What’s Your Rate? (What’s Your Budget?)

A classic standoff worthy of any gunslinger this side of the Alamo.

One of the most hardest parts about working in film production is not what you’d expect. Sure there are challenges in regards to getting on set in the first place, gaining knowledge in different fields and just surviving your first long day as you question your sanity in regards to the freelance life, but there’s even more to consider.

I’m talking about rates.

In this business we set rates for ourselves to work on a production per day. This is usually on a 12 hour regimen, however there can be rates for specifically 10 or 14 hour spans as well. It depends on the production and the nature of the job position. Steadicam Ops, for instance, may charge a day rate for 10 hours or less due to the physical nature of the job.

Some jobs set the rates they are willing to pay for the various positions on their set. For example, a short film production may call you up, looking for a 1st AC, saying they are willing to pay $350 per day max. It is then up to you and your calendar whether you’re willing to take that rate for that day.

However the opposite could be true. An indie feature producer may call you, asking what your rate is.

So, why is the budget/rate stalemate so tricky?

You may have different rates depending on the scope of the job and the type of project. For example, I may not charge the same for a small short film shoot than I will for a corporate or feature film. It is also up to me if I’m willing to take a job, available or not, for any number or set of conditions.

Asking a production what their budget is proves a valuable way of gauging what the project really is. A Tier 1 feature is going to have a different budget reserve than does a small weekend shoot. A production not willing to share basic information can sometimes be a red flag. But having a basic understanding of budget will determine if you’re asking for your full rate, or a discounted rate. Either way is totally up to you. Ask for your full rate every single time if you’ll only work for that. It’s your skills on the table, after all.

Of course, setting your rate can be a hard decision. Are you new in the industry? Have many years of experience and special skills to bring to the table? That can change those numbers.

An important thing to remember about setting a rate is how many variables it contains. What are the expected rates for the job? How many days is the job? What are your expenses? How often will you get work?

There’s no one right rate. You can find out what union rates or commercial rates are and go from there, but a good rule of thumb is to ask. Normalize asking other people in your department what their rate is. Money is awkward to talk about but an important part of being a freelancer.

Oh! I didn’t even mention kit rentals and deferred pay.

A Kit rental is what you charge to bring your gear to a production. This is for specialized gear, like a camera, a Steadicam, a camera cart, a drone. You charge your rate PLUS the kit rental on that gear. To get an idea of what that rental should be, look at rental prices on something like Sharegrid or Adorama or local rental house. Kit rentals are important because that money goes towards paying that expensive gear off — and buying more.

If you see a job post somewhere indicating there’s deferred pay, I’ll give you two definitions: Deferred means “paid later” and also “you will never get paid.” If someone wants you to work a job for deferred pay, they are claiming they will pay you later. Films are expensive to make and likely the movie that doesn’t have a budget to pay it’s crew won’t be making a ton of money and then funneling any of it back to you. Financially, movie making is a risky business, especially in the independent world. Only do a deferred project gig if you want the experience and don’t mind if you never see a dime.

Cinematography on the Cheap

Recently I was invited to help teach cinematography on a budget for my local library’s film maker club. I figured, why not share the love here?

So, congrats — you’re embarking on your first or fortieth short film production. Unfortunately, you don’t have much money to put into it. How can you personally go cheap without sacrificing all your production value?

In this Medium post, Lance Adams figures short films cost approximately $500-1000 per minute. That’s a lotta moolah.

Keep in mind, if you’re producing your short film, you need to budget money for food and snacks for your crew, props, locations, equipment, crew, actors, gas money, etc. There’s a lot of costs associated with even the cheapest of short films.

You can also check out this article on the biggest issues when budgeting a short film.

For the sake of this blog post, we’re going to look strictly at the cinematography side. Maybe a friend has asked you to be the DP on their short film, or maybe you’re trying to do your own film on the cheap. Here are some choices that will have less of an impact on your bottom line.

Shooting a Budget Friendly Script

Aim for a short script (emphasis on short, 5-10 pages max) that has few actors, few locations, and even less in the way of special or visual effects. Less is more in this case, and limiting yourself with these parameters will make it more likely that you succeed in shooting this short film on a tiny budget.

The Camera

Panasonic Lumix GH5

Oh, so you want to shoot your short film on a RED Gemini 5K? That’s nice. That’ll also be around $1200/day. Without a lens.

I recommend shooting on smaller, more compact cameras for the no-budget short. DSLR’s are highly popular, but if you have access to a Blackmagic –that’s cool too. If you don’t have a DSLR, they’re a fairly cheap rental on a service like Sharegrid. For a good comparison, a Panasonic GH5 (DSLR) is about $80 to rent…per week ( via LensRentals.com). Big difference from that RED, huh?

There’s quite a few people out there doing some cool things with their iPhones too. For that type of shooting, download the app Filmic Pro (available for iOS or Andriod). It’s $15 and from what I hear, well worth the money. The app gives you full manual controls over your phone’s camera, enhancing your ability to shoot more cinematically.

Use What You Have

Lay out all the equipment you have right now. Camera, lenses, accessories, lighting. This is where you’ll start. Don’t have pro video gear? Start getting creative. Your household lamps can double as practical lighting in that bedroom scene. That tripod could turn into a dolly if you put it on wheels.

I’ve been asked a couple times how I achieved a particular “dolly” shot inside of a car. There was no room for a dolly or a slider for that matter, so I placed my Sony A7s camera on a roll of duct tape I had in the car and pushed it on the center console to get a nice dolly effect on the back seat of the car. Get creative!*

*Safely, of course.

Lighting Options

\I said LIGHTING not lightning. Don’t light your sets with a Faraday cage experiment, so help me God…

You better light those scenes so you can see what’s going on! Bad lighting will ruin good cinematography.

Earlier I mentioned “practicals,” which in this case would be lights that exist in the world of your film. That might be a lamp in a bedroom scene or the ceiling fixture in a kitchen. That’s a good start but you’re probably going to want to work a little more light in, or creatively block light for some “negative fill.”

Image from Premium Beat’s article: Lighting a Scene Solely with Practicals

As far as inexpensive, semi-professional lighting is concerned, I’d say invest in a couple of reasonably priced LED panels.

These LED light panels can be found on Amazon.

I bought two Neewer 480s and one 660 (pictured above) from Amazon, and I’ve used them on multiple film shoots. Lightweight, dimmable and ranging in color temp from 3200 to 5600K, these light panels are a life saver.

I also have a few of these itty bitty LED lights that might be meant for product photography, but have come in handy in a pinch when a large light can’t fit somewhere.

Manipulate your lights with gels (if not color-adjustable already) and use bounce and reflectors to direct the light where it needs to go. Use dark fabric such as duvetyne or something way cheaper to eliminate light where you don’t need it.

I could go more in depth on the practical ways to light or shoot on the cheap, but I think you get the idea. If there’s anything you’d like me to explore further in a future blog post — just let me know! I’m happy to help.

In the meantime, check out this YouTube playlist I made of tips/tricks for doing cinematography on the cheap: