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Advice and tips on producing a micro-budget short film
  • Hi all.

    I've been frustrated for a while about how much of the internet discussion on filmmaking revolves around gear and is often in a consumeristic way (what to buy). I decided to do something productive about it and have started writing a series of articles with what I hope is helpful points on producing a micro-budget short. I titled them:

    "From a Vimeo clip to a narrative short"

    because I imagined them for somone who is experimenting with their dslr and making some test videos but wants to try to do a scripted, narrative short. Here are the first three posts:


    A lot of people are making camera tests and small experimentation with the gear they bought and uploading that to the internet. There is nothing wrong with that, but the kind of approach is very different from the one needed to produce something scripted. In these cases you need a more conscious, prepared approach, and work in a more organized and linear fashion. You also need to work with other people, and if you don't have the budget, use a lot of creativity to achieve what you need.

    Read the rest at


    I don't believe any advancement in technology will make a significant change in the process of making narrative content. I'm very skeptical about all this rhetoric about a new camera coming out and "evening out the playing field" between the low budget and high budget guy. Films are for the most part a sum of the amount of human talent you put into them, where technology used is a secondary concern. The big focus then, of the aspiring filmmaker, should be to form relationship with people and find ways to mobilize them. But it's a big challenge to get talented and disciplined people to work with you, from a professional to a family member, and this proposes different concerns and also ethical questions. When should you work for free or low pay, and when should you ask others to do the same?

    Read the rest at


    It's really important to get the locations early on, because in the linear process that pre-production is, a lot of things depend on the locations to be finalized. Art department, camera, lights, etc need to know what they are working with before they can proceed with a lot of things. The relationship you have with the locations owner is also crucial because of how important the location is and the stakes it would create if you lost it last minute. I actually advise in some situations to push for paying for a location, even if you could get it for free, just to establish some sort of moral right on using it. It's also very sad, that most filmmakers would not want to lend their apartments up for shooting, because accidents do happen. So there are also a lot of moral concerns about not ruining the reputation of the rest of the film community and being really careful with other people's property.

    Read the rest at


    In it’s simplest form, it’s about making a list out of each scene about the stuff that needs to be taken care of. If you’ve ever tried shooting something longer tha 5 pages – you’ll know this has to be organized. With experience, you will learn to translate a written scene into a list of problems. These lists will then form the basis of your budget and your scheduling. You can use standard methods or even some software, but the basics are all the same: Look at a script and break it down into small little problems to solve.

    Read the rest at


    The budget is a necessary tool to prioritize where you put your limited resources to make them count the most. To be useful, the budget must be a blueprint of the making of the film, where there is a real relationship between the plan and the execution. I also discuss how you assess and understand your budget when most of the costs are covered with favors and deals.

    Read the rest at


    Working on a micro-budget project with an understaffed crew and often a lot of first-timers in the mix, the producer has to stay on top of a lot of small and big things, making sure they are being dealt with. To facilitate that mental task, I'm collecting a checklist of items that you can go over in the pre-production phase to make sure your not forgetting anything.

    Read the rest at

    I have a few years of experience in filmaking, but as I say in the intro, I'm not claiming to be the most experienced producer out there. I do think that I have some experience to offer on the micro-budget level (unfortunately!).

    If I think this is helping someone, I'll cover more topics.

  • 27 Replies sorted by
  • I've edited this to include the most important points in the actual post, as per the community guidelines.

  • @arnarfjodur Thank you so much for posting this. It's really nicely-written and obviously done from a lot of experience. I particularly liked the second one, about working relationships, since of course that's everything! Whether you are someone who wants / offers something for free, or whether you are employed in a very big media organisation (and I've been both), how you get on with other people is key. Actually just becuase you're being paid to do a job doesn't excuse you from working thoughtfully with others, and if you're doing something for free, do it with good grace (and accept it thankfully if you're on the receiving end). It's also been my experience that it's all about how well you work with others - assuming you have more than basic competence with the "gear", that expertise is secondary to expertise in interpersonal skills. If you had your choice between someone who was very good but a real pain to get on with, and someone who was perfectly good but also a great person to be with, you know who you would choose.

