How To Make a Film in the UK

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So, you want to make a film but your surname isn’t Spielberg? Not a problem – the UK has a thriving film industry, and many of the greatest filmmakers on the planet hail from Britain or come here to make their films. Whatever the size of the production or budget, it’s just a case of getting on with it, so why not start right here.

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Making a film: where do I start?

Most great films start with a great script. Think about your idea – what makes it original? What makes it your and no one else’s vision? Is it distinctly British in a way that will attract investment? Then take that script and rewrite and polish it until you can’t look at it anymore. No one films the first version of their script – it’ll have been rewritten many times, and its creator will have thought about the characters thoroughly. Have you done as much as you can with it? If not, have another pass.

Also, think about your budget – do you really need that 16th camel? Does your hero have to wear platinum shoes? Why does your film need to be set on Mars? Is that huge tower explosion and cast of 200 really necessary? You can always be creative to overcome a lack of budget but it’s also good to think about what is possible and affordable. Don’t give yourself budget headaches you don’t need. 

One obvious tip is to watch lots of films. Know what you like and what you don’t. No one likes a copycat, but taking advantage of free sources of inspiration is a no-brainer. If you’re going to be a cinematic rule-breaker, it helps to know what the rules are in the first place. Do some research – read interviews with directors, read old scripts. Knowing what you want from your film is vital.

Also, tap into the film community. The British Film Institute (BFI) is a good place to start but also check out Raindance, ScreenSkills and local film schools. Shooting People calls itself the UK’s “independent film network” and has a good reputation, but you do have to pay. There are talented, eager people out there, wanting to get involved and do the jobs you’re not keen on, like organising catering or recording sound. These are your people – your tribe – and the sooner you can all get together, the sooner your film can get made.

Does my film’s budget matter?

Of course budget matters but what perhaps matters more is creativity and a desire to make your film as good as it can be. It’s an ambition that is shared both by the people making the biggest-budget blockbuster and those with a knackered phone and a dream.

If you are making a mega-budget production, you’ve probably got teams of people keeping your investors happy so you probably don’t need our tips for the top. Big budget films often gravitate to the UK because of British craftsmanship. This country is known for its behind-the-scenes talent in VFX and many other creative production roles. Plus, there’s also the small incentive of some serious UK tax breaks that attract filmmakers big and small to Britain. What Hollywood moneymaker wouldn’t be up for getting a 25% cash rebate to make their film here?

On the other side of the spreadsheet are the filmmakers who may be cash-poor but ideas-rich; these filmmakers are the big-budget directors of tomorrow, proving that great work can still be made without great budgets. Kit costs, so take time to investigate what you actually need rather than what your heart desires. Yes, an Arri and massive jib would be nice, but do you really need it? Even with no money whatsoever, if you’ve got the ideas and the creativity, you can make a film with your phone.

Most modern smartphones are now more than capable of fulfilling your filmmaking dreams. They can shoot in HD or even 4k, and with a couple of implements can record very usable sound. Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh has now shot two films on an iPhone (Insane, High Flying Bird) and says he likes the portability, speed and flexibility a phone allows. Like other phone-loving directors, he uses the Filmic Pro App, which enables more control over the iPhone’s camera settings. He’s also a fan of an Osmo stabiliser for a professional look. So, if it’s good enough for Steve…

Soderbergh’s Netflix film High Flying Birds was shot on an iPhone

How can I raise finance for my film?

There are plenty of grants and funding methods out there – you just have to find them. A good first stop is to look at the BFI’s funding pages. The BFI Production Fund, for example, awards money from the National Lottery to filmmakers making features over a £250,000 budget. If that’s not you then there are other avenues, such as the BFI Network and their brilliant Funding Finder, which helps link up filmmakers with assorted regional moolah.

There’s also information there about the John Brabourne Awards, which provide £5,000 grants for people who are facing “barriers to taking their next steps.” It’s run by the Film and TV Charity and is open to talent using it in production projects. It’s also worth checking out Creative England, who aim to support and nurture new talent. And, of course, BAFTA is a great source of information and networking for up-and-coming filmmakers.      

