How To: Win Film Festival Gold on a Shoestring

Affordable technology, low-to-no cost distribution channels like YouTube, and a proliferation of film festivals have all lead to the democratization of filmmaking. You don't need a blockbuster budget to make a good movie, but you'll still need skill and know-how. We recently turned to Jackson Adamsand Jenna Lyng, two award-winning young filmmakers and recent graduates of Emerson College, for some tips to make a quality movie on a shoestring budget.

1) Simple storytelling. The key to avoiding a costly production starts with the script. Focus your story around elements that you know you have access to. Unless you've got a friend with plenty of pull at Grand Central Station, avoid writing scenes at the helm of a runaway train.

2) It takes a village. Don't be afraid to get help from family and friends. Filmmaking is a collaborative process, and your production will require a lot of support. Do you know a carpenter who might be willing to lend a hand to the production? Maybe hire some students on your crew. They'll be some of the hardest workers. They may even hook you up with student discounts on anything from a lighting kit to any number of postproduction services.

3) Engage your fans. Whether it's your hometown or a special interest group, find the people who are enthusiastic about this project. Use Facebook and Twitter to spread word about your film. Get your community interested from the get-go and you'll not only have an easier time finding support during production, but you'll have built an audience for the finished film.

4) Choose your format. Film used to be the only way to go, but in the age of HD video, the possibilities for shooting gorgeous footage on the cheap are endless. Film will almost always be the more costly choice after the price of the stock, the processing, and the video transfer. If you shoot video, make sure you have the proper editing system to handle your files.

5) Strategic scouting. Choose locations where you can easily get permission to film your movie. Consider looking beyond urban areas, as smaller towns are more likely to help you out at no extra charge. Keep your locations clustered to save money on transportation costs and time.

6) MacGyver it. Substitute some of your equipment with tools from your garage. Use Chinese lanterns for soft lighting. Borrow a wheelchair or a shopping cart instead of renting a dolly. Buy some white and metallic cardboard at the corner store for lighting bounce. Nobody will judge your rag-tag equipment if you save thousands of dollars.

7) Use the sun. Shoot as much as you can outside and during the day. Natural lighting saves you money on expensive lights and generators, and it looks great. If you shoot during the summer, you'll have longer hours to work with.

8) Splurge on sound. Invest in good sound equipment and an experienced sound recordist and designer. Sound is one of the common weaknesses in student and low-budget independent film. Get it right the first time. Your actors will appreciate it and so will your audience.

9) Take your time. Don't rush if you don't have to. Storyboard every scene and make accurate lighting overheads for each set-up. Visit every location with your key crew and make sure they know the plan. On-set, make sure to get a satisfying take, even if it takes a while to get there—you'll have to cut bad footage anyways. Get plenty of coverage (i.e. footage), and never say "we'll fix it in post production." No matter how much you plan, you'll always wish you had more angles to work with. Do whatever you can to avoid costly reshoots.

10) Bask in indie film glory. Remember to invite all of your supporters to the premiere.

Jackson Adams has been making short films since he was twelve years old. He was recently selected from a pool of young filmmakers at the National Film Festival for Talented Youth—where his short film Warren Bud and His Propeller Plane won an Audience Award—to film and produce a short film profiling Pepsi Refresh Grantee Operation Gratitude.

Jackson and Jenna were recently selected from a pool of young filmmakers at the National Film Festival for Talented Youth—where their short film

Warren Bud and His Propeller Plane won an Audience Award—to film and produce a short film profiling Pepsi Refresh Grantee Operation Gratitude.


This post originally appeared on, as part of GOOD's collaboration with the Pepsi Refresh Project, a catalyst for world-changing ideas. Find out more about the Refresh campaign, or submit your own idea today.


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