10 Rules Every No Budget Set Needs to follow

We've all been there. Month six of what was supposedly a four "weekends only" production. You show up for that god awful 6 a.m. calltime, after having closed at your service industry job the night before, and guess what? You're the first to arrive. Wasn't calltime for crew an hour before yours? Did you get an outdated schedule? This is the correct address, right?

You send out a text to the director/producer/writer/occasional boom operator.

He replies: "Oh good. You're there. On my way had to pick up breakfast. You like bagels?"

He might as well have said, "Sorry brah. DP got stoned and drunk last night so I had to wake him up this morning. Also our gaffer canceled on us today. Also I thought we were filming at 6pm not 6am even though I sent out the schedule. I know you don't want a bagel right now but it was the cheapest breakfast I could get. No cream cheese."

Why are you still here? You begin to question yourself. Maybe it was because the script was good. Perhaps the level of talent amongst the crew shows quite a bit of potential. It was a unique role that you felt gave you a challenge. Personally I think it was because it wasn't some halfassed horror-comedy spec like the other 9/10 casting calls that have come your way. 

For whatever reason, you've decided to volunteer your time, gas money, and not-asked-for-but-going-to-do-it-anyway script revising services to a production that has time-and-again taken more than it has given, all in an effort to get that sweet 2.5 second shot for your reel. Somewhere along the line you began to believe in this film, and that is the one thing that keeps you moving forward.

But does it really have to be this way? Can't we stop making the same mistakes over-and-over again?

Here are 10 Rules Every "No Budget" Film Set needs to follow if you're going to keep your cast/crew happy.

1. BRING COFFEE.

For the love of God, I don't care what time of day you're planning on filming, nor how long it's going to take. Coffee is a number one priority people, and not that instant shit either. I don't care if the director doesn't like coffee, normal people in the film industry do, and if you're going to ask them to be on your set for hours on end, you need to provide them with the world's number one beverage of choice. Additionally you should also have Tea, Energy Drinks, Sodas, and Water on hand. Caffeine is the key word here, but nothing is going to take the place of coffee. If it were up to me, I would copy/past this for the next 9 rules and call it a day, but there's actually a lot more rules that need to be followed, which brings me to my next one.

2. PREP A PROPER CRAFT SERVICES TABLE.

Does Coffee really need to be separated from this? Yes. Yes it does. However, we can't overlook the importance of feeding your cast and crew. If coffee is the only thing you provide, then you're only doing half the battle. The key to keeping everyone happy on set is to keep them fed. 

There's "Taco Cabana Tacos & Costco Pizza" crafty and then there's "We actually put thought into this and made sure people with different diets don't starve" crafty. You can't really have NO budget. Figure out what you are willing to spend on catering/crafty first.

Joe H Lee, Local ATX Filmmaker

Not sure what to feed people? Better send out those emails before hand. Check on Diet Restrictions/Preferences and favorite snacks. Google if "Gluten Intolerant" is actually a thing. Then plan to max out that new credit card. I'll be honest, people always say have "healthy options" but if no one gets back to your email with any such preference, then go ALL OUT on the junk food, because it always gets eaten up first.

Another piece of advice, you may think one trip to the grocery store, and a full cart, might last the entire shoot. THINK AGAIN. I give it 6 hours max.

3. PLAN. PLAN. PLAN.

Schedule. Call sheets. Shot lists. Sides. If these words don't mean anything to you, then you're already doing it wrong. Having a clear schedule is important. Sticking to it, with no budget, is even more important. You may not be able to pay like a big budget movie, but you sure as hell better plan like you're on one. Things to keep in mind when planning a shoot:

  • No longer than 10 hour days. Some would say no longer than 6-8 when you're not paying anyone, but I'm being generous here. At the very least if your days are hitting 12HRS and you haven't given enough turnaround before the next day, then you're going to have a very grumpy crew on your hands.
  • Always schedule individual days with the intent of wrapping individuals as quickly as possible. That means getting the scenes with the most people involved done first. There's no reason why a background talent, who was only promised a pizza for your party scene, should have to sit around while waiting for 5 other scenes to get shot that only involve the two main characters. 
  • Be on time. In fact, be earlier than on time. 
  • Have contingencies. Whether you're renting equipment or asking favors to fill out your crew, always have a back up, and know exactly what you're going to do in the event that something falls through. This is especially true when it comes to locations. Always be thinking about what could go wrong, and have a plan of action ready when it does.
  • Bring Coffee. Yeah. I just did that.

