Making a Movie on Little or No Budget (Part One) – Schedule, Script, and Research

by Chris McGinty (According To Whim .com)

Let me start this by explaining that this article is all theory at this point. We haven’t started working on our movie yet. I will explain my “qualifications” though, if that’s what you want to call them. Also, let me explain that we will not be using film. If you’re looking for advice about funding a film, which starts with a budget immediately for film stock, then this may not be for you, though there might be some useful advice in here. I want to get my thoughts down prior to pre-production as a means of organizing my thoughts. I’m sure that after we’ve done the movie, I’ll have more of an idea of what thoughts were right, wrong, or a bit of both.

Time – There are budgets in projects that have nothing to do with money. Time is one of them. So far, when I’ve discussed making a movie with my cohorts, the one thing that they have flinched at is the amount of time I’ve scheduled to work on the movie, which is about 20 hours a weekend starting on September 24, 2011. I’ve estimated about a month for pre-production, and a month and a half for shooting. The question might be then: If your schedule is causing people to lose interest, then why set such a heavy schedule?

In 2009, Nathan wrote a six episode season for According To Whim. He got a good idea to do all of the shooting in six days. It wasn’t enough time, but we did do a substantial amount of work that day. Then for the next two and a half years we proceeded not to finish it. If you haven’t been with us throughout that process, you might want to go back and read about what happened.

I feel that with all of the uncontrollable issues we had to deal with, there were a couple of controllable issues too. One issue is that I always felt that we should have devoted four hours a week to finishing up the shooting, starting immediately after the original shoot. Nathan wanted time to encode and organize footage, which was fine, but then I wanted a timeframe to finish working again. The problem is that our completion schedule never became a set schedule, but rather, “Let’s get it done by October,” or, “Let’s get it done by the end of the year.” When Nathan arranged the six day shooting schedule, it had every shot that needed to be done when and where over the six days. There was never a similar schedule for completion, and we needed one.

I assign no blame or take any blame for the continuing incomplete status of Season Two, but I have taken the liberty of learning from it. It’s even closer to completion now, and hopefully it will be done by the end of the year. But I think that there needs to be a real schedule. Every shot doesn’t need to be planned, but just a grouping of time that we all know is to be set aside for Season Two. That’s what I learned, and that’s why I’m setting aside a schedule, even if people are groaning a little about it.

Long term projects don’t typically get completed unless you say that they will be done by a certain time and plan accordingly. While the shooting wasn’t completed in those six days, we would not have had as much as we did if that six days hadn’t been scheduled.

Scripting – I think the vague deadline may be showing in the scripting for our movie. I set a deadline by scheduling mid to late September for pre-production meetings. The thing is that I get the impression that we’re all biding our time because it’s still August. I’ve seen very little from the potential writers for the movie (including myself, which I’ll talk about below). I have seen a scene by scene outline in one case and a few pages of script in another. As back up, I am writing a couple of scripts as well, but I’m not really setting out to shoot a Chris McGinty movie this time out. I want the other people involved to have motivation to be involved. I don’t think there would be as much motivation if I said, “Hey let’s make my movie.”

My fear is that the movie wants to be made by committee, and if that’s the case then someone needs to speak up and say so. If we’re going to throw out an idea and script it together then we should have already been holding meetings, rather than waiting a month and a half to start pre-production only to find out that pre-production is going to also involve scripting.

My belief about scripting (and any rough draft work) is that it should be a pretty uninhibited process. A person could write a feature length movie script in a month by writing three pages of script a day. Writing three pages each day is easy if you budget your time, and if you don’t worry about making it perfect the first time around. Part of pre-production should be editing and doctoring the script. In order to do that there has to be something to edit and doctor.

When you’re writing a novel, you make the rough draft and then go back and edit and fix. The process literally involves writing, and typically just writing. When making a movie the script, no matter how polished, is pretty much the rough draft. Yes, some directors are strict about speaking the dialogue how it’s written on the script, and shooting the movie how it’s storyboarded, but even then you don’t always use the first take of a scene. You re-shoot to get the best shot and the best performance. Then you look at the footage and edit the best material in the way that best works. This means that your script will go through plenty of editing while making the movie. Just write it as well as you can for a rough draft. Typically, you can’t start shooting until the script is done anyway.

Research – They say that when you write novels and short stories that you should read a lot of novels and short stories. This probably means that if you’re going to make a movie, you should probably watch a lot of movies. You should also read and view a lot of material about the making of movies. The instinct of a low budget moviemaker is likely to be to watch making of features of low budget movies that turned out well. It’s a good instinct, but I would also contend that watching and reading about the big budget productions can be very helpful. No, you won’t have the resources available to you, but there is a lot to learn anyway.

What did I learn from watching the documentary of “Revenge of the Sith?” I learned that George Lucas might just have more assistant directors than we’ll have working on our movie. I also learned that they are very careful about matching shots and rehearsing them to play out well. No matter how small your movie is you should be able to do quality control while shooting.

Our shooting style has been more guerilla style, with much of the quality control being done in editing, and there is nothing wrong with this process, except that it has its limitations. It is tempting to set up, shoot quickly, and go home. For a lot of what we’ve done in the past, this is a good idea. A two minute long comedy sketch doesn’t need the same detail as a two hour long horror movie.

Another thing is just as you will want to watch low budget and high budget movies; you will also want to watch good and bad movies. You can learn a lot about getting things right by watching things that were done wrong. I’ve been watching a lot of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” lately, and the lesson about careful matching is just as clear. I also am learning that if it doesn’t forward a plot or subplot it should go. An example is in “The Touch of Satan” when a little too much time is spent on a static shot of a character getting dressed. The MST3K crew quip, “I guess we have to watch his entire morning ritual.” Well, they’re right to make that observation, because the scene is not compelling in anyway, and especially doesn’t further the plot. Maybe if he was having a significant dialogue, or something, it would be ok, but no.

The point is to notice what works and try to achieve it, and also notice what doesn’t work and try to avoid it. You can break rules of what works and what doesn’t, but only if you have a good reason to do so.

That’s all for today. I’ve written about 1,400 more words, and am still writing, so this will probably be a three part article. Next part I will discuss the resource of people, and then I will actually talk about the budget that people think of as the budget, money.

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