Monday, June 20, 2011

The Three Cardinal Sins of Low-Budget Filmmaking - Part 1

You’ve bought the $30 film school book, paid for the 2-day film school DVD set, and you’ve gone to every seminar and workshop imaginable about low-budget filmmaking. You’ve done your homework, and you’re ready to make your first film.

If you’ve paid close attention, you’ve discovered the two most common mistakes that most people make when starting out in the business—soft focus and bad sound. You have determined not to go down that road. You’ve taken the experts’ advice and found a qualified and highly confident Director of Photography. You’ve also found a sound expert who has all the right equipment to capture good sound on location. Maybe you’ve even gone a step further and enlisted the help of a friend who can score your film. So do you have all the bases covered? Are you ready to make an excellent low-budget feature?

Low-budget doesn’t have to mean low quality. Although the odds are against you, it’s possible to deliver the goods. I’ve watched countless low-budget films and have been involved in the production of both low-budget television and film projects. So I’ve made every mistake possible.

From my experience here are three deadly sins that catch most people off guard. You never see them until it’s too late.

Mistake No. 3 – Failing to compensate for lack of action.

Chances are that if you are doing a low-budget feature, you don’t have money for special effects, CGI, car chases or explosions. Most low-budget films suffer from lack of action. Often the film feels like nothing is happening. But you can compensate for this if you know what you’re doing.

One recent example is The Sunset Limited. Here’s a film that’s 90 minutes long and features two actors in one room. That’s it. Doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? But actually it’s captivating and completely holds your attention for the entire 90 minutes.

The last thing you want to do, whether you’re a big-budget or low-budget filmmaker, is to bore your audience. Find a way to keep them engaged. Your task is to create tension and the feeling that something is about to happen. If you don’t have money to shoot a certain scene with action, reference it as an event that happened off-screen and allow the audience to fill in the blanks.

These are common techniques that were used in The Sunset Limited. They also used simple tasks, such as making tea, into an action-oriented event.


Utilize the editing process to overcome the lack of action by using creative editing concepts to show action. Make sure you have a significant number of cover shots. A good editor will know how to compensate for the lack of action. Make sure that you find someone who understands his/her role and the shortcomings your film will present. The main point is to plan for it in advance.

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