How to Make a Professional Short Film for $80 (Part I - Pre-Production).




About: I am a filmmaker, student, and tinkerer. I love designig and building devices instead of purchasing them. Instructables is a great way to do that and share with others how to do the same...
Part II can be found here: How to make a Professional Short Film for $80 (Part II - Production)

I've been making films since the fifth grade. In this time, I have created countless shorts that continually get better. As a senior in high school, I felt I should make a final film to sum up all I had learned. For this to be an official end cap, the film had to be finished before I departed for my first year in college. As a soon to be college student, I had no money but dreamed big. This is how I made my 20 minute short film for $80 and how you can to.

This is part I of what will be a three part guide divided into pre-production, production, and post production. It will be followed up with detailed individual guides on the more important steps in each large step.

This guide will not be an exact process but rather a collection of resources filled with knowledge and tips that should help you to create a very high quality production for almost no money. It is general simply because of the enormous scope of material that I will be covering. Look for more detailed and specific information in upcoming instructables that target areas of the process.

There are a few quasi-legal tips scattered throughout the instructable. I am not responsible if you go to jail. Be smart and make wise decisions.

With that said, lets see what we will be working towards (I highly recommend you see it in HD):

The Teaser ( See it in HD at Vimeo ):

The Film:

The Shepherd HD (Full Film) from Via Optima on Vimeo.

Step 1: Assumptions

We all know what happens when you assume but I am afraid I have to do it regardless of the saying...

I am going to assume you have the following items. I will mention alternatives and various versions of these as I address them but it will help greatly if you own them already.

A camcorder - Ability to capture to a computer is a must. We will discuss this in detail later.
A tripod - While the $10 one from Wal-Mart will do, a nice fluid head will help tremendously.
A computer - PC or Mac.

Editing Application
Compositing Application - Not necessary but definitely adds "awesome."

Friends or Family - If you lack either, please procure them before continuing.
Time - Making a professional, cheap short is a time consuming process. Make sure you have plenty of it to devote to your work.
Common Sense

Step 2: Planning and Pre-Production (The Script)

You can save yourself hours of time and frustration by planning ahead and making sure to completely think through what you are doing.

The Script:
There is a detailed and confusing format motion picture scripts are written in. This code, as it seems to be at times, while painful at first will greatly simplify your work later. To facilitate writing in this process, several companies have created screenwriting programs to take advantage of confused young writers out there, the most notable one being Final Draft. You could pay the $230 for this program or you could use the highly superior FREE version based off the Mozilla Firefox core called Celtx.
I will not detail how to write a good script or the format necessary (info can be found in tutorials on the Celtx website). But I will provide you with a few good links:

Don't want to write your own script? Check out the unproduced scripts at SimplyScripts:

Step 3: Planning and Pre-Production (Storyboarding)

I have to make a horrible confession. I don't storyboard. I do, however, firmly believe that it will save you countless headaches and time but it is not strictly necessary - at least in a short film.

What is a storyboard you ask? Basically it is the comic book version of the movie. Every shot you plan will be a separate frame depicting things like camera movement and location, actors movement and location, environment movement and location, and every single bit of movement and location you want in your shot and ultimately movie. It will help you plan out what you need to do on set. What shots you will need. What props are necessary. You get the idea.

The most common way to storyboard is by hand. I like to draw on standard 3x5 index cards.

Let me stop for a moment and say that it is now important to know if you will be shooting with a standard aspect ration of 4:3 (your grandma's black and white television) or 16:9 (your new 52" plasma HDTV) or an even greater aspect ratio (Lord of the Rings). This knowledge ensures you don't plan shots that won't fit on your camera.

What's that you say? You cannot draw? No fear, me either. There are several options available for the artistically challenged such as us. Remember, you are just planning movement and location so a stick figure with an arrow is more than adequate for planning out your shots. But if you are one of those people (you know I am talking about you) then you can use software such as StoryBoard Artist or FrameForge to do it for you - or you could save hundreds of dollars and use the FREE Google Sketchup.

Sketchup? Yes. Add your characters and props - which you downloaded from Google's Bonus Packs (even includes a Film and Stage kit) or from the Sketchup 3D Warehouse. This is a solution many small studios use as they can precisely control the placement of everything and their camera.

