How do budding film buffs, lacking experience or funding, start making movies? Traditionally, there have been a few ways to pull it off. They can follow the conventional wisdom and go to film school, spending a few years writing and fundraising before taking on their own projects. They can go the vocational route and find studio work, taking tech roles on other people’s movies before doing their own.
But now, it’s also possible to be a nerd, pick up a smartphone, and cut together a film with no budget or training at all. Earlier this month, a group of eight New Zealand students filmed a shot-for-shot remake of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith over the course of five days. Thanks to its faithfulness to the original (and because it’s adorably shitty), it swiftly went viral.
“Most of us were complete novices and have no real experience in creative arts, filmmaking, and the like,” Tim Hoekstra, a member of the film’s crew, tells The Verge. “The fact we could make a full-length feature film on a zero-dollar budget without any special equipment is pretty awesome.”
Thanks to the proliferation of accessible, affordable gear and software, low-budget fan films have exploded on platforms like YouTube and Vimeo. And the shot-for-shot remake, which aims to painstakingly re-create beloved scenes and even entire movies, is enjoying a quiet yet extended moment in the sun, as both the purest expression of love for a nerdy property and one of the best ways to learn filmcraft.
Fan filmmaking is a huge and hallowed corner of fandom. Over the last several decades, amateur and professional filmmakers have produced movies drawing on everything from Star Wars and Star Trek to Venom and Power Rangers to show their devotion to the properties they love. As a genre, fan films exist between remixes and original work; they draw heavily from established canon, but often set out to do something new. And it’s not uncommon that some of the best or most surprising ones develop followings of their own.
Shot-for-shot work lives a few steps deeper into the fan-film cottage industry. Directors set out to re-create every scene as faithfully as possible, with meticulous attention aimed at blocking, cadence, camera angles, and even the soundtrack. Like any movie, short, or even trailer, they vary wildly in quality. Gus Van Sant was reviled in 1998 when he claimed his $60 million Psycho remake would be a shot-for-shot duplicate of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic. On the other hand, Michael Haneke’s 2007 English-language reproduction of his 1997 German-language film Funny Games was widely regarded as an interesting experiment.
And then there’s 2008’s Be Kind Rewind, which helped kick off a brief trend of “sweded,” low-rent remakes of popular movies. Now, anyone can find any number of far more enjoyable remakes online that were made for pennies and look the part. Their appeal lies in how creative and quirky those involved have to be to pull off a no-budget remake of, say, Spider-Man: Homecoming.
Hoekstra and company — who’ve decided to call themselves the Knights of Renesmee, a play on the Knights of Ren from The Force Awakens and Bella Cullen’s daughter Renesmee in the Twilight saga — had just come down from a Star Wars marathon high when they decided to shoot their tribute film. They wanted to honor the franchise they adored by making their own version of their favorite movie in the series.
“Revenge of the Sith is probably our favorite Star Wars film,” Hoekstra says, “though none of us were game enough to admit it, and we thought we could basically quote the entire film at the time. Turns out we couldn’t, but we finished it anyway.”
The entire film was shot with just a Samsung Galaxy A5. To make the bare-bones VFX, the Knights used Microsoft PowerPoint to create starfighters, and Rebaslight, a free tool made specifically to create lightsaber effects. The result is a bad movie, but one that sends up what most Star Wars nerds already regard as a bad movie. It’s a loving parody that reminds the audience that Revenge of the Sith’s more objectionable elements — the stilted dialogue, bad acting, and bizarrely misogynistic plotting — can still be fun, especially through a lo-fi lens.
Most importantly, the shot-for-shot project was an opportunity for the group to actually learn about filmmaking now that it’s easy to try it with minimal investment. At the dawn of the home video boom, making anything like what Hoekstra and his friends pulled off would have been much harder.
“Back when we were doing this as kids in the '80s, as far as we knew, we were alone in the world,” says Eric Zala, director of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation, a shot-for-shot remake of Steven Spielberg’s 1981 original. Zala and his friends Chris Strompolos and Jayson Lamb started the project back in 1982, but given the cost, the lack of low-budget home media tools, and the difficulty of accessing editing equipment, it took them seven years to finally complete it.
“When we finally finished shooting [in] 1988, our only means of avoiding consumer VHS-to-VHS editing strategy was a connection with the local TV station,” he says. “So we used editing equipment when it wasn't being used, from 10 o'clock at night to 7 in the morning. You have to really, really want it, to live like a vampire for a whole summer at a TV station.”
For Zala, who just completed a 65-city tour for Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made, having the “fire in the belly” to go above and beyond for the film’s sake is what really gets one made. Technology has made it possible to make a movie in five days, but that’s still no substitute for the will to complete a project. That may explain why so many shot-for-shot remakes are science fiction fan films: fandom has no shortage of obsession and enthusiasm. And fandom is as good a place to start as any right now. At a time when genre movies from Marvel, DC, Lucasfilm, and even Hasbro have essentially taken over Hollywood, there are plenty of fan-beloved projects to pay homage to and poke fun at, with more released every week. Those efforts encourage a kind of appreciation for filmmaking that might not have been built in before the project began.
“When we decided to remake Raiders when we were 11 and 12, we said, ‘Okay, great!’ I thought it was only gonna take a mere summer. Then on PBS, [we saw] Spielberg flipping through the storyboards. ‘Storyboards… Yeah…’” Inspired by those storyboards, Zala and friends wound up creating 602 of their own for their adaptation.
For Hoekstra and the Knights of Renesmee, their love of Episode III, as bad as it is, helped them start and finish their own shot-for-shot. That’s worth commending on its own, but they’re already raring for their next project.
“Upon rewatching the film,” Hoekstra says, “we see tons of things we would do differently in future projects. And as the editor, I certainly will never watch a Star Wars movie the same way again. I watched Attack of the Clones last night and found myself constantly critiquing all the film's elements, and plotting how we could reinterpret them for our next project.”