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How to make a movie on one week’s wages

Hannah Cheesman and Mackenzie Donaldson collaborated on making the five-minute short film Cheese on a budget of only $750.

Rachel Hawkes Cameron

Meet Hannah and Mackenzie, two women standing at the intersection of legacy media and new tech, making "Internet odysseys," such as their new Web series ,Whatever, Linda, alongside television and films. Read more about their journey, and watch the first episode, at tgam.ca/whateverlinda. In this month's column, the duo revisit their first collaboration – and eventual success.

Practice makes perfect, as the saying goes, and this is refreshingly true of filmmaking in 2015.

Our hallowed digital age has made the industry more accessible than ever. (Especially when you, say, skipped film school to fall in line and get a liberal arts degree.) If you have so much as a smartphone and an editing app, you can go ahead and make something, post it online and see if you find an audience – no matter if the end product is good or bad. If it's terrible, you're not letting anybody down but the people you made it with. Which isn't great, but a lot better than wasting other people's money or a government grant.

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It's with this mindset that we set out to film our first short as Aberrant Pictures two years ago. We promised ourselves not to exceed a budget of $750 (no, you're not reading that figure wrong) – and not to compromise.

Spoiler alert: A few years later, we'd call the project a success, and have even made back our costs.

Here's our how-to on making your own successful short film.

The idea

Think small to make something big. Cheese is a five-minute comedy about, yes, cheese. It tells the story of a cheese neophyte and an all-knowing cheesemonger who engage in a cheese-shop faceoff. It's based on marginally true events from Hannah's life, with a fitting throw to her last name, "Cheesman."

The collaboration

There's power in numbers. Before filming Whatever, Linda, Cheese was our first collaboration. It was a great litmus test to see how a Donaldson-Cheesman duo would fare on the small-scale, and partnering up meant we could divide and conquer on the tasks at hand.

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The script

Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. While developing the shooting script, we made it a priority to consider where the short would fit in at film festivals. Thinking about festival programming early on, we hoped, would mean getting into more of them without going over budget on submissions.

Comedies, while often not as lauded as dramas, are poised as crowdpleasers and can serve to break up more "weighty" programming. A short with a niche audience (say, foodies) was another potential programming coup. But we took this niche idea even further: Make it short – real short. A five-minute cutoff would mean it could fit into both general short film and micro-short film categories.

So in order to ensure Cheese stayed as short as possible, we did rewrites, and lots of them: twelve drafts for a seven-page script. But getting everything on-point before going to camera was in line with the keep-it-cheap mantra. Tight scripts make prep easier, faster and less expensive. And it would also help us win over the best cast we could find.

The actors

They'll make or break a film. Hiring great actors sits at the centre of a successful film of any size, and we are lucky enough to be friends with many of Canada's most talented performers. We reached out to our dream cast and, luckily, they all said yes.

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Once Natalie Lisinska (Orphan Black, InSecurity) and Tony Nappo (Remedy) signed on as our leads, we had a read-through and follow-up discussion, which allowed Hannah to complete the final script with their voices in mind.

The budget

Keep it cheap. To do that, we entered into a co-op shareholders agreement. This type of arrangement from the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists stipulates that all major positions be filled by union actors, and that, in lieu of pay, they instead own a part of the film.

We also worked with the supplier William F. White International to secure a cut-rate rental deal for the film gear, and asked other artists we'd worked with previously to come on board ("for your reel!"). Our director of photography, Cabot McNenly (The Animal Project), and makeup artist, Jessica Panetta (Whatever, Linda), both joined as collaborators.

Thanks to our amazing editor Jackie Roda (who works in advertising and managed to find us "in-kind" postproduction services) our total production costs netted out to – ta da! – $750.

Personal networks and relationships are key in keeping things affordable.

The location

Cheap, cheerful, cheese. We kept our location-scouting local. Visiting about eight cheese shops in west-end Toronto, it was encouraging to discover that every single store was open to giving their space up for filming; it's a testament to how the city can be incredibly amenable and accommodating to its artists. We landed on Global Cheese in Kensington Market as our first choice and then booked our shoot date.

On a cold and rainy fall night, we picked up the equipment in a rented sedan and got shooting. Other than some interior/exterior continuity problems, the location was perfect and everyone was game to make the shoot smooth, professional and fun.

The final chapter

The work's only just begun. Since completing the short, we've shown (and will still show) at some eight-plus festivals. We're very proud of these official selections, given that competition is only growing as filmmaking becomes even easier and cheaper.

And because of those festivals, we just secured a distribution deal in Japan, which also means we have finally made back our $750 investment. Not half bad for a tiny film about cheese.

But besides cutting your teeth in today's digital film space, what are shorts good for? Well, paving the way for more work.

Up next, we are producing our first BravoFact short, Boxing, where the jump from a $750 budget to tens of thousands of dollars doesn't feel horribly jarring any more. Likewise, we have a horror-genre project called Greenfield and are aiming to create a proof-of-concept short that might seduce investors to come on.

Shorts are a great way to network, build profile, create calling cards and, finally, have fun.

For a week's worth of wages, Cheese was definitely worth the price.

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