Two weeks ago, 7k Films wrapped shooting on its first feature film, #humbled. It was the smoothest, most efficient, most enjoyable film set many of us could remember ever being on. We only rolled camera for four days, and we wrapped early every single day. Yes, seriously.
How did we do it?
Before I get to that, I am obligated to say that if you are a filmmaker thinking about making your first feature film, you should apply to 7k Films’ feature film grant program right now. The grant program awards $7,000 to filmmakers to make a feature film. If you think that’s not enough money, well guess what: we just did it. On time and under budget.
The how is really interesting, and everyone who applies to the grant program will receive an in-depth e-book Case Study on the making of #humbled. The e-book will go behind the scenes in gritty detail, documenting everything that went in to producing a feature film on that budget. Think of it as an uber-Case Study in ultra low budget filmmaking.
During production there was an almost giddy feeling on set at not just the audaciousness of what we were attempting, but the smoothness with which we were executing. I owe the cast and crew an enormous debt for their hard work over the course of a week spent rehearsing and filming. They were on top of their game every single day, and of course we wouldn’t have been able to pull it off without them.
Beyond an extraordinary cast and crew though were the foundations of a production that was set up for success from the very beginning. Here, in broad strokes outline, is what we did to make it happen:
- We wrote a script to fit the budget. See my earlier post on how I produced a first draft of the #humbled script in ten days earlier this year. Knowing what my budget and production constraints were ahead of time meant I thought twice about writing difficult-to-produce scenes into the script. As a general rule, I wrote long scenes, didn’t add any locations outside of what one would find in a blackbox theatre (backstage area, green room, etc.), and kept the props and costumes simple. These constraints didn’t damage the story at all – if anything they helped me avoid lazy writing and motivated scenes to be more immediate, the tone and atmosphere more claustrophobic.
- An excellent cast. Inspired in part by Timothy Busfield’s story about shooting a 44-minute short in one day, my co-producer and I early on hit on the idea of hiring improv actors as a way to smooth out production wrinkles and help spice up our script. We held two workshops with a local improv troupe to help us flesh out characters and dialogue, and eventually cast several characters straight from the improv community. We filled out our lead roles with professionals who are really extraordinary actors who know how to do their part (e.g., work their magic) to make a film set go.
- Lots of rehearsal. Roughly three weeks before shooting began we held an all-cast table-read to continue fleshing out script problems and give everyone an opportunity to raise issues with their character well ahead of time. We took many of their suggestions to heart and did a final revision to the script just after the table read. Additionally, we asked all actors to commit to one week of production – but we used three of those days to rehearse. The first two were spent entirely on character and scene-work in rehearsals that would have been nearly indistinguishable from a theatre rehearsal. The third rehearsal day was a tech day for camera and sound, spent on set in the theatre. We used that time to re-block many of the scenes, solidify which setups and lenses we’d be using for each shot, and choose a lighting scheme. Which brings me to…
- Filming in a theatre. We didn’t pick a theatre for our story because it would make lighting easier (we picked it because we wanted to explore the theme of why we do creative work in the context of community theatre), but boy did it help. Using the theatre’s own lighting setup saved us countless hours, more than making up for the huge portion of our production budget which went into renting the theatre in the first place. Rather than move a bunch of lights around in between each setup, we simply moved a few levers on the lighting board. Instead of spending an hour or more to relight in between setups we were spending five minutes. When we moved on to new scenes we would simply consult our notes from the tech rehearsal day and send a PA up to shift the lights accordingly.
- Highly economical shot selection. I did the shot list for the entire movie knowing how tight a schedule we were on. And, like many production constraints, this one motivated me to be highly creative with my shot selection. I chose interesting initial setups for master shots, and then thought very carefully about what I wanted the final scene to look like, only getting coverage for the parts of the script I was sure I wanted. Strangely, this didn’t lead to scrimping on coverage at all. For each setup we were routinely doing 3, 4, or even 6 or 7 takes. And the shot lists were done in such a way that the most difficult scenes to act would still have lots of choices in post for where to cut. Only a few short, simple scenes were done with a setup that meant the actors had to really nail it all the way through – and they did.
The above covers in broad strokes what went in to such a smooth production, but there is truly an enormous amount of preparation, experience, and expertise that it is impossible to put all down here. I’m not going to pretend that anyone can just get off their couch and do this – but I will also say that having an enormous amount of industry experience could work against you as much as it works for you.
The #humbled production proves that you can do things a bit differently than “the right way” to do them, and still come out the other end with a finished feature film. Perhaps most importantly – and this is why we founded 7k Films – you don’t need a lot of money. The production came in on time and under budget, which, putting on my producer hat now, is exactly what I want for future 7k Films productions.