How To Make Short Movies

Learn the Three Steps of a Film Making Process and How To Make It to Production

Cameraman at work

They give Oscars for them. They show them at festivals. They may even, on rare occasions, pay for them.

Film lovers love a short movie or short film. In the digital age, their popularity is growing all the time. If you're interested in making movies, a shorter version might be a great way to get your feet wet. 

Of course, you could make a short film by videotaping your brother singing "My Sharona" for YouTube.com, but if you're interested in something more substantial, there are many things you'll need to do and know. You may have to get some kind of film education to understand many of these skills, such as writing a screenplay, how to direct, how to operate various equipment during and after filming, etc. But there are also some basic steps you can follow once you have acquired the necessary expertise.

The filmmaking process usually falls into three parts: pre-production (organizing and planning before you shoot), production (filming) and post-production. Here are some filmmaking steps broken down along those lines: 

PRE-PRODUCTION:

  1. Keep it simple. There are plenty of very elaborate short films in existence, but in general, when you only have 20-30 minutes to tell a story - and presumably a small budget, which means limited staff, limited effects, limited everything - you want to keep the story simple. Simple, in this case, means not only highly focused in story content (for example, one character pursuing something, not ten characters pursuing ten things...) but also simple in every aspect of production. You will not, for example, easily build your own scale model Titanic and sink it. You will not, likely, be able to film in six different countries. Choose a story you can tell and film simply, cheaply, and well.
  2. Get your story. You can't make a short film without a story. A story for movie making can come from anywhere - a person with some money to burn may want to see a particular story on screen and hire someone to write and film it. A writer may be desperate to put a story on screen and hook a director into filming it. Or a director may be dying to tell a story and collaborate with a writer to iron out the details or even write the whole script, and then make a film from it. Whatever the case may be, if you want to shoot a film, you need a story. While it's the stuff of both Hollywood legend and reality that many films shoot without a finished script, it's not usually the recommended procedure. So get your story down in script form, polish it, and then move on to the filming stage.

    If you don't know how to write a script, it's best to find a somewhat experienced collaborator who does. As the old adage goes, "A good script can be turned into a lousy film, but good film cannot be made from a lousy script." Get your story, get your script.

  3. Assemble the major players. A film of any size needs several things: people to come up with the story, people to act out the story, people to handle all the technical aspects of the film (like visuals and sound), people to provide money, and someone to be in charge of the whole thing. The technical terms for all these people, respectively, are writers (whose importance was just stated), actors, crew, producers (or financial backers) and a director (also just mentioned above). Often, in short films, many of these roles are filled by the same few people. A writer-director-editor is common, for example. Or an actor-writer-director-editor. If you're not quite ready to be a quadruple hyphenate, advertise for professionals (or even students) on Craigslist or film sites.
  4. Director, start directing. Before filming starts, a director (and her production team, if she has one...) will be quite busy. You'll need to storyboard and block out all of your scenes. This means deciding who's going to stand where, what camera angles you're going to use, what you want from the actors and cinematographer (if you're not, in fact, also the cinematographer). In essence, it's up to you to do the important pre-filming preparation of figuring out how you are going to translate the script to its visual equivalent.

    Along with that artistic challenge, you will have the job (unless you have a line producer or assistant) of figuring out the production schedule, the budget, acquisition of equipment, proper permits and releases, and all the other technical and legal aspects. There's a reason they call it "helming a film." You're in charge of more or less everything. You may want to spring for that assistant now.

    If you're unsure of something, don't hesitate to consult help. Ask the state film board about permits if you need to. Talk to professional guild mentors or consult more experienced people. Just because you're in charge doesn't mean you have all the answers.

PRODUCTION:

  1. Take your places, everyone...and - action! Once filming begins, the director or his line producer steps up to keep everything running on schedule and budget. He will run each day's shooting and, if everyone behind the camera and in front of it is prepared and takes care of their part of the process, you will eventually have your finished product.
  2. Be patient. Filming anything traditionally requires a lot of re-shooting, multiple takes, waiting around for your turn on camera, breaks for last-minute changes, and other hold-ups. So as you film - whether you're forced to do something over and over again or you have to wait twenty minutes to say your one line - take solace in the fact that you've really arrived in the film making world.
  3. Be prepared. Of course, be as prepared as you can for different bumps in the road... If you're shooting outside, weather can be unreliable. Key people can become suddenly unavailable (especially if they have day jobs...). You can go over budget and need to scrounge for more money. Making a short film, especially on a low budget - especially if you're a first time filmmaker - can involve a lot of planning for the unexpected.

POST-PRODUCTION:

  1. Let the editor edit. If you're not involved with editing your film, skip down to the next step. If you're working with a small production team or crew, the director may in fact be the editor. If you're the editor-director, you will mainly be working with yourself and any trusted individuals and technical support you need to edit together all the various shots you've acquired while filming. If you're the editor, you will need to collaborate with the director as you do the same job in pursuit of her artistic vision, such as it may be. This can be one of the most time-consuming elements of making a film, but also it is clearly one of the most important elements in filmmaking

    The post-production phase will also be where, again, technical expertise is needed in such areas as, say, sound editing and addition of special effects. If you don't have this expertise, these are experts to have among those you hire onto your crew from the beginning of the filmmaking process.

  2. Send out your film. Once you have a finished film that is polished to the best of your ability, it's time to get it seen. These days, with the internet, there are many points of departures from which a short film can be launched into the world - sites like ifilm.com and YouTube. If this is the way you want to go, visit each site and see what their policies and procedures are for uploading films.

    On the other hand, the most traditional way a short film gets seen is by traveling the film festival circuit. There are hundreds of film festivals. Each will have its own requirements and will provide different levels of exposure or potential for prize money or other awards. Several databases of film festivals exist.

    Along with exposing your short film to general audiences, sometimes film festivals connect filmmakers with distributors who offer to buy a film and send it. Typically, this is a process that happens to feature-length films, but you never know.

    Another way to get your short film seen is to market its appearances at these different festivals and online so potential fans can find it. These days, it's very common for films of any size to have websites or myspace pages dedicated to tracking their development from pre-production and beyond.

Making a short film can be a tough challenge, but also a rewarding experience. If you dream of seeing a story of your own creation on the silver screen someday, why not accept that challenge and put that story up there yourself?

 

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