The problem with many no-budget independent films is exactly that — they look like no-budget independent films. Often this is out of necessity. The entire production budget may be going toward the cameras, lighting and film stock, with precious little left over for production design. Unfortunately with this approach what you see are a lot of scenes with sluglines like: INT. GENERIC LIVING ROOM – DAY or INT. ABANDONED WAREHOUSE – NIGHT. The problem here is that the finished film may be beautifully shot, but it still looks cheap. What difference does that beautiful dolly shot matter if what you’re shooting looks like your grandma’s living room? What is in front of the camera is just as important as what’s running through the camera. That can sometimes be a difficult sell on a low-budget film. Often the director and production team are so concerned with all this expensive equipment they paid for, that they overlook what’s going on in front of the camera. The easiest way to make a no-budget film look like a million-dollar production is through production design. If what you put in front of the camera looks expensive, people will think this is a major motion picture; after all, look at all the money they spent. The key idea here is production value.
From a producer’s standpoint, production value is getting as much of the money being spent on the film in front of the camera where the audience can see it. How to achieve production value falls squarely on the production designer’s team. These are the people who will be creating the world surrounding the characters, which though often neglected, should be considered a character in and of itself.
Alright, so all of this is great, but how do I create an expensive look without the expense? Here are some tips and tricks that will help you to do just that.
Check the script carefully for ‘problem areas’. For production design these are scenes that call for very expensive props or set dressing that are necessary for the story. If a script calls for a wide-open shoot out in a piano store, this is going to be difficult to pull off. Pay particular attention to scenes in which set dressing is being destroyed by events in the story. If the scene calls for an actor to smash a lamp or a television, exact duplicates will be required, and these can get pricey. Also check for locations that only occur once in the script. It doesn’t matter if a scene occurs on the screen for 30 seconds or 30 minutes, the dressing requirements are the same. Be sure to point this out in pre-production, as this is often overlooked.
Another factor in the script is what exactly do we see in the scene? If a couple people are talking and walking, you will probably have to do a full dress (decorate the entire room). If the scene calls for one person sitting on a bed or something, you may be able to get away with a partial dress. DP’s usually want a full dress to give them the maximum flexibility for camera angles, but stand you ground and lobby for a partial dress that will look better and more full than a full dress that may look bare simply because of budget constraints.
Windows are another concern. Once again, DP’s tend to like windows because they motivate the lighting; however, every window typically requires window dressing which is not exactly cheap. Open doors are related. If the door is open during a scene, that will require dressing an additional room or hall.
Location! Location! Location!
Locations go hand in hand with production design. A cinematographer will typically want the biggest location he or she can find, so that there will be room to maneuver the camera and set up lights. While this is good for the camera and grips, this can be a nightmare for the production designer who has to fill this space with “stuff”. The best locations for production designers on a limited budget are ones that come pre-dressed. You may augment the dressing with a few limited items, but a walk-on set helps out any budget. This may not be possible or desirable for all scenes, but certainly for sets that are on screen for a very limited time, this can save considerable expense and effort. Try to maximize the number of walk-on sets.
Shop till You Drop
Here is where you can save the most money. Find every thrift store in the area and establish a relationship with them. They may be willing to let you borrow items. Antique dealers are often used to working with film productions. Ask if you can rent items from them. Often you can get set dressing for a rental fee of 10% of the purchase price. While this adds up quickly, if the script calls for certain period items, this may be the best way to go.
Ask around and see what you can beg or borrow. You’d be surprised what your old Aunt Betty may have in her attic or storage building. If you need major appliances, try an appliance repair shop. Often they will have broken appliances just sitting around that they will be happy to get rid of to avoid paying a disposal fee. Remember you don’t care if it works, as long as it looks like it works.
You can also buy and return. The ethics of this are debatable, but the bottom line is that buying an item and then returning it is a great way to stretch your budget. Be sure to save your receipts. Also remember that many major stores now track returns. You may not want to go to the well too often.
Talk to independent store owners, the big companies have too much red tape, and tell them you are working on a movie. Often they will let you borrow items for free or for a credit. On one film, I was able to get approximately $20,000 worth of precious stones and jewels for free just by telling the person what we were doing and arranging a special thanks credit at the end of the film. When dealing with vendors be professional and explain to them exactly what will be happening with their items.
On big-budget films, money is the great problem solver. You just get out your money gun and shoot at a problem until it goes away. Your task on a no-budget film is to achieve the same result without the money. To do this requires time and creativity, but the results will be a film that looks polished and professional and anything but cheap.