Robert Rodriguez: Master Cheapskate

UPDATE: For those of you with Netflix, the cult classic, full-length movie is now available to stream on demand.

Everybody on the bus -- and make sure you have your signed permission slips ready: It's field trip time.

Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez directed "Once Upon a Time in Mexico" and "Sin City," among other things. But before that he directed a little film called "El Mariachi," a feature-length flick made for just $7,000 in Mexico. Picked up for release in the US, it grossed over $2,000,000.00.

Why do you care? You are a still photographer, after all.

Because it is a fantastic example of what can be done with a little bit of gear, almost no money and a lot of imagination. Locals for actors, water guns as props, almost no wasted footage -- this thing squeezes blood out of a turnip. He even edits as he shoots, in-camera, to make his one movie camera look like several in the final product.

Hit the jump for part two of the 10-minute film school videos, where he shows us how he did the lighting -- with just two Home Depot utility lights. And not the expensive, $20.00 quartz ones, either.

So, how do you light a movie with two HD utility lights? Very closely, obviously. Especially when you have to make them soft lights, which kills most of the (non-existent) power.

I absolutely loved both of these videos. If you are a still shooter, there is much to be learned here. But if you are even dabbling in video, this stuff is gold.

Related links:

Pixelcadabra: D-Day On a Budget
and Basic Video Lighting Gear
Rodriguez' Book: Rebel Without a Clue


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Anonymous Shutterbug1997 said...

This is definately a strobist job "less gear, more brain"!! It's amazing what all he accomplished with so little to work with. Thank you for posting this DH.

February 08, 2008 11:29 AM  
Anonymous Dan Westergren said...

If you like this, be sure to check out the specials on the dvd "Once upon a time in Mexico." His gear is obviously more expensive now, but still bootstrap by Hollywood standards.

February 08, 2008 11:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its basically how TV news is shot: one camera, shot in sequences to look like it was shot by multiple cameras. And yes, the in camera edits help stories make the evening news deadlines.

February 08, 2008 11:57 AM  
Blogger Aaron Linsdau said...

That was awesome. What a return on the investment.

February 08, 2008 12:25 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

Wow. This is unbelievable, and very inspiring. It's good to see the guy who did Sin City was making flicks back in the day with NO gear. I bet the creativity required to pull it off definitely helped him grow, and learn things he wouldn't have otherwise. Great post.

February 08, 2008 12:27 PM  
OpenID thesisdesignlab said...

I've always admired this guy's approach. He still has that "get it done below budget and do it on your own terms mentality" today. I've been meaning to pick up his book "Rebel Without a Crew" for a little of that inspiration.

February 08, 2008 1:05 PM  
Blogger Terence said...

I have HUGE amount of respects for people like that - who overcome limitations in equipment, etc, with hard work and creativity.

Another "Cinderella story" director is Zhang YiMou, who directed Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower. But before he did all the big budget CGI hits, he did a series of simple stories - shot with one camera, lit with very little, about everyday struggles of peasants in China.

It was said that he sold blood for 5 months to gather up enough funds to buy his first camera. Now that's hard core

February 08, 2008 1:21 PM  
Anonymous Mike Wise said...

Loved that movie. I saw this one after "Desperado" with Antonio Banderas. I remeber watching this flick thinking...Wow...I think I might be able to film something like this.
This type of creativity is what shows that your imagination, your passion, and your hard work are definitely more important than spending tons of money. Anybody see "Waterworld" or any other high budget film that sucks? Exactly.

February 08, 2008 1:30 PM  
Blogger chinner said...

All of his movie DVDs (Sin City, Spy Kids, Desperado, Planet Terror) have 10 minute film school segments on them.

You might also find his book, "Rebel Without a Crew" interesting. Talks about how he shot El Mariachi, and his experiences from flunking out of film school to becoming the "it" person in Hollywood.

February 08, 2008 2:36 PM  
OpenID evinrudethedroid said...

Oh MAN!! A friend of mine gave me Rebel Without a Clue a few years ago as a birthday present, since I've been interested in having photography take me into cinematography. It is an incredible account of how FU@#ING dedicated that guy is to creating stories!!

OH! OH!! You should mention some of the special features of Once Upon a Time in Mexico, because he talks a lot about "working at the speed of thought" in regards to editing, sound engineering, and soundtracking for his films. He is one of the best examples of DIallY.

February 08, 2008 3:09 PM  
Blogger Kyle said...

I must say, I've always been a big fan of Robert's stuff, but there is a bit of a caveat with El Mariachi. If you read his book "Rebel Without a Crew" (BTW- a must read for anyone interested in filmmaking), you'll see how he made the original film for just under $10K, however, if there were a way to see that original film, you'd think it was shot for $5K. The copies you can find of it nowadays are all from the version that got picked up by the studio (I think it was Columbia/TriStar) and had a couple million bucks thrown at it to spruce it up.

Don't get me wrong, Robert is a very thoughtful, innovative director, but when it comes to film, there's only so much you can cheat with.

February 08, 2008 4:48 PM  
Anonymous Lane Hartwell said...

I studied film and video and made several super 8 and 16mm films before switching to still photography. My 5 minute 16mm documentary film cost probably about 1K to make, 300. of that was in titles alone...yikes! and that was 1991 prices! The cost, and the fact I really didn't enjoy having to work with a crew, ultimately led me to doing still work, which I love more. Still, it's fabulous to see how he innovates here and you can apply this knowledge to anything.

