Filmmakers will use whatever tricks they have available to them to shave off a few dollars. These days, we see a lot of bad CGI, cheap effects, and obvious corner cutting. For the most part, we accept these things as necessary in smaller-budget films. When a big film does it, we aren’t as forgiving. In the past, there have been a number of films that have been considered as big-budget films by people, but in reality, they were just faking it. Then, there are the films that were actually big-budget films, but still got creative in areas to save money. Well, we wanted to go through and look at some of the most creative tricks used by directors and the film crews. We wanted to highlight the neatest ways that filmmakers were able to cut costs without sacrificing the quality of the film. For all you know, most of the films on this list used only the top-of-line sets and techniques, but every single one of them got pretty inventive.
In some examples on this list, the technique that was used to cut costs became a staple in the industry. If these huge films and filmmakers could pull the wool over the audience’s eyes and make it seem like what they were seeing was the real deal and save money doing it, why wouldn’t everyone do it? There are some examples that are funny and some that are brilliant. The only qualifier here is that a cost-saving strategy had to have been used. Here are 15 Films That Used Brilliant Tricks to Convince Audiences It Had a Big Budget.
15. The Wizard Of Oz
We won’t try and pretend that The Wizard of Oz was a small-budget film. The $2,777,000 budget made it the most expensive film in MGM history at the time. That being said, they did need to cut some corners when making the film, if not for keeping expenses down then for safety reasons. The first attempts to make the tornado were done with a water vortex. It didn’t quite look right. They tried to film an actual tornado, but it made it more difficult and much more dangerous. They tried a rubber tornado too, but that didn’t move as fluidly. What they settled on was a muslin cloth wind sock, 35 feet in length. They wrapped the sock around chicken wire and attached the top of the sock to the ceiling of the stage and the base to a car on a track. As the car moved around the track, the sock would bend and contort, giving it the appearance of a tornado and making it one of the most realistic man-made tornadoes conceivable at the time.
14. Star Trek
In the 2009 film Star Trek, there’s a skydiving scene in which Kirk and Sulu dive through the air to do some stuff. You might think that the actors were actually skydiving, but you’d be stupid. If you were smarter, you would think they got this shot in the same way that most films get a similar shot—by suspending an actor by wires and pretending they’re flying through the air. That would be wrong too. Because the wire suspension rigs don’t allow for realistic motion, they scrapped that plan. What they came up with is much cheaper and actually more effective. They positioned the camera on a platform above the actors. Then, they had the actors stand on a large mirrored surface. They then blew air at the actor’s faces from above, and the reflective surface below the actor’s feet picked up the sky that was above them. The result is a shot that is both convincing and budget-friendly.
Jean Cocteau’s great film, Orpheus, has long been known for its special effects. They used some of the most innovative techniques available to them at the time to create what most saw as a revelation in film. There is one scene in particular which blew people’s minds, and no one could figure out how it was done. Well, that’s been revealed. The scene involves Orpheus walking through a mirror. There is even an angle that shows Orpheus putting his hand through the mirror with his reflection in the shot. How? Well, the key is in the gloves. In a brilliant and insanely dangerous move, Cocteau decided that the best way to accomplish the shot was to make the mirror from a pool of mercury. The magical gloves in the film were only used as a plot device after they decided that the only safe way to put a hand through mercury would be to have it gloved. So, they pretended that the gloves were magical and had Orpheus put them on to allow him to travel through the mirror.
12. The Terminator
When James Cameron was making The Terminator, he didn’t have the massive budget given to him that he has these days. He had to scrounge up what cash he could and shave off budgetary dollars in whatever ways possible. One of the most effective ways to save money was to shoot without permits throughout Los Angeles. The crew would gather after dusk and find abandoned areas of the city to create the proper atmosphere. What about that mist and fog present in many of the scenes? Well, that was real pesticide that the city was using at the time to curb the spread of the Mexican Fruit Fly. For some of the shots, Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger would be the only ones on set to minimize their chances of being caught filming without the proper paperwork.
