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FILMMAKER: Matthew Scott
STORY: How I Made My First Feature Film For Under $10,000 And With (Almost) No Crew
I wanted to write an article that would allow me to share my experiences, my creative process, and my journey with other filmmakers, but was also careful not to write a "how to" article either.
If there's one thing I've learned over the years it's there are many, many ways to make a film and there isn't a one size fits all approach. What works for you will be based largely on your situation, circumstance, experience, and luck.
If you’re curious about how I did something or if you just want to say hi, please feel free to email me at email@example.com
It was fall of 2013. Summer had just ended and I had just quit my job as a visual effects coordinator at a high-end VFX studio to make my first feature film. I had spent the last several months writing, saving, planning, and I was ready to pull the trigger and make a movie. I had $9000 and a script - the world was my oyster.
I began the process in July 2013, two months before my scheduled principal photography. I had read somewhere that Jennifer Lawrence got her role in Silver Lining's Playbook through a Skype audition and since I didn't have any money for an audition space, Skype seemed like a great alternative. And it was! Nobody had to leave their home and I've been told by actors that they felt more comfortable in their own space.
I’ve since auditioned upwards of 100 actors over Skype and I constantly get great feedback. Afterwards, I met for coffee with my shortlists to get to know them a bit in person before I offered roles. I ended up casting some of my supporting roles while we were already in production, which ended up working out well.
There are dozens of resources available for crewing a short film. Crewing a no-budget feature film on the other hand was very difficult for me. I put out calls on Mandy, Craigslist, notice boards, and even attended networking events.
But despite my best efforts, I was able to convince just two people to join me on my adventure. This was a sobering realization considering my long-term filmmaking ambitions. I never intended on making just one feature film. I want to make twenty feature films and have a career that spans a lifetime.
However, the reality is that the democratization of filmmaking has changed everything except the cost of labour, and without money I simply could not afford to hire anyone. It was then I decided that if I'm going to pursue a life in pictures, I should brace myself for the real possibility that I may never have a budget that affords me the ability to properly pay a team of people.
This alone might be enough to postpone one's filmmaking ambitions, but not me. Instead, I set out to learn everything I could and to devise a long-term strategy to produce original feature length films, entirely by myself if necessary. Though it may be arrogant to refer to one's self as an auteur, perhaps this is the best advantage an emerging filmmaker can have in establishing both themselves and an audience in the current paradigm.
I was fortunate to have, and ended up with, an emerging and extremely dedicated, hair and makeup artist/production assistant (who I was eventually able to thank with a small honorarium) and a location sound recordist/mixer, if only for a brief period of time before leaving for a TV series.
Next, I bought all my equipment. I'm a big believer in buying over renting, and in fact, the majority of my $9000 budget went towards a camera and sound gear.
Before I made this decision, I calculated the cost of renting everything versus purchasing and figured out that, for my ambitions, it was more cost effective to just buy everything outright and own it for whenever I want to shoot on all future projects as well.
I shot on evenings and weekends over the course of nearly 3 months so, had I rented everything, it would have been a nightmare to pick up and return.
I didn't have a lighting kit and 99% of the film utilized natural and available location lights. Using available light made it possible to shoot very quickly, and because I had to carry everything myself, having more equipment wasn’t an option.
We also had to reschedule 4 shoots due to heavy rain so had I paid for rentals I would have been out hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.
Equipment isn't everything. You will find thousands of unboxing videos, amateur, expert, and sponsored reviews, sample footage, and other filmmaker's testimonials on the latest and greatest.
At the end of the day you have to use what works for you. This will largely be dictated by what you can afford. Your camera choice will largely inform your post-production workflow and budget. Resolution isn't everything and understanding what 4K and beyond means for post production is essential.
I can’t count how many times I’ve heard the suggestion that indie filmmakers should find a setting and write their film around one location. I went the other way on that.
The Salesman had upwards of 40 unique locations and I found it much easier to write for many unique locations and ask property owners for just a few hours to shoot, as opposed to asking one for a few weeks. Not having a lot of equipment also helped convince property owners who were skeptical about damage and power usage to let us film.
Like camping, the cardinal rule for location shooting is always leave the space as good or better than when you found it. It doesn’t take much to keep a location safe and tidy and if you don’t treat property with respect then you’ll ruin it for everyone.
