If you are a beginning filmmaker that is just about to start the short filmmaking process, starting off on the right foot might be tough if you don’t know the basics.
When I made my first short film a few years ago, it was part of a 48-hour film festival in which every stage of production happened in 48-hours. Let’s just say that no matter how enthusiastic I was about this production, I committed many mistakes along the way. Looking back at the finished product, it undeniably was an eye-opener on what really is needed to make a good quality short film.
This post is based on the mistakes I made, and a step by step process on how to make a short film the best way possible for the beginning filmmaker.
How to make a short film for the beginning filmmaker? There are three necessary stages in the short filmmaking process or any filmmaking process.
There is the pre-production, production, and post-production stage. Once all three are completed, then you are done with the filmmaking process. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
Note: There are a few affiliate links sprinkled throughout this article. If you click on the links or pictures and purchase an item, I receive a small commission from the advertiser at no extra cost to you. I will likely invest the money funding my movie projects or pizza. It will most likely be spent on pizza.
Stages Of A Short Film For Beginners
When making a short film or a full-length feature film, think of it as an incubation project.
There are many different stages that happen along the way to have your project go from the infancy stage to the adult stage. Every project has a start, and the start of every film production must have to answer this one question “why does this film need to be made, and why now?”
If you are beginning filmmaker, a short film is a great project to help get your feet wet in the industry. Also, the great thing about filmmaking technology today is anybody with an idea can shoot a film.
If you are a filmmaker that wants his/her voice to be heard through film, the first step that needs to be accomplished before the short film production is the development stage.
Guide to the Short Filmmaking Process: The Creation Stage:
If you are a beginning filmmaker looking into shooting an idea for the first time, you need to start right off the bat and find the genre that will define you as a filmmaker.
Every influential filmmaker in film history all started off filming short films that would define them as a particular genre master. If you look at the early films of George Lucas, Christopher Nolan, and Steven Spielberg they all made films that would define them for years to come.
If you are a beginning filmmaker just starting off in the process, brainstorm what films are closest to the genres you want to film. As you brainstorm ideas around the genres you want to create, things will begin to unfold and ultimately will define you going forward.
Your Initial Short Film Idea
If you have an idea that is only 5 – 10 pages long, that is perfect!
I have been running a short film festival in Victoria, British Columbia, called, Short Circuit for the past three years.
When I am in the process of selecting films, I am constantly thinking about the attention span of my audience and the festival program. If a filmmaker has produced a masterpiece that is over 20 min, I am concerned about my audience losing steam halfway through the program.
Plus, it doesn’t help the programming side as I can fit more films into the schedule to showcase more filmmakers. If you have an idea that is going to be over the page count of 10 pages, don’t worry and just pay attention to your audience.
Many significant film festivals around the world are screaming for short films up to 30 min because they are shorter than a full-length feature, and festivals can sandwich a 30-min feature around a bunch of 5 – 10-minute shorts.
The key point to this all is while you are outlining your story, just make sure that the film will be tight and engaging.
Plus, if it’s your first short film, don’t over complicate things for yourself. A short film isn’t a walk in the park the first time, so be kind to yourself and crew, and keep it simple.
Writing The Screenplay
Now that you have figured out your genre and idea, the next stage is to take the idea and make it into a screenplay.
If at all possible, try to keep your page count down to an amount that makes the screenplay tight and engaging.
Something to keep in mind is a general rule for a screenplay is that for each page of the script, it uses up a minute of your screen time. My suggestion is to start making screenplays that are close to three to five pages, which would translate to a roughly 3-5 minute short film.
The reason for this is it’s cheaper to film, and when you make mistakes, it will only cost you time and not money. The key is to figure out if your screenplay is within the time frame you want your film to be.
I would suggest using a good screenwriting software program, that will help format your screenplay to industry standards. This way, there will be no surprises in the upcoming stages.
Here are my suggestions for some great screenwriting software programs:
Also, check out The Beat Sheet Calculator which is a tool I love!!! It helps break down the key points you need to hit at certain pages to maintain the structure.
Shot List / Storyboard
This is the stage of the short film making process that I love almost as directing.
