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Minimum Viable Movie: How I Made a Feature-Length Film for $0 (kadavy.net)
98 points by kadavy 1736 days ago | hide | past | web | 57 comments | favorite

I have about a decade of experience in low- and no-budget filmmaking, including 9 feature films and too many shorts to count. Technology is a wonderful thing, as is the fact that people are willing to pitch in and led equipment, talent, and locations for nothing. But...

a) if you work this way (with actors doubling up as crew and so on), then you say goodbye to QA. Although there are clear improvements from project to project the quality is...not good. I don't want to go through a laundry list of critcisms. But I suggest ditching the DV camera, getting a DSLR, and learning to shoot at 24p with a 1/50 shutter speed. The cost and time savings of not using DV tapes alone will cover the food bill for your shoot.

b) "I raised $2,000 using Kickstarter." That's a very small budget, but it's a hell of a lot bigger than $0, no? This sort of bait-and-switch marketing technique only works if you have a commercial release. Your budget is part of your marketing plan, and you can only use this trick once. OK, so the point is that the filmmaker did it with $0 of his own cash. There's a thin line between creatively financing your project on a shoestring, and coming off as a freeloader.

c) "If this is what I did with $2,000 imagine what I could do with $2,000,000." Production companies in Hollywood hear this pitch approximately weekly. The response (among themselves, not to you) is 'I'm perfectly capable of wasting my own money.' What you need to focus on now is leveraging the achievements so far into a $20,000 budget (enough to pay a minimum wage to a small crew and cast), and having a plan to generate a similar amount of revenue. That will open doors to larger things.

You worked on Voyeur. Cool! I know the band that did (some of) the soundtrack. (http://www.karmacoda.com)

I always wish I had time to be involved in other peoples' film productions, specifically on the acting and the sound side. This was a very inspiring read.

Ha, small world. Believe it or not, I haven't seen it - couldn't attend the screening for some reason, and never got a copy of the film on DVD. It happens, I've only seen about half the shorts I've worked on. Although I would kinda like to see voyeur because I have an action scene in it where a (fictional) cop grabs me and throws me up against a police car. I mean that literally - I had bruises for days.

As someone interested in making documentaries on a shoestring - I think it is an intereting educational and interview tool - are there specific products you would point me at, community film groups - are they any good? Just basic 'mistakes not to make' list would be very appreciated - top of the list is which camera to (not) get and whether OSS can handle non linear editing

edit : and, rude of me not to ask first time, do you have links to any of your 9(!) feature films - would be interested and the hackernewser links don't seem to take me there.

I would not recommend spending a lot of money on cameras, especially for a documentary. I made a feature-length documentary a few years ago (http://graceofgodmovie.com/) on an HDV camera that is primitive by today's standards (1080i) and of all the feedback I've ever gotten not a single person has ever said that the image quality isn't good enough. Even a bottom-of-the-line contemporary HD camera should be plenty good enough to shoot a movie. Heck, you could probably shoot a decent movie on an iPhone 4S.

The one thing that you can't do well on a cheap camera is capture sound. Sound was definitely the bane of my existence for the four years I was working on the film, particularly since I was shooting on the street. In a couple of cases I recorded sound using ipods that I put in my subject's pocket. My camera also had a bluetooth microphone that worked pretty well. If you're going to spend money, spend it on audio, not video.

The thing is, if you're shooting yourself then you need to own some sort of camera, be used to using it and be used to thinking like a photographer. Obviously if you hire someone to shoot for you the camera becomes their problem; but you can shoot digital video so cheaply now that you'd be crazy not to own one. I use a DSLR because I want a lot of control over the image, but something like a HTC hero will 'just work' and may be perfect for documentary work. An iPhone...possible, but painful.

Absolutely true on the sound. Bad sound will kill your production faster than anything else, and there's an art to getting good sound, just as much as there is to getting good images. Zoom's H4N recorder is not the most user friendly but it's small, cheap, and sounds very good. It also has surprisingly decent built-in microphones. It sounds as good as the military-style DAT recorder I used to lug around, even if it doesn't look as impressive.

