Inspiration, Pro Tips

Shooting on a Shoestring Budget: How Constraints Can Foster Invention


Low to no budget? No problem. As Robert Rodriguez once famously demonstrated with El Mariachi, there are plenty of examples of filmmakers using their creative prowess to make their films with virtually no backing. Whether you’re an auteur working toward your next film or a stock media contributor with limited assets, it’s imperative to define your purpose, watch your costs, and plan accordingly.

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Do More with Less

Constraints trigger ideas. The benefits from a budgetary or time constraint can force you to be more creative with what you don’t have and inspire you to expand your concept. Self-imposed restrictions or shooting on a shoestring budget can be an illuminating experience. For instance, advertisers must be much more innovative to sell a product with an engaging message in 30 seconds or less. In addition, stripping down your equipment can foster invention. Following this thought in the 1950s, director Richard Leacock and fellow filmmaker Robert Drew developed a more mobile camera with lighter sound equipment, leading to a transformational and dynamic style called Direct Cinema.

Primary robert drew
Robert Drew recording sound for Primary, 1960

Embrace the Challenge

If you’re in a financial pinch, adjust your shot list to accommodate your shoot for the resources that you have — which should hopefully include your camera gear, and, if possible, a list of free locations and talent. The impulse to dip into your savings or finance your production with a credit card is both tempting and ill-advised. Ignore the impulse to spend cash by suppressing your tech fetish. If your concept is strong enough, you can tell your story with a series of simple camera techniques and avoid purchasing or renting the sexiest production gear and gadgets.

Mount everest
Mount Everest by ImageSource

Make a Deal

Barter a deal that will benefit and serve both parties equally. Last summer, I produced a stock shoot with a nightclub theme that casted 20 extras to fill the club, and a few principal players to push the concepts forward. Afterward, what was left of the budget was a pittance compared to what we needed to hire a band and secure a location. The solution was simple: we shot and cut a music video for the band and delivered footage to the club’s proprietors for their own promotion purposes as a trade.

Given the Green Light
It’s a deal by retroklips

I’m also producing a boxing shoot with similar budgetary concerns. Renting a boxing ring can eat the entire budget, so I’m prepared to pitch the gym with the same offer that I gave the nightclub. The boxer, Greg J, is the real deal. When Greg isn’t training, he’s behind the wheel as a stunt driver. His ambition is to ditch the doughnuts and step into a a leading role. Greg expressed his desire to build his reel, and would willingly waive his fee for a spot that would demonstrate his talents.

Friends and Lovers

John Cassavetes and actress Gena Rowlands were one of cinema’s great husband-and-wife partnerships — but if you haven’t been as fortunate in finding your muse and collaborator, you may have to rely on a friend. I subscribe to the philosophy that if you want to work, you should own your own tools. On the other hand, film is one of the most expensive art forms. Taking this into account, I rarely ask a friend for a loan, but sometimes they really through. A friend of mine once allowed me to borrow a couple of Cooke primes. One good turn deserves another, and I’m prepared to reciprocate that generosity wholeheartedly.

cassevetes and rowlands
John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands editing A Woman Under the Influence, 1974

Family Ties

If you don’t possess the family connections to match the Coppola dynasty (or a mother that can cook a meatball recipe deserving of a credit in Goodfellas), I’m sure you at least have a family member with an aspiring career or business that, if properly captured, could equate to a steady stream of future licensing revenue. The demand for capturing authenticity and “real people” have never been greater in media.

Goodfellas Dinner Scene
Catherine Scorsese playing Tommy’s mother in Goodfellas. She often cooked for cast and crew on the sets of her son’s movies.
So remember, providing that you have good camera skills and a rock-solid vision, you can drop the jib, track, and stylist. Even if you have cash to spare, fight the urge to spend it. Instead, make the effort to invest in your ideas and keep your setup simple. I can assure you that your vision will be much more focused, your work will be far from simplistic, and you won’t be left wondering how you’re ever going to escape from debt.
Top Image: Unable to afford a dolly, Jean-Luc Godard pulls cinematographer Raoul Coutard in a wheelchair while directing Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in Breathless 1960.