Young filmmakers prove that a big budget isn′t the key to success | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 19.05.2010
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Young filmmakers prove that a big budget isn't the key to success

The era when a star-studded cast and a big budget automatically guarantee box office success seems to be fading. Instead, low-budget movies are making a comeback. Shooting a film without cash, though, is hard work.

Hollywood sign

Not every young filmmaker wants to make it to Hollywood

The stunning success of the low-budget horror movie "Paranormal Activity" is every budding filmmaker's dream. Shot on a budget of around 12,000 euros ($15,000), the movie cleaned up at the box office last year, raking in millions across the United States and Europe.

Not every low-budget filmmaker can count on such a breakthrough, although that doesn't stop them from spending their time - and hard-earned cash - creating movies on a shoestring.

"Others like writing books, whereas I like I to tell a story with an image and a voice and that is the fascinating thing for me," explained filmmaker Maximilllian Semsch who recently shot a feature-length documentary about his bicycle trip from Munich to Singapore in order to inspire others to "live their dreams."

Scene from Oren Peli's film Paranormal Activity

"Paranormal Activity," a 2007 horror film by Oren Peli, was low-budget but made it big

Shooting his documentary without help and with virtually no budget was incredibly difficult.

"You can't afford a cameraman to do the filming, so you have to do everything yourself," 26-year-old Semsch said just before the inaugural screening of his film, entitled "What a Trip."

"You're riding along, then you have to stop, go to your trailer, get the camera out, put it in position, press the red button, go back to the bicycle, cycle through the picture, stop, look at the shot, decide if it is OK or not, do it again or not," explained Semsch.

However, working without a budget allows certain freedoms that more established directors don't have, he said. "You can decide what you film, when you film, and what you say in front of the camera, so you are your own boss and director."

Free to experiment

This creative freedom is what gives many low-budget films their appeal.

The use of interesting camera angles, innovative narrative structures and unexpected subject matter are just some of the ways that films made without outside funding distinguish themselves from the mainstream.

"They deal with themes like being old, or sickness or death; you won't find a boy-meets-girls Hollywood story among them," said Oliver Langewitz, who has been running a successful low-budget film festival in Karlsruhe for the past 10 years.

Low-budget movies are so diverse that it is difficult to generalize, warned Langewitz, but the use of hand-held cameras, for example, can lend movies a gritty, hard-edged realism, while in other low-budget productions, experimentation with camera techniques creates an impressionistic style of filmmaking.

Financial limitations

Berlin-based filmmaker Oliver Stiller has been making movies for more than half his life. He started off filming family birthdays as a child and immediately became addicted to the art form - so much so that he couldn't imagine doing anything else.

His most recent venture, the 30-minute movie "Vagabund" (the German word for vagabond) about a friendship between a Serbian tourist visiting Berlin and a homeless man, cost Stiller 6,000 euros. This isn't much money in the film world, but it's a considerable sum when it represents all of your savings.

A worker prepares a cinema reel

Despite financial restrictions, independent filmmakers give their imaginations free reign

"I wanted to make the movie so I spent all my money [on it]," Stiller said before the first German screening of his film.

Stiller, who is currently hunting for financial backing for a 90-minute film he has written, is frustrated by the limitations of working on a low-budget.

"It is not a problem to make a movie with less money; the problem is if you want to make a really good movie," he said.

During the shooting of "Vagabund," Stiller explained, there was a scene where nothing went right because the cast and crew were exhausted; they had worked though the night the day before, getting to bed at 5:00 a.m.

"When you have a budget, you can say, 'OK, take a break, we'll do it tomorrow,' and with a low budget film this isn't possible, so you have to use the material you have," Stiller said.

Charm in simplicity

Maximilliam Semsch believes, however, that the craft of filmmaking is sometimes forgotten when directors have a large budget.

"If you have a lot of money, you can spend it on technical toys, but I think the more simple the film is, the more you can concentrate on how the camera is working," he said.

"That is the charm of independent movies."

Author: Kate Hairsine

Editor: Kate Bowen

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