Over the last year and a half I’ve been putting together an action packed sci-fi show for the web called ‘Bionique’, and we’re doing it with a budget so low it’s ridiculous.
We made a Prologue Episode and a Trailer (that you can watch at the bottom of the article). Hopefully you won’t be able to tell, but we produced that for a around $1,300.
In this article I’ll go through everything we did. I realize that I have some unique experience and resources that a lot of people don’t, but that’s the point. You have your own experience and resources that I don’t, and I’m sharing this with the hope that it’ll give you some ideas to apply to your own situation.
Here’s a quick list of what we spent:
- Locations: $500
- Gas money for actors: $150
- Food: $250
- Crane: $200
- Props: $200
Let me point out that we didn’t pay anyone in the cast or crew (except for gas money) which makes this unsustainable for a longer shoot because as much as people love the project, they need to pay their bills. My fabulous producers and I included.
For a super low budget production like ours, planning is extremely important. We did a lot of planning, particularly on the Africa scenes because it was the most complicated one. Things will go wrong anyway, so be ready to adapt.
Our Africa was supposed to look hot and sunny but the location only happened to be available on the one day with the most chance of rain on that week. We came prepared with plastic bags and jackets and boy, we were happy we did. We got rain and mud, even hail (in L.A.?). It did slow us down, but since we were prepared we were able to keep shooting. As an added bonus, the rain looked amazing in camera!
I don’t usually storyboard, but I never show up to a set without a shot list. For this, Alex (the DP), Erykah (producer) and I went to the location a few days early to figure out all the shots. Took pictures of the angles and made a list of everything we wanted.
I like to add priority numbers to every shot from one to three (‘1’ being the most important shots and ‘3’ being the shots we’ll get if we have extra time). That way if we run behind schedule we don’t have to waste time figuring out what to scratch and what to shoot. This became incredibly important on this shoot when we found ourselves fighting the elements. We only got to shoot most ones and a couple of twos, but at least we had enough to finish the film.
Download the shot list from that day by clicking here (I just removed some items to avoid spoilers).
Cameras and Cinematography
As far as cameras go, we used what I could get from my friends. A couple of Canon 7Ds, which look good and are easy to handle.
Don’t stress too much about the camera though. The most important thing to make your production look great is a good Director of Photography (DP). The most experienced the better.
If you don’t know anyone, go to your closest film school, find the cinematography students and you’ll find several rookie DPs eager to work on anything. Even if they haven’t graduated, they’ll be infinitely better than you.
We were looking for the most epic look at the smallest budget we could get. DPs can spend hours lighting a scene that seems simple to the casual observer. To minimize that, we decided that most of our Prologue and Trailer would take place outside during the day. This allowed us to get away using only natural light and reflectors. Not having to set up lights sped the production dramatically and allowed us to shoot all our main Africa stuff in one day!
I didn’t want a shaky, handheld look for this show, especially because the DSLR cameras have a rolling shutter problem which makes handheld look awful. Instead we used mostly tripods and a glidecam that we borrowed from a friend.
For the Africa shoot the main camera was mounted on a jib 90% of the time. Using that jib for one day comprised 15% of our budget all by itself, but it was worth every penny.
If you’re outside, those booming down shots make your film look like a million dollars. Plus, you can use the jib to make dolly-ish shots if you move the arm sideways or you can leave it steady like a tripod when you need a shot like that. All this without having to mount and unmount the camera all the time, which saves minutes that are precious when you can only afford one day on the location.
The Prologue Episode takes place in 4 locations. An office at the beginning with the guy looking through the files, Africa, the lady doctor’s apartment, and a clinic.
The office and the doctor’s apartment was the same place dressed differently. That place was my apartment. So that was easy to get.
The clinic scene was a re-shoot and we got it for free. More on that later.
Africa is the only location we had to pay for. We used the Zorthian Ranch, which is a crazy ranch in Altadena that they rent out for film productions. Their usual rate is around $1,500 but we’d shot a music video and a movie there before, so we knew Alan, the guy who owns the place. We made our case and he gave us an awesome one time deal.
Other locations used in the trailer: A hotel room, an office building, a rooftop, another apartment (where the girl evades the bullet), a farmer’s market, a back alley, a parking lot, and the ocean for the jetpack scenes.
Grand total: $0.00
Yup. A friend let us use his hotel room for a couple hours, another friend lent his apartment and also got us his office building which included the rooftop and the parking lot. I fly the jetpack regularly, so we just took the camera one day and shot me zig-zagging and doing donuts.
