COSMOS – How I Made a No-Budget Sci-Fi Movie
If you’re a filmmaker like me, you’ve always dreamed of directing your own full length feature – finally writing that burning story and taking it from script to screen. But for independent filmmakers like us, that feature debut is the greatest creative challenge we’ll ever face… I know this, because I’ve just done it.
My name is Elliot Weaver, and alongside my brother, Zander Weaver, I’ve just finished producing and directing my first feature film – a sci-fi mystery called COSMOS. It’s taken 5 years from concept to completion, we made the film with limited gear, three actors and took on every key crew role during pre-production, the shoot and post. We had no budget set aside and spent the least amount of money we could (out of our own pockets) on only the most essential of purchases.
In this article I want to share with you some of the creative processes we went through and answer the most common questions we’re asked about how we made a no-budget movie. I want you to be inspired and realize that your feature debut may be closer than you think.
But before we get into all that… let’s get some context. We’ve recently produced and released a 12-minute “Making-Of” COSMOS featurette that gives a glimpse into the whole journey that was making a no-budget movie.
Q: WHY DID YOU CHOOSE TO MAKE THE FILM WITH ZERO BUDGET?
Having spent 2 years trying to secure finance for Encounter (as explained in the featurette), we didn’t want to find ourselves back at the start of another project, needing support from other parties for a budget. We wanted to be free from that dependency, take back control of our directing career paths and actually get to make a film this time!
But to self-produce Cosmos completely independently we had to be savvy and follow the golden rules of indie filmmaking; we wrote a simple contemporary story, set in a single location over one night with minimal characters, under 100 pages long and utilized the equipment we already owned.
Technology has democratized filmmaking like never before and inspired by indie “rebel” filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez and Gareth Edwards, we decided to take matters into our own hands and undertake every key crew role throughout production ourselves… with the exception of composing the soundtrack (as we’re not musicians in any way!)
Q: WHAT IS COSMOS ABOUT?
Cosmos is the story of three amateur astronomers who accidentally intercept what they believe is a signal from an alien civilization. Realizing they may have just stumbled across Mankind’s greatest discovery, they must race to document their finding, prove its authenticity and share it with the world before it is lost forever. But the truth they uncover is even more incredible than any of them could have imagined.
Q: WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO MAKE A SCI-FI FILM?
We wanted to make a film that reminded us of the movies we watched as kids. The stories that sent our imaginations wild and made us fall in love with the cinema in the first place. That classic 80’s/90’s adventure tale of ordinary people in the middle of extraordinary, or in this case extra-terrestrial, circumstances. Science Fiction is our favourite genre, so that’s where our imaginations lead us.
We’ve spent many years producing TV documentaries about NASA and the Apollo Program and found ourselves in as much awe of the Mission Control and Ground Teams as the Astronauts themselves – quick minded professionals dressed smartly in shirt and tie, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and crew-cut hair.
Movies often depict scientists as the brains but rarely brave or brawn, or worse, greasy long-haired nerds covered in cheeto-dust. So we were inspired to tell a story of scientists and science in an accurate and cool way. Men, who by day, are aeronautical engineers and physicist, but by night share a passion for the wonders of the universe above. If these men were to discover an alien signal, they’d instinctively drop into a NASA-like procedural mindset and speedily work the situation; there dialogues firing as rapidly as their minds.
Also, having always been a fan of ‘submarine movies’ (a niche genre!) we love that classic depth-charge scene… all the crew stand sweating, motionless, listening to the sonar pings as the battleship passes overhead… and we wondered whether that same nail-biting tension could be created when listening to a signal from space. We thought that’d be a great scenario to drop an audience in the middle of!
Q: DID YOU STORYBOARD THE FILM?
By January 2014 after 3 months of writing, we had our screenplay and immediately began a two and a half year pre-production process – working part-time on the film while juggling our day jobs.
The very first thing we did was storyboard the entire film. We wanted Cosmos to have a very particular style of cinematography; a more classically blocked and composed approach that we feel is more immersive for the viewer and more engaging for the filmmaker. But this style isn’t something you can just improv (unless you’re Steven Spielberg, of course!)
We didn’t want to turn up on the day hoping for the best, or worse just shoot everything from every angle – we knew that without meticulous planning, we’d fail to craft that polished style we wanted. So we planned every single shot for every single scene in the entire film. We dedicated an entire month to working through the script, page by page designing camera compositions and moves and actor blocking within the frame. We drew 1,055 individual pencil and ink sketches by hand.
Along with our script, that storyboard was our bible and always in hand during the shoot. I would go as far to say that, other than casting, it was the single most important decision we made in pre-production.
Q: HOW DID YOU GET ACTORS TO COMMIT WITHOUT A BUDGET?
Casting is everything. Everyone knows that. But with indie films casting is more than everything. Cast good actors and they’ll breathe life into your film. Cast bad actors, and unfortunately you’ll doom your film to failure months before you shoot a single frame.
