Low Budget Filmmaking: Tips and Tricks, Part One

Let’s talk about low budget filmmaking, and some tips and equipment involved. Making films with little to no budget is an exercise in creativity, sometimes requiring you to alter your concepts on the spot. And if you’re wondering how to make a short film, get a camera or an iPhone and just start filming. That’s step one!

Back in the day, my family used to create short videos to send to a cousin’s in-laws in Ohio. This was pretty low tech stuff, usually just a quick video done on the spot. One time, my brother and I rigged two VCRs together with a CD player to clean up the editing. Every time we paused the receiving VCR, we had to pause the CD player overriding the audio, as well. Like I said, low tech. But this is the very basic of low budget, so let’s embrace the memory.

This year, my cousin Josh was Ohio bound to see his wife’s family, so he decided he’d meet up with the extended family and show his own video. Josh and Heather hit me up with their concept — they wanted to include some puppet work, and an anthology of short scenes. The premise would be Josh and one of his puppets watching TV, switching through channels.

I helped script out one or two of the skits, the ones we found the funniest. Having read my scripts before, Josh knew to separate action and dialogue as he wrote, and I just cleaned it all up and gave it some flow. Some of the notes were voice memos, which works great as well.

low budget filmmaking screenplay
Concept to script.

Writing is key when it comes to making films on a budget. You want to make the most of your time, and knowing what you’re going to film makes all the difference. On a big budget set, you would have only one role, but low budget filmmakers have to wear many hats. So together, Josh, Heather and I were in charge of audio, set design, costumes, lighting, etc. Keep an eye out for an upcoming post about some of the troubles you run into and the tricks you learn in the process.

Two of our skits required a green screen, which is a tricky beast to work with. I have had a few experiences, but knew we would be at a disadvantage with our lighting. We were using a mix of daylight and house lights at this point, and we were suffering a few harsh shadows. You can write as many great scripts as you want, but no one will take your work too serious without good lighting and audio. We took precautions to record our audio, but the lighting is always a hard task. Especially when you’re filmmaking with no budget!

We decided then to be creative — these skits are now found footage from an old VHS tape. That way the noise from the green screen could blend in with any VHS noise we create. I used the sixteen point garbage matte and ultrakey to key the background in. As for backgrounds, I used as much stock footage as I could (and some found footage) — the key was to have it look dated, simple and cheesy. I think we accomplished it. It is important to take control of your image — that’s one of the biggest tips I can give you as a filmmaker. Even if the image quality isn’t what you were going for, make it work for you. As for the entire look of the piece, I used several filters and tricks to try my best to make it look like a VHS tape converted to digital. We will go into specifics on a future post!

Low Budget Filmmaking with Actors
“She smells divine.”

My cousin was happy with the final product, and I have to admit that I was, as well. Even though this was a family favor, I treated it like Josh hired me for a project. Josh was my client, and I wanted to deliver. On the same note, any request for graphics and music I sent to Josh, he sent back within the hour. He’s a graphic designer, so he did the graphics for the video. Ideal conditions, really. I don’t see every job being as easy to work, but it is nice to take a project for someone else from start to finish. And best of all, our budget stayed minimal. I am going to delve into specifics on an upcoming post, but what specifics would you like to learn about? Any advice on achieving an aged, VHS look? Leave a comment and let me know!

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