So you wanna make a Sci-Fi? On a lower budget? By Martin Gooch

Martin Gooch is a VERY old friend of mine, and his latest SciFi movie is premiering in London as part of SciFi London. He will be there to answer questions and you can get tickets HERE. I asked him to share his thoughts on making low budget SciFi as his experience and wisdom is gold dust. Over to Gooch…

There are a thousand books and articles on directing and making short films, and a whole load on making sci-fi shorts and low budget feature films, but how many of them are actually written by film makers who have actually made sci-fi?

Well this one for start and also another one I wrote in dimension 37b (which is written in 4 dimensions) But, we’ll come to that earlier, or maybe later.

Sci Fi is a hugely popular genre, Now the Avengers have gone into space so many of the top 100 movies of all time and box office are sci-fi (Star Wars obvs) or have sci-fi roots. (Eg: ET).

Generally when we think of Sci-Fi we immediately think it is going to be expensive, huge CGI sections, VFX, SFX and epic battles etc. I have been in pitches with Producers and sales agents where as soon as I say the word Sci-Fi their faces fall and they simply think: Too expensive.

The simple fact is that we as film makers cannot complete with the studios in terms of quality and money, they just have such bigger budgets there is no way we can make a $100Million movie on $150K (or less).

But we still love sci-fi and we still want to make sci-fi films so here are some tips on how to make totally cosmic low budget sci-fi films.

1) The beginning

Question: what do the following films all have in common: Alien, Star Wars, The Terminator, Brazil and Bill and Ted’s excellent Adventure? It’s not the director, it’s not the cast, it’s not the setting or the location or even the budget. They are all awesome sci-fi because they all have an excellent kick ass script. It’s the script it’s always the script. Script, script, script. And their scripts fit their budgets. There are no scenes where you watch the film and think – they couldn’t really afford to do that, or that scene is a bit dodgy.

Your script needs to be A1, write it, re-write it, read it out loads, gets some actors in to do a table read (always good fun) and you will learn so much from hearing your script read out load, you’ll notice repetition, which can be cut, and you’ll notice the dull bits which need to be spiced up, and the missing bits which need to be added. You’ll hear when chunks of dialogue are too long and see when a character is hanging around for ages unused.

2) If you think about the Theatre there is the foreground and the background. Film (and TV) is the same. The foreground is the actors, wardrobe and props, and the background, the location, the world and the VFX/CGI/SFX.

With a big Hollywood production it’s all about the background, the huge CGI scenes, the cosmic battles, the massive expensive shots, the space stations and the robots and what-nots. That’s lovely, but very expensive or very time consuming to do. Look at the credits on any Hollywood sci-fi and see how many people work in the various GCI departments.

But you can’t afford that expensive background so focus on… The foreground.

2) Foreground VS Background

Have you ever come away from an expensive Hollywood movie and just felt that you saw an epic adventure but felt no emotional connection with the characters and actors? Well that was because the film makers were concentrating on the Background and we were lost in a world of CGI and SFX. This is what happened on Mortal Engines, John Carter (on Mars) and Jupiter Rising (looks amazing, couldn’t care less what happened to any characters) and why ET works: we really want Elliot and ET to win. Foreground. I’ll say it again: Foreground.

3) Foreground has three elements:

  1. A) Cast/Actors. Always get the best actors you can get. I know people are always banging on about using ‘real’ people and keeping it real, but honestly trained and experienced actors will bring more to your set and they will also be aware of stage craft, which will help your continuity no end, and they will hopefully turn up on time and know their lines, which is the basic of all actors and what I expect when they walk on set.

B1) Wardrobe. Wardrobe is SO important and on low budget films almost always ignored or overlooked. A good costume will tell you so much about a character and can even become iconic, think Star Wars or even The Tin Man from The Wizard of OZ, the whole world of Cosplay is based entirely on wardrobe. Think of Alien: Every character has only one set of clothing in the whole film, but The Engineers are a bit grubbier, one wears a Hawaiian shirt and the Science Officer Ash is a bit more pressed and tidy, and Captin Dallas wears a Capt’s cap and that’s it. They even have their names on their uniforms and Nostromo T-shirts: Brilliant!!

B2) Make UP, often part of the Wardrobe team on low budget and also very important. A talented make up designer will bring your characters to life and also make great suggestions. In my last film Black Flowers I hadn’t; though about hair styles for my characters at all, and my designer came up with all sorts of post apocalyptic tribal looks which were awesome. Remember good make up takes time, so schedule that in to the morning of your shoot.