The challenge we faced with no budget, as with all elements of the film, was how do we engage talented actors without being able to pay them for their time and contribution? Our solution, was to find actors as passionate about storytelling and Cosmos as we were.
We spent the best part of 2014 searching for just three actors. We used online casting sites, social media and asked fellow filmmaker friends. We searched high and low and fought to keep the faith that eventually we’d cross paths with our actors, and cross paths we did.
Q: WHAT WAS YOUR AUDITIONING PROCESS?
This was our first time auditioning actors so we were a little in the dark about how to proceed; what was the etiquette? What’s the best course of action?
We soon settled on video auditions for their convenience and immediacy — our first request was for actors to record an audition tape delivering a particular monologue from the script that most encapsulated the theme and tone of the film, all receiving the same brief direction. This allowed us to instantly judge their gut instincts – were they naturally in the ballpark or were they way off base?
We met with the actors who delivered strong video auditions and worked on honing that audition scene even further. This tested how they took direction and what they could bring to the film. After deciding on the three actors we liked the most, we brought them together to read some scenes and judge their chemistry, first in pairs and then as a group.
(please excuse my ‘mushroom’ hair in the above video… what can i say? #FilmmakersLife)… After 11 months of work, we’d found our three guys and we were thrilled to see them instantly gel. They all jumped on board with a passion, dedication and generosity that still amazes me now.
Q: HOW LONG DID YOU SHOOT FOR?
We shot for a total of 55 days. 24 of which were exterior night shoots. 30 were in a studio (garage) space and 1 was in a green-screen studio. However those 55 days were spread over 11 months. The upside of having great actors is obvious, they’re great! The downside is that they’re talented and therefore in demand – and when you have no budget you obviously want to respect their other commitments especially if they’re paid. So we shot in three separate filming blocks.
Q: HOW DID YOU KEEP CONTINUITY OVER AN 11 MONTH SHOOT?
The simple answer is meticulous attention to detail. Continuity has some tried and tested fail-safes (that work 99% of the time)… and we tried to do as many as possible.
We took reference photos of the actors hair/beard lengths so these could be retrimmed at the next shoot. We had reference photos of their costumes and how they were wearing them and in which scene. Copious script notes were written during the shoot, noting variations between takes for referencing in the edit. And also we had reference frames of previously filmed rushes on an ipad for us to cross reference direct continuity in lighting and actor blocking. There really are no shortcuts, just planning and paying attention. That being said, as with all films, we do have a few subtle continuity mistakes… but hey, no one’s perfect!
Q: WHAT GEAR DID YOU SHOOT WITH?
This article isn’t really about hardware, or software or any ware for that matter. But I know some of you might be curious about what gear we used.
We used the equipment we already owned; gear that other filmmakers might dismiss as below minimum requirement to make a polished feature film (our camera only shot HD for example) but we knew when used to its fullest potential, we could give Cosmos a real shine.
We shot on the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera – 1080p in ProResLT (some might scoff at this choice but it was good enough for us as storytellers). We had two lenses used with a Speedbooster, a 28mm Super-Takumar stills lens with Pixco wide angle converter (which we shot 90% of the film on) and a 18-200mm Tamron Zoom. We also had a one meter Konova Camera Slider.
Location sound was recorded on the Zoom H4N using a Sennheiser 416 shotgun mic. And for lighting, we had three K4000S LED Panels and on location sometimes had an Ianbeam 2kW Blonde (when we had access to a mains power supply, which was about 50% of our night shoots). We also had an Artem Exterior Smoke Gun.
On two nights we borrowed (from a friend) a little micro dolly with about 3 meters of pipe track. And we also used a wheelchair as a dolly. And that’s about it.
Q: WHAT WAS IT LIKE SHOOTING NO BUDGET?
Making a feature film this way means you’ve got to take responsibility for everything. And this responsibility multiplies exponentially during the shooting phase. On our crew there was myself, Zander and our Mom (she was responsible for hair, make-up and continuity but often slated shots, wafted smoke and took BTS stills!) On some of the larger night shoots we’d have extra assistance from a friend or two – and when there are only three on the crew… two more people makes a BIG difference!
But as a no-budget director and filmmaker, every piece of gear, every technical tweak for every department is on you. If you don’t keep an eye on everything in front of and behind the camera it’ll be captured and locked into the image or audio – there’s no undo button in post-production that will fix it (of course there are reshoots and redubs, but the indie filmmaker can’t always rely on such luxuries).
Not only are you directing the actors and everything this entails, but you’re keeping track of script continuity and dialogue accuracy. You’re setting lighting positions and levels. You’re setting camera focus marks and searching for optimal mic placement. You’re keeping the smoke machine warm and making sure the background haze isn’t too thick or too thin – What direction is the wind blowing? Is the clapperboard marked up correctly? What’s that background noise? Are the actors still wearing the right costumes? Do they have all the correct props? Are the replacement camera/monitor/audio recorder batteries on charge? Are we on schedule? What happens if it rains? And does anyone know where that dog came from?!
