How to make something good low budget

by Chris Shimojima

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This is not a manual of technical and logistical recommendations. You can find many of those.

The things I’ve done on my productions — notably my first feature film Alberto and the Concrete Jungle, made on what SAG-AFTRA calls an Ultra Low Budget — are for very specific reasons and won’t necessarily apply to you. Different people have different tips and tricks. Rules can be broken.

This is me musing about how, especially when people choose to make something scrappy, the fundamentals are so important.

“It starts with a good script.”
You hear that a lot. It’s not the answer.

A good script is just one of the many potential products of a discerning intellect, and the big problem is that we aren’t discerning very well. To make any production, we have to know what’s Good and what’s Bad and not be clouded by fashionable Virtues.

That’s why we’re often wrong. It’s why the Industry is often wrong. It’s partly why so many of the supposed great scripts on the Black List don’t amount to anything once produced. (The other reason is that great scripts don’t equal great films.) Don’t trust any of that stuff. Most of us can’t seem to know what is actually Good.

Good is: What do you have to say? Why do you have to say it?
To answer that, you also have to answer: Why make something at all?

Why would your low budget thing mean anything to anyone, when there’s so much content out there? Even things that stand out today will likely be forgotten tomorrow. The streaming revolution, corporate control, and virtual signaling have caged us into a system where everything is a next-gen Happy Meal. That includes much of the high-brow awards fluff out there.

What are you actually contributing? In the case of feature films… well, people care less and less about those. In the case of short films, it’s even worse.

This isn’t meant to discourage. It’s to get you to think extra hard. Don’t settle on making something in your own echo chamber.

Chris Shimojima

A background in classical piano taught Chris how to listen to the things around him and make sense of the themes. That sense of observing and assimilating is how he approaches his films.  He received his BFA in Dramatic Writing from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, then joined the high-profile digital agency R/GA, where he was the video editor on numerous campaigns you may have seen and thought were cool. As a director, he gets real performances – frequently from non-actors – and chooses shots to illuminate the rhythm of their lives, making their stories bold and playful. He has 4 x Vimeo Staff Picks, an AICP nomination, film festival awards, and a YouTube “top 10 Made-for-the Web shows” credit. His clients have included Arena Water Instinct, Tyson, Audio-Technica, ADT, US Lacrosse, Nike, JACK Casino, Northwestern Mutual, and Zurich Insurance. His debut feature film, “Alberto and the Concrete Jungle,” which he wrote, directed, produced, and edited, is making the festival rounds. It consists of over 50 cast members and spans the 5 NYC boroughs.

Yes, there are projects that are simply meant to improve your skills, but if that’s your only objective, it’s just a Sketch.

Find something important. Something that pushes your soul to question things. “My show talks about equality, and equality is good.”

Bullshit. There’s no depth. There’s no dilemma. You’re preaching to the choir. I could read a Tweet instead of watching your show.

“My film shows a community or lifestyle you hardly get to see.”

And what? Culture is beautiful? People deserve empathy? It’s the Chef’s Table syndrome. Satiating for a few episodes, then you realize every chef’s story is the same. “Stuff happened, I found my calling, and I’m now making beautiful food, so please make me look good.” There’s no food for thought.

Good is not propaganda for goodness. Good is intelligence. Good is wisdom.

Find something to say that is not being said enough. And find what makes it universally relevant to anyone who’s ever wrestled with similar thoughts.

Then go back to school. Not necessarily class. Research on your own. Practice on your own.

Analyze what makes something well done and not well done. Too many projects get away with questionable decisions — decisions that fail to communicate the depth of a message — simply because they are socially relevant enough. If you want to play that game, go ahead. But there’s a reason fast food isn’t healthy.

There are opinions, sure. Good is debatable. But in order to function, we have to believe there is some standard. In different ways, Tarkovsky is Good and Judd Apatow is Good. There is a vivid thought process and artistry to their styles.

Pick your Goods, and use them as your barometer. Your target.

Then be very honest with yourself. Look at everything you do objectively. Don’t delude yourself into thinking you’re reaching a Good, when you’re far off. Don’t tire yourself out from all your introspection and end up saying, “It’s Good enough.”

Yes, you have to pick your battles. But stay the course on the most important things.

How do you know what they are? Look back to your purpose. Through studying and analysis of other things out there, you can hone your ability to discern what’s helpful to your purpose, and what’s trivial.

And what’s possible to achieve. And what’s not. (You know… all those high-budget things you try to mimic, thinking your impression can be Good enough. It usually can’t.)

I dig the John Wick series. I think it’s Good in many ways. But I have learned that I do not have the level of resources to mimic what makes it Good. So I need to find other Goods.

Apply this to all the elements.

For example: maybe I like the look of an 8K cinema camera, because of all the Good images it makes. But a phone camera is all I can afford. Well, there are Good things being made with phone cameras too. Study why they’re Good. Ask others. Is it because the concept allows for that look? What concept can I come up with that allows for it?

Break it down even more.

Why does this angle I’m shooting look fake compared to my references? Is it because it’s meant for other styles of production? Do I need to pick an angle that falls more in line with my chosen style? Or can I break that rule here? Maybe there’s some other value that outweighs the negative?

Get organized. Don’t wait for others to plan for you. Know if your schedule is too ambitious and if you need to time shots better and come up with safety options — the Good ones more achievable.

None of this is an exact science. It’s why even the Greats wrestle with choices each step of the way.

But the more we’re willing to question for ourselves, the more we’ll push our limits, the more we’ll learn, and the closer to Good we’ll be.

The tips and tricks will follow.