11. A Nightmare On Elm Street
Considering that A Nightmare on Elm Street was made in the image of a low-budget horror film, it makes sense that its budget was small. Because of their cost limitations, the crew had to be creative when designing sets and sequences. Perhaps the most iconic scene in the film comes when Tina is thrown about the room during a dream with Freddy. The team had to create a way of having Tina pulled up to the ceiling and onto the walls with no visible ropes or any digital special effects. What they did to achieve the shot was build a set in a box. They then put the box on a rig that allowed someone on the outside to rotate the entire set. When Tina is up on the ceiling, the camera’s image is just flipped. In reality, the entire set has been physically turned upside down. They used this rig another time in the film. In Glenn’s (Johnny Depp) death scene when the blood flows out of the bed, the rig was turned upside down. A similar but much higher-budget version of this rig was used to film the hallway fight scene in Inception.
Many famous films have used the now popular Schufftan process. Before computer special effects, blue screens, and green screens made their mark, directors would need to be more creative to convince audiences that actors were in inaccessible places. Metropolis might be the film that made this Schufftan process the most famous because it’s the film that Schufftan refined the process on, but there were similar techniques being used earlier than this film. This process would film the reflected image of an actor onto that of a set piece by using a mirror at a 45-degree angle. The farther away the actors stood, the smaller their reflection would become, allowing the team to capture the actor’s image on a miniature set piece. This also allowed the film crew not only to save money on wildly expensive shots, but it allowed them to provide shots that were not possible at the time.
9. Dallas Buyers Club
You don’t have to look too hard at Dallas Buyers Club to realize that it has a small budget. Well, relative to what normal budgets in Hollywood are like, it was small. The initial requests from the film team was $8 million. When, at the last minute, the funding studio backed out, the team was forced to scramble to make up for it. They needed to find the most creative ways of minimizing costs. Both Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto were actually supposed to have their normal weight on in the film, but there was no food on set so the two actors just wasted away. No, that’s not true. But they did use 150 candles to light up a strip club because they couldn’t afford the standard lighting system. That’s taking poor to a whole new level.
8. The Ten Commandments
In the 1923 film The Ten Commandments, the crew had to devise a plan to create the iconic shot, the parting of the Red Sea. For budgetary reasons, they were unable to actually part the Red Sea. Instead, what they did to accomplish the shot was to pour water into a mold. The recording was then shown in the reverse to trick our eyes. Then, as the Israelites pass through the parted waters, we see the waters moving around them. That was done by filming a close up of Jell-O. They simply cut a center piece out of a Jell-O mold and filmed it jiggling as Jell-O is wont to do.
7. Gone With The Wind
We don’t want to confuse anybody. Gone with the Wind was not a small-budget film. It was reportedly the second most expensive film ever made at the time of its filming. Still, there were certain shots that were done inexpensively, either to save money or because it was the only way of actually capturing the shot. The latter is what we’re concerned about here. The scene in question is “the burning of Atlanta.” This shot was the very first one shot on the film, and the plan was to build a set and then torch it. Since this would have cost a fortune and they certainly couldn’t burn the real Atlanta, they came up with an ingenuous plan—burn the sets of other films. This would clear up some space at the same time. So, that’s what they did. They grabbed the wall from King Kong and other set pieces from The Last of the Mohicans and Little Lord Fauntleroy, they loaded it up with flammables and explosives, and burnt them down.
6. Dr. No
Before the James Bond films were a known commodity, the studios were hesitant about funding a project that was so British. They greenlit the Dr. No film, but there wasn’t a whole lot of money that was made available to the team. The major concessions were made on production and set design. Take a look at Dr. No’s apartment. That room is filled with the most budget-based objects you’ll ever see in a film. Here’s what the production designer, Ken Adam, said about his work on the film:
“The budget for Dr. No was under $1m for the whole picture. My budget was £14,500. I filled three stages at Pinewood full of sets while they were filming in Jamaica. It wasn’t a real aquarium in Dr. No’s apartment. It was a disaster to tell you the truth because we had so little money. We decided to use a rear projection screen and get some stock footage of fish. What we didn’t realise was because we didn’t have much money the only stock footage they could buy was of goldfish-sized fish, so we had to blow up the size and put a line in the dialogue with Bond talking about the magnification. I didn’t see any reason why Dr. No shouldn’t have good taste so we mixed contemporary furniture and antiques. We thought it would be fun for him to have some stolen art so we used Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington, which was still missing at the time. I got hold of a slide from the National Gallery – this was on the Friday, shooting began on the Monday – and I painted a Goya over the weekend. It was pretty good so they used it for publicity purposes but, just like the real one, it got stolen while it was on display.”
