How to Make a Feature Film Under 25 Grand

Updated on March 11, 2019
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I am an author and screenwriter living in Los Angeles. I am also an editor at Forth Magazine.

The Director: Olivier Dalipagic

This is director Olivier Dalipagic. He was glad to shed some light regarding just how he helped make a feature film under $25,000.
This is director Olivier Dalipagic. He was glad to shed some light regarding just how he helped make a feature film under $25,000.

[I will be using initials MV for me and OD for director Olivier Dalipagic]

MV: First and foremost, what is "Off The Record About"?

OD: Off The record is a film about an 80s rocker making a comeback with a new album. At the death of his mother, he decides to bring the ashes to his brother and drives his muscle car from LA to his hometown Austin. He’s been sober from drugs and alcohol for 92 days but shit hits the fan the moment he takes the road. His brother is also going out with his ex-girlfriend and he doesn’t know it.

MV: What was your role in producing and directing this movie?

OD: I was involved in all stages of production. My role consisted in directing, checking script continuity, filming, switching lenses, capturing sound, cutting the 2h45 rough cut in post production, mixing the audio, recording ADR and sound design. The movie was then cut down to its final 94 minute length thanks to the amazing editing skills of Jochen Künstler, editor of the acclaimed 1987 indie classic ‘Baghdad Cafe.’

How to Create a Feature Film Under 25K

This is the official movie poster for Off the Record, which you can find on Amazon Prime.
This is the official movie poster for Off the Record, which you can find on Amazon Prime.

MV: What were some elements that made it possible to create it all while telling the story under 25K?

OD:

1. Forget the prototype, just shoot the movie


At first we had no budget and needed to find an investor. To lure him in, we decided to film a trailer blending the best parts of the movie. The only problem is that we had to fund the trailer with our own money. Making a trailer was only interesting if we were 100% sure to find an investor because if we didn’t, we would be back to square one with a useless trailer in hand. So instead, I figured ‘why not shoot the first 15 pages of the movie? If we don’t find a funder, we can still use that footage in the final cut.’ So we rented the camera for 3 days and shot the 15 pages. I’m glad we did, because all the shots made it in the movie. No money was wasted.

2. Minimize locations and shoot non chronologically


I shot most of the movie on a single location, the key was to think of filming angles that would never show the same background twice. That way you can create several fictional locations without the audience being able to tell it was all shot in the same place. This trick allowed us to film more scenes in a day because we didn’t have to drive anywhere and not have to pay any property owner to rent new locations for the day. We also had to minimize the amount of shoot days so we could get all the actors to show up. Our budget was ridiculously small and wasn’t enough for us to get paid. So to respect the actors busy schedules, we had to plan the shoot schedule around their availabilities. For added efficiency, we also filmed the scenes non-chronologically so we could shoot all the extras in a day.

3. Reduce crew and time wasting


Working on various film sets, I always noticed how slow it took for all the talent, the crew and film set to be ready. Actors spent hours on hair and make up, the crew spent hours on testing and setting up equipment. We didn’t have the luxury of a big production or even a normally budgeted indie. With time and money against us, I had to take some drastic measures to keep the shoot on schedule. I decided to forgo hair and make up because I wanted the actors to look real. I wanted the movie to look like a documentary, not a soap opera. The scenes had to be wrapped in time because actors had to leave early. One even had to go on a cruise ship for 6 months.

When my former boss told me it was impossible to make a feature without a tripod and called me a crazy fool for thinking otherwise, I filmed the whole movie on shoulder just to prove him wrong. Not a single shot was filmed on a tripod. Some shots were shaky at times, but I embraced the French new wave style of filmmaking and focused on what mattered most: the story. Faced with having to make this movie on a dime, I had to know when to care and when to let go. Even the lights were carried without a tripod because securing them with sandbags and readjusting them would waste countless hours. If the natural light was good enough for a scene to be shot, then no lights were used. If the scene was too dark, I’d ask the investor’s grandsons to grab some led panels, stand on both sides of the camera and aim their light towards the actors. Everything was always about speed and efficiency.

The Director's Advice for Aspiring Filmmakers

MV: What advice would you give to other filmmakers that are trying to accomplish the same thing?

O.D: The road is filled with obstacles, but never even think of giving up. When things get hard and so bad you don’t know wether to laugh or cry about the situation you’re in, give it that little extra boost and you will end up on the other side. You must develop tough skin for the Mount Everest you are about to climb. If you really want to make a feature film with little to no budget, you must be in technical shape to handle the project and ready to spend a few years on it. Here are my 13 rules of trash budget filmmaking:

1. Learn how to make a short movie


With today’s technology, all you need is a smartphone, a computer and a few open minded friends that are willing to play in your film. Learn as much you can before you make a feature by making short films with your friends. Start easy, just come up with an idea with your friends and shoot it, you don’t need a script. Make sure you listen to your friends ideas, the first experience has to be a collaborative one. You will quickly realize that everyone in a team has valuable input that can make the movie better. Once you agree on an idea or short storyline, get your friends to improvise while you film them and keep filming them until they finish a scene. It doesn’t matter if their acting performance is horrible, because you will now have the footage material necessary to learn how to edit and build a scene. This should be a fun experimental phase where anything is possible as long as you focus on getting all the scenes and shots done. All you want at this point is to learn how to finish that little movie of yours. It doesn’t matter if you know it’s bad, you will learn and it will lead you one step closer to your end goal of making a feature film.

