Making Your Short Film- Getting From The Page To The Screen

In my second post, I want to describe the process I found that helped me in moving to the next level in making my short film.

When I begin writing, I find it helps me to close my eyes and imagine what the film will look like beginning to end. Usually, there is some piece of music that I have come across that I like and that fits the mood of the scene or story. This music becomes my anchor, in a sense, as it allows me to always return to the screenplay and to get back into the mood of the piece.

With my eyes now closed, I imagine the first scene that I am writing played out in front of me on the screen. The characters each have a purpose in the scene, a goal, so to speak, and each wants to accomplish that goal. As the scene progresses in my head, I write down the dialogue I hear between them; the conversation as it would play out in real life. I try to make each scene impart some information; either through the characters speaking or in many cases, their reactions to what is being said. Sometimes there is nothing to say. The silence alone can tell you so much about what the character is feeling, thinking or even ignoring. I love films that allow the viewer to connect to the energy of what is going on between the characters. I feel the audience is smart enough to get the subtleties of the exchange.

Have you ever overheard a conversation where you weren’t there in the beginning of the conversation but within seconds or a minute or two, you start to see the overall picture of what is going on. You begin to piece together the little bits of information that enables you to ‘get’ the bigger picture? That is what I try to incorporate in my writing. I want the viewer to figure it out as opposed to having all the information handed to them via dialogue. It adds mystery and using your cognitive powers as a viewer  allows them to be further engaged in what is going on. One of the little gems I remember being imparted to me while I studied at Playhouse West in Los Angeles was that very often, what is the most compelling thing in a scene is not what is being said, but what’s not being said. Therein lies the conflict that makes for interesting viewing.

After I have finished writing the general plot points, I ask myself how the scene should look cinematically. I do not use Final Cut Pro as I have an older Mac (I use iMovie’11) so I have no way of changing the color correction in post if I want a scene to look subdued or colorful, cold or warm. What I do is to dial that picture setting into my Canon 7D first so that I can have a consistant look to the related scenes. In my short film ‘Inoa’, I wanted the flashback scenes to have a warm tone to them so I chose the Kodachrome algorithm I had downloaded into my camera and for the present day scenes, I wanted a cool tone which I accomplished using the Marvels Cine algorithm which replicates Fuji film stock. Thus, I had two different looks to act as a thread in which the viewer could understand what was present day and what was a flashback.

Next, I went through and wrote down my shot list. Shot by shot, from beginning to end, making notes as to whether it was exterior or interior, day or night, same day or different day, the frame rate (24, 25, 50 or 60 fps), and also the picture setting chosen for that shot. That way, I always had a list I could refer to to make sure I was not forgetting something. One thing I didn’t do was to make notes as to the aperture setting I did end up filming with in each take. Usually, that can be found on the CF card by pressing the info button while the card is in the camera. But I felt afterward, that having it written down along with the other notations, would be a good learning tool when editing shots and seeing whether I underexposed or overexposed the shot. Yes, you can change it in post but it’s always a good idea to teach your eye and mind to connect the two and to know what you can fiddle with later on another shoot. The screen on the camera is very good and as I have a 3x viewfinder attached when I shoot, it allows my eye to see the screen with more detail and to check my focus. There is a way to use your Macbook as a monitor utilizing the Canon EOS utility software that comes with the camera.

I prefer natural lighting and was blessed that the actors I was working with had a flat that had lots of diffused light coming in through big windows. I tried to position the action close to the light source so that I could take advantage of the light without using practical lighting sources as the kelvin temperatures are different and can make it difficult to mesh the shots together. Again, I had no lighting assistants. I was on my own. If you are shooting interiors, look for the best possible light sources and keep in mind that overcast days are better light wise for you than sunny brilliant days that create harsh shadows. But if you piece has that look, than go for it. My film needed a soft, cool tone to it and I was grateful that I got it. Remember, don’t be afraid of shadows. They can add a cinematic look to your piece that would be very expensive to replicate by hiring lighting pro’s.

Sound is as important as the image quality when you shoot. I didn’t have a sound person to record sound but I did have a Rode shotgun mic attached to my camera which recorded better sound than the onboard mic. The sound was good but after the fact, I realized that I should have taken advantage of my Zoom H4N digital recorder also so that I had two sources (tracks) of sound when editing. The one mistake I did make was forgetting to record room tone. Even though I planned on having music over a large portion of the film, I still could have used this track as a nice tonal blanket for the dialogue scenes I did shoot. I would recommend recording 30 to 60 seconds of room tone in each set or room you do shoot in and also don’t forget to record outdoor tone for dialogue that takes place outside especially in the city. Paris is such a great energetic city that it would be a shame not to capture some of that for whatever film you are planning to shoot.

In the end, I didn’t get to film the second day of shots that I originally scripted for the film, so I had to look at the footage and see if I could make it work in an adjusted story arc. By doing that, I allowed myself an opportunity to learn how to make a liability turn itself into a positive thing for me.

If you are an aspiring filmmaker who has also made mistakes while filming, what advice would you give to others based on your experiences? I would love for you to share your thoughts.





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