Getting away with it


Sometimes there’s a budget, and sometimes there’s not. I don’t mean, “there’s no budget. We only have like $20,000 to spend” no budget. I mean, no budget. But sometimes you have an idea that you dig so much you just have to see it get made, and budget or not, you go for it. I used to do this with short films. Problem is, with a short it means putting in all this time and effort for a few minutes of moving images, which ultimately offer no financial return. Enter the world of crowdsourced commercials. Sites like these allow you to apply all you know about production, but with the potential promise of making a buck. However, since you are working with the hopes of selling your spot rather than being given a nice juicy budget to work with up front, you learn to get creative. Chris Collins and I recently shot a 60-second spot for Paypal, through (which, if you have never explored, I highly recommend. There are some great assignments through those guys). Click the link below to check out the finished product. Then I’m going to give you a few tricks and tips as I talk about the process of getting this spot shot.

Paypal – No Pockets Required

When shooting guerilla style, the best thing you can do is:

1.) Get a hot actress. In our case, we stepped it up a notch and got a hot, naked actress. Before you write me off as a simple chauvinist, hear me out. We’re shooting practically in the middle of the road in Pasadena. Sure enough, not an hour goes by when a cop car rolls past our set. I predicted this would happen, and the conversation that ensued was exactly what I expected, as well.

Two male cops peer sheepishly out the window.

COP 1: She’s wearing somethin’ under there, right?

US: Of course, officer!

COP 2: Wouldn’t want to take you in for public indecency.

Everyone laughs.

US: Not us sir, no way.

COP 1: Alright then, good luck with your shoot.

And just like that, they’re gone. You’d have to be a real jerk to shut down a small production with a hot naked girl about to go up for a take. Very few people are that obnoxious.

2.) Keep it small. If you’re doing this on your dime, even if people are working on deferred pay, every extra head equals $20 in meals and parking. Not to mention, you start to become a bit of a crowd. What we did on this shoot (which was shot, with the exception of the supermarket, entirely in Pasadena, CA) was have a centralized parking area right next to the first location. We staged all our equipment and food out of the cars, and had everyone who didn’t have to be around the camera at any given moment hang out by those cars. The other side of the keep-it-small coin is don’t go too small. Be realistic about what crew you need. Sometimes I can get away without a makeup person if my actress can do herself, but there’s no way Aline would have put in two sets of  hair extensions on her own. Likewise, having a producer to watch my back on this one was pretty crucial. It gave Chris and I more time to concentrate on the creative side, and avoid making stupid mistakes.

3.) Feed your crew. A little goes a long way. Buy your people lunch, and they’ll be all the happier to generously donate their time to your production.

4.) Get people excited! A favor is a favor, but if you want people to really do their best in every given department, you need to make them as excited about your vision as you are. As a director, I see that as a big part of my job, and fortunately with a concept as quirky as what we had here, simply giving them the pitch was oftentimes enough to get people to start smiling.

5.) Keep it simple. This pertains to everything. Be realistic about your concept. You can and should be doing something creative, unique, and thus probably a little bit more difficult to pull off. But if our spot required a naked girl walking around town, and ninjas jumping around on the rooftops, chances are we wouldn’t have gotten it done. Not on $300. Same goes for the shot list. If you have a day to shoot, and you’re chasing the sun, come up with a shot list that gives you the coverage you need, tells the story and makes sense. Again, always be doing something creative, but if you start writing in jib moves and all kinds of nonsense, you’re simply not going to make your day. Keep. it. simple.


That’s it for now! We hope you like the spot–it was submitted to Poptent on Monday, and Paypal should be announcing their picks in mid July. As always, please share your production experiences with us. We’re all in this together.

Talk soon,


Twitter: @ilyalucid

Jared Abrams is a cinematographer based in Hollywood, California. After many years as a professional camera assistant he switched over to still photography. About two years ago a new Canon camera changed the way the world sees both motion and still photography. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
  • Nate Weber

    Haha. I love the conversation with the cop. I can totally see this happening.

  • Bethelmotionpictures

    does any of the money go to poptent????
    how does poptent make their money?

  • Ilya

    Bethel is the name of the town I grew up in :)
    I’m not sure how Poptent makes their money, but I’m assuming they charge the companies a premium for hosting the competition and blasting it out to their creators.

  • Ilya


  • Sam Wilkerson

    I just got done shooting part of a short with some friends. The tricky part was that, due to college schedules, one member of our cast had to leave back to college before anyone ells. We had to pull off all sorts of quick shoots while trying to figure out how to frame it to trick the audience that the two actors were filmed weeks apart. Great fun for post indeed!

  • Jeremy Widen

    Great post. I know I’m more willing to work on shorts/ for free/ on student films if I know there is food around.

    Had a similar conversation with cops here in SF. But instead of a hot, naked chick, we had a burly guy cutting meat with a machete in the back of a UHaul…

  • Ilya

    Wow…and that conversation ended in him leaving you guys alone?

  • Ilya

    Nice. I always remember El Mariachi when I hear about tricks like that. 

  • Anonymous

    Great article !

    Saw the spot: pretty good. Only nitpicks (I’m like that, what can I do…): the girl’s hair was too obviously glued to her breasts. Not very subtle. And that rolling shutter at the 8th second just kills me. Hopefully, I’ll be part of the FX touch ups.

  • PetePeterson

    Here’s one of the many over looked problems with poptent…
    Once your work has been submitted to a “contest”, its lives on their site for life.
    Let me explain. If your spot is purchased or not, if you make 10k or lose all the money you invested,
    poptent WILL NOT take down your work and you can not delete your submission. They own your work. Lastly, you can’t even delete your profile. EVER. Its a huge flaw and should be against privacy policies.

    Lets say for example your work gets better (as most of ours do) and you want to update your reel by getting rid of the sub par material. YOU CANT DELETE IT! 
    Or, perhaps you get picked up for a director representation through a commercial production company. A dream many of us strive for. But on the contract, it states “your work cant appear on any crowd sourcing sites past, present or future. Nor can you participate in any third party contests or crowd sourcing while under this contract.”
    Guess what? Your not getting signed. You’ll be making spec spots for life.

    If all of that is fine with you, then poptent is the place to be. You can make some extra cash and build your reel at the same time.

  • FrankApollonio

    I really enjoy your lighting videos chris… Im also from Jersey, trying to be a DP, and I work at Sun Center Studios in Philly. At least your in the camera department!! Im dying to get on production side of things.