What’s the ‘just’ all about? This perception that the value a film can be ascertained by how much money has been spent on it is bewildering to me. You hear it all the time though, my friends tell me “I’m starting a film in a couple of weeks, just another low budget one though” or people sometimes ask me “What’s happening with that little film you were doing?” (when I said bewildering, I also meant sometimes bloody annoying). I’m not saying there are no differences in films of different budgets, or in the way that as a DoP you need to approach them, just that the smaller budget films can be fantastic, or crap, in just the same way that big budget films can be so let’s not be judge and jury before the shoot even starts.
I cut my teeth, as what was called then a lighting cameraman, in the world of documentary film-making. This, I think, gave me a heightened awareness of budget restrictions and the value of spending budget that still stays with me today. It was always starting from the point of “will the story be told better if we spend this bit of the budget” as opposed to will the shots be better, will they look more impressive? When I started shooting commercials I had to constantly remind myself that 1. Low budget has a completely different meaning to the low budget of the world of documentary and 2. More impressive shots hold greater value and if a commercial is told in a more impressive way it is likely that the story is being served by this even if the story is a small scale human story. So I get that we need different budgets, I just question whether one is always better than the other. I remember a time when I was shooting a promo with Lord David Attenborough for the BBC. It was to be used to promote international sales of one of the first Planet Earth series. We really stretched the budget out, getting deals, minimising crew and kit to put as much value as possible on screen. We were in a studio, it was dressed nicely, had 2 film cameras going on track and some on-set catering but in our opinion we had done this low budget. It was whilst we were eating the on-set catering that I heard David saying to a colleague how they could have made a whole episode for what this must have cost. It’s just a good example of perception of budget. I know what we made was good value for money and the sales that it brought in helped fund future documentaries but it must have seemed to him as excessive. In the same way the budgets I work with on the films I shoot (usually about £300K) must seem impossibly micro to a Hollywood team but huge to some of the indie film-makers in the UK.
Whilst I have shot on a range of budgets as second unit DoP I must state that all five features I’ve shot as first unit have been low budget. What are the cons of this? Well obviously we get paid less but for me this is not really an issue as I’m fortunate enough to earn well when I’m on commercials. The biggest issue is always time. Any testing is done in my own time and normally we shoot for between 18-21 shoot days which is never enough. It means that you have to shoot very precisely which is great when it all works but desperate when the plan stumbles. Any number of issues can occur which can include poor decision making by me, or the blocking drastically changes, the location doesn’t behave as we expected, the weather does a ‘U’ turn etc… It’s these moments where low budget really sucks as the only time you have is for plan A, once plan A is set and in motion that’s it regardless of whether you see a better option as the scene develops. Sometimes the temptation to change is so great that you do it but that always leads to compromise later (as the 1st AD never fails to remind me). There just is no time to pick up dropped scenes. People often ask if it’s the lack of equipment and skilled team members that makes the difference and I have to say I have not found that at all. My teams in the camera, lighting and grip departments have always been terrific as so many people love making films and some will come with me from the commercials whilst others will be stepping up. Equipment is greatly reduced but, with occasional exceptions, I find we can stay true to the story with what we have – I should point out that I’m fortunate enough to have a RED kit which has been fantastic and film-makers today are incredibly lucky to have so many affordable tools at their fingertips. Again the commercials satiates that urge to use all the latest kit which can be fun and appropriate for those shoots but mostly not necessary for the feature stories that I seem to tell.
There certainly was a time where I saw my perfect career development as heading towards the big budget films but as I get older I realise that for me this is no longer high on the agenda (just as well as I can’t see the next Bond, Marvel or Star Wars coming my way). I would certainly enjoy and indeed relish the chance to have bigger budgets to work with, and should the opportunity come along I will grab it with both greedy hands, however if the choice is big budget with less interesting script or small budget with intriguing script I will stay with my limited kit and time and make the script that grabs me the most.
I was going to put some scenes from the features I’ve shot but as I was going through I realised that you can pick scenes from pretty much any film that look good and prove how you can successfully shoot on a low budget. Individual scenes are fairly easy to ‘win’, it’s the consistency that is so much harder. Making a film that has a consistent look and a consistent quality is the real challenge of low budget. With that in mind I have put 2 full shorts that I wrote, directed and shot below and a no-budget pop promo which was directed by Chris Crow but shot by me.
The first on was a film I made in 2000. It was originally conceived to prove to producers that they could trust me with 35mm film as I was struggling to step up from 16mm but as these things tend to go, it grew into a narrative piece. Total budget was £1800 which was self-funded. It was shot on 35mm short ends over 2 days. Looking back I can see errors in the script and I obviously didn’t have a very good grasp of ethnicity but I’m not sure I would shoot it very much differently if we had a lot more cash.
I shot this second one on impulse for the Nikon Film festival challenge (it had to be under 140 seconds) and there is an earlier blog (going to the dark side) on this site if you need to know more. We used a 5Dmkiii and my rehoused Nikon lenses. Crew was limited to 3 – myself shooting and directing, James my son on sound and Nic Cornwall (an excellent director whose house we used so no pressure there) as art director. Total budget was under £200. I think this is a good example of how lucky we are to have so many affordable tools at our disposal. Of course as this was shot in HD on a 5D it is not going to hold up well on the big screen but its main market is for viewing on phones and computers so not sure it’s a huge issue. Again, looking at it now I’m not sure how much I would do differently with more money other than improve the quality of capture with more pixels, colour depth and bit rate!
This last one is just a great example of what a director like Chris Crow can do with no money. We shot it hand held on a 5D and 7D (Chris took charge of the 7D and me on the 5D) for a zero budget in a morning. We used a canon 16-35mm T2.8 prime, a lensbaby and lens whacked with some old Canon FD primes that I’ve got. I love it and think it suits the track absolutely perfectly. If anybody wants to check out the band they are ‘Folk Grinder’ and the track is ‘My Lover’