DIY : How I made a Sci-Fi Thriller short film in under $75
Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith first. The trust part comes later.
This is one of those quotes, that every budding filmmaker should always keep in mind. In most of our cases, the fear of the unknown is something which stops us from taking our first steps. But you can fight the fear with the power of vision. As Charles Dickens stated, “The most important thing in life is to stop saying ‘I wish’ and start saying ‘I will’.”
With that inspiration, I took my baby steps towards the world of fictional storytelling. So Ladies and Gentlemen, presenting to you the first look of The Countdown —
With this film, I wanted to prove to myself, that one can tell a good story, irrespective of the budget of the production and the size of the crew; all one needs is a vision and the perseverance to pull it off.
If you haven’t already watched my film, I suggest you take a pause from reading the article and watch it below, because I’m going to spoil it like crazy in the paragraphs that follow.
With the assumption that you have watched the film now, I’m going to dissect it in order to explain how we made such a vision possible, in a tiny budget.
Climate change is a hoax. Or is it?
The idea for this film came up when a friend sent me a newspaper article which read, “In about 15 years time, wearing oxygen masks would be a common phenomenon globally.” The statement was scary as hell and the next thing that occurred to me was to disseminate this message in an innovative format. With this objective in mind, I started my research.
Can you guess where the lake in the picture below is located?
Well, this is not a lake. This is the North Pole Environmental Observatory. Since 2013, the North Pole ice has been melting away every summer. In fact, to my utter surprise, the observatory is no more at the North Pole. Due to this melting, it has drifted away from 90°N Latitude and is somewhere close to 83°N Latitude.
In my research, I found hundreds of other shocking images, that were immensely difficult to stomach. The below images show us the deformation of the Pedersen Glacier in Alaska into a green grassland in less than just 80 years.
Scientists estimate that by the year 2100, due to the increasing global temperatures, the rising seas will swallow 77% of all Maldives islands. And there are 12 to 15 other island nations which share the same fate as Maldives. This will result in the biggest refugee crisis the world has ever seen.
And it seems there are a lot of policy makers around the world, apart from Donald Trump, who think climate change is a hoax. So, I wanted to create awareness as much as I could through the medium of film.
I did a basic research of the facts the same day, and wrote the 3rd Act of the film in which the Activist character wears a mask while going outdoors. I then wanted to increase the gravity of the situation by making the plot even grimmer, to give the audience a glimpse of what could potentially be our future. That’s how the first two Acts of the film were conceptualized.
Back to the drawing board…
Once the idea was established, I spent a day on finishing the screenplay of the film and another day on storyboarding all the shots in the movie. The screenplay was written in Celtx Script Editor, while the storyboarding was done completely by hand.
Forget the industry, work with your friends. Your friends will walk over coals for you, sprint a marathon for you in ways that the industry won’t.
Those were the words of Rafael Casal, the writer and producer of Blindspotting. In my case, I have been very lucky to have a crew, who literally walked on coals for me.
Before The Countdown, I was mostly working alone in producing all my documentaries and travel films. But to pull off this narrative short, I needed a crew who shared a similar vision and could support me in all aspects of filmmaking.
My cousins, Chaitanya and Chanakya came to my rescue in this pursuit. Chanakya acted as the Astronaut in the film, while Chaitanya mainly took on the role of an Assistant Director. Now that the screenplay and the storyboards were ready, it was time for us to think about Costumes, Sets and Locations.
Taking matters into our own hands.
As it turns out, there are not many mainstream space exploration movies made in India. Hence, there are no good spacesuit costumes available on rental basis. The ones available were very costly, some costing upto INR 10,000 per day, despite their lackluster quality. So we decided to make the costume all by ourselves.
By researching on various spacesuits ranging from Apollo missions in the 60’s to the current Russian, Chinese and Indian spacesuits, I came up with a rough sketch of what the suit should look like.