Just to be clear, I wouldn't recommend making a film with an iPhone either. At the very least you want to be able to mount your camera on a tripod. But if you're going to spend $500 I'd recommend getting some good wireless mics over a DSLR.

Ok, I am defintiely interested in recording interviews (videoing them is a plus) - and at the risk of HN wrath, here goes with the hardware questions:

  what makes a good microphone, 

  why go wireless (I can guess) and 

  I would assume I just plug into the 3.5mm jack on the 
  side of my laptop - and hit record - why is that a bad   

> what makes a good microphone

That depends a lot on what kind of film you're making, but there are two that are particularly useful for documentaries: lapel mics and directional shotgun mics. Lapel mics give you better sound quality, but shotguns are good for impromptu situations where you don't have time to wire your subject.

Wireless is good for the obvious reasons. Wired mics are really good only for sit-down interviews unless you can also put a recorder on your subject (which is possible -- iPod nanos make dandy audio recorders). Don't worry too much about quality if all you're recording is people talking. I'd avoid mics that are selling for $1.99 on eBay, but you can find excellent lapel mics for low 10s of dollars. (Shotguns cost more.)

Yes, you can just plug a mic into the jack on your laptop. You'll even get decent quality. But 1) your laptop is probably much bigger and more power hungry than a dedicated recorder and 2) it probably only has one mic jack and you'll almost certainly want at least two no matter what you're doing.

If you're using an audio recorder that's separate from your camera, don't forget to put an audio marker on each clip so you can synchronize the sound later in post. You don't need a slate. You can just clap your hands (make sure you're in front of the camera and in range of all the mics). It looks goofy, but it works.

I must differ with Lisper on a few things.

First, rent your microphones, you get what you pay for, and cheap microphones sound cheap. Better yet, hire a sound guy, who will know what he's doing. At the no budget level you can basically hire someone for the price of their gear rental, which is about 5% of the book value per day. To put that in perspective, I used to turn up to a shoot with $4-5000 worth of gear. My shotgun alone costs about $1500 to buy. If you do do it yourself - and that's more acceptable for documentary because nobody minds seeing a microphone - at least buy a book and do some practice in your spare time. You'd be amazed how noisy a refrigerator sounds when you're trying to record someone, or how loud a typical city street it.

PLugging into your laptop - don't, the a/d converters are usually awful and you'll pick up a ton of electrical noise. Get something like this: http://us.focusrite.com/news/introducing-scarlett-2i4 (for a laptop) or http://us.focusrite.com/news/announcing-two-exciting-new-int... (for iPad). these are about $150 each and the quality is grreat. Whatever you buy, make sure it can output Phantom Power, a 48v power source for condenser microphones.

But the reason I praise the Zoom above is because it's no larger than a typical camcorder. It fits in your pocket, won't attract attention on the street, and you can record up to 4 tracks with it. You won't always have a table for a laptop.

> you get what you pay for... cheap microphones sound cheap

That is certainly true. But a cheap sound today is a lot better than a cheap sound ten years ago, and it might be good enough for you. The only way to tell is to try it. On which note...

+1 on doing practice runs. Much more important than mic quality is placement and setting your levels properly. A cheap mic well placed will get you much better results than the best mic in a bad location.

True, though I think converters are the key difference there. The analog side of mic technology hasn't changed a whole lot recently.

On the OSS side of things you could take a look at Blender: http://www.blender.org/

While Blender is known primarily for the 3D modelling/animation side it also has a non-linear editor and compositing capability.

The most recent versions have focused on the motion-tracking and compositing needed for their most recent live action+CGI film which is due for release shortly: http://www.tearsofsteel.org/

are there specific products you would point me at, community film groups - are they any good? Just basic 'mistakes not to make' list would be very appreciated - top of the list is which camera to (not) get and whether OSS can handle non linear editing

I personally like Canon DSLRs. The current Digital Rebel series produce nice images in combination with a tool like Magic Lantern for well under $100. If you can afford a 7D or %d the image quality is marginally better, the ergonomics significantly so. But products from Nikon are also good, as are the Micro 4:3 units from Panasonic. Sony's I'm not familiar with, but have heard others speak highly of them.