2. Embrace constructive criticism and fix your work


Once you have a rough cut, you will show it to your close friends one by one and listen to their input. You get blinded after spending hours editing your movie and you need a fresh pair of eyes to point out the flaws of your work. You want them to give you recommendations and criticize your work so you can fix the mistakes they mention. This is a crucial step that will teach you how to edit critically and polish your movie.

3. Get some mileage


Keep filming and learning until you feel confident enough to make a feature film. You will know when you’re ready.

4. Write a good script or find a good script


Once you’ve learned the basics of filmmaking, you can now learn how to write a short script and shoot it with some actors. If you’d rather film, find a decent screenwriter who needs a filmmaker. When you choose to make your movie, just make sure you enjoy reading the script in the first place. You must be entertained by what you are reading because if it’s boring on the page, it will be dreadful on the screen.

5. Less is more


I would not suggest asking film students to help you film your feature unless they have solid experience on professional sets. I will always remember this student I asked to capture sound for a big budget short film. When we realized all of our movie had unusable oversaturated sound, it was a heart stopping moment for all of us. It was too late and we missed a great opportunity to have a feature funded. In a perfect world, you would want to focus on directing, have a cinematographer with solid shoulder held filming experience and a boom operator. But if you want to make a movie on a minimal budget, you will want to handle the technical side yourself. Let all the rest be handled by your producer.


You need a producer(s) just as driven as you are, who will handle everything you can’t focus on while you’re at war making your film. Think of your producer as the crew that changes your tires in a Formula 1 car race. He or she will be the only one to lift you back up in time so you can win that race. There is no written rule, but on a tiny budget I would recommend your producer be in charge of calling actors and monitoring their schedule, ordering props and vehicles, organizing any catering necessities, finding and securing locations and solving any off the film set situation.

Our film required lots of actors because the characters were written in the script. When directing your first feature, I would recommend having fewer characters in your story. With less actors, you can take the time to focus on the quality of their performances. Less actors and crew members means less people to worry about. If 8 actors are scheduled in a scene, all of them will need to show up on time. A no show will cause the shoot to be canceled. You will have to reschedule 8 busy people and hope they’ll show up next time. 2 actor scenes will greatly increase your odds of having everyone invested. I’m not saying you should only have 2 person scenes in your movie, but make sure your actors are fully committed and reliable.

6. Wear several hats


Being able to wear several hats is crucial in order to make a micro budget movie. My producers Harper and Jimmy Quill handled casting, set production and played lead roles in the movie. I handled all the technical part of the movie’s production. Learn all the tricks of the trade, volunteer to work on sets no matter what your assigned role is, make short films and you will learn fast. If you want to make a movie on such a small budget, you will want to know as much as possible so that when you face a problem, you will know how to quickly fix it up yourself.

7. Get your gear


Make your micro budget feature with the help of a cheap & efficient camera. I used a Sony A7sII with 3 lenses. One wide lens for introductory shots, one zoom lens for flexibility and large scene shots, and one macro lens for portraits and close up shots. You need at least 3 lenses to give your movie a filmic look. My audio equipment was an AT4073 shotgun microphone attached to the top of the camera and connected via XLR to a zoom H4N recorder. Get 10 camera batteries, 10 SDHC 64gb cards and you’re ready to roll for less than 6000 dollars.

8. Apply the shoot and talk later mindset


This is the most important factor to get to speed up your shoot. I doesn’t matter how many concerns your actor may have about a given scene, just have them act it out. With such a low budget and so little time for your shots to be taken, have them play the scene and readjust their performance when needed. Most beginning, untrained or doubtful actors will want to talk about a scene they’re about to play. That process takes ages. ‘Where do I go? What should my character do? How and when should he do it?’. All the talking will leave you confused while you’re trying to set up your equipment. Make sure actors know their lines and have them play out the scene on set. Once the actors take the risk of acting out the scene, they will naturally figure out where to move and readjust their performance for the next take. You can now direct your actors and adapt your camera shots.

