We Shot Our Film with a $600 Camera, 3 Lights, and No Budget (and Still Got Distribution)

Created
Apr 21, 2020 9:58 PM
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media production
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Cosmos Header

What does it take to make a successful feature film that gets a Hollywood premiere and international distribution? A lot less than you might think.

My name is Zander Weaver. My brother Elliot and I have just spent the last 5 years directing and producing my debut feature film, COSMOS—a contemporary sci-fi adventure that explores the thrilling first hours of first contact when 3 amateur astronomers intercept what they believe is a faint signal from an alien race, stumbling upon something potentially world-changing. It’s a small, contained film, set over one night, that explores how our search for answers "out there" brings out the best in us "down here".

What’s cool about COSMOS, though, is that it had zero budget. We had no money set aside and no financial support. We did spend money, of course—approximately $7,000 (completely out of our own pocket)—buying some gear, software, food, petrol, and paying for location electricity, but that expenditure, for a feature film, is incredibly low. Some short films have budgets of $30K+, so to make a full feature with a fraction of that, by industry definition, is “no budget”.

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Directors Elliot and Zander Weaver

So, how did we do it? Better yet...how did this “MacGyver movie” made by 3 people, shot in a friend’s garage on a $600 camera using 3 LED lights and decade-old software get bought by the leading global distributor of indie entertainment, have a Hollywood premiere, a US theatrical run, and worldwide VOD release?

In an effort to liberate, inspire and entertain (at our own expense!), we’re going to share how we tackled production and take a look at the most amusing no budget elements of COSMOS that will hopefully make you realize that you probably already have everything you need to make your own film.

But before we do, let's look at the results:

And here’s a featurette where we explain why and how we made a movie this way.

As the featurette above explains, we did almost everything on COSMOS ourselves. We could talk about each step in detail, but the goal of this article is to show you that you don’t need the latest and greatest gear to make a movie that gets released and in front of paying audiences. If you feel trapped and disenfranchised by a lack of financial backing, pro gear, and industry connections...so did we...and COSMOS is what we did about it.

So here’s our no-budget checklist for COSMOS—part entertaining, part ridiculous, and hopefully part inspiring, too.

We shot COSMOS entirely on the original 1080p Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera (it’s “OG” and so are we!) and not once...not once...did our distributor ask us what we shot on or what resolution we’d deliver in. We shot in standard HD 1080p 24fps 172.8 shutter in ProResLT and our cinema DCP (which we made ourselves) was upscaled to 2K in DaVinci Resolve...and I kid you not, we’ve had professional camera operators, DPs and producers ask if we shot on Alexa or Epic.

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BMPCC Rig

90% of COSMOS was shot on an unmodified 1960’s Sands Hunter 28mm stills lens. Why? Because we already owned it and we liked how it looked. The exposure ring clicks. It blooms too much when wide open and the focus wheel is stiff...but can anyone tell? No. The other 10% was shot on a cheap Tamron 18-200 zoom we bought off Amazon for less than $100.

3. $5 Homemade Camera Rig

There are 2 types of rigs:

  • The eye-wateringly expensive type, precision milled from aerospace metal
  • The dirt-cheap type that snaps on first use

After many frustrating hours of research I decided to make my own. I went to my local hardware store, picked up some off-cut wood, copper piping, and plumbing fixtures. A bit of sawing, drilling, and screwing later, we had what we needed. I made a detachable shoulder support with exercise ankle-weights for counterbalance and added a field monitor, follow focus ($25 on Amazon), a cardboard extended matte box, and voila!

It’s not the prettiest thing you’ve ever seen, but it’s robust and reliable and never let us down across the entire shoot. Total customization, total flexibility, total affordability.

4. Wheelchair Dolly

Short story—we went to the thrift store where they had a broken keyboard and a kneeboard. We bought neither, but we did buy a wheelchair and used it as a makeshift camera dolly. We’re not the first to do this, and we certainly shouldn’t be the last because it works. We did have a 1m Konova Slider which we put to use rigorously, and we also occasionally resorted to the tried and tested method of sliding the camera along on a towel.