Certainly check out film production courses at commnity colleges in your area - you may be able to learn a great deal for relatively few $, not to mention making food contacts. Online, good resources are http://prolost.com/ and http://www.dvxuser.com/V6/ are two of the best resources, but also check http://rebelsguide.com/forum/. Stu Maschwitz's 'Rebel's Guide' is a really excellent starting point in book form, I wish I'd had it when I got started: http://astore.amazon.com/prolost-20/detail/0321413644 The Guerilla Filmmaker's handbook is also excellent: http://www.amazon.com/Guerilla-Makers-Handbook-American-Edit... Join a film library or filmmaker society if you are a decent sized city, as you'll save a fortune on seeking out and buying books on technique, financing, contracts, etc.

I personally don't rate open source audio/video editing products very highly. If you're on Mac, then you have to seriously consider final Cut, but Adobe sells the most comprehensive suite of tools. (Disclosure: I test for them.)

You need to understand something about motion graphics even if all you're doing is putting up titles and evening out lighting/color disparities in your footage. You can pick up books on Adobe Premiere and After Effects for pennies - no need for the most current version, learn the basics from a book that's a version or two out of date. You can get demo versions of the Creative Suite software for free, and get full working versions quite cheap if you are enrolled somewhere as a student (same is true for competitors of course). If you have a budget then treat them as a line-item expense. If not, then you can go looking for an, ah, evaluation copy. Don't try to become expert in everything, but become conversant with the basics so you can have meaningful conversations with people who are more experienced.

BTW, as you're in the UK, shoot 25p rather than 24p. It's easy to convert later for other markets if necessary, but naturally you want something that works with your local TV standards. The Guerilla film guide has more of a UK focus, which may be helpful for you.

edit : and, rude of me not to ask first time, do you have links to any of your 9(!) feature films - would be interested and the hackernewser links don't seem to take me there.

Sure, here's a few. Please note that they're not 'my' films; they're films on which I worked as crew or cast, and/or in which I had a silent producer role. Most of them are pretty bad :-)

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0491095/ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0460985/ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0968738/ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0834904/ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0860837/ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1762380/

Ooops, that should read 'for well under $1000' - for a camera like the T3i or somesuch, plus a few SD cards.

That's a shame :-). But thanks for the great overview - will see how we go!

I found this to be a quite good resource:


Philip Bloom has become kind of the Paul Graham of the "DSLR video shooting" movement.

I've never done any type of film making. I suspect from my attempts at photography and writing (and my reading about them), that the first, most cost effective investment would be hiring a professional editor to put the final film together.

Really refreshing to see how people use their resources in another industry. I'm glad to hear that he got inspiration from the hacker community at SXSW.I haven't watched the movie yet, but I have it bookmarked for this weekend.

Could somebody take this further and build up a studio that seeds those kind of movies?

I mean, look at Primer (posted here, thanks!): a budget of 7000$ and a 424000$ revenue. Even if they had a margin of 10% on that, 42000$ is still a great payback.

I was reading on HN of a guy proposing budgets of 25k per movie. That means 4 movies with 100 k. Is somebody doing this? Why nothing like this comes up or more mainstream?


I think filmmaking and other pursuits like music will continue to bring great authors without any community funding. Every great artist just got started with limited means and their work shows for itself. A good artist doesn't need a few thousand dollars to get started, they just get started, and that initial work is either good enough for the artist to move forward or it isn't. Peter Jackson started his first film in his backyard with his friends on the weekend, and through sheer persistence just kept going with it long enough, and with interesting enough ultra-low budget footage that he got a grant to finish it, based on the quality of his work. Every other successful artist I know just had the hustle built in: the act of producing. You can't pay people to find out if they are going to make great work. It's there or it's not.