There are a million and one things going through your mind and honestly, it feels like your brain is on fire. But that’s the job, and I wouldn’t want to do anything else (it’s at this moment you’re damn glad you have that storyboard in your back pocket!)
It felt like we were unstoppable. We were indie rebels and finally making a movie having been told we were too young and too inexperienced. And we were determined to shoot the pants off it!
We went out into the night and lit entire forest scenes with 3 battery powered LED panel lights and our gas powered smoke machine. We used iPads as light sources. Our matte box was made from cardboard. Our wind machine was a leaf blower. Our camera dolly was a wheelchair. Our BMPCC rig was handmade from copper piping and used ankle weights for handheld counterbalance. Our camera slider was often propped in the middle by paintpots. It was the most basic, ad hoc, guerilla filmmaking experience imaginable and it was seriously hard work.
But despite the cold and the tiredness and the endless tweaking, when we managed to roll on a setup and capture it exactly how we imagined, the feeling of pride and camaraderie and achievement was palpable.
Q: HOW LONG DID YOU SPEND IN POST?
Our post-production period was both of us working full time, 5 days a week for 28 months. Between us we completed the picture cut, picture grade, vfx and all ADR, foley and sound effects recording, editing and mixing. We worked alongside a film composer called Chris Davey for 3 months to score approximately 90 minutes of orchestral soundtrack and had our final mix mastered at a professional audio post house.
Q: WHAT WAS MOST CHALLENGING IN POST?
For me personally, the most challenging aspect of post production was the sound design process – which I undertook single-handedly while Zander was working on almost 200 VFX shots.
To design, record, edit and mix every single piece of dialogue, ADR, ambience, foley, spot effects and music for the entire 2 hour film, from scratch, took me 14 months working solidly, 5 days a week. To deliver that volume of work to the highest standard I possibly could, given my level of understanding and limitations, was an immense undertaking and one I’m not sure I could do again.
My respect for the work of sound design and editing teams has always been high, but my appreciation for their craft and the polish it adds to a film has deepened immeasurably.
Q: WHAT WAS MOST ENJOYABLE IN POST?
The most enjoyable period of post-production was scoring the film. We worked daily with composer Chris Davey over 3 months, progressing through the film cue by cue to assemble an amazing soundtrack. Although the process was very exacting and at times tiring, my memories of working with Chris are filled with laughter and joking and a shared love for film music and its beauty.
Any filmmakers out there in search of a talented composer, look no further than Chris Davey. I know one day I’ll be able to say “we knew him when…”
Q: WHAT DID YOU LEARN MAKING COSMOS?
Cosmos was a unique filmmaking experience born out of a need to prove ourselves as film directors. We did anything and everything to see the film made. It took years of dedication and focus, we used every trick and technique we’d ever learnt or needed to learn, and together with a core team of seven people we’ve delivered an ambitious little sci-fi film, produced to a standard we feel few filmmakers would dare to demand on such limited resources.
We’ve never worked as hard before in our lives. But we wanted to direct Cosmos from end to end, to have our fingerprints all over it and showcase our talent and abilities as directors and storytellers. Yes there are easier ways to make an indie film. Yes we could’ve kickstarted a budget and paid people to help us. But that wasn’t what we wanted to do.
We didn’t have to make Cosmos this way – we chose to do it this way – we chose to stop delaying or making excuses and instead get out there and make it happen.
But through that process, Cosmos has come to represent something so much more to us than an industry calling card. Through this film our small team has become a family, we’ve made friendships that will live on, we’ve shared the highs and lows of life and made collective memories that’ll last forever. And if you take just one thing from this article it’s this:
… making a film will change your life forever and you’ll be a richer person in all the ways that really matter.
Q: WHAT’S YOUR ADVICE TO YOUR FELLOW FILMMAKER?
My advice to you would be stop delaying and stop making excuses (I’m not saying you are… but if you are, stop)… grab the gear you have and push it and yourself to the limits – you’ll become a stronger, more creative filmmaker as a result. Stop waiting for that Red Epic or Arri Alexa…. or for when you can shoot in 4K instead of 2K… none of that will make your story more engaging and impactful.
Tools are an amazing enabler, but it’s the person using those tools that matter. The craft of filmmaking is about emotionally connecting with an audience… make people feel, touch their hearts, inspire their minds. That’s your job, and a sense and talent for that won’t come in a box of circuit boards with a lens on the front. Watch movies, learn movies, make movies. Simple.
I hope you’re inspired to get making. I was inspired to make Cosmos and if I can pay that forward to you then we all win. So if you have that film inside you waiting to be seen, grab your camera and get it done – good luck!