Making an Award-Winning Feature Film with a Crew of Four: How We Did It & Why Sometimes Less is More
The latest multi-award winning film I produced, SMUGGLED, was shot with a crew of 4 -- no joke. In addition to 15 official selections and 5 awards, the film has been featured by NBCLatino, ABC/Univision and many other media outlets. I'll share why working with a small crew worked so well in this case.
- Our key included talented people we had worked with before. People we knew we could trust who had experience working together.
- We took advantage of rehearsals. We rehearsed a lot during pre-production and did some pre-lighting, having a very talented cinematographer and friend come in and offer tips.
- We planned everything very carefully. We knew what shot set-ups were going to be, what the shot selections were, the framing, etc. well before production began.
- It was the right size crew for our story. Our story concept was simple, yet impactful. We made sure that our simple story was still compelling and engaging. (Whatever your story -- recognize the needs of the project. Don't overdo it, but don't undercut the project either).
I have produced independent films with much larger crews. For SMUGGLED, though, that wasn't necessary. Given the nature of the project, the family feel of the small crew worked as a major advantage. This family feel was important. It made the actors more comfortable, quite important given that one of our leads was a child actor in his first major role.
Another advantage to a small crew is keeping costs down -- not only the cost of paying crew, but the cost of feeding the crew. Even if your entire crew works for free, you still need coffee, water and meals for them. These costs can add up. (Key note: even though we were making the film with a very minimal budget, we still paid the crew and the actors -- a point that is very important to us). With larger crews or lots of your friends "helping out," you often end up with a whole slew of people who spend much of their time standing around and then, of course, needing to be fed. Have a crew that reflects your needs - nothing more, nothing less. A small crew can also benefit the crew, especially when you have students eager to learn - they will learn more and thus find the experience much more valuable and give you more of their talent and time. (2 of our 4 crew were college interns. Rather than pay, they were getting college credit and learned a ton on our shoot).
For our company, Think Ten Media Group, minimal costs and small crews are not just something we will do when our budget requires it, it is a filmmaking approach we believe in. We are committed to filmmaking without a lot of excess and waste. As our budgets grow, we will still make sure we only spend what is needed to make the project work. We've learned that you can actually get a lot done with a little if you engage the right people for the story you need to tell.
Finally, when you find talented individuals you enjoy working with -- tell them, thank them, treat them well (does some amazing person on your crew love oranges? Then buy oranges. Does your DP love Gatorade? Make sure you budget for Gatorade). Also, when you find people you work well with, continue to work them -- why try someone else? Our AC for SMUGGLED (and our key grip and so much more), had first worked with us in 2009 as a grip on a feature film. Then, as a second camera operator on a documentary. By the time we got to SMUGGLED, we knew how talented she was, what a great energy she provided on set and that we worked well together. With a crew of only four, in which two were interns and the other key crew was both the Director and the DP, having her as part of the team mattered a lot. The familiarity we had with her and our confidence in her abilities made a big difference.
Bottom line, we made a multi-award winning film with a crew of four: the Director (who was also the DP), our 1st AC (and key grip) and two interns! As Ava DuVernay recently said: stop being desperate and just make something! It's possible.