Filmmaker Ben Parslow makes 'Hollywood production' on a tiny budget

Ever wondered how much it would cost to shoot a short film in a post-apocalyptic world mixed with action, sci-fi and special effects? It is not often that filmmakers will dare to take on the Hollywood machine on a small scale, but ‘Rat King’, directed by Benjamin Parslow proves how great imagination can deliver high budget concepts in a ‘low budget’ production.

‘Rat King’ is set in a distant future where Earth has become uninhabitable after a nuclear war. The film depicts the story of a man who has to go out on the Earth’s surface to find the remains of a doomed satellite. Little does he know, that there is something more than just the desolate toxic landscape above.

Shot on a budget of just $1200, Parslow has directed a visually stunning film with an intriguing array of characters. The cinematography, costumes, sound design, locations, set design and direction create a gripping atmosphere that proves how indie filmmaking can really excel in this genre.

'The Rat King' Short film (full version)

Ben Parslow reveals how he made the film and what it took to bring the elements together. Check it out below and discover a great lesson in guerilla filmmaking so you can take your creativity to new heights.

Interview with Ben Parslow

Iain: What did you shoot on and how did you approach the cinematography to create the sense of a post-apocalyptic world?

Ben: We shot the film in the summer of 09', with what was then the only DSLR camera to support video: the Nikon D90. Ray Mist was the cinematographer and we had collaborated on a few previous films. We talk extensively about the "look" of the film. I was always a fan of in-camera color correction, because I like to know exactly what the image will look like on set, and this is how we both always shot - with little to no post-production color added. So we worked on achieving what would look like a toxic landscape. We tried several tests in-camera, balancing the color to extremes, and eventually coming to a palette of blue tones.

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Iain: How did you shoot your movie with a $1200 budget and what elements were you able to get for in-kind?

Ben: People are always shocked when they find out how cheaply I create things. One answer is I whittle everything down to it's function and aesthetic value, and try to find creative solutions to problems that "normal" productions would just throw money at. I subsequently edit a lot. We used the boiler-room of my university, finding rooms in the deepest part of the subfloors, rooms with wire cages instead of walls and large pipes hung against every ceiling. We shot in locations that were abandoned and of course, no-one would have to pay for permits. Another trick was the "closed frame" approach to storytelling, where the camera is confined to tight spaces for close-ups and details of the world; this creates a claustrophobic effect and implies other forces are inhibiting the characters to move freely - a technique often used in horror films.

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Iain: How did you develop your characters and was it difficult to get the right costumes and props?

Ben: The characters changed a lot during principal photography, we re-shot two scenes entirely. We ran into a problem with the character Zach Sanchez played, who was this fascist android, part man, part machine and...all evil. Originally we shot the scene as him being all man, where he was playing a more futuristic Nazi, rather then a soulless machine. The issue with Zach was that he was very young-faced and his credibility as this high-ranking officer was not that believable. So I went home and drew up some sketches of how we could physically alter his character to be more credible and I eventually came up with the idea of hiding his age with prosthesis, imagining an oppressive police officer who looked like he was being tortured himself. This was achieved by the dental contraption applied to the actor's face, which was just a wire coat hanger bent to hold and expose his mouth open. The rest of the costumes were collected and altered from Goodwills and army surplus stores by myself.

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Iain: Why did you decide to open the 'Rat King' with animation like storyboards?

Ben: This was another creative decision based on the idea that the world of the film would just be too intense to be "thrown-into". There had to be some exposition before we could dive into the abstract. I'm a big proponent of this marriage between the linear and the abstract. At first, I thought about illustrating these ancient drawings that could be like artifacts, detailing the world before it collapsed and I tried sketching a few, but my drawings were too similar to the world we were about to watch. These drawings had to come from someone on the outside, as if they were from a time capsule long before the events of the film, chronicling an age past. I eventually asked my friend Chris Fontaine to provide illustrations from a pre-modern point of view, only explaining the events that occurred hundreds of years before the film took place; I didn't give him the script, or explain much more than the horror and corporatism that replaces humanities laws (not that futuristic), when he drew those illustrations. In the same manner you work with a storyboard artist, I gave him the freedom to imagine the abstract nature of these events, like the rise of the catholic church, the plague and it's connection with rats. The linear narrative was written around the final images, and the marriage of the two was beautiful. We set up this tone of gothic horror, and jump into a dystopic future. Now you know what you're getting into.

sci fi short film

Iain: Which movies influenced you to shoot this action/ sci-fi short?

Ben: Alien and Bladerunner are films that highly influenced me as a kid, and this film was probably spawned from those, but I get my influences from all over. Elements of video games could be linked to the film as well, games like "Fallout" and the now archaic adventure game, "Space Quest" were enjoyable experiences and subsequently fuelled my imagination for the conception of this film. If I had a proper budget, I would have hired H.R. Giger to do the conceptual artwork; he did the artwork for the Alien films.

Iain: What are the lessons you learned from shooting this short, and can you give any tips to filmmakers looking to create a futuristic concept with a low budget?

Ben: If you're going to attempt a low-budget sci-fi, don't write your story around the use of heavy CGI or effects, try to employ optical effects that you know will achieve the same desired result, optical effects are much more fun anyway and hold up better in the long run. There's no point in competing with Hollywood, develop your story and characters, make them the visual candy of your story, because story and character will always trump effects.


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