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How to make a movie when you’re skint

Posted on Nov 26, 2022 by Samara Husbands

Want to know how to make a micro-budget film? Ryan J Smith didn’t let a lack of funds stop his dream of making a full-length feature film

WORDS Adam Duckworth PHOTOS Olga Stefanska

You don’t need to break the bank to tell a good story. Or, in this case, wait for your numbers to come up on Lotto. That’s the view of 23-year-old Ryan J Smith, who used an inexpensive Micro Four Thirds camera, some vintage, manual-focus stills lenses and purely natural light to shoot a thrilling micro-budget film called Lottery. 

Movie director posing with camera in in orange hue light
Director, 23-year-old Ryan J Smith

His aptly titled production group Skint Film Company first shot a trailer, then toured festivals with the finished movie this summer. But things have moved on since then. Now, this micro-budget film is heading to streaming services and indie cinemas in December.

The film concerns a young tearaway who wins the lottery, but risks losing it all as he’s forced to battle new enemies and make amends with loved ones. Shot around Lytham St Annes in the north-west of England on a tiny budget, it looks every bit as atmospheric as a well-funded film with an army of technicians.

“My ultimate goal with the movie was to make £7000 feel like £700,000 – and the fact that the movie has not only achieved this with those who have seen it, but left them in tears, is mind-blowing,” says Smith. “I have to give all the credit to my expert cast and crew, who graciously invested their talents to elevate the material to a level I didn’t think was going to be possible at our budget. I’m very excited for a wider audience to see the movie.” Thus, the micro-budget film feature film was born.

Lottery - micro-budget film
Shoestring budget: A Micro Four Thirds Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K and pair of vintage stills photo lenses give Lottery a unique look that perfectly suits the subject matter

Despite still being so young, Smith is driven to make films and get his work out there. “I’ve tried to pin a reason on why I started making movies, but I still can’t figure it out. I genuinely can’t remember any time at any age where I wasn’t shooting something,” he says. “It started with animating Lego motorbikes and now we’re here orchestrating motorbike stunts for real. A part of me blames my godmother Sam for showing me the behind-the-scenes of the original Pirates of the Caribbean. You don’t watch that as a youngster and spend the rest of your life thinking you want to be an accountant!”

Lottery was conceived in 2017, while Smith was halfway through studying in the MetFilm School at Ealing Studios. “Cut to 2021 and I had something like eight short films, a music video and three feature films under my belt,” he recalls. “Most had been shot on a Panasonic Lumix G7 with kit lenses. The sheer versatility of it was lightning in a bottle for me when I was starting out – and the all-in-one quality is something I still look for in new gear.

“You need to be using affordable kit that has your back, and that camera had mine for a long time. One of my films made on the G7 was a feature documentary shot in Amsterdam called Red Light Solo, which did very well at festivals. The great critical reception of that gave me the firepower needed to be taken seriously when setting up Skint Film Company.”

Lottery - micro-budget film
Dream big: Ryan J Smith shot the film himself, directing a talented crew of actors and fellow ex-students (below)

During those early films, Smith ended up doing much of the work himself out of pure necessity. But it’s an incredible grounding. “It’s my firm belief now that you can’t aim to be just a director or just a camera operator, for example. It’s vital to have an invested and genuine interest for every aspect of the production process,” says Smith. “If you walk into a meeting in today’s climate, but aren’t absolutely bulletproof on all fronts, you’re going to be at the mercy of those who are less fierce than you in terms of getting things done.

“It’s purely because content is now being produced faster and cheaper than ever before. Having a knowledge across the board also means you know what to throw overboard first if you feel a production sinking under a rising budget. If you’re smart about where to invest, along with being a bit of a nerd, you can achieve much more for less with today’s consumer tech. I’m not the only filmmaker who knows this, either.”

Smith’s friend and fellow director Lewis William Robinson recently wrapped on his first ever feature film Orchid Moon, which was very similar to Lottery in terms of being a stripped-back, yet totally professional production.

Black and white picture of actor and director of a movie looking at camera
Winning combo: Smith was praised by lead actress Niamh Branigan for allowing her the freedom to do her finest work

“I’ve not worked on a pro film shoot as laid-back as Lottery,” insists Robinson. “Ryan has a gift for setting the mood with natural lighting – and without the need for endless equipment to gain what he wants from the scene visually.”

Smith says that Lottery is a ‘lean, mean emotional thriller’ written for his friend and regular acting collaborator Mitchell Fisher to star in. “I’ve always enjoyed working with Ryan. He has the eye needed to capture beautiful shots and his presence on-set is calming, reassuring and friendly,” Fisher adds.

Lead actress Niamh Branigan says: “Lottery will always have a special place in my heart. It was my first time in a leading role, with the respect and freedom as an actor to explore the character of Ruby in order to bring her to life.”

That’s a great accolade for a young director/producer. “It’s interesting bringing new faces into the circus, as there’s always a certain anxiety regarding the stereotype of stripped-back productions being unprofessional – an image I’m proud that we’ve continually shattered,” beams Smith. “If cutting down set-up times without reducing production value can create a setting where actors aren’t sitting around for hours and instead feel actively involved, I’ve done my job well as a producer.”

“Ryan has a gift for setting the mood with natural light – and without the need for endless equipment”

The team included sound recordist and camera assistant Lewis William Robinson, with visual effects supervised and created by Adam Bentley – both of whom Smith met at film school. “My production designer Katy Gittins also realised the world of the film fantastically. I don’t like the idea of having 20 people standing around waiting to do the work of three or four focused individuals. It all comes down to this: if you enjoy it, you’ll do it – and you’ll never stop trying to do better. I’m very lucky to have friends who both share the same ethos and are technical and creative masters,” says Smith.

Post-production happened over three months at Smith’s home studio, with the final edit completed at Ealing Studios, where cast and crew screenings were held. “And it has an original score composed and recorded by artists Alisdair Pickering and Zayence, who continually surprise and inspire me,” says Smith.

Lottery - micro-budget film
Hard work pays off: Off the back of Lottery, Skint Film Company already has more theatrical feature projects in pre-production

With Lottery about to hit screens big and small, it’s no surprise there are already multiple theatrical feature projects in pre-production at Skint Film Company. A place where money – or lack of it – seems to be no object.

More information on the micro-budget film feature film at skintfilmcompany.com.

Article originally published in the November 2022 issue of Pro Moviemaker.

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