10 Tips for Directing a Low Budget Music Video Shoot

An article by Jeff Clark

Here are 10 tips on directing a Low Budget Music Video. These tips may not always apply to every situation or concept, but they may prove helpful one way or another. They are broken down into the key departments of a production to make them easier to understand.

Tip 1: Selecting The Crew

· A small crew travels fast, so use as few crew members as possible. Hire those that are diverse in their talents and can work several jobs simultaneously. A good example is a Production Assistant who does craft service or a makeup artist who handles wardrobe.

· Look for crew members who are ambitious and looking to establish advanced production credits, such as an art assistant who wants to art direct, a loader who wants to pull focus or a grip who wants to become a gaffer. People like these will work for less and usually give the job their best effort.
· Find people who are willing to volunteer their services to gain experience. It never hurts to have an extra set of hands on the set.

· Network with organizations such as the MVPA. This is an excellent way to develop new working relationships within the music video community. These organizations have access to a number of resources and crew personnel who might be willing to work together with you.

· If you have the knowledge, try to shoot and edit your project. Developing your skills as a DP or editor will gain you a wealth of knowledge as a Director while saving you thousands on your project.

Tip 2: The Location

· Utilize locations that are private, free or require a minimal permit expense. Don’t risk getting caught without a permit. You may not afford to have your production held up or rescheduled, your camera package confiscated and fines in the hundreds or thousands of dollars. You may even be placed on a list at the film permit office that could inevitably blackball you as a location poacher. Meaning that you may have to pay for additional set monitors on upcoming shoots, or worse, you may be restricted from securing future permits altogether. Most city/county/state permitting fees are relatively inexpensive if you are able to keep your crew and equipment to a minimum. Obtaining a permit would probably avoid a lot of embarrassment and trouble down the road.

· Always look for other options that may be available. For instance, your client may have access to a property that you can use for free or for a minimal cost. Maybe you can dress up a few insert shots in your own backyard.

· Avoid building complicated sets and backdrops. They are expensive and quite costly to light. For that matter, shooting interiors can be equally expensive to light, but at times unavoidable.

· Scout your own locations whenever possible. Pulling a film permit is not as complicated as it sounds and location scouts/managers can sometimes run up quite a tab. It is not hard to do it yourself. It saves you money and the satisfaction you will receive from knowing you have exhausted every resource to find that perfect location can be highly rewarding. Many film permit offices house a library of available locations or check with your local chamber of commerce or City/State/Federal government. They will often supply you with maps that can be used to find unknown locations with just a little extra effort. The Bureau of Land Management can also prove to be an excellent source for locations. They are a Federal Agency that governs both used and unused public land throughout the country.

Tip 3: Equipment

· When working with lighting and grip, try to work out package deals from private parties who own their own grip, lighting and generator equipment. Some small vendors will even provide such things as video assist or location playback sound for free just to establish new clientele.

· Utilize inexpensive lighting resources such as natural light when at all possible. Try building your own reflector boards from supplies found at your local Home Depot or you can even make low budget Kino-Flos from inexpensive fluorescent banks or shop lights.

· Camera gear can sometimes be secured with those who own their own packages. They will often rent cheaper than a camera house and may even DP, operate or 1st AC on your project.

· Many things can be easily substituted with makeshift solutions. For example, an audio playback system complete with time code reference can be easily made from a number of stereo components or musical P.A. gear. All that’s required is a little ingenuity and effort. With any two stereo channels, you can easily layback a mono mix of the audio intended for playback while reserving the second channel for code. If a T.C. slate isn’t available, record to your source and then play back the window burn on a TV monitor. A laptop computer can also be substituted for the smart-slate or TV for more remote possibilities.

· In some instances, equipment can be purchased for a little than the cost of a rental. If you intend to use such an item repeatedly over time, it may be beneficial to purchase it for future use.

Tip 4: The Talent & Wardrobe

· Talent and Wardrobe are typically separate departments, but for the low budget video it works out rather well when the two are working together. Ask talent to bring their own clothes to the casting call with the extra incentive of giving them a wardrobe allowance to use their own rags. Many times they will take that allowance and purchase new clothes for the shoot anyway, just to look their best. The artist can often provide their own stage wardrobe, but if they are looking for something new or different you may have to shop for the wardrobe yourself. One approach is to purchase as many appropriate items as you can, be careful to avoid damaging items during the fitting and then return any unused items after the shoot.

· Do your own casting. You’re bound to learn a lot about directing talent and you’re more likely to make accurate decisions in your final choices. To avoid costly agency fees, use the Internet to find talent willing to be in a music video. Make sure you screen them carefully. If your budget is very tight, offer a copy of the completed video as an additional incentive or compensation. That promised copy for their show-reel can carry a lot of weight in negotiating their pay. Advertising for free talent is not always recommended. Paying what you can afford helps to guarantee enthusiasm on long shoot schedules and sometimes even their attendance. People working for free sometimes don’t feel as obligated as the ones you’re paying.

· As for extras, try to utilize the artist’s following (fans) or simply flyer an area that is demographically correct just before your shoot date. Usually the local community college grounds will suffice.