Word. "A good artist doesn't need a few thousand dollars to get started, they just get started, and that initial work is either good enough for the artist to move forward or it isn't." Right. that's the idea. I'm treating it, or inspired by, small businesses and the people who run them. Get the thing going and correct course on the way. If it sucks, it won't go very far, and that means I got to do something different. I can't wait around for permission.

I don't agree with that. I mean, let's be practical here, movies are there to make money. If a movie has a budget of 25 k, you need ~50 k people willing to pay 1 euro to watch it to make already a decent margin. Then, after a while, you sell downloads withouth DRM and you make another nice profit.

Other than that, a studio should offer: actors easy to reach to (maybe on a wage?), shooting gear, special effects experts, etc. Lots of this things would lower the entry barriers for movies a LOT.

If you're talking about movies as an industry then that's different, but if you're talking about finding great work like Primer or Herzog's documentaries, throwing money at filmmakers isn't going to make great work and kickstarter-for-movies may just flood us with more mediocre product that doesn't follow through on the director/writer's promise. You can't make a movie with a community controlling the outcome: you need absolute creative control to make a good film.

Shooting gear, special fx: these things are already so inexpensive compared to 10 years ago that having a nice HD camera and lenses and access to After Effects isn't stopping anyone. I've got friends making films after hours and on the weekends because they decided a long time ago it's what they wanted to do, and they'll keep doing it until they make that one beautiful, promising piece.

You just can't kick-starter this: good work happens serependitiously, not because of a bigger budget.

I agree, but I'm trying to do this more from an angle of a production company than a studio. This first movie is to get the ball rolling, use it as leverage to raise money for the next, stay lean to make a profit and the get bigger and better each time. If it would eventually lead to a 'studio' set up as opposed to a 'production company' great! But right now I'm focusing on making great movies.

A good artist doesn't need a few thousand dollars to get started, they just get started, and that initial work is either good enough for the artist to move forward or it isn't.

This is a myth. It's a lot cheaper than it used to be, but at the minimum you need the price of a camera or a generous friend. The best way to get started for cheap is to volunteer on other peoples' film shoots. What gets lost in statements like this is that filmmaking is not that creative of a process: it's an industrial one. Writing is creative. Photography is creative. Editing is creative. Acting is creative. Putting all those things together is grunt work to a great extent. Unless you do something unusual like a single location, it takes two weeks to shoot a feature, and the cost of food and travel expenses for 2 weeks for the minimum # of people will easily hit $1000. As I said yesterday, saying that you made something for nothing is partly a marketing tool. Invariably, when you dig into these stories, you find that the person either had money of their own, had very generous friends, or used some creative accounting (getting a donation of film stock means 'the film cost $0' and we won't talk about the manifold other expenses).

The big step forward in the digital domain we have today is taht you don't need to buy film any more. Film was staggeringly expensive: it used to cost about $70 to purchase and develop 3 minutes of 16mm film, of which 2/3 would go unused. Digital video made that a lot cheaper (an hour of tape for ~$10 OMFG), but decent cameras were pricey and you couldn't get depth-of-field without expensive accessories, because the video sensor was too small. Controlling focus is a major, major creative tool, so people would spent as much as the cost of the camera itself on accessories that let you mount still camera lenses on a box with a spinning ground glass screen. DSLRs with 35mm sensors are the biggest breakthrough in decades.

Every other successful artist I know just had the hustle built in: the act of producing.

Producing is an art. But lots of directors, writers, and visual artists aren't producers, and there's a limit to how much free help you can get, because people with experience/technical skills need to be paid or they don't eat. Sure, they'll give you a break if you're sincere and your project is good, but you need money at some point.

