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by Lance Karasti
July 2, 2014 2:12 PM
18 Comments
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Guest Post: How I Made a Feature Film for Under $10,000 With A Crew of Two

"Cult"

Lance Karasti is a first-time filmmaker who shot his first film, "Cult," a dark drama that explores mental illness, sibling relationships, and youth in power, for $10,000 on a Canon 7D in his parents' house. The crew consisted of two people (when actors weren't in shots, they would temporarily become crew members); below, Karasti explains how he pulled off the low-budget production, which is now available on Vimeo on Demand.

"You're crazy," is something I got used to hearing after telling people I was going to make a feature film for under $10,000 with a crew of two people in less than two weeks. The resulting movie, "Cult" is now completed and available but I don't believe I proved them wrong. If you want to make a feature film at a young age (without a studio budget), you have be crazy.

Here’s what I learned from the experience:

1. Make short films with your friends.

I live in Duluth, MN, which could not be further from the Hollywood scene. Making short films with my friends allowed me to teach them the different jobs they would end up doing on "Cult" and helped me improve my own skills.

2. Write a script you care about.

"When someone tells you 'you're crazy,' say 'thank you.'"

Living far from the filmmaking capital of the world is actually a huge advantage as a writer. Living in Duluth helped me to find my voice and draw inspiration from people who weren't always trying to "make it in the industry." "Write what you know" does not mean you can only write about situations you've personally experienced. It means the soul of the project has to be something you feel and understand. Having a script you and your team are passionate about is the only way everyone is going to show up every day without upfront pay.

3. Write what you can shoot.

I shot "Cult" in my parent's house using equipment and props I had acquired throughout the years. My dad does metal roofing so we ended up using metal panels as Dolly track for an old wheelchair. Your budget may be low, but planning to use what you already have can really amp up your production value.

4. A two-person crew can save you time and money.

Audio and video are the two main sides of production and I'm telling you from experience each can be done by one person. Doing all of the lighting and camera work myself actually saved time on set. I didn't have to explain what I wanted to anyone (besides actors) so we moved as fast as I was able to. Of course, you need to be extremely prepared and storyboard everything if you want to attempt this.

Abe Diaz was the other half of the crew. He did everything sound. I trusted Abe even though he had never done production audio before. He had an ear for sound from making music. I will take someone who is passionate and willing to learn over an experienced diva any day. When we needed some extra hands for a big shot, any actors who weren’t on screen became crew.

READ MORE: Why A Small Crew Can Actually Help You Get The Shot

5. Master the master shot.

I didn’t have time to shoot a scene from 15 different angles so I covered most scenes with several moving master shots. This helped achieve the feel I wanted for the movie and it saved a lot of time. Again, you need to be extremely prepared for this to work. Plan everything well in advance.

6. Treat the camera like it weighs 50 pounds.

I wanted my film to have a classic cinema aesthetic so my first rule was to pretend my small Canon 7D was a huge film camera. We were making a movie for large film festival screens, not a small Youtube video. The smallest mistakes will become huge on the big screen. The first thing I noticed at the festival premiere was how big close ups actually are.

7.  The first day is going to be a disaster.

We had no time to do a table read. Everyone was already stretching their work schedules for the two weeks of principal photography. Several actors had to be shuffled around a week prior to shooting because some people dropped out. The worst is going to happen. You need to be able to adapt to any situation to finish the project.

I had a scene I was unsure about so I scheduled it for the first shoot day. I figured we could work out all of our kinks on it. Of course, I didn't tell anyone that the scene we spent an entire day on wouldn't be in the movie, but we needed to warm up and get into a groove.

8. Be fucking crazy.

No amount of moderate behavior is going to achieve something many consider impossible. Ignore anyone who doesn’t believe you can do it. You’re not too young. You don’t need to be in Hollywood. Surround yourself with people who want to help and your passion will become their passion. You have to be committed, obsessive and audacious. When someone tells you "you're crazy," just say "thank you."

Lance Karasti is a young indie filmmaker who was born and raised in Duluth, MN. He attended film school in Hollywood and now lives in his hometown. "Cult" is his debut feature film. It is available on Vimeo on Demand here.

18 Comments

  • BC | July 5, 2014 12:24 PMReply

    People are always complaining about what a film should and shouldn't look like, what it should and shouldn't sound like. This is essentially exactly what Kevin Smith did and that all turned out just fine.

    And look at the audio in every single old film. Look at the shot compositions back when you couldn't carry a camera around hand-held. These are some of the greatest films ever made and the audio by today's standards is "just okay" and the shot compositions are "static".

    Don't listen to the naysayers. Make the very best art YOU can make with your available tools. You aren't competing with Hollywood, you aren't competing with anyone other than YOURSELF as an artist.

  • Lance Karasti | July 5, 2014 1:47 PM

    Hey thanks! I agree. The main point I wanted to get across is that it is possible to do a lot with a low budget. Sacrifices will have to be made but at some point you just have to jump in. There's never going to be a perfect time. Kevin Smith, as you mentioned, did this along with a handful of other directors. Shane Carruth and Robert Rodriguez come to mind. The point is to make something and learn as much as you can from it. It's the best film education you can get.

  • Harrison | July 3, 2014 6:09 PMReply

    so what? We made a movie with a crew of 2 for less than that in 3 days AND sold it.

  • Matt | July 5, 2014 8:34 AM

    Harrison, it's people like you who are what is wrong with the independent film community. It's not about competing. It's about supporting the efforts of other people.

