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Hollywood Quality for Cheap

Hollywood Quality for Cheap

Two years ago, a recent graduate of Brigham Young University pulled together a bare bones crew, a film camera, $500 and a quirky script to make a nine-minute short. The director was Jared Hess, and the film was Peluca. After some play at festivals, it caught the attention of MTV, who helped finance the feature film version Napoleon Dynamite. Still produced on a shoestring budget, that film went on to gross more than $45 million, making it an underground hit and the title character nearly an American icon.

Similar stories can be told for a score of other directors, including Wes Anderson, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas and P.T. Anderson. So what’s the secret here? What did these poor artists have that the wealthy Hollywood studios wanted? Creativity, drive and resourcefulness. The ability to create something amazing out of nothing. If you want to find your name among those directors some day, that’s all you need. Money will follow.

So here are some easy steps to making a quality short film on a few bucks and then getting it out there.

Write a strong script.

Develop back stories, flesh out realistic characters and create a plot that is intriguing, yet believable. You want to pack as much life and conflict into your short screen time as possible. If your writing is solid, people will be more forgiving of your film’s less-than-professional production value.

Work long and hard with your actors.

Rehearse scenes over and over. Maybe you can’t have the explosions of a Jerry Bruckheimer film, but you can definitely have better performances. When it comes to using non-professional actors, it’s best to cast people who are already friends. That chemistry in real life will come through well on the screen.

Make the cinematography memorable.

Sure you don’t have an expensive film camera or a lighting crew, but you can still make your short stand out visually. There are two approaches in using digital video: pro-wannabe or raw. With pro-wannabe, you make a shot sheet, plan out cool camera moves and add tons of filters on top of the video during editing. This will make the video look more like film, proving that you have the abilities, just not the money yet. Going raw, on the other hand, is all about embracing the lower quality of video’s look by going handheld and only using available light. This creates a more documentary feel to the film. But be warned: raw only works if the script and performances are very polished. Filmmaking is like a teeter-totter, with production value on one side and writing and performances on the other. If one side is low, the other side better be high for it to succeed.

Edit it yourself.

Digital editing programs exist for both PC and Macs, varying from $40 to $1,000. Most popular programs for PC include Adobe Premiere, Ulead Video Studio, Pinnacle Studio and Easy Media Creator. Mac programs are iLife’05, Final Cut Express and Final Cut Pro.

Go festival crazy.

Every major city has a film festival at least once a year. A good website to check for this is It keeps you up-to-date on when and where the good ones are along with their submission deadlines. Always research a festival before submitting. Look into past winners to see if your work would fit into the style there. If you are really serious about filmmaking, you might want to have a feature-length script ready before going. That way, if someone with money approaches you and says, “What else do you have?” you can hand over the script. Besides getting noticed, festivals are excellent grounds to get feedback from other artists. If you’re just starting out, online film festivals are usually free and great for feedback. is an example of a free online festival that provides thousands of reputable opinions.

Now that I’ve outlined the steps to making a quality short film, the only thing that could stop you now is a lack of talent. That can be a little more complicated of a problem.

[Brad Witty is currently embarking on a journey to create stories that will touch this generation … or at least make his mom laugh.]

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