I’ve been making short films for over a decade now. Though budgetary restraints can sometimes be a hindrance, I’ve discovered that—occasionally—lack of money can actually be an asset because it forces me to think outside the box and find more creative ways of doing things. This approach proves beneficial to me because my films tend towards the experimental, but similar approaches can be used for narrative films or documentaries. These suggestions for emerging filmmakers are hardly exhaustive, but they reflect my own experiences as a moving image artist making low and no-budget video art and experimental cinema.
Explore the ever-burgeoning world of i-technology
This probably goes without saying, but everyone from the kid down the block to major Hollywood filmmakers have embraced i-Technology. Still, it can’t be stressed enough, especially by those of us who grew up before the advent of affordable, quality digital cameras.
In 2018, Steven Soderbergh announced he was done shooting big-budget Hollywood films and would focus on making lower budget independent films using iPhones. One could be forgiven for asking, “If it’s good enough for Steven Soderbergh, it’s good enough for me, no?” Back in 2006, I asked the same thing about the low-resolution DV cameras David Lynch had used to make Inland Empire and which we were using in our film program to make our little five-minute not-quite-masterpieces. But that was fourteen years ago. These days, you can shoot 4K-resolution video on an iPhone, something I couldn’t have even imagined as a kid back in the 80s.
The latest iPhone models are equipped with double (iPhone 11) or triple (iPhone 11 Pro) camera systems capable of shooting wide, ultra-wide, and—in the case of the Pro—telephoto 4K video, even in low light conditions. But if, like me, you’re milking an older model (as of this writing, I’m still on the 6s), there’s an amazing app called Filmic Pro that can make ordinary iPhone footage look incredibly cinematic.
You can record at 24 frames per second for that “film look” and can shoot at various resolutions, including 2K, 3K, or 4K, depending on your preference. It also lets you manually control focus and exposure, and there are relatively inexpensive add-ons that can be purchased separately, such as lenses, mini-tripods, stabilizers, and audio equipment that can add another level of professionalism to your work (unless of course, you’re going for more of the “low-tech” look).
Make use of found footage
I’m surprised that the use of found footage isn’t more prominent in discussions around low/no-budget filmmaking. Among suggestions for emerging filmmakers, this one is key. I’m not referring to the horror genre (The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, etc.). I’m talking about actual existing footage (or “appropriated” footage). This means, simply, using material that’s already available. It’s something that’s been done by filmmakers for decades.
Experimental filmmakers like Sylvia Schedelbauer (Wishing Well) and artists like Christian Marclay (The Clock) have, to a large extent, based their careers off of taking existing material, finding creative ways of making it their own. Documentarians like Michael Moore and Adam Curtis use found footage, often news clips or excerpts from popular films. Even Hollywood giants like Spike Lee and Oliver Stone have used found footage in their films (think the Super 8 film of Kennedy’s assassination in JFK or the video of the Rodney King beating that opens Malcolm X). And of course there are the countless YouTube video mash-ups (the Downfall parodies, the personalized Star Wars trailers, etc.)
Copyright can be tricky for appropriated materials but there are various ways of dealing with this. Though it can take a bit of searching depending on what you’re looking for, free and public domain footage can be found all over the Internet. Sites like archive.org, Pixabay, and even Vimeo may very well have what you’re looking for and often at no cost. Also, Creative Commons allows artists to post original material online with specific licenses that give others explicit permission to use their work.
Different rules apply for different licenses, ranging from work that can only be used non-commercially, unmodified, and author-credited, to work that can be used for any reason, in any manner, and without having to credit anyone. There are also thousands of films, music recordings, photographs, and other media that reside in the public domain because of their age; technically, anything made prior to 1924 is (generally speaking) fair game, at least in the United States. And then there’s “fair use,” a copyright clause that’s been used by artists over the years to justify their permission-less use of other’s material (though it would probably be a good idea to consult an arts or entertainment lawyer, especially if you plan on eventually distributing the material for profit).
If you positively have to raise hundreds or thousands of dollars for your project, there are several potential methods of doing so. These days, crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter have become the norm. There’s also Patreon, which works in a similar way, though instead of one-time donations, it allows “patrons” to contribute money on a regular basis, much like a subscription, in exchange for artwork.
Though ridiculously competitive, grants can be another way of funding your aspiring cinematic masterpiece. If your work is pretty “out there”, this may prove a challenge but if it’s closer to conventional documentary or narrative genres, you’ll likely have greater success. Increasingly, there are also grants tailored specifically to historically underrepresented communities (women, artists of color, the LGBT community, and so on). Keep in mind that if grants are your method of approach, you’ll need to apply to a lot of them, which can be arduous and time-consuming, but it’s an option that’s certainly worth looking into.
Not all of these suggestions for emerging filmmakers will work for everyone, but they’ve helped me in my creative practice over the years. Ultimately, you should pick the approach that best suits your personality and style of work. There’s very little stopping you from making films if that’s what you’re passionate about. And in the year 2020, you’ve run out of excuses.