Today’s article is all about the M-O-N-E-Y. In other words, budgeting.

Budgeting is truly an art form that improves with the experience. The less experienced you are, the greater the contingency you should have. You want to try to get to this accurate to reality as possible. But if you’re going to make a mistake, it’s much better to error on the side of having an over-inflated budget that takes into account all the possibilities – rather than an overly optimistic (unrealistic) budget that relies on a perfectly smooth shoot, and only the very best case scenario, to work out.

Remember, every dollar you spend here is a dollar you can’t spend there. Think through your budgetary decisions and try to get as many dollars on the screen as you possibly can.

The best way to do that is to use your imagination and creative thinking, to be as practical as possible with the limited means at your disposal. So, here are ten tips to help you do just that.

Tip number 1, get free or inexpensive equipment.

One of the easiest things you can do to shave some dollars off the bottom line is to beg, borrow, or maneuver your way into the equipment that you need for your project. Free or inexpensive equipment is all around you, you just have to sniff it out. If you find a DP, crew member, or friend with their own equipment or access to equipment, you could A, barter for their services. B, borrow or offer to rent their equipment from them. C, negotiate a good rate for them and their equipment.

Some professionals might even do per cost if they really like your project.

Now the other route is to manuever your way into a free equipment situation. Hands on film making programs are one way, but there are also multiple jobs in TV stations, film, and video rental houses. Colleges, production companies, and in-house corporate video departments where you, or a very close friend, may borrow equipment as a standard perk.

Imagine that. You can actually get paid to borrow the equipment you need for your own filmmaking project.

Now that’s resourceful filmmaking.

Tip number 2 is to get free, or inexpensive crew.

Low cost or free crews are pretty common for personal projects with tight budgets. Look for people who are serious and take a professional approach to their job even if they are less experienced. Seek out the hungry boom operators looking to move up to sound mixer. Look for the assistant camera person with a gleam in her eye who’s ready to be a DP. If you have production skills, barter your services for those of a colleague. It’s a fairly standard practice for small groups of independent filmmakers to just take turns cooperatively working on one another’s films for free.

Just make sure this is mutually understood before you give up half your summer for your friend’s film only to find out that he will be vacationing in Cancun during your shoot.

If you enroll in a film school or a workshop, there’s a good chance that you’ll get a free crew. If you pay any of your crew – and I think you really should, if you can – I recommend you start with paying your DP, sound person, and editor. As these are your make or break positions that will give you the most bang for your buck on screen.

The very best way to get good, free crew members, is to first be one for your fellow filmmakers.

If we really break it down, this isn’t so much a free strategy as it is a pay it forward or sweat equity strategy. If you put in some sweat equity with other filmmakers that aspire to similar goals as you, that equity will usually pay off on your own projects and filmmaking karma. I find that the more people I help, the more people are willing to help me. And I suspect you’ll find the exact same thing.

Tip number 3, get free or inexpensive food.

Feeding your crew good can get expensive, especially with larger crews, and loner shoots.

As any hungry college student knows, free or cheap food isn’t hard to come by. If you know where to look and who to ask, rally the local restaurants in your community to help out with your film. If you write a short, but passionate request, many places will often be willing to donate some meals. Or give you a significant discount for making a large order, especially over multiple days. And believe it or not, many people will still be motivated by the chance to get a film credit or have their restaurant featured in your film.

Tip number 4, be creative with visualizations.

Shooting original video is generally preferable, but it’s not always practical or affordable to shoot all the material you may need. If a portion of your documentary or corporate film calls for some visuals of Carnival in Rio, a guerrilla war. Aerial shots of towering skyscrapers or anything else that is a little too expensive, inaccessible, or otherwise difficult to shoot within your means. You still have may creative and cheaper options to visualize a story for your audience. You can buy some stock footage, use an animation, shoot a re-creation, illustrate it with drawings, show newspaper clippings, license footage from another film…

I can go on all day long, and so can your B-roll, with just a little more imaginative thinking.