    @everyone_else If you haven't read these articles, read them!

  • @Mark_the_Harp I'm very pleased that you liked it. I know what you mean about interpersonal skill, but I prefer to describe the kind of people I like to work with as "professional" - rather than people I "get on with" because there are people I'd be perfectly happy chilling with over a coffee or beer but wouldn't want to collaborate with them on a film set - and the other way around. It shouldn't be too personal.

    And I define "professional" by the way they approach their work, not by how much they know or how much money they make. If you deliver on what you promise, if you make sure your work is always up to a certain standard, and if you put the project above your ego, and to a reasonable degree, above your personal life, then for me you are a professional. It helps to be friendly and enthusiastic - but you can't really demand that of anyone :)

    Ultimately, though, if you are trying to get people to work with you, it's up to you to make them follow. If they don't work with you the way you hoped, you have only yourself to blame for it - because people are for the most part, just the way they are.

  • I loved these articles, so true - people keep thinking that it all about the overpriced gear that they buy-buy-buy, and forget about what film making process involves. I especially loved the article about working with other people.

    But at the same time, I think you should have an article about equipment, especially the budget aspects of it and practical/on location aspects of it. Taking into account how companies like Zacuto, Redrock Micro, Kessler, Varavon, even the unknown Chinese manufacturers etc promote their simple products for ridiculous prices, it's not like you can take a DSLR and a few thousands of dollars later you can make a film. Just those shoulder rigs with FF, MB, handle etc will cost circa £1000-2000. I have been trying to get my screenplay off the ground for many years now and my GH13 (hopefully, at some point to become my B-cam) gives a lot of hope - it saves a lot of resources especially in terms of workflow. But here's the thing: in terms of budgets still involved, it's not like everyone can now afford to make a film. I would like to see an article that would especially cover the SOUND equipment and how to pull it off on a micro-budget, and also LIGHTS - is it worth getting those expensive LEDs? or should I stick with ARRIs or cheap "As ARRI" fresnels? what would these choices mean in terms on practical on location workflows?

    I've set myself a very strict budget of less than £6000 for the entire feature film - it's a personal challenge to see if it can really be done. Electronics and accessories - I buy mostly from Chinese eBay sellers. Although film-quality audio mixers are VERY expensive and I'm lost on what to do and which mixer to get, so would love an advice? I'm not prepared to dash out half or even 10% of my film's budget on a mixer. Same thing with Wireless transmission system. For Lav mics I'm gonna settle on a pair of OST801. So I would love to see an article on Audio equipment in a micro-budget film.

    Whatever I can (or often cannot/should-not) do DIY, I do DIY -- after all creativity is part of filmmaking process ;) I even started an Excel file to keep track of everything I spend (even on nuts and bolts) to the last penny. So far I've spent £1593.94 and for the price of just a little more than Zacuto's Follow Focus, I have a second-hand GH13, 9 lenses (no wides unfortulately), rig (with FF and MB), crane, slider, very basic audio recording kit (shotgun mic, DIY blimp, Zoom H1 & Headphones), etc - and I will need to spend another £3,500 just to get a very-very basic and minimal gear set (lighting equipment, audio gear, lenses, filters, bags, accessories... - it quickly adds up). And I'm not entirely sure if the remaining £900 will be enough to cover the production stage (transport, food, locations, props, logistics, miscellaneous expenses etc). The point I'm making is that there's an illusion out there that a great camera is the sole key to a great motion picture - it's not! At least not the only one. Knowing people and knowing how to communicate with people is the key really. There's so much more essential gear and expenses involved that even digital filmmaking is not always accessible to the ordinary folk who might have a good story to tell. I mean, Follow Focus, probably one of the most primitive, yet essential pieces of equipment selling at $1700, should really cost $17. Just as an excercise, I once calculated how much it would cost to build up a set of equipment "necessary" to make a film, in terms of products that are being recommended, and in terms of prices that these companies sell them for. The figure came to a whopping $50,000. That's something to think about.

