Making Short Films on £1 a day

While some people have the luxury of a tremendous budget in order to make a short film, others find it more difficult to scrape together ten grand or so. There’s a fine line between creativity and business in “Show Business” (it’s a single space, usually) and it certainly seems a reasonable generalisation to say that one is usually at the expense of the other unless you’re some kind of überkind; after all, “he who pays the piper calls the tune”. It’s a valid point of view that you should be able to motivate investors and audiences alike with your own vision, thus leaving you to make the film as you see fit, but on the other hand, it’s a case of weighing up whether it’s worth spending what could be years on a product which is very unlikely to make you any money back. So, whichever route you take, it usually results in compromise at some stage of the process.

I’m sure everyone knows about the film-making triangle (it’s in the Guerilla Film Maker’s Handbook, after all) which dictates that of the three qualities “Good”, “Fast”, and “Cheap”, you can only ever have two.  A case in point is a short I made a couple of years ago called “Milky Thursday”. I needed some CGI work doing for it, but I was on a deadline, and having no funds, I couldn’t entice a CGI artist to work on it for me. As a result, I had to do it all myself (in a hurry), and it looks terrible. One thing I’d like to say about this triangle, however, is that it indirectly leads to one of the most controversial topics in low-budget film-making today – that of paying your crew.  Going back to Milky Thursday again, The budget was about £300, because that’s what I spent on fuel, costumes, props and consumables (fuel was the biggest cost). However, that doesn’t count the donations I received in terms of time and expertise from the cast and crew. If I had been able to pay them the going rate, I would have been looking at upwards of £1000. Obviously this would have been the ideal situation, but for practical reasons it couldn’t happen – film making was always a province of the rich elite, and to pay your crew the going rate it still is.

Obviously, this places me in the position of not paying cast or crew for shorts, which lies at odds with several campaigns, but that’s not to say I disagree with them. There are several examples of films that have been made cheaply where it’s clear that the producers have exploited their crews in order to use  more expensive equipment, or avoided paying expenses, or kept any profits for themselves, and this cannot be condoned. However, when it’s a collective who have made the film, the rules are and should be different. If a film maker can generate a community spirit for the film – if the cast and crew want to be involved in the film for its own sake – then this should be perfectly acceptable. Obviously, it’s beholden upon the producers to make sure that any wealth is shared fairly amongst its collaborators.

I fall into this second category, as pretty much all of my films have been made for buttons and string. Once you have people excited about your project, it’s not difficult to get the best from them without waving a chequebook under their nose. There are, however, some important guidelines:

  1. Expenses. If you can offer expenses, do so, even if it’s only a token payment. Some may refuse any money (if they’re passionate about the project, for example), but this is the exception rather than the rule.
  2. Food. An army marches on its stomach, a film crew doubly so. There’s nothing worse than working on a project without any catering – you get tired and hungry, and you don’t want to be there the next day. What’s amazing is that this is the easiest and cheapest perk to provide, and the most often overlooked.
  3. DVD.  If you’ve offered someone a DVD at the end, provide it. There are several people I won’t work for again, as they can’t even extend this courtesy. You know who you are…
  4. Professionalism. This is key. Your cast and crew may be working for free, but this does not mean that they’re amateurs. Treat them and the project with the respect they deserve.

Follow these, and you won’t go far wrong.

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