I have an issue with this myth for 3 reasons. First, if you buy into it you'll waste a lot of time wondering why the product of your hard work is so weak. The fact is that you can have it good and fast, or good and cheap, or fast and cheap, but not all three. If you can't or won't spend money, then don't do film, join a theater group. Second, it creates the justification (for oneself and others) that it's OK to work for free because a) the project is great so it'll help one's career through exposure online and at film festivals and b) it's for art. (a) is almost never true; success stories like primer happen for only one project in 1000, if that, and the pitch screams 'rookie!' to anyone with more than a year's experience. It's much better to say you don't have much money and can only pay food and travel expenses. As for (b), saying that 'it's for art' is producers-peak for 'you're being screwed.' Ask people to give up their time for fun: the only person whose time should be sacrificed for art is your own. This filmmaker-as-artist schtick goes back to the auteur theory of the french new wave, and it's BS. The new wave was only possible because of 16mm cameras, which made filmmaking cheap and mobile by comparison to the costs of 35mm. This made filmmaking more of a cottage industry than a factory floor one. But as most HN readers know or quickly learn, a small business is still a business and is subject to economic forces like burn rates and so on. Which brings me to the thrid reason: projects that are founded upon the idea of doing it for nothing and possibly having a hit are projects with no sales strategy. And that means that it's almost guaranteed not to recoup its costs. As long as you work on this basis you're not in the film business, you're in the film hobby. You should absolutely have a plan for breaking even: it's more decent for the people that work for or assist you, helps to simplify your decision-making, and spurs creativity. It needn't be too elaborate; once my friends and I paid off the costs of a short by staging a little film festival at a neighborhood theater and putting our short on last. We charged people to enter, to attend, and sold t-shirts, posters, and photo prints in the foyer.

So please, please, however you do it, learn to think of your film as a product that can be sold in some fashion.Every time someone says they don't want to spend money, what they're actually communicating is that they don't expect or want to make any money, and that deep down, what they're making is No Good. Accepting the idea that your work has some monetary value will actually improve the quality of your art significantly because it will help you to become critical of your own process and output.

I think all your points above are primarily for film as an industry: of course it takes money to make money. But what I meant by "the act of producing" is the act of producing work, of making things. I'm tired of watching polished films from people who don't know how to captivate an audience with their storytelling (narrative or not). Some of the best 'auteur' work I've seen is extremely low budget (the kind of budget you can save up for over a few months or a year). And the hustle? Not everyone wants to be in Hollywood. A lot of very good artists just want to make stuff, while they teach or work on commercials for a living. The film business is harsh and it's not something everyone wants to go all-in for.

As I was editing this article, I was thinking the same thing myself. My guess is, it would be pretty tricky to turn a profit: movies like Primer are going to be rare.

But maybe you could get the formula right? Find filmmakers with collaborative attitudes, and put them together to coach them on film making (and marketing).

Well, it all goes down to run some numbers. My problem is that I have to assume too many things, somebody with a little bit of experience in movie making/distribution might help?

I mean, Primer is rare, ok. But you don't need that. Depending on your costs, you can decide to keep thinkgs pretty lean.

I think the biggest problem here is distribution. Sure, you can find some small cinemas, but how much you get of the ticket price? How many people you can reach out? Would paid streaming on the web be a suitable thing (are people ready to pay for low budget movies on the web?).

For how bad a movie is, there will be always an audience (even if audience equals to your mom). My problem with this all reasoning (25 k per movie I mean) is estimating how big and scattered is this audience.

If distribution was the problem, wouldn't this be taken care of by having a huge group of indie filmmakers banded together.

I'm feeling very naïve about the movie industry here – is what we're describing simply a movie studio?

If distribution was the problem, wouldn't this be taken care of by having a huge group of indie filmmakers banded together.

This is a good point. As I said, I'd really like some indie filmaker to come and answer this. But do consider that I usually have few problems with those guys:

1. No sequels, or they take really long to come.

2. All the copyright crap is still there.

3. Difficult to judge quality _before_ watching the movie.

4. Too many people to tip. You want your money to go to 1 guy that makes good movies. Not to 100 filmmakers.

I'm feeling very naïve about the movie industry here – is what we're describing simply a movie studio?

Well, I guess that's where we ended up. Again, somebody with an insight view might help. On HN they were talking of the Nigerian movie industry that seems to be doing profits. I think is all about how you model revenues and cost (yes, abstract, but that's how I think about it).