Then we visited several industrial stores in Hyderabad and bought all the necessary items for making the spacesuit costume. That was the very first time I tried my hand at stitching and I stitched for 5 straight days, until the costume was ready. My team was of a big help here, in completing the costume within a week. Following are some of the photographs taken during this phase:
One of the most significant elements in a space costume is the helmet. 80% of the look of a space suit comes from the helmet and if we didn’t get it right, the actor wearing those orange clothes could end up looking like a janitor. So, I had to nail it at any cost. I started with an old bike helmet that was lying down at my home and spray painted it white. Then I bought a big sized glass visor and extended it to cover up the entire front side of the helmet, including the chin guard. It was then time to make it golden and reflective.
As spray painting the visor would blind the astronaut on location, I got a golden film to stick on top of the visor. But then, I hit a roadblock. The glass visor was spherical in shape and it was extremely difficult to paste a plain sheet of film on it without getting any wrinkles. I had to literally go around Hyderabad to find that one shop which could do the job. Luckily after consulting almost 20 bike sticker outlets, I found a guy who did the job by cutting the film into multiple horizontal strips and heat forming them to stick them in place. And Voila! The helmet was in perfect shape, as envisioned!!
A week after we completed our spacesuit design, the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) unveiled its own spacesuit design for 2022 Astronaut Flights. The left hand side image below shows you our own design, made for The Countdown, while the right one is the one ISRO revealed. We were extremely delighted that ISRO took inspiration from us to design their spacesuit. Just kidding!! 😛
Properties and Set Design
We made most of the props like the oxygen tanks and the test tube containers by recycling cardboard boxes and waste material at my home. I painted the test tube container with acrylic colors to give it a rusted metallic look and weathered the inside of the box to make it appear old.
My bed room became a set for the 3rd Act of the film. We created News articles which dated from 2025 to 2032 in Photoshop and took printouts of them to stick them up on the wall. I then got a typewriter on rental basis for a day to shoot all the typing scenes in the 3rd Act of the film. The Oxygen mask you see in the film was a used one and hence we got it for free from the same industrial store where we bought the cloth materials for the space suit.
Time to find our new world
The best choice for capturing a dry planet in India was to film at either the deserts of Rajasthan or the Rann of Kuchh in Gujarat and to extend the sets in post production. But the farther we go, the more would be the budget. One alternative place we finalised upon was Gandikota, a river canyon in the state of Andhra Pradesh. But it being the monsoon season, the entire landscape became lush green, which wouldn’t have allowed us to project it as a dry hot lifeless planet.
So with no other clear choice in hand, I started contacting companies working in construction and mining areas with no luck. It was then that one of my IIT friends, Yaswanth, stepped in to help us out. He helped us get the contacts of the Managers of several open cast mines in South India. Most of them being government agencies, we had to constantly follow up with them via emails and phone calls, again with no replies.
It took us 40 days to get the first positive reply from the chief of one of the mines. We were called upon to their office, to pitch the script. We felt like the team of ARGO stuck in an Iranian airport having to pitch our storyboards and costumes to them. And Argo, f**k yourself!! We got the permission to shoot in an open-cast coal mine in Telangana, India for two days.
Practice makes Mankind perfect!
We knew that we wouldn’t get enough time to improvise on the acting of the Astronaut while filming on the location. Hence we wanted to make sure that he was completely prepared beforehand. For this reason, I gave him references for the body language of astronauts from various movies and made him rigorously practice the right kind of run and breathing. We did all of this on my home terrace during weekends while we were waiting for the location permits. We even did a lot of mock shoots, choreographing the camera movements to the actions done by the astronaut character in both the Acts. This has helped us immensely in the location as we were completely prepared for the act.
Arriving on the Miller’s planet
We packed our bags, along with the costumes, props and camera equipment and took a bus to the location, not knowing what to expect from the place. As the officials at the coal mine had never seen anything like this before, they were extremely inquisitive, kind and accommodating with our team, which immensely boosted our morale.
