by Elliot Grove for Raindance
Let’s make a film!
Short films are some of the favourite films at Raindance Film Festival. The beauty of a short film is you don’t need to have experience, money or training to make one. A short can be anything from a few seconds (like a Vine video) to 45 minutes (according to the Oscars™).
This toolkit shows you how to make a short film.
Step 1. Get a script together
A short film is a unique type of story. Because it is short you can’t use the normal opening story techniques of a feature.
Here's some ways professional screenwriters create stories for short films. You need to hook your audience. These story techniques condense the opening into a few seconds.
Universal moment: a short film favourite. Wedding, first kiss, national and religious holidays, championship sporting events
Cyclical story: stories that tend to start and end at the same place, but there is now new meaning
Time bomb: where something specific must happen in a certain time or else dire consequences will befall the character
Here's some idea generation exercises. Can you write a hundred words on one of these? Could it become the basis for a short film?
- the office prank
- a day in the life of ...
- the local bus stop
There are loads of tricks to generate ideas for shorts.
A script for a short need not be written in industry standard format. But it should be written in what filmmakers call a ‘Shot List’, a simple a one or two line description of each shot the camera takes.
Check out the other steps below and happy filmmaking!
Step 2. The budget and schedule
A budget is simply a list of all the stuff and people you need to make a film. The schedule is when and where you need the stuff and people. You need to be rigorous in creating the business plan. Simply list all the things and people you think you need, and after each note write down how you are going to pay them.
There are three ways filmmakers get paid. The first, of course, is cash – usually negotiated around a day rate. The second is deferred payment which implies the crew or cast member invests sweat equity in return for a slice of the profits, if anything. And the third way is ‘in-kind’. Often equipment manufacturers will loan you expensive equipment in return for a promotional credit. Other time brands will pay handsome sums of money to have their product placed in the film (known as product placement).
Here’s the crunch. You want to make a movie but you don’t have much money. Can you make a movie without any money? Of course you can. My first intern, Edgar Wright did. I met Christopher Nolan when he was making his first film "Following" for hardly any cash.
Do you want to make a movie without any money? Lets look at what costs money to make a film:
actors (the more actors the more mouths to feed)
CGI and special effects (you can’t afford them)
locations (every time you move your cast and crew it costs money)
Here’s the film that launches every single writer/director career in America: find a script where you take a dozen kids to a house and chop them up. Is this not "Paranormal Activity", "Blair Witch Project", "Reservoir Dogs", "Night of the Living Dead", "Following"? There are many more (and a fair number of them screened at Raindance).
Why does this work? Because it’s cheap to shoot. Of course there are a few more things you need to think about in order to minimise the budget. Once you've minimised those costs, you can minimise them again.
Should you need more insight, we've also got our Lo-to-No-Budget Filmmaking course.
What was your idea for a film again? Don't lose your original idea. But how about revising it based on locations and number of actors?
Step 3. The shoot
It’s the moment of truth. You're going to get everybody and everything you need to the right place at the right time. Then you are going to expose your actors to image capture devices (camera) and record their voices (sound).
When shooting on a lo-to-no budget production, you need to be even more prepared. As Martin Scorsese once put it, talking about his experience on the Roger Corman-produced Boxcar Bertha, "the less money I had to make it, the better prepared I had to be". To turn a painful shoot into an easy shoot, wee've got a few simple things you can do. Sound is also a crucial part, and it's one of those things that can either make or break your finished product. Chances are you'll shoot with a small team, but there are a several hacks of cinema 2.0 we could think of to help.
Step 4. Cameras
Consider the camera the way an artist uses a paintbrush, or a sculptor uses a chisel: it's a tool.
Considerations when choosing a camera
There’s two things to look for in a camera: compression and lenses. The signal recorded by your cell is exactly the same signal as recorded by the big electronic cameras used by George Lucas – HD. With compression, the more pixels the more definition in the final image. Professional cameras allow you to use lenses which allow you to ‘paint’ the picture and add depth where needed. Small digital cameras in cell phones use apps to mimic these effects.
Shooting with DSLR is a good compromise between professional, Hollywood-style cameras and shooting with your iPhone. If you know how to use it, it can be very powerful -and it's really simple. You can also shoot extremely complicated shots and put the smaller camera in tricky places so as to achieve innovative angles, as Guillermo Arriaga (writer of "21 grams" and "Babel") did in the award-winning short Broken Night which premiered at Sundance in 2013. It was shot entirely with a high-range DSLR, the NIKON D800. They've got a very large range of cameras: (more info in the gear guide), and they all capture great images which can match your filmmaking needs.
