Big Screen, Tiny Budgets

Making the Most of a Micro Budget

“I believe our students learn in three years what it took me 20 to learn,” says Stephen Schlow, interim chairman of the UCF Film Department, “which is that the amount of money you have is in fact a tool, not a barrier. It’s just another thing you work with to make your film.”

UCF’s M.F.A. track in entrepreneurial digital cinema insists young filmmakers concentrate more on the process and less on their budget. Film costs are considered a restraint that must be lived with, not a problem that must be solved. At UCF, students are required to complete a feature-length digital film on a budget of $50,000 or less.

“The goal in this process is for someone to come out on the other side with an understanding of the relationship between story, film and budget,” Schlow says. “We’re all about allowing them to make the films they want to make without being held accountable to investors or distributors.”

Shooting a feature film with a small budget also provides students with lessons in business, one of the goals of the program. With a limited budget and limited resources, the artist is forced to be innovative and flexible, adapting when things don’t go as planned. “I once got caught in a sandstorm in Egypt and lost two days of shooting,” Schlow recalls. “When something unplanned happens, and inevitably it does,” Schlow says, “students have to find another way to get the shot or tell that part of the story.”

Andrew Gay, an M.F.A. graduate and current instructor in the program, also took away important lessons in how budget constraints can translate into artistic opportunities. While shooting scenes for his thesis film, “A Beautiful Belly,” he found creative ways to make the most of every dollar, including shooting some critical scenes with live dolphins at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, who allowed him to shoot there for free. Gay says, “The dolphin footage we shot was more beautiful than I ever could have imagined, and it adds like a million bucks of production value to our movie and cost us basically nothing.”

The other important parameter of the program is that students must make their films in an entirely digital format. As with the limited budget, the goal is not to treat the medium as an obstacle, but to encourage students to make movies that take advantage of it.

Student Films: Micro Budgets on Your Screen

“There’s a quality to the digital image that’s not being explored,” Schlow says. “The goal is often to make digital look like film. From my point of view, that’s retro. Daguerreotypes, the early photographs, were meant to look like paintings. Early films tried to feel like theater. It took years for people to change the language of film, to embrace it for what it is, rather than what it isn’t. That’s not happening yet with digital.”

Gay’s thesis film, which premiered at the Florida Film Festival and won the Crystal Apple Award at the Melbourne International Film Festival, was produced in an entirely digital format. Gay feels that shooting with a small camera and small crew created a more intimate feeling on the set and with the actors, and that intimacy can be felt on the screen, giving more credibility to his story.

While the MFA students receive guidance from faculty and advisors at all phases of the production, they are treated as filmmakers and not just students. At UCF, they hold the reins of their projects, whereas at a school like Florida State University, most films are initiated or directed by faculty, and students play a secondary role. The UCF program also offers student filmmakers something else that no other film program does: 100 percent of the rights to their films. “At most schools, the rights, at least partially, are owned by the university,” Schlow says.

For the 20 students who apply and four or five who are admitted, this is an important distinction—and one of the top two reasons students say they select the UCF program. “The first reason is the program’s emphasis on the business side of filmmaking,” Schlow says. “The second is the fact that students own their own films.”

If a student’s film is successful, he or she retains control over the movie and can decide when and where it will be shown. And if a student’s film becomes profitable, he or she will reap the rewards.