This process is where you decide how you want your vision to be told through the lens. The idea of a shot list and storyboard is for you and the crew to interpret how the project is going to be shot. Plus, how it would eventually look like in the end.
A Shot list is critical because it will give the filmmaker an understanding of the timeline, budget, style, and production requirements. Storyboards are there for when you want to explain to the crew what shots you want just by looking at a frame from the storyboard.
If the only thing you can draw is stick people, that is fine as long as you identify the positions of the characters for blocking purposes.
Budgeting The Short Film
So many factors come into play in regards to how much money will be spent on the short film.
The best way to breakdown your budget is by having a team that you will rely on during the production and go line by line of the script. This way you can figure out what props you will need, how many actors, costumes, locations, and an estimate of how long it will take to shoot.
For equipment, I would suggest including your director of photography into the process of looking through the script as well. The DOP then can figure out how many lights will be needed and what camera package will be needed for the shoot.
Once you figure out what you need, and where you can cut costs, it’s time to seek money!
The biggest hurdle for new independent filmmakers is finding funds to produce his/her short films. Most of the times, many short films can be shot via self-funding, but there will be projects that need some extra cash from outside sources.
If you are a filmmaker that will be seeking outside sources for funding, having a pitch deck is the best thing to have in your back pocket.
What Is A Pitch Deck?
A Pitch Deck is a visual communication tool for pitching an idea to raise funds. It’s essentially a fancy powerpoint presentation that you can show to investors what the project will look like, and how you will make money from it.
A pitch deck should consist of the following:
One Sheet – A title card page with your films title and visual art that will set the stage for the rest of the pitch deck.
Log Line – Basically this is your elevator pitch of three sentences, to describe your story.
Synopsis – This is a longer version of your elevator pitch in which you break down the story and characters.
The Team – Bios on the production staff and actors.
A Vision Statement – This is what an explanation of what you see will happen from your project. Where do you see the project going? Do you see it being shown in film festivals, online, etc.?
Remember you should also sell your idea strongly which has the potential to reach a wider audience and show your investor the benefits in funding your film.
If you really want to see what a pitch deck looks like, here is a link to the Stranger Things Pitch deck. To me, this is what a pitch deck should look like.
Other sources to look at for funding can be crowdfunding and film grants.
The Pre-production Phase
Hopefully, you have already gone through the checklist with your production crew on what you need. But like a scout, be prepared and go through it again to make sure you have everything before location scouting and the audition process.
When you are break downing the script, pay attention to the locations and the number of scenes which location needs. Locations can be indoors as well as outdoors. Indoors scenes are the best for any short film production because of the control the filmmaker can have. If you are shooting in a crew members house, this eliminates permits, and you can set up equipment once and potentially not have to transport it as much as you would outside.
Exterior locations can be challenging because if you want certain locations that you want control over, you will need permits from the city. Plus, if you are shooting at night you need high power lights and power access. Something to keep in mind, shooting at night tends to be a slower shoot compared to day shots which can affect your budget.
If you are just starting out as a new short filmmaker, my suggestion is using your house at all possible. I have shot five short films in my home because it’s big enough to handle the crew, the equipment, and food with absolute control over the environments.
Just make sure you purchase insurance. This is a must! Don’t skimp on insurance, because if something happens on the set, it will ruin the production and your personal financial status for succeeding years. I hope I frightened you enough to make sure you don’t forget about insurance.
Casting and Auditions
It’s time to find your talent in front of the camera to bring your characters to life.
Hopefully, during your script breakdown, you have a list of characters that will need to be filled by actors. There are ways to cast your actors, if it’s a simple shoot, you can get your friends and family to fill in roles, just like the film I made above. Or you can get actors from your area that have some experience and fill in the roles that way.
If you don’t have anyone in particular to fill in the roles, it’s time for the audition process. What I like doing when I am casting any of my projects, I go directly to Facebook and find filmmaking groups in the area. I post on several groups for the cast of characters I am looking for.
Try to find willing actors to do the shoot for free to eliminate costs. Most acting students wanting to build resume are willing to do the roles for free to create a demo reel. Just make sure you find the right actors for the roles and never settle because certain actors are willing to do the roles for free.