If you’re pitching for professional funding and investment, you have to get your business head-on. Create a document outlining your film briefly but alluringly. Can you pitch it in a couple of sentences? If not, try harder. Investors will want to know more, eventually, but you need to win them over quickly at the beginning. They’ll also want to know about the budget, so make sure you’re on top of your numbers. How much will it cost? How much do you need from them? What are you expecting it to make? Be professional, give them the respect they deserve and don’t waste their time.       

Most investors would like to make money, or at the very least get their money back. Think about how you might achieve this as well as making the film you want to make. You might need to make some compromises in order to attract investment. How prepared are you to do that, and in what areas? You want your best friend to play the main role but the money men (and women) want a name that’ll attract audiences – what do you do? Take a long hard think about what you want from the project. If total control of your film is important to you then it might be time to rethink a life in the very collaborative world of film…

Crowdfunding is an option worth consideration but do consider whether you’re ready for the responsibilities that come with milking little bits of cash from lots of people. They will want updates, they will want access, they might even want a T-shirt with your film’s logo on it. You do have a logo, right?

What skills do I need to make a film?

Be honest with yourself and assess your own skills. Not everyone can be a creative genius, or the most organised person in the world, or good with money. It will help if you’re a little bit of everything but ultimately, being really good at just one thing is enough on a film set with plenty of people. If you’re the producer, take responsibility for your area – own it when it comes to money and planning, but if you’re the writer, it’s up to you to make the script not be rubbish. The smaller the film, the more jobs you’ll probably end up doing, but make sure you start with your area of expertise first. 

If you’re in charge, surround yourself with the best people you can – people you trust and who you can delegate to. Creativity thrives when there’s trust, respect, and understanding. You don’t have to know the right frequency of certain radio mics or the correct f-stop for a certain camera, but you do need to have people who you trust to know their area of expertise and who can get the job done. When it’s working well, a film crew is like a well-oiled machine, every person doing their individual bit to get the film made.

Where can I find actors for my film?

Find your actors right here at Backstage. Think about your characters – who are they? What do you need from the actors playing them? As well as perusing Backstage’s database of talent, also think about people you know – might you have an actor friend who fits the bill? One thing to consider, especially on a tight budget, is contacting drama schools. They are a great resource for trained, talented actors who’ll be eager to work with talented directors. You know your characters best and who you’ll need to bring them to life. Being your own casting director isn’t easy but it’s worth thinking laterally to get fresh talent.

Equally, you never know how charming you really are until you send an email to a big name via their agent to see if you can persuade them to take a chance on a debut director with unproven talent but a great idea. However, with great actors comes great responsibility – will a theatrical Dame or Knight be prepared to do the hours you need, and do you have the budget to take care of the extras they might request.

What crew will I need to shoot my film?

As ever, the size of your crew depends on your budget. At the bare minimum, most film crews consist of a director, a director of photography (DOP), a producer, and someone to do sound. If you’ve got that then you’re in OK shape but obviously, the more people you can add, the easier your shoot will be. Think about what you need – and what would be nice to have – and go from there.

If you’ve got filmy friends, ask around about who is good and also who is within your budget. When you’re hiring, be prepared to answer questions about your film, working conditions, and rate. Mandy is a good website to find experienced crew, as is Filming in England, but also look at the credits of films you’ve admired that might be the same scale as yours. Like a certain DOP’s work? Take a look at IMDb and do some research.

While you probably want to work with people with experience, it might also be worth thinking about those with talent but less hours in the industry. Making a film, especially with a small budget, is hard work and takes lots of long, long hours, so really think about who you want to spend it with. Might your friend be the next Roger Deakins? If she thinks so, and you believe her, then it might be worth taking a chance (and it’ll be a great Oscar speech anecdote). Consider thinking about film school volunteers for junior crew roles. Networking is really important in the film industry, so get to it.

Finally, it’s important to remember that the crew are humans, too. You might be able to work 18-hour days with no breaks but it’s not fair to ask other people to do the same. It’s also probably illegal. When you’re shooting, keep your set well fed and watered and be considerate. Knowing people’s names and occasionally asking if they are OK never goes amiss.

How do I prepare for a film shoot?