4. HAVE A CLEAR VISION.

This is obviously more for the director, but so is the rest of this list; regardless, for everyone else, you can substitute the phrase "Come Prepared." There's nothing worse than a director whom doesn't know what he/she wants. The script, these characters, the dialogue, and everything supporting those things has one purpose: to serve the story. Dicking around with it on the day, choosing to either "wing it", or not being able to answer simple questions being asked by your collaborators, is going to lead to a lot of problems and one disjointed film. There's a place for improvisation, and there's even places to experiment, but knowing when you've driven the needle too far is something that a good director should be able to recognize immediately. 

Set expectations from the get go. Though every day might be different (that's the nature and beauty of film sets) everyone should come prepared knowing what is expected of them. You and your group of childhood friends may be having fun creating the next Sundance hit, but that doesn't mean everything is just going to come together magically. You wrote the script. Now see it through.

5. FIND AN EXPERIENCED 1AD AND/OR PRODUCER.

These are the people that will keep you on task. Even if everyone else has very little experience (God forbid) you want to at least be working with someone that knows how to run a professional set. As someone who has worked as a 1AD on multiple films, I can tell you that the position is invaluable, but of course that could be my own pride talking. In any case, these positions are going to handle the logistics of a functioning set so that you can focus on step number four, so that you're not bogged down by technical details. It's also important to listen closely to your 1AD when it's time to move on to the next shot and/or setup. If someone's telling you "We need to get this now." that doesn't mean keep going for another 17 takes until the actor finally tilts their head the right way at the right moment. That means pull whoever you need to pull aside, gather your thoughts, and do whatever you need to in order to make sure everything comes together. 

In the same vein, don't stress about time or what the next set up is going to be. That's the 1AD's job, and you need to focus on what's happening on that monitor. 

As an aside: use these guys to your advantage. Pick their brain. Here in ATX I've dealt with a lot of friendly filmmakers. If you have questions: ASK. This industry is known for it's "Fake it till you make it" mentality, but if you are working with an inexperienced crew on a no budget film, then it's better to admit that you don't know rather than do something that could get someone hurt or worse - put the entire production behind.

6. KNOW YOUR 'ON LOCATION' NEEDS.

Is it going to be 25 degrees out? Better make sure you have heat and/or blankets nearby. How about a toasty 104 degrees? Fans and ice are a must. Know everything you need to know about a location before arriving. Do a tech scout beforehand (part of the "plan. plan. plan." rule, technically) if needed. If you're going to need things like bug spray, sunscreen, or chairs, then bring some. If your location is going to be lacking amenities like AC or running water, then know that way ahead of time.

Additionally, have a location map handy for your PAs, including small sets or those you don't think would need explaining. ie: Know locations of parking, bathrooms, holding, crafty, and every single other department is going to be staged/located. This way, when people arrive, they're not having to move things around 5 times because no one told them where they belonged. 

Trash bags, first aid kits...enough utensils for all meals/cast/crew, toilet paper...tarp to protect equipment from pop up storms if outdoors, bug spray, sun screen...If it rains two days before your shoot, more than likely you will have to deal with mosquitoes. There is nothing like holding a boom pole while fighting off flying insects.

Derek Allison, Director

7. cOMMUNICATE.

While the planning stage is very important, we all know things don't always go according to plan, and that's why it's important to practice good communication. In my opinion there's never enough emails you can send a potential cast/crew, and there's never been anyone that's told me "That's more information than I needed." People appreciate communication; especially actors - who are typically the last to know. 

One particular fond memory in my early career involved a 48hr film festival set with two co-directors. After an already long day, as these competitions are, and while basking under the hot Texas sun for several hours with effects makeup on, I was at a loss as to why we were not moving forward. Directors were busy talking. My fellow cast-mate was suffering from dehydration. Eventually I spoke up and asked what was going on.

They turned to me and said, "Oh. You guys can take a break. We're about to move to the next scene."

Which is good information to have - ten minutes ago - after the last take.

Sets run smoothly when everyone is on the same page. 

PRO TIP: Invest in walkies.

8.  COLLABORATE.

If you're working with no budget, odds are you're still gaining a lot of experience, and you probably shouldn't come out the gate thinking you're Spielberg - or worse - Malick. While we made it clear earlier that you MUST have a vision when it comes to fulfilling your project, another important thing to keep in mind is that you're not the only creative on the film, and it's invaluable that you utilize them as much as possible. While every film, from no budget to Hollywood budget, has it's fair share of collaboration, I'd argue that within the former it's even more essential to rely on your peers. 

