"Sunmoon" a zero budget short film of 10,000 Euros production value. "How-to" notes from the making.
Updated: Sep 15
"Sunmoon" a zero budget short experimental film of 10,000 Euros production value. "How-to" notes from the making.
We are in the nano zone here. Small. Extremely small. So small that we need a cutting-edge microscope to see ourselves. Luckily for many of us, the independent filmmakers, small doesn't mean also powerless, especially if one has enough skills, cross-industry experience and ideas to substitute an army of workers in times of need like this pandemic era is nowadays.
My 8-minute film "Sunmoon" is a mix of animation, poetry, music, and live-action non-scripted narrative that began as an experiment to occupy my time in quarantine as a way to learning new skills, an exploration that eventually led to a beautiful story about trusting your star and love, a force of nature that always remembers you regardless your state of being.
It's spiritual, psychedelic and consciousness related at the border with fantasy genre, having a beautiful music that drives the story.
I had no money available to make this film. However, I am fortunate enough to receive a small merit scholarship of 170 Euros from the state film university UNATC where I am doing my Film Production MFA, money that helped me buy some missing pieces of software (like Photo Mirage and Any Video Converter Ultimate) and to upgrade my semi-professional video editor, Sony Vegas Movie Studio 16.0 Platinum.
The animation software, Moviestorm, is something that I bought a few years ago, I think it was 2017, not to learn animation, but to gain access to an intermediate phase of my films by making animated storyboards or get a preview version of the films I was working on at the time with the purpose of pushing them forward until I can access some financing options to produce them.
Even though it is radically more accessible software for a non-programer or non-animator than 3DMax and other animation programs, you need to spend a lot of time learning how to make things and build characters. So, I left my film aside and began the painful process of learning to work with this software, an excuse to make Piper Animation Show exist, a way for my bionic animated character to humanize herself through art, to become and a way for me to exercise my creativity.
From the point of view of Economics, a budget means an amount of money that you have or that somebody gives you to make something, in this case, a film. The costs with doing/the value of work is not a budget, it is the cost of production (development + production + post-production).
My budget was the merit scholarship that I should normally have used like normal people on rent and food, which I did not, leaving myself at the mercy of the universe, something I do very often, making some of my friends accuse me of not having a surviving instinct. In my view, it's the other way around, but it doesn't matter.
What I had were skills, a vision and the mindset of learning whatever is necessary to push my film idea forward in a context where there was nothing to hold on to.
I am not money-dependent to do what I want, to advance on my pathway. I learned that the hard way during the last crisis in 2008 when things got very nasty for me.
In the area of "hardware" what I already had was:
once a decent laptop, now broken by mistake (a Lenovo Yoga 720, intel CORE i7) that cost me a fortune at the time, it was 2017 if I remember correctly. I hardly can see what I am doing and what colors I choose. And because it is just a laptop and not a workstation computer, it crashed continuously under the pressure of the animation software that took all its breath at each movement of the mouse.
my sound recorder I still don't know how to properly use (Zoom H6). Thanks God it's smarter than me.
once a reasonable smartphone, now half working (a once a reasonable smartphone, now half working (a Samsung Galaxy S7)
Directing the actress Marcela Motoc (Sunmoon): from distance through Zoom video conferencing app
The directing of the Romanian actress Marcela Motoc (Sunmoon) happened from distance through Zoom video-conferencing application where "we" changed stuff around her house to make it work, tried various clothes, angles, and shooting directions.
She used her own smartphone to record herself while I was watching her through Zoom from her computer.
The funny thing is that she has 3 cats and a dog which kept popping on "set" and a lot of background noise from both mine and her surroundings, this is one of the reasons I chose to double the natural sound with lava and breeze sound, besides the artistic ones. Yes, improvising is the life of independent filmmakers.
The total amount of time needed to put it all together and make it work: 1 month (in 2,5 shifts) :)
I said it is a non-scripted film. It is in the sense that there was no prior script to follow. I made one, but my tools and toys didn't allow me to follow that story. So, I had to adjust the story by using whatever I could access and knew how to use or could learn and insert a possible story in between.
The first challenge was to send the same message by using different means.
The second and greatest challenge was to turn an experimental film that was starting with a dying character into something nice to watch and feel, into something positive marked by a drop of sense and commercial potential.
Experimenting with abstract and nonsense outcomes is common. I did not want to make a film that only I could understand and liked just because it is my baby.
What it is worth mentioning is the research, an episode normally associated with the development phase of a film. In the case of "Sunmoon" development and production overlapped.
The research needed in my case was mostly related to technology and finding ways to integrate the tools I had available to tell the story that wanted to be told.