Super 8mm Cameras
If you like the look of film, Super 8mm is the entry level format. Cameras are readily found in camera shops and on eBay starting at £100.00. The trick is to get the film stock and processing with a transfer to digital to make it easier to edit. A roll of 2 ½ mins/4 mins (depending on frame rate) will set you back £60.00. You’ll get that gritty cool image quality that is all the vogue. Don’t forget you’ll have to record sound separately.
Holding a lightweight camera stable is tricky. Support your supporting arm with a sling or scarf to take the bounce out of the shot. There’s also a number of cheap stabilisers.
Step 5. Gadgets
GripTight GorillaPod stand
Fitting all best-selling lightweight cameras, this flexible tripod will grip your device safely and securely to capture footage from various angles and heights. Great for when you’re on the go, it's compact and foldable and gives the flexibility to create any shot you can think of.
Camera table dolly
Track and pan like a pro with this compact, affordable dolly. With an adjustable friction arm, you’re able to shoot at different angles. Attach your phone by simply clamping it down.
Again, light is essential to sculpting the images in the movie, and therefore key to creating a distinctive visual style for your film. There are different kinds of light, which can help you create a given atmosphere, so it's best to explore a bit beforehand.
Step 6. Apps:
A professional shot listing and scheduling app for your iPhone. Keep it all accessible in one place instead of fiddling around with piles of paper! Also, with the ability to sync your project with your entire crew, add storyboards to every shot, and import scripts to save time building projects, your shooting day is sure to be a lot easier.
One of the most popular screenwriting softwares on desktop, Celtx has brought everything that's good e. This allows you to write perfectly formatted scripts right from your phone or tablet, as well as collaborating with others. You can also backup all your scripts for free. With your script on your mobile device, you'll be far more efficient.
Another entry in the Celtx series, you can design shots on your mobile device, and share them with your team. It's a handy trick that will definitely help you at the time of shooting.
Step 7. Recording sound
The quickest way to ruin your movie is with bad sound. Sound is more important than picture. Unless you have access to an expensive post-production sound facility what you capture on the set will be the sound you are stuck with.
be aware of where you shoot. Stay away from planes, trains and automobiles.
get a boom operator to get your microphone as close as possible to the actors. No Boom Op? Get a RODE mic you can plug into your camera and point it directly at the actors.
Spend some money and pick up some tiny Sony digital voice recorders (under £50) plus lavaliere mics (under £20) you can hide in your actors clothes for better sound.
Or, you can go for small, convenient AND wireless: you can capture extraordinary sound up to 50m away with the Nikon ME-W1.
TIP: Mic proximity is what matters.
Cinema 2.0 has its challenges, but also new shortcuts as well, including:
Record WILD LINES at the scene if marred by noise. Pickup the actors dialogue as soon as interfering noise has gone to give you a cleaner sound option in the edit.
Record room tone (30 seconds minimum) of the sound of the set immediately after the scene is wrapped.
Learn to think with your ears as well as your eyes. Tune into ambient sounds around you. Cells, hard drives should be switched off on set. It’s worth the effort to get good clean audio.
Step 8. Directing
We could talk about directing for ages, but here are a few pointers.
Do you want to become known as an indie auteur? Your challenge as a director is wrapping the story into a distinctive visual style. Be fearless, but stay grounded in your story. Chances are, you have something to say, so the challenge is finding the best way to say it without. As "Calendar Girls" director Nigel Cole put it, it's a fine balance between subtlety and clarity
In a more practical way, you need to know what you want when you're shooting, and know how to get it. So you can't be afraid to do another take. Obsessive directors such as Warren Beatty or David Fincher have been reported to sometimes go over 100 takes to get it right, and if you take a look at their filmography, you know they did.
Reshoots are expensive, and virtually non-existent in indie film, so be confident enough in yourself, in your vision and in your material to do what is necessary to get it right. You can't even afford to go to 100 takes, because you're on a no-budget production. That means you need to be effective, hence be super prepared.
Efficiency can be learned by thinking like a producer. (It will help you, and the relationship with your producer.) But don't forget: effective certainly doesn't mean cheap, and it doesn't mean you can't do grandiose or extravagant.
