Flixist Film School: A DIY filmmaking primer


Flixist Film School is proud to present the third installment of our ongoing production series. Part one brought us a great lesson in editing, and part two filled us in on how to write an ending.  In this lesson, we will be discussing DIY filmmaking, or how to make a film without spending nearly any money. This will be a primer, not an in-depth guide, so if you want to learn more about a specific topic, let us know in the comments, or email us your thoughts. This lesson is all about using the resources at your disposal, calling in favors, and getting creative with what’s on hand. Join me after the jump, where the foundations to your next film will take root.


Part I: Getting started

The most important aspect of making a film is pre-production. Anyone who tells you otherwise is probably over budget and understaffed. The reason pre-production is so important is that it dictates exactly what you can get out of your shoot. If you don’t spend time nailing down a location, acquiring gear, and making sure your film is storyboarded, you will run into numerous problems down the line. Imagine having your crew, who are probably not getting paid, show up at a hotel only to find that you didn’t secure your location release and now you are all sitting around trying to figure out a plan B. Don’t let that happen to you, its for amateurs. What you really need to take away from this whole article is TIME MANAGEMENT. This is the key to success.

I can’t stress enough the importance of being organized and budgeting your time. The pre-production and post-production aspects of your film, which is about two-thirds of your effort and energy, can actually be done for free. Assuming you have access to an editing setup (Adobe Premiere and Apple’s Final Cut are both acceptable, cheap options), editing does not require anything beyond the cost of coffee or whatever else keeps you going. The same can be said for pre-production. There is no reason that you should be doing any rewrites or blocking of your shots on shoot days. If you are truly passionate about making a film, you need to be putting more work into it than anyone. And luckily for you, your time is free. Put it to good use and get cranking on pre-pro. Plan out where your shots will be, where your actors will stand, and how they will interact with key props. Use pre-pro time to figure out how each scene will cut with the rest, and make a shot list so you know what is necessary and what might be extra (creative shots, etc),

“What do I need to be doing before I pick up the camera?” you might be asking. Well, here are the Big Three:

1) Your Script

It costs next to nothing to write a film. Download free screenwriting software (Celtx is pretty good), and read some articles or rent a book at your library about screenwriting. It may not give you any good ideas, but it will help you understand the script format and give you a sense of how long your film might be (loose rule, one page equals one minute). It’s also important that before you go any farther, you have a strong script that has a beginning, middle, and end. Each character’s motivation should be thoughtful and the way they appear in the film should give us a sense about what that character is like. Don’t write a scene where one guy turns to his friend and says “As you know, we have been friends for 19 years”, instead try “Remember when we were in elementary school and we went as The Scarecrow and The Tin Woodsman for Halloween?” We now get that they have been friends for a long time, and they were as close as could be in their youth. Even better, have one character holding a picture of that story. Then we fill in the past without contrived dialogue.  Try and follow the general rule of thumb, show don’t tell.

2) Your Storyboards

Don’t be the guy that stares at an empty room while your crew is waiting for you to figure out the lighting scheme and the blocking. Know that ahead of time, so you are wasting less of your crew’s time on set. Shoot days are expensive if you are paying your crew, so make sure that you know the plan before you ask everyone to donate their time for your vision. Be professional and pre-scout your locations with your Director of Photography or your Gaffer. Find out where you are drawing power from, where the natural light might be, where you will put the camera, and where your actors will stand. Make sure to listen wherever you are, shooting in a building next to the train station will probably upset your sound guy. In your storyboard, you should draw stick figures or basic illustrations showing where the characters will be in your frame. Have your DP look over the drawings and make sure its all plausible. Figure out where the camera will go in the room and where you will stand to watch the action. You aren’t Hitchcock after all, no need to be in your own films.

3) Gear acquisition

This step is extremely important if only because something will go wrong. You might have your camera guy back out and take his gear with him, leaving you short one camera and some lighting gear. Make sure you have confirmations from everyone, and make sure to test all of your lights, batteries, camera, mics, etc before shoot day. If anything is wrong, don’t expect to get it fixed on shoot day. You will be on a tight schedule as is, and delegating someone valuable to go get a prop or gear piece will be a bad use of time. Make sure the only people using gear are the people that know the gear, that way you won’t blow bulbs, break stands, or have your tripods collapse mid-scene. Get these three things out of the way and you will put yourself in a position to succeed.