Indy film, after all, is where we see the most originality - and it's important that we continue to nurture that creativity.

Now it's easy to point to the obvious examples of creative collaboration, those that happen between the Director and their DP (La La Land), Stunt Coordinator (Fury Road),  Visual Effects Team (Jurassic Park), or Makeup (An American Werewolf in London), but I want to emphasize the oft overlooked collaboration between the director and the actors. While it's second nature to check in with certain departments after completing a take, before moving onto the next shot, on a no budget set I find that 99% of the time the director NEVER checks in with their talent. This is disappointing considering actors and actresses are the most important tool when it comes to telling the story. Take the time to check in with all members of your creative team, but most especially with those people who are in front of the camera. Often times I see directors move on too quickly simply because the shot looked good and the lighting was great, but the actor might still be stumbling upon something within themselves that they want to explore. Acting ain't easy, and settling into a moment might take a second, so don't rush the process and make sure they are happy with how they're dropping in. 

Also, If you have time: Try something. Push them in a different direction. See what comes out of them after a little bit of - dare I say it - direction.

9. CREW UP.

Of course, none of what I just said matters unless you actually have a crew to rely on. Anyone who's ever sat through the end credits of a movie can see just how many people it takes to realize a film. What makes you think you can accomplish something similar with only three? Again we can point to the obvious roles that always get filled first: Cinematographer, Sound Operator, and Gaffer. Add the director and actor and you have yourself a typical No Budget film set. No one ever thinks about makeup, hair, wardrobe, props, set design, best boy, etc. etc. 

Often it's just 2 PAs doing everything else while the other four handle every other job.

Don't get me wrong - it can be done. Many successful filmmakers relied on friends and family who knew nothing about film in order to make their first projects, and even more have had to wear multiple hats on set because they couldn't find people to take the job.

What I'm saying here is know the importance of every department on a film set. Don't overlook a job because you think you can get by without it. Send out craigslist ads if you have to. Post on forums to see if anyone would be willing to give their time and skills. In the same vein: Do your research. When you receive resumes from potential crew, see if you know anyone they've worked with before and double check the applicants work ethic. These are jobs, after all, and it's important to treat them as such.

Furthermore, make sure you're following a clear chain-of-command. Departments are broken up clearly for a reason, and within each department there are heads who are in charge of a team. The 1AD is in constant communication with each head, and essentially becomes a buffer between them and the director. When there's a proper person in every position, doing the task that they were meant to be doing, you'll see things on set run smoothly and better than you could have ever imagined.

BONUS ADVICE: PAs always need to be asking, "How can I help?"

10. GET A BUDGET

Yes, I know, articles like this are deceitful when it's all about the bait and switch, but there's one thing I know about No Budget films: They love their twist endings. With everything mentioned above, it's hard to imagine that any film could be made without a budget, and you'd be right about that. Film productions are a lot like setting up a Forward Operating Base in a war zone. Every department needs to be accounted for. There's a purpose to everything.  Feeding people tends to be the number one priority; because it keeps your soldiers happy. Thankfully Hollywood Studios are the one industry that keeps creating jobs and pays people a fair wage (SFX artists notwithstanding.) 

No. You're not a major studio. The truth is you can't make a film without spending ZERO money. It's simply impossible. So when you're working without a budget, you have to get creative with how you spend YOUR money. In the future we're going to look at not only how to do that, but also the different ways you can look at raising money, getting investors, or other solutions to finance your films. In the meantime this last point is here to remind you that everyone - and I mean EVERY-ONE - is trying to make a film without a budget, and ATX filmmakers are getting tired of it. Find a way to make it worth people's time, whatever it takes, and you'll see it pay itself back over-and-over again.


So there you have it.

It's probably not an extensive list, but at least it's not an exhaustive one.Technically this list is something that all films should follow, big or small, but even more so when you're working without a budget. It's my hope that you'll have learned something from this when thinking about making your first - or next- film, and it you have then please share this around. The truth is that we've all been on sets that have no budget. We as filmmakers are sometimes more than willing to help others out because we LOVE making films regardless of the situation. Follow this list, though, and you may be able to set yourself above the rest by not making the same mistakes that others have made in your position.

At Parts & Labor it's our goal to strive and push the Austin Filmmaking Industry forward, especially at the Independent level, and we hope that by teaching the lessons we've learned along the way we can take the steps forward in our creativity & quality.

At the very least: Make Coffee.