Zero-Budget Production – Five Tips to make it work

October 5, 2016 James Cawley

Filmmaking is an endlessly powerful medium for communication in that if executed right the artist can summon emotions and even impact the way someone views the world. At the core of filmmaking is the producers passion and an intriguing story or message. Over the last few decades this medium of expression has become more accessible to the general population through affordable equipment and the vast amounts of knowledge available, reducing a once intimidating learning curve. The one issue all new filmmakers face is not having the funds to create their passion, well I’m here to tell you that that barrier is an illusion and you can make a great film with nothing more than passion and zero-budget. There will be roadblocks and you will work very hard without any promise of a paycheck.
The attached short film titled, “Half Measures” was made by myself and several of my filmmaking friends in one afternoon on a zero-budget. The short is a re-imagined scene from the television series, “Breaking Bad” which was originally written by Sam Catlin and Peter Gould. Our goal was to create something cinematic and emotionally engaging with nothing more than our passion and talent. Those passionate about film will find a way to do what they love and will not let money influence their decision to follow their dreams. The following five tips are based on lessons I learned the hard way on my journey to do what I love. I hope they help you get your next project off the ground whether you have a budget or none at all.


I have had countless filmmaker friends tell me, “If I had that camera/lens/gear I could make a great film.” My response is always the same, filmmaking is not about how good it looks or what it was filmed on….it’s about the story you tell and how it makes someone feel. If you cannot tell a compelling story filming on your iphone or gopro how are you going to do it on a Red Dragon better? Shoot your project in the best way you can, but make sure it conveys the emotion you want it to. Do that one thing well, develop your style and you will have a great career doing what you love someday.


Success in filmmaking is typically the result of a group effort and those you surround yourself with will make the end result a failure or a success. Surround yourself with others that are as passionate as you are and this will fuel your success. On “Half Measures” I surrounded myself with several friends that had raw passion for their roles on the project. In the end our combined hard work and dedication made the short a success.


There has been several times when something I have been working on has completely failed. Looking back at these mistakes there is always one core issue problem….a lack of planning. It’s such a basic yet highly overlooked aspect of filmmaking. Often times you get so excited and caught up in your project that an actual plan for success is overlooked. Low budget projects don’t typically have the personnel to keep track of everything as in larger projects, so it’s your job to do this if you want to be successful. Outline the things that will make your project successful as well as fail. From  there, keep track of progress and the steps it will take to achieve goals and avoid problems.


There is a huge difference between being realistic and being falsely optimistic. Chasing your dreams is great, but if you set yourself up for failure, 99% of the time you will fail. We all want to make the next epic film with a epic character arch and a battle scene that will make Spielberg shed a tear and slow clap. The reality of doing this on a $0 budget is not likely. Instead, take an impactful scene or moment from your idea and focus all your attention on making that small piece great. You will get allot further with a wonderful 1 minute film than a disjointed and amateur looking 10 minute film.


Creating something on little to no budget is very difficult and there is no question that when tempting this you will fail at some point. Do not be afraid of failure! The worst favor you can do for yourself is to not learn from those mistakes. I have worked on the same project multiple times only because my first attempts failed…sometimes due to my lack of planning or experience but also just because I didn’t have the budget needed to ensure success. I have progressed more as a filmmaker after those failures because they hurt deeply and were often embarrassing. But the strength and experience you gain far outweighs the failure. After the failures, when you do accomplish something that looks big budget with no budget, that feels pretty amazing. Budgets make everything about filmmaking easier, but if you don’t understand the core basics that keep the wheels turning, you will not be successful long term. Sometimes it takes forgetting what the filmmaking rules say to figure out something important about your work and discover your style. Whether you are an established filmmaker or someone just starting out I challenge you to dedicate some time each year to a passion project. Forget about industry standards and connect with friends to engage in something that makes you feel, learn, connect and grow outside of your comfort zone.

See more of James Cawley’s work on his website:


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