Short story adaptation on a budget - and camera too?
May 13, 2007 11:47 PM   Subscribe

What stories (short or otherwise) are begging to be adapted into a low-budget film? And, what camera should be used to film it?

With a lazy summer ahead, I'd like to try my hand at making a movie. What short stories (or books?) are begging to be adapted? I won't be selling it (I don't imagine it will be any good) so I'm not really worried about film rights. Science fiction has always been a passion of mine, but it's difficult to find a science fiction story you can tell on a low budget, without many special effects. Primer is a good example of the kind of story I'm shooting for.

On a more technical note, are there any digital video cameras on the market today that get even close to looking "professional"? I'm not sure how to describe what I mean by professional, but think about the ineffable quality that studio films have and amateur films lack (besides acting). Something about the way they look seems more real. With a budget of under 1000 dollars, I probably can't get anywhere near that professional quality, but at least a good approximation would be nice. Researching DV has been a confusing muddle of CCDs, megapixels, and zoom lenses, so it'd be nice to hear from somebody knowledgeable on the subject.
posted by nervestaple to Media & Arts (33 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Oh, god, any Philip K. Dick short story collection is a perfect jumping-off point for this. I had a good one but I can't remember what it was called and I just took it back to the library. You can definitely put together a PKD story on a low budget if you pick it well.
posted by crinklebat at 12:07 AM on May 14, 2007

I am not a filmmaker, but my experience as a photographer tells me this:
The professional look is more about lighting and technique than the camera. Movies have been made with all kinds of cameras, from handheld digital video to the enormous high budget movie cameras. Learn about lighting, and how it impacts mood, and helps tell the story. Watch some old film noir classics. Watch Pi.

The first stories that come to mind are Ray Bradbury. There are plenty to choose from. The first one that comes to mind that may be easy to adapt is Boys! Raise Giant Mushrooms in Your Cellar! Or The Jar.

Here is a bibliography. Just titles, no plots.

Remember: a good story, well told can overcome technical limitations. Think of the old Twilight Zone. Most had no, or very simple effects. Yet they endure as classics.

Good luck!
posted by The Deej at 12:07 AM on May 14, 2007

The Barnhouse effect Might seem difficult to film given the wiki summary, but if you read it it is screaming for a screening. On the whole it is simple, with a nice narrative flow that will make it easy to film, or at least adapt without any action scenes or major sets.
posted by conch soup at 12:09 AM on May 14, 2007

Oh, and you can get away with horrendous video if you have good sound. Films shot on $10,000 cameras with bad sound= unwatchable. Get an external mic.
posted by conch soup at 12:10 AM on May 14, 2007

I also immediately thought of The Jar by Bradbury, which I believe is in the October Country collection.
posted by klangklangston at 12:17 AM on May 14, 2007

Right on about the sound. Sound only gets noticed if it's bad.

Also, on the subject of sound, sort of. Make sure you tell the story with images. The best movies are those that let the pictures do the talking. Of course good dialog is important. But don't do "exposition theater" where the story is all told through dialog. Think of Hitchcock. He had long passages with no words and many times no music. Just the camera watching the actions of people, their expressions giving clues to their motivations. Psycho is a great example.
posted by The Deej at 12:18 AM on May 14, 2007

klang... great minds! :)
posted by The Deej at 12:19 AM on May 14, 2007

The three most important things, in terms of how to get a nice watchable amateur film, is lights, sound and then the camera.

Getting a small light kit, even one as small as two lamps, will help a great deal. It will help you with composition and prevent that grainy image on the video (when a shot is too dark, the video has a pixelated look that is reminiscent of footage of somebody's birthday party).

Sound is another thing that is often overlooked when people are making a smaller budget film. While not strictly an image quality issue, good sound design helps the viewer immerse themselves in your project making it a cinematic experience and not like the aforementioned videotaped birthday party.

As for the actual camera, I use the AGX-DV100 which is 3CCD 24P mini-dv camera (it's a 'prosumer' camera that was used to shoot movies like Pieces of April and Velocity). It's a three thousand dollar camera although you might be able to get one used for cheaper or be able to rent it for far less.

This camera shoots 24P which means 24 progressive frames per second (one whole frame of information, followed by the next, just like on film). Most video cameras shoot 30 interlaced images per second (it divides the screen into horizontal bars and only shows half a time). That's why when you pause a VHS tape, it has that jerky look to it.

