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Filmmaking Challenges – working with a small budget

It’s always a challenge when working with small budgets. It limits the number of crew you can hire, the gear you can rent, and the overall quality of experienced actors you can hire. I recently directed a short film for a local non-profit and the budget was limiting to say the least.

I was offered $10,000 by a nonprofit to produce and direct a five minute short, Left Turn. I’ll attempt to walk you through the process of how I handled this challenge in hopes of helping you do the same.

Please feel free to join in the conversation by making comments or asking questions in the comments section at the end.

Finding motivation beyond the paycheck

After the script was written it was my job as the director to figure out the visuals, find the locations, and hire the crew. When working with limited resources you have to wear more than one hat. So I was going to co-produce, direct, DP, and edit the project.

chris weatherly behind the scenes on left turn film

(Behind the scenes with me on set. Using the Canon C300 MK II, Anton Bauer Batteries, and Zacuto gear.)

I knew that I would not be taking in the industry standard pay for all of these jobs. So the motivation behind this job wasn’t purely financial. If your fees are not being fully met you have to have motivation beyond the dollars.

For me, the motivation came in a couple of ways. Most importantly, I believed in the message of the project. Our film, Left Turn, aims to motivate people to get involved in helping under-resourced neighborhoods in my community.

I was also drawn to the project because of the challenge it presented. There’s nothing like pushing yourself to get better at what you do.

Hiring the right people

When it came to hiring crew and actors I had to find people that would jump in for less pay as well. I would have to find a lead actor that had a flexible schedule and was willing to get up before sun rise and be on location ready to run, and I mean literally run. 80% of the shots involved running!

still from leftturnfilm

(Still from Left Turn with Matt Effinger.)

Fortunately, we found Matt Effinger. He was perfect for the role and took it because he believed in the message.

Your most valuable assets are your friends

I had to find someone to assist me with shooting. I owned the camera but needed an AC that owned and operated a gimbal and a drone. Toby Hitchcock was my man.

Thanks to our friendship I knew I could approach Toby and ask for a favor. He charged me an hourly rate for his services and included all of his gear for free.

toby hitchcok behind the scenes left turn film

(Toby Hitchcock doing his thing!)

The production company I work with, Wavelength Films, donated lenses and a dolly to the project as well.

Spread the message to encourage volunteers

I also had some volunteer help. An experienced gaffer, David Ross, helped one of the days we were shooting interiors. I offered to pay him, but he refused to take any money. He wanted as much of the budget to go to production as possible.

We also asked for volunteer actors. This isn’t something I would do on a commercial project, but since this was a limited budget we had to compromise.

My budget breakdown

We had a total of five days of production to shoot the film. Of course, none of this time includes the days of pre-production that were needed to do location scouts, storyboarding, and tweaking the script.

So here’s how our budget broke down:

  • AC – $2,200
  • Actors – $600
  • Music Licensing – $600
  • Director – $4,000
  • Editor – $1,600
  • Sound Design – $500
  • Colorist – $500
  • Total = $10,000

    If we were going to charge conservative industry standards for a five day production the budget would have broken down more like this:

  • AC (plus gear rental) – $4,750
  • Actors – $4,000
  • Music Licensing – $3,000
  • Director – $10,000
  • Editor – $3,000
  • Sound Design – $1,000
  • Colorist – $2,000
  • That’s a total budget of $30,750. Of course, if this would have been the total budget we would have hired top of the line professionals in each job. I would have loved to have hired a cinematographer that was far more talented than me. But the budget is the reality and that’s why we work with what we have.

    All of this being said, we we’re quite lucky with our budget – I’m not sure you can find many non-profits willing to spend $10,000 on a promotional short film.

    So before you dive into a project with a limited budget make sure you want to take it on for more than just the money, and you are able to lead others with a vision bigger than dollar signs.

    Watch the film

    For more info on the project and its message please visit leftturnfilm.com.

    #withmycamera

    Join the conversation

    One Response to “Filmmaking Challenges – working with a small budget”

    1. Phil on September 14th, 2017 4:03 pm

      Great topic. Would be nice to see a forum where filmmakers share their budgets. Really nice piece too! But the real value hasn’t been included and that’s the concept.

    About the Author


    Chris Weatherly has over 20 years of shooting experience in both still photography and video. After earning his Master of Visual Communications degree from Ohio University, he worked as a photojournalist. After working for newspapers for several years, he left to become an Arts Director for a non profit organization. It was there he started using video to tell stories of life change. Now Chris works as a full-time freelance director for Wavelength Films where his unique style blurs the lines between narrative and documentary storytelling. He’s also passionate about striking visuals and emotionally driven stories.

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