From a Vimeo clip to a narrative short: Budget (part 5)

Part 5 in a series of posts I’m doing on on producing a micro budget short is about doing a budget. The budget plan is basically a list of all the things you need and how much you think they cost. You might think this is mainly to determine how how much it will cost to make the film. However, in most cases, you already know how much you are going to spend, and in all cases it is “not enough”, and it’s more about using the budget plan to prioritizing that money.

The single most important thing to understand about the budget is that it is a blueprint of the process of making the film. If it is not seen that way, it is useless – no matter how detailed or well laid out it was in the beginning – it’s just a decoration. Contrary to how a lot of people talk, you don’t look at a script and do a budget out of that. A script in itself does not suggest very much about how the budget is going to be. It’s all the decisions that happen between the script is done an until it starts becoming a film that make the budget. To know that you have 5 actors doesn’t tell you very much about the costs. What determines the costs are decisions like:

– Are you hiring a star? Or paying union rates? Or not paying at all?
– How many days of filming?
– How fancy catering are you providing?
– How far away are the locations (travel expenses)?
– Will they act in their own clothes, or are you doing costume from scratch for each one?
– How much will you put in hair/make-up for each actor?

Of course, if you have a certain standard for what is “the correct way to do things” beforehand, you can deduct from the script what that will cost – but on a micro-budget film this is all over the place and very few given factors exist.

And because the budget is determined by all the decisions taken about the making of the film, you cannot have one person in one corner making the budget and another person in another corner making all the decisions. This is a typical thing that happens when the director is really also the producer as with so many micro budget films, and some poor person has the title of “producer”. They are given the task to run the budget but then can’t say no to anything the director says because he’s the one in charge. The budget is the plan, and then the framework to work within, and thus it is authority. Separating the planning and the authority is giving in to chaos. While giving in to chaos is fun – it’s up to you how much fun you want to have. Consider this:

Director: We need to build this wall.
Producer: We don’t have the budget.
Director: But we need it.
Producer: Ok …
(three days later)
Director: Where’s all the props for this scene?
Producer: We finished the budget.
Director: Shit. Here is my credit card. Go get it.

And the thing ends up costing a lot more than planned. Which is fine – except if you knew you were ending up spending that much money before hand, you might have planned things differently, and prioritized in another manner.

So as you plan the execution of your film in more detail, thus your budget becomes more accurate. And the execution will also be determined in accordance with your budget. You will make difficult decisions like: Should we get an extra crew member on the shoot or add two more shooting days? Should we spend two days building a set to make it perfect, and then only one day shooting the scene in it – or should we build it for only one day real fast, but have two days to set up our shots and lighting? Which will give you more production value in the end?

Using simple spreadsheet setups can help you do hypothetical scenarios, such as:

Line item Number Days Rate Total
Catering 15 7 $10 $1.050

In this case, number is the total mouths to feed on your set, and days is the total shooting days. Assuming each meal costs $10 it’s $1.050 total. So when faced with the question of adding a shooting day or adding a new crew member – you can quickly change “days” or “number” everywhere and see roughly what that means cost vise.

The person making the budget will typically not be an expert in all the fields of filmmaking, so when the DP says he needs expensive HMI lights for a scene, and the costume designer says he needs some costume to be made out of silk – what do you do? It’s rally hard. What is “necessary” is a matter of personal definition sometimes and it’s not obvious all the time how it’ll translate into the results on the screen.

Pick your battles

Guess we should have gone for the silicone version. Or just cut it out. My bad.

We once had to make a shot with an open chest-wound. I talked to two separate prosthetics people about making it. The first one insisted it had to be made with silicone, and the material costs would be 1.000 USD. Then I met another person who said it could be done with something cheaper, for only 400 USD. Since it was a really low budget film, I decided we could only afford the cheap version. It turned out that it really had to be with silicone. The shot didn’t look that great, and we ended up not showing the wound at all – cutting around it. What’s the moral of the story? I don’t know. Without being an expert in prosthetics you can’t know if you spending too much money or not. Proper-budget productions solve this problem by simply only hiring someone who’s demonstrated that they know what they’re doing, and sometimes this means they’ll spend a lot of money on something that didn’t matter.

