• Thoughts on filmmaking

Monsters – incredible low budget filmmaking

By - Richard - 5th April 2011

So I might be jumping on the bandwagon a bit here, but I finally got round to seeing Gareth Edwards’ stunning debut feature film Monsters.

Filmed in Central America over the course of 6 weeks, Monsters has rightly been heralded as a masterclass in the execution of low-budget filmmaking. Sticking to what he knows best, director Gareth Edwards – whose striking work as a visual effects artist – completed almost 300 computer generated effects shots himself after editing the film.

Monsters tells the story of a photojournalist working in Central America who is sent to pick up his boss’s daughter from hospital and see that she gets back home to America safely. The pair begin a tense journey (and a blossoming romance) as a series of unfortunate incidents sees them trek through the ‘infected zone’ – an area of land along the US border inhabited by huge extra-terrestrial creatures.

The result is a film which plays beautifully to its strengths. Using found locations ranging from post-apocalyptic building sites to picturesque desert roads damaged by natural disasters, the atmosphere generated by these landscapes is hypnotic. Like Werner Herzog’s Rescue Dawn, the director has been liberated by using a core cast of just two actors. This enabled the cast and crew to head  into the wild to find suitable locations and shoot on the hoof. The sparing use of visual effects – partly by necessity – is also incredibly effective. Using the Jaws-effect whereby we are rarely treated to shots of the monster, we remain in constant fear of what we sense but cannot see. And when we are treated to the site of the extra-terrestrial creatures – most notably at the end of the film in one of the most magical scenes in recent memory – they are beautifully rendered, equal to, in fact surpassing anything that may be found in a film with a budget 100 times it size.

And indeed it’s the film’s budget which has caused such excitement. Allegedly shot for just £15,000, the director self-shot the film on a Sony PMW EX3 camera using adaptable Nikkon prime lenses. The rich and stunningly detailed photography is complemented beautifully by two subtle but effective lead performances. Real husband and wife team Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able cut a fine line between pathos and humility and their burgeoning romance adds a much needed human heart to this story.

I for one have always been hugely inspired by the low-budget films which really break through into the public consciousness. Having been inspired to become a filmmaker myself by the likes of  Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi, Shane Meadows’ TwentyFourSeven, Darren Aronofsky’s Pi and Christopher Nolan’s Following, Monsters is every bit as groundbreaking and worthy of praise as these aforementioned films. The film serves as an essential instruction manual to the DIY ethics of debut feature filmmaking.

Gone are the constraints of shooting on film (stock, development, negative cutting, telecine etc) – high definition video has got to be one of the most exciting innovations in the film industry in the last 50 years. Expect to see a new wave of filmmakers embracing the format and breaking through with exceptional low budget films. The technology is now there to produce truly cinematic images on cameras purchased for less than £5000. Throw a laptop with some editing software into the mix and all the tools are there for anybody to produce their masterpiece for a fraction of what it may have cost to develop and process a handful of 16mm film reels.

But Monsters isn’t just a showcase in technically great filmmaking. At its heart is a thoughtful, intelligent and poignant story touching on themes of loss, power and primeval fear. The story also serves as an allegory of the futility of forced military occupation offering a powerful critique of America’s foreign affairs policies.

Monsters proves that by playing to your strengths, collaborating effectively, with enough drive and determination, anything is possible. It’s the finest low budget debut feature film I’ve seen in the last 10 years. Go check it out!

About the Author

Richard Nicholls - Managing Director

Before launching Swift Films, Richard worked as a broadcast TV director and editor, working on programmes for the BBC, ITV and Sky.

A multi-skilled and technically-minded filmmaker, Richard is equally at home coming up with creative concepts as he is on location filming or pulling footage together in the edit suite.

Richard is a member of Independent Producers Scotland and has a love of cats, football, chocolate and Film Noir (in that order).