I’ve been working on some projects lately that are about as low budget as I can make them. When you’re running a small business you need to keep all your expenses down to a minimum, but as I’ve moved from project to project I’ve had several people ask me where they should trim their budget if they need to cut expenses. The easy answer is that any sacrifice you make in one area is going to cost you somewhere else. I can usually get away with three or four cameras when I’m working on our documentary, but when it comes to our larger commercial endeavors then I need a full crew. That means that although I’ll only have three cameras, I’m going to have around ten people manning these cameras plus lighting and sound. That commercial shoot is going to cost at least two or three times what my documentary shoot is going to cost.
If I have to start trimming back on things the first thing I think about is what I can do myself if I have to. I can do basic three piece lighting myself, so I’m going to prioritize when my gaffer is on set limiting that expense as best I can. I can also cut back on crew as well as hair and makeup if I have to. This means I’m down to a staff of about three or four people manning three cameras and handling boom mics. This isn’t a good situation to be in, but it’s better than being unable to shoot the footage at all and if I’ve already booked time in a studio I’m not backing out until we lose almost all our financing. It pays to learn as much as you can about as many different aspects of production as possible because there will come a time when you’ll need to use that knowledge. It may not seem pertinent at the time, but anything you can learn about sound and lighting is going to help you as will anything about the cameras you’re using. It can get kind of chaotic on set and directors (myself included) will get mad at you if you’re asking questions every five seconds, but if there’s down time (and there’s always down time) then ask some of those important questions about mic placement, about playback, and about what lights are being used where.
There’s no such thing as a film crew having too much knowledge. When I was first starting out I gripped a bunch of corporate gigs. They weren’t exciting, glamorous or even memorable in many instances, but once you get around the gear again it starts to come back to you. You start to remember where the boom mic is supposed to go, where the key light needs to be with your camera one and how much rigging gear you’re going to need to execute that jib shot. It’s a strange business sometimes where you forget how to do something when someone asks, but remember immediately once you’re in the situation. I’ve had this happen far too many times to think otherwise. A lot of people say cut the writer when in a budget crunch. I’m a writer at my most basic level, so this is a testy issue with me, but cutting your writer is just about the dumbest thing you can do. First off, the writer is the only person besides the director who has any idea what your final product is supposed to look like. If the director is sick or (as usually happens) preoccupied with something else on set the writer is the next best person to talk to. If it’s between cutting a writer and cutting a camera operator you cut the camera operator.
The last bit of advice I have is on locations. A lot of people will cut out the exotic locales when they start running low on money and simply put: there is no logical reason to do this other than maybe being too scared to shoot on a shoestring budget. If you’re too scared to shoot with little to no money then you’re in the wrong business because guess what? You’re never going to have enough money. The new James Bond film: Spectre ran out of money. They were lucky in that they had a highly marketable brand and could easily secure co-financing through cross-marketing ventures, but they still found themselves in this situation nonetheless. It happens to the best and believe me if it can happen to Sam Mendes, it can happen to you. Locations are your friend when you’re filming though and they’ll be your friend in post too. The more exotic you can make your shots look, the better your final product is going to look to the naked eye. What you’re doing has to, on some level, be aesthetically pleasing and if you’re trying to do that you simply have to keep those nice locations whether you’ve got the money to film there or not. Oftentimes you can get away with simply filming your aerial and establishing shots on the pricey location and then use somewhere else to sub in for the rest of the shooting. This is an easy way to make your production look better than it is and appearances are everything when you’re selling your product.
My final piece of advice would be this: money is just money. You can replace money, but you can’t replace talent or ideas or time. If you’ve got a great vision for something then go out and shoot it. If you’ve got everything you need but the financing to work on your dream project then figure out the money part later. The key is to ask who you know to help you. You would not believe how hard this is for most people (including me!) to do, but it’s what pays dividends in the end and I never would have shot my first indie feature without the help of a few out of work actors and a bunch of people with minor production experience who had a lot of time on their hands. In the end, it boils down to what you’re willing to do for your project. If you’re willing to work without a salary for a year if it means your dream becomes a reality then wouldn’t you take it? You’d be a bad artist and a terrible filmmaker if you said no. Nothing is certain in life and sometimes you’ve got to go out, do the best you can, and hope that the small stuff gets done later. Just make sure that it eventually gets done!