How to Make a Short Film Without a Budget

In 1996, a green-gloved murderer killed my cousin.

It was summer, I was 15, I was bored. My parents had recently purchased a camcorder, so my sister and I decided to make a movie. And my cousin was the star.

We grabbed a knife from the kitchen cupboard. Took some ketchup from the fridge. Told my cousin where to stand and pressed record.

The film – a masterpiece, as you can imagine – was shot handheld from the point of view of a maniac holding a knife and wearing a pair of bright green gloves.

The murderer looked left and right, breathed heavily, then plunged his knife into my poor cousin. Ketchup flew everywhere. Screams echoed through our kitchen.

Finally, in an award-winning last-minute-twist, the murderer was revealed to be none other than my five-year-old brother who grinned at the camera as he held up his green-gloved hands.

It was possibly the worst film ever made.

*

In the 20 years since then, I’ve made a lot of short films. Some have had budgets, most haven’t. Some have been shared and seen, while others were weekend experiments which will (and should) remain hidden in a drawer.

If you’re reading this, you may have made some films before – these days, we’re all filmmakers – but you might be wondering how it’s possible with limited resources to make the film that’s in your head.

Whether you’re a teenager with an iPhone or hoping to make a calling-card short on the way to your first feature, it seems to me there are two approaches to making short films:

1: Build A World From Scratch

or

2: Use The World Around You

The first is what most people do. It’s what screenwriters and daydreamers and studio execs are all great at – pitching, inventing, creating ideas from thin air. It’s why a lot of us go to the movies – to see an exciting world brought to life, to visit far-off places, to see dreams made real. And it’s absolutely brilliant if you can pull it off.

But if you’ve got no money, world-building is a difficult option. It’s hard – though not impossible – to make a sci-fi action movie when you’re a teenager living in the suburbs. Some people try anyway, and make hugely creative films – if that’s what you want to do, go for it.

But for the purposes of this article, I’m more interested in the first option. Look at the world around you, then ask yourself: what stories can I tell with what I already have?

I’ll say it again – if you’ve got no budget, use the world around you.

Every low-budget filmmaker is forced to do this, and the most successful of them use it to their advantage. 

A lot of us know this fact already, but we often forget it. We have stories to tell, burning issues we want to share, places we want to visit, camera shots we want to pull off, filmmakers we’re inspired by.

But if you’ve got no money, it makes a lot more sense to use the resources you already have than to acquire those you don’t.

Even better, once you’ve worked out what you can get your hands on, a lot of decisions are made for you. When I was 15, I didn’t care (or know) about lenses, mise-en-scène or aspect ratios. I didn’t worry about costumes, or lighting. I just picked up a camera, and started filming.

Although the film was terrible, the fact that we used the things we already had to hand was hugely important lesson – and one I remembered when I submitted a short film to the Virgin Media Shorts competition a couple of years ago.

This competition – sadly no longer running – offered a £30,000 prize to the best short film, as voted upon by a jury including Shane Meadows and David Tennant. And when it was time to come up with an idea, just two weeks before the deadline, I was totally stumped. I didn’t have time or money. Previous winners had used professional crews, featured hot visual effects. I had nothing. My hands were empty.

And then it hit me – hands. The simple image of the human hand, telling the story of a life. Lovers caressing. A baby’s birth. An old person dying. An epic story in two minutes – and all achievable without spending a dime.

With the help of my wonderful producer Lindsay, we got together some actor friends and shot the film over the course of a weekend. Was it a lot of work? Sure. But we spent nothing. The actors were friends, the props were minimal, we stole shots in a market in Islington. I shot the whole thing with a simple SLR camera. Just for the joy of making something.

And in the end we won. Despite the fact we had no crew. No lights. No budget. The other shortlisted films – all brilliant ­works by talented filmmakers – were much more accomplished. They had better sound, better production values. But somehow we’d ended up screening our little film – no budget, no crew – in an IMAX cinema with an afterparty DJd by Jarvis Cocker.

Was it the greatest film of all time? No! But it was proof positive that you don’t need money or crew to make a short film.

Which leads me to my second suggestion.