  • Dear @kronstadt I'm very happy that you enjoyed my writing. You are right that gear is ultimately more expensive than you'd think.

    But from the thoughts you posted, it still feels like your approach is quite far away from what I'd advocate. For example, you want to shoot a film for £6000 and you are putting a lot of thought into what follow focus to buy.

    First question should be: Are you doing this project to make a film or are you doing it to experiment and learn about gear (such as lights and follow focus).

    You don't need a follow focus to make the image in focus - but you do need it to follow the movements of the actors when the depth of field is shallow. You then need to ask yourself: Are you going to have a focus puller on your crew that has the skill to do that? If you want to block your scenes such that requires a follow focus, you also need a good focus puller. If you don't have that person, then I'd advise you not to try anything too fancy because it will take away a lot of time that might have gone into things the audience might actually appreciate more (such as giving the actors time for their performance).

    In any case, a good focus puller will do a better job working straight on the lens than a poor focus puller will do with the most expensive gear in the world. So if you are concerned about the focuswork of your film - start with finding a focus puller to work with you. Who knows, they might even know someone who'll lend you a follow focus ...

    There is nothing wrong with buying and experimenting with gear - I also do it and learn a lot from it. But it should be called by it's right names.

    You are trying to get your screenplay off the ground and you asked for an article on equipment. I'm going to give you the humble advise to stop thinking about equipment for a while. You mention that you have only £6000 and you are worried it will not cover costs such as transport, food, locations, props, logistics. You should be worried, especially since you are spending the bulk on equipment.

    I think you are on the right track with the excel spreadsheet and to make a budget. What I'd advise you is to do a script breakdown, and then later a budget, in order to find out how much making your film will cost (without equipment) and then prioritize after that. After reading your comment, I sat down and did a litle article on script breakdown:

    I hope it is useful for you. Good luck with your film!

  • @arnarfjodur Thanks for taking time to write an elaborate response and even a new blog post. And I totally digg your approach and agree with it: "if you can't afford a film-quality sound equipment, get a jobless professional soundman who will work for free (or for next to nothing) and also bring his own professional equipment on set". And I tried, that approach long before I read your articles, and I'm still trying... in some cases it succeeds (especially in terms of locations), in some it doesn't (especially in case of "pro"s who have the gear). Very often the first thing they'll ask is "How much is your budget?" and the next thing they'll say is "I charge £50/hour for my professional sound-man services. But for you'll work for £30/hour". When you're faced with that kind of attitude, you take out a calculator and soon realize that maybe for 2 days of that guy's wages you can get the basic audio equipment bag that you need and hang it on a student who is more than eager to be an errand boy for free just to get a credit on a feature film.
    You see, it's not like what I'm saying is unreasonable. It's just an additional dimension. It's also something to take into account. Maybe one day, when I finish with this project, I'll write a series like yours, or maybe a book, but one which, apart from taking into consideration questions of workflow, working with people, securing locations, etc will also take into account the importance of getting and MASTERING the basic equipment that you'll need.

    As for the screenplay, when I say "I have been trying to get my screenplay off the ground for many years", I don't mean "I have been trying to write a screenplay for many years". In fact, I have several feature length screenplays. What I mean is - moving it to the next phase - the pre-production and production phases. I've worked with 8mm and 16mm and then shelved the idea, until I saw the footages that were coming out of the GH13, so I have restarted on the idea once again.

    PS: by the way I saw the trailer for your Hindu/Icelandic project and I love the visuals and the style. Looks quite epic. Keep going! I'm sure it will be a beautiful tale to tell.

  • Hey @kronstadt - my approach is more like: "Spend more time and money trying to get a good sound guy than sound equipment, because the former is both more important and harder to get".

    But yeah, it's not easy, nor should it be. You definitely should try your own approach and then write about it like you say. Trying to make films without the proper budget is really, really hard and I don't know if I specially advocate for it. I just offer my humble advise for those who want to try: Focus on the people, not the gear. That being said, I'll admit that I also need to remind myself of that as well, and I far too often work as a one-man band. Also, it should be noted, that I've been part of doing a few things I think I can be proud of, but never really done anything so great that it gives me some sort of indisputable authority on the mater.

