Published on: 25 August 2020 in Industry
London Unplugged: making a microbudget film for the big screen
Reading time: 7 minutes and 5 seconds
Making a microbudget film is notoriously difficult — but it can also offer an energy and inspiration that’s hard to find elsewhere.
While directing his portmanteau film London Unplugged, Directors UK member Nick Cohen went through the process of casting, shooting and seeking distribution for a limited-budget feature. Below, he gives us an inside look at the experience — and provides some useful tips for directors.
I really enjoyed Paris Je T’Aime, and the ‘city symphony’ films throughout the ages. As a Londoner, I questioned why we’d not had a similar contemporary London film?
The idea of making one myself began to grow on me. I figured the ‘city love letter’ genre was overdue a gritty reboot, telling more contemporary stories written by those working and struggling in the capital. Perhaps, the constraints of a microbudget could be an advantage; instead of parachuting in big name directors who often have no real connection to a given city – this film would be made by people intimately involved with London.
My initial production strategy was that a portmanteau feature film might retain some of the production benefits of short filmmaking but have a wider life and that the energy of working without budget would transmit to the film.
This was the pitch I gave to the London Film School, Four Corners film, The Refugee Journalism Project and other frontline organisations who supported the project.
Making a microbudget feature is tough at the best of times, as anyone who has attempted it will testify. But on the other hand, it’s exciting to shoot without big crews or full permits. There’s a definite energy to rocking up to a location with a few stalwart crew and cast knowing time is very limited and you can be moved on. All filmmaking is a rush, but guerrilla filmmaking is an even bigger one. It’s addictive! In fact, one danger is that it’s easy to keep inventing things to shoot rather than face the issues arising in the edited footage. The great advantage is that you can be open to any improvisation or changes. When Yourlance — our athlete — injured herself mid-run, we were distraught. But as she was determined to limp to the end it became the central metaphor for the lonely struggle of the city, better than anything that could have been scripted.
Attracting name cast to this kind of work is tricky. Agents can be pretty hostile, so there usually has to be a back door connection or accurate insider knowledge about the particular interests an actor may have. In our case, because we were featuring female led stories and taking on some topical themes we could at least pitch cast on the basis that the film had strong social messages and was showcasing diverse voices. Poppy Miller, for instance, having played in ‘Leave to Remain,’ was interested in playing an asylum story from the other side and enacting a morally ambiguous bureaucrat in ‘Unchosen.’ Similarly, Imogen Stubbs was tempted by the challenge of improvising around a Virginia Woolf story in her best Edwardian vernacular.
Theoretically, the availability of 4K+ shooting kits means that microbudget filmmaking is easier and more democratic than ever. Unfortunately, the reality is that managing that kit effectively, especially the post production workflow is not really possible without the support of a post production house to attend to the grading, mixing, deliverables and general finishing of the film. I was lucky to find a very supportive friend, Marc Collins, who runs TVC Soho, a prime soho facility, and whose technical director Simon Ward patiently guided us through the technical issues. A big issue with blagging kit is that often you end up with a variety of cameras, which leads to a range of codecs, frame rates and so on which need considerable work to harmonise to a high spec.
Many microbudget filmmakers fall down in post production and I would advise anyone to forge a strong relationship with a post production house before shooting.
The final hurdle, distribution, is often the hardest. For a microbudget film to compete with fully funded films and their lavish marketing requires stamina. I knew we would need a successful festival launch pad and was over the moon when we finally were accepted by the East End Film festival. We knew that was our chance to get distributor interest so we invited everyone and packed the place as best we could.
It was very exciting to score full theatric distribution with Everyman and the ICA. However, I would warn filmmakers that microbudget distribution is a full time job. Cinemas can demand heavy marketing/Q&A efforts and will be quick to terminate if they feel there isn’t enough energy.
Similarly, trying to deliver DCPs to mainstream cinema chains or lengthy lists of high specification deliverables to online platforms like Amazon/iTunes is exceptionally difficult on a microbudget. Like many filmmakers I was seduced by the internet myths that you can produce your own DCP or author your own DVD – but the truth is – unless you are a very experienced real technical wizard – home made DCPs and master DVDs will fail quality control with big cinemas and platforms. My advice to anyone else would be to skip the painful and futile step of fruitless struggling with domestic DCP or DVD authoring that get rejected and again, go cap in hand to a production house.
The audience response was great and we got some great reviews in the Times and other papers, so the struggle felt worthwhile. Still, there are some things I would do differently. Here are some things I learned for next time:
Know when to stop
When shooting, it’s easy to get on a high and just keep going. Pace yourself. Make sure someone is taking care of the basics: food, transport, working hours and insurance cover.
Otherwise there will be fallout/casualties.
Get the post in first
Get the support of a post production house. Get the post house the workflow recipe and stick closely to it. Don’t get creative with the technical side without checking in with them. (No matter what the DOP says.)
Cast is key — but be real
Don’t submit scripts to actors or agents unless there is either a personal connection or you are absolutely certain it is of personal interest to that particular actor.
Ignore the internet
Don’t believe the hype about homemade DCP and DVD authoring: if you want a mainstream release you will need to budget for deliverables and work with technical experts.
Face the crowd
Test your edit with live audiences. It’s too easy to go snowblind in an edit.
Pick your target
Target the right festival and right distributors – don’t take a scattergun approach.
There’s no “one size fits all” approach to getting a microbudget feature out there, but by following these tips, you might have a smoother ride!