The Micro Budget Filmmaking lesson hidden inside the movie Se7en

By Bradley Stevens | Case Studies

Jul 28

Hidden inside David Fincher's 1995 thriller 'Se7en' is a lesson on Micro Budget Film Making... and it's too good to miss.

To be clear: Se7en was a $30million film, starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman, so it doesn't even come close to being 'low budget', let alone 'Micro Budget'. 

But towards the end of the movie, around the 1 hr 42 mark, there are two brilliant scenes back to back that can teach us a huge secret to keeping film costs low. 

Let me show you what's there. 

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A Lesson on Micro Budget Filmmaking Buried Inside the Movie Se7en

How Long Should it Take to Shoot a Scene?

A few years ago, I asked a top TV Production Manager in my country "How long should it take to shoot a scene?" I was given an answer that was both very frustrating and also totally reasonable. The answer was:

"Well... how long is a piece of string?"

I get it.

Just as a piece of string will be however long you require it to be, so too will a scene take as long as it needs. There is no 'average', since all scenes are so different.

But that answer frustrates me, for one simple fact:

If the LENGTH of a film shoot directly affects how much the entire film costs, shouldn't we be looking at ways to shoot more quickly?

This is what drove my question.

Sure, if you've got a healthy budget, you can take all the time you need. But what about when money is really tight

This is a position that every filmmaker finds themselves in at the start of their careers, and often repeatedly thereafter. The advice "take as long as it needs to" will not help with keeping a budget low and manageable.

Filmmakers need ​to know how to cut costs & corners without sacrificing quality, right? That is the spirit of Micro Budget Filmmaking-- and that's the lesson you can find 1 hr and 42 minutes in to Se7en.

How long is a piece of string? Who bloody cares!

Hey, it's a piece of string! Get it?

THE LOW-BUDGET LESSON YOU CAN LEARN FROM DAVID FINCHER

If you've seen 'Se7en', you'll know the scenes I'm referring to:

Kevin Spacey in the back of a Police Car. The scenes are iconic, terrifying, thrilling, suspenseful and fascinating.

The two scenes are back to back with some establishing shots between them to indicate the passing of some time, but essentially they take place on the same road trip.

For the sake of simplicity and to illustrate this point, I'll focus purely on the second (longer) scene of the two. Here are the main observations from that scene:

  • It's made up of only 5 shots.
  • It goes for 6 minutes.

Now, let's go through what those shots are and why they are significant.

Shots of Brad Pitt:

There are two shots of Brad Pitt, covered from 2 different Set Ups/ angles:

1) A Mid Shot, across the car of Brad Pitt in the front passenger seat:​

Brad Pitt in the movie Seven

Mid Shot of Brad Pitt in the movie 'Se7en'. [Distributed by Warner Bros.]

2) A Close Up (CU) through the Police Car Mesh as viewed from the back seat:

Close Up shot of Brad Pitt in the movie Se7en

Close Up of Brad Pitt in the movie 'Se7en'. [Distributed by Warner Bros.]

That's it.

In a 6 minute scene, all the shots of Brad Pitt were taken from only these 2 camera setups. 

NOTE: don't confuse edited shots with setups.

  • The scene may have hundreds of cuts, but still is only comprised of 5 types of shots, made from 5 camera Setups
  • A 'Setup' is a new camera position, lighting change, etc.
  • Each new 'Setup' will take a while to prepare.
  • Once the Setup is complete, it is generally quite easy to shoot new takes (unless stunts or Special FX are involved)

​Shots of Morgan Freeman:

There are also only 2 shots for Morgan Freeman.

1) Medium Close shot that is slightly OTS (over the shoulder) from Brad Pitt.

Morgan Freeman in the movie Se7en

Mid Shot of Morgan Freeman in the movie Se7en. [Distributed by Warner Bros.]

2) Close Up (CU), but worth noting is that this CU is taken from the Exact Same Angle:

Morgan Freeman in the movie Se7en

Close Up of Morgan Freeman in the movie Se7en. [Distributed by Warner Bros.]

There appears to be no lighting changes, merely a lens change to punch in tighter and get that CU from the same Camera Position.

I doubt the crew would have needed to adjust any lighting or the camera position-- it would be very quick and easy to grab this second shot.

Shots of Kevin Spacey:

Finally, there is only a SINGLE SHOT to cover Kevin Spacey on the back seat-- entirely a Close Up (CU) through the Mesh:

Kevin Spacey in the movie Se7en

Kevin Spacey in the movie Se7en. [Distributed by Warner Bros.]

​And that's it.

5 Shots for a 6 Minute Scene.

From these 5 shots, David Fincher puts together 6 minutes of INCREDIBLE cinema that showcases some amazing performances.

That's a very short piece of string.​

BONUS TIP!

Micro Budget Filmmaking begins by designing a screenplay that can be produced at a low cost. This isn't hard to do-- in fact, I've written a short ebook you can download that shows you a 7-Step Method to do it. Click this link to Download it for Free

Why This is So Significant?

One of the principle factors in defining your film's budget is how long it takes to shoot, right?

And what affects how long a scene takes to shoot? How many shots you need to get.

By keeping a shot count low, it is possible to capture more screen time in a shorter film shoot. Unfortunately, inexperienced directors often lack the discipline to keep a shorter shot list, often with the mantra "more shots = more options". This is true... but more shots also equals a longer shoot and thus budget.

Being more economic with your shot selection can go a long way to keeping your budget low, and this is a discipline the Micro Budget Filmmaker needs to be familiar with.

It doesn't take guns, explosions​ and (often wasteful) special effects to interest an audience. A simple situation like a conversation in a car can be incredibly dramatic... if you design it to be.

Provided you've got a fascinating story, good acting, and characters that audiences love-- you don't need a thousand shots of coverage.

You can keep the string short.


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