I've also worked with PD150 and the VX2000 and found them both to be quite good machines.

The main thing to look for is a mini-dv camera instead of a digital-8 (this is a tape format issue, the mini-dv holds more digital information). Also, it is very important to get a 3 CCD camera. The CCD, or color capture device, is what actually records what the camera sees into red, green and blue. If you get a single CCD the chip is divided into thirds wheres a 3 CCD camera actually has a chip for each color. This means that the camera will actually record three times the amount of color information, leading to richer and deeper colors.
posted by jaybeans at 12:34 AM on May 14, 2007

I think Light of other days by Bob Shaw is begging to be made into a film.
posted by dhruva at 12:39 AM on May 14, 2007

If you can stretch that budget a little, get the following:

- Panasonic HVX-200

- Redrock Micro M2

- a couple of nikon lenses

You can probably set something like that up for around $6k. Your film would look beautiful.
posted by mrunderhill at 12:44 AM on May 14, 2007

Of all the hiddeous, ham-handed and misguided attempts to "update" old plays into modern times, I'm surprised no one was ever seriously attempted to do the ONE play that sort of begs for it: Lysistrata.

But, since your tastes run to the fantastical, I'm gonna toss this idea out: Frederic Brown. He was a pulp writer in the 40's & 50's. He was the master of the ultra-ultra-short story with the ironic O'Henry twist. (I'm thinking particularly of "Nightmares and Geezenstacks" [1961], a small paperback with 47 stories).
posted by RavinDave at 1:23 AM on May 14, 2007

Short stories? Sci-fi? Easy to film (no special effects, or very few)? Good narrative with implied scariness?

You need a bit of Ray Bradbury.

Suggested source materials (compilations of his short stories): Golden Apples of the Sun, Quicker Than the Eye. These aren't sci-fi stories as such, and Bradbury describes himself as "futurist" (I believe). A lot is implied in the stories, which makes them perfect for a low-budget film adaptation.

Filming: always use a tripod unless you deliberately want an amateur effect; create a storyboard and stick to it; don't ever use the zoom function of the camera; record sound using a separate mic; make use of natural light and avoid the temptation to light artificially, unless you can't avoid it (consider the use of reflectors to fill in shadows); encourage your actors to improvise around their lines, particularly if they're new to acting.
posted by humblepigeon at 1:48 AM on May 14, 2007

Ok, it's almost scary how in-line we all are with the Ray Bradbury POV. But damn, it's dead on for film material.

My recommended collection- with dozens of stories perfect for your goals (including many mentioned here) is 'Twice 22,' which actually includes all of 'Golden Apples of the Sun,' and a second section called 'Silver Apples of the Moon.'

Since the narrative is so important, as people have pointed out, you'll need an actor who can pull off on-screen what Ray pulls off in his narration. Good luck!
posted by conch soup at 2:12 AM on May 14, 2007

With your budget you should look for used. I have an 8 year old Canon Optura and it is excellent. It is heavy (2 lbs!) so I can see it being a popular trade-in for a lighter camera. Try to get a story you can use natural light for the majority of scenes as well, but then you have to watch for wind on the mic! I assume you are using friends as actors - if so, get a camera with a reasonably long optical zoom (14x is more than enough) to increase their comfort level and allow them to feel more natural. It can be hard to act with another person when there is a camera in the way.

When looking at stories think about the number of people needed for individual scenes, settings and props. Genre is important too, comedy is really hard to pull off; there is a reason why there is so much low-budget horror out there. Do you have an weird landscapes around you can use? I have some badlands nearby, maybe you have a similar local oddity?

Instead of a short story you might want to do just a memorable part of a novel you have read. When I read Blindness by Saramago I thought it leant itself well to a film treament; maybe just the first few chapters?

This sounds like a fun project!
posted by saucysault at 2:23 AM on May 14, 2007

PKD nd Bradbury are probably the richest seams to mine, but I'll throw in a couple of others anyway.

The Star by Arthur C. Clarke would be pretty low budget to film and is quite thought provoking. Into Your Tent I'll Creep by Eric Frank Russell is also very good, but violates the precept of never working with animals.

For longer works 'Spares' or 'One of Us' by Michael Marshall Smith are crying out to be movies.