Tip 5: The Art Direction/Props

· This is a very broad area of the music video process since it deals with so many factors regarding the individual concept. When possible, focus your concept around the most simplistic of ideas; you won’t need to spend a lot on props and art direction. For example, what if your ideas centered around shooting an artist in a cardboard box or a simple unique backdrop? Or perhaps you have other talents that lend themselves to the art direction process such as painting, sculpture or 3D animation. You may actually be able to use things around the house. A little spray-paint, a little glue, some smoke and mirrors and the next thing you know you’ve got something that looks unusual and interesting on camera. All animated and affected in After Effects with amazingly wonderful results. Substitute the money you would spend on props with sparks from your own imagination.
For example: Say you want to burn a grand piano on a salt flat in the desert. A grand piano could cost you thousands. Instead, you rent a functional piano for your close-ups and performance shots, and then bring in a junk piano that bares the same paint job for the fire scenes. Shoot it wide so nobody can tell it’s not the same piano. You end up with a very effective idea captured on film that looks like you spent big bucks. You can probably find a junk piano for three hundred dollars at a piano repair shop or in some local penny saver newspaper. You may even find one for free if you are willing to pay to haul it away.

Top 6: The Film & Video Stock

· Short-ends or buy-back (leftover film stock from other shoots) are good ways to purchase film stock cheap. You can purchase such stock directly from shoots that are nearing completion or from film brokers such as ShortEnz or Dr. Rawstock. Sometimes Kodak and Fuji will donate film or give discounts to students and young filmmakers. A little begging may be involved, but you may find their generosity to be quite rewarding.

· There are other filmmaking foundations that will on occasion buy your film stock for you as well, but you will have to invest time to research and pursue them.

Tip 7: Post & Editing

· Some labs will give considerable discounts if you can convince them your project is on a student level.

· Always shop around. You’ll find you can save a considerable amount of money on what is virtually an identical procedure no matter where you go.

· Telecine is a bit more of a fragile process. Deals can be negotiated, but with coloring as such a crucial step in the post process it’s always a good idea to know what equipment you’re actually working on and the colorist you are working with.

· Purchasing your own stock can save you money as well, but keep in mind that if a problem arose from a bad piece of tape stock (though extremely rare), the post house involved would not likely take responsibility for the time lost in recreating your project. Degaussed stock should never be used as a means of saving money. The risk is too great to outweigh the money saved.

· Find a way to make your own dubs. Rent a deck or simply ask to borrow what you need for a few hours.

· Editing bares yet another creative learning curve, but with such programs as Final Cut Pro and After Effects so readily available, it’s simply a matter of days to teaching yourself the basics to editing or compositing video. The rest will come with time and persistence.

Tip 8: Insurance

· The cost of insuring a production is extremely high. In recent years those figures have gone exceedingly higher with insurance riders costing well near the price of the rentals themselves on a low budget production. One way to sidestep this high cost is to piggyback with a production company who is already carrying an annual policy. They will usually welcome the additional revenue it brings. Some companies will even carry you for free if you pay the deductible up front as a show of good faith. Either way you will wind up with better coverage at a cheaper price. Some carriers won’t even insure short term policies anymore, especially if you mention things such as animals, children, stunts, helicopters or anything to do with fire. Whatever you do, don’t shoot without insurance! Though the likelihood is small, there are a million things that can go wrong, putting your production at risk. There are alternatives to securing the proper insurance, so do yourself a favor and research them.

Tip 9: Miscellaneous

· Try taking care of the little things on your own in advance, such as craft service or audio playback. There are many inexpensive solutions for these small, but important roles in a music video production set.

· Watch out for hidden costs such as; prep for telecine, setup time, contingencies, agency fees, special insurance, overtime, kit fees, etc. Always question what it will cost to avoid the surprise of a big bill at the end of the session. Know what you are buying or renting for your money.

· Know when it is appropriate to cut corners. Sometimes cutting corners in the wrong places will actually cost you more time and money while producing lesser results.

· Be efficient. Use storyboards and shot-lists to organize your shoot. A well-managed shoot will help to avert costly overages while providing an enhanced working experience. Preparing solid production notes in advance can also prove to be a big benefit on the set.

· Forfeit your Directing fees if at all possible on the first few gigs. It proves your dedication to the project on an artistic level and will gain your respect with the label.

Tip 10: Educate Yourself

· Even though this does not fall under the production category, it is an essential requirement in this very aggressively competitive marketplace.

· Research your ideas thoroughly before executing them. A botched video project rarely goes unnoticed and may even cost you a re-shoot. It may also cost you any future jobs by that client. There are tons of reference materials available in bookstores, online and everywhere around you.

– Need a location? Look in the backs of map-books under “Points of Interest”.
– Need a Llama? Don’t bother with expensive animal rental companies. Look in your local phonebook for petting zoos or maybe even private owners.

· By being resourceful you will always save money.

· By educating yourself you simply improve your chances as a Director. MVCI is just one of many film school options available out there. Take advantage of your options. Student discounts, free equipment, expert supervision. You may actually have more to gain than if you had done it on your own.

There are thousands of other shortcuts available for directing a low budget video and you will discover them and many more on your production. This is merely a sampling of ideas, designed to communicate the inspiration for resourceful directing and producing.


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