Preparation is key for a successful shoot. Everyone on the team needs to know what’s going on that day and what is expected of them. Many filmmakers start with a document/storyboard/script/ that everyone can refer to, which is often called the Production Bible and is just a way to keep everyone on the same page.

Although filmmaking is a creative endeavour, it’s also really important to be organised – just because you know what you want from the shoot doesn’t mean your crew or cast do. Communication is key and a production bible is a brilliant first step to letting everyone know where the film is headed creatively and logistically.

It’s crucial to talk to your different section heads before you shoot to make sure you can iron out any problems before you start. On your first film it might well be your Auntie Joan as Wardrobe “section head” and your mate Eric in charge of sound, but if you treat everyone professionally – and approach the shoot from a professional starting point – you’ll end up with a better film. 

Try to storyboard all your scenes if you can – it helps everyone visualise what you’re after. When you’re shooting, it’s likely the storyboard may change as the creative juices flow, but it’s still good to have a road map. You can block out the space with your camera, work out what kit you’ll need, and how you’ll direct the actors on the day. It’s also good to try to break down each scene shot-by-shot so you can plan how long things will take. Creating a shooting schedule is also a good idea so you can see how much time you’ve planned for each scene and also, to alert you when that plan goes waaaaay over. Be generous with your scheduling as things like moving equipment, lunch, and actor hoo-hahs always take more time than you imagine. Time will fly by on set, so the more you plan beforehand, the better.

If you’re shooting on location, a recce is crucial. Go and take time to walk around, plan, and look at the space you’ll be using. Is there enough room for the camera and kit? Are there any sound considerations? Can you guarantee no interruptions during a take? Do you have permission to film? Do you need any permits? What’s the parking like? Where will you eat? What’s the weather forecast for the shoot days? Do you know the sunrise and sunset times? Do you need to take into consideration members of the public? All these things need thinking about, and doing that thinking is your job alongside the task of creating a filmic masterpiece.       

Finally, on the actual day, allow yourself to be OK when plans go awry – because they will. Flexibility and adaptability are crucial skills for a successful filmmaker. If you’ve prepared well, you’ll be ready for whatever happens. Try to keep to time, and keep everyone focused. Your attitude will probably trickle down to the rest of the set, so stay calm and cheerful. Oh, and make sure you have a really big breakfast on a shoot day because you’ll probably be the last person to eat…   

What do I need to know about post-production?

Post-production is important. It’s the editing, colour-correcting, and the sound mixing after the shoot that truly gives your film a professional air. If you’re not editing the film yourself then shelling out for a good craft editor is worth the money. They’ll make your footage sing and potentially help you with any narrative or technical issues.

A great partnership between a director and editor makes all the difference, and once you trust their judgement, it can save a lot of time and money. Be open to their thoughts and learn to let go of any rigid ideas about what your film might be. Some of the best ideas come from the edit and from the editor. New eyes on something you’ve lived with and worked on for so long is no bad thing, but also remember that ultimately, it’s your film so don’t be bullied. Make sure your work is based on trust and respect – your relationship with your editor is one of the most important professional relationships you’ll have.  

If you can afford it, invest in a colourist – they can make a big difference to a grade. But if there’s one thing that shouts low budget, it’s bad sound. Obviously, try to get it right on location, but afterwards, a great sound mixer can really help smooth things out. When you’re budgeting, do not skimp on sound and editing or you’ll live to regret it.

I’ve made my film. What next?

So, you’ve made your masterpiece but what you need now is an audience and for that, you need some kind of distribution. Presuming you don’t get major studio distribution right away, there are other options. Think about entering a film festival – there are loads, and they can be very niche, so find one that’ll suit your movie. And consider putting on a friends-and-family screening in a local cinema. Even the fancy ones have quieter times and empty screening rooms they’d like filing, so give it a shot. Also, putting your short film up on YouTube or Vimeo is not a bad idea. All publicity is good publicity, after all.           

Finally, although some debut films do go stellar, it’s good to remember that most first-time filmmakers don’t set the world alight, especially financially. Instead, you’re laying the groundwork for a career in film, and many top-name directors started this way – with a great idea, loads of creativity, and a burning will to make things happen. Take the leap and go for it! 

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