  1. C) In low budget films the art department is always one of the first to suffer or even go. But this is a terrible error. To create that willing suspension of disbelief that you need to convince an audience of your story you need good props and great art department. A good art department will even save you money but creating wonderful things you’ll want to focus on, so you can stick the rest of your set in the background where it belongs. Give the art department time to prepare, if they can have a week to make and collect props things will only be better. Lord of The Rings spent two years in pre-production and looks fantastic as a result. The art department also tend to have the best parties, so make sure you have them on your crew.

Foreground is where you emotionally connect with the cast and characters get it right and the audience will care what happens to them.

If your foreground is interesting enough then your background is almost irrelevant. I have filmed whole scenes where the background is just one lamp pointing at the camera with the actors in the foreground creating awesome silhouettes and looking very sci-fi.

4) Technical stuff

  1. a) Cameras. These days almost everyone has a high def camera that records sound in their pocket. Whole feature films have been shot on an Iphone and screened in the cinema. You quite simply do not need a huge Arri Alexa with prime lenses to shoot your low budget film, yes it is cool, and will look awesome in your Behind The Scenes photos with you standing next to the camera doing the ’director pointing shot’ but you just don’t need it. The truth is that no one actually cares what a movie is shot on as long as it LOOKS COOL (see foreground above). In all my years filming 26 years of it, the only people who ask me what something was shot on are filmmakers at a Q and A, sales agents, actors and most crew don’t care and the audience certainly don’t care. Just shoot on the camera that means you can still afford to spend money on Art department and everything else. Technically you must shoot at least 1920 x 1080, or possibly 2K. But if you shoot 4K (or more) it will drastically slow down your editing process as not only will the files take up a huge amount of speace (four times as much as normal HD) you’ll have to make a proxy file for each shot and then re-conform them once you have finished. All very tedious. There are a thousand films out there that never got finished as they are stuck in hellish post as they shot too much (or not enough) and can’t get the film finished.
  2. b) Sound. Good sound is essential. Try to film in locations that are quiet, get a proper sound recordist in and then be prepared to re-record everything again later on in ADR. Good sound is expensive, but essential. People will turn off and festivals will not program a film simply because the sound is bad. Don’t forget there is On set sound recording (Sync sound), foley (made up sound) Sound design (Made up sound to emphasize emotion and atmosphere) Post re-recording (Re-recoding the sound that was rubbish on set) and of course music and score. (Music is music and score is written for the film). All of this needs to be mixed and a good mixer will elevate your film 100%. There is a reason Radio is popular but there is no silent moving picture medium.
  3. c) Lighting. A lot of directors leave lighting to the DOP and the Gaffer and don’t offer up much thought, but lighting in many ways defines a genre and defines a films look. As a director all my films have colour themes, we are after all ‘painting with light’ on a huge canvass, so should consider the overall aesthetic as well as the performance, composition, tone and blocking and everything else. Working out how you are going to light a scene and where the lights are going to go will save you valuable time (sometimes hours) if you can find a place for the lights to go which you can shoot around and means you don’t have to re-light. The gaffers and sparks will also appreciate it.

If you are filming in the middle of a wood or a long way from an electrical source then you will probably still need lights, especially if filming at night, and for this you’ll need a generator (probably petrol driven) generators are heavy and make a lot of noise. If you are filming with a generator you’ll probably need to fix the sound later.

These days many people say that ‘This camera has a twelve stop dynamic range and I don’t need to light anything.” When they say this what they mean is they don’t actually understand cinema at all. The dynamic range just means how well it can see in the dark and still get a good exposure which isn’t all grainy when looked at later. But lighting will raise your film from looking OK or Rubbish to amazing. Lighting is why Hollywood movies look like Hollywood movies and low budget student films look like student films.

Lighting can create mood, enhance a performance, and even influence your directional decisions when you see a certain part of the set now looks so awesome that you want to film there instead.

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5) Other stuff

Smoke machine. The single most useful additional piece of kit is a smoke machine. There are Hazers, which gradually fill a room with a haze and give Ridley Scott his beautiful wide shots in his films where cathedral style heavenly beams of light drift in from above. A big smoke machine is essential if filming outside and you want to create any sort of atmosphere at all. You can hire a hand held smoke machine, which is like the flamethrower from Alien, but throws smoke instead. This is also great fun to use. Find someone on your set who likes stuff like that and give them the smoke thrower to use all day, they’ll love it and your film will look so much more expensive.

6) shooting

There are many people who have doen a 48 hour film challenge film and made a great short (Ive done 4!) but on the hwole it’s best to give yourself as much time as you can. The ‘sweet spot’ for shooting it 6 pages a day. Any more than that and it’s really tough. Less is better and on a big film (Eg: harry Potter we did about 1-1.5 minuets a day!) The more time you have the beter it will look (on the whole).

