The rise of low budget film

Jack Whitehead 3 February 2016

Following (1999), Primer (2004), Tangerine (2015) – what do these three films have in common? They were each made on a budget of less than $10,000 dollars, and collectively they make the bloated production budgets of Hollywood flops like last year’s Jupiter Ascending and The Gunman look like exercises in burning money. The latter lost almost three quarters of its budget, roughly $30m; for that we could have had three thousand films as good as the Sundance-premiered Tangerine.

Yet this gross wastage of money might be the least important reason for eschewing studio blow-outs and promoting independent cinema. That low-budget means an increasing degree of creative control seems unlikely in the art world, yet when applied to the film industry, this dynamic becomes exposed to a myriad number of variables. Fundamentally, films are not cheap to make – why did The Hobbit trilogy cost $745 million? Locations, CGI, Martin Freeman – these things don’t come cheap, and yet the correlation to cinematic quality is just absurd.

The filmic art form is perhaps unique in this imbalance. To write a novel, assuming that you’re literate and that someone has shown you how to hold a pen or jab an iPad screen, costs next to nothing. Obviously there are expenses involved in research, editing, publication etc., but these are still secondary to the finished piece of art. If art is held to be an intrinsic quality, regardless of its release to the market and the masses, then the novel is the poor man’s choice.

Film is another matter entirely. Without sinking in too deep to questions of what constitutes a film, cinema is a medium that is inherently expensive, because of its reliance on relatively ‘modern’ technology. While you could technically make a film with a £30 ‘Barbie Photo Fashion Camera Doll’ bought from Amazon, for the sake of argument it’s helpful to understand film as that of cinema quality.

In this case, film is inextricable from its medium. If you dragged a brush across the bottom of a mirror and hung it in a gallery then you’d have your piece of art (albeit a questionable one). If you filmed your garden with an old MGM Camera 65 – used for Academy Award record holder Ben-Hur (1959) and The Hateful Eight (2015) – and hung the camera in the gallery then you’d have a museum. There is no way to view the actual film.

Cinema is a medium that entails mediation: there’s editing, sound design, score composition, colour grading – all aspects now inherent to the film form, and even then you’ve got to have something to watch it on. Staring at a hard-drive with the project files just isn’t going to cut it.

Yet all this is changing, and has been doing so since the Lumière brothers filmed out the back of a train in 1896. It is no secret that the vast majority of us walk around with the technological equivalent of the room sized computers, the street-corner payphones, and the oak encased cameras of the past century, all just sat in our pockets, or more likely in our hands as we gram that cup of coffee for the millionth time whilst it gets cold.

These devices are now so powerful that cinema grade film is well within our grasp. Tangerine set a new benchmark for this when the director Sean Baker used only three iPhone 5s smartphones to shoot his entire feature. Without going to such extremes, cinematic equipment is even more within our grasp. With the advent of 4k resolution, the past standard of 1080p is now readily available – take that DSLR and turn it away from the mirror and to the wider world!

Most importantly, low-budget film is exciting because its restrictions promote new talent. You can tweet at Chris Hemsworth as many times as you like: he isn’t going to come and star in your film. So you turn to the resources you have available – hello thriving dramatic scene in Cambridge. The same is true for film score composers, locations, screenwriters – low-budget promotes originality because it is localised and therefore necessitates individual experience. If you can’t pay for a helicopter trip to scout the high mountains of New Zealand, then you’re aren’t likely to shoot your film there. Take your camera out the front door instead and plumb the depths, without having to dig deep into your wallet.