There’s no doubt that spending lots of money on a film will likely result in realistic computer-generated imagery (CGI), stunning visual effects, and top-notch acting. The same cannot be said, however, for movies that are shot on a far more modest scale. In fact, small budget films are often known for their less than expensive-looking props and laughable sets.
But sometimes you strike gold with inexpensive films, as was the case with the movie Paranormal Activity. Made on a teeny tiny budget of $15,000 in 2009, this thriller raked in $107.9 million domestically. Not too bad for a film that cost less to make than many people pay for vehicles.
Other times, however, thriftiness itself is the reason a movie shines. Here, we’ve collected a few of our favorite times it paid to pinch pennies on the big screen.
Cher and Dionne made runway styles attainable.
Besides putting Alicia Silverstone on the map, the movie Clueless also rescued teenagers everywhere from the burden of wearing all flannel, all the time. This pseudo-coming-of-age tale takes place during the 1990s, when grunge was in and taking showers was out.
Moody teenagers and young adults everywhere began listening to music created by people who didn’t seem to make personal hygiene a top priority. Dads across the globe noticed their long-sleeved flannel shirts disappearing mysteriously from their closets. Not only had this musical movement introduced a sound not heard before, it sparked a fashion trend that consisted of flannel, boots, and baggy jeans.
This less-than-composed style presented Clueless costume designer Mona May with quite a challenge. Director Amy Heckerling wanted her two main characters, Cher and Dionne, played by Silverstone and Stacey Dash, to wear the same styles kids in real high schools were. But she also knew the feisty fashionistas wouldn’t wear flannel if their lives depended on it. And besides, Heckerling wanted their wardrobe to exude luxury and style.
There was just one thing getting in the way of that: May’s costume budget for the movie wasn’t large enough to accommodate high-priced pieces and labels. So, she thought of something else.
“For the movie, I mixed thrift store with designer because I did not have a lot of money in my budget to buy designer things,” May told Vanity Fair. “It was about taking fashion from all different sources and predict [sic] what would be on the street six months ahead, like a fashion designer would.”
May also made many of the costumes herself to help stretch the budget, including Dionne’s iconic plaid First Day of School dress.
“Dolce & Gabbana did the yellow suit,” said May, referring to Cher’s back to school ensemble. “And then I made the Dionne suit. Amy and I both love plaid, and I think there is nothing better to have than a quintessential plaid skirt for a girl’s first day of school. But we had to go further with that [idea] for the movie, so we had to have the complete suit.”
Pretty much everyone with any passing knowledge of ’90s culture knows how iconic those outfits (and the ones in the rest of the movie) were. It’s thanks to that tiny budget and May’s ability to predict what would work for the Beverly Hills teens that has kept Clueless a fashion favorite for over 20 years.
This iconic reptile proved that less is more.
Before you knew him as the dinosaur-like creature everyone loves to hate, Godzilla actually went by the name Gojira, a literal mixture of the Japanese translation for gorilla (gorira) and whale (kujira).
Gojira, the result of a radioactive fallout, whose name was later changed to Godzilla, crushed the city of Tokyo like it was a pile of dead leaves. The film hit the screen in 1954, just nine years after the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki terrorized Japan. The concept of the movie is that nuclear testing is a slippery slope, and when you mess with it, you may just create a giant lizard-type monster. And then that lizard-type monster might come through your town, leaving it nothing more than a pile of rubble.
The poignant yet disturbing premise of Godzilla isn’t even what most fans like best about the legendary film. The monster formerly known as Gojira’s costume is the stuff that makes this film such a guilty pleasure.
Special effects supervisor Eiji Tsubaraya originally wanted to film the movie using the stop-motion technique he saw in the inspiration for Godzilla, the 1953 picture The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. But time constraints forced him to shoot a stuntman in a rubber suit destroying a small-scale replica of Tokyo, instead. He filmed the scene at double the speed, then slowed it down to create the effect he wanted, says The Telegraph
The latex costume that arguably made the thriller the success it became was anything but spectacular. The garment was strengthened by bamboo spars, and the person inside the suit was able to snap the jaw shut in an oh-so-terrifying way. But that’s all—nothing too spectacular.
It is this low-budget simplicity, however, that earned this movie a special place in the hearts of many film lovers.
No buts, no cuts, no coconuts—almost.
Who doesn’t love Monty Python and the Holy Grail, what with its silly characters and curious plot? And if you’ve never seen the comedy (shame!), you’ve at least heard of it.
Besides being a satire about the Knights of the Round Table, Holy Grail is also known for its modest budget. Although it was funded by the likes of rock legends Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, the film didn’t have the financial muscles it needed to compete with other films at the time.
So, the Monty Python crew improvised.
The movie didn’t have the budget to afford horses, but the group didn’t let a little thing like that get in the way of creating movie magic.
In one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, knights pretend to ride horses while their assistants bang coconuts together. For those who don’t get it, the coconut noise is used to simulate the sound of horse hooves, thus making it appear that the knights are indeed actually riding on horses.
This clever thinking not only made finishing the scene possible, but it also created a running joke that is still talked about today, over four decades after the film was released.
A guitar string came to the rescue.
How do you build up enough terror in a scene that your audience screams with delight when the villain finally makes an appearance? If you’re Steven Spielberg, you use a guitar string.
Spielberg, known to spare no expense with his films, was on the hunt to create an image that built tension and suspense leading up to the dinosaur’s terrifying grand entrance in the blockbuster film Jurassic Park. He envisioned a plastic cup of water sitting on a car dashboard, vibrating with each step the dinosaur takes. The only problem was, he couldn’t figure out how to achieve this specific effect.
The director looked to the film’s dinosaur effects supervisor Michael Lantieri for help. For his part, Lantieri enlisted inspiration from his guitar.
“I set a glass and started playing notes on a guitar and got to a right frequency … a right note … and it did exactly what I wanted it to do.” Lantieri said in an interview.
To make the water dance, the crew fed a guitar string through a car, on the ground. When the time was right, a person lying next to the string was instructed to pluck it. The result? Cinema gold created for less than 10 bucks.