Adding Value

Some filmmakers come to me and ask questions like:

How can I make my $300 budget short film look like thousands of dollars?

The answer, depending on the story, comes in the form of three specific answers:

  • Props
  • Locations
  • Being able to do something that does NOT look cheap

And I am more than happy to expound on these concepts to help anyone that is reading this. But understand, each of these things can add cost to a budget. It really depends on what your story needs in order to bring out more “expensive looks”.


Quite possibly the easiest way to bring more to your “game” is to invest in specific props. And it never means that you have to buy the most expensive stuff to make it look real. For instance, I was just working on the set of a short film with my newly networked friend Nash Bhatt where we had police officers in uniform. Now, instead of going out and buying a ton of police stuff, we found that adding specific things brought out more realism in the officers themselves. Yes, they did have a police truck. Yes, they did have uniforms that sort of resembled NYPD. And yeah, even the badges were there with the name tags on the other side. But two factors pushed these actors over the top by adding the required realism: Actual walkie-talkies in leather holsters that attached through the belt, and holstered, real pistols. Granted, they weren’t Glocks or anything, but they added the heft to the people and the realistic nature of the officers. These guys looked like the real deal!

So, consider the objects that will make the actor stand out more like what you’re trying to go for. If you need something more, like a background object (and you don’t have a Set Decorator/Designer or Art Director), work to accomplish the look needed to make your background pop more into place. Add artwork that you bought from a thrift store to those bare walls. Put fake flowers on the table. Add a hula dancing girl to the dashboard of the car the psycho is driving. It’s the little things that need these considerations.


This could be an easy one, or a harder one, all of which really depends on where you live. If you live in a big city, yes you might have more options, but you also might need to pay in order to film in many different places.

But picture this: You’re working on a short movie and you’re using your own house to film the whole thing in. There are usually other options, unless you’re a one-man filming crew hellbent on doing it overnight (NEVER a good idea…). But generally you’ll have other people working with you, which means MANY more potential spots to film. You could possibly film at their house. Or perhaps their family owns a business and you can find out about filming there. Or maybe one of your friends goes to college/school and can ask about filming there. If you’ve exhausted that avenue, consider driving out in a nearby town or city and asking about filming. Out of all the places I have ever asked about filming in, I have received a “no” about 15% of the time. Other times it will be, “Will I get paid anything?” or “What’s in it for me?” And even more you’ll find that businesses just like the idea of helping, especially if it’s:

  • QUICK (Filming quickly, like in an hour)
  • Not going to make their property or company look bad
  • Covered by some kind of insurance, and I mean by you and/or your production company

Some amazing spaces can be found by just asking around. By you’ll need to be a little less introverted to do that, so find it within yourself to get out there and ask.


Watch over some movies. Now, watch some more. Whether you realize it or not, when something happens, you’ll be paying more and more attention to details that make you think, “Geez… They must have had a million dollar budget!” And it’s those things that will make you think more about what you could possibly do to make your production look bigger.

There are several ways to accomplish what I mean here. For instance, I once worked on a movie where the lead character had to smash a car window to get inside and steal something. Everyone said, “That’s gonna cost a BUNCH of money!” But in actuality, it cost about $25, or the cost of another window. How was it accomplished? Easy. We asked a local junkyard that was about to crush some cars if we could smash out a few windows. Then, when we knew what we had available, we shot up (into the sky) from the door and had the lead character smash out several different windows. And since we were smart enough to not have filmed the car to begin with, we were able to get a car that had an approximate color and filmed flat to the actor’s entry. Total cost: $25. And we didn’t even need to pay anything for the windows, since we were friends with some of the people at the yard. No, the $25 was for lunch for the minimized crew and the actor, who had to dress up for the role earlier on. (But that window smash looked like a million bucks in the movie, even if it was shot on VHS and subsequently lost over time.)

The point is, certain things will look like they’ve added value to what you’re filming, even though it was not very costly. Mostly special effects are the things that work best here.

Imagine if you’re able to combine all three of the above ideas into your movie… You’ll hit cinematic gold, as long the story is good, it’s shot well (including audio the right way), and the acting is portrayed well. And it cost you very little to make these things happen.