If you haven’t read Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without A Crew, go and read it now. Because the lessons he shares there are just as important now as they were back then.

If you want to make a low/no-budget film, shoot and edit it yourself.

Don’t get me wrong – I love DOPs. They’ll know more about cinematography than I ever will. And I love collaborating with a brilliant team who lift my game and elevate the filmmaking process. I grew up on film and TV sets and the camaraderie of a crew is like family to me.

But if you want to make something for no money, it’s much easier if you seize the means of production. And that means learning how to use a camera. Learning how to edit. And doing it yourself.

Other people may disagree with this. Clearly, many of the greatest filmmakers in the world don’t shoot and edit their own work. But if you’re starting out – and even if you’re not – this is the best way to get stuff done if you want to make something tomorrow. Because if you can shoot and edit, you can do anything. You can pick up a camera now and have a finished film three days later. And all without spending any money.

I’m currently in preproduction for a short film that’s breaking all these rules. I’m not shooting it myself. We’re building a brand new cinematic world from scratch. It’s incredibly exciting.

But I’ve waited years to get the chance to do this. And waiting, ultimately, is the biggest hurdle ever filmmaker faces – waiting for money, for script development, for the right weather. And waiting will kill your creativity, if you let it.

Every filmmaker knows this frustration. Waiting to make your first feature. Waiting to get into festivals. Waiting to get approved by a funding scheme. And on, and on…

But I no longer frustrated by this. Because there’s a difference between the films we think we should be making and the films we make simply for the joy of filmmaking.

Which leads me to my next suggestion:

Don’t make the film you think you need to make.

I’ve waited two years since winning the award to make a short film with a real budget. Hopefully, this short will be the next stepping-stone on the path to making a feature film. But I would've gone mad if this was all I’d focused on in the last two years.

Instead, I’ve filmed trailers, virals, corporates, animation, documentaries. I’ve crossed borders illegally, visited war-torn countries, met inspiring and unforgettable people – and all because I taught myself how to pick up a camera, and how to edit. And now I make my living from it.

Once you start seeing the world through a lens, the way you look at life will change. If you know how to operate a camera, doors will open for you. You will visit places you didn’t know existed, and see things you’d never imagined. You’ll start to worry less about making the films you think you need to make and start making films, all kinds of films, in a world that will suddenly seem a lot bigger than when you started.

I had no idea any of this was going to happen. I just wanted to make films. But instead of waiting to make the films I "should" make (the calling card, the low budget feature), instead I’ve lived.

So here’s my final tip – and it’s the hardest one to pull off. When you do make your film without a budget, shot and edited it yourself using the world around you, make sure you breathe life into it.

DW Griffith said that “what modern movies lack is the wind in the trees”.  It’s still true today. This is something I’m still learning, and it’s a battle all filmmakers face, whether they’re making documentary or drama, short film or feature. The challenge to capture life, emotion, the nuances of human behaviour, is overwhelming.

How could it not be? Truthful acting is incredibly challenging. Honest writing is difficult. Editing is inherently manipulative. And it’s easy – so easy – to put music on images you’ve edited and call it a good day’s work.

But the best films are the ones that share experiences, pain, delight and emotion. They’re the ones which connect with audiences – not with artifice, but with honesty.

And you don’t need money to do this. You don’t need a crew. You just need to share the world, the way you see it.

*

Somewhere out there is a young filmmaker who’s reading this and whose mind is still full of doubts.

I wrote this for you, because I was you. Unlike me at your age, you probably can shoot and edit already. You may be hesitating because you’re not sure you have anything to say, but this is exactly why you need to say it.

Your first film might be a schlocky drama with a green gloved murderer or a Kung-Fu masterpiece – it doesn’t matter. Just make it. Then make another film, then another.

But you don’t need money, and you don’t need permission. Instead:

·      Use the world around you

·      Shoot and edit it yourself

·      Don’t make the film you think you need to make

·      Breathe life into your film

If you can follow these steps, you’ll be making your first short film in no time. And hey, when you’re done, send it my way – I’d love to see it.

Wishing you the best of luck,

Nimer