Short filmmaking for beginners is tricky if you don’t know the process. When I made my first short, I committed so many mistakes where I not only wasted a lot of time but also lost few precious bucks. So, in this article, I am going to guide you along the way to a step by step process on How to make a short film for beginners the right way.
How to make a short film for beginners? It begins with an idea. Turn that idea into a script and then like any filmmaking process, short filmmaking also undergoes three basic phases – Pre Production, Production and Post-Production. The final result is your short film.
Filmmaking is a collaborative effort and short filmmaking is no different either. We are going to discuss every step in detail but before getting into it, it is important to know why you want to make the short.
Why make a short film?
For newbies, a short film is just the beginning phase. It is the hands-on training in the filmmaking process. But, if you have never held a digital camera or never penned a story, you can still do it with your smartphone and a pen and paper respectively. The process remains the same though in this case, you may have to do it all by yourself.
But for someone who has understood storytelling; knows a thing or two about camera blocking and lighting, short films could be a gateway to feature filmmaking.
Some common reasons for making a short are:
- First-hand Experience
- A great story idea
- Demo Reel – A Gateway to film and television career.
- Participate in Festivals and Competitions
- Assignments from School/ Organization
- To Collaborate
- To Make Money on the internet
- Gags and fun
- Testing out things
But, before making one you have to know the “Why” to have a better approach to your short filmmaking. For a beginner, it is necessary to have your voice in your films for sure. So, now you have got it out of the way, let’s get into the process of How to make a Short Film.
Beginner’s Guide to Short Filmmaking:
The Development Stage:
Fix Your Genre:
For a novice, it is always about testing the waters. Yet, you must always attempt a film that defines you as a filmmaker. Try to pick the genre which you want to be known for. George Lucas attempted Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB before the legendary Star Wars saga. Same goes with Christopher Nolan’s Doodlebug which was a high concept story. So, pick your genre close to your heart.
I suggest choosing it before the idea unless it is an assignment or there is a compulsion to stray from your genre. When you have the genre, your ideas will start populating in that direction.
Your Short Film Idea:
The story idea can’t be expansive to go beyond 40 minutes. Beyond 40 minutes your film will lose the status of being called a short film. So brainstorm on few ideas that would be short and crisp. You should be able to conclude it strongly without losing its engaging nature.
Since it is your first script, don’t complicate things. Keep it simple because there will be more tough things to deal with while making your first short.
Penning the Script:
The next stage is to turn the idea into a script. Try to keep the pages of your script under thirty, considering each page takes a minute of your screen time. You shouldn’t exceed that to keep it safe under the rules.
Frankly, I would suggest starting with 3 to 5-minute films where you can make your film cheaply, or even for free, and learn the tricks of the trade at a lesser cost. Anyway, if you follow the industry screenplay format for your script, your pages will indicate the approximate duration of your short.
Shot Breakdown / Storyboarding:
The next stage actually gives a vision to your script. It is crucial to bring people on the same page. For a beginner, it is extremely important to break down scenes into shots and if possible, do a storyboard.
It is a reference board which helps in planning your production beforehand. You can also get an estimation of your work timeline, budget, style, and production requirements. Storyboards keep your focus on the shoot and are an excellent tool for filmmaking especially for beginners.
If you can’t draw, I suggest block and shoot your friends with your smartphone to create storyboard stills. You will actually see your story in pictures and can identify the mistakes that are going to happen in your shooting or storytelling. Never ignore this part.
How much will your film cost you approximately can be deducted by proper budgeting of your film? Budgeting will depend on factors like the scale of production, locations, costumes, days of shoot etc.
The best way to budget is to first break your script down to locations, actors, costumes, technical equipment like camera, sound recorders and lights, number of days of the shoot, post-production costs etc. Once you have an estimation, you should chase angel investors to raise the funds for your film.
Raising the Funds:
It is a big challenge for newbies to get funding for their films if they are not self-funding their short films. However, there are ways to hustle for funds.
- First, create a business report or a pitch document for raising funds for your film.
- State the reasons and the purpose behind making the film.
- Throw some light on the business aspect of the film.
- Demonstrate a marketing plan
I know it sounds too corporate-like for a beginner but you should learn to tread the ropes of your filmmaking journey. It shows your sincerity and earnestness which is appreciated by the people investing in your film.
There are other ways like crowdfunding, film grants, hiring professionals etc. to raise funds. But I guess you won’t need big money for your first short. Remember that you should also sell your idea strongly which has the potential to reach a wider audience and show your investor his benefits in funding your film.
Now, when you have got through your idea development to raising funds, the serious phase of short filmmaking begins now. Till now, you were shooting in the dark but when you have a script, budget and pitch ready, you have jumped the first block. And, when the funds are cleared, it’s when the rubber meets the road.
The Pre-production Phase:
Pre-production is the preparation phase before going to the shoot. There is enormous preparation a filmmaker has to manage beforehand like location recce, list of equipment, the auditions for the right cast, hiring the crew etc. So let’s go through each one of them.
When you break down the script, you segregate the locations and the number of scenes which location demands. Locations can be indoors as well as outdoors. Indoors scenes give you better control than outdoors as you have less external forces to influence your production.
Outdoor locations need permissions from the local body and if they are night scenes, you need lights and power access. Shooting in nights are usually slower than the day shots and hence become more costly.
For a beginner, my advice to you is trying to make one location indoor film. Yes, it is cliche but gives you better control to your filmmaking and is inexpensive if you can do it in your own house.
Casting and Auditions:
The next immediate step is to scout for actors. From your script breakdown, you also have a list of players needed for your short. You can either opt for your friends and family members who can act or go for local actors who have some experience in acting.
Try to convince the actors to do your film for free. If they see a spark in your eyes or spunk in their characters, they may oblige. Short films always provide actors to showcase their talent too. Another good suggestion is to look for film school students or wannabe actors.
If need be, don’t ignore to take screen tests and auditions. Never compromise with your characters. For any film to become great two things are vital – the script and right casting. If you do these two things successfully, half your battle is won.
Get your film equipment:
The primary equipment you need for your short film is our camera unless you are making your short with pictures, sketching or animations. Before picking a camera, you must also consider the aspect ratio and the output format of your film. Where are you going to showcase your film? Is it the internet or a silver screen? What is the requirement of the festival you are going to apply? If you have the answers, you pick the camera likewise.
Other important things are the lenses and the accessories your camera needs. Lighting and Sound is another important thing you need to focus on. The number of lights and reflectors, the right microphones, sound recorders, rigs, grips etc. should be finalized beforehand. Rent it out, borrow from fellow filmmakers or even buy what you can