Tip number 5, shoot and travel over less days with less people.

This is simple mathematics. The more you shoot and the longer you travel, the more your film will cost. With unfolding subject matter, knowing when to stop shooting and start editing is often difficult. But many projects are just historical documentaries or reality shows can be scheduled and planned ahead of time.

Do the math for each shooting day, and look for shoots that can be eliminated and combined. Travel is a necessary part of a story, but you want to make sure that your travel is cost effective, and adds value to your project. Travelling for six hours and feeding and putting up a five person crew in a hotel to shoot some B-roll for a montage of your subject’s hometown is not a wise investment of your resources. Instead, you could just shoot it with just your DP. You could also make the most of the trip by interviewing your subject’s family members and friends while there.

Maybe instead of video of their hometown, a montage of still pictures will suffice. Make travel count. Take the minimum amount of people, stay only as long as necessary, and shoot as much material as you can while you are there.

Tip number 6, get corporate sponsorships or product placement deals.

Making a documentary about the history of video gaming? Why not see if the good people at EA Sports or Rockstar Games will support your project with grants or donations? Want to highlight the plight of teen mothers, why not seek help from a national charity that shares the same mission? Look for natural allies in your mission that have deeper pockets than you.

While not appropriate for many projects, some subject matters or film genres may want to seek out a product placement deal to show a sponsor’s product on screen in exchange for value. Trying to line up product placement deals for the documentary Paper Chasers, which is about hip hop entrepreneurs, we didn’t get any cash. Which is unlikely for independent films anyway. But we did convince sponsors to supply specific budget items such as food, drinks, wardrobe, and discounted hotel, car, and RV rentals, which freed up many precious dollars in our micro budget.

Tip number 7, use original music.

Why pay an expensive fee to use a popular song or stock music from a library, when there are thousands of independent musicians looking for exposure. Many of these fellow indie artists will gladly give you pre-recorded tracks. Better yet, you can easily find talented musicians and composers who will even create original music for your project for a fraction of the cost of the average popular music license. Original music tailored to your project can be an inexpensive but powerful storytelling element.

Tip number 8, use public domain footage.

Did you know there are hundreds of hours of footage, and thousands of historical photos and musical recordings available for anyone to use free of charge? This is mostly historical material with expired copyrights. In other words, it’s in the public domain. You may nevertheless have to pay to download or have material transferred, but it’s still a great bargain. In the same vain, you can also search sites like, where there are stills and videos with various creative commons licenses. These licences allow you to download and use media for free under many circumstances.

Tip number 9, use natural light and china lanterns.

You can avoid the cost of rentals and the hassle and setup time needed for professional lighting instruments by using available lighting instead. Position your subject strategically to use the natural light on location. You can get some beautiful lighting with the simple house lamp, inexpensive china lantern, or sunlit window and a reflector. Staging a shooting at interviews outdoors is also a common way to get around professional lighting needs.

Tip number 10, log and transcribe your own footage.

Transcripts and logs are dock and corporate video necessity. However, a professional video transcription is costly even on the low end. If you have 20 or so hours of footage to log and transcribe, it could easily break your budget. Instead, try enlisting an intern, a good friend, or just do it yourself, if you’re up to the task.You’ll be much more familiar with your footage. Plus, you’ll save hundreds, or even thousands of dollars, to boot. The bottom line is that, just like many other steps in pre-production.

Budgeting forces you to really examine and think through your production decisions.

Do you really need that camera operator with a movie stabiliser for an extra $1200?

Or, is it better to just go hand held and use that $1200 to license some more stock footage for music?

Should you rent a high end camera package or are you better off renting a less expensive camera package and using the money you saved to hire a more experienced documentary editor?

There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer to these issues. Just a long list of choices that will impact your final film budget.

Your job is to figure out what that impact will be, and decide what value it brings to your finished film. And make sure that every dollar shows up on screen where it will have the most impact on your audience.


Artis, Anthony Q. (2014) Tips for keeping your budget down. Retrieved from