This post was written by Evan Weidenkeller.
A few months ago I got a call from Brennan McNichol, a producer, pitching me their upcoming horror feature film, and how they would like to bring me on as the cinematographer for the project.
Usually with these early conversations, I tend to ask a lot of technical and budgetary questions to try and gauge the scope and size of the project before I read a script so that I may have a more realistic expectation while reading. When speaking to the producer, one of the first questions I asked was what would be my working budget, and how many shoot days for principal photography.
This is where the conversation got fun.
The producer told me they only had a total budget of $40K, and could only make it work if they shot all 90 pages in a straight seven day period. I’m certain the producer could hear my brain fully stop working after hearing this information.
In my career, I’ve shot a total of four feature films. The lowest budget film I’ve worked on was for $125K and it had a total shooting days of 12 days. Let me tell you, that was the hardest project I have ever worked on in my career thus far.
When the producer told me they wanted to shoot a $40K feature film in seven days, my immediate response was: Is that it was impossible? On average, you would have to shoot 13 pages a day. Keep in mind, most films shoot on average between three to seven pages a day for single camera feature films. Even though that sounds low, for those in the industry know, it takes a long time to shoot even a single scene.
I talked about my concerns with the producer and he assured me that they believe they made a schedule that is possible since they have done something similar in the past. He told me that he would send me over the script and tasked me with giving it a read through and thinking about his proposal after I read the script.
I probably read the script three times in one sitting. The first read was to experience the script. The second and third times were for note taking and logistical observations. After the third read through, I decided to stop thinking about how impossible it would be to shoot in seven days, and, instead, forced myself to start thinking about what would have to be done, in order for us to shoot that many pages in a single day.
My Plan for Filming a Feature in 7 Days
From there, I came up with a strategy to ensure I could photograph 90 pages in seven days.
Now this is a big one, and it’s why I’m going to start with it first.
The one thing our script had going for us is that it only took place in two locations, which meant we would never have to do a location move mid-day. (Location moves can kill up to 3 hours of your shooting schedule.) We spent five days shooting in our main house and two days at a second house.
Being able to live in one house for a long period of time really helps with the ebb and flow of a film set. At the end of the day we don’t have to worry about wrapping up the camera and lighting into vans that will be prepared to move to new locations the following day.
Instead, we can shoot until the last minute and “walk away.” The location allowed us to make sure all electronics are in safe places and are all off. We would simply walk off set and back to our homes. It’s simple, but allows us to have more time to shoot.
The first AD, producer, and myself worked closely together to build a schedule that would help us shoot as many pages as possible without detracting from the actors performances.
We decided that when we were in a room (i.e. Living room), we would shoot every single scene that takes place inside the living room then move onto the next room and continue shooting all the scenes that take place inside of that room.
Rinse and repeat until we shoot out every scene inside of the house.
Prepping a Shot List
Creating a low shot count was a necessity for me. I knew if we had two people sitting on a couch talking, we wouldn’t be able to afford the time it would take to get every angle, every insert, every moment needed to cover the scene entirely.
Instead, we built a shot list that was as minimal as possible to ensure we were capturing character motivations, moments, and dialogue as simply as we could while still moving the scene and story forward.
On average we had about three to four shots a scene. Oftentimes, just a single shot worked for the entire scene. Using character blocking and camera movement, we were able to shoot 15 pages in a single day with a perfectly minimal shot list.
When you’re on set, lighting tends to take one of the longest chunks of time in between scenes and shots. Oftentimes, it can be a 30-45 minute turn around before we can shoot the next shot, and it’s usually one of the places I work hardest to cut down on to make sure we spend as little time as possible setting up for the next shot.
In an ideal world, we would just quickly move on to the next shot without having to relight a single thing. The approach I took on this film was to pre-light the entire house using Apurture units that could be entirely controlled on their app called Sidus Link. With Sidus Link, my Gaffer (Joe Seiler) could control every light in the room through an iPad or a smartphone. Being able to control intensity and color with a click of a button is the only way we were able to move as quickly as we did.
For example, we pre-lit the living room by putting a couple Apurture softbox units overhead into the ceiling, replacing all practical lights with the Apurture bulbs and placing a few tube lights in various parts of the ceilings in the room. That way if we were looking in one direction of the room, then we could quickly dial in the lighting via Sidus in a manner of minutes then quickly move on to shooting the next shot.
Right now our film, Brandon’s House directed by Preston Garcia, is currently in post production. The fact we were able to shoot a feature in seven days with only $40K was truly a learning experience for not only myself and my team but creators of the movie.
For anyone out there trying to make their first feature film, I’d highly recommend following similar steps in order to shoot your film under budget. You really don’t need millions of dollars to tell a compelling and rewarding story within a tight budget. If you have the drive and the means. I’m sure someone could shoot their feature with a smaller budget and in less time!
This post was written by Evan Weidenkeller.