Building a Team on a Budget - Unpaid but NOT Unfulfilled

Updated: 10 hours ago

Like most young filmmakers, my first experiences on set were primarily in small unpaid productions, and I’m sure many of you can relate when I say that a lot of those experiences were…...not always pleasant. It didn’t take long before I learned that usually there was one key thing that made the difference between a good production and a bad one. Regardless of budget or how the film turned out, how hard we worked or how much we were (or were not) being paid, the best sets to be on were always the ones where the director and producers had taken just a few extra steps to make their crew feel VALUED.

Now, I get that I’m over simplifying a bit and it’s a lot more complex than that. For me though, that’s really what defines a successful indie production, especially when the crew is working for ANYTHING less than their proper day rate.

It’s something my producing partner and I remind each other whenever we're facing a difficult decision or things don’t turn out quite the way we’d hoped. “If we can walk away from this with our team still feeling fulfilled and wanting to work with us again, then we can be proud of what we achieved, no matter what else happens.” So over the next couple blog posts, we’ll be talking about some of the things Jacob and I do to make sure those people donating their time and talent to us will leave the set having had the best experience possible.


One of the very first things you have to learn as a director or a producer, is that there is no such thing as a “no-budget” film when you’ve got cast and crew to care for. Everything costs something, if not in cash then in time and energy. That means if you can’t offer standard day rates, which most of us starting out can’t, then you need to think extra hard about what value you’re providing the people helping you make this film. After all, you’re asking them to sacrifice time with their families, or working on their hobbies, potentially even gigs they could actually be getting paid for. So what can you offer people in lieu of their day rate? Well, there aren’t really any wrong answers here, you just need to be able to answer that question before sitting down with someone to ask for favors. That being said, there are a few things that really go a long way for people when they’re considering an unpaid project.

1: Working with someone they can trust.

Nine times out of ten, the reason someone agreed to work with me on an unpaid project was because they trusted me. Those who’d worked on my past films had originally worked with me on other sets, as something other than the director. They had seen how I worked below the line, and they trusted that I would bring the same dedication to a project as the director or producer. If they hadn’t worked with me before, then I did my best to earn that trust by showing I would always value the time and energy they gave to my project. Doing so mostly comes down to being as thorough with your pre-production as humanly possible, so you are never wasting said time and energy, but we’ll talk about that in a minute.

2: A Great Story with a Clear Voice

A well written script that connects with people is usually your greatest tool in building a strong team on a low budget. Money will always get people to show up of course, but a great screenplay can truly spark someone’s passion. It can inspire them to go above and beyond for you just from the desire to see your story told in the best way possible. Not everyone is going to connect with your script as you might have hoped, but those who do sign on out of a love for your story will not only be the most passionate people on that set, but they often become the biggest advocates for your film after you’ve wrapped.

“But wait, not everyone is trying to make some indie drama that’ll change people’s lives! What if I just want to do a cool chase scene, a sci-fi/action spoof, or some edgy experimental film?” Well a film doesn’t have to be complex to be good, right? All you need to focus on is knowing your audience and telling a story that keeps your audience engaged. That applies just as much when someone is reading your script to consider working with you. Don’t worry too much that someone will say no just because you think they won’t connect to your script though, that’s where having a clear voice comes in. There have been numerous occasions where a crew member told me that my script wasn’t really their cup of tea, but they still agreed to come on board because they could see I had a very clear vision and so were willing to put their trust in me.

3: Gaining new skills and experience

Another really good thing to look at is what new opportunities your script offers for people to flex their creativity or try out a new technique. Does your script take place at night? Well perhaps there’s a more experienced DP out there who mostly does bigger stuff, but hasn’t had the chance to shoot a lot of night exteriors before. Or maybe there’s a camera operator who just got a new steadicam arm and they’re wanting to test it out before taking it on larger productions.

4: The shirt off your back….figuratively.

Most people in the film industry know what it’s like to be starting out as a filmmaker, so they know you don’t have a lot of money to throw around. Again though, this is all about showing you value your crew’s time and energy, so you don't have to bankrupt yourself but also don't feel there’s anything too small to offer. For example:

“Trade for Trade” Many of us have day jobs that aren’t related to the film industry, and oftentimes we develop useful skills that we’ve never thought about applying to film. So think about what you have to offer others beyond just this project and if you can, offer a trade-for-trade deal of some kind. “Gas Money” I think we can agree that the courteous thing to do when asking a friend for a ride somewhere is say, “Hey man I know it’s out of the way but do you mind giving me a ride and I’ll toss you a couple bucks for gas?” Well why shouldn't it be the same with a film set. If you only have $100 left in your budget, don’t use it to rent a fancier lens or a bigger monitor, split that money amongst the crew so they at least get ten or fifteen bucks each. That’s usually enough to cover their gas for that day or a drink with friends after wrap. Yeah it isn’t much but it’s SOMETHING!

It goes such a long way for your crew to see that you’re trying to put them first and acknowledge that their work has value.


So now let’s talk about how we actually show that we value our crew’s time and in doing so, earn their trust.

