Monday, 27 June 2016

No-To-Low Budget Filmmaking & How We Made Our First Experimental Short

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In 2012, Sarahjane Swan and I set about putting together our first short experimental film, In The Dark I Sat. We had no budget, so we decided to make a No Budget Film. The only way to make a No Budget Film is to plan the thing, write it, film it and do any post-production (editing, effects, sound etc.) in your spare time, using equipment, resources and locations you either already own, or can easily beg, borrow or purloin. 

A lot of new filmmakers feel uncomfortable putting their time and effort into an under-financed cinematic work, no doubt assuming that quality will suffer, that there will be a barrage of accusatory snipes from critics and peers - “amateur!”, “underachiever!” - and that the finished result will be a shoddy shambles fit only to be seen by their Mum, their Shrink and the Family Pet. This need not be the case.

If you do a bit of research, there are many examples which prove that, with talent and determination, a filmmaker can create a work of great quality and merit on the tiniest of budgets. Many of these filmmakers have gone on to have successful careers in the mainstream, often managing to keep a modicum of creative control as it is their individual style, vision, message and/or technique which have put them there in the first place.

Think of America’s Grand Surrealist, David Lynch, whose struggles financing the production of his first feature, Eraserhead, included having to work a succession of menial jobs, borrowing cash from the cast and crew and contemplating completing the project with Ray Harryhausen style stop-motion animation. There is seemingly a scene in the film where high-haired hero, Henry, walks through a door one moment and when he arrives in the next room it is several years later. This was not a Lynchian absurdist plot device designed to unsettle and confuse. It literally took that long to get the next scene financed. Eraserhead, which was started in the early ‘70s, following soon after Lynch’s student shorts, was finally completed and released in 1977. The project cost very little, in a monetary sense, but its vision was so original, disturbing, beautiful, haunting and terrifying that it blew the cinematic world apart and propelled Lynch into a kind of Alternative Mainstream, if such a category can exist, of big budget widely distributed movies and media attention. 

This example shows that, because of the hurdles and restrictions in place due to lack of resources, the No Budget Filmmaker requires huge levels of stubborn persistence, originality of thought, resourcefulness, time and energy to produce work of a high quality. You’re right there on the frontline, soldier, dug deep in your trench and you’re going to have to improvise constantly, using whatever is at hand to edge your way forward. There’s sure to be a torrent of problematic shrapnel flying at you from every which way, so remember to duck. 

Here's another example:
The tale has oft been told of how director, Robert Rodriguez took part in clinical drug trials to help finance his first feature, El Mariachi (1992), made for just over $7000. Rodriguez utilised the talents of mostly amateur actors and shot over the Border in Mexico, using 24 rolls of 16mm film, which he later bounced onto video for editing, as this was the cheaper and easier option. In his 10 Minute Film School video, which you can track down on YouTube, Rodriguez basically advises those starting out to dig around in their own back yards for the clay from which to sculpt a memorable work: “When I did El Mariachi, I had a turtle, I had a guitar case, I had a small town and I said 'I'll make a movie around that'.”

He had intended to sell his Spanish language Western to the Latino straight-to-video market to bring in funds towards a bigger budget project, but the Mexican distributors he approached showed no interest. So Rodriguez took a different approach and mailed out trailers of El Mariachi to the larger US companies. Columbia loved what they saw and on viewing the full feature financed a 35mm print, promotion and distribution which reportedly led to $2 million brought in through the box office. With profits like that it is no surprise that Rodriguez was soon seen as a director who could successfully bring in a project well under budget. He has gone on to make countless mainstream films, including his own Mariachi sequels, Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, as well as From Dusk Till Dawn with Quentin Tarantino and the Spy Kids movies. 

To some filmmakers, even the $7000 Rodriguez had at his disposal for El Mariachi or the ten-to-twenty thousand dollars it took to make Eraserhead are figures so far out of their grasp that they may as well be full-blown major Hollywood budgets.

This is where the No Budget philosophy of filmmaking kicks in. Where is the rule which emphatically states you can’t create your cinematic wonders with Zero Finance? If you’re resourceful enough to use what you already have and borrow the rest you can work out some way of tapping those visions in your head and releasing them into the world in all their filmic splendour.

Do It Yourself! That’s the motto you should pin above your bed so that its message is engrained into your psyche from your waking moments. Punk Rock encouraged the DIY gene in all of us to kick into action on a grand scale but the handmade, self-published, fully autonomous work has been there in art from the very start: from the Modernist pamphlets and manifestos of the early 20th Century, and William Blake's illuminated volumes back through the aeons to the cave-painters of pre-history. There’s no shame, only glory in taking full control of the means of production, distribution and promotion. The technology of today makes creative production and delivery even more accessible than it was in the halcyon days of home recording, zine publishing, graffiti and mail art etc.

Sarahjane and I discussed what kind of short we would like to create and came up with the vision of an avant-garde science-fictional love story about individuals trapped in alternate realities in the aftermath of a quantum level catastrophe, “The Fluxing”.

We wanted our first film to have a fragmented structure and feel. We've always loved a trend in the Modernist creative arts which seems to reflect the disjointed nature of the contemporary world and the fractures this causes in the modern psyche. It is as though the artist has glimpsed the world in the shards of a smashed mirror and attempted to piece together a patchwork reconstruction of it.

In Fine Art this approach can be seen in the early collage work of Picasso and Georges Braque, the Dadaist photomontages of Hannah Höch and John Heartfield, the Frankenstein-like sculptural constructions of Merz founder Kurt Schwitters and Robert Rauschenberg's Neo-Dada; or the symbolically cluttered installation work of Louise Bourgeois's Cells. Examples of literary Shard-ism can be read in the postmodernist fiction of Kurt Vonnegut, the cut-up word-collage of William Burroughs / Brion Gysin and Kathy Acker and the hip '60s New Worlds New Wave Sci-Fi of JG Ballard and Michael Moorcock.

Shard-ist Music? Look to the sampling of early Hip Hop or to Captain Beefheart's collision of early blues, rock, free jazz, outsider music and Beat poetry.

The easiest way for Sarahjane and I to translate this Smashed Glass approach into a cinematic form seemed to be for us to raid our own catalogue of DIY music videos. By the time we decided to make In The Dark I Sat, in 2012, we had already produced an album's worth of these under the name The Bird And The Monkey. 

By excising various unconnected segments from these music videos, which were filmed at different times and in different locations, we were able to piece together a new construction with a chronology which was purposefully disjointed. In this new narrative we see Sarahjane's character jump between looks, styles, personalities. To us as filmmakers, this aggressive rejection of Continuity – which is so prized in mainstream cinema and TV - gives a real visceral visual indication of just how fractured our protagonists's identities have become when faced by an absurd and confusing world. For the end of the film we experimented by dragging hundreds of frames from a segment of video into Photoshop and “painting” over sections in each of these.

Obviously there were initial costs in purchasing a camcorder and an iMac several years earlier but, other than this, In The Dark I Sat literally cost us nothing to make. It was premiered in London at the Portobello Film Festival in 2012 and later that year screened in Scotland at the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival.

In my next post I'll look at the benefits brought to low budget filmmaking in the 21st Century by developments in digital technology.

Roger Simian collaborates with Sarahjane Swan in The Bird And The Monkey and low budget experimental film project AvantKinema-DIY

A sample of the script for In The Dark I Sat is available to read in the Flux issue of  ABSC_ND magazine. Turn to page 289 to read.