Learning how to make a short film with no budget is how most filmmakers get started. Telling a simple visual story without paying a lot of money can be done well with the right combination of planning, collaboration, and constraint. Plenty of people have created award winning short films and great filmmaker showreel with little money.
Start by bringing a short film idea to life, rather than launching straight into a low budget movie. Film production skills are learned and improved with experience. It’s better to be an aspiring filmmaker with short film festival laurels, than the creator of a really terrible (or never finished) feature film.
How to Make a No-Budget Short Film
Ryan Camp from Piedmont Motion Picture Show explains the principles he uses to make a no-budget short film.
Make a short film by yourself
It’s possible to act in a one person short film by yourself, recording each scene on your phone or video camera. But your concept and visual storytelling must be compelling, with a well designed film script structure. What’s the message of your film?
Use What You Have
This page assumes you’ll be using your network, filmmaking clubs and facebook groups to source help, equipment and locations for free. But there’s much more to this process than sending out a Facebook message and then seeing what happens!
- 25 Essential Steps To Creating A Short Film With No Budget
- 1. Simple Short Film Idea Or Uncomplicated Documentary Idea
- 2. Storyboard & Shot List
- 3. Funding Short Film
- 4. Film Insurance
- 5. Schedule
- 6. Gear
- 7. Short Film Locations
- 8. Transport Arrangements
- 9. Crew
- 10. Actors
- 11. Extras
- 12. Set Props
- 13. Film Costume And Accessories
- 14. Hair & Make-Up Artists
- 15. Child Actor Protection
- 16. Phone Numbers
- 17. Permission To Use Image
- 18. No Material Subject To Copyright
- 19. Food And Drinks
- 20. Thank Everyone For Taking Part
- 21. Film Post Production Equipment
- 22. Film Music
- 23. Sound Effects
- 24. IMDb
- 25. Getting Your Film Seen
- What Is Plan B?
25 Steps To Making A Short Film With No Budget
Making a short film with no budget needs a lot of planning. Film production is more than just picking up a camera and shooting if you want your film project to get completed and seen.
1. Simple Short Film Idea Or Uncomplicated Documentary Idea
From the beginning, think through the implications of budget, set, actors, prop and travel requirements. Keep your film project as simple as it can be.
Strip your indie film script down to the essential elements. What story are you telling, and what is the message?
Then look at the resources you have available with zero budget. Identify the free actors, crew, gear, locations and props you can call on. Use a film script structure which uses the least amount of shooting locations, props, actors, crew and resources as possible. Low budget filmmaking means making the most of what little you have.
Revisit this principle when drawing up your shot list.
2. Storyboard & Shot List
If you’re making films, you should be WATCHING films all the time. Work out the shots and scenes you like, work out why you like them and how to achieve them.
Then when you use your screenplay to create a storyboard, you can incorporate your favourite visual storytelling techniques.
But take time to create your storyboard. It’s where you make zero budget mistakes, and work out the weak points in the storytelling.
Visual effects are great but cost money, so find creative ways to capture the shot you need. Paranormal Activity is an exhilarating low budget film created with minimal visual effects and only two actors.
Once you’re happy, you can create the shot list. Detail what you need for each shot, how to schedule them, when you need resources available.
3. Funding Short Film
The government tax breaks for feature films and TV shows bring industry work and help the film budget of independent film, but it’s not relevant for beginners. Grants funding short films do exist in various places. If you’re an aspiring filmmaker in the early stages of a film industry career, these could help if you meet the criteria.
Patreon, IndieGoGo Crowdfunder are useful ways for friends and family to support you, even though a percentage does get deducted. It’s perhaps most useful for student filmmakers with doting relatives, or an independent filmmaker with a strong following. Many crowd funding campaigns for independent filmmaking don’t reach their targets.
Volunteer actors working for free are often happy to financially support a project which gives them showreel. They want something to show casting directors what they can do. Whether they donate time alone or add money, you ethically owe them showreel.