1: On time, Prepared, and Professional

First is something that I really wish I didn’t have to say, but unfortunately experience has taught me I do, and that’s BE PROFESSIONAL!!! Remember that whole “everything costs something”? Even if this is a project people are mostly doing for fun, they’re still giving their time and energy to be there, and you should be giving at least the basic professional courtesies of being on time and prepared. After all, if the goal is for everyone to have fun, then as the producer it’s your job to ensure that by providing the proper foundation for your cast and crew to do so. Trust me, being professional by no means hinders your crew from having an absolute blast on set, quite the opposite in fact. That preparation is going to be key in being able to communicate your needs effectively to the team, so you don’t leave people confused and frustrated.

2: Using visual tools to communicate clearly

Everyone communicates in slightly different ways, and even if you’re the most eloquent speaker on earth, sometimes words just aren’t enough to get your entire team on the same page. It makes sense that in this visual medium there are going to be a lot of people, including myself, who are more visual in how they learn and communicate. Luckily, there are a plethora of tools at your disposal to help solve that. The most common include:


An artist's interpretations of various scenes or shots, meant to convey what the world, characters, lighting and tone of a script may look like when brought to life on screen. Concept art is a great early tool to get your lighting and art departments on the same page and the film has a cohesive style.


A visual breakdown sketching out each sequence in your film to show key information such as camera movement, blocking, frame composition, and other important elements you want conveyed in each shot.


You can't always get someone to do concept art or storyboards though, particularly on indie budgets, but luckily we access to a seemingly limitless supply of artwork, photos, and movie stills available online.

Start collecting and organizing images to use as reference for those same visual elements we discussed above. If you also wrote the script then you may already be doing this, so be sure to share those images with your crew.

A location test shot used in our Look Book


This is your colour-coded check list of ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING you're going to need to make this movie happen. Every prop and location, every piece of costuming and furniture, every actor and every extra. This document is going to give each department a detailed account of what to expect and prepare for going into production, helping to ensure that nothing is overlooked.


Your shot list is basically going to be the text version of your storyboard, only with a lot more technical details such as which lens you're using, the angle of the shot, any special gear or movement needed, and if the shot requires vfx, some even include the focal distance.

Shot lists can be as simple or as complex and technical as you like but just make sure it has all the information necessary, because I can't emphasis enough just how CRUCIAL they are for planning out your shoot, keeping the crew on track, and in making sure you get all the footage you'll be needing in post.


Doing pre-visualization or "animatics" is the process of taking your story board and putting it to motion through the use of computer software or hand drawn animation..

Sometimes, you'll have a sequence that's just too complex to rely on still images and text alone. Sometimes, the timing just has to be perfect., particularly when it comes to stunts and action where people's safety is a concern. For shots like this, your crew being able to actually see that movement and pacing in real time can make a huge difference when it comes time to shoot.


For many people, a call sheet is just about telling your crew when and where they need to be for your shoot, but that shouldn't be the case. Your call sheet should be crammed with as much useful information as possible.

What's the weather going to be like? Is there a car pool? Is there a map to the location? Do we need to bring our own sunscreen? What's the bathroom situation like? These are questions that you do NOT want to be answering fifty times a day when you should be focused on directing. Think about all the little things you can include on your call sheet that everyone needs to know, in order to avoid being bombarded by unnecessary distractions.

A section of our Shot List for Neighborhood

Of course, every production is going to differ slightly so you don’t always need a shot list AND a storyboard, AND concept art, AND a detailed breakdown. You just need to make sure you have the right tools to clearly communicate with your cast and crew. Especially with today’s technology, these tools are also easier than ever to create and share with your team so there really isn’t an excuse for not coming to the table prepared. I know Justus already did a great article on our pre-production process for Neighborhood where he goes into more depth about some of these things and I’m sure there will be more to come, so I won’t dive into it too much for right now but definitely check out Justus’ blog post: “From Visions to Visuals: A Pre-Production Journey”

3: Beginning with the end in mind

Beginning with the end in mind really ties into everything we’ve been talking so far so I hope I’m not starting to sound repetitive, but I really want to drive home the point of making sure you’re thinking about every project in the long term from day one. This is again something that we’ll be talking about frequently, but one thing I’d like to specifically mention before wrapping up, is that this doesn’t just mean communicating what your goals are in terms of distribution or festivals. Be sure to make clear to everyone early on what your expectations for them will be throughout the entire life of this film, not just when they’re on set. Do you expect them to be sharing your posts on social media? Are you going to need them to do anything in terms of marketing, such as interviews or writing a bio? You need to make it known upfront because on indie productions like these, you are going to need their help beyond the scope of their typical job description. If you want anyone other than your friends to see this film, your entire cast & crew has to also be a part of your marketing team in order to succeed.


Building up a talented and reliable team of people can take a really long time and it’s incredibly disheartening to face the inevitable disappointments that come along with that pursuit.

When it comes to being an indie filmmaker, you should always be the hardest working person on that project, but know that your passion and dedication will draw others to you. People who will support and encourage you in so many ways that you never expected. Just remember to be genuine and honest with people, understand the cost of everything you ask, and respect the process.

Do that and I promise this journey will always be a fulfilling one.

I really hope you found some of this info useful and thank you so much for taking the time read.

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