Screen Writing for No-Budget

[Studio Logo]


Galtham Films, an amateur film studio, was established in 1989. In the intervening years, they've released three films, with a combined budget of under $500. This article will examine their production process and show some of the advantages and disadvantages of their approach.

Galtham Films was started by accident. Its two founders, Lloyd Eldred and Patrick Foley, presented a skit in a science fiction convention's costume contest. That skit claimed to represent a scene from an upcoming motion picture. Unfortunately, it was so well received that people actually wanted to see the movie. So, they were forced to make it!

[Whoman Poster]


That skit started with a simple fact: the success of the first Batman movie had renewed interest in an American Dr. Who project. But then it took that premise to the logical extreme and assumed that the Americans would get it so badly wrong that you'd end up with heroes in spandex and tweed using their "Who-arangs" to fight crime.

The movie script started out as a dozen pages of jokes and sight gags combining Dr. Who lore with the sensibilities of the 60's Batman TV show. Extensive thought was given to analyzing the dramatic structure of a typical Batman episode. The other 45 seconds of that minute was spent writing the script.

The resulting half hour introductory "episode" was so well received that a sequel film The Fiendish Plot of Whoman II was made. This film spanned two episodes and attempted to actually tell a story. A complex, interlocking time travel story was written and filmed.

[SR Poster]

Space Rogues T.S.E.

Too late, Lloyd and Patrick realized that filmmaking was addictive. And having taken the Whoman joke well past its limit, they had to come up with something new. They decided to try their hands at original science fiction, or more specificly, space opera. And this time, they'd do it right!

The working title of the project was "The Space Epic", which survived as the initials in the final title. An elaborate story arc covering 113 half-hour episodes was envisioned. While this may appear to be a vast overcommitment for a no-budget studio, in fact it was a canny way of dealing with the realities of their situation. By skipping around in the overall story, characters and ships could come and go depending on the availablity of the volunteer actors and borrowed sets.

After a lot of planning, a writers' bible was produced for the series, setting out the background, characters, and an outline of the series arc. Then, the scripts for the first three, introductory, episodes were written.

And time passed. A wide variety of complications caused a year to pass between completion of the first draft of the scripts and the start of filming. Shooting took another year, followed by nearly a year of post-production. The entire process took just under four years.

Technical Details

To make its films, Galtham used high-end consumer video gear. All three films were shot on Hi-8 video and edited on S-VHS. Considerable effort was made to minimize the number of generations passed through during editing.

Whoman was shot entirely on borrowed sets. A college campus served as a medieval English castle and its dungeons. Various offices, stores, and public parks served as sets, with a machine shop and lab serving as our hero's secret lair, the "Whocave."

Space Rogues required a little more effort. Sets representing starship bridges, and cockpits for a variety of craft had to be constructed. The producers' basement was transformed into a high tech space craft with the application of $200 spent at Lowes and Office Depot and a couple of months of elbow grease.


Other issues were new with Space Rogues. Uniforms and other costumes had to be designed so that they both conveyed the required story details and were inexpensive enough for actors to make. Black turtleneck shirts and plain black pants were used as a base. Simple, standard trim was used to indicate rank. A few custom laser printed pins, some simple embroidered patches, and some dollar store jewelry completed the look.


Also, extensive CGI special effects, including a number of moving composites were specified in the script. These were all accomplished on a decked out Video Toaster 4000 system, with Lightwave 3D and a Personal Animation Recorder board (and a host of other programs and gadgets.)

[CGI shot]

The Joys of No-Budget

In many ways, no-budget filmmaking is identical to any other kind of filmmaking. The same elements are combined in about the same way to produce a final product. But, there obviously are some major differences as well.

The most substantial difference is that a no-budget cast and crew are volunteers. This is both a blessing and a curse. Dedicated, inspired, "true believers" can make filmmaking a joy. But, unpaid people can also be unreliable and hard to motivate. A few members of the cast and crew had to be replaced in mid-filming, with some make up shots done to cover the replacement.

Galtham's experience has been that success is the best motivator. Immediately after the release of each film, there was a surge of interest in the next project. Lesser surges were produced by making trailers, t-shirts, and by showing off the work-in-progress.

Marketing a no-budget film is also vastly different. In the case of Galtham, profit is not a goal, but wide distribution is. Thus, the company distributes their films at cost (free for sending in a blank tape and return postage) and promotes them on the web and at science fiction conventions. They also make extensive use of public access cable channels.

Doing it yourself

Interested in no-budget filmmaking? Well, here are a couple of brief tips to get you started.

Subject matter. "Short" and "interesting" are two important words to live by. "Interesting" is crutial, otherwise why bother? "Short" can help with "interesting" by not boring people. Also, it will allow you to complete a project, analyze the results, and learn from them. Too may people choose two hour (or longer!) epics for their first try only to discover that they have boxes of footage that are out of focus or have too much motion, or whatever. Galtham found that its quality improved substantially in all areas from film to film.

Use your friends. Lots of people have skills and equipment that would be useful to you as a filmmaker. Since you can't afford to buy these items, borrow them from your friends. Look for people with acting experience, people who write and perform music, people who have carpentry skills for building sets, and people with useful gadgets that they'll let you use.

Have fun. Remember that you're doing this for the enjoyment of doing it. You certainly aren't going to make any money at it, and in fact it's likely to be a large money sink. So enjoy it.

No-budget film making can be a rewarding hobby and can produce professional quality results. Its an excellent way to learn the crafts involved: script writing, directing, etc.

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Copyright (c) 1997 Lloyd B. Eldred , all rights reserved.