How to Make Short Films (That Don't Suck) Pre-Production and Shooting

How to Make Short Films (That Don't Suck) Pre-Production and Shooting

How to Make Short Films (That Don't Suck) Pre-Production and Shooting, A blog post by Darius Stevens Wilhere

So you still want to make short films eh?

Okay so by now you’ve seen the first episode and the short film ready to kill. Love it or hate it, it’s a good example of a short film made very cheap and which looks pretty good. There are certainly better out there, but trust me there are way way worse because that’s where you start, you start making stuff that isn’t great and you build up to better stuff.

Getting back to the point. In my first episode of Dare Cinema I mentioned the 7 stages of any film and I definitely recommend giving that episode a watch:

  1. Conceptual
  2. Resources
  3. Writing
  4. Pre-Production
  5. Shoot Production
  6. Post
  7. Distribution

In this episode I want to talk about the first five of these, from idea through shoot. I’m just going to touch upon these briefly so I can keep this short.

Concept, Resources and Writing

Concept: What is it and what is it about?

Resources: What do you have to make it with?

Writing: How do you tie all these together into a story that’s worth filming?

Now the beginning of a short always starts with some sort of an idea or a concept. It may just be as simple as “wow there’s this new Sony camera I want to test, what could we shoot in different lighting set-ups for fun?” Which is really how ready to kill was born. I knew I wanted a daylight interior, a daylight exterior, a sunset exterior and a nighttime interior and exterior. And I really wanted that moonlight shot because the rumor was it could shoot with moonlight. Crazy!

 Only moonlight.

Only moonlight.

Now unless you're independently wealthy or this is an actual production with a budget, whenever you are working on the idea for your film you have to take into account the resources you have to make it, otherwise it won’t get made.

And this doesn’t just mean money. Yes you need to know how much money you have to spend, but you also need to write your short film around free or very cheap resources you already have. Cameras that you have access to, friends who are actors or want to be, locations that your family owns or which are free, etc… And you should be thinking with what you are flexible on and what you aren’t flexible on when you write your script.

On Ready to Kill, I had a group of French friends who love to act. So I knew at the core of the story were going to be French assassins here in the US. I always romanticize the French so I really wanted them to have high fashion items like Coco Chanel, Hermes, Louis Vuitton, Tiffany’s and so on. I loved the idea of high fashion assassins. And I wanted a beautiful vintage car that was a nice mint color.

Well if you look at the film, you’ll remember that there wasn’t any of those items in it, because they all fell through. But I still had my French Assassins.

Also I knew the desert would be free. So we shot there. The gas station in the desert was free. The driving shots were actually done in two different cars because neither of the actors could drive so we shot it in the back seat of the third actor’s car. My friend Axel knew someone who owned a diner out in the desert so we shot there and bought breakfast for everyone there. I ended up using my Ford because well, we had it.

I wanted the actress to have a pair of Tiffany’s sunglasses, but those cost $1,000 so we found a $15 pair with a similar color. The actor used my sunglasses. We couldn’t afford an Hermes tie so we got one that had a similar color. And so on. Compromise by compromise. But in the end I still got a short film that I enjoyed making and we had fun doing for almost nothing.

So when you are writing your script, try and write it in such a way that you are writing things that you know you have, or that if you don’t get can easily be switched out without the whole film falling apart. When you are writing, remember you are writing a short film so keep it short. One script page = one minute of screen time as a general rule. Ready to Kill is probably about two minutes too long and at some point I’ll get around to editing it.

A comment on budget and resources, there was one thing we went cheap on and suffered for it. The friend we had who was going to do sound wasn’t available and between my gaffer and I and the three actors who were with us, we figured we could wing it. NEVER AGAIN.

This short stayed dying a lonely death on a hard drive for a year because the sound was unusable and all the actors went back to France. Finally, $1,000 later (4x the cost of the short), we got the lines ADR’ed and cleaned up by an audio engineer who salvaged the short. Never skimp on sound. Pay the $300 or whatever it is to get a good recordist to come with you.

Okay so my main point here for concept, resources, writing is do it smartly with stuff that you can get your hands on. If all you have is a fake gun, your grandmother who wants to be an actress and a friend with a liquor store, then your short might just be about a grandmother holding up a liquor store. Why? Who knows, that’s your job as a writer to figure out. Point: Write for what you have or can easily get. Ok? Good.

