How to Direct a Short Film Like a Pro ( Tips and Techniques )

Are you planning to direct a short film? Are you feeling both excited and anxious at the same time? Well, that is natural if it’s your first time. If you do this right, you will not only effectively pass your intended message to the target audience, but it could also jumpstart your career as a professional film director. Many re-known directors started with simple short films before creating the much-celebrated films we have today.  

Techniques to Direct a Short Film

Directing a short film is not hard. You only need to adopt the right techniques. And, you could be on your way to directing an award-winning short film. Below are invaluable techniques on how to direct a short film like a pro.

  • Make it Short
  • Work with a Good Team
  • Effectively Plan Ahead
  • Ensure the Setups are just right.
  • Create a Shot List
  • Find your Key Frames
  • Ensure Perfect Shots
  • Feel the Storyline
  • Help your Actors slide into their Characters before the actual shooting
  • Set the Tone and Mood.
  • Understand Everyone’s role
  • Come up with appropriate Costumes.
  • Express Character’s Dominance
  • Create a comprehensive Shooting Schedule
  • Effectively Communicate 
  • Be Open to New Ideas and Contributions
  • Remain Consistent throughout the shooting

Effectively utilizing the above techniques will give you more than satisfactory results. So let’s find out how, when, and where to apply them.

The Basics of Directing A Short Film

Step 1: Delivering the Story Line

To begin with, do you have a good storyline? A good short is determined by a storyline that presents information interestingly and intriguingly. If you did not write the storyline ensure to familiarize yourself with it and understand every twist to the story – feel it.

Also, put yourself in the shoes of your audience, would they be interested in such a story? Which parts would attract them most? Once you establish this, you will be able to better deliver on set.

Step 2: Planning

You need to plan for every step of the shooting process adequately. Grasping the storyline helps you get a good idea of the type of characters to use, the tone, the mood.

Besides, during the actual shooting, you will be expected to select details such as the type and color of clothes the actors will wear for each scene. What colors to paint the walls, the amount of lighting needed, and the suitable camera language to use, among others. 

You cannot perform these functions unless you understand the storyline. It will also be useful in estimating the amount of time the short film will take and how much to spend. If possible, have the film short as possible as it will also cut on costs.

Step 3: Creating a Shot list

Come up with a workable shot list. It should include vital details such as the shot size, types, camera movement lens, and gear requirements, among others. Additionally, it should capture your game plan for shooting the entire day.

You will find that during the actual shooting, the shot list will maximize your shooting time, keep you organized, limit downtime, and keep you on track. 

If you have no idea on how to come up with a shot list, there are various templates available over the internet which can help you create an ideal one.

Step 4: Framing

If it’s your first-time filming, you must experiment with basic camera angles to get the film right. Familiarize yourself with various camera movements, shots, angles, and tools. You can then create a mock shooting session and put into practice what you have learned.

It is crucial to capture your film’s message through the lens. For example, if you are creating a thriller kind of short movie, you need to build up suspense and anticipation. 

Every minute you are required to regulate the amount of information you feed the audience. Hence, you need to select what the camera focuses on, captures, and when to quickly abandon a scene.

Working with several cameras will come in handy. In case you only have one camera, film the scene several times but from different angles. You can then edit it later and incorporate them as preferred.

Step 5: Being an Emotional Truth Barometer

Mostly, a director’s job entails being able to control the emotions displayed on set. You have to ensure every actor delivers their lines appropriately and matches the required emotions. 

Since you are physically present, as they deliver their lines, you are in a better position to help them perform as required. You can also view their actions on camera.

Step 6: Selecting Suitable Characters

You need to choose suitable characters who perfectly fit the assigned role. While ‘looking the part’ is essential, it is not necessarily a qualifying factor. Some actors are gifted in delivering various characters without really looking like them- which is more preferable. 

For example, the movie critics argue that the main character, Benjamin Braddock, in ‘The Graduate,’ a film directed by Mike Nichols, looks more like Robert Redford. However, an actor with totally different looks (Dustin Hoffman) delivered the part and nailed it!

Meet each one of your characters before shooting and help them slide into their roles. You can always have as many mock shooting sessions as you want. This way, the actors will adapt to the proposed environment and also familiarize themselves with each other.

Step 7: Creating a Shooting Schedule

A director’s job includes creating a shooting schedule for filming scenes. The schedule consists of all the resources you will need during the shooting process e.g., props and the locations where you intend to film. 

You should make it comprehensive such that it states when and where these resources shall be used.

First Time Direction Challenges

Directing films can be quite overwhelming as you are required to play different roles at the same time. You have to ensure you get the right shots; actors play their part, the environment is ideal, the tone is excellent, etc. 

Live in the Moment

Thinking about all this could make your mind wander during filming, and you find yourself planning for the next activity. That’s a huge mistake. Always live for the moment and only focus on what’s going on at that particular time. It will guarantee you quality performances with each turn.

Additionally, if you have several actors in the same scene, you may find it difficult to track the movements and actions of each one of them. This is especially true if you have background actors.

Don’t Ignore the Supporting Cast

You may have scenarios where the main actors give a marvelous performance, and it gets ruined by the actions of background actors – thus forcing you to trash the scene. 

Though challenging, try to pay attention to every person participating in a particular scene. Most first time directors usually over-focus on the main actors and also forget to analyze the extras.

Even during the selection process, ensure to at least meet your extras and ascertain they fit the description of what you are looking for. Some people only request for pictures to have the actors turn up looking like nothing on their photos.

Exercise Patience

Another mistake first-time film directors make is underestimating the casting time. Just because it is a short film that probably lasts for only a few minutes, does not mean you will also spend a short time shooting.

Some may take you days to come up with the right angles and perfect shots. Just learn to exercise patience and focus more on quality rather than time.

