Reverse Engineering Films

I recently read some postings on Stacy Park’s blog ( about what she calls “reverse engineering” films. She talks about understanding the film market, both what people what and what they will pay for it.

I have been thinking about similar concepts for some time now, as you can see in my review of Rick Schmidt’s Feature Filmmaking at Used Car Prices.

Many years ago I read an article about filmmaking in Scientific American that touched on the same subject. The article was about how digital technology was changing the business of filmmaking. They said that traditionally filmmakers developed a vision, and then looked for the money to make it. The new trend was for filmmakers to look at how much money you had, and then develop a movie that they make with that money.

What are the rules you should follow when making a film on a very low budget? I feel it is better to think of them as constraints rather than rules. I see constraints as a challenge to use your creativity, while rules are things you have to do. When you write a sonnet, you are constrained by the standard form of the sonnet, yet poets have created many great sonnets.

I have compiled a few constraints here. I will add more as I think of them. If you have any suggestions please post them.
Small cast. Every additional character adds complexity and cost to the project. It is more of a challenge to maintain flow and interest when the number of characters is small. A film like “Before Sunrise” shows that a good filmmaker can work with this constraint.

Small crew. Again, every extra person on set adds complexity and cost. However, a small crew will limit the types of shots you can get, and can slow you down. When you are developing a project, you need to keep this in mind, since some types of scenes and shots can’t be done with your budget.

Few locations. Moving from location to another adds time and cost to a film. I’ve heard people talk of the “six fuse box rule”. One of the worries about this constraint is that having the same location appear over and over could become boring. Lately I have thought that this constraint can be overcome using green screen. The cost of green screen is getting lower and it is already being used to reduce the need for location shooting. has some examples.

Shoot digital. While I love film, shooting digital saves a lot of money at the front end. That can make the difference between going ahead with a project, or dropping it.


  1. Thanks for sharing the link, but unfortunately it seems to be down… Does anybody have a mirror or another source? Please reply to my post if you do!


    • Hi Jack,

      I checked all the links and they all worked for me. Which one were you having trouble with?

  2. I concur with Mr. Cranky, above, and would add that if you subscribe to Malcolm Gladwell’s proposition that one requires about 10,000 hours of practice to become really good at anything, it leads one to the conclusion that specialization is essential in filmmaking otherwise one speads oneself too thin, like putting fruit juice on toast instead of jam on toast. Yes, apprentice filmmakers need to know the nuts and bolts of filmmaking and must try all or most fo the jobs, but to be really, really, really good, you have to do one or two things and do them intensely and for a long period of time. Writing is hard, hard work. At least it’s hard to be good, and this is where to old adage comes in: attach the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair, and get at ‘er. A director of photography must know and practice lighting, still photography, the physics of light, camera and lens technology, photographic chemistry, and much more, including a study of painting by the classic painters such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, et al. These jobs are not easy, and require constant practice, reading and attention. And therein lies the source of so much dreck filmmaking…those who refuse to do the work, and put in their hours to become good. The successful Hollywood people are not only very bright, but extremely hard working. Half-baked doesn’t cut it.

  3. I have added the link to Stacy Park’s blog as you suggested.

  4. uuuhh … it’d have been nice to have a link to Stacy Park’s blog in your post. Honestly, this isn’t such a matter of burning passion with me I’m going to really do any research to find it. Without context, the entry essentially becomes “I like grapes, too.” As far as the profound concept of “understanding the film market c” goes, Some Guy named Disney had this figured out before the advent of sound with movies. And so did a lot of his colleagues. Today, they’re called “Hollywood.” This hardly breaks new ground.

    A note regarding ubiquity of a few locations: this didn’t stop Hollywood from using Monument Valley, WY, over and over and overandoverandover during the heyday of westerns…

    And as to the accessibility of greenscreen, it’s becoming rather like the accessibility of word processors. Time was when, to be an author, you had to have some discipline and invest a whole passel of effort to get a novel/script written. Now, thanks to the word processor, the wheat-to-chaff ratio has gone from not-so-good through downright-bad to completely appalling. Don’t believe it? Then why did this aphorism get coined:

    “It’s been said that a million monkeys working on a million typewriters for a million years would eventually reproduce all of Shakespeare. Now, thanks to the internet, we KNOW that’s NOT true.”

    Similarly in production: time was the minimum entry level for ANY production, really, was a Bolex and some film, with the associated baggage and cost. Now, thanks to the ubiquity of accessible cameras/editing/$0 perceived media cost, we have YouTube and similar sites clogged with rubbish flotsam. Sure, there’s good morsels buried there, but we’re back to the wheat-chaff ratio problem, only on a titanic scale.

    Moderate difficulty of access to things like word processors and film/video production technology (including things such as greenscreen) was, in a way, Nature’s way of saying, “no triflers, please!” And there’s a lot of merit to that.

    While there are exciting new talents emerging that might not have been given any sort of break before, this has come at a cost of every inarticulate chimp feeling “entitled” to inflict their Grand Opus on the world stage via internet. Granted, that IS kind of democratic in the very pure sense of the word, but we’ve profoundly cheapened the cultural coin thereby. Does the former outweigh the latter? I look at the TV schedules/theater adverts, and I think I know the unpleasant answer.

    In a way, it’s a shame that much, if not most of my own discovery of new, wonderful stuff is via direct reference from friends and colleagues that have waded through the cultural miasma and found these gems. I no longer waste my time doing that wading. Looking at even snippets of unapologetic drek has passed my frustration tolerance level long since.

    The CRAFT of the industry, from writing through camera work that looks like a St Vitus’ Dance sufferer on 38 gallons of triple-shot Starbuck’s through editing looking like it was done by an instrument related to the Black & Decker hedge trimmer has taken, frankly, a sh*tkicking. And no, the Emperor is NOT wearing any clothes, and I do NOT buy into the apologist nonsense of “well, the media are eVOLving, see….”

    That’s like saying every exploratory Crayola™ scribble done by every darling 3-year-old belongs in the Louvre. Well, THEY DON’T. Call me cranky.

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