Pre-Production

Once you know what you are going to be shooting or have a very good idea of it you need to nut down and do a few things:

  • A break down
  • A schedule
  • A budget
  • Finalize locations, crew and talent.
  • Make sure you have a good shooting plan and are as prepared as you can be.

Sometimes your short film is so simple that you can do all of this in your head in under 15 seconds. That’s fine, just make sure you do it. As the short gets more complicated these steps become more important. And you don’t need expensive software to do this either, yes it’s nice and it makes it easier, but until you can afford to pay those costs, google docs and google sheets works just fine.

A breakdown means going through the script and picking out every item that you are going to need whether it’s costumes, props, actors, vehicles, locations, special make-up, whatever you need to actually get the film done and make a list of these in a spreadsheet.

A schedule means knowing how long it is going to take you to shoot in each location and what days you are going to shoot those scenes on and what you are going to need on those days. Also you need to ensure that you have rehearsal times with the actors before you shoot and at least one or two meetings with any crew so you can explain to them your ideas before you show up for the shoot.

Here is the golden rule of scheduling in low-budget productions: group your schedule by locations and talent. That means if you have an actor you need in five different scenes in two different locations, try and schedule them all for the same day or days. You have to balance your location availability and talent availability and try to find the best combination to be as efficient as possible by scheduling those scenes together.

Most shorts are filmed within a few days. Ready to kill was shot in a day. But I had the actors rehearsing well ahead of time so that they were ready to go. There was some very complicated dialog and because we had so little time to shoot, we needed to get our scenes as fast as possible.

With a good breakdown which lists everything you need, and a good schedule which tells you how long you will need everything and everyone for you can now do your budget.

A budget means putting a cost next to every single one of those items you need for however many days it is needed. It should have as a minimum: 

  • Actor costs
  • Crew costs
  • Equipment Rentals
  • Food for crew and talent
  • Gas and Transport
  • Permit and location costs
  • Props
  • Costumes
  • Special make-up
  • Effects
  • Vehicles

Make a google grid with a list of every expense you can think of that it’s going to cost. That’s your budget.

Then make sure you go to the locations and walk through them to ensure there are no surprises. Then make sure you have your casting finalized and actors rehearsed. Then make sure you’ve talked through the project with your crew and they’ve read the script.

With all that in hand you can start thinking about shooting.

Shooting

Shooting is usually condensed insanity, so the more prepared you are the faster it’s going to go and the less confusion on the day of the shoot. Even if you think you have it all figured out, do a shot list. This is simply a list which lists out all the shots you need to have by scene so that when you go into shooting you at least have a good idea of what you need.

And whenever I am shooting a short I like to shoot way more than I need so that I have more material for my reel and for actors reels as well. So I get extra angles even if I’m sure I’m not going to use them in the edit. And it’s easy to do, you just make the list and go down it thinking up the edit in your mind as you go.

Minimally you want to get long shots, medium shots and close-ups. But it’s also important to know which shots are the most important so that if you are running out of time you can get only what you need and move on so you don’t blow the day of shooting.

If you look at the diner scene at the start, I shot a medium and a close over each of the actor’s shoulders, I also show a profile two shot and close-ups on each of the actors, a reverse shot for the third actor and extreme close-ups on the actor’s faces. That’s a lot of shots. But I knew that I would easily be able to edit what I had into a nice scene and have plenty of footage to give away to the actors.

And then when you get on scene, shoot like there’s no tomorrow!

Okay so let’s recap: Figure out your short film with resources in mind and write for those. Then make sure you do a breakdown, schedule and budget. Ensure that you rehearse with crew and talent. Walk through your location to make sure there are no surprises. Do your shot list and be as ready as you can to shoot and then shoot!

Okay that’s it for this episode. Don’t forget to subscribe because in part three I’m going to talk a little bit about post-production including editing, music, sound and what it was like using Film convert for the coloring on the short and then a little discussion about distribution. Also have a look at www.darecinema.com for the full blog articles as well as courses that I have which cover key shooting and editing skills. Thanks again for watching and I’ll catch you in the next episode.

How to Make Short Films (That Don't Suck) Pre-Production and Shooting, A blog post by Darius Stevens Wilhere

How to Make Short Films (That Don’t Suck), Post Production and Distribution

How to Make Short Films (That Don’t Suck), Post Production and Distribution

How to Make Short Films (That Don't Suck), Ready to Kill

How to Make Short Films (That Don't Suck), Ready to Kill

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