Making Your Short Film- Real Life Lessons I Learned by Doing It

I’ve been involved with making short films for over seven years now. In fact, I even co-produced a feature film entitled Bonne Année with director Alexander Berberich a couple years ago which won two film festival awards. (You can read a review of the film here at Eye for Film.)

Making short films has always been a learning process that involves dealing with real world challenges in getting the story off the page and onto the screen. I recently finished my second  directorial effort, a short film entitled  ’Inoa‘ which I shot in Paris last June. Subsequently, I wanted to share with you my account as to the challenges I faced as a lone filmmaker and how I tried  to overcome them.

 I will break up this subject into three parts. The first part dealing with the formation of your idea, the story, and the preparation for filming. The second will be the application of your story onto the screen, filming it, getting your shots and the ability to narrow down what you really need in terms of telling your story effectively. The third will deal with the technical aspects that I dealt with while shooting and the editing workflow afterwards.

 My thoughts will be focused on my experience of getting my short film shot and edited and the lessons I learned in which to do a better job on my next project. Think of these as tips; not necessarily rules; so that you are at least aware of what could very well end up being a problem for you in putting together a well made short film.

 There are excellent resources out there for aspiring filmmakers. Everything you could want and need to know is available from reliable people who have made their own short films. Phillip Bloom, Cinema 5D, DVX User are excellent sites to go and learn about the various elements in making low budget or no budget films. There are also online resources like Short of the Week and Film Industry Network which promote independent cinema;  up and coming filmmakers along with established ones. News and discussions among like minded people can be found at these websites.

 My experience producing short films will be something I will discuss at a later time but here I want to stick to the recent experience I had making this short film.

 We’ll assume two things first. We’ll assume that making your short film is something you want to see through to the end. Secondly, we’ll assume you have limited resources. For instance, little or no budget and a limited help in making your short film a reality. In my case, I had no budget to really work with other than offering to buy lunch for the two actors involved in the film on the day we shot. All I had was the script, my Canon 7D camera, two lenses and a Rhode shotgun mic for sound recording.

Additionally, I was motivated to finish the film as it had been close to two years since directing my first short film. (which I directed and acted in…a very difficult job I would highly recommend against.)

 Forming your idea is crucial. It is important to find an idea that is universal. Something everyone has experienced  or at least known someone who has. It could be anything; a breakup, a job loss, a medical diagnosis, a death of a relative, etc. But the thing to remember is how you can tell the story differently, how can you show the human condition and how someone may respond in this situation.

To most people who like watching films, the most compelling part in watching is the exposure of the human condition. This is how we relate to the heroes or villains in films. We have felt what they are feeling and the choices they make depend on how they interpret the events and where their moral line in the sand is. A great source for story and character writing is The Writers Journey-Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. Get it, read it, and keep it as your writing bible.

 Keep the story simple. Start off seeing if you can tell the story with only two characters. Make it a situation; a beginning. Have a problem; a middle. Have the two characters want different things in the situation; a conflict between the two. Have a resolution; an end.

And make it a story that doesn’t rely on any outside circumstances. Rain, sunshine, crowds, public access, etc. The less variables that can prevent you from finishing the film, the better. As you progress, you will learn how to add elements like this to your story as you get better support from friends or film professionals and can figure out how to make these elements doable without breaking your wallet.

 The mistake I made was to write a high concept short film. The story I wanted to to do involved exploring the feelings one has when a relationship that is on the outs is prematurely ended by the death of one who is involved. We experience it all the time. The death of a loved one after an argument or a lifetime of poor connection, the suicide of a friend or relative, losing someone in a tragic event such as an earthquake, tsunami or a terrorist attack.

My story dealt with a couple who were having problems and when a pending separation became evident, one of them passes away in a tsunami in Japan. (I was alluding to the one that happened for real last March in 2011).

The story had a beginning, middle and end. I felt the compelling human element in the story was how one dealt with the guilt, the sense of abandonment that they felt they caused the other prior to the moments when they passed. It’s been well documented that those who have experienced near death report having been flooded with pure love for everyone in their lives regardless of differences, past transgressions, or perceived ill will. All these conflicts go out the window when one is faced with the fact they will cease to live. The irony in all this is the condition known as survivors guilt. We, as survivors of a tragic event or the loss of a mate, lover or close friend/relative, tend to experience intense feelings of guilt for not having made amends or having a disagreement prior to losing them.

This is what I wanted to explore in my short film. And this is where I made my first mistake. Aesthetically, I wanted to use shots of water in it’s various uses to represent the perceived enemy to the character, the cause of his pain. The subtext was that his mistaken direction of his rage and guilt was actually representative of his helplessness towards the demise and death of the relationship in terms of not having the closure of the issue facing the couple prior to the death.

The original plan was to shoot two days. One day for interior scenes and another day for the exterior scenes. These scenes were to be of the day to day uses of water in our lives; street cleaning, making coffee or tea, showering, the watering of plants in the home, dogs lapping up water in the parks or water bowls at sidewalk cafes, even rain. I also had intended to shoot in the aquarium in Paris. One shot being the male character standing and silhouetted by the huge expanse of the underground glass partition where you can observe the marine life and another shot being of them meeting up for the female character’s lunch break (she was written to be a marine biologist working with the aquarium which made her going on assignment in Japan easier to ‘sell’.)

Because of extenuating circumstances, I never got the second day filming done and I had to return back to my art gallery in Grasse. Hence, knowing I may not get a chance to get back to finish working around the actors schedule, I decided to go ahead and edit the footage that I did have and found the original story could not be told to the extent I envisioned it. So I had to look at what I did have and try to adapt it. What ended up happening was that I redirected my focus of the story to the behavior of the couple as they sense their relationship coming to a difficult crossroad.

What I would suggest to anyone in the beginning stages of making a short film is to ask themselves:

  1. What is the idea? What are you exploring in the story?
  2. What’s are the compelling human choices and behaviors?
  3. In it’s simplest form, what is the point you want to make or the feeling you want the viewer to take away?
  4. Does your story have a beginning, middle and end?
  5. Can you tell the story in 10 minutes or less?
  6. If there was no sound, could the viewer get a sense of the story just from the moving pictures alone?
  7. Have you envisioned each shot in your head as if it were an already finished film?
  8. Can you reasonably do this by yourself?
  9. And are the actors you have chosen to work with capable of showing the emotional aspect through their voice, tonality, and eyes?

These are some of the things that should always be thought about and your attention to these questions will only serve to make your short film  experience better.

In the next post, I will address the preparation of the shot list and the filming of your short film along with the mistakes I made in my own project.

Until then, keep flexing your creative muscle!

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