February 08, 2008 5:03 PM  
Blogger david fleason said...

Don't forget he also enrolled in several pharmaceutical trials of experimental drugs to fund El Mariachi!

Go Robert Rodriguez!!

February 08, 2008 10:40 PM  
Blogger david fleason said...

Don't forget he also enrolled in several pharmaceutical trials of experimental drugs to fund El Mariachi!

Go Robert Rodriguez!!

February 08, 2008 10:45 PM  
Anonymous Raji Barbir said...

Maybe it's because I'm a filmmaker as well, but I'm surprised you guys DIDN'T know about Rodriguez... the man is a legend in the independent filmmaker community, he even made the news (and that was back when I lived in Belgium - so it wasn't small news) precisely because he advocates the "less gear, more brain" mentality, encouraging filmmakers to just shoot on video (yes, video - not film) and get this, no crew either, saying you can get there (ie. Hollywood) regardless of your budget or gear.

To be fair, Rodriguez did shoot on 16mm film, not on video.

And the book, for those interested, is Rebel Without a Crew, not Rebel Without a Clue (as evinrudethedroid said)

February 09, 2008 12:59 AM  
Anonymous gfr76 said...

In terms of getting things done no matter what obstacles are placed before your goals. Robert Rodriguez is the poster boy for hurdling those obstacles. To this day w/ his much more substantialy funded films. He still argues to anyone in the studio system that overspending on a production is innecessary and stupid. For El MAriachi he used a wheelchair as a dollie and his star actor was the grip that pushed Robert around on. Pick up the book it's a great read. Evenif your not an aspiring filmaker.

February 09, 2008 3:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

some people have more time and patience than money. great project for rodriguez fer sure.

February 09, 2008 3:59 AM  
Anonymous Rollasoc said...

It's worth watching all the 10 minute film schools on most of his DVDs. (plus the 10 minute cooking sections)

February 09, 2008 7:20 AM  
Anonymous Jeffrey Friedl said...

The "Director's Commentary" on El Mariachi is 2 hours of this kind of instruction, full of amazing little gems.

For example, toward the very end of the 10-minute video there's a short clip of a lady counting cash. In the movie, it's the town's prison guard counting bribe money. In reality, it's the town's prison guard counting her own money.

February 09, 2008 8:59 AM  
Blogger Dave Bittner said...

Very cool stuff, and thanks David for linking to us over at Pixelcadabra, where we're all over this kind of look-good-on-a-budget kind of shooting.

My first lights for video were quartz work lights, and I bounced them off a piece of foam core to make a soft light. (Being able to eventually afford a flex-fill was a huge achievement at that point in my career!)

Years later we found ourselves on location, shooting interviews in a high a school media center, when the lamp on our 1K chimera blew, and we had no replacement on site. (Shame on us for that!) I grabbed a 600 watt fresnel from the Arri kit and bounced it off a big white piece of paper on an easel from the art room, and we continued the shoot. Just a few minutes of downtime, after pulling an old-school trick out of my hat. Looked great on camera, too.

February 09, 2008 2:41 PM  
Blogger Mingo said...

great video.. finally, i found something on the internet before you did!! ;)

February 09, 2008 3:08 PM  
Blogger Steve Thurow said...

One of the things Dean Collins taught in his workshops was that any light source can create soft light or hard light; for soft light make sure the source isn't further away than its largest dimension. So if you want soft light from a 32" umbrella make sure closer than 32" to your subject. If you want soft light from an on camera flash make sure it is less than 2" from your subject.

This leads to another lesson, the bigger your subject, the bigger your lights.

February 09, 2008 8:45 PM  
Blogger Lucas Mobley Photography : A Seattle Wedding Photographer said...

Really cool stuff, thanks! It makes me feel like faking it isn't such a bad way to go, if you do it well.

February 10, 2008 9:16 AM  
Blogger Nathan said...

Well now, After watching those two videos I want to sell up and buy a Video cam :D

February 11, 2008 12:53 AM  
Blogger Justin Vice said...

Speaking of being a cheapskate...

I found a cheap, quick, and easy snoot solution that should be appreciated by all the people in the world who hate ruining beautiful cereal boxes.

Large kitchen matches, lots of kitchen matches.

My snoots, and a shot made with one of them.

February 14, 2008 10:46 PM  
Blogger Sebastian said...

Robert Rodriguez is a very good film maker, his movie El Mariachi, is very good, he uses different types of lenses to make each scene look very intresting. The story is also very good and was also created by him.
If you like filmmaking, you should see "bedhead" which is a short film made in 1991 by robert rodriguez.
I am also a young filmmaker, and I make short films, specialised in how the media controls how people see young people. Right now I have one of my short films in my blog, its called "Life without a knife".
I used 2 different hd cameras, tripod. And it turned out very good. I wanted to make each shot worth the work.

January 17, 2009 8:20 PM  
Blogger Kevin said...

Definitely should pick up rebel without a crew its the build up to the filming of el mariachi and through to the end similar to your on assignment entries DH. Robert Rodriguez is definitely part of the giving out useful information crew. Plus its kinda motivation to get out there and just do it.

December 30, 2009 2:17 AM  

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