The Rules of Indie and YouTube Filmmaking

I’ve done my fair share of low budget, indie and YouTube projects- projects where the budget was approximately zero dollars, the number of location permits we secured was officially zero and the number of people we paid was, you guessed it, zero. But lack of a budget is no excuse for lack of professionalism, so if you’re new to the art of extremely indie/guerilla filmmaking, here are some tips to get you started.

Crafty (aka snacks and water) is optional if you’ve got a really small cast/crew, but the easiest way to keep everyone happy is by keeping their tummies happy. So even a box of donuts can go a long way in making for a fun shoot.

State law dictates a meal should be served every six hours, and it’s common courtesy to follow this rule, even if you’re operating outside the law (you vigilante filmmaker, you). So that means, if you asked everyone to show up at 10am, plan to eat lunch at 4pm (then dinner at 10pm if you’re still shooting).

Avoid pizza if possible. For one thing, the pizza in LA always sucks, and for another, loading up on carbs and cheese is only gonna make everyone feel tired and icky. But, fine, you don’t have the money for anything else, I get it. At least ask your cast and crew for any food restrictions before shoot day, because this is LA and someone on your crew will be vegan. Most likely your makeup artist.

If you can’t pay your cast and crew, it’s nice to throw everyone a little gas money if they had to drive a ways to get to location. I didn’t always do this on tiny local shoots, but I started making more of a conscious effort, because $10 might not seem like much but at least offering lets people know you appreciate them. The filmmakers and friends I’ve worked with who gave me gas money always stand out as people who I want to work with again.

Also, don’t waste anyone’s time, so have a game plan. You should know what it is you want to shoot. Have a copy of the script on hand. If organization isn’t your strong suit, find a friend who can help you produce this thing. Another way to ‘get organized’ is to:

For ‘legit’ shoots, the location scout is a chance for the producer/DP/gaffer/AD to see the shooting location, make a plan to light the space and discuss the shooting schedule. Chances are, you’re either shooting at a friend’s place for free, or out in public for free. So for you, your location scout should answer these questions: What’s the likelihood of us getting kicked out? Do we need to go full-on guerilla or can we get away with setting up lights? If we DO get kicked out- what’s our backup location? What shots/angles do I want, and is it actually possible to achieve those shots in this location? This saves you a lot of time on the actual shoot day.

If you and a friend have decided to make a video, you might want to figure out ahead of time how you guys are splitting any expenses (food, gas money, emergencies, etc), and make sure it’s clear who’s directing, who’s producing- or if you’re sharing these responsibilities equally.

I worked on a small indie shoot where a producer (aka friend of the director) CLEARLY thought he was also the director, and spent the entire time giving notes to the actors and DP, much to the annoyance of, well, everyone. Awkward. On a ‘real’ film set, these roles are clearly defined, but since everyone’s probably wearing multiple hats on your small shoot, it’s on you to make sure everyone understands what their job is.

Have some “petty cash” on hand for any last-minute emergencies. When your sound guy realizes he doesn’t have any extra batteries on set, it’s a lot easier to just hand your friend/PA $20 cash than to have to a group discussion to figure out whose credit card you guys are gonna use.

I say always save all your receipts. You might never need them- or you might. As a producer, paper trails make me happy, and they should make you happy too. Speaking of paper trails…

If you call someone and they say, “Sure buddy, you can use my camera for your shoot Friday”, follow up with an email or text reiterating that info. Because sometimes- not often, but sometimes, people try to screw you over (“I never said you could use it for FREE…”) and sometimes people just forget what they said (“Wait, you need my camera THIS Friday? I thought you meant next Friday!”) In either scenario, you’ll be very happy you have it in writing so you can (gently and tactfully) prove they are wrong and you are right. 

OPTIONAL: I like to have signed appearance releases from my actors and basic deal memos from my crew members. The bigger the shoot, the more important this is. Doesn’t need to be fancy- a good release/deal memo just states the date the person is working, what their rate is (if any)*, etc. If you’re renting equipment, definitely get it in writing. Basically any transaction where money is exchanged should be written somewhere where both parties have either signed off on it or mutually agreed to it via email.

I realize this requires a little organization on your part. And I know you want to make your short film because you have a CREATIVE VISION, not because you’re trying to do any paperwork. But if you’re working with someone new (aka not your best friend or roommate),then deal memos, appearance releases and an email paper trail protects you AND them. Take it from someone who’s learned the hard way- GET IT IN WRITING.

For further explanation, see: “FEED EVERYONE”.

Hope these tips are helpful. Feel free to email me more indie filmmaking tips and I’m happy to add to the list.

Lastly, I know I don’t need to remind you of this, but don’t sweat it if you end up breaking one of these rules; they’re more like guidelines, anyway.**


* The goal should always be to reach the point in your career where you’re able to pay everyone. Or, at the very least, hook your friends up with paid gigs when you can!

**But don’t come crying to me when your vegan makeup artist gets pissed that she can’t eat any of the pizza you ordered for lunch.

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