    I've been doing my own attempts at mobilizing people with the Klapp co-op, you can read an interview with us in English here:

    Out project is no magic formula for making a films without a budget, but it's at an organized, conscious attempt to try to make the most of the situation no matter what you have to play with at any given moment.

  • @kronstadt If people are interested in your project, they might be persuaded to work for free.

    I hope it's useful if I offer my experience as a professional being asked to work on a project without pay. Where I have this AND loved it, that's been because:

    • the project had a high profile in the profession and/or the community because of who was running it and what the project was
    • I knew it would stretch me in some way
    • my expertise was valued and acknowledged and valued, and
    • I was very thoroughly briefed about the scope of the project, I knew what the deliverables were and I was given the trust and creative freedom to deliver

    The above criteria may not work for your project but if your project is truly a creative challenge and I were being asked again to do something for free, I'd jump at the chance if it fulfilled those criteria, as I think would most professionals.

    In two of the projects I am thinking of above, I was working alongside other very seasoned lighting / costume / design people (one had headed up a department on the Titanic film, one had been head of sound at NBC) and we all were given the same freedoms - also we all knew we were all doing it for nothing. Most of us worked on two such projects for the same director, which says it all really. It was highly rewarding for us, and the director was able to get people like that together and working well for free because he had fantastic leadership skills and a vision he inspired us with.

    Equally as more of those conditions disappear, so people will be less generous - because you are offering less and less incentive to do the work. And (we've all been there) on the extreme opposite end there are jobs which are going to be a nightmare and which you wouldn't touch even if you were paid because they are open-ended or involve people who don't know what they're doing or haven't considered location safety, or any one of a hundred other reasons. Usually the danger signs are cluelessness on the part of the person who is asking you to do the work, and a professional will spot that in the first minute of the conversation.

    So... If you are trying to get a professional to do unpaid work, I think the first step is to be clear about your vision and be clear about the skills you are looking for, and if you can offer the chance to work with other high-level professionals, or other inducements, say so. If it's a challenge, especially say so! And don't be afraid to ask them what might make it worth their while, and if they don't want to do the job themselves, ask them if they can recommend anyone else who might be interested. A professional you approach in this way may at the very least give you some very valuable free input.

    I absolutely agree it's not about being able to operate / own equipment. It's about managing people and doing the thousand and one things which allow people to get on with their jobs.

  • my approach is more like: "Spend more time and money trying to get a good sound guy than sound equipment, because the former is both more important and harder to get".

    I agree. If I were you I'd keep it simple. Don't worry about follow focus or focus puller or wireless lavs. Keep you shots simple.

    Get a good sound guy, develop the hell out of your script -- do not settle for a "Good enough" script, make it great. It's 70% of the movie, at least. And, if you can't summarize your script in one or two sentences, you might not have a script worth shooting. Then spend a lot of time casting. After the script, casting matters most. If your script is good, good actors will work free or cheap.

    Basically forget about gear.

  • @arnarfjodur Thank you very much for your blog. Be sure I will read everything you write in it.

  • @Meierhans Great to hear. I've added a chapter on budget. Hope you like it. As with the rest of these writings, it's intended to talk about the basic points I feel are most important to get for producing a micro-budget film.

  • Thanks so much for your blog posts! I bet this helps many people a lot! You should definitely write more and eventualy cover more topics...

  • @arnarfjodur Thanks for yet another great article. Well written, well argued, well structured. I like that you consider budgeting a central part of the process and you are strong on being honest about what things really cost.

    Unless I missed it, what do you think about having a meeting at the start with department heads, sharing info about the budget, and then getting them together again to work out what can be allocated to each?

    I also think it's great to celebrate your success at the end with a big party, and as long as the budget works, it's done the job.

    I think it would be great to include financial things outside the scope of your article like insurance, copyright clearance etc - things that are not glamorous, not about shiny gear, but they can bite you in the bum if you're not careful.

