Five Things I Learned Making Short Films

That Helped Me When Making a Feature

I made eight short films before I made my first feature, Birddog. I made a lot of mistakes (which I will chronicle in another post) but I also did a lot of things right. These are the things I think are most important to pass on.

1.)  Story, Story, Story.

2.)  The Value of Pre-Production

3.)  Time Management

4.)  The Importance of Rehearsal

5.)  Always Have a Back-up Plan

I don’t care if you’re making a short film, a documentary, or a feature; you need to have your story down. Even though some of my short films look like they’re documentaries and done “off the cuff”, each and every detail was planned.

I wrote scripts for everything. Did the actors read from the scripts and memorize their lines. No. I wasn’t using actors in some of the early films they were real people and instead of giving them lines I gave them ideas about what I wanted them to say (which I had worked out from previous interviews with the subjects) and let them put things in to their own words.

In all cases I had a story and I usually did multiple re-writes until I got down exactly what I wanted and needed. At the time I was shooting 16mm film and film is expensive so I couldn’t afford to waste film. You’ll Change was actually shot on 1200 feet of film and the final print was just over 100 feet. Stolen Toyota was shot on 1600 feet of film and the final print is less than 300 feet.

On my feature Birddog I did 14 drafts of the script before I cast the film and then did a couple more re-writes during rehearsals and even re-wrote some scenes during production.

I spend more time in pre-production then most people do. I truly believe pre-production is where the film is made. Since I have very little money I would schedule my short film shoots so that I could shot an entire film in a single 10-hour day. If I had multiple locations I worked to find locations close by each other so travel time was minimal.

When I made my first feature I knew how many scenes I could shoot in a single day and if I had to travel between locations how long I needed to allow for that.

Time Management on set is one of the most important things to learn. By making so many short films I knew roughly how long it would take to light scenes, and how to keep my actors prepared for shooting.

I learned if I lit an entire scene in the beginning I would only have to move a single light for most medium shots and close-ups. Our time between set-ups was cut way down and our actors were able to stay in character and that helped with a consistency of performance. Plus actors and crewmembers really appreciate it when things flow fast and smooth on set, it makes every one’s job easier and more fun.

I also shot outdoors as much as possible using reflectors so lighting would not take up as much time as it does when you’re shooting indoors.

I can’t overstate the value of rehearsal. I rehearsed a lot of the elements in my short films, especially when I was working with actors and not real people. There was plenty of time before we got on the set to talk about character motivation and consistency in performance. I would rehearse when possible with all of the actors at once so that they could have a better understanding of where their character was in the whole scheme of the film. And I found that actors really appreciated that, it was more like doing a play than a movie.

Making short films, I learned that the more planning I did the smoother things went. The more time I was in pre-production the more fun we had on the set because everyone knew what was expected of him or her.

I worked with my DP; we made lighting diagrams and a basic block of every scene before we stepped on to the location/set. On set we made adjustments to the blocking and the camera moves but those adjustments were usually minimal.

Every cast and crew member got a written copy of the next day’s schedule, what scenes were being shot where and when.  The camera and lighting crew had their lighting diagrams so that as soon as we got to a location we would do a quick walk through and start setting up.

Actors had already rehearsed the scenes so they knew their parts. The wardrobe, make-up, props and art direction folks knew the order of the scenes so they could also get things set up accordingly.

You should be spending your time on set shooting, not rehearsing and blocking.

There are times when things don’t go smoothly, you lose an actor or a location at the last minute or the weather does the opposite of what you need. Have a back-up plan. If an actor is sick, is there another scene you can shoot with the actors that are there? Can you switch locations if you need to so you can shoot a different scene?

Remember Murphy’s Law? Well Murphy works harder than you do, so have a back up plan.