Don’t skimp on the story – low-budget films
Your latest short «Miss Nothing» had a total budget under $400 AUD. What experiences did you have to shoot with such a small budget?
Richard: We’ve made many short films over the years. When I graduated from film school, some of the final year films cost north of $16,000AUD. I always felt like spending that much money on a short was kind of ridiculous – especially when the equipment was mostly provided free of charge from the film school itself. That hunch proved to be correct, because the quality of the finished films often did not align with the budget. Some of the films with the smallest budgets and greatest restrictions were significantly better and found more success than those that spared no expense. I think money can become a crutch we lean on, which is dangerous. This is something we see on a larger scale in the industry today as well – more money does not necessarily mean a better film. If it did, the largest budget movies would always do well, and they frequently do not.
How could you keep production costs so low? Where were the most savings made?
Natalie: This was passion project for all of us, and everyone we talked to knew about the approach we were taking on this, that we were deliberately trying to spend as little as possible. So, a lot of it is just surrounding yourself with good people who are willing to come on board and help create something together. It’s also just frugal thinking.
«We found the pageant dresses at second hand stores.»
We shot in a friend’s house for free, we sourced the costumes from the actors’ wardrobe, we found the pageant dresses at second hand stores and got three for a discounted price which only cost us about $45. We later found out each dress was worth upwards of $500 new. The majority of the cost in the movie came from feeding people, and feeding them well. It’s always true, but especially if your crew is working for free, you must look after them. We made big healthy home cooked meals every night. No take out.
Still from the film Miss Nothing
Your film is set in the US but was shot in Australia. What did you have to pay attention to and how did you proceed?
Richard: (Laughs) Some very small details became major hurdles. Things like the power outlets and light switches are a dead giveaway, because in Australia they’re modelled quite differently. We hid most of them through clever production design, but there were some we simply couldn’t avoid because they’re on a particular wall or placed somewhere we can’t cover. Fortunately, I have a background in visual effects work, so I was able to paint them out. That did significantly add to the post-production timeline, though. Sometimes the actors would move in front of them or the camera would be moving which would make it a little trickier. In the finished film, it’s quite seamless. We could have left them in, but I didn’t want to detract from the audience’s experience of the narrative. If someone notices, it could pull them out of the story, which is why we ultimately decided to spend the extra time to clean it up.
Film equipment can be very expensive. This can quickly cost several thousand dollars. Do you think that the high costs prevent young filmmakers from pursuing their passion?
Richard: I think you’re right in that it can cost thousands, but it doesn’t need to. There are feature films – really good feature films – shot on iPhones now. The tools have never been more ubiquitous and accessible. It’s such an exciting time to be a new filmmaker because you can pick up your phone and make a movie. I think the lust for gear can really stagnate and prevent people from pursuing their interest in film. It’s important to recognise that audiences are not interested in gear. To an overwhelming extent, they don’t care about what lenses you used, they do care about good stories. Stop worrying about what you don’t have, look around you and see what you have at your disposal and make a film with that. Just start.
«It’s such an exciting time to be a new filmmaker because you can pick up your phone and make a movie.»
Case in point, we shot Miss Nothing on a friends Canon C100. Now, it’s a beautiful camera, but it’s also terribly outdated. It shoots 1080p in a lossy 8-bit codec. That didn’t matter though, because I could loan it for free and I had some old canon lenses already. I spent a month researching and learning how to get the very best image possible from it and then applied that to the final movie. That’s much more effective than just going for the latest and greatest tool. Take what you have and learn how to make it great. Look into how Sean Baker used an iPhone 5S and got incredible images from it.
Stills from the film Miss Nothing
What do you think of Mobile phone cameras? These are getting better and better (some already support 4K video recording at 60fps). Will they one day replace the "conventional" camera for low budget productions? Or is that already the case?
Richard: Anything is possible. If the history of cinematic technology has taught us anything, it’s that we can never really predict where it will go next. Oftentimes the things people thought were gimmicks at the time have come to stay. I don’t know if it will be phones exactly, but certainly smaller cinema cameras that are closer to DSLRs than traditional cinema rigs are extremely popular on the indie scene. The Blackmagic Pocket 4K, for example, is just incredible. If someone told you ten years ago that soon there would be a small, lightweight, affordable cinema camera that could shoot in 4K in RAW with industry standard codecs, you would have been laughed out of the room. But that’s the reality now. There’s even a 6K version already. You can have a cinema camera that fits in your backpack.
What is more important: Stunning pictures as well as a good post production or a good story?
Richard: A good story, always. People will forgive a bad picture and less than stellar sound if the story is engrossing. You should always aim for both, though. I don’t think it’s an excuse to let your guard down. And if you can only afford to do one well, always choose sound.
Natalie: Miss Nothing would be the same story if it was shot on a camera phone. Maybe it looks a little nicer because we used a different camera, but if you know how to use the tools you have, its strengths and weaknesses, you can make it look good either way.
In other words: Assuming you have a very limited budget. Where do you invest it, in the story or in the equipment? And why?
Natalie: Well fortunately developing the story doesn’t really have much cost associated with it. You can spend a long time writing and working on it to get it right. When it comes to the actual production, we tend to prioritise key props and locations – things that will be in front of the camera, rather than behind.
Do low budget films pay off?
Richard: Hugely. Some of my favourite movies of all time have been made with relatively low budgets. Any film is a risk, but keeping the budget down certainly doesn’t hurt. I also feel that it genuinely aids the filmmakers in a way. It forces you to be more creative.
«Keeping the budget down forces you to be more creative.»
Some great examples to check out include Krisha by Trey Edward Shults, Thunder Road by Jim Cummings, The Puffy Chair by the Duplass Brothers, Primer by Shane Carruth, Coherence by James Ward Byrkit, Columbus by Kogonada, The Babadook by Jennifer Kent, Lost in Translation by Sofia Coppola, and Ex Machina by Alex Garland (Ex Machina has a decent budget, but relative to what they achieved, it’s astounding). The history of cinema is filled with small low budget films breaking out and becoming smash hits, it happens all the time.
Still from the film Miss Nothing
What’s is the disadvantage of low budget films?
Richard: Simply that you have less money, but I don’t view that as a negative. It means you have to scale back and consider what is truly important about the story you’re telling. I think that can only improve your work. Mark and Jay Duplass talk about this idea of “Epically Small Films”, how when you focus on the smallest details, suddenly, somehow, through the magic of cinema, those tiny details become everything. They illustrate so much more.
There are many young filmmakers who have great ideas, but no or only a very small budget for production. What advice would you give these people?
Richard: Just go make a movie. Start. Keep it small and focussed, less is more. It can be a short, it can be a feature, it can be experimental, whatever. You will learn so much by just doing. Look at what you have around you. What do you have access to? Who do you have access to? Make a movie about and with that. Start somewhere. Start anywhere. So many people give up before they’ve even tried.
What’s your working relationship like with each other?
Natalie: We’ve worked together since high school and it’s been a continual process of realising that we collaborate really well together. It’s easy to forget or undervalue what a strong working relationship we have, but I love it. It’s an absolute delight to have him by my side.
Richard: It’s very comforting working with someone who can say they love you and then also say your idea sucks. I think we bring out the best in each other, and every project we make together is better than the last. That’s really exciting. Also, we just like making each other laugh a lot.