I guess the moral is: Usually it’s best to steer away from something that is hard to do without money. The audience is very demanding because they are raised up on big budget cinema and TV. So the only way to have a fighting chance is to simplify.

The challenge is to spend your money where it counts the most, and to push for creative solutions. It can be a thrilling experience to travel to exotic locations, but remember that you are making a two dimensional image, and those trees in your back yard can look just as good in a close up as that forest you’d need to transport the crew to. Or hey – maybe it’ll look like crap :) It depends on the skill and creativity of the people you are working with. You’ll start seeing why producing is a very creative job! Also, you can see that if there is not an integrate link between the plan and the execution, there is no way to rationally prioritize. Spending so little that it ends up not worth doing in the first places is as bad as overspending.

The budget as an identity

Filmmakers have a peculiar relationship with that word: budget. Making films is really hard. Making films without having money to pay for what you need is even harder. Bigger film productions solve problems with money. They see a location, they call the owner and they offer him money for it. Solved. All you have against that is time and resourcefulness. You might have called 20 locations owners until you found the one you managed to persuade. And if you manage to do something good it’s even bigger of an achievement, and you say “I made this for only X” so that everyone understands what went into it. So how little cash was spent on the project starts sounding like some kind of a war story, a matter of great pride.

And more often than not, if what you made isn’t that great, your likely to say: Well, we only made it for X so it’s understandable that it wasn’t great. And you are right, of course, although you should still try to assess your work critically and find out what you did wrong if you want to get anything out of the experience.

But counting only the cash that you spend as your budget is misleading and ultimately false in situation where individuals (yourself or others) spend a total of hundreds of hours with no or low pay. The key is to keep reminding you that the film is the sum of human talent put into it. If three software developers came to you with a new program that they had worked on full time for three months and said to you: We did this for only $200, or the total cost of electricity for their computes during the coding, you’d shrug. Because everyone knows the cost of making software is the cost of human talent. Filmmaking is qualitatively the same, there is only a little more investment in equipment and materials – but only a little.

This video “only cost $2.000”

Vincent Laforet wrote a good post about this tendency to describe the budget by the lowest possible definitions using the above video as an example. So the same goes for when people say “Is it possible to do this film for X?” meaning only the cash put into it. Who knows! What kind of people can you mobilize? What favours can you pull? What deals can you make? How much of you own time can you put into it? How critical are you of your own work?

When someone lends you a car to use in the shoot for free, it does not mean it didn’t cost anything. The car required investment, maintenance, taxes, etc. it just so happened that someone else paid for it. When someone holds a boom pole for you for 5 days and doesn’t charge you – it just means he uses his own money to pay his bills those days. These contributions are essentially investments into your project. So saying that something cost something, and then on screen you see so many people that just the bus fare for them to arrive on set would be more, it’s as silly as that guy who says he lives off only $300 a month but lives with his parents.

In some cases, such as when applying for grants, it is important to
count the real market value of your budget. Perhaps you wrote the script yourself, so you’re not paying anyone, but it still took you weeks to do. It would be considered appropriate in some cases to put some money under “script” even if no cash exchanged hands. This can become important when someone puts cash into your budget. When someone gives you 10K, and the cash you spend is 20K, it is not in all cases correct to assume the person putting the 10K paid for half of the film.

Don’t skimp on cash becuase you feel like you need to prove something:
When you come up with the cash to make your film, even if it is only coming from your own money, put it into perspective: You spent all this time writing the script and developing the film, and you’re about to spend even more time producing it and then distributing it, and perhaps even more people are going to be putting all their time in to it. Don’t put proportionally so little cash into it that everything else suffers and everyone’s investment, yours as well, amounts to little. You might win the admiration of some when you come up with a polished product that didn’t cost much. But is that really something you want to define yourself by in the long term?

This is the last post in this series for now. If I believe this is helping anyone, I will add more posts on further topics.

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