The toughest was actually the farmer’s market. That scene was supposed to be a ‘walking chase’ (where someone feels they’re being followed and tries to act normal while actually trying to lose them). We didn’t ‘need’ to do that scene there, but I thought it’d look great with all those people around.
We crashed the market, and before even taking our first shot we got shut down by one of the vendors who thought of herself as the market police. We asked the market manager nicely and she let us film, but the vendor lady didn’t give up.
In the end, we grabbed a long zoom lens and placed the camera just outside the market looking in. Then we had our actors walk through the market acting suspicious. We got exactly two takes before the vendor lady stood in front of the camera waving both arms at it and threatening to call the real police. However, the takes were good, and we were done.
If you want your inexpensive show or film to look expensive you have to make sound a top priority. That echo-laden sound, typical of many homemade YouTube videos is a quick tell that a show wasn’t made professionally. Surprisingly, is not that hard or expensive to avoid.
For Bionique, we used a Zoom H4N sound recorder connected to a microphone on a boom via an XLR cable. We had to sync it, which was a pain, but not as bad as having crappy audio. We borrowed the gear from the same friend who gave us the camera so it was free.
If bought new, this gear would cost anywhere from $350 to $600, and it’s worth every penny, there are other alternatives though.
If you’re using a camera that takes XLR cables you can skip the sound recorder and plug the mic straight into the camera, but even if you don’t have an external sound recorder and your camera doesn’t take XLR cables, any microphone that you can put closer than the camera will make a huge difference in your sound.
Unfortunately, not all the dialog got recorded perfectly. That happens even in the big budget Hollywood films. But leaving badly recorded lines is not an option when you want the show to feel expensive. So we resorted to ADR.
The problem with ADR is that most of the crappy sound usually happens on exterior scenes, and ADR always sounds like it was recorded in a studio (because it is).
To avoid this problem I got the same sound recorder and microphone combo and went out to the park with the actors. I brought the video on a laptop so they could match their lines, and they did a great job. It worked beautifully and I didn’t have to manipulate the audio to make it match the original.
Here I have a bit of an advantage because it’s my area of expertise. I was able to visualize and plan all the effects ahead of time, and I ended up doing all of them. As a matter of fact, I ended up doing all the post-production by myself including editing, sound design, music editing and color correction.
I would’ve loved to pay an editor, but at our budget we couldn’t afford it. On the bright side, since I wrote and directed it, I knew the footage very well so the first cut only took a week or so.
Overall, post production for the episode took around 2 months. It could have gone faster but we had a couple setbacks like having to add fake rain to some shots because it didn’t rain evenly throughout the day we shot the Africa scenes.
Our biggest setback however, was the last scene. The one in the apartment with the kid.
The last piece of the puzzle
Everything was done. The only problem was that the last scene had several problems, the biggest one being that it was boring and slow. We couldn’t leave it like that, this was the last scene of the Prologue Episode! We had to re-shoot it.
By then we were out of money. Erykah, the producer had gone to Philippines to work on another project, so it had to be a simple re-shoot. I rewrote the scene and I thought it was very exciting and simple to shoot. I was very excited. I called Catherine, our main actress, and she gives me some news: She got a role in a movie, and she’s moving to China for three months!
I was really happy for her, I truly was. I just didn’t know what to do with my scene!
After briefly considering moving our production to Asia to get our actress and producer back, I realized it would be easier to write a parallel story around the shots we had of Catherine in the apartment.
I had saved enough to survive for a couple months without working on other projects. But this was taking longer than I anticipated and I was running low on rent and food money.
Coincidentally, a friend of mine who works at a non-profit wanted help producing a few PSAs for HIV prevention. The non-profit had a clinic where they would shoot one of the PSAs, so I ended up helping him with his production and they let me shoot use the clinic for Bionique… oh and I still got paid for that job 😉
With those elements, I went to try to write an exciting scene in a clinic that worked around the original shots with Catherine. We had to shoot both the PSA and the Bionique scenes on the same day. We recruited Alex again to do the cinematography of both and my awesome actor friends from college were cast in both shoots as well. And they nailed it!
Making it sustainable.
Like I said at beginning. Producing this way is not sustainable for longer projects. At least not if you want to keep your friends.
People need to pay their bills and you can’t expect them to keep showing up over and over for free. Plus, not all locations are free or cheap (especially in L.A.) and you can’t make an epic action show in the same apartment, office building and parking lot!
I’m very proud of my team and of what we achieved with the Bionique Prologue and trailer. Sure, it probably would’ve been way more polished if we had a million dollars. But if I’d waited until we had a million dollars it might have not existed at all!
Here they are, the Trailer and the Prologue: