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4 ways independent filmmakers can make the most of small budgets for big results



4 ways independent filmmakers can make the most of small budgets for big results

“Here are your handcuffs. Now, how would you like to wear them?”

Each time I embark on a new low-budget independent film, this is the mantra that begins to play on a loop in my head. In the summer of 2018 when I set out on my fifth feature film, Boys vs. Girls, about a 1990 summer camp that goes co-ed for the first time in its 70-year history, I wore the mantra as a flag.

Sure, the so-called “handcuffs” of a small budget are constraining. But realistically and creatively assessing how to make the most of what you have is where your opportunities begin. Here are my four takeaways about meaningful ways to embrace small budgets.

1. Think globally, act locally

We’ve heard this as it applies to environmental and social justice causes, but with advances in digital technology, indie filmmaking has benefited too.

Financiers, distributors and exhibitors still call big cities like Los Angeles, New York and Toronto home, but it doesn’t mean your shoot has to take place in such cost-prohibitive cities.

I shoot most of my projects in my home town of Windsor, Ont., and this has provided me with numerous economic and production advantages. Renting out all locations — hotel rooms, production offices and cast trailers — would normally eat the lion’s share of a budget. But on Boys vs. Girls, we rented an off-season summer camp that acted as all three for a fraction of the price.

Usually, I’ll advise my students to not think about the practicalities of filming while constructing the story. However, if you know in advance what kind of budget you’ll be dealing with, look around your hometown. What built-in production values exist in your own backyard?

‘Boys vs. Girls’ trailer.

2. Engage enthusiasm

Being enthusiastic about how much you love singing might not give you Adele’s voice, however, in filmmaking, this is pure fuel. If you can fill up your set with cast and crew who want to be there regardless of their financial stake, at the start of each day you can flick on the proverbial “film generator” and know that it will run until wrap.

On all my film sets, regardless if some people are being paid big bucks, small bucks, doing an internship or volunteering, I keep track of everyone’s total hours. On the Boys vs. Girls set, that included 30 film students enrolled at the University of Windsor.

My approach is to divide everyone’s hours by the group’s final total, and give everyone “ownership” in the film. This means you could have been the production assistant (PA) and walked away with a certificate that entitles you to “0.4 per cent of the producer’s net equity.” In the years following the film’s release, and as the film begins to turn a profit, a cheque for a couple hundred bucks could show up in your mailbox as a dividend of sorts. I call this co-op filmmaking, and I find it keeps everyone engaged and pulling in the same direction.

Cast and crew of ‘Boys vs. Girls.’
(Jesse Hebert), Author provided

3. Spend money on morale

A film professor at Columbia University explained to me how spending the extra few pennies on Coke instead of no-name cola not only paid for itself, but was far-reaching. Meaning: a crew that worked a long six hours and are heading to a well-deserved lunch will have a slight unconscious boost in morale, knowing they are sipping “the real thing” versus “I don’t care about you too much; our budget is killing us.”

The other place this can pay dividends for itself is in getting a few “recognizable” actors on the set for cameo roles. For Boys vs. Girls, I was able to secure the comedic talents of Colin Mochrie (Whose Line Is It Anyway?) to play the camp director, Roger, and Kevin McDonald (The Kids In The Hall) to play the camp caretaker, Coffee.

As soon as these comedy icons showed up, the rest of the cast and crew immediately felt the rush of “this is the real deal” and everyone’s game stepped up. These actors were only on set for three days out of the 16-day shoot, but their scenes are spread out throughout the entire film, so to a viewer it really raises the perceived production value of the entire project.

A man doing a thumbs up.
Colin Mochrie plays Roger, the camp director.
(Jesse Hebert), Author provided

4. Throw time at your story

Fast, good or cheap? Pick two. This famous project management triangle also applies to filmmaking. By definition, an independent film is already nestled in the realm of “inexpensive,” and no doubt you’re looking for “good” (if not great). So, throw time at your project. Concede early on to the fact that you won’t be able to compete with mainstream Hollywood productions when it comes to production values like special effects or star power.

But here’s the good news: 15 years into my filmmaking career, I can assure you that story is by far the most important element to filmmaking; and it just happens to be the one thing you can compete with. When a friend recommends a movie, rarely will they say “You have to see it! The gaffer perfectly flagged some spill from the key light during the dance scene.” Or: “The sound editor beautifully cleaned room tone in the factory chase sequence.” No, they trumpet the story: “You have to see it! This happens, then this happens, then … well, I don’t want to spoil it, just go see it!” Every cast and crew member’s job is important, but they are all there to service the story, to ensure they’ve collectively engaged the audience. So, my biggest advice would be don’t spend days or weeks outlining your story: spend months or years.

Boys vs. Girls went on to a successful 2019-20 film festival run, including being named Best Canadian Feature Film at the Canadian International Comedy Film Festival and Best Feature Film as well as the Audience Choice award at the Chicago Comedy Film Festival. The film also won awards for Best Ensemble Cast and Best Writer, Feature Film at the Florida Comedy Film Festival.

‘Boys vs. Girls’ has its video on demand and DVD release on Dec. 22.

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Eyes Wide Shut at 25: why Stanley Kubrick’s final film was also his greatest




Eyes Wide Shut at 25: why Stanley Kubrick’s final film was also his greatest

Legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick spent a lifetime trying to make his final film, Eyes Wide Shut, a reality. He had been struggling to make it from the moment he began making feature films, some 75 years ago. When he finally did, 25 years ago in 1999, it killed him.

The plot centres on a physician (Tom Cruise) whose wife (Nicole Kidman) reveals that she had contemplated having an affair a year earlier. He becomes obsessed with having his own sexual encounter. When he discovers an underground sex group, he attends one of their masked orgies.

Having not made a film in 12 years since Full Metal Jacket in 1987, Eyes Wide Shut was hotly anticipated. Titillated by juicy rumours in the British tabloids, critics and fans who were expecting a steamy X-rated psychological thriller were inevitably disappointed. “Eyes Wide Shut turns out to be the dirtiest movie of 1958,” quipped one critic. Wait 12 years for anything and it won’t turn out to be quite so good as you imagined.

But where English speaking audiences panned it, the film was warmly received in Latin and Mediterranean countries. And in the long term, those audiences proved to be right and the film has grown in stature since. Not everyone might agree that, as Kubrick claimed, it was his best work but they certainly should see its merits today.

Kubrick adored the work of Arthur Schnitzler, the Austrian author of the 1926 text, Traumnovelle (translated into Dream Story in English), which became his source material. Once described as the greatest portrayer of adultery in German-language literature, Schnitzler wrote about themes of sex, marriage, betrayal and above all, jealousy. He even, it is rumoured, kept a diary of every orgasm he ever experienced.

Given that Kubrick discovered Traumnovelle in the early 1950s, it influenced almost every film he made. Consider the rapes in Fear and Desire (1952) and Killer’s Kiss (1955), the adultery and jealousy in The Killing (1956) and the attraction to younger women in Lolita (1962). Consider also the sexual violence in A Clockwork Orange (1971), the adultery in Barry Lyndon (1975), the marital troubles of The Shining (1980) and the toxic masculinity of Full Metal Jacket. They all culminated in Eyes Wide Shut.

This extends to the films Kubrick didn’t make too. The Freudian tale of Burning Secret written by Schnitzler’s contemporary, Stefan Zweig, that was abandoned in 1956 through to Napoleon, a figure that intrigued Kubrick partly because he had, in his own words, a sex life worthy of Arthur Schnitzler.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999) official trailer.

Kubrick returned to Eyes Wide Shut time and again during his career. But it took until the mid-1990s, when Kubrick was in his 60s, before he was able to execute it.

He struggled with adapting the source material. How does a director who spent his career putting big themes like nuclear war, the space race and Vietnam on the big screen put the tiny intimate moments of marriage on there?

His wife, Christiane, kept stopping him, telling him they were too young. Or maybe it was because Kubrick was legendary for his pre-production research, so only with four decades of marriage under his belt did he feel he really understood the topic.

By the time it was eventually made, Kubrick was in a poor state of health. Already a ponderous filmmaker, he was slowing up. The production was long, arduous and still holds the record for the longest continuous shoot in cinema history.

Stanley Kubrick photographed shortly before his death.

When it finally wrapped on June 17 1998, he was exhausted. Eyes Wide Shut had been filmed over 294 days, spread over 579 calendar days, including 19 for re-shooting with actress Marie Richardson, totalling slightly over a year and seven months. And post-production would last for a further nine months, only brought to a halt by Kubrick’s death.

Not around to influence the marketing, the film suffered from a poor critical reception. The result was a disappointed audience, looking for salaciousness where none existed. That, in turn, influenced their response and the initial commercial failure of the film in the US.

Many US and British critics felt the film was too long, the acting was unconvincing, the New York sets looked fake, the ideas were weak and the eagerly anticipated orgy scene was ridiculous. They thought it was hermetic, too ordered and too closed off.

In the end, ironically, it was the highest grosser of any Kubrick film. It cost US$65 million (£40 million) to make with another US$30 million in publicity costs and eventually grossed US$162 million worldwide.


Similar to The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut became the source of any number
of conspiracy theories. It has even been seen as a warning to the predations of convicted US sex offenders, Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein.

Now, it is regarded as a classic, maybe not Kubrick’s best film, but one with enough layers to reward repeated viewing. And its influence is felt in wider popular culture.

Consider the explicit reference in Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out, a director much influenced by Kubrick’s style, when one character says: “You in some Eyes Wide Shut situation. Leave, motherfucker.”

Read more:
Stanley Kubrick redefined: recent research challenges myths to reveal the man behind the legend

Todd Field, who played Nick Nightingale in Eyes Wide Shut, showed a Kubrickian influence in the image making, pacing and almost dreamlike atmosphere of the film Tár which he directed in 2022. Jonathan Glazer’s Birth (2004) owes a huge debt to Eyes Wide Shut also.

In the final analysis, anyone who refuses to engage with Eyes Wide Shut is refusing to understand Kubrick as a filmmaker. He wanted to make it at the very point he began making feature films. It lurks behind every film he made.

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A brief history of found footage video art – and where Macklemore’s Hind’s Hall fits in




A brief history of found footage video art – and where Macklemore’s Hind’s Hall fits in

Twenty-four hours after the release of Macklemore’s pro-Palestine protest song Hind’s Hall on social media on May 7, the video had already notched up over 24 million views.

In two minutes and 49 seconds, the music video uses found footage gleaned from social media feeds intercut with the songs lyrics in white text on a black background.

Much of the footage is of pro-Palestine encampments unfolding on the grounds of US universities. We also see images of popular Palestinian journalists Bisan Owed, Motaz Azaiza and Wael Al Dahdouh, footage from the Israeli bombing in Gaza, and older footage, such as N.W.A.’s Fuk Da Police (1988).

Much of the imagery is illustrative of the lyrics and polemic in messaging.

This use of found, gleaned and archival footage is a continuation of a long tradition in video art where artists have used existing footage to comment on and amplify social, political and environmental issues.

What is found footage?

Found footage filmmaking is a strategy used by artists and filmmakers who take audiovisual material from its original source and re-contextualise it.

Removed from its original context, this footage allows the artists to create new associations and critical perspectives on the material, culture and circulation of meaning. This process is also called remediation.

Prior to the proliferation of digital media, found footage artists found inspiration in newsreels, films and archives. Tracey Moffat worked with editor Gary Hillberg from 1999–2017 in creating a series of films call Montages, which reflect on tropes in Hollywood films.

Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010) was a 24-hour video installation compiled from hundreds of films with scenes of clocks, watches and other timepieces.

Adam Curtis’ feature films draw on the vast BBC archives, which meditate on politics, power and psychology.

The advent – and plethora – of user-generated content on social media has given rise to new possibilities for video content.

With an endless flow of images and information through social media scrolls, the question of how to interrogate this material underpins how video artists approach found footage today.

Amplifying truths – and misinformation

The launch of YouTube in 2005 brought the ability to participate in the creation and sharing en masse of self-made video content.

Artist Natalie Bookchin saw this outpouring and sharing of personal testimonies through vlogs as an opportunity to reflect on the the contemporary social, cultural and political landscape in the United States.

Editing these vlogs, Bookchin created choral-like multiscreen video installations. Bookchin’s 2009 work Testament, a three-chapter multi-screen video installation, meditates on the shared vulnerability, isolation and collective experience of prescription medication, job loss and sexual identity.

Surrounded by the multiple voices in the gallery, the individual voices become a collective outpouring, giving voice to feelings of doubt, shame, anger and resignation. The multitude of voices transform an individual experience into one that reflects the impact of social and political pressures.

Bookchin’s follow-up work, Now he’s out in public and everyone can see (2012), similarly uses YouTube vlogs – but this time focused on the perception of African American men as threats.

Originally an 18-screen installation, the video excerpts speculate and comment on incidents involving famous African American men. This creates a collective narrative where there is always contradiction and never a singular agreed-upon truth.

In doing so, this work comments on how social media circulates and reinforces rumours, stereotypes and misinformation.

Montage and juxtaposition

Political commentary can also be made through juxtaposing unexpected images and sound. Montage editing is a technique first used by Soviet-era filmmakers in the 1920s through which the “collision” of images creates a new meaning.

American artist and filmmaker Arthur Jafa uses this technique to great effect in Love is the Message and the Message is Death (2016).

In this eight-minute video, Jafa takes up the question of the representation of African Americans through the 20th century through montages of found footage from film, music video, sports broadcasts and vlogs to the soundtrack of Kanye West’s Ultralight Beam.

The video oscillates between the hopes, dreams and great creative and sporting successes of Black Americans, undercut by the pervasive threat of systemic violence and white supremacy.

Long sequences of music, dance and sporting prowess, backed by West’s melodic anthem, are suddenly replaced by sounds and images captured on a mobile phone.

This footage feels familiar whether we have seen it or not. A scene taken from inside a car of a Black woman being pulled over by the police crying out for her children sits between that of gospel singing and the civil rights movement, demanding us to question what progress has been made.

While Macklemore’s found footage practice might seem unsubtle, given his platform, that’s also the point. Accompanied by unambiguous lyrics, re-presenting these images to a broad audience aims for maximum impact in a screen environment where attention is in constant demand.

Found footage gives video artists strategies to challenge dominant ways of thinking and reflecting on socio-political issues. When we see footage we know from social media, the news or films, we are given the opportunity to bring disparate ideas together, and challenged to see the world anew.

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Making short films is a powerful way to learn job skills: 5 ways it prepares students for work




Making short films is a powerful way to learn job skills: 5 ways it prepares students for work

The world of work is changing all the time. Technology is driving innovation and productivity, leading to the creation of new industries and employment opportunities. This means people need new skills to meet the demands of an ever-changing economy.

While universities can and do equip young people with important skills, tertiary education isn’t available to everyone. This is especially true in a country like South Africa, where about 43% of students in 2023 who qualified to pursue a bachelor’s qualification at university could not because of limited spaces.

Valuable knowledge and skills can also be acquired through non-formal and alternative pathways, however. We are education scholars who ran a pilot project using artistic media to teach important life skills to young adults (18–24 years old). Our project, Myturn, ran in South Africa’s Western Cape province over ten months in 2020. It used simple technology like smartphones and editing software to make short films.

