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From small acorns: An introduction to low budget filmmaking

Updated: Apr 25, 2019

Words by Amber Gray

A low budget film is defined by its lack of funding from a major film studio or private investor. Depending on the circumstances, the film will receive little to no funding, and is conceived entirely by the director and the people involved. Many independent films are made in this way, as are productions by inexperienced filmmakers. Often seen as a tool to rise to fame or prove worth as a filmmaker, low budget films are sometimes overlooked in cinema and sidelined as a feeble stepping-stone for directors to reach the big screen.

Many low budget productions do not even see a theatre release, in fact, and are immediately sent to retail due to lack of marketability. Not all low budget films are released by amateurs, but often rely on film festivals for promotion and to possibly gain a cult following. Horror is the most popular genre for these films, and there is no precise measurement for budget due to variability. Notable films that fit these specifications include the 1992 film ‘El Mariachi, 1997’s ‘Eraserhead, and Kevin Smith’s ‘Clerks.

Perhaps the most famous of all these films is ‘The Blair Witch Project, directed and edited by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez. Its budget was a meagre $60,000, and it made a massive $248 million in the box office. Telling the story of three fictional student filmmakers who go on a hike to investigate a local legend, the film was shot on camcorders, handheld by the actors, some of which had never handled a camera before. The dialogue was entirely improvised, and the so-called ‘script’ a 35 page outline. The rights to music were too expensive to include a radio in one scene, and the three main actors were paid $1000 a day; the filming lasted eight days.

The advertising and marketing for the film involved several creative methods, mostly instigated by the directors. Missing person leaflets were scattered around the town where filming took place, fake news stories were written for local papers, and rumors were planted among the public. Soon enough, people began to believe in the hoax, leading to misconceptions that the film was in fact a legitimate documentary. A website, created by Sanchez, was also released alongside seeds planted into online chat-rooms and forums. To this day, the advertising is remembered fondly and revered as one of the most interesting and creative campaigns in film history.

Years later, horror classic ‘Paranormal Activity rose to fame, with an origin not unlike ‘The Blair Witch Project’. With an even tinier budget of just $15,000, the film earned $193 million, and solidified itself in the minds of millions for years to come. Co-produced, written, directed, photographed and edited by Oren Peli, the film was originally developed as an independent feature film, but was later acquired by Paramount, who made some modifications.

The film was also shot on a home video camera, and filming lasted only a week. The camera was always stationary, propped on a tripod or some other surface, which eliminated the need for a camera crew. Identical to Blair, all dialogue was improvised at minimum and vaguely outlined at most, there was no script, and the actors were paid $500 each for their work.

Taking yet another leaf from a certain horror hit from 1999, ‘Paranormal Activity’ was marketed through festivals and an online presence, taking the form of a literal ‘demand button’. If pressed one million times by different fans in the same area, the film would be screened within a reasonable distance of the fans, who had provided their zip codes. Besides this, there was little other advertising, all of which was confined to social media.

The film did not lead to cinematic fame for its director. Ironically, after becoming the purveyor of the most profitable movie in cinema history, Peli created Area 51, one of the biggest box office flops ever. With a budget of $5 million, a profit of just over $7000 was generated.

Before ‘The Blair Witch Project’, though, there was ‘Following’, the 1998 film with a rock-bottom budget of $6000. The film made $240,000, a profit not as massive as the aforementioned productions, but considerable nonetheless. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the British neo-noir crime thriller is set in London, and tells the story of a young man who is drawn into a criminal underworld due to his perpetual following of strangers. The production’s greatest expense was its film stock; in order to use this wisely, the scenes were heavily rehearsed before filming. No professional lighting was used, with Nolan instead choosing to take advantage of natural light. Nolan wrote, directed and photographed, and also helped with editing and production. It was due to this film that his career began, and he went on to direct films such as ‘The Dark Knight, Inceptionand Interstellar.

Patterns are present throughout the techniques used for this type of filmmaking, always involving cutting costs and getting by wherever possible. Often, cheap cameras are purchased or ones that the crew already own are used, and the films are only recorded in free locations. As seen in Following, natural light can be utilised to eliminate the cost of professional lighting entirely. The crew is minimalist, with each person doing as many jobs as they can manage at once.

Micro and low budget films often prevail with the presence of a good story as opposed to renowned talent. In some cases scripts are bypassed and all dialogue is improvised, anything licensed is out of the question and the actors are in charge of their own costumes and makeup. Resourcefulness is at the core of this type of filmmaking, and is essential to the success and production of the film. The heavy reliance upon festivals is a common theme, and it is fair to say that without independent film festivals, many productions and great directors may have never been discovered. ����

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