10 Ways to keep your short film cheap

1. Give yourselves plenty of lead time

If you give yourself plenty of time up front you can streamline your shoot to the most minimal budget.

For my Enter the Freeman short film we also did a partial dress rehearsal the two days prior. We did not want to be slowed too much by blocking and I was also able to iron out issues with camera and lighting.

2. Analyze Your Assets

Use your friends as cast and crew. In this case we had access to a small cottage on a piece of property in Los Angeles so I chose to go the horror route and do a night shoot. Write your scripts around the locations that you have access to.

3. Do everything Yourself

If you give yourself plenty of lead time there is a lot to be saved by doing as much of the work yourself. We made everything that we could ourselves. You can see an example here on my post about how we made the Gordon Freeman HEV suit.

4. Call in Favors or Offer them

Offer favors in trade for services or things that you need. We borrowed some costumes from a friend. The head crab mask came from the legendary Steve Wang who created it as a Halloween costume for his son some years ago.  In fact the seeing the picture of the head-crab online was part of the inspiration for doing the short.  If we could get it we know we might have something really awesome to shoot.

5. Use the Equipment you Have

Shoot with the camera you own if you have one. I shot with the Nikon D7000 and used cheap Amazon SD cards. This camera only costs a grand and that’s a flat out bargain in my opinion. I also shot with prime lenses. In fact I shot almost every shot with a Nikon 35mm DX Lens.  Plan your shots, pre vis if possible. I did full dress rehearsals for this with a couple of lights and just shot them with the camera.  If you can you should do this, it’s like doing it twice and you will improve things no end with only one dry run.

I lit everything with Compact Fluorescent Photo Bulbs, some from home depot and bigger ones online and a bunch of clip on work lamps and some light stands with bulbs from Amazon. I over lit everything to cheat the small latitude and high compression/low bit rate of the camera. That way I had more leeway when it came to color correcting in post.  I would stop down the camera or step the gamma down on my monitor to preview a bit. I used a lot of black wrap to shield the light.

I am not a DP, I didn’t know any good ones and paying someone was out of the question so i pretty much winged it. Be very familiar with your camera and its capabilities.

6. Keep the Production Small

Keep the production as small as you can. More people and more stuff just means everything moves slower and costs more. I bought various extension cables and splitters listed below, guess what, on Amazon. For example. I used a old jib but in the end all it did was slow things down.  We could shoot several shots for the cost of one jib shot so in the end I abandoned it. I also shot almost everything hand held.

7. Don’t forget the little things

Capturing good sound goes a long way to making a film cheaper in the wrong run. We captured sound with a Sennheiser shot gun mike and Zoom Hn4 portable recorder which I already had on hand.  I purchased a cheap boom from Amazon.

Using a fog machine to add atmosphere is a very easy way to add value to your production. Having a great makeup artist is also a very reasonable way to add a huge helping of believability to a short. We Bought a cheap fog machine on Amazon and got hugely lucky with a great make up artist.

I had a cheap jib from a previous shoot but most stuff was internal so it was only used for one or two shots.

8. Make use of Trial Software

I did all the editing and post with Premiere and After effects. IMO you cant beat that combo right now for speedy post. Final cut is too dated and FCX… well you try it and see.

Adobe offers a 30 day trial of its software. You can easily post your entire short in 30 days and not have to spend a penny on software.

9. Fix it in Post

Well not really.  But you can do a lot in post that allows you a faster time shooting on set.

Like I said before I lit a the short with basic CFLs (which has its downsides, in my case the CFL’s cause banding at higher shutter speeds) but it allowed us to move very fast, shoot a lot of shots and I was able to do a lot with color correction in post.

I also used optical flares plugin from video copilot. A Lot.

I did heavy color correction of Freeman. Adobe’s Master collection now has Speed Grade for amazing color correction power. Here’s some before and afters.

10. Create a Solution that is Cheaper

Example: For the door smash, rather than buy or create a door with break away glass we got a piece of 4×8 soft fiber board or sound board. It’s very delicate stuff. Measured and cut out a basic copy of the door. Painted it white with latex paint.  For the glass rather than pay for sheets of break away glass which is really expensive we bought a box of the pre broken glass and hot glued the biggest pieces around the edges where the windows would be.  Then on the actual take (we only had one chance) Mike tossed a bunch of bits of break away glass into the shot to add more effect.  Since it was dark and out of focus you could not tell there was no glass in the door panes. A real door would have been cool but really was it necessary.  The cost of our door gag was probably less than $30.


I purchased most of the props and military gear from Amazon and some others from a local military supply store in LA. I will list as many items as I can remember below.

Camera & Equipment I used

48 Camera Slider

I actually ended up only using this for a few shots as it slowed things down too much.

Zeikos ZE-HC36 Medium Hard Case

To keep things form getting busted

Fog Machine

For small spaces, i would not recommend this to fill an auditorium or similar

Froggys Swamp Fog Juice Longest Lasting Fog Fluid – Gallon

Mixed with water

Extension Cord (25 Feet, Black)

Power Cord Splitter

On Stage MBP7000 Handheld Boom Pole

For the shotgun mic.

JVCC GAFF30YD Premium Grade 30 Yard Gaffers Tape: 2 in. x 30 yds. (Black)

A must have on all shoots.

VariZoom VZ-Shoe Swivel Shoe Camera Mount

HDMI Cable (25 Ft)

For the Jib monitor

SLR shoulder mount with Follow Focus

This was a must for me since I was operating and pulling focus

Tripod Head


Not really necessary for Enter the Freeman but if you have time it looks nice

On-camera Field HD Monitor For DSLR

Costumes & Props

Black Mesa Security Guard

UTG Law Enforcement SWAT Vest

Black Tactical Helmet

UTG Special Ops Universal Leg Holster

UTG Heavy Duty Elite Law Enforcement Pistol Belt with Dual Mag Pouches

AVI 12 Gram CO2 Cartridge – 10 Pack

Umarex SA177 Air Pistol

HECU Solider

KP5 Airsoft Electric Gun

Israeli Civilian Military Gas Mask w/ Nato Filter I modified this and screwed the filter onto the side.

Tactical Back Pack

UTG Tactical Vest

8 Led and 1 Laser Pointer Flashlight

Head Crab

Ultimate Monster Hands Flesh Accessory


Women’s Designer Mock Wrap with Flared Pant Scrub Set (11 colors, XS-3X)


Plastic Black Full Rim Reading Glasses

Leave a Reply