These days, what distinguishes a flick produced on a shoestring is the professionalism and craft with which it’s made.
The audience doesn’t care about the scale of production; if the flick looks good, sounds good, takes place in believable locations, and has actors delivering credible performances, it will be taken seriously by distributors, press and the movie-going public. The challenge to the indie moviemaker is to figure out how to accomplish this with a tiny fraction of the resources Hollywood has at its disposal—including manpower.
If you’ve ever worked on a studio production, been to film school, or watched making-of documentaries on HBO, you know that a “proper” movie crew is divided into a number of complex departments with a multitude of positions. A big-budget flick has hundreds—sometimes thousands—of folks working on location. Even a stripped-down crew usually means a head count of 30 to 40 people.
In the microbudget realm, however, maintaining a crew of that size is completely cost-prohibitive. It’s not about paying salaries (at this budget level there probably aren’t any); you’ll also be spending money you don’t have feeding, staging, and providing parking for dozens of people. Having a large crew increases your “production footprint,” and if you want to minimize costs on things like location fees, permits, and insurance, then the smaller the better. A tiny crew also mobilizes faster, and can be more nimble if and when you choose to shoot guerilla-style. As most of your budget will be spent during production, working quickly and efficiently is critical.
In order to optimize your personnel for a shoestring production, you’re best served rethinking how a crew works and identifying the positions you absolutely must fill. If a studio crew is like an army, the members of a microbudget crew are commandos, each one with a specific role vital to the success of the mission. Of course, every movie is different and you should craft the crew positions structure to its specific needs. Below I’ve detailed how we did this for my flick Favor, made for under $30,000 with a team of about six people.
Identify Your Labor Needs
Every movie needs someone to operate camera and sound, but beyond that, all other positions are, theoretically, optional. Edward Burns’ microbudget rom-com Newlyweds took a cinema verité approach and was completed for $9,000 with a crew of two. Take a hard look at your script and determine what your labor requirements really are: If you’re doing a slasher flick with lots of gore and prosthetics, you can’t skimp on a dedicated makeup SFX person; if you’re doing a movie that’s largely improvised, you probably want to account for more than one cameraman.
Whatever your specific needs, an important thing to remember is that your crew doesn’t have to be the same size every day. On Favor, we had a night when the crew swelled to nine people, shooting bloody practical effects in the desert, which required SFX artists and extra hands for lighting. Another day the crew shrank to one, with only myself behind the camera “stealing” a gas station scene with a single actor, sans permits. The trick is to schedule wisely so you can have as many days with a lean crew as possible. For example, if your shoot is three weeks long, identify the scenes that require the fewest crewmembers and tackle them all in the first week. Perhaps you only need a few people until week two, and then only five people until week three. In your last days your crew may balloon to a headcount of 10, but during your first two weeks, you’ll pay for a production half that size.
Because we hired SAG actors for Favor and were therefore responsible for a mountain of paperwork, we needed a production manager to deal with all the legalities and logistics. The script called for a fair amount of specific props and some of our locations weren’t quite camera-ready, so we brought on a production designer who functioned as the entire art department. Every movie also needs a cinematographer, although on many microbudget productions, including ours, the director doubles as cameraman.
Lastly, it’s wise to have at least one production assistant available to make runs or fill in for any position needed at any given moment.
Get Yourself a Joe
On Favor, we were able to boil down sound recording, boom operating, assistant camera and grip/electric into one position, a technical catchall-type job for which there is no proper name. The guy who did this for us was named Joe, so for the purposes of this article, I’m naming this position after him. A “Joe” works closely with the cinematographer setting up camera and lighting gear, which in the microbudget realm is usually very limited and simple. During rehearsals, Joe sets audio levels, and when the camera rolls, Joe’s running boom.
I’ve met a lot of shoestring moviemakers who’ve redesigned their crews in a myriad of ways, but interestingly, nearly every single one of them has had a Joe. (On Zak Forsman’s action thriller Down and Dangerous, for example, their Joe was named Sam.) Joes do sometimes need additional help, but on an average microbudget shoot day, they can cover almost every technical department. Make sure you have a Joe.
Positions You May Minimize
During the day, microbudget productions can utilize natural and available light easily, but once you’re shooting at night or in complicated interior locations, you’ll want to give your Joe some relief and bring in a dedicated gaffer. A wise scheduling move is to group together the days you need a gaffer, so you can keep the time you employ him or her to a tight minimum. With a shorter time commitment, you can potentially get a higher-quality gaffer to sign on.
While your performers will likely provide most of their own wardrobes, it’s dangerous to let them handle the clothes selected for the shoot. What if your actor brings the wrong shirt to set, or forgets which dress you need for the second half of a scene you started shooting two weeks ago? While you don’t need to have a costume wrangler on set every day, it is wise to have a dedicated person to collect all these clothes and keep them clean and organized. In order to avoid continuity problems, the costume wrangler can create a notebook with photographs of all the clothes, each article assigned with a simple code which corresponds to the scenes in which it’s used. Then the director, production manager or actor can use this book identify what exactly needs to be worn on any given day, and the costume wrangler only needs to come in every so often to clean, steam and repair the wardrobe.
Lastly, every production, no matter how small, should capture extensive behind-the-scenes videos and photographs for later promotional use. You should have a unit photographer armed with a DSLR (for both stills and video), but you don’t necessarily need this person every day. Identify when you are shooting your most impressive stuff—the shootout in the warehouse, the fireworks-on-the-beach scene, or the sequence when your two leads meet-cute on the Brooklyn Bridge—and make sure those are the times you have your unit photographer present. On the days with no UP, leave the DSLR out on set and let your crew know that, if anyone finds themselves with nothing to do, they’re free to pick it up and shoot whatever they like. (Only do this in controlled locations, of course. You don’t want the thing stolen.) Every time we did this on Favor someone would invariably grab the camera and capture additional behind-the-scenes material.
Positions You May Eliminate
The most immediately expendable position on a “standard crew” is the script supervisor. Because digital footage can be instantly replayed, almost all continuity questions can be answered by simply watching the previous takes. The actors, art and wardrobe departments should also have their own continuity protocols in place, and I’ve never met a single editor who actually uses the script supervisor’s notes.
You can get by without make-up and hair artists, provided the performers are comfortable taking on this duty for themselves. (Most professional actors have theater experience and are asked to do this for stage productions.) The tasks of an assistant director can be divided up between the production manager and the director. Additionally, the production manager could absorb the responsibilities of location manager and utilize the production assistant for craft services. Catering can be completely farmed out to nearby restaurants, with food ordered by the production manager and put out by the production assistant. Just make sure thought and care is placed into acquiring quality meals, or your little crew is bound to mutiny.