If you want to be more adventurous, I always thought that Rogue Trooper from the UK comic 2000AD would make a great movie. Some smoke, a blue guy, an old quarry and some rented breathing gear and Bob's your uncle. The back story about the first mission of the GIs (genetic infantry), is brilliant.
posted by Jakey at 2:33 AM on May 14, 2007

John Titor?
posted by humblepigeon at 3:13 AM on May 14, 2007

I'd recommend finding an unknown writer... there have to be a million unwanted scripts around.
posted by chuckdarwin at 4:11 AM on May 14, 2007

Hold on a sec.

WASN'T "PRIMER" WRITTEN BY THOSE FILMMAKERS? It sure looks like it to me.

If your goal is to someday become one of the greats, or to even be somewhat creative, then I suggest that you're taking a dead end path. Creativity is not about filming someone else's story. It's about making an embarassing newbie film using embarassing newbie skills, including scriptwriting skills.

Which filmmakers are your heros?

Ask yourself this: what would they think about your ignoring your own screenwriting skills? Or about your insistence on taking a story from somebody else?

Or perhaps you really have no desire to strive for greatness. Perhaps you want to become a mere technician, far below the level of even Woody Allen, becoming a person who never even considers writing their own material, becoming a person who never creates anything new.

Why am I being so nasty? Because I made the same mistake that I think you're about to make, but my mistake involved writing. For my very first short story in 7th grade, I wanted it to be good, so I used other's ideas rather than my own. My own weren't good enough, so I took somebody elses. It wasn't plagarism, since I wrote my own version. Nobody ever found out. And it was such a trivial thing. But my first short story was dishonest, was uncreative, and I've regretted it all my life.

Our first films might be terrible, but THEY ARE OURS. If you write your own embarassingly newbie story, then use your own embarassing newbie skills to film it, you'll have something that you'll prize all your life. And our first step sets the tone for everything, so it might even lead to a major career.
posted by billb at 5:08 AM on May 14, 2007

Now if you're looking for cool story ideas, that's different.

In all the SF that you've read, no doubt you've suddenly had ideas about how to do a story better, or even how to do an entirely new one. Everyone gets such ideas. The difference between a writer and everyone else is simple: when having an idea, a writer drops what they're doing and writes down the idea for later use.

Having a new idea is much like having a dream: they go away almost immediately if not written down.

So, if you want to write your own film, one technique is to start carrying around a tiny notebook and writing down all new ideas you have. (Don't be tempted to use a voice recorder etc., that's too much work to transcribe.)

And you'll need to write down ALL new ideas, not just the ones about filmmaking. New ideas have odd behavior: if taken seriously, more of them start appearing. Prize them all, then use the best.
posted by billb at 5:19 AM on May 14, 2007

I support the idea of using someone else's story. It will allow you to focus on the filmmaking, and as you said, this is just for your own amusement and learning. Many comedians start by doing their heroes' material, in order to focus on presentation and not worry if the jokes themselves are good. In your case, it sounds like you want to make a film. If you get bogged down into storywriting, you may never get to filming. Unless of course you have a natural gift for story writing.

Lots of good info here, though!
posted by The Deej at 6:18 AM on May 14, 2007

There are screenwriters on this site who no doubt have short scripts laying around that you'd be welcome to at no charge. Why make a movie you definitely can't do anything with when you've finished, when you could make one that would be festival-ready if you did a surprisingly good job on it?

But more directly to your question. The film project I work on teaches teenagers to make films that look pretty damned fantastic on the big screen. We use DV, which looks less rich and grainy than film when you watch it on a computer, but looks just like big-millimeter-real-film-stock films in a theatre.

The big big difference- aside from sound, which was ably covered above- was the Steadi-cam. You don't have to rent a rig, you can probably jig one up. But the slight tremors from a handheld you're trying to hold still (as opposed to the artfully jerky-jerky bounce of cinema verite shots) is what makes the difference between a movie that looks pro and a movie that looks home. Figure out a way to dolly or Steadi-Cam your camera!
posted by headspace at 6:40 AM on May 14, 2007

Steadicam JR is your friend. Ebay might have some deals. I would go so far as to suggest spending less on the camera if you have to.
posted by The Deej at 6:55 AM on May 14, 2007

No, steadycam jr. jr. is your friend. $14 and some labor.
posted by klangklangston at 8:23 AM on May 14, 2007 [3 favorites]

klangklangston, that's #@(*( genius! Thank you so much for the link; I'm passing that onto the kids!
posted by headspace at 8:25 AM on May 14, 2007

Read. Then write your own.

My two favorite sci-fi short story sluggers are Stanislaw Lem and Phillip K. Dick. Excellent and intensely cerebral, their stories make great film fodder.

