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6 Common Mistakes of the Low-Budget Filmmaker

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In addition to working on commercials, documentaries, and feature-length films, I’ve experienced the pleasure and misery of working with low-budget and first-time filmmakers. Most of these filmmakers tend to make the same mistakes and, sadly, I must admit that when I’ve made my own short films, I’ve gone down the rabbit hole and made some of the same mistakes against which I’ve cautioned others. So, in hopes of helping you prepare for your production, I’ve outlined a variety of problems that often plague the low-budget and first-time filmmaker. Remember, the less money you have, the more planning you need to do.

"If you are a first-time director, an experienced producer can be a great ally to help get you through your first production...."

Failure to Delegate

This is one of the biggest mistakes you can make. There is a lot to handle, including casting, planning, budgeting, transportation, and more, so much more. For example, when I’m casting, I like to have someone with me to handle any details that come up, and they can read with the actor if needed, so I can concentrate on the actor’s performance. Your experience, as well as your film, will be so much better when you have a team working with you. So, if you are directing, find a producer. Not only will you have another person to help, but you now expand your circle of contacts. If you are a first-time director, an experienced producer can be a great ally to help get you through your first production.

Plan your Shoot

Story boards, shot lists, crew positions, who is handling what, who is driving to get the gear, who is helping you plan? Remember that producer you didn’t get—wouldn’t they be so helpful now? Here is my cautionary tale. Way back in college, I was making a short, and I left too much to chance. I needed someone to pick up the small put-put generator for the night scenes, but on the day of the shoot no one volunteered, so I had to go. Bad planning on my part, trusting that one of my classmates would be all too happy to take my van and pick up the genny. We wrapped our location, agreed to all meet up at the next location (this was before cell phones), and I went to get the genny. After I picked up the genny, I drove past the first location and the crew was still there. Turns out the AC had discovered a camera problem and the film hadn’t taken up properly, so they reshot the last couple of shots without me. The original film, it turns out, was fine, and that is what I used, as if I would use even one frame shot when I wasn’t there. But my mistake was in not planning who would get the genny in the first place. Decades later, I can own that mistake. Things change during the production day, of course, but without planning your shots, and planning who is taking care of what, you start off like a leaf in hurricane, and it just gets worse from there.

Don’t Stay up all Night before You Shoot

Get a good night’s sleep. Yes, of course, issues will crop up, but don’t plan your schedule so you are the one who is supposed to be taking care of things the day/night before the shoot. Filmmaking is hard enough without starting the day tired. Soon comes exhaustion, less-than-crisp decision making, and the loss of the will to push for the best performance.

Don’t be Arrogant

Be bold instead. Think of the Director as the captain of a ship: if they are unsure of what they want to do, the crew may start having doubts about following their captain into the Heart of Darkness (which is what filmmaking is). Take input from the appropriate crew members (your DP, Sound Mixer, AD, etc.) but don’t struggle with making the decisions. If your decision is wrong, you will know soon enough—just say so, fix it, and move on. Crews hate to sit around because the director doesn’t know what he or she wants, or how to get it. A bold director will get a much more energetic crew than a director who isn’t sure about what they want. Do be careful that you don’t become callous though, or arrogant. No one likes working for a slave-driver who takes them for granted, but people generally like working for someone who is driven, inspiring, and acknowledges the efforts and contributions of others. It can be a difficult balance to strike.

Feed and Water your Cast and Crew

Whether you are paying people their full rate, or they are doing you a favor, good food, and plenty of it, goes a long way in keeping cast and crew happy. Although film shoots aren’t supposed to be an all-day grazing fest, healthy snacks and fluids are a good idea, especially when sets and locations get very hot.The last thing you want is for a cast or crew member to pass out from lack of water. The second to last thing you want is for cast or crew members to walk off set in search of something to drink—they just might not come back.

Your Non-Filmmaking Buddies Belong in the Audience, not in the Crew

Do not hire friends of yours to work on your film if they are not interested in working in the film business. I cringe every time I walk onto a set and the Director has brought a friend or two to “help out.” What usually happens is that their friend ends up sitting around and reading because you can’t ask them to do anything that needs to be done, and the Director doesn’t want to insult their friend by asking them to go get donuts, so the Director leaves the set to get the donuts. I recall a lovely conversation where I asked the Director’s friend who was there to “help” to move a chair out of the way. They did so, but two minutes later the Director chewed my ear off for asking their friend to help. When I asked the Director what their friend was there to do, the Director said, “Help.” It still boggles my mind. So, I can only reiterate, don’t ask your non-filmmaking friends to be your crew; they have no idea what is involved, no desire to learn, and once they realize they aren’t there to direct the movie, they leave.

That’s a Wrap

These are just a few recommendations to help you get your film made well, and without putting you through so much stress that you need to sleep for a week to recover—although some people like that kind of drama. It may cost you some money, or you may have to trade work for work, or whatever you need to do to avoid these mistakes. But I’ve never regretted having the right cast and crew when shooting, and taking care of food and transportation pays off with more and better shots and takes—far more than what it costs you in money.

If you have any other tips about things to avoid, please feel free to share them below.

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