Wednesday , May 29 2024

RTX Austin: Zero-Budget Film Production, Right Before Your Eyes

Even the most modest film production, and I’ve done a few, tends to get expensive quickly. When I saw the panel “High Quality Production for $0.00!” on the agenda at RTX Austin, I immediately added it to my schedule.

RTX (Rooster Teeth Experience) Austin brings together fans, filmmakers, celebrities, cosplayers, and more to enjoy the output from this super-successful entertainment company. This year’s RTX Austin took place August 3 to 5.

Enter the Lab

The Rooster Teeth Lab put on the session. Lab honcho Patrick Pope explained the origin of his group. “When Rooster Teeth began,” he said, “it was just Burnie and Matt running around making videos of whatever caught their interest.”

Lab leader Patrick Pope talks about the purpose of The Lab

The Burnie and Matt he referenced – Burnie Burns and Matt Hullum – founded Rooster Teeth. Since its beginning 15 years ago, it has grown to have a following of 45 million subscribers on YouTube and is now a subsidiary of Otter Media, a joint venture between AT&T and The Chernin Group.

Pope said that the mission of the Lab was to reboot that spontaneous creativity. To that end, the Lab is given access to the equipment and space at Rooster Teeth’s north Austin studio – but no budget.

Pope continued, “Burnie and Matt said what we don’t have now is a group that just runs around and shoot things like we used to. I volunteered and put together a team of crazies. We keep our fingers on the pulse of the community and the rest of the world. Every week or so we dump ideas for shows, then we play around in the dump yard. Matt and Burnie also remembered they didn’t have any money, so that’s what they gave us.”

A Brand New Car!

Then came the Oprah moment. “Everyone, look under your chairs!” Pope said.

No, we all didn’t get a new car. We got a note card and a pen. Pope requested that we take a few minutes to write down ideas that his group could make for no budget. They collected the cards in a big orange Home Depot bucket, then dumped them on the team members’ table at the front. The team looked through the cards and talked about ones they thought had potential.

Ellie Main reacts to audience suggestions

Ideas suggested by the audience included hobbies of the staff, “you read our minds,” beat box meetups, a kid wakes up as a superhero but without the power, a kid wakes up as a food, a kid wakes up as Burnie, and how to fight wild animals.

That one piqued interest.

Pope asked the person who suggested it, and several other fans, to come up to the front and show how they would play an animal. After some discussion, How to Fight Wild Animals was chosen as the topic for the session.

Surprise Number Two

“Part of zero budget production,” Pope explained, “is that it lets you shoot without delay. So, let’s shoot this right now.”

Pope assigned his team members. Neal Werle became director, recent University of Texas graduate Vance Nguyen set up the shooting environment and green screen, and Pope interviewed audience members to play the animals.

Pope assigned Ellie Main to be the David-Attenborough-like narrator. (She already had a British accent so that helped.) Christina Parish, who has a background in improv, found a blond wig in the team’s prop box, so she decided to play the main role, a modern-day female Canadian Steve Irwin, as if she were Rooster Teeth icon Barbara Dunkelman, who recently stared in Blood Fest. That’s not too complicated, right?

Christina Parish, left, and Ellie Main rehearse the intro

As the set was constructed, Pope explained that for this kind of production you should amass a box of props and costumes that you can easily transport. He had the audience members dig through the box to find things that could represent the animals they would play.

Pope said, “We are afforded the luxury of the Rooster Teeth campus, but we don’t have a budget, so this is the way we work. We have an idea and we do it. One of the things you should have as a no-budget producer is to have someone who has the opposite skill set from you. I am a producer/director, so I need a partner that’s an editor who can visualize shots.”

Before you could say “no budget,” How to Fight Wild Animals was in production.

Pope said that they usually try to have a three-hour time frame for shooting and a three-day turnaround on editing. “You should be able to see this Thursday or Friday,” he said. “Or, maybe on the weekend.”

Pope closed the session with the observation, “I guess we didn’t actually give you any tips for no-budget production.”

That may be true, but, better than tips, we watched one.

More of the Lab’s work can be found here.

(Photos by author)

About Leo Sopicki

Writer, photographer, graphic artist and technologist. I focus my creative efforts on celebrating the American virtues of self-reliance, individual initiative, volunteerism, tolerance and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.

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