle, but if you’re one of those people, you can certainly say you appear in the movie.

People really just want a copy of the thing they helped to make, so I offered a DVD of all 5 of my short films, including Same Ghost Every Night, for $35. I didn’t figure the cost of producing those in the $2000 goal, so we’ll see how that goes. I have to make it happen now. Haha.

Same-Ghost-Every-Night-kitchen-group

Don’t Stop Making Movies!

I think that a lot of people making a short feel that when it’s done and polished, that one film is all the evidence they need to prove they can make a good film. And that is absolutely true. But I think that once that one is done, you should absolutely do it again and continue to make short films.

If you have a body of short films, that are all polished, great works of cinema, that carries even more weight than just one good senior thesis project. Plus, if cinema is something you want to do professionally for the rest of your life, why would you stop after one good short?

Friends Can Be A Real Asset

Some people offer to help just to be nice, but often it’s just a gesture. When it comes time to actually showing up and helping out they don’t really follow through.

Conversely, some people are absolutely gung-ho, and go full-tilt boogie to help out. Robert is like that. Sawandi and the rest of cast are like that. These people are beautiful people, and you need to keep them around, because they are friends.

Friends can be better actors than paid, trained actors, because you know each other more intimately as friends. You can use that to direct them. And then hang out with them during post-production, and have them in the next movie, and have them around for the rest of time.
So, if you run into people like that, recognize it, and love them for it.Same-Ghost-Every-Night-couch

Equipment

We bought LED lights that could be dialed to dim down. They came with plastic gels and diffusion panels. They ate through 8 AA batteries in a few hours of shooting, but they worked for our set. And since they were battery powered, we didn’t have to worry about tripping over cords that weren’t taped down, finding an outlet within reach or blowing a fuse.

Robert owns a carbon-fiber monopod that I always make fun of for being “a really expensive stick,” but I can’t say we don’t utilize it. I’m not sure that I’d honestly recommend the investment though. That monopod has become a running joke with us.

We used Robert’s Canon T2i digital SLR camera with a Rode Videomic Pro shotgun microphone mounted on the top for sound. That Rode mic is a relatively cheap microphone, and it takes surprisingly good audio. We used that camera and audio setup for both The Big West and Same Ghost Every Night.

Our biggest expense for Same Ghost Every Night was a Sigma 30mm f/1.4 lens for Canon digital SLR cameras. That was actually the only lens we shot this movie with. We could have switched lenses, but the image looked so good on that Sigma 30mm, that I never wanted to change it. With some of the lighting we had, especially outside, the image almost looks like film to me, not digital video.

You can find out more about Gus and his film Same Ghost Every Night from Gus’ website and Facebook, and you can check out the trailer right here:

If you’re looking for ways to save money buying film equipment, there’s our article outlining a simple eBay strategy you can use. Also of interest for filmmakers looking to cut costs might be our article on how to make a movie in several countries on a microbudget.

© Indie Sonar, 2013

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5 comments

  1. Nice article. Well done.

  2. daklgg says:

    or just click it lol

  3. One issue I’ve run into making a $15,000 short film is I have enough to actually rent a Red Epic or an Alexxa, secure locations, pay for insurance, pay crew, hire SAG actors and get some good post work done. However, you still run into budgetary issues and you start thinking, do I really need the Epic?

    Do I really need that parking garage where I’ll need to pay $100/hour for police presence?

    I think at any level you run into budgetary issues and it’s interesting to see how people solve them.

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