Once you have a list of talent, hold auditions to make sure you have the right talent for the job. My suggestion is to hold a day of casting with set times for each actor to come in at. Give them a few pages to memorize before the audition date, so they can prepare beforehand.
Side Note: Make sure the the actors show up for the first day of shooting!!! If you have watched the clip at the beginning of the post, none of my actors showed up for shooting. So, the actors you see in the clip are the crew. The director(The George Character), writers (the two female characters on the couch), the DOP(sitting next to me the director), and the production manager(the elf).
It turned out okay for what is was, but better talent would have made it easier to direct.
Obtaining Your film Gear
The primary piece of equipment for shooting your short film is the camera. If you have a director of photography already secured, you can go through the look of what you want with your DOP.
From there you can get an understanding of what camera is needed for your short film as well as lenses and camera accessories needed.
The next thing that is on the list is the following: The number of lights and reflectors, the right microphones, sound recorders, rigs, grips, etc. should be finalized beforehand.
Rent it out, borrow from fellow filmmakers or even buy what you can afford before the shooting starts.
The Rest Of The Crew
You have the list of equipment secured, it’s now time to find a crew to operate the gear. Most of the time, your DOP will have camera assist people they like working with, so that part can be easy to fill. Begin asking around if there are any available crew to operate the lights, sound, reflectors, editing, etc.
As a director, you will be focused on what will be shot through the lens so you will need some help with everything else. Make sure you find an assistant director and production team that will handle props, wardrobe, hair, and markup, etc. A crew can build up fast, so make sure you have enough to run the production, and if at all possible find a crew that is willing to work for food.
Don’t cheap out of food. A well-fed crew is a happy crew and are willing to work long hours if they are well fed. Pizza is good for a quick fix, but don’t rely on pizza everyday. There will be a mutiny on your hands.
Call time for Actors and Crew
Before the day of the shoot, make sure all the actors and crew have his/her call times for the shoot. A call time should be scheduled at least an hour or two before the real action begins. Actors will need time to rehearse, go through makeup and wardrobe.
The rest of the crew will be needed for getting the film set prepared.
Camera Blocking: It's film shooting time!
You have everything in place. The crew has been hired, the locations are set, and the equipment is ready for your first day of filming.
Now it’s time to go over the specifics of the first scene. This is the time where you will go over the shot with your DOP and lighting crew. From the storyboards and shot lists you have created, you will begin to block the scenes for placements of the actors to make sure they will be framed and lighted correctly.
Figure out the movements of the actors and go over the shot to make sure the first scene is going to be done with ease. Please, make sure you have call times set for the crew to show up before the actors, just to make sure everything is set before the actors arrive.
I have been an assistant director on quite a few sets lately, and where the actors arrive before the crew, and they lose steam halfway through production.
The Production Stage
The production stage is where the magic happens. Any mistake can hinder production. So if you have overly prepared through the above stages, the more confident you are during shooting the film.
Rehearse Before Shooting A Scene
The camera blocking and set up happens before the actors arrive on the set.
When the actors arrive on the set, go through makeup and wardrobe; they could bring some ideas that could add to the scene before filming the first scene.
Actors are the ones who will bring life to your characters, so make sure to listen to the suggestions as they may add to the story and make it amazing.
It all comes down to rehearsing before the scene. This is where you will go over the shot with the team and think of any possibilities for filming the scene.
It's Ready For Action
If you are ready to shoot the scene, the actors will be ready if your assistant directors give them a warning time of when the shot will happen. Now it’s time to start filming. You have been imagining this moment since the beginning of the first word of your screenplay.
If this is the first short film that you are directing, make sure they are the easiest scenes to shoot just to get the creative juices flowing. Once you have become comfortable with the role of directing, it’s time to start moving to the demanding scenes that require more attention to detail.
Side note: when you are coming up with the shot list for the shoot, make sure you are filming in a sequence that makes sense to your locations of the day and the availability of your actors. Your film will not be shot in sequence, so do think it will ever be this way.