I filmed The Salesman on evenings and weekends over the course of 3 months. I kept the shoots to between 3-6 hours and packed a brown bag lunch when I could. Only one day did we shoot for 11 hours (the longest day of production) and that weekend we filmed 22 pages in 48 hours.
Usually there were only a few of us on set, keeping our profile small and mobile. When I lost my sound recordist, I mic'd the actors primarily with wireless mics and recorded sound to a Zoom H4N, which I kept in the pouch of a hoodie.
For me, the toughest part of filmmaking is translating a strong and decisive vision into moving images. I don't mean this in arrogance. When I write a story, I'm often able to see shots; their composition, framing, setting, performances, and even the editing very clearly in my head.
Everybody wishes they had more time and money, but when you're making a film for under $10,000 it's extra challenging to achieve specifics. In total, we shot for about 20 short days and I was able to produce most of what I had imagined, much of which turned out far better than I had expected.
After coming home from a shoot, I would sync up all my picture and sound files by hand and create dailies for review and editing.
Because I edit my own pictures, I knew the material like the back of my hand and organized it in a way that worked best for me. Because I had time in between evening and weekend shoots, I assembled the scenes as I filmed them and did a lot of the heavy lifting before officially beginning post.
I consider writing, directing, and editing are three parts of the same job. I almost always have the movie made in my head at the script stage so I tend to write and shoot specifically for the edit. Sometimes things take an unexpected turn, but I always strive to create a vision early in the process and stick with it as best as possible.
Before I started, I did a tonne of research into post-audio and learned more than I could ever could possibly describe here in this article.
When making a no-budget movie, sometimes you have access to great locations with terrible sound conditions, and I’ve read that filmmakers often fall in love with their production soundtracks. And it’s true. Every word of it.
Despite the flaws, I grew very attached to the way my actors delivered their lines on set and I knew it would be a real challenge to let some of those tracks go and repeat that energy in a stuffy recording booth months later.
We ended up re-recording over a dozen scenes of ADR (or Automated Dialogue Replacement). Some of these scenes were nearly 5 minutes long - which is A LOT of looping and then manually syncing back up by hand.
Once my picture was locked, I began post-sound in Pro Tools. I had never even opened Pro Tools in my life, let alone used it to edit/mix the sound for an entire feature film, so I had to start from scratch.
I took dozens of tutorials and learned by trial and error, picking up the software as I went along. This process took me nearly 3 straight months, working every evening for about 5 hours. If there's one things that I'm most proud of in my film it's the sound edit, and I dare anyone to pick out the scenes with ADR.
You really get to know your film on a whole new level when you personally scrub out every blip, pop, cough, sea gull squawk, plane, helicopter, honk, bus, mic bump, wind gust, floor creak, and drunk person yelling in the background in all 5 reels.
You might be thinking to yourself “Doing all of this sounds like a lot of work.” You’d be right. It was. And I'd do it all again.
When I set out to make my first feature I didn’t know what to expect. Looking back, I feel like making the film was easier than I had expected. What followed however, was the toughest part of the entire experience. I had submitted to festivals, contacted distributors, film publications, websites, critics - anyone and everyone I could.
Out of 11 festivals, not one would accept my film and no distributor would release it. I made no money, won no awards, and I'm still struggling to build an audience. Alfred Hitchcock made pictures for over 50 years and never won an Oscar - some things are simply out of your control.
If I can impart any advice to filmmakers who are setting out to make their first film it's this: don't be results oriented.
Independent filmmaking might be the riskiest and most unpredictable business and artistic endeavor anyone can get involved in. That’s not to say you shouldn’t have a plan. But instead, make your plan within the bounds of your control and focus on the process of making the best possible picture with what you have available.
Postponing your film because of lack of money, resources, crew, knowledge, skills, or even time, are the best ways to ensure that you never make a movie. If I learned anything from making my first feature film it was relentless perseverance. Some filmmakers find immediate success with their first films, but my journey has proven to be more of a marathon than a sprint.
After two years, I had written, produced, directed, shot, edited, sound edited/mixed, colour graded, composed 16 minutes of original score, and created upwards of 30 visual effects shots for my first 82 minute feature length motion picture, all while working a 40+ hour a week day job. On January 2, 2015 I released Remember to High Five the Salesman for free on my website.
And the first thing I did after its release - I began working on my second feature film. I now have 140 page script and am slated to shoot Transmission this coming June on a budget of $6000. And it's going to be great!
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