So, a lot of "how-to" videos and readings happened, especially because I am not a specialist in neither sound, video, technology, and animation making. I am just a producer with a strategic mindset, some marketing skills, and a visual brain.
This is it. From a production perspective, "Sunmoon" was pure torture and agony for a generalist like myself :))
In post-production the main operations I did were:
polish the film and get a final version (the best I could get in the context), there were 5 versions and I stopped at the 6th;
translate the English dialogue in Romanian;
make Romanian and English subtitles (I made them on Youtube and exported the .SRT files, then uploaded them into Any Video Converter);
burn the subtitles on video;
discuss with the guy for the DCP package in case some festival selects it (a consistent cost you need to pay attention to, in this case the price quotation I received was 500 Euros);
make the trailer (the biggest challenge)
Another thing that worth mentioning is the generosity of IT people from all corners of this world, and here I mean the open-source toys, media tools and sounds they made accessible for free on the web (like the guys From Text To Speech from where I took Piper's voice ('Emma' with a British accent, medium-pace); the guys from FlixPress, voice changers, and some other stuff).
A vital note to make the artificial voice work: it's incredibly important how and what you write, what signs you place, and where, for the voice to have the tone you want or close to what you want. In short, to humanize it.
You humanize an artificial voice through your writing talent. Of course, it matters where you are taking it from, as not all synthetic voices work with what your project. In my case, "Emma" is Piper's voice from her show on youtube, so there was no reason for me to change it, but the process of choosing it and learning how to make it work was a long one and I still feel like an absolute beginner.
The music was offered for free by my American composer and lyricist friend Scott Moodie who trusts my fair-play and who helps me a lot with great music in Piper's becoming. However, being a film where music is a character on its own, this is a serious cost to take into account. It may sound peculiar, but we never met in person. My hopes are for "Sunmoon" to help us meet.
The actress Marcela Motoc also offered to play for free, holding the same trust in my fair-play and like also Scott, she is operating with a long-term vision. Her love for theatre and film made this version of "Sunmoon" possible. Another cost to take into account.
Reputation is everything if you ask me and from this perspective, "Sunmoon" is a film built on strategic alliances, love for art, fair-play, and skills. We decided to split potential revenues, as we acted as "investors" in this small but delicate production.
WORK & PRODUCTION VALUE
Now, if I make the film's budget as if this film does not exist and someone orders it, but we know precisely all its elements, its real value is not "free" or zero.
Putting all elements together from development to post-production, the realistic cost of production is 10,000 Euros at least. Add to that 1,000 Euros more for promotion in film festivals, but this is another cost from another chapter, the distribution/marketing chapter.
Another thing that might be of interest regarding the genesis of "Sunmoon" is the live-action short-medium lenght film "I Love You" that was supposed to be my debut film with Marcela playing the main character. A film that's part of an anthology series of 7 shorts of 15-40 minutes linked by the theme and the lead female character (not quite what festivals love in terms of duration, but necessary for the realities I want to show). I was in the mids of rewriting some parts and of its production preparations when the pandemic came, so when everything stopped I thought I lost it.
I used some of its core elements in "Sunmoon" (like the 2-rainbows butterfly sketch) and from this perspective, it is an animated partial preview of "I Love You", a film that happens on 3 dimensions: real, surreal, and fantasy, for the surreal part having in mind a circus-show following Cirque du Soleil type of storytelling, as this part depicts the trauma mechanism and, for the heaviness of my particular story, I feel it works the best.
From now on, there are at least the same amount of costs to be spent on promotion, some of the most important things to take into account being:
website (buying domain, host and a lot of plugins, add-on, and stuff, building, designing, strategizing the content and writing the content), especially if you sell it directly from your site;
EKP (the film's electronic kit press) writing and designing;
social media and online marketing strategy;
film festival strategy (a pain in the ass in a full pandemic as most of them are postponed, canceled or reconfigured, no advice from yesterday is valid today, so you do this "surgery" blindsided);
film festivals preparation materials and submissions (texts for the submitting platforms, media stuff, cover photos, posters, trailer, director and producer notes, biographies, and filmographies, etc);
USB sticks (2 copies with the DCP version of the film for each festival if you are a control freak like myself);
couriers costs and accessories (envelopes etc) with shipping the film to the festivals that select your film;
prints in case festivals select the film: brochures, posters of various dimensions and a lot of stuff for the "goodie bag", a bag you need to consider to replicate it in a bigger number;
flights, accommodation, and pocket money for the festivals that do not cover these costs, but even if some do, you need to have some cash considered here.
About the "Sunmoon" 's promotion and festival strategy and the outcomes, at the moment of this writing there are two festivals that selected it, Goa Short Film Festival from India and Reykjavik Visions Film Festival, Iceland.