When you are shooting a scene, make sure you do the master shot first which covers the full scene. Once you have the master shots, then break it down to mid-shots and close-ups to cover the rest of the scene. The master shot takes a long time to shoot, but the rest of the shots become easier as they are just repeats of the master shot in different angles.
While you are shooting your shots, make sure you take some b-roll footage that will help in the editing process to transition the scenes together.
Media Storage Management
With everything being shot in digital in the filmmaking world today, data management is key to ensure that what is shot won’t be lost.
Having a file management system like external memory storage is key to make sure that when you have shot your scene, that the files are immediately transferred to the storage to ensure nothing gets lost.
Make sure you don’t go cheap on the storage. Buy a high Mbps storage system to capture everything quickly. There is nothing like shooting three scenes on the same memory card, and then something happens that makes you lose days of shooting within seconds.
Oh, don’t forget buying tissues before shooting just in case this happens, and you need to cry for an hour. True story, it has happened to me. Not the tears, but for the sweat that dripped over my face like a facet.
Post Production Stage
I don’t have the talent for editing with the software programs that are available today.
Apparently, they are supposed to be easy, but for me, I am useless with these fantastic programs. Editing involves taking all of the footage and sound, and placing the clips together like an extremely tough puzzle with a thousand pieces.
Once you have transferred the files to the editing program, this is where the rough cut of your film begins to happen. At this point, you arrange the shots in sequence to begin to chop away! If you are comfortable with the editing process then you know what to do already.
If you are just a story creator, hire an editor as it will save your sanity. A great editor will cut, rearrange shots and shape the scenes to enhance the drama and engagement of your story.
There are 3 to 4 key points to sound on a film. Voice audio, sound effects, music, and sound design. If you have recorded sound in the shoot or want to dub it in the post, make sure that they are crisp and clear.
Sound effects and music are also important to create a certain environment for your audience, as it adds texture to your film. A sound designer is also another role that you should hire for as sound and editing can make or break your film.
If this is your first short film, make sure you don’t over complicate your film with visual effects like green screen and animations. If you have certain shots that require visual effects, this is the time to add them in. This includes titles and end credits as well.
The Final Cut
You have put all of the pieces of the puzzle together, and now it’s time to trim away in editing.
This is where you start to show people close to you the film to see if it translates well on the screen. This is also the time to show your producers the project, to get another pair of eyes on the cut.
Every so often they will offer excellent suggestions that can add to the story that you never considered. Or sometimes they can be suggestions that don’t make sense to the story at all. A simple answer to that is “I will make note of that” and just hope they forget over time about his/her suggestions.
Now that you have the project completed to a point that you are happy with, it’s time to color grade the film. Color grading enhances the visual impact of the film.
With certain film cameras in the market today, they all shoot differently and a good color grading steps up the image to a whole new level.
The Completed Project
Every step has been completed in your short film; it is now time to transfer your film to various file formats like HD, MPEG or film formats.
That’s it! You are done! Your short film is shot, chopped and secured! Sounds easy right?
Now, what do you do with your short film?
Shop the project around to as many resources as you can. Film festivals are everywhere, and while some are more prestigious than others, any film festival that selects your film into the program is a great start. The more selections you receive, the better the chances of exposure for future festivals.
If you don’t see any transaction from film festivals, don’t worry are you still have Youtube, Vimeo, and other platforms to show your project.
The key to shopping your project around is for word of mouth. Social media campaigns are key to get the awareness out! Never lose steam on this. I know that when you see limited views on your youtube channel it can be discouraging, but never give up! Never surrender!
Shooting a short film is a marathon, that could have you collapse in exhaustion the minute you hit the finishing line, or it can be a walk in the park.
It’s all about learning a lesson from each project you make to improve yourself over time. Every time you get knocked down, you get back up and continue on.
I always think of Steven Spielberg just after 1941 was released. It was a box office bomb(It’s one of my favorite films by the way.) He could have given up and just went to sell cars for the rest of his life after the release. Instead of that, through humility and persistence, he directed Raiders of the Lost Ark and the rest is history.
Now, take your idea and make a short film. The only way to learn is doing, not wait! I just sounded like Yoda there. Sorry.
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