Part II: Wait, I don’t have any gear…

A great little tip that I picked up in my college days is the creation of a “Rodriguez List”. Named after Robert Rodriguez, this list should document all of the favors and props you can call in for your film. This isn’t a list of things you need for your film, this is a list of things you already have that you can write your film around. To make this list, you need to think about all the resources at your disposal. Let’s say your friend has a black hatchback, and another friend has an identical hatchback, but in white. Maybe you can write that in somewhere. Or lets say you know someone that speaks six languages, or a coworker that collects chess sets. These are all valuable things to put on your list. Special talents, unique collections, and the location of all of your friends houses/apartments are relevant. In my 48 Hour film project, we knew we had two talented actresses and a really great looking house, so we based our script around that. Don’t write in a car chase if you haven’t lined up EMT protection, a permit from the city, and licensed stunt drivers for your scene. Write to what you have. People won’t forgive your film if your climactic finale takes place in a “snow fort” that is clearly a basement with white walls. Maybe you live in Flordia, make your final scene on the water. Write to your strengths and your script will become a lot more “shootable”.

The other great thing about having no money for your shoots is the opportunity to make inexpensive stand-ins for your gear. Search “homemade dolly” or “DIY steadi-cam” on the Internet and you will find great gear stand-ins for a fraction of the price. You can make your own light stands with cement, buckets, and extendable paint poles, for a third of the price of a professional stand. Buy cheap work-lights (at hardware stores, less than 100 bucks) instead of dropping two grand on the real ones. Find a pair that has adjustable heights, pivots, and brightness on each of the two lamps, and you can get from 250 to 1000 watts with just a few clicks. Buy a few clamp lights and fit them with the proper bulbs (blue color temperatures looks like daylight, warmer bulbs aka. tungsten mimic interior lights). Stick these durable, easy to use lights anywhere you need to fill in shadows or accent a prop. The Internet has a great wealth of information for amateur filmmakers, think of it as another weapon in your arsenal. Indymogul has a lot of great episodes that will teach you quick filmmaking tips on the cheap. If you have a question about shooting your film or run into technical problems, check out some online forums. Chances are someone has had this problem before. Get familiar with your gear and it will help you out enormously on set.

Part III: Director Duties

The honest truth is that no one will care about your project as much as you do. You will have to become the writer, the director, and the producer, and that’s before you even turn on the camera. But if you are all of these things, it also means you need to do some behind the scenes work to make sure your production goes smoothly. One great trick is to rent gear for a Saturday shoot. Most rental houses aren’t open on Sunday so if you rent it for Saturday, you can pick it up Friday afternoon and return it Monday morning. You basically get a free day of gear rental, so plan your shoots accordingly. You also need to make sure you have permission to shoot before you turn your cameras on. Again, its never fun to be ready to shoot only to get hassled by security or the police. It is industry standard, if you are not paying your crew, to give your cast and crew meals, copy and credit. This means you feed them on a semi-regular basis, you give them a credit in the film, and you get them a copy of the product so they can use it for their reels. Don’t assume that people will always be free indefinitely, plan your shoots around location and actor availability. If you have only one weekend to get a certain location, make sure you schedule all of your scenes that take place there, even if they don’t appear together in the film. Moving your whole crew is a lot of work, and should be done sparingly.

So, just so you have it all in one place, here is what you need to do for movies on the cheap:

1) Write what you can shoot. Don’t have snowmobile chases if you live in Louisiana. Have swamp boat chases.

2) Your time costs nothing, so take your time during pre-production and editing. No reason to rush anything to get into production. You don’t have a due date for your film, so be meticulous and plan.

3) If you are made of money, filmmaking is a lot easier. For the rest of us, use your imagination, call in favors, and look for creative alternatives to shooting problems. Hollywood can afford to shut down six city blocks in Chicago, you cannot.

4) Have fun. No one wants to work for a tyrant, especially if they aren’t getting paid. Be nice to your fellow filmmakers, and maybe if you volunteer on their project, they will return the favor. Filmmaking is a collaborative process, and you can only get your film finished with a good group effort. After all, you aren’t Mark Borchardt.



Let us know what you like about Flixist Film School, and what you would like to hear more about. Want to know what a producer does? Ask us. Want shooting tips to make your film look “professional”? We can do that too. These articles aren’t for us, they are for you, so leave a comment and let us know what you want to learn about, next time at Flixist Film School.