We faced two main challenges on the location. Firstly, we didn’t do a location recce before we visited the place for the final shoot. All we had were the storyboard images of various shots we wanted, but we didn’t have a clue if we would be able to find the locations matching those shots. In the limited time we had there, we had to complete all the shots in whatever locations we found; so we had to be extremely thorough and agile.
As and when we would find a location match for a particular scene, we would stop there, setup our camera and film all the shots needed for the scene. Later, if we found a better location for the same scene, we would re-do all those shots in the new location. In the two days we spent there, we filmed 3 to 4 iterations of the entire shot list, which facilitated a lot of flexibility when we got to the editing table.
The second challenge was the rain. Both the days we were there, it was raining cats and dogs. We were standing under our umbrellas, covering the props and equipment, and shot the film whenever the rain paused. We were literally at the mercy of nature. On the final day, we got so desperate that I flew my drone in the rain, to get all the aerial shots that were pending. Luckily, DJI makes awesome drones, and my Mavic Air is still alive after being completely drenched in the rain.
God only helps those who help themselves!
Most importantly, the rain was like a blessing in disguise for us. If you observe the above images carefully, you’ll see a lot of smoke in the shots. 80% of the smoke you saw in the film was original. There were a lot of patches of burning coal in the location, and the rain water falling in to the cracks of those burning heaps made them emit dense smoke, which was a boon for us. This natural special effect had immensely increased our production value and made the planet look better than we envisioned — hot, dry and smoky!
From the very beginning, I have always followed a DIY approach to filmmaking — right from making my own camera equipment with PVC pipes to now making all the costumes and props by myself. The gear made out of PVC includes Camera Sliders, Shoulder Mounts, Light Stands, Diffusion panels and Boom Poles, and I still use all of them in my film shoots.
I feel, by being a DIY filmmaker, at least at the beginning of your journey, you can reduce a lot of unwarranted costs and achieve high production values at a low budget. This approach has immensely helped us to put a cap on the budget of this film. If you want to know more about my DIY filmmaking approach, hit the below link:
It’s Post Production time Fellas.
I did the entire post production on my own, which included editing the footage, color grading, music editing, sound effects, animation and VFX. This whole process took less than 2 weeks.
Following are the software applications I used in my workflow:
- Davinci Resolve 15: Editing, Color Grading, Music and Sound Mixing etc.
- Blender: VFX and Animation Scenes.
- Adobe After Effects & Premiere Pro: Rotoscopy, VFX, Motion Blurs etc.
Davinci Resolve and Blender, both of which are absolutely free, give the filmmakers a lot of freedom in the post production process at no cost.
Let’s talk money!
We had screened the film at various venues in Hyderabad, and whenever I asked the audience to guess the budget of the film, their guesses went upto INR 10 or 15 lakhs (~$20,000). Everybody was shell shocked when we revealed our budget to be INR 5,500 (less than $75).
By following a DIY approach, we could pull off such a project at an extremely frugal budget. If we are successful in putting a man on a distant planet in under $75, anything is possible. Following is a break-up of the expenses incurred by this venture:
- Space suit Costume + Helmet: INR 2400 (~ $32)
- Travel + Lodging at the location: INR 2500 (~ $33)
- Set Design + Typewriter rental: INR 600 (~ $8)
- All cast and crew worked for free & VFX was completely done in-house.
- Total cost: INR 5500 (~ $73)
*The INR-USD conversions are based on the rates while filming the project.
That’s how I made a Sci-fi short thriller in under $75
2 days of Scripting, 1 week of Pre-Production, 72 hours of Filming, 2 weeks of Post-Production, and Eureka!! Here’s an independent Sci-fi short thriller made for less than $75. Having worked for several startups all my life and being from a Product background, I’ve always tried to marry filmmaking with Agile methodology. You can read more about the process I follow here:
I believe that instead of worrying about the bigger picture, if you can sub-divide the whole into various segments and work meticulously to get those segments right, the overall product will surely result in something great.