If you want to make a ten minute film, two long days is better than 1 horrifically long day, but two weekends will be even better and you’ll have more fun, and more footage to edit.

7) To CGI or Not To CGI.

Everyone now has seen everything. Spaceships, monsters, dragons attaching a WW2 bomber, dinosaurs wandering around, see it done it. This means the public are somewhat jaded about CGI, but what it also means is that they have all seen it at it’s highest possible standard, where millions of dollars have been spent on a single shot and a thousand people have worked on it for year. They will spot bad CGI immediately and it will kick them out of the film. If you can’t afford good CGI then work out a way round it. It if far better to just have 1 awesome CGI shot in your entire film than 20 bad ones.

You may have spent a whole month doing a single shot yourself and be very pleased with your work, but is it really any good? Because the audience don’t care who did it and how long it took, they just want it to look cool. Avoid bad CGI and try to get things done in camera when you shoot it.

8) The edit.

Edits are brutal. My advice: once you have finished your shoot, watch all the rushes and then leave it for a day or two (or even a week) and then start editing. It’s important to distance yourself from your emotional connection to the shoot and just look at the rushes. Even if you had to get up at 4am and stand in a muddy field for 12 hours to get a shot no one cares!! What matters is: does the shot work in the film? If not cut it.

Only vary rarely does anyone come out of a film and say that was too short. But they often come out and say – that was too long. If it doesn’t work cut it. In my third movie we cut the whole B-story which meant one brilliant actor was cut from the whole film.

This was a script fault and if we had nailed the script at the beginning I wouldn’t have had to phone that actor and told them they’d been cut. A horrible call to have to make.

Always give yourself as much time as you can have. If you rush an edit you’ll always regret it and will want to go back to your film time after time.

Once you have a reasonable edit with temporary music show it to a few people and get feedback, if everyone says scene two needs work, then do the work, no one apart from you knows the back story. Make sure titles and credits are polished and high quality and check all the spellings a dozen times. Nothing worse than seeing a spelling mistake on the big screen at the premiere.

9) The End

Remember the best films are about people (IMHO), and what we emotionally engage with is interesting people doing interesting stuff. Science fiction is not all about entire worlds doing stuff and galactic wide mega things; it can just be about a Hot Tub Time Machine, or a man who is invisible. Keep it simple, and remember, Act 1, Act 2 and the twist. What makes your film different from all the other ones?

Science fiction also known as speculative fiction can be simple, Hollywood have all the money and time and CGI, we have all the creativity and imagination, and purity of direction, use that freedom to experiment and remember necessity is the mother of invention and go and watch Dark Star: John Carpenters ‘student’ film, and see what he did with no CGI, no SFX and hardly any money.

10) Over and out

Being a director can be physically hard, long days on set, working weekends and holidays, I am always the first on set, I like to sit there and think and walk through the action without the actors and work out where I am putting the camera (if I haven’t already with storyboards, shot lists and camera plans) what lenses and what grip kit is required, whilst everyone is getting ready and so as soon as the actors arrive on set I know what I want to do with them and how I am going to block the scene (and where the tea is).

But for me there is no greater sense of accomplishment than completing a movie and showing it in a cinema to an appreciative audience.

I hope my suggestions help you make a better movie!

Happy Shooting!

Tickets on sale for the UK premiere of my 4th feature film: Black Flowers on 16th May from The Prince Charles Website here:


Martin Gooch: At 19 Martin went to Modoc County California USA to work for the US Forest Service, which gave him a love of the outdoors and a passion for new worlds. Martin then spent 15 years in the camera department on films like Judge DreddHarry PotterJames Bond: Goldeneye and The Muppets as a 2nd and 1st AC (Assistant Cameraman), more than 1000 days on set as a training ground before becoming an award winning writer and director in his own right. Martin has since made more than 20 short films and directed Doctors (BBC),  Hollyoaks (C4) and Spooks Interactive, which won a BAFTA and was nominated for an EMMY.

He wrote/produced/directed his first feature film Death (2012) starring Paul Freeman (Raiders of The Lost Ark) and legendary British actor Leslie Phillips, then directed The Search for Simon, (2013). Lionsgate has, just released his third feature film The Gatehouse, a gothic fantasy, in the UK. His first 3 movies have won or been nominated for 44 awards including numerous Best Director and Best Film awards.

His fourth feature film the female led post-apocalyptic sci-fi Black Flowers had its world premier at the Sitges International Film festival and will be released internationally in 2019. Martin has a master’s degree in screenwriting from the University of the Arts (London). He has spent his life making films and wishes to continue to do so.


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