Hollywood loves Dick, Dick and Lem tussle, and Lem loses credibility in Hollywood as a result (of this and other incidents). It's amazing that of all his works, only Solaris has been adapted to film in the US. Give him a taste.
posted by nilihm at 9:46 AM on May 14, 2007

You can try your hand at making a movie from a Stephen King short story. He'll let you do it for a dollar.

I'd love to see someone make a movie from "All That You Love Will Be Carried Away."
posted by Afroblanco at 11:05 AM on May 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh yeah - just noticed that you're into Sci Fi. "Everything's Eventual" may be a more fitting Stephen King short.
posted by Afroblanco at 11:08 AM on May 14, 2007

I can't help you with the story idea, but I work in media production and wanted to throw my two cents in.

First, ignore the pressure to get a great camera. If you want to try your hand at making a movie, the best thing to do is to pick a solid do-able story and then to think through how to present it. No video you shoot on a camera anywhere near your price range is going to get you in theaters without a few hundred thousand dollars in post production investment, but anyone who might hire or enroll you in a program is going to be much more concerned with your ability to tell a story than if you managed to scramble together something that your friends and family alone will assure you "looks professional."

Think through your story. Draw it out in advance, talk to your friends about it, do mock-ups, rent movies with similar plots by people you respect. Think it through really well. Know what you're going to shoot before you go out there. DV tape is cheap, so you can adlib and let your actors go crazy and try extra takes, but you want to make sure you have the bare minimum of a story that makes sense A to Z and that means thinking it through and writing it out.

As for equipment, If I was in your shoes with a thousand bucks, I'd buy a used tripod (less than a hundred), two external mics (probably a shotgun with an 8th inch output for the camera - another hundred bucks; and a wired lavalier for a hundred bucks), a cheap light kit (a few hundred bucks) and if you can't hustle borrowing a camera, a cheap panasonic three chip. Just make sure that the camera has a microphone input (the people who are telling you to take your audio seriously are so correct that you should buy them a beer). If you can get a hold of any of these for free, adjust your budget and invest it in one of the other components.
Other short bits:
Staple aluminum foil to cardboard to bounce light, borrow a wheelchair for a steadicam, use cheap color gels to white balance with, and, lastly, find out what you'll be editing with and after you've thought through your script, talk to someone who works with your editing program (I'm guessing final cut pro) about alternative strategies (there's a lot you can do with inversion, reverse speed, and simple effects, that if crafted well, will blow minds).
Good luck and thank us in the speech.
posted by history is a weapon at 11:43 AM on May 14, 2007

No, steadycam jr. jr. is your friend. $14 and some labor.
posted by klangklangston 3 ΒΌ hours ago

Cool! I mean SHOWOFF!!! Actually, it should be Steadicam JR Jr. Cuz they keep insisting the JR is not for "Junior." But then your link would be Jr. So... Bah! Whatever. I gotta try the $14 one.
posted by The Deej at 11:44 AM on May 14, 2007

I can't believe nobody mentioned this but Stephen King allows you to film his short stories for the total of one dollar.

Another vote for Lighting > Camera
posted by Brainy at 1:47 PM on May 14, 2007

There's lots of great advice here, but I would add one tip: before you jump into making a whole film, play around with your equipment and ideas. Maybe experiment with some scenes from the film, or make a couple of simple 60 second films, in order to get a feel for the whole process of filmmaking and how it all fits together. This kind of experience will give you a much better understanding of how to translate ideas into cinema, of the scale of the project and preparation requried to get what you want. Oh and I nth the previous comments: make sure you get good sound, using a decent mic. Also take a little time to record random environments, atmospheres and effects, you'll be amazed how much a bit of sound work improves the film. Good luck!
posted by MetaMonkey at 2:56 PM on May 14, 2007

This thread makes we wanna do several things:

Buy Bradbury books. Had em all years ago. Now, none.

Buy a new video camera

Build a JR Jr.

Make some movies.

Whenever I watch Home Movies, I figure if those 8 year olds can do it, so can I! If I was a cartoon.
posted by The Deej at 3:22 PM on May 14, 2007

Jonathan Lethem is also offering stories to be used for short films for $1. They aren't exactly SF, but there is some interesting material there.

I'm partial to "The Spray" myself, though you'd need to be creative to film it.
posted by ssg at 6:13 PM on May 14, 2007

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