Making an Award-Winning Feature Film with a Crew of Four

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This post is inspired by Ms. in the Biz founder, Helenna Santos, and Ms. in the Biz contributor, Alexandra Boylan, who were filming their own micro-budget masterpiece somewhere in the wilderness of New Mexico earlier this month. (To follow Helenna and Alexandra along their journey, check out At Your Own Risk Movie.)

SMUGGLED, the award-winning film I produced 4 years ago, which is STILL screening at colleges and universities across the country, was shot with a crew of 4 – no joke, 4. Two of the four were college students and I was 7+ months pregnant and producing with my toddler by my side the entire time. So, this was not your traditional film shoot, but we made it work and created a film that continues to move audiences and that has been featured online by NBC, ABC, Univision and Fusion — proving that sometimes great things truly can come in small packages.

Smuggled2

He’s the top three reasons this approach worked for our film:

  1. We knew the crew.We worked with talented people we had previously worked with and knew we could trust. We knew their capabilities and strengths, so we were confident that the chosen few could do what we needed them to do, and that they were comfortable fulfilling multiple roles. (Bonus: most of the individuals involved with the production were women!)
  2. We were prepared. We took advantage of training opportunities and rehearsals during the pre-production process, and planned extensively before we began shooting. We knew our key shot set-ups and shot selections, which made it easier to work with a small crew. The director was also the cinematographer, and it was his first time shooting a narrative feature, so two friends of ours (who are award-winning DPs) came in and did some pre-lighting tutorials and camera set ups so that we knew the shots would look right when the time came. Preparation is key for any film shoot, but particularly for a shoot with a small crew.
  3. We chose the right crew for the story we sought to tell. Not every story concept could be shot with a crew of 4 and the minimal budget we had. For this particularly story, the story of a mother and son being smuggled into the United States in a hidden compartment beneath a bus, we knew the small crew would work. We needed the film to feel intimate and cramped. Having a small, intimate crew worked in our favor. It helped our child actor feel less intimidated and nervous, and the crew mirrored the familial vibe that the film sought to create. We used a potential disadvantage (small budget, small crew) as a key advantage because of the story we sought to tell. Here’s your take away lesson: recognize what the needs of the project are and do not overdo it or undercut it.

Another advantage to shooting a film with a small crew is that it keeps the craft services costs down. Sometimes, it’s easy to think that more is better, especially when you have friends that want to help out or college students who will intern on the project for free, but remember that you still end up feeding them all and providing coffee, water, etc. Those costs add up. With any film project, it’s beneficial to make sure you only have on set, the crew that you actually need, not a bunch of extra people that might “sort of” do something. Another benefit for our crew members, especially the two college students involved with the project, was that they learned a lot on our set. They truly earned their college credits.

smuggled

What we certainly learned in this process is that you can get a lot done with a little, if you select the right group of people for your project. In fact, for our latest film project, The wHOLE, our crew is not much bigger than this crew was and the results have been phenomenal.

Last reminder, when crewing up for your film, just remember to make sure your crew fits the need of your project, and that each crew member has the skills needed for their specific role. For our projects, smaller has truly been better, but that may not always be the case.

Finally, when you find talented individuals you enjoy working with – treat them well, tell them you enjoy working with them, thank them for all of their hard work and then hire them again. It makes the process so much better. Our assistant camera operator for SMUGGLED (who also acted as key grip and so much more) first worked with us on a film in 2009 as a grip. Then, she was a second camera operator on a documentary we shot. By the time we got to SMUGGLED, we had worked with her a lot and knew her strengths and abilities. With a crew of four, in which two were college interns, her role was critical and we simply could not have made such a small set up work without the familiarity we had with her or without the knowledge and confidence that she had the skills we needed for the project. In other words, we knew she was a keeper!

Now, it’s your turn to chime in. Share your micro-budget and/or no budget filmmaking tips and successes too, if you’ve got ‘em because sharing is caring. #NoPermission #IndieFilm #filmmaking  

Jennifer Fischer

About Jennifer Fischer

Jennifer Fischer is a film producer, editor, and the co-founder of Think Ten Media Group. Her latest multi-award winning film, "Smuggled,” saw her tackling distribution, successfully securing theatrical screening events at universities, colleges and community organizations throughout the United States and abroad. She fell in love with filmmaking while at Harvard getting her MA in Middle Eastern Studies as she discovered the power of media to explore difficult topics. Her first short film, "Songs of Palestine," was presented in conjunction with her Masters Thesis and premiered at a Quaker International Relations Conference. Jennifer also ran a film festival for 7 years when she first moved to California, and she curates various film-related boards on Pinterest; her Film Articles and Resources Pinboard was recognized by Indiewire as one of the Top 10 Pinboards for Independent Filmmakers to follow. She is currently producing, “The wHOLE,” a short film series about mass incarceration.