9. Record professional audio quality


I would suggest you hire some sound guys on your short film shoots so you can see them work, ask them a ton of questions and learn how to capture sound on your own. Sound quality is extremely important and often neglected by beginner filmmakers but no video platform will accept a movie that has poor sound quality. Once you’re ready to film your feature, you can connect a shotgun microphone to your DSLR and plug it into your Zoom H4n, then sync it all up with the amazing software called Pluraleyes. When you record, especially on a single camera shoot, make sure there are no other sounds in the background other than the actor’s voice. You can always add sounds in post-production, but can never remove overlapping sounds. If you have a car or plane sound while your actor is speaking, it will be very hard to cut a two person scene dialogue because the car will only be heard on one of the actor’s dialogue and not the other. To avoid this problem, make sure your actors speak in a silent environment or you will have to lip sync all the dialogue in post production. You will have to reschedule all the actors in a recording studio to have them lip sync their characters with the same exact tone and emotion they were portraying at the time of the shoot and will have to add the same room tone of the scene’s location. Trust me, you want to get the sound right in the first place because recording ADR (Audio Dialogue Replacement) is a complete nightmare.

10. Edit the rough cut yourself


Post-production is at the part when movies get very expensive because it takes months of work to accomplish the final cut. This is why you must cut the entire movie’s rough cut yourself. After 8 weeks of filming on high schedule, you will enter a phase of complete exhaustion. That is completely normal. What you need is to communicate with your producer and work back and forth on the edits to polish the scenes. This process will take months of work, so be prepared to give it your all. It’s okay to take a week off, but you will be so obsessed with completing the movie that it will be hard to stay away from your project for too long. Show your scene cuts to your writer/producer as you move along, accept criticism and readjust your cuts if necessary. You want your final cut to be as tight as possible without altering the story. This means all that was written on the script needs to show on the screen verbatim (unless you and/or actors decided to modify the script beforehand).

Once you are proud of your rough cut, you bring in a weathered second cut editor. He or she will be the Rodin of filmmaking by sculpting and polishing the story to the perfect cut. With fresh set of professional eyes, he or she will be able to pinpoint all the narrative flaws of the movie. If you’ve put all your heart into the rough cut, they will notice, get excited and help you finish your movie. This editor will tear apart the cut, shorten scenes or even delete them. Sometimes they will delete characters out of the movie entirely. It sucks for the actors who played the part that didn’t make the final cut, but story comes first. No matter how beautiful the scene was or how much you love the actor’s performance, you must let your skilled editor dispose of unnecessary scenes. Also, if you are making your first feature film, make sure your movie length is around 90 minutes. 90 minutes is the standard attention span for audiences. Since no one has heard of you, you need to make sure people will click on your movie and not worry about how long it will last.

12. Music score and color grading are crucial


There’s no way you will be taken seriously if your movie isn’t graded by a professional. Color grading is what visually turns home camera footage into Hollywood like appearance. Do whatever it takes to fund this process, even if it means selling your equipment to be able to afford it. The same applies with scoring your movie. You could score the movie yourself if you have an extensive musical background like John Carpenter, but if you don’t, have a musician embrace your film’s final cut and come up with the right tunes to heighten the scene’s dramatic intensity. Think of the score as a way to guide the audience’s emotional subconsciousness. It is extremely important that you do not overlook these steps.

13. Mix the audio yourself


Easier said than done, but any pro editing software will allow you to not only edit your footage but to mix your audio as well. Make sure all of your audio is synced up perfectly to the visuals, that it never peaks or clicks between cuts, that it never has any wind ruffling sounds and that you leave some leg room for quieter scenes. Of course, this is a simplified recommendation but you will find all the answers consulting audio professionals while working on prior sets, making your own short films and watching YouTube tutorials.

Many people want to make a movie and some of them try. What will set you apart from those who fail at completing their feature film are your technical knowledge, careful pre-planning and scheduling, your ability to quickly solve unexpected problems, memorize your shots and know exactly what’s left to film, to visualize and edit the scenes in your head before you shoot so you don’t waste time figuring out how to film your actors (shoot to edit) and to anticipate (carrying extra batteries, SDHC cards, setting the props for the next set, etc.).

It's a Wrap!

MV: What are you the most proud of when it comes to your contribution as director of this film?

OD: I’m proud of showing aspiring and struggling filmmakers that it’s possible to bypass the big studio system, make a feature film on a ridiculous budget and see it end up on a professional video platform. Just like the French New Wave era that broke all the rigid rules of traditional studio system cinema, we are entering our own New Wave era. Affordable cameras now have the dynamic range to compete with higher end gear. We finally have the freedom to hit the streets again and take full control of our ideas and production.

Forget the nay-sayers of the industry who will deter you from making your movie. Learn the technical aspects of moviemaking, be creative, be passionate and most importantly, be convinced you’ll make your feature no matter what.

I’m proud of defeating all the odds that were against us and to have made a movie that may inspire others to do the same, to get out there and tell that story they always wanted to tell. I want them to see our movie and think ‘if they did it on a breadcrumb budget, then why can’t I do it?’. Anything is possible. Have heart, passion and a vision.

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