Welcome to Directing on a Dime, where indie moviemaker Andy Young provides tips and insight for moviemakers whose budget is more The Blair Witch Project than Avatar. Have questions for Andy about low-budget (or no-budget) moviemaking? Ask away at .
Looking back through some of my old articles, I realized how little I’ve been talking about actually making my own low-budget films. So I’m starting a new series within my blog called “Adventures in Moviemaking,” where I’ll take you step-by-step through the process of making one of my short films. You’ll get a behind-the-scenes look at the highs, the lows, the good, the bad, the miracles, the monstrosities and everything in between that goes into making a low-budget short film.
This week I’m going to talk about The Invasion of the Robot-Monster from Mars… with Chainsaws for Arms!, my first 16mm film, shot on a CP-16 for my Narrative Production class. All right, let’s make a movie!
I have the idea for the short after seeing one of the original Godzilla movies on TV. It seems like the perfect project for my first 16mm short, because A) I won’t have to worry about dialogue, since I can just dub it later in a different language and add subtitles, and B) even if there are mistakes or things that look cheesy, I can just chalk it up to the genre and it’ll be even funnier! I write a five-page script but have to make some serious cuts when our teacher tells us we can only shoot 100 feet of film (about two and a half minutes, depending on your frame rate). I now have about a page. Lost some great jokes, but maybe I can make a full version someday.
We have two shoot days: Friday and Saturday, in the afternoons. Derek Papa, one of the lead actors, is busy all of Friday, so we’ll shoot the robot model stuff then and everything else the next day.
• Casting: There are two leads. One is Derek, and the other was originally James McEnelly until I realized shooting on Saturday would conflict with his schedule on “Shenanigans.” So his character will instead be played by Brian Lisco, who is also designing our cardboard set for the monster. I put out an extras call on Facebook to get some “screaming citizens” for Saturday around 3 p.m..
• Set: Brian built a model set for our monster out of cardboard. It clearly looks nothing like a real city, but I kind of like the charm of that. I also had him build one break-away building that we could smash with the Robot. For Saturday, I reserved a classroom, letting us shoot interiors at 2 p.m. and the extras/outdoor scene outside the school at 3.
• Costumes: There’s a joke where our lead actor takes off his glasses dramatically every few lines. Aside from that, I just tell the actors to wear long sleeve button-ups or “something a scientist would wear.”
• Props: I needed a model robot (borrowed), a robot-arm ($5), two fake newspapers (made) and a rocket ship (made).
Day 1: Friday
It’s raining, already a bad sign. I tell my crew (Brian: Set design. Josh: DP. Laura: PA) that we’ll shoot at my apartment complex instead of the school, because we’ll have a few more factors we can control there. There’s a balcony outside my apartment, which will let us elevate the set and have the outside color temperature. Since we’re shooting super low-angle to make it look like the monster is towering over the city, we used some trash bags to (hopefully) make it look like the sky. The background will be out of focus, so we should be fine. We already shot 20 feet today. We’ll have to be pretty conservative tomorrow.
Day 2: Saturday
It’s still raining, which I’m thankful for because it’ll hopefully give us a little continuity from yesterday. Still, I’m nervous it’ll only hinder the project. The good news is that we’re not getting sound, so we don’t have to worry about that. There are a few lines of dialogue, but I’ll be dubbing it in post, so as we’re filming I have the actors say whatever they want, making sure to keep the inflections of the original line. We only have about 80 feet left, so there’s not a lot of room for screw-ups. We start with interiors at 2: Brian and Derek knock out their shots in one or two takes, which leaves us with 45 feet once we get outside. We have about 20-30 minutes ’til the extras show up, so we shoot all Derek’s lines with the Robot. But Derek and Brian mess up one of the last shots of the movie, so we have to get it a few times.
But once we get to the extras at 3, I hear a clicking sound. I panic: We’re out of film. We shoot anyway, because maybe I’m wrong, or maybe we’ll at least get something, but I won’t know until the film is developed and digitized in two weeks. I really hope I’m wrong…
Nope, I was right. I get my footage back as a Quicktime file, and we’re missing all the extras scenes, a few establishing wides and the entire end sequence: The leads and the extras dancing as we pan up to our homemade rocket flying away. Nothing we can’t edit around, but it’s a real shame we lost those shots.
Now that I have a picture lock timing-wise, I e-mail the lines to my friend (who speaks Japanese) to translate them before we record on Monday. Unfortunately, he was a no-show. So I put out an ad on Facebook and got in touch with Riki, who did a great job. Once I put in his voiceover work I go back and add sound effects, ambience and some background music to bring the piece together.
And voilà, we made a movie!
• I made a joke about it in the subtitles, but I really did steal a few shots from one of my friend’s projects.
• The last shot of the film was literally the last shot we got. And just barely, too; you can see how close we were to running out.
• The “Animation/SFX Department” faux credit is riddled with joke names, my friends’ names and even a few names from characters in other films I’ve made. But which characters? I’ll never tell.
• Yes, that is the Japanese version of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” theme song in the credits.
Andy Young is a director, editor, writer and composer who lives in Austin, Texas and studies in the University of Texas at Austin’s film program. At the age of twenty, he has directed over 150 short films and one feature, The Legend of Action Man, which he shot on a budget of only $200. Andy also has experience directing for theatre, television and animation, and he continues to make low-budget shorts with his sketch comedy group Dingoman Productions.