Step 9. Editing
Film Editing is part of the creative post-production processes of filmmaking. It involves the selection and combining of shots into sequences and ultimately creating a finished motion picture. Film editing is an art therefore you can never fully master your skills. Martin Scorsese has compared it to sculpting a movie into shape. It is one of the more creative (and therefore more complicated) steps in the filmmaking process. Here’s a few helpful tips that can help anyone from the budding film editor to the seasoned veteran better his/her craft.
i. Cut Tight
The best editing technique is to cut tight between scenes without becoming too jumpy. This can be done by taking out unnecessary pauses between actors’ dialogue delivery of lines or sometimes simply tightening the gaps between dialogue sentences through well-placed cutaway scenes.
It is a good rule of thumb to start with a cut that is precise from the beginning opposed to starting with a general first pass then cutting it down from there. If your first cut comes in at 3 minutes, you should be able to take it down to 2 minutes by tightening the shots. If your first cut comes in at 10 minutes and you are aiming for two minutes you have a nightmare on your hands.
ii. Matched Action
Matched action is something many editors consider second nature, yet many times there are numerous instances in every film where a continuity issue could have been solved with a simple exercise in matched action editing.
Matching actors’ hand positions, use of props, eyelines and stage position from one cut to another are all considered matching action. As an editor your job is make the cuts that drive the emotion in the scene or move the story along.
Many industry professionals feel that if you keep the audience engaged in the story, mistakes in matched action can slip by unnoticed. A good editor will discover the fine line between driving emotion and technical matched action.
iii. Do not cut back to the same angle
If you happen to have a choice of different camera angles, do not feel you need to cut back to the same angle you had in the previous shot. There are times when this is unavoidable such as in dialogue scenes with only two angles; but if by chance the director shot different takes with different framing, make an effort to use a variety of them.
Try to exercise the 30-degree rule: the camera should move at least 30 degrees between shots of the same subject occurring in succession. Be careful not to violate the 180-degree rule.
iv. Save longer version along the way
When cutting down film, it’s a good idea to duplicate sequences along the way, renaming them with sequential numbers (e.g. intro pass dump, intro pass 1, intro pass 2… etc.) The dump sequence is the initial footage and audio. Each sequential pass is shorter than the previous. The theory behind this being if you ever need to retrieve a clip or sound bite from a previous cut, it is there ready and waiting.
v. Moving camera shots
Moving the camera around is a key part of action sequences. Movement can be anything from a camera on a dolly to handheld motion. In action scenes this is designed to create a level of tension with the audience. I feel the best way to create this tension is by cutting on movement, so that the camera is in constant motion from one cut to the next.
Some directors may disagree with this and will want the camera to start and stop before making the cut. Both methods work, it just depends on the circumstances when deciding which one to go with.
vi. B-roll in threes
It is not uncommon for a scene to call for cutaway shots
When this scenario arises, it is a good rule to group three cutaway inserts together. These inserts should be around two seconds long. A POV insert would work well in threes because it give the audience a good general idea of the surroundings the character is in. This editing technique tends to mimic our real world experience of turning our head to see what is around us.
These are basic tips which can drastically improve your film. But really, as a director, you need to be careful about coverage when shooting, so that the editor can have good material to start sculpting from.
Step 10. Titles and graphics
My guess is you’ll want to thank every single relative and friend you can think of because you want them to know you made a movie. A good rule to follow is to only put the names of people into the credits who actually contributed time and effort to the film. And keep all those names to the very end of the film in something we call the rear title crawl.
Step 11. Music
You can’t put anyone’s music into a film without their written permission. Here’s the urban myth: just because your actor passes someone on the street with a ghetto blaster playing a Beatles song does not give you permission to put the song into your movie, even if it is being broadcast on a commercial radio station.
Step 12. Show it
Congratulations! Your film’s finished and you want to get it seen.
Competitions like the NIKON European Film Festival are a great way to get your film in front of people who matter. The judges will watch your film and call you if you have a ‘look’ they are seeking.
Film Festivals are a great way to show your wares to strangers, and meet different types of people. You need to do a lot during a festival. But the experience is exhilarating. Having your film play on a big screen is an awesome and terrifying experience at the same time. If the audience laughs in the right places, it’s also incredibly rewarding.
Social Media is how you can really max your films audience. If you make a series of shorts you can start your own channel and start monetising your film – everytime someone sees it they need to accept an ad and a fraction of a penny comes your way. Thomas Ridgwell’s TomSka on Youtube has hundreds of shorts that have been seen over a billion times providing him with enough revenue to hire a complete production team.