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How to make a documentary film for under $100!

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12 steps to making a low budget documentary film.

Wheather you’re a seasoned film-maker or just starting out, you will need to understand and follow the 12 crucial steps of film-making specially if you are trying to make a documentary film for under $100. The following 12 steps are created by Zar productions in Sydney, Australia and they are the result of hands-on experience and not just some academic teaching.

Make sure you understand the importance of each point and put it into practice. Also we are going to be as honest as possible and at times it might even sound cruel, but really we just want you to save your time and money – that’s why we will try to give it to you – straight to the point!

  1. You must be in love with your film: What is your film about? And are you passionate about the subject?
    • Film making is a hard business and unless you are super passionate about the subject or the idea that you want to film then you might as well pack your bag and get out because things will get tough, people will say NO, doors will close to your face, you will lose weeks of work, actors wont show up, money will run out and lots of other things. If your reason for making that film is not
      strong enough then you wont make it. When it comes to selecting your subject, make sure you love that subject and definitely have an emotional attachment to the overall idea.
  2. Research the idea: learn as much as you can about the subject of your film.
    • You need to study your subject, research it until you cant find anything more, ask questions from people in that field for example if you are making a doco about a “Clock” then you need to read as much relevant information about the “clock” on the internet. Call a few clock makers and tell them about your project and ask them for few minutes of their time. Go to a clock shop (if there is such a thing) and ask the sales person about all their clocks. If you find an expert who lives on the other side of the planet then write to them and ask if you can call them or skype with them and ask more questions. So in the shortest possible amount of time you will have to educate yourself about the subject matter and become an expert. The more you research the better your film becomes.
  3. The foundation of your film: Condense your idea into a script.
    • So now that you have plenty of information about the subject of your documentary film, comes the hard task of putting all your newfound knowledge on paper. This is the basis of your film, its your map to success. Some of you will write a detailed story/script and others will scribble a few notes on the back of a tissue box that’s okay too but in our experience if you want success then push yourself to complete this step with as much detail as possible. If you research the Internet there are some amazing samples of scripts for documentaries as well as other films. This is your roadmap so make it as detailed as you can and as the process begins you can always change it as you see fit but for the start you need to write your script/story with as much detail as you can.
  4. The 3 P’s of filmmaking. Put together a basic plan fro pre-production, production and postproduction.
    • Making of films comes down to these 3 steps. You will spend lots of time in pre therefore your production will run smoothly and your post wont be as painful as they say it is.
  5. Planning your Pre Production: Break it down into small chunks.
    • The more work you do here the easier things will get down the track. Plan, plan and have a plan B as well.
    • Now that your script/story is “on paper” you need to break it down into smaller chunks. For example, you might have 5 interviews and need to spend 3-4 hours capturing B role footage. This can be broken down into two days of shooting. First Day, you might shoot 2 of the interviews and one hour for the B role shots, on day two you will need to cover 3 interviews and the rest of B roles, simple.
    • In a bigger film you will also need to organize permission from council, release forms for all involved in the film, call sheet, etc.
    • One of the best things you can do at this stage is to check out the locations you will be shooting. Check out the light, where is the sun going to be and how will it affect your shoot. What about the sound, are you shooting next to an airport or a racetrack?
  6. A list of what you have & what you are going to need:
    • You always have more resources than you know. Some people use this as an excuse for not following their dreams but you can always find a way if you want something bad enough.
    • Firstly, you need to make a list of all the things that you have at your disposal. You might use your skateboard for a tracking shot, some aluminium foil from the kitchen for a reflector or maybe download a free app on your phone to turn your phone to a clapperboard.
  7. Create your team: filmmaking is a team play.
    • This is where you need to use all your social skills. You should not attempt to do everything yourself. This is one of the greatest mistakes a film-maker can make, try to do everything!
    • Find out whom you need, do you have someone for sound or a camera operator, how about lighting or an editor?
    • Once you have your list of people, advertise the positions on social media and in your local film schools. There is a notice board in every film school and plenty of fresh talent who want to get their hands dirty, use this opportunity.
  8. Production: Directing your crew on the shoot: Ur Da Man*
    • This is where steps 1 to 5 come handy. Since you know everything about your subject and you have planned very well, your team will look up to you for leadership.
    • Remember, everyone here is a volunteer so you need to be super-cool with everyone, especially if you want to make more films down the track.
    • Before you start, have a quick team meeting and let them know what you expect from them.
    • Preferably you have already sent them a brief and a list of responsibilities before the shoot date
    • On a big production normally everyone knows their job and this means nobody will go to the director and suggest their ideas but on a small shoot with unprofessional crew you will get bombarded
      with suggestions and different ideas. This is where you need to be firm with your plans but flexible enough to hear a good idea when it shows up.
  9. Looking after your footage/asset: “my precious”
    • Once the shoot is done you need to quickly make 2 copies of all footage.
    • Do not format your cards or if you shooting on tape, re-use the tapes until you have confirmation of the footage being backed up and safe.
    • All of your efforts and hard work can go to waste if you don’t look after this stage.
  10. Post Production: Cutting your film.
    • By this point you should have an editor who has been involved in the film and knows what the subject and the story is.
    • Most editors will work with the director to make sure the integrity of the story is not changed but if you are a great director you will give enough freedom to your editor to come up with fresh ideas like Director Christopher Nolan did with Dody Dorn in the Oscar nominated film Memento in year 2000
  11. Credit: Thank you
    • Right from the beginning of your film you should keep a list of all the people who helped you in one way or another. Even if the neighbour allowed you to use their backyard, make sure their name is on the credit list.
    • Every film you make should bring about opportunities for your next film and thanking people for their help is a way for them to feel good and to help you the next time you need their help.
    • Also the longer your credit list the more important your film is and make sure its not your name for every role!
  12. Distribution.
    • If no one watched your film then all your effort is wasted. Make sure you use social media to advertise your film.
    • Having a long credit list will help to get more clips.
    • Make sure you send everyone involved a copy or two and ask them to share your film around.
    • If you think you got a hit on your hand, send it out to festivals and TV stations.
  13. What about the money? Okay we did say 12 steps but you must be asking what about the $100. Right? Well that’s just to feed the crew and other people who helped. Again, another way of saying thanks. An army of hungry soldiers will never win a battle and that’s why you need to look after your people.

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