  • Paula | July 3, 2014 5:33 PMReply

    This is so inspiring, great advice : )

  • atClayBroomes | July 3, 2014 3:56 PMReply

    I accomplished the same thing as well. Costs increased, however, when I had to fix the sound and the first so-called mixers tried to jerk me over money. So, I had to take my sound to some major pros who pretty much saved what they could. The film did okay on the festival circuit and won an award. It's on YouTube for a limited time: youtu.be/uuvePDCboeI.

  • Tony | July 3, 2014 12:48 AMReply

    close ups, have you seen Django?
    Them is some super shallow depth of field extreme close ups.

  • Matt Terry | July 2, 2014 7:22 PMReply

    I accomplished the same thing for much less money. I did have a crew of a DP and I pulled my son in for various times to do things. What I also did was take a concept that included well over a dozen speaking parts and many MANY locations because I didn't want to limit myself to one room and two actors. The first cut of my film was 2 hours and 5 minutes long. The second cut was 95 minutes. I did some reshoots and it topped out around 97 minutes long. If you want to watch it, it's on Vimeo (for FREE) and it's entitled "Daylight Saving Time." Is it perfect? No. Is it watchable? That's for you to decide. I felt like I had enough characters and stories and interesting things to hold your attention for 90 some odd minutes and it was a great learning experience for both me and my son (who has gone on to make an award winning film that had its World Premiere at the 2010 Seattle International Film Festival - 70 minutes long and a budget of $500 - if not less).

  • Lacey | July 2, 2014 6:59 PMReply

    I have a feeling that one of the tips that was left off this list was "make everyone work for free." Also, this:

    "I trusted Abe even though he had never done production audio before. He had an ear for sound from making music. I will take someone who is passionate and willing to learn over an experienced diva any day."

    Yes, this is fantastic advice. Pick crew members who have no idea what they are doing but who will hopefully figure it out at some point over the course of the shoot. Also, pick someone who will go along with everything you say rather than "divas" who will let the inexperienced director know when they're about to do something that will f**k up their film.

    Watched the trailer and it was exactly what I expected. Shot by a guy who thinks he can do all the camera and lighting by himself, but who really should have given those jobs to people who were trained in those areas. Enjoy all that hiss in your audio, bro.

    If any of you out there are actual filmmakers or aspiring filmmakers, I strongly advise you to ignore most of what is said in this article. I've worked with a million and one (not exact number) directors like this and each one is more irritating than the last. As for how their movies turn out, this pretty much says it all:

    "We were making a movie for large film festival screens, not a small Youtube video."
    "Cult is available on Vimeo on Demand."

  • Lacey | July 4, 2014 8:17 AM

    Just looked closer at the image up top and feel I should clarify that the poor audio is probably not entirely the sound guy's fault. They've got a Rode microphone plugged straight into an H4N, and that's the entire set-up. If you're making a $10,000 investment in a movie, failing to even acquire a mixer is inexcusable. Bad sound is one of the most telling signifiers of an amateur film.

  • bobby d | July 2, 2014 11:40 PM

    This comment is full of bitter assumptions.

    Some people make movies. Some make internet comments.

  • Richard | July 2, 2014 10:40 PM

    I live in Boulder, Colorado - which isn't known for its production scene - so it's hard to find quality crew. However, I have to agree with Lacey here: the quality of the work is pretty poor, even for $10K, and there are a lot of red flags with this type of director. Namely, I referring to the acting, lighting, camerawork, and editing. Every camera maneuver is arbitrary and does not motivate the narrative in any appreciable way. The writing isn't great either, but I've seen capable actors overcome much worse. All of this suffers because one person is trying to do it all instead of delegating to members of a cohesive team. My own films have suffered from the same kind of naïveté.

    While I have several points of contention with this article, I still think indie filmmakers should feel empowered to make their art without being bogged down by fundraising or logistical worries. However, that doesn't mean hiring some tyro to record your audio. The fact is, I'd rather my image suffer a bit if it meant getting stellar audio - and that isn't cheap. Everyone on your team should have some production experience; otherwise, you spend more time training them - which negates the time you apparently saved by both lighting and shooting. Also, having a dedicated DP and gaffer would have stepped up your production value considerably and allowed you to focus on directing.

    There's no simple answer, but finding people who are interested in your story can help immensely. Ask local pros for their help; the worst they can say is "No," and you might be surprised who jumps on board. As a professional cinematographer, I have no problem deferring pay for a project that inspires me.

  • Cool story | July 2, 2014 7:49 PM

    Because young people who live in small towns have the money and access for pro crews.

  • k bro | July 2, 2014 7:21 PM

    Can teach me how to be a douche? Pretty lame remarks being that you haven't seen the movie. It's actually pretty good, i've seen it.

  • JUSTIN CARTER | July 2, 2014 6:31 PMReply

    This is all very familiar to me. I've recently finished my debut feature which I completed for under $2500 U.S. with a crew of 3. My Supernatural Drama, "TORN: a SHOCK YOUmentary" has had some very decent reviews and just been nominated for BEST FEATURE at the PORTSMOUTH INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (UK) which is due to take place next week.

  • Chase Whiteside | July 2, 2014 4:54 PMReply

    Of course, many documentary features have been made with a crew of one for under ten thousand...

    "The first thing I noticed at the festival premiere was how big close ups actually are." - it's true! If you cut your teeth shooting for YouTube or computer screens, it's can can be startling the first time you see your compositions blown up on the big screen. A whole new set of rules.

  • Maneesh | July 2, 2014 3:56 PMReply

    You sir gave me some new spirit. Those are brilliant and very underrated words. The poster of the movie is perfect,I'm gonna rent the movie for sure. I'll start writing again.
    Thank you

  • Lance Karasti | July 2, 2014 4:05 PM

    Thank you so much! DO IT DO IT DO IT