Many student and hobby films don’t get completed, usually disappearing into editing and never to be seen again, which is just stupid on so many levels.
4. Film Insurance
Seriously, don’t overlook the need for film insurance because an accident during shooting could lead to fines, lawsuits, and even health and safety prosecution.
If you’re a student, your course will probably cover you. But check the limits of your film insurance.
Your schedule should co-ordinate every aspect of filming. You need to know what equipment, people, space and items are needed on each day, and for how long.
Everyone involved must know too. So prepare your documents in a way that relevant sections can be sent to actors, extras, and anyone lending you their possessions or home.
Any filmmaking process needs a camera, a tripod, and something to record audio with. The good news is that a phone or iphone camera can do the job, or pick up a cheap DSLR secondhand.
Film lighting equipment can dramatically improve each shot. If you don’t have it or can’t borrow it, experiment with creative natural lighting techniques.
A cheap clapperboard is useful, but not essential. A great mirrorless camera is nice to have, but again not essential until you’re a film industry pro.
Ideally, borrow what you can or do without.Hire items you’ll only need occasionally, and only if you really can’t do without it. Alternatively, look carefully at your buying options. Before you make an online purchase, check out our article about buying direct from China. But a low budget short film is ideally made with what you already have available.
7. Short Film Locations
Finding no budget film locations requires networking and creativity. Shoot where appropriate and available rather than holding out for an ideal location. Props and camera angles work wonders. Also restrict the locations to as few as possible as an easy way to cut production issues and costs.
Social media is a great place to find interesting locations. Visit in person to take photos, work out lighting, see where cast & crew can wait and work etc.
If you’re going to film in someone’s home, ask them to check their insurance in advance. Also draw up a location agreement which you both sign.
Public spaces usually require official permission from the local Council or the landowner. If you arrive in a busy city centre for filming without permission, expect the police to move you on.
8. Transport Arrangements
Often forgotten, but how are ALL the people and items you need going to get there? You can’t just sort it out as you’re going out the door.
It’s easy to find volunteers from friends and Facebook Filmmaking Groups. Finding sensible, skilled and reliable ones is a different matter though!
Remember that one person can do multiple jobs on your micro budget film.
It’s really easy to find actors happy to work on a low budget film project. Use Casting Websites or Facebook Filmmaking Groups, depending on what you can pay. If you can pay an actor, especially a trained or professional actor, you really should.
You’ll get a lot of aspiring actors happy to work for free. Be careful to audition, giving enough time for them to learn a few lines. In addition to assessing an individual’s talent, take care to measure their reliability.
Actors Can Be Unreliable Even For Paid Work
Last year we were progressing well on a micro budget film shoot. Everyone on the project was unpaid because it was not commercially funded and no one will make money from the short film. But short film festival entries, more showreel, and the fun of indie filmmaking made it worthwhile for all participants.
Crowdsourced budgets are always tight so production planning was precise. The location premises had been secured. Gear worth thousands, some of it borrowed, was ready. A full cast and crew were raring to go. We knew everything was in place. Or so we thought.
One of the actors texted the producer at 9.30 pm with a flimsy excuse as to why they weren’t coming the next day. The scheduled call time was 7am.
Luckily the producer is efficient, with an amazing film network in place. By 10.30p, an aspiring actor jumped at the unexpected opportunity. It was a great day of filming. The replacement enjoyed their very first shoot. In addition to the experience, they earned an IMDb credit and showreel.
The dropout had expressed a real passion for becoming an actor and was applying to acting agencies. The role was unpaid, that had not been a problem. The shoot dates were agreed. They understood the benefits and the obligations of the role. And they knew other people wanted that role. Yet they felt it was OK to leave everyone else in the lurch with a text.
Same as for actors. Easy to find, but quickly unreliable. Treat your extras with respect because they give up time to be there, for little personal benefit.
12. Set Props
Facebook nearly always helps with this. Just be reliable about picking the items up and returning them at the time and place you said. And don’t forget to take care of them!
