Setting Up a Low Budget Soundstage

The art of creating a believable world starts by creating a believable environment for your story. While shooting on location may be ideal, some shoots require a built set.  The challenge facing every filmmaker is how to get the most for money.  Building a set doesn’t have to be expensive – creative thinking and utilizing available resources are the best way to start.

Ideally movie sets are built on soundstages equipped with sound-reducing walls, a light grid for rigging lights and set pieces, ample power, large doors for loading and unloading, dressing rooms, production equipment and even a kitchen. Unfortunately many low budget productions can’t afford proper production facilities, but with some creative thinking you can adapt an existing building into a makeshift soundstage. And the art of building a low budget soundstage means finding that balance between cost and the look.

The first step is to find a large facility in which you can build a set but also meets the technical needs of your production.

  • Vacant Buildings – Landlords of vacant commercial properties may be willing to give you a space for free or for a heavily discounted rate if you plan on using it for a short time. Make sure the building still has utilities such as power and running water. Empty grocery stores, shopping malls, strip centers and factory buildings provide plenty of room to work, spacious parking, loading areas and sufficient power.
  • Accessibility – Make sure that the rental space has a loading dock or is otherwise accessible to trucks so that you can bring lumber, set dressing, and production equipment. If you plan on building flats, make sure there are large doors called elephant doors that can accommodate 8’ or 10’ tall flats.
  • Power and Utilities – Check the power and circuit configuration in the building to ensure that it can support the electrical draw of the lighting gear. Also make sure the water and toilet facilities are in good working order and there is heat, especially in the winter.
  • Ambient Noise – Listen to the ambient sound outside the building. Warehouses or gymnasiums aren’t designed for the acoustics needed for film production. Avoid buildings near freeways or heavily trafficked areas.
  • Parking – Make sure there are ample parking spaces for the cast and crew and any equipment trucks.
  • Garbage – If you are planning on constructing sets, you’ll need to dispose of the excess materials, garbage, and when the shoot is over, the set itself.  Because the landlord may not (and should not) be responsible for your garbage, you may need to contact a local company to rent a dumpster.
  • Security – Always ensure the building can be secured, and never leave any valuable gear there unsupervised. That absolutely includes cameras, camera gear, lenses, and computers.

Finding an empty commercial property may be a great way to cut corners on your budget, all while providing a lot of space.  Just be aware of the limitations before you start, and you should have a smooth production experience.

Writing a Great Low Budget Screenplay

It’s easy to get lost in the world of your story, weaving tales of intrigue, romance, action and adventure through the lives of your characters. But as engaging as you would like that world to be, the reality of tighter budgets, fewer shooting days, smaller crews and cheaper equipment force producers to look at cheaper scripts. As a writer, it’s important to learn the balance between the story and the cost of producing it.

One of the biggest strengths you can have as a writer it to learn how to attach a price tag to each scene. Here are some pointers when writing on a budget:

  • Focus on story – not on the scale of production – Emotion is the most powerful tool you have when building a low-budget story, and the great news is that it’s free!  When you develop your project, focus on the characters, creating a conflict that inflicts as much pain on them as possible, and set-up the story to invoke an emotional journey for the audience.  Emotion will have a more powerful impact than a cast of thousands or Earth-shattering visual effects.
  • If you’re shooting a feature, keep your script at 85 pages – If one scripted page (properly formatted, of course) equals one minute of screen time, then keeping your script length down means you can concentrate your budget.  A feature film that is 85 minutes will actually sell just as easily as a 120 minute film.
  • Car scenes can be expensive – Building car rigs, or renting a process trailer to tow the hero car around is expensive, so whenever possible, write scenes that take place in a stationary car, or have your characters get out of the car and continue the conversation at their destination (or pulled over).
  • Keep your cast small – Although we would all love to have a cast of thousands, the most budget-friendly scripts have only a handful of actors.Take Shane Carruth’s “Primer,” a mind-blowing science-fiction time travel film shot for less than $10,000 with just a few actors.
  • Reduce the number of locations – You won’t just save money in location fees and permits, but time.  Each time you need to pack up the cast, crew, and equipment for another location takes valuable time out of your shooting day. Many low budget movies shoot at one location – a cabin in the woods, an abandoned building, one house.
  • Avoid night exteriors – Contrary to what you may expect, shooting at night requires a lot of light, generators and crew. A forest at night is dark, and it’s impossible to get an image, even under a full moon, so massive 18,000 watt HMI lights are positioned hundreds of feet away to simulate moonlight, while the areas of the forest in which the action takes place must also be specifically lit so the cinematographer can properly expose the actors. When in doubt, write exterior scenes for daytime.
  • Special effects take time – Even though you may have access to the best make-up effects artist from Stan Winston Studios, or a top ILM visual effects supervisor, know that on-set effects take time… lots of time. And on set, time costs money, so be aware that some producers may cut effect-s heavy sequences to accommodate the budget.

All in all, producers are always looking for next script to produce. And almost as important as the quality of the story is the price tag that comes with the script. Writing for the producer can greatly increase the chances that your script will sell.

Pro-Tip: Check out the site  It’s a script brokering site that allows writers to post scripts, then vetted producers can review scripts, treatments, and outlines. Hundreds of scripts have been bought and sold over the years, and it’s a great place to either shop your script, or find a  great script for your project.