5. Leaf-Blower Wind Machine

I mean what more is there to say? Just ask your actors to look up into the vast night sky in awe and then blast dusty, hot air in their eyes from the battered old leaf-blower from your garage. That’s showbiz, kid!

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DIY Leaf-Blower Wind Machine

Our FULL lighting kit on COSMOS consisted of 3 LED panel lights and (sometimes!) a 2kW Blonde used exclusively on night exteriors when we had main power supply (which was rarely).

We shot an entire forest night sequence with only 3 LED panel lights, limiting the lighting to the immediate surroundings—but we used it to our advantage to create an isolating, lonely feel. Just 3 guys in the middle of nowhere—what’s beyond in the deep dark woods? We’d bounce practical torchlight off reflectors or, when shooting around the car, use the headlights themselves to help fill the space.

Inside the car, things were even more interesting. The 3 LEDs were used exclusively for “moonlight” backlight through windows. The interior of the car was lit completely practically or with supplementary “creative” solutions like iPads screens and phone torches. This suited us perfectly. Adjusting a lighting setup became a matter of switching desk lamps on and off or moving an iPad around. An actor not in the frame might hold the iPad in the right position to light the shot for us and we used a simple app to select the colored light we were looking for. Adjusting the screen brightness to control its intensity, we were sorted. All computer screens and ambient colored light were achieved in this way.

So again, limited gear required us to think creatively, but it never stopped us.

7. Garage "Studio"

For 33 days of our 55-day shoot, we filmed in a triple garage lent to us by a generous friend. We parked our car inside, put up a black cyc, turned off all the working lights, and lit the car interiors with our practicals and 3 LEDs. Every single scene inside the car, including driving sequences, were filmed in this garage.

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Filming in a garage

8. Actors' Wardrobe

Literally, all costumes featured in the film (with the exception of the Astro-Nut caps) were the actors' own clothes. We raided their wardrobes and created combinations that suited our story: COSMOS follows 3 intelligent space scientists and their clothing should reflect their character. These guys aren’t scruffy nerds covered in Cheeto dust; they’re smart astronomers and take pride in their appearance. We fixed on a cool-casual look that would be practical to wear “out in the field”.

9. Pre-Owned Props

No-budget filmmaking 101: only write props into your script that you already have access to OR can be easily made. Volvo car: already owned. Computer monitors/ torches/ desk lamps/ cables: already owned. Super-Telescope: add VFX glass to the open end of a tripod flight case. Alien-finding antenna: turn Dedo lamp stands upside down and add blinking LEDs. Car-mounted aerials: mount a monopod to the roof of the car and use an actual umbrella with gold mesh to double as a real “umbrella-dish”. Computer car workstations: buy some wood, build two wobbly desks and spray them blue so no-one notices them while watching the film.

10. Final Cut Pro 7 & Color 2

We cut and sound-mixed the entire movie on 2009’s FCP7. Why? You guessed it...we already owned it. Could you tell? No. Can anyone tell? No. Bong Joon-Ho cut Parasite on FCP7...did it matter to the Academy? No. No one cares. Many filmmakers scratch their heads at this, but in its day, FCP7 was an industry leader. If it was good enough for David Fincher and the Coens, it's good enough for us.

It’s the talent, not the tools, that matter.

We graded the entire movie in Apple Color 2 as it came in our old Final Cut Studio 2 package from way back when. It can keyframe and power window and do LUTs and it worked perfectly.

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Cosmos film still

11. Free VFX Software

Blender3D is a free open source VFX powerhouse. COSMOS has approximately 170 VFX shots all single-handedly modeled, rotoscoped, composited, and rendered by yours truly over 12 months. Snobs would have you believe Blender is the poor man’s Maya or 3dsMax, and I would argue that unless you’re skilled enough to know how to use the additional features of paid software, don’t bother getting them.