13. Film Costume And Accessories
There are some truly talented costume designers trying to get started. Social media is also a great way to find people who randomly have small collections of police costumes, doctors coats, camouflage gear, etc.
Historic reenactment groups have fantastic costumes, but usually only for use by the owners. You can ask them to volunteer on set as long as you pay travel expenses, provide decent food and drink, film quickly and efficiently. And remember to thank them and their group.
14. Hair & Make-Up Artists
Every student and micro-budget film needs someone to take care of the hair and makeup of everyone who will appear in focus on the screen. It is not just a specialism needed for horror films and big-budget productions.
You can ask friends, but they need to understand how skin tones look different on film to real life. “Less is more” has very real meaning when it comes to this form of artistry.
15. Child Actor Protection
Under 17s on set must be licensed in almost all scenarios. If you have a child actor, you must obtain a UK Child Performance Licence, a Licensed Chaperone & DBS Checks.
16. Phone Numbers
You need every single person’s phone number to know what’s happening if they don’t arrive on time. Don’t rely on social media profiles or message apps, they are easy to ignore and often don’t connect if someone’s stuck in traffic.
In 2018, the lead role in one of our short films called in sick TWICE during filming. The second time happened when the crew was already preparing on location and the other actors were on their way.
And that’s in addition to the experience of flaky actors detailed in item 10 of this list.
You definitely need phone numbers to hand at all times.
17. Permission To Use Image
Every single person who will appear on screen must give you written permission. Otherwise, they can insist you take your short film off Youtube, for example, even if they were just a passerby in the background.
18. Material Subject To Copyright
This can be tricky but you must be careful.
Remember the scene in Shaun of the Dead, where they flip vinyl records at the zombie girl in the garden? Permission was received from the copyright owners for every cover you see. Where permission was refused, the record was not used.
You have to do the same with DVDs, games, books, etc.
Equally, none of your characters can start quoting from their favourite book or film without you having obtained permission.
19. Food And Drinks
All actors and crew need food and drink. Can you get a relative to be on set making drinks?
Food preparation spaces for the public are supposed to be health checked by the local Council. Anyone preparing food for public consumption should have a health preparation certificate. It’s much easier to buy takeaway pizzas, a sandwich platter from a supermarket or provide a range of breads and fillings for people to make their own lunch.
20. Thank Everyone For Taking Part
Volunteers taking part seldom get thanked. But it’s an easy way to keep people feeling the love for your projects, and sharing the final result on social media.
21. Film Post Production Equipment
Most student filmmakers have access to great post-production equipment. Many colleges and universities consider requests to hire the equipment for specific blocks of time.
22. Film Music
Social media can be useful, but there are also websites dedicated to film music. Some of them even offer free tracks, as long as you give credit to the composer and performer. Paid tracks are often affordable.
Don’t use music from your DVD collection. It’s subject to copyright. Obtaining permission is sometimes possible – but will cost at least £1,000.
23. Sound Effects
Sound effects change the setting, atmosphere and perception of each scene.
Remember not to infringe copyright sounds, especially when using free resources.
Very few short films get added to IMDb. But it’s easy to do, popular with the actors and crew taking part, and gives your profile a body of work which people can see when considering whether to volunteer with you in the future.
25. Getting Your Film Seen
A short film festival is a great place to get your short film seen, because you connect with film industry professionals and get the chance to win awards. But you do have to pick your short film festivals carefully, because the entry costs mount up.
Youtube and Vimeo are other platforms that indie filmmakers use to find an audience.
DVDs can be a decent way to distribute your low budget feature film, but it only works for certain genres.
Cinema distribution is seen as a good bet to lose money. One-off screenings can be a fun way to get your friends and family watching your low budget movie on a movie screen.
What Is Plan B?
And finally, it is also a great idea to have a Plan B for every eventuality. Because if there’s one thing that will happen on any set, it’s the unexpected. And when lack of money means you rely on the goodwill of others, a lot of unexpected things will happen.