5. Planet Of The Apes
Even though this is one of the most common filming techniques used, we wanted to include it in some way, if only because it was so popular for a long stretch of time. Basically, almost every science fiction and fantasy film has used this technique to create the complex backgrounds and settings. We’ll use Planet of the Apes as the example. Throughout the film, there are many shots that required a background different than what we have on Earth. Look at the final shot with the Statue of Liberty on the beach, half covered in sand. The film crew could have built that in the sand, but that would cost a lot of money and take a lot of time. Instead, they hired a talented artist to paint a matte painting of the statue onto glass. They then positioned the painting to blend with the cliffs and film the scene with the painting positioned in such a way that it looms large in the background. This technique has been in countless films, including the government warehouse scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Death Star’s laser tunnel for Star Wars.
The studios wanted nothing to do with Psycho. It was too violent, too different, and too risky. Alfred Hitchcock, however, was determined to make the film. He continued to find ways of shrinking the budget and all salary demands so that eventually, they had to say yes. He would use his own Shamley Productions and shoot the film at Universal Studios with the Revue television unit, the unit that filmed his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He chose to do it in black and white as well, which saved money but also lessened the shock of the gore. By using his television crew and filming during some of the hours allotted for the show, Hitchcock was able to dramatically cut costs. The set was built inexpensively on the Universal lot where it remains to this day. While the people who funded Hitchcock’s television series probably weren’t thrilled that their resources were being misused, we got Psycho all out of the deal. So, we all win.
3. Ben Hur
In the old days of film, such as when the original Ben-Hur (1925) was being made, camera tricks were the only way of creating movie magic. This made filming into an art form and allowed the most creative minds to shine. Although Ben-Hur was the opposite of a small budget film (it was the largest of its time), there were financial difficulties on set, which meant that cuts had to be made in certain areas. For this film, one of the final scenes needed to be made as cheaply as possible—the scene that involves the title character, Ben-Hur, being reunited with his mother and sister. They are both afflicted with leprosy but Jesus, being the bro he is, cures them. In order to make the miraculous cure show up on camera, the crew used a new technique at the time. By filming in two-color Technicolor, the team realized that certain makeup was not visible with a red filter on the camera. So, the shot of the two lepers was filmed with the actresses wearing red makeup and the camera had a blue filter, which would showcase the makeup as black marks on their faces. When the filter was switched to a red one, the red makeup would magically vanish from sight.
2. Citizen Kane
Citizen Kane will always be known as one of the greatest films ever made. When Orson Welles was lured over to the film industry, RKO Pictures gave him an incredible offer, a huge contract, and unprecedented control over the film. That being said, the film still had a budget. There was a lot of creation going on at the set of Citizen Kane. New and inexpensive techniques were developed to create the best film possible. There were also major corners cut. In one scene, a hallway was decorated and played off as a living room. The most amazing of all is seen during the beach picnic scene. All by itself, this scene is a strange one, but there is some really interesting stuff happening in the background because Welles was trying to keep costs low. Instead of actually filming on a beach, they just created a set in the studios. For the background and evening sky, Welles reused shots from either King Kong or Son of Kong (likely the latter). We know that it’s one of these films because we can see Archaeopteryxs or Pteranodons flying around in the sky. There’s also a woman heard screaming during one of the tent scenes, which has become an urban legend about a real-life studio rape. It was much more likely to be some leftover sound from the Kong footage.
When Casablanca first got filming, they had a decent-sized budget and big plans. They shot the film in sequence because the script was being reworked as they went. The entire film was shot in studio, except for the scene that has Major Strasser arriving at the airport. This was filmed at the Van Nuys Airport. Now, the final scene in the film was intended to be shot on location (again, at an airport), but the film ran over budget and needed to minimize costs. Rather than do something crazy like film an actual plane, the crew just built a cardboard plane and used little people as extras to make it appear larger.
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