Late in August 2019, I was living the dream. I, Aundre Larrow, cinema camera in hand, was directing a basketball scene on a blacktop in downtown Brooklyn. The only issue was that a few of our actors had never played basketball or even seen organized sports in their lives.
Well, I’m being facetious — we had way more issues than that. Another? I’d never directed anything before.
Nicholas Roberts, Napoleon the Wilderness, and I were collaborating to make the music video for “Late Nights,” their new single. The entire experience was done on a tiny budget — I took the gig for free out of my love for Nicholas and my desire to dive headfirst into filmmaking.
I learned a lot along the way about leveraging a creative community and creating something to be proud of on a limited budget — and I wanted to share my experience. (Editorial note on health and safety: When you’re involving other people in a shoot, we recommend following all COVID-19 guidelines in your area, such as wearing masks and taking advantage of outdoor spaces. This article was written before the start of the global COVID-19 pandemic.)
Build your network and activate it.
Yes, you should never work for free. But I feel that payment can often be found in experience. For instance, you may get to use new equipment or experiment with techniques as a creator.
So spend time cultivating your creative network. There are people all around you who are creating all the time. Push aside your hesitations about them being better than you or worse than you. Working with other creators provides immense value.
First, working with others helps you grow as a creator. Second, it opens up your network in your hometown.
For example, I started as an Adobe Creative Resident, and that brought me to New York City. From there, I’ve grown to be a part of Tinker Street, Diversify Photo, Lit List, and Black Creatives Network: all creative networks of likeminded individuals working collaboratively.
Nicholas Roberts, one of the artists on this particular project, volunteered as part of a music nonprofit to empower independent artists. He came to New York for one of the organization’s annual meetups. He also works with Facebook music production groups and writes music for local theater productions. Our early talent search started with actors and friends of that theater.
Keep your call sheets: For every project you work on, keep your call sheets! Save the contact info of the people you’ve worked with and add them to your personal database. You don’t always get to share social media handles or exchange contact info at the end of a shoot.
I like to keep a Dropbox folder of call sheets from previous jobs I’ve worked on. If I need a second camera person, a grip, or a production designer, I know where to look.
As you build your network, passing on job opportunities to past coworkers goes a long way, too. Remember the people who knocked it out of the park on other projects you’re a part of. If you refer them for paid work, they may just return the favor.
Trade favors: Before you get to the asking stage, get comfortable with giving. Trade favors with other creative people in your space. Start by simply asking them what they’re working on and how you can help.
Collaborate and learn about their workflows, and get their projects off the ground.
Then, when you’ve got your own project coming up that you need help with, you’re not asking cold. You’ve built trust and rapport with these folks and can comfortably ask for their help.
Take advantage of social media: Social media was a big part of bringing our project to life. It’s a great way to connect with other creators both locally and in the markets and niches you want to work in.
Social media can amplify your message and allow you to connect with people all over your community. Twitter and Instagram are both great platforms for commenting and being part of a bigger conversation. Over time, you’ll build relationships with the people you interact with.
Remember to spend time sharing others’ content as well, not just your own.
Focus on the story, not the gear.
It’s an age-old adage. But seriously — focus on the story you’re telling and not the gear you have.
In low-budget productions, it’s rare that you’ll have access to fancy cameras. But if your story is compelling, low-budget gear doesn’t have to mean a low-quality production.
The first Rocky feature film cost only one million dollars to make. It’s often heralded as a prime example of a strong script and story being able to carry a film across the finish line.
When you’re developing your own idea, study other work to see what’s possible in your medium. In the video space, viral videos (beyond TikTok) and music videos are often shot on a budget. Many iPhone feature films rely heavily on narrative instead of production values.
Then you can create a mood board of ideas you like from other productions. Share it with your teammates on the project and get on the same page about the vibe and look of your production.
Consult with writers you know who need finished pieces in their portfolio, and offer to trade favors. Dialog, locations, scriptwriting, and more can help your narrative take more shape.
Work backwards from what you have: Big ideas are one thing, but real creativity happens when you have limits. When you don’t have a lot of resources, it’s important to keep your vision clear and concise.
Your storytelling can be more focused on interpersonal relationships or on the people rather than the locations. The best stories start with people.
We spent weeks on preproduction for this music video to maximize the resources we had, rather than finding ways to get more.
In practice, this meant writing our narrative around locations and resources we had access to. We worked backwards from what we had, and then we weaved a story that fit them. Instead of planning a story and trying to acquire what we could get, we stayed flexible.
Finding and utilizing talent and equipment.
Talent isn’t just on-screen actors and models. It’s also production assistants, camera people, producers, and project organizers.
Finding the right people to bring your project to life can make shooting and editing easier.
On-screen talent: Even if you’re not in a major city, you likely have access to actors. Most cities have acting schools, university programs, and community theaters.
For our project, Nicholas Roberts had an existing relationship with a local theater he’d made music for. He spoke with actors from the theater to get connected to professionals living in New York.
These connections opened up the door to even more recommendations in the city. Our first phone calls for casting were to actors living in New York who could call on friends to help bring the project to life.
Even if you’re not able to travel, reach out to acting schools in your area or local theaters. See if they can share resources with you on how to hire or find actors for your project.
We also used casting websites to post our project. These casting websites resulted in hundreds of applicants. Even though it was an unpaid project, newcomers wanted to add to their reel and build their own network and community.
We also took to social media to help with the casting process. A few weeks before the video shoot, we posted casting calls to all of our crew members’ social media profiles. We included relevant hashtags and locations to spread our reach, and posted at optimal times of the day.
I recommend using a Google Sheet to capture information quickly. Using direct messaging or emails to connect can be exhausting. A Google Sheet centralizes anyone interested
Production and crew: Have at least three people in your production crew to help you. Managing a production by yourself as camera operator, director, production manager, and everything else can quickly becoming overwhelming.
For our project, we had a second cameraperson capturing behind-the-scenes footage, as well as acting as a B camera for the project.
Additionally, we had a production person helping with lighting, rigging, and production design as we prepared each scene.
A producer doesn’t have to be someone with formal training or on-set experience, either. Find a friend who is organized and who can help you plan your day.
Our producer helped us create call sheets, calculate the time between locations, and keep our shoot on track.
Camera equipment: Even amateur filmmakers often have access to lighting, lenses, and memory cards. Ask the people you’re collaborating with if they have additional resources to bolster your production.
If you have a small budget or can borrow them, lenses provide more value than a sleek new camera body — your lenses can help you capture each scene in a multitude of ways. A small apartment can seem larger than life with the right lens kit.
File management: Organizing files while you’re shooting is imperative. With a skeleton crew, you likely won’t have access to enough memory cards to last your entire day. Memory cards are expensive to both buy and rent.
Have someone on set who can dump your memory cards when they fill up. This can save countless hours of footage dumping at the end of a shoot day.
One of the only things we bought on this low-budget shoot was an extra hard drive to back up footage. We kept an original copy on a Mac back at our home base, along with a copy on an external drive before we wiped our memory cards.
If you know younger people looking to break into the filmmaking space, this can be a good task for them. It gives them on-set experience and makes them part of the crew.
Shoot over multiple days: If possible, spread your shoot out. You’ll need time to review footage and make adjustments as you go. Cramming everything into a single afternoon adds unnecessary stress.
You can also use this more laid-back shooting schedule to keep your footage organized to prepare yourself for editing.
See more of Aundre Larrow’s work on his portfolio site.