Okay, I finished my storyboard - now what do I do with them? Why load them up into Celtx to centrally consolidate all of your files!

Step 4: Planning and Pre-Production (Equipment & Props)

Let me begin by saying that I am going to create a separate instructable entirely devoted to this topic. Do you have anything you want clarified? Do you have a prop or costume you want to know how to procure for cheap? Post a comment here and I'll check back and write it up if I can help!

So you have your film all planned out and you are preparing to film. But what are you going to film on? I could write pages and pages on the topic (and will soon) but this instructable is supposed to be general. Let me say this, if you are buying a camcorder under $1000 then get either a canon HV20 or HV30 (should be around $650 and $750 respectively). A Canon HV30 was used to make my film. I will explain why in this mythical upcoming instructable. If you are spending more than $1000 then you probably know what you are doing and don't need my help.

If at all possible, procure a tripod with a fluid head. You should be able to find a very good amateur video tripod for no more than $125. Check B&H or Amazon.

I highly recommend using an external microphone for recording. When used in conjunction with a boom pole (mind the shameless plug) you can get drastically better audio. For a consumer camcorder, try the Rode VideoMic. You can get it for no more than $150.

Okay. I know that adds up to more than $80 but the only thing that is absolutely, positively necessary was the camera and I already assumed you have that. Don't consider these purchases so much as investments. You only have to buy it once and you're set for life, or at least until some new cool toy comes out.

I try not to spend any money on props. However, this is where the $80 from my film went. You can probably beg and borrow almost everything you need for a film from friends and family. The SWAT guy, if you watched my movie, is where all my prop money went. It was composed of a police uniform from Party City, skateboard pads, and a helmet and vest purchased from an Airsoft Store. Total cost:$80.

If you need a specific prop and are having trouble finding out how to find or make it. Please comment below and I will try to help you in my upcoming instructable.

Step 5: Planning and Pre-Production (Location)


Permit laws vary from state to state and place to place. I live in Georgia which is relatively permit free meaning I can film most places without having to worry about being hassled by the police. Regardless, I have no money for permits and therefore practice a method of filmmaking affectionately referred to as guerrilla.

Guerrilla filmmaking borders on the territory of what is legal quite often so let me say again, I am not responsible for whatever dumb decisions you make. With that said, guerrilla filmmaking is a blast.

Much of my movie was filmed in Atlanta, particularly in an abandoned paint factory that we discovered via Flickr and friends. Flickr, youtube, and your everyday search engine are your best friends when it comes to discovering awesome, unique locations in your city to create films. Just be advised that most of these locations probably require permits. However, if you stay discreet and hidden this probably won't be a problem. As long as you travel light you can claim ignorance of local permit laws on the grounds of being a film student or amateur.

Your last, and probably greatest, location resource are your friends and family. The hospital scene in my film was actually filmed in a hospital  without the knowledge of the staff. The other director's grandmother was recovering from a recent surgery and while she was out exercising, we borrowed her room to film a quick scene. To remain anonymous we were forced to whisper all the lines and then redub in post. It was not the easiest or most elegant solution but it was a lot fun.

Be smart, travel light, and think creatively and you should have no problem finding the perfect location for your awesome movie.

Step 6: Planning and Pre-Production (Cast)

I have never paid an actor in my life, but I would if I could  or at least that's what I tell them. The trick is to use friends and family who aspire to be actors. For the most part, they will deliver satisfactory performances. The only catch is that, because you aren't paying the, they may not work with your schedule. If you are filming with lots of different individuals, trying to find a day where everyone can come can be impossible.

I have friends who swear by Craigslist. You can post a free classified ad saying that you are filming a short film for fun and looking for aspiring actors willing to work for free. I have seen some fantastically talented and experienced actors show up at no budget projects via this method. Definitely something to consider.

This concludes the Pre-Production portion of How to make a Professional Short Film for $80. Look for the second portion, Production, soon.



    • Fat Challenge

      Fat Challenge
    • Pie Contest

      Pie Contest
    • Jewelry Challenge

      Jewelry Challenge

    83 Discussions


    3 years ago

    I'm trying to make a full length movie that will try to got to theaters. Basically like Lazer Team by rooster teeth.


    8 years ago on Step 6

    thanks for sharing.. i am actually looking for some tips and you gave me a lot. once done, i will give you a link of my creation and hoping to receive a critique from you.

    As for a camcorder that can upload to a computer...

    any camcorder can record to a computer. if you have either a flash or hard disk- based camcorder, just pull off the files.

    if you have a newer tape camera, your computer needs a Firewire 400 port on your computer to capture the footage.

    if you have a camcorder that doesn't contain a firewire or DV port (aka early hi8 or VHS) you have to get a TV tuner card with RCA inputs.

    1 reply

    I forgot to add that you should transcode the video off of your flash cards and hard disks to ProRes before you try to edit it. trying to edit mp4 (H.264) in an editing program will multiply your time in the edit bay by at least 10, most of the time sitting and waiting for renders.

    the only downside to ProRes is that the file sizes are enormous. (6 Gb H.264=75Gb ProRes)


    8 years ago on Step 5

    I think in some situations, you could just ask the owner of the property you want to shoot at. If they say yes, you are in the clear, because you are shooting on private property with permission, thus negating the need for a permit. in most circumstances, it won't cost a dime. you could maybe make it even more likely to get a yes by dropping this line on the owner: "we will be responsible for anything we do on your property."


    8 years ago on Introduction

    i would get a 1080p camera because thats the quality movies are in and burn the movie you made to a blueray disk so it looks good!

    None I own this one and it has amazing sound quality; and you cant beat it for $31 (you can also get it on ebay but it costs a little bit more)


    9 years ago on Step 6

    that is a cool way to do it.....

     If you're still in high school, like me, try getting in close with the drama department. My sister is a total drama buff, so I was instantly added to the family this year. Since she's pretty high up in the hierarchy here, i can just ask her for the loads of props we have, and I don't need that much permission to use the multitude of expensive lights in addition to a bunch of experienced technicians (which I am proud to be), a stage, actors, and a whole bunch of other awesome resources.


    9 years ago on Introduction

     The most epic and amazing short film I've ever seen. All on a canon HV30 and $80 budget! 

    Paul D

    9 years ago on Step 4

    So Hermes, Here is my dilemma. My prop-list is running about 200+ items, most if not all of which I can borrow but like you might have encountered during pre-prod I couldn't find any cheap SWAT or in my case full riot Police costumes for cheap, for some reason they keep coming up only for kids...anyhow. Here's the actual problem, I don't only need one or two SWATs, rather I need fifteen to twenty of those...So i tried local party stores and said "hey will you let us use some costumes for sponsorship in our creds and things like that. Seems like none wants to be nice. If you have any good suggestions I'd love to hear it cause at this pt we might have to end up making it a staged production, where we could conceivably get away with less SWAT costumes and more importantly cheap material to make these with. Let me know. Thanks, V

    2 replies
    Future filmakerPaul D

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    This is a classic dilemma I've run into quite a bit. Let me shoot a brief story by you quickly. When Steven Spielberg was making Sugarland Express (very early into his career), he had 20 police cars. He need 100. All through deceptive filming, short cuts, and jumping from multiple POVs, he was able to achieve his vision of having 100 police cars. My best advice to you is to get your 2 swat team outfits, and use some deceptive angles, cover the other guys with their shields, and have them wear clothes similar to the look and color of the actual outfits and make them look like they're all wearing a swat outfit. Also, try filming at low angles of the SWAT guys, because then the main features of the costume won't be seen, and make a lot of cuts between the officers and the riot. On a final note, if you can make a crude replication of anything, then build the prop and use deceptive angles yet again to make it look realistic. Hope that helps FF

    Paul DFuture filmaker

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    That's great. Thank you very much for the feedback I will most likely be doing something in that nature. Appreciate it. V


    10 years ago on Introduction

    Awesome instructable! I hope to see more from you on the subject! My friend and I do (very) short films - for now we just use a Kodak z1275 P&S camera, which has no ext. mic support. Any tips? Also, what can you recommend on the topic of green screens?

    1 reply

    For ext. mic support, you can buy a mini disc recorder (Running from the balpark of 150-200 dollars) Just make sure the one you buy has a external mic port.

    And on greenscreen, you should watch some Videomaker tutorials on it, they give you tons of information-

    On a second note about greenscreen, there are several free software options, but I suggest investing in quality software, such as Sony Vegas or Adobe Final Cut