Make no mistake in getting the individual elements right, and you’ll get the vision right. For example, when I worked on stitching the costume, I didn’t worry about the location. I was solely focused on getting the look correct and once I got great reviews on the costume from my friends, I never worried about the look in the later phases. I knew I did my best in the costume phase and it was going to look great in the output.
The Countdown was the curtain raiser of Comic Con Hyderabad 2018 edition. Here’s a Facebook Live interview of our team —
After a series of screenings, when my story got featured on multiple newspapers, I knew my vision has been validated. So, as Steve Jobs rightly said —
You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.
Film Festivals: Let the celebration begin…
As discussed, the entire budget of The Countdown was less than $75. And the total fees to be paid for film festival entries was way greater than the film budget, which felt really weird. But as a filmmaker you want as many people as possible to watch your film and film festivals are a great way to do so.
I used Filmfreeway to shortlist the film festivals that suited my needs. Filmfreeway’s gold membership gives you upto 30% discount on the fees of various festivals and it made sense to take a monthly membership. But even then, the final figure for the total festival fees summed upto around $250 after the discounts. So I began writing to the festival admins, explaining how we finished our film at such a low budget and asking them if we could get partial or complete waiver of the fees. It turns out, you just need to ask and people are willing to give you free stuff, just by looking at your passion.
Although most festival selection results are months away, we got our early success indication when The Countdown got selected into the top 10 finalists at Duemila30 – International Film Festival, Milan, among more than 1000 submissions globally and it was the only selection from India. Apart from this, the film has also been selected for Salus Cine Festival in Italy, Ooty Film Festival and Kakatiya Film Festival in India.
Why did we use a typewriter in the year 2032?
There are two answers to this — the first one, demanded by the plot and the second one, a technical answer.
- Plot Answer: The Activist character in 2032, is a kind of a person, who loves all things vintage. In the scene, one can clearly see an old Premier 38mm film Camera, an old Tape Recorder + Audio Cassettes, a lot of hard bound books, and a typewriter. He is against modern tech and loved the way the Earth was in the past and wants it to go back to that phase. And compared to electronic equipment, his typewriter doesn’t require an electrical power supply, which indirectly means less carbon emissions.
- Technical Answer: A typewriter is relatively ageless when compared to a laptop. There was a typewriter in 1918, it is there in 2018 and it will be there in 2032. But we cannot show today’s laptop or a computer in 2032, because of the swift enhancement in the technology.
I don’t know it was done by mistake in Interstellar or if they purposefully did it, but in the drone scene set in the later half of this century, they used a Dell Latitude E6420 XFR laptop, with Windows 8 key on the keyboard. I felt I shouldn’t make such a mistake in The Countdown.
Why does the Activist character invert the war tank, at the end?
If you clearly observe the props used on the desk, you can see a bunch of animals taking shelter under a tree and a war tank pointing towards the tree. By inverting the tank at the end of the film, the character implies that we need to stop the war on nature. This was our thought process when we shot it, but the viewers can have their own interpretation of the scene.
What camera/sound equipment did we use for this film?
- Canon 70D with 18–135mm STM lens
- DJI Mavic Air Drone
- Zoom H1 Sound recorder
Why didn’t we include the camera equipment cost in the budget?
The reason for this was that we owned Canon 70D as well as DJI Mavic Air since long before we actually planned to make this film, as we were involved in making Travel and Documentary films. But even if you don’t own them, renting them for a day shouldn’t cost much in most of the countries.
What shutter speed did we use for the VFX shots?
Majority of the space shots were filmed at a high shutter speed of 1/320, so as to avoid the motion blur, which makes Rotoscopy difficult in the VFX phase. Later the motion blur was added artificially in After Effects.
What frame rate did we use?
The DSLR shots were a mix of 1080p 24fps and 720p 60fps, while the drone shots were filmed at 2.7k 60fps and 1080p 120fps.
Call to Action
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