Distribution isn't so much the problem as marketing is.

There are all kinds of ways to make your film available now, but getting people to even know that it's available, much less that they want to watch, isn't much easier than it was in the past.

Even with super-low budget films you still need to spend hundreds of thousands at a bare minimum to get people to see them. More often that figure is in the millions for theatrical releases.

I've spent a fair amount of time trying to think of a way a startup could work around this problem and promote films reliably and successfully without money. I'm not sure there is a way.

I think it's possible for select groups of filmmakers to do it. If you have a group of 4 or 5 that could turn out high quality work reliably, I think the reputation could build. But now really, you just have two problems. Marketing and finding/managing that group.

Yes, I think you are right. In fact, I mentioned that the "real" problem would be to reach out the audience (I am 100% convinced there is an audience out there for _any_ movie).

However, I see this strictly related to what you invest in the movie. If you invested 25 k and you could get 1$ in average per customer view, you need to reach out 50 k people to make a 50% "gross" margin (of course there are other costs such as the website hosting, but still).

Then you build an audience day by day, film by film.

Another thing to consider is that there is a lot of "free" marketing that could come from taking bold steps. For example, how many articles on followed blogs/journals could a movie with a permissive copyright licence get? Consider a soundtrack distributed a la Jamendo too.

> My guess is, it would be pretty tricky to turn a profit: movies like Primer are going to be rare.

It sounds quite a bit like betting on a batch of startups in the hope that one or two of them will break big...

Sequoia Capital tried this back at the tail end of the dot-com boom. All the independent films they invested in bombed and the film ended up loosing money.

Some links?

Fair point :)

Action City Bathroom[1] is brilliantly funny (at least IMHO).

[1] - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fqC9iKpZns

Thanks iuguy! Glad you enjoyed it.

Whenever I see people claiming they did something for 0$ I find it disingenuous. It reminds me of the old JWZ quote:

> Linux is only free if your time has no value


Jamie Zawinski, one of the original Netscape developers.

Your time investment goes without saying. It's the other expenses that matter.

People don't go around saying: "this latte cost me $48 dollars -- $8 dollars for the latte and 1 hour of my time ordering and drinking it at Starbucks".

Not to mention that people also have free time. It's not as if you're making money when you are off of work (except if you have a passive income scheme, in which case you keep making them even while you go around shooting a movie).

My point is not that time is money. My point is that instead of the title talking about his movie his selling point is that is cost him 0$. Well that's fine and all but that is not impressive to me.

There's a great indie film making community in Fairfield, IA. Have you ever been there? http://theskyisfree.com is an example of something out of Fairfield - also made on basically 0 budget.

Tell me who I am

Tell me what to know and where to go

.. I'll follow

Lead us to the lie

You gave your gift now we believe

... its up there

The sky is free and we are free


I have not seen this movie (yet) - But there is an other film that was made on a shoestring budget (ca$5000) called Donkey.


This film has the feeling and quality of early Quentin Tarantino films, and a plot that is much better than 90% of major US films.

Primer (2004) is surprisingly good indie film made for just $7000:


Primer is probably my all-time favorite. I'm in love with the whole thing. The story, the acting, the soundtrack, all phenomenal for what is basically the work of one guy.

The best part, though, is the feeling that you could go out to your garage and build something amazing.

What ever happend to that dude? Shane Carruth? Form the looks of his imdb he hasn't done much. Too bad :(

From what I've heard, he's working on a new movie called A Topiary. I assume he's doing it the same way as Primer, so it'll probably be a while.

io9 has some (not too spoiler-y) info about A Topiary from 2010:


yes! this was a big deal to me when it came out. I don't know why more people didn't go for this type of indie sci-fi type films. If you consider it sci-fi. Regardless, great movie with such a small budget.

I can confirm that Joe Avella loved Primer. He even sent me a copy in the mail (hey, it was a long time ago).

Let me know what you think when you (finally) see it :)

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