Keep an Eye on the Costs

On the other hand, taking too long is also a challenge as it will impact on incurred costs. You need to strike a balance. A lack of confidence may drive you to overshoot scenes that would have only taken a few minutes. 

Also, avoid wasting time by dedicating some time in the pre-production process to analyze the coverage needed for each scene. So that, by the time you go into the shoot, you already know the number of camera angles required to cover an action adequately.

Shoot the Tough One First

Moreover, with time, you will discover that the scenes shot towards the end of the day are somehow rushed as people want to get over and done with to call it a day. The actors may also be exhausted and end up not performing so well.

Maximize your shooting time by starting with tough scenes then move on to easier ones. You can start with demanding scenes in the morning and save ‘tissue scenes’ for the end of the day.

Communicate Discreetly

Not to forget, first-time film directors also struggle with communicating what they want. You may have sat down and formed a perfect picture you wish to capture, but expressing it to your crew becomes an issue.

 Do not fear that your idea will sound stupid or simplistic, it is your show. Hence, as the captain of this ship, you need to spell out what you demand from each of your team members. The cast and crew usually appreciate a director who not only has a plan but can effectively communicate it as well.

Making Mistakes are Normal

Generally, during the first time, it is normal to make a lot of mistakes as directing pictures in a film is a challenging experience, even for professionals. Do not let that put you off. Learn from your mistakes and practice. Soon enough, your efforts shall bear fruit.

Essential Tips to Direct Like a Pro

It is very much possible to hit it big with your first production. How?

1. Build Tension

It is your job as the director to bring life to the script. Ensure the storyline captures the attention of users within the first few minutes. Otherwise, your target audience is likely to abandon it without even getting to the juicy part. 

You can then work on creating as much tension as possible and keep the audience anticipating to the end. The viewer should feel excited and anxious while watching your film.

Identify your storyline’s Climax and each character’s point of view towards it. You can then come up with a shot list that builds tension towards that Climax.

Creating tension is not about introducing shocks or scares, far from it. As Spielberg (a re-known American film director) put it,

“Tension is about a point of view.”

He very well illustrates his point through his numerous creations. For example, in his film titled ‘the color purple,’ Spielberg features a young girl shaving a man on a porch. The cameras focus on every stroke the girl makes through close up shots capturing her hands and the razer. 

While watching, it is hard to look away as you get a weird feeling that the girl may cut the man at any time, and you are forced to wait for what is about to unfold in anticipation. You can click here to view the film and be inspired.

2. Create an Ideal Environment

Do not be domineering and bossy; instead, create an environment where your cast and the crew feels confident enough to take risks and make commendable work. If they feel respected and appreciated, they will produce good results.

According to the globoforce study, 65 percent of interviewed respondents say they work harder when their efforts are appreciated. It shows that people positively respond to acts of thoughtfulness and respect. 

You can start by commending your team members whenever they do something impressive or thank each one of them at the end of the day for their time and effort.

3. Monitor the Camera

Standing close to the lens helps you feel what the camera is recording, and you can get a first-hand experience of what your audience is going to experience. 

Ensure actors accurately interpret emotions and actions following the planned storyline.

4. Express Dominance

In every scene, you need to demonstrate the dominance of various characters. Expressing dominance is about showing who’s in charge at that particular time. It could be expressed through clothing e.g.; a character wears more expensive or brighter colored clothes than the other. 

It could also be expressed using lighting as Stanley Kubrik (American film director, screenwriter, and producer) often preferred. He used practical lighting by allowing the dominant character to lean into the light while the less dominant character remained in a darker zone. 

You can also achieve dominance through blocking in your scene. For example, one character could be closer to the screen compared to the other.

In case dominance changes from one character to the other, allow for a swift transition. This way, the audience can better focus on a particular character or situation as too many things calling for attention at the same time bring about confusion. Focusing on such details to the latter will add depth to your storyline.

5. Ensure to Capture Close up Shots correctly

Close up shots are considered as the most basic shot in cinema. They portray the actors’ emotions and reactions to a particular situation. Eyes darting, lips pursed, nostrils flaring, eyebrows raised, and smiles, among others, should all be well captured.

Research shows that people tend to relate to real humans’ reactions and emotions. Therefore, if you correctly capture close up shots, your audience will find your content more relatable and enjoyable. 

6. Design Suitable Costumes

In any film, the wardrobe can be used to emphasize on the storyline. It can depict a character’s class, culture, fashion taste, personality, and tone. 

Prominent short film directors mostly hire costume designers to create appropriate costumes if you are in a position to hire one, great! 

But if not, you need to create suitable costumes by yourself. You only need to Dress your characters according to who they are, what they do, their culture, personality, and social class. 

The environment you’ll be shooting in will also determine how you dress them – especially the colors. Their clothing needs to blend in with the background at the same time, stand out. You can draw your inspiration from the people you interact with on a day to day basis.

7. Accept Advice and Corrections

It is wise to acquire as much feedback as you can. It applies to the whole filming process. Find someone who is more experienced to advise or enquire from your team about their opinion. 

Other people may provide you with spicy additions to your film that you had not thought of yourself. Nevertheless, as you seek opinion, ensure also to protect your initial idea.

8. Keep up the Energy to the End

You usually come on board all so excited, energetic, and eager to shoot your first film. But, along the way, your energy burns out. It may be due to disappointments from the crew, too much pressure, or inadequate resources. 

Whatever the reason, it is essential to keep up the energy to the very end to achieve consistent results. No one is perfect. We are bound to encounter many challenges. Besides, some of the most creative and brightest ideas were born amidst limitations. 

With this in mind, always put your best foot forward, and as your crew and cast see how much you give to shoot the film, it will probably rub off on them.

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