Myturn benefited participants in several ways, as we’ve documented in a study. For instance, it honed their communication and teamwork skills. It bolstered their digital skills. It also allowed the students to connect with their communities. This connection, in turn, provided a platform for the communities to witness the participants’ willingness to learn and become change agents, while also allowing them to share their own stories and experiences.

The project showed how short films could be used to change the way people learn. This method meets many needs of young people by combining the learning of soft skills, computer literacy and artistic expression. It gets them ready for the problems of the future – not just ready for work, but also as socially involved people.

Five main benefits

Our research paper focused on the perceptions of nine (out of the initial group of 17) Myturn participants. All had completed secondary school. They were involved in various dance, drama, music and visual arts projects when recruited for Myturn and came from semi-rural communities in the Langeberg district of South Africa’s Western Cape province.

In 2020 they found themselves in a transitional phase between jobs, were preparing to enter the workforce for the first time, or were between school and tertiary education. They were also dealing with the effects of the pandemic, which began after we’d launched Myturn. This global crisis created difficulties but was also an opportunity for learning and adaptation.

During the project, participants learned the technology and skills needed to create and produce their own short films.

Our study identified five ways in which participants benefited from the project.

1. Improved emotional intelligence and soft skills:

Making short films helps build skills like leadership, teamwork and communication. It pushes young creators to figure out how to work together on complex tasks. This helps team members from different backgrounds understand and care about each other. People learn how to resolve disagreements, make their points clear, and inspire others to work towards a shared goal. These skills are necessary in any professional setting.

2. Improved digital skills and connectivity:

Participants learned how to use software programmes, handle digital content and interact with online groups. They were empowered to offer their skills globally and work remotely and flexibly.

3. Encouraged new ideas and creative ways to solve problems:

Making short films encourages people to try new things and to look at problems from different angles. This way of handling problems creatively makes one more flexible.

As a way to reach their artistic goals, participants learned to make changes and accept loss. This approach is in high demand across various sectors.

4. Supported personalised learning and finding out more about oneself:

Making a short film is a very personal process. It lets people explore themes that are important to them based on their own experiences, interests and goals. Personalising the way people learn reveals their skills, flaws and interests.

One participant, reflecting critically on her role as short film producer in the project, showcased her ownership of learning and the potential for transpersonal growth:

Being able to watch my video back before sending it made me realise how fast I speak and that (I) can come across as unclear, so I worked on speaking slower and I was satisfied with the final product.

Participants became more self-aware and confident. Young adults need help to figure out who they are and what they want to do with their lives.

One told us:

When the opportunity came I told myself it’s time to stretch myself and explore my skills.

5. Made the community more involved and gave people more power:

Making short films is a way to hear opinions that aren’t always heard. A participant said she enjoyed the chance her short film presented “to be able to comment or talk about the issues that everybody is most likely aware of but refuses to publicly speak/comment on”.

Read more:
I introduced social entrepreneurship to my trainee teachers — why it’ll make them better at their jobs

Young film-makers can bring attention to problems that matter in their communities by sharing their stories. This can start a conversation and help bring people together. This involvement goes beyond the project. People can be inspired by hearing these stories, which can lead to a shared sense of power and a dedication to making things better.

What came next

In the time since the Myturn project, participants have flourished. One was selected for a six-month jewellery design research programme in Belgium. Three more have been accepted for tertiary education; others became involved in education as teaching assistants. One started a media house company with a colleague. Two participants created their own YouTube channels and another started making TikTok reels with her brother.

While the project itself couldn’t guarantee personal change within its informal setting, it did offer significant benefits for some participants: developing critical self-awareness, overcoming cultural and language barriers, and gaining a deeper understanding of themselves. This suggests that meaningful interactions, both in person and online, can equip young people with valuable skills. These skills, like critical thinking and empathy, will be crucial for navigating their future lives and careers.

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