By: Laura Huie
As emerging screenwriters, we’re often told to “think like a producer” or “write more producible scripts.” What these sentiments really boil down to is budget. Of course, the quality of the writing and general marketability come to mind as well, but ultimately a short film that can be made well on a simple budget is key.
Before actually “doing” anything else—casting, purchasing or renting equipment, or booking shooting locations—comes budgeting. It’s not necessarily the most fun or creative part of the filmmaking process, but it’s certainly one of the most important in terms of getting your short film made. Let’s take a closer look at seven actionable tips for writing low-budget, producible shorts, along with how you can begin planning your ideal budget.
Tip #1: Genre
When you’re deep in the brainstorming phase of writing your short, it can help to avoid high-budget genres such as sci-fi, fantasy, action, and period pieces. Often, these genres require more special effects and stunts that can increase the production budget of your film.
However, if you’re set on tackling these genres, consider limiting the story’s locations, props, and costumes to more attainable and affordable resources.
Tip #2: Length
In general, the sweet spot for the length of short films is 10-15 minutes. The less you need to film, the fewer days you need to shoot, and the lower the budget. Also, keep the structure simple. Your short film should have a clear beginning, middle, and end but frequently short films are too short to support the details of complex Acts and scene sequences.
Tip #3: Locations
Having multiple locations quickly increases your budget due to rental costs, travel, and the price of filming over multiple days. That’s why a single location is a dream for a producer working with a micro-budget. And preferably something that doesn’t need to be built or extensively dressed.
However, if your short film requires more than one location, try finding places where you can shoot for free, or even consider contacting friends or family to see if they know of anywhere you can film for cheap. For instance, the dry Southern California desert has doubled as a planet in a faraway galaxy dozens of times in films of all budgets.
Tip #4: Casting & Clear Goals
Talent can be costly, but finding actors and production crew members who are looking for more experience can be advantageous for filming on a budget. Plus, it helps to limit the number of characters that appear in your story. The smaller the cast, the lower the budget needed for talent.
When you’re in the writing process, keep in mind that to create a snappy short film, you need to create characters that the audience can immediately identify with. Giving your protagonist a simple, clear goal from the start helps the audience track their progress throughout the film.
Tip #5: Equipment & Special FX
When filming on a shoestring budget, avoid telling a story that might require complicated cinematography which needs special equipment like a drone or crane shot. Also, make sure to steer away from expensive special effects, both practical and in post-production, such as a character shooting fire out of her fingertips or an explosion from a truck colliding with a car.
As you begin to build your budget, start with the hard costs first. This means your camera, lighting, and audio. If you’re renting a camera, you’ll need to know the number of days you’ll need it, as well as what other lenses, rigs, and gear to go with it. You don’t need an expensive, top-of-the-line camera to create an authentic, effective short film but look for funding opportunities like our Short Film Fund where ARRI Rental provides production equipment rental for free.
Tip #6: Stunts
Keep in mind that even the simplest action choreography requires a stunt coordinator and extensive safety precautions. Safety is extremely important, but also expensive, from hiring stunt performers to increasing the cost of insurance to purchasing special-made props and set pieces. If your short film doesn’t require a stunt, then it’s best to not include it at all.
Tip #7: Post-Production
During the brainstorming and writing phases, we don’t always think about what needs to happen in post-production, especially the costs. Even if you’re editing your short film yourself, it helps to have a good understanding of how much a decent editing software costs, along with the time it’ll take to finish your final edit. Or if you’re looking to hire a freelance editor to work on your project, make sure to allocate enough for an hourly rate. From aspiring beginners to seasoned professionals, rates for film editors may vary from $30 to $150 an hour based on experience and specialism.
Overall, a good rule of thumb to consider in post-production is to budget three to five hours for rough editing of five pages of a script, then another three to five hours for revisions, color, and minor effects.
Small Budget, Big Impact
All of this said, we still want to stress that story is still the main priority when you first sit down to write your script. Simply making a script logistically “producible” doesn’t mean that writing a compelling and unique story no longer applies. And not all stories can be forced into a small budget successfully. However, if you’re just starting out and want to create an effective short film, these tips can help as general guidelines for getting your script produced.
This article is a follow-up to “Quick Tips for Writing ‘Producible’ Shorts” written by Julia Morizawa.
Laura Huie is an experienced writer and editor involved in comedy-drama screenwriting, fiction editing, and full-time marketing copy. Laura is also a freelance article writer for Shore Scripts and has worked with Script Pipeline on their live Symposium series. She is one-half of screenwriting duo, Bloom & Huie. Together, they have written multiple television series as well as a feature-length film. Their mission is to write honest and witty female stories wrapped up in unbelievable worlds.
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