How to make a short film with no budget

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Making movies is expensive. I’ve written about micro budget filmmaking, but what if you’re wondering how to make a short film with NO budget? Here are my thoughts on how to produce and film a short film if you have literally zero dollars to put towards it. Remember that as you go, you’re going to have to make compromises along the way, but that’s okay. This is a useful exercise and one that will help you make even better films in the future. 

Be thoughtful about working with other people

The thing that’s tricky about making a short film with no budget is that unless you are going at it totally alone, it’s hard to do it ethically. Even if you feel comfortable asking people to work for free, if you have a crew, you are responsible for feeding them, and food costs money. There are a few ways around that. The first is to only film for a few hours at a time. Asking someone to come help you for two to three hours and not providing food is very different than asking someone to spend their whole day with you and then making them bring their own meals and snacks. I’d say as a rule of thumb, anything beyond three hours you need to provide snacks, and anything beyond six hours you need a meal. In The Mindful Maker, we talk about cheap ways to feed your crew, but again, if you do not have literally any money to put into this, you shouldn’t be asking your volunteers to work full or even half days.

Another option is bringing someone on as an equal partner. If someone has a real stake in your film, it’s far more reasonable to expect them to bring their own food. Have a serious conversation with them about what your partnership will look like and what you can each bring to the table. Make it clear that you have absolutely no money, and this is a project that is just for fun, building your reel, and getting some on set experience. This conversation will be far easier with a trusted creative partner than a random filmmaker you want to work with. Do not, and I repeat, do not approach random filmmakers to see if they will work for free or for “exposure.” For people who make their living working on film sets, it’s disrespectful to ask them to work for free, especially if you are not providing food or other benefits. Think of people in your inner circle who might want to be a part of the project, and don’t hit up that DP on Instagram whose work you really love. Wait until you have a budget to make that connection.

The final option is making your short film by yourself. I’ve written a whole article about how to do that, so I won’t go into too much detail here, but it’s far easier to keep the budget low when you are the only person working on the thing.

Use what you have and borrow the rest

With every single item you need for your film, either use what you have or borrow it. No cinema camera? See if your local library has any available to check out, see if anyone in your inner circle is willing to come film for you, or, if there’s nothing else available, see if you can use your cell phone to film. I’ve written a whole article about getting cinematic footage on an iphone, and I totally believe that you can create a beautiful movie using just your smartphone. Don’t have lights? See how creative you can get with things you already have around your home, like different lamps. 

So often I recommend that low budget filmmakers check out their local thrift stores for props and costumes, but if you have no budget, you are going to need to make do with what you have. As you’re writing your script, think carefully about what you already own or can borrow. Write it to all take place in one location that you can get for free (I recommend using your own home if possible) and only using common household items (or more unusual items that you already have) for props. If you are crafty, see what you can make out of things you already have laying around the house. My article on microbudget filmmaking has tips for writing a low budget script, so check those out.

Don’t forget about post 

Post production is a notoriously expensive part of the production process. Things like editing, color grading, scoring, and marketing all cost money. Consider which of these skills you can learn for free, which you can barter for, and which you might need to forgo altogether. For example, if you can’t afford to hire a colorist to color grade your movie, look into free LUTs and see what you can do with them. If you aren’t a musician and can’t score your film, look into options for music that’s free to use. Every month we do a round up of free filmmaking resources, so be sure to check those out and get a sense of what’s out there for free.

One thing that you also won’t have money for is submitting to film festivals. Sometimes film festivals provide waivers, but they’re rarely 100% free. That means that if you want to get your film in front of people, you may need to get creative. You can consider things like uploading your film to youtube, hosting a screening in your home, or seeing if there are any smaller festivals in your area that are free for local filmmakers. 

Be thoughtful about your goals

It’s a tough pill to swallow, but the truth is there’s a reason that movies are expensive to make, and it’s not just because Hollywood is overinflating the costs of things. Every production element costs money, and most movies require a lot of highly skilled people to work on them. This doesn’t mean you can’t make a short film with no budget, but it means that your no budget short film might not get into Sundance. There are a million reasons to make a movie beyond getting into Sundance, so I don’t say this to discourage you, but rather to encourage you to be thoughtful about your goals.

Why do you want to make a short film with no budget? Does it just sound fun? Is it an opportunity to collaborate with your friends? Is it proof of concept for a bigger budget film? Is it an experiment? Are you trying to build your portfolio? Learn new skills? Do you just need the experience? Think carefully about your why, and then proceed from there. That will inform your other decisions. 

With all this in mind and careful consideration, you can absolutely make a short film with no budget. I believe in you, and can’t wait to see what you make!

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Author

Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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