    Anyway, thanks again. You have written some of the best and most concise stuff I've ever read about the crucial, wider aspects of making anything creative in a large team.

  • @Mark_the_Harp Yes, like you point out, the budget needs to be allocated in good dialogue with department heads. But I suppose you need to start drafting it often before you even know who's going to be with you.

    There is often some tension in this I think - as a producer you might agree that it's safest to allocate 2K for locations, but in micro budget situation you still expect that the location manager tries to get it as cheap as possible. You can't have the attitude "I have 2K so I'll just spend that" - even if that'll make life easier for the locations manager.

    Similarily, there needs to be flexibility between departments. You might have decided on 1K for locations and 2K for set construction. But let's say locations finds a great place that works already really well and eliminates the need for a lot of building, it would make sense to take some of the construction budget and put it into locations. Even if the art director might get sour for now having less stuff to play with.

    It's good to have ambitious people, but personal ambition can sometimes conflict with the project's interest. Best example is the DP who convinces the director/producer that they need to spend 90% of the budget to shoot it on a format that the DP is excited about adding to their portfolio.

    There's no secret formula, I suppose, to finding the right balance between micro managing and setting people off to do their thing - which you eventually need to do at some point. But I guess it helps to have people who are all enthusiastic about making the best film possible, and have similar ideas about what that means.

  • @Mark_the_Harp

    Yes - the party is a must. It relates to the inter-personal work that you talked about. Last fall I did a project with a mix of pros and non-pros from very different corners of the world, where nobody knew each other previously. It was very intense as we had to travel together into the mountains. I was both shooting and directing it (it was mostly snapshots - not acted scenes). I feared I would be so focused on the job that I wouldn't have the time to devote to get the right fun and friendly atmosphere going. So I sat down with the producer beforehand and specifically asked her to do her best to make everything fun.

    And what a great job she did! It was also luck, the people we met, the adventures we got into - but I'm certain it would not have been so magical without her specifically working towards getting the right vibes going. In the end nobody wanted to leave :)

    RE: Insurance and copyright

    Yes. That would be a very usueful post indeed. I've had to deal with that as everyone, but I'm not sure if I'm qualified to give out instructions on that. These things are very technical, and they are location specific as well. For example, there is a debate going on right now where I currently live (Iceland) about weather each crew member should pay for their personal insurance (as they are officially contractors - a specific busniess) or if it should be the producers. Then there are issues like damage insurance, in case you break anything, that you are sometimes asked to take before you get to use a location, and equipment insurance which sometimes puts very specific demands on you, like what kind of places you can store your equipment.

    So even if this is the internet, where everyone is an expert, I'll pass on that topic and advertise it for someone with more knowledge of it for different regions.

    Thanks a lot for the encouraging words about my writings. I'm very open to hear about points that I missed or suggestions for topics.

  • @arnarfjodur

    Very interesting articles, thanks for writing and sharing them.

  • Regarding insurance, I bumped into this list from a UK perspective here:

    Employers' liability insurance – a legal requirement. It insures employees in the event of bodily injury, disease or death arising out of their work and must be referred to in an employee's contract.

    Public liability insurance - cover for your production in respect of injury or property damage caused by the production's activities. It is usual to have cover up to £5 million.

    Negative insurance - protects against additional production costs incurred through the damage or loss of stock.

    Errors and omissions insurance – covers a producer in the event that a production is sued for libel, slander, breach of copyright, invasion of privacy, unauthorised use of trademarks and slogans.

    Props and sets insurance – particularly important if you are filming in an historic building or hiring props and vehicles.

    Hired equipment insurance – required if you hire any equipment. Without it, you will be expected to pay for a policy arranged by the hire company.

    Here is also some info:

    Public liability insurance might be asked of you from a sophisticated locations owner, that wants to make sure that if you break something - you have the money to pay it. Hired equipment insurance you probably always need to have if you hire something expensive, wether you get it or the rental house gets it. The insurance for the crew and cast, or the people working for you, is a very sensitive thing. When a bunch of friends get together to do a project, I don't suppose one of them pays for an insurance. But getting injured while working for free on a filmset, and not being covered by insurance, is really unfair. As a common crew member, you can't control the health and safety factors on set.

    Regarding the rest of the types of insurance, I don't think they usually apply in the micro budget situation, simply because the monterary value of the things they are covering is so low.

    Anyone have a real life insurance anecdote or a more educated advise and pointers about how to approach this on a micro-budget film?

  • @arnarfjodur Really useful list. Particularly the errors and omissions and props and sets - as I'm going to be doing a gig in Switzerland in an art gallery with very very very rare paintings. Hate to think how difficult it would be to explain the three neat holes in a Cezanne while simultaneously making my exit clutching my tripod.

  • @Mark_the_Harp That sounds more like a "Public liability insurance" to me. Surely, the museum will have some insurance, but possibly it does not cover filming, only people looking at the paintings. In which case I guess you'd need to take out incurance.

  • @arnarfjodur Ah yes, that's the one. I couldn't remember what it was called. So many insurances!

    You were asking about an anecdote. This one concerns an item which was insured. A cameraman apparently caught a valuable old vase at a museum with a cable while wielding a camera, and the vase fell off its display and smashed. The management of the museum got the camera person back in to demonstrate to their insurers exactly how the accident had happened. They even provided another valuable old vase to accurately reflect the scenario. The cameraman demonstrated how he'd swung round and caused the accident, and sure enough (you can guess the rest) ended up smashing the second vase too.

  • Ok, so I've re-visited my little guide here. Although I've still got some important chapters left, like scheduling, i I've added a "production checklist" which I intend as a collection of things that you need to make sure are being dealt with. I've very much love if you'd suggest your own "gotchas" - things that you should have dealt with and then nipped you afterwards:

  • Coming from an Art Dept backround, I can't stress enough the two most essential items with you on a shoot: Duck Tape and black Gaffers Tape! :) If anyone has any Art Dept questions (props, sets) feel free to ask here.

  • Thanks @cupanudles . I've added consumables to some of the categories, with a special mention of tape :) I have to admit, that art department stuff on a micro-budget project feels kind of traumatic to me still - it seems like an area that can so easily spiral out of control budget and schedule vise. Are there any methods or tips you can suggest for someone making a micro budget film can do with their art department people to make things go smoother?

    By the way, I've really learned the value of a good props handler recently. Misplacing props, or taking a long time to reset things between takes is a typical amateur thing that can cause a lot of hassle and energy if not done properly.

  • I can feel the frustrations from both sides. The projects I've worked in so far has had borderline neglectfully-low art department budgets, haha. Allow the art department to do a full, complete and thorough art script-breakdown with an estimate followed by AT LEAST one "prop audition" meeting. From there, be sure to keep good communication throughout the entire shoot so eveyone is on the same page. Rental houses, thrift shops and the recycle or dumpster bin (school theater departments) are great resource but remember to WEAR GLOVES and be careful with what you handle.

    Prop handling on-set can a very difficult task because it requires constant multi-tasking (run-away actors, food scenes, crowd scenes, getting ready next scenes, wrapping old scenes); especially if it's an individual or if they don't have a full team. As long as there is clear, consistent communication (as is needed for any successful team of any kind), that will allow for the most easy-going voyage.

  • @cupanudles Yes, the premise of what I wanted to write about was "micro-budget" - where everyone's budget is going to be neglectful. The difficulty with communication is, I think, that it is very hard for someone from the producing side to understand each and every department's needs and there is a tendency in situations of scarcity for the people who are the most assertive to get what they want. So you need to be a bit cold sometimes when they say: We REALLY need this. REALLY!

    But if you are going to be reduced to dumpster diving to build the sets, then you should know this before you sign-up. That's the producer's responsibility to make it clear before hand. And then if you do decide to sign-up - you need to do your best and not become frustrated if it's hard.

    I'm not sure if I've been involved in "prop audition" - what is that and how does it work?