It’d be like learning to drive in a V12 muscle car—it’s overkill (and dangerous!). This analogy in itself is a disservice to Blender3D, as it’s already in prolific use by VFX houses all over the world.

12. Homebrewed Foley

In a soundproof tent constructed from broom poles and beach towels, between the hours of midnight and 4 am over a period of 4 months, Elliot single-handedly designed and recorded every single sound effect you hear in COSMOS. He then edited and mixed over 66,000 individual foley effects into the film on 100 FCP7 audio tracks. It took him working 5 days per week for 18 months.

This is as insane as it sounds. During pre-production, it was just Elliot and myself. Our core crew during the shoot jumped up to 3 as our Mom joined us to do hair, make-up, and continuity (and often slated shots and took BTS stills!).

Post-production took 3 years and was just Elliot and myself with our composer joining us for 3 months of scoring. We took responsibility for everything. Every location, every prop, every costume, every phone call, rigged and de-rigged every piece of gear, set every light, every camera focus mark, and every mic placement. Marked the clapperboard, charged the batteries, kept the smoke machine warm, and made sure the background haze wasn’t too thick or thin. We directed the actors and watched their performances, kept track of script continuity and dialogue accuracy.

We backed up every shot. Synced and edited every take and made every cut. Graded every shot. Designed and track laid every sound effect. Mixed a cinema grade 5.1. Created every visual effect. Approved every piece of music. Made the exports and DCPs. Delivered them for QC. Designed and painted the poster. Cut half a dozen trailers and teasers. Built an online community and shared our BTS to inspire fellow filmmakers. Answered every DM, replied to every comment. Reached out to every blog or publication, wrote every article (including this one)... and still it continues.

90% of COSMOS was a 2-man movie studio, and honestly, it feels like my brain is on fire. But I’m also liberated. I feel unstoppable. We’re indie rebels who’ve finally made their movie without having to convince anyone or ask for permission or funding. We’ve won.

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The 'Cosmos' Team

So, what’s my point here?

My point is this: you don’t need quality gear to make a quality film. You may watch COSMOS and not like the story (that’s subjective) and you may have told it differently if it was your film, but it’s hard to argue with the high level of production value for a no-budget movie made by 3 people.

How was this possible? A painfully simple answer: hard work. Not money or contacts or industry favors or million-dollar gear or even natural-born talent...just hard work.

What does that mean for you? Hopefully, it’s inspiring and liberating. Yes, it would be great to have a RED Epic (some of you probably do), but that’s not enough. You need to work hard. And you need examples that show you hard work will be and is enough. There are many films that prove this and hopefully COSMOS is now one of them.

My advice to you would be to stop delaying and stop making excuses. (I’m not saying you are...but if you are, stop.) Grab the gear you have and push it and yourself to the limits. Stop waiting for that Alexa or for when you can shoot in 6K instead of 4K. None of that will make your film more engaging and impactful.

Tools are an amazing enabler, but quality gear will never guarantee a quality outcome. Playing the same Fender as Jimi Hendrix won’t make you a Guitar Hero. Wearing the same running shoes as Usain Bolt won’t win you Olympic Gold. And shooting on the same camera as Roger Deakins won’t make you an Oscar winner. It’s the artist using those tools that matters and their understanding of craft.

Craft can’t be cheated. Craft can’t be inherited. Craft can’t be bought from a gear supplier. Even talent without craft is just potential. Craft is honed through hard work.

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The 'Cosmos' team in Hollywood

We were able to make COSMOS because we honed our craft through hard work.

If two brothers from the UK with no money, no industry help, homemade gear, and a camera/lens combo most would laugh off set can make a feature film that was bought by a leading global distributor who saw enough potential to stage a Hollywood premiere and finance a US theatrical run and worldwide VOD release...then you can, too.

Hone your craft, work hard, grab your camera and get it done. Good luck and I can’t wait to see your movie!