How and Why to Make a Short Film Documentary with No Budget – Part 1

Last week I was proud and pleased to finally release our Creative Mornings short film documentary “sweet spots and racing saddles.” There were so many lessons to be learned in the making of this film. So many valleys we had to pass through. So many obstacles to overcome. One HUGE mountain to conquer. In its making we laughed. We almost cried. But in the end we created something for which all the parties can be proud. I want to share with you the top lessons I learned in all three major steps of any film: the pre-production, the shoot (aka “principal photography”) and the post production. There are marketing lessons, networking lessons, technical lessons and inspirational lessons. A little bit for everyone. Today we cover pre-production.

The Why

Every month we shoot and edit the Atlanta chapter’s Creative Mornings presentation. Think of CM as a mini-TED. (In fact, Wired Magazine recently ran a feature on their website about it and that’s exactly how they referred to it). The only thing is, CM is FREE! There are chapters all over the world. The Atlanta chapter is organized by the brand identity house Matchstic.

As of this writing, there are over 30 Creative Mornings chapters around the world.

We do not get paid to shoot and edit the CM videos. In fact, none of the vendors who participate get any money. The food and audio equipment for the Atlanta chapters is graciously sponsored by MailChimp. I assume all the vendors involved have different reasons for why they do it. I’m sure a big part of it is exposure (there’s a reason Wired Magazine wrote an article about Creative Mornings. It’s become huge). But I think another reason is just the friends and colleagues we meet in the process. Every month I get the opportunity to film, record and get to know dynamic leaders in a multitude of creative, design, branding and marketing fields. What an incredible learning and networking opportunity. It’s activities like this that in which we invest in lieu of paying for traditional advertising.

In April the presenter was Dwain Cox. Dwain heads up the innovation team at Chick-fil-A. (For those of you not in the South, CFA is a huge, family owned fast-food restaurant chain famous for creating the first chicken sandwich, being the first restaurant chain to open a store in a mall, and being closed on Sundays. They are also heavily involved in leadership training). Dwain’s presentation was powerful, poignant and very inspirational. As I previously wrote, due to a technical issue beyond our control, we were unable to capture audio to my digital recorder (mics were switched at the last minute to one that was not hooked up to my recorder.) So the only audio we got was ambient. (Blech!) Dwain was gracious enough to let us re-record his presentation in a controlled environment, and we used that presentation as the basis for the film. Now that you know the why, let’s look into “the How.”

1. The Vision

Dwain’s presentation was incredibly visual. I knew that in order to make it come to life, would require a vision that other creative collaborators would believe in as much as I. As I mentioned, this work is not paid for. There was no budget to put this together. Without a vision that others would share and adopt, I don’t think I would have been able to get it made (at least not at the scope we did it).

Dwain Cox giving a “physics lesson” during his CM presentation.

My vision was simple: take an already powerful presentation and turn it into a film that would inspire of creatives, entrepreneurs and professionals all over the world. An emotive experience that people would talk about. Something special…

  • Special for Chick-fil-A and Dwain because they want the creative community to know and see the amazing and innovative projects they’re working on.
  • Special for the Creative Mornings Atlanta chapter because it would allow us to say we were the first to do this.
  • Special for the Creative Mornings attendees because they would be treated to something unlike any other CM presentation.
  • Special for the cast, crew and vendors who donated their time, talent, tools and/or locations to make this happen because they would have new avenues to share their respective resources with the world and get exposure.

So that was the Vision.

2. It’s About the Story

I knew that I wanted to make the film somewhat narrative. I just didn’t want to show a bunch of pretty imagery and descriptive b-roll. I wanted the visuals themselves to carry the audience through. To have characters with whom you would connect. Under dogs you’d root for.

  • A nervous yet talented young creative making a pitch to three top executive.
  • An avid bicyclist looking to “go faster.”
  • A female tennis player up against a cocky male who thinks he’s going to win because he knows he can beat a girl
The nervous, young creative making the presentation of a lifetime.

These were the stories I wanted to tell. The stories that would paint the picture of Dwain’s presentation. Whether or not you took away specifically the three things I mentioned above, I hope the audience was at least able to see that there were indeed stories being told to which they could connect.

Lesson 2. Tell a good story.

3. Planning is Paramount

I don’t know how many times it’s been said, but it’s been said a lot. Pre-production planning is paramount to any film. Your project can live or die in how well you plan. As you might imagine, planning for something like this was intense:

  • We had to plan the re-recording session with Dwain
  • We had to plan the three different stories
  • We had to determine which cameras we’d use. I knew from the get-go I wanted to use either the Sony FS100 or the Canon C300.
  • We had to find actors, crew, and locations

One area where I dropped the ball was not having a pre-determined “Plan B” for location. The original plan was to have the tennis scenes shot outside. However, the day we were set to shoot, guess what. Bingo! It rained. Yes, it rains in the middle of June in GA. It’s basically a rainforest! I did not have an indoor tennis court planned ahead of time. And we had to return the C300 soon. So essentially we had a 24 hour window to find an indoor location. Phil and I were on the phone all morning calling places. At the 11th hour we finally secured a location. (Due to corporate red tape, we cannot share the name or location of the facility where we filmed).

We found an indoor location at the 11th hour, allowing us to film our tennis scenes.

Lesson 3. Plan, plan and when you’re finished planning, plan some more.

4. Work Your Network

Lastly, and perhaps the most important lesson in making a documentary short film with no budget, work your network. Phil and I worked our network like crazy. We both stepped out of our comfort zones (and our comfort zones are pretty wide as it is, so stepping out of them is a LOT for us. 🙂 ) We had to be bold asking for stuff we might have been tentative about asking. (I called up so many stuffy tennis and country clubs trying to get an indoor tennis court.) Phil asked friends and colleagues in his acting network if they’d forgo their acting fee. It even goes back to asking Dwain if he’d be open to re-recording his entire presentation in the first place. The list of people worth thanking include:

  • Lens Pro To Go. They contributed the C300 and a sweet set of lenses to make this happen.
  • Rudy Vaughn, and amazingly talented singer/songwriter who donated the Act 4 song “Silver and Gold” and the end credits song “Sweetest Song.”
  • Suwanee Creek Bicycles for letting us use their bike shop
  • Frazier Cycling for being so enthusiastic about the project
  • Our actors
    • Caroline Avery Granger (the female exec)
    • Kyle Goodman (Mr. Nice Guy, who’s actually a talented designer)
    • Ty Lane Miller (bike shopper)
    • Danny Williams (Mr. Cocky)
    • Megan Dovell (Ms. Determined, who in real life is an inline and ice hockey champion on the US team, NOT a tennis player. She actually had to take serving lessons the day we shot. Danny isn’t a real tennis player either. Hopefully my camera work and editing make up for any lack of true tennis talent either of them had. 🙂

I know what you’re thinking. “That all fine and dandy for YOU Ron, Mr. Blogger/Podcaster/National Speaker dude. But I don’t have those kind of connections.” Well, maybe you don’t. But you do have SOME kind of network. You know people at church, at work, at your local association. You know people, who know people who know people. You don’t need to have a super huge social media network to make stuff like this happen.

But if you have a vision, a plan, and are willing to step out of your comfort zones, there’s no reason you couldn’t do projects like this.

In part 2 I cover the top lessons learned from the actual shoot. In the meantime, share with us some top lessons you’ve learned in a pre-production process.

7 thoughts on “How and Why to Make a Short Film Documentary with No Budget – Part 1

  1. Great lessons here. Preproduction can determine how successful a project will be. You don’t get lucky by just winging it.

    By the way, love how you wrote this blog post using Dwain’s format of wrapping up each segment by reiterating the general point / lesson. Very clever.

    1. Ha! I totally didn’t even get that’s how I wrote it. Honestly. After editing the video for so long, it must have just stuck. Nice catch. 🙂 There’s also four lessons too.

  2. Hey there! I know this is kinda off topic but I was wondering which
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