The truth about that awesome short film that “only cost [X] bucks!”


Every so often (but more and more often), you’ll see a film or short flying around the intertubes with everyone saying a) how cool it is and b) how it only cost [insert relatively small amount of money]. The Raven is the latest one I’ve heard about (via io9), and its supposedly dirt-cheap budget is blared right in the headline and first sentence of the article. Here’s the film (and it is very cool), made for a purported $5000:

Let’s get one thing straight: they may have spent “only” $5000 out-of-pocket, but to imply that that’s all the filmmakers had to scrape together to make something like this is just plain wrong, or at the very least, misleading.

Back in the pre-digital days of “El Mariachi,” making a film for a few grand was a herculean feat worthy of shocked/awed press coverage. Now, not so much. Which is great! Digital tools have brought incredible production value within the grasp of, well, almost anybody. But “almost” is the key word there that gets lost in the hoohah about these Hollywood-looking films made for “only” $5000 or whatever. To make a big deal about that miniscule price tag vs the amazing production value is to imply that, “hell, ANYone with five grand and a cool idea could do something just like this!” That just ain’t true.

Let’s put aside the obvious fact that you have to be very, very talented and very, very persistent just to make a decent film at all, regardless of the tools you use. No one argues about that. But to put together a special-effects-driven “sizzle reel” like The Raven, you realistically have to call in about $50,000 worth of highly skilled technical labor and equipment for free or very cheap. Well, maybe not $50K — but it’s not like you can just borrow any old camera, rip a pirated copy of Final Cut Pro or Maya off a BitTorrent tracker, and make something like that “in one weekend” as the io9 article misleadingly implies. You have to either have expert-level skills in multiple technical disciplines yourself (which you either built up through years of experience, probably in a professional setting like a visual effects house a la Neill Blomkamp), or you have to outsource that talent through favors or barter agreements (ie: you have to know people with those skills who are willing to trade it for something other than money; most likely, they’re “industry professional” friends you’ve come up with or worked with before).

Did you see the length of the end credits on The Raven? I can’t say for sure, but with a feature-film-esque list of talent like that (including everything down to the level of 2nd-assistant camerapeople), the $5000 they dropped out-of-pocket was probably just to feed everyone while they worked for free. I’ll bet they shot it on a digital camera (DSLR or Red) with professional lenses that the cinematographer or director either owned or borrowed from the production company he works at during his day job; same for all the 3D modeling/compositing and sound effects-editing/mixing resources.

So yes, you too can make a Hollywood-grade sci-fi thriller over a weekend for a few thousand dollars! If you’re a professional with a lot of professional friends and colleagues who are willing to donate their time (creating/compositing all those effects, doing the sound editing/mixing, and color correction did not happen “over a weekend”), talent (built up over years in professional contexts) and expensive equipment (owned or borrowed from industry vendors) for free. Yes, digital technology has put industry-level technology within reach of consumers. But we’re not talking iMovie here. We’re talking cameras and lenses and support/grip equipment that can easily cost in the low five figures all together, plus professional-grade software and postproduction equipment that costs even more. Granted, this stuff used to cost hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, so it’s an amazing order-of-magnitude decrease in cost. But it ain’t peanuts.

What’s happened, of course, is that digital technology has transfered much of the money-cost associated with sleek production value and special effects to time-cost instead. The tools may cost less now, but the time is still required. And that time is worth a lot more than $5000.

Now, I’m not saying this is a disingenuous way to get a film made. It’s an awesome way to get a film made! All indie filmmakers call in favors and get creative with their funding, and The Raven is pretty bad-ass. But highlighting a “low” dollar figure as a rubber-stamp-of-whoa-ness without at least mentioning the hidden costs of making the film is just misleading. And a gang of professionals throwing their significant technical talent and resources into a friend’s calling-card film is not the same as a rookie outsider shooting a feature on a beat-up Arri with no sync-sound.

Postscript: Obviously I could be completely wrong about all this regarding The Raven in particular. I haven’t interviewed any of the filmmakers. But my guess is that my, well, guesses above are correct or at least in the right ballpark. Of course, if anyone who reads this knows the particulars of how the film got made I’d love to hear them. And of course it’s not IMPOSSIBLE to make a sleek effects-driven film for dirt cheap AND without professional-grade resources… it’s just that many like The Raven that I’ve seen online don’t appear to have been done that way.


2 Responses to “The truth about that awesome short film that “only cost [X] bucks!””

  1. I’ve seen the same logic applied to news gathering and reportage. Thanks, internet.

  2. 2 guest

    Only problem is, that isn’t a film, it’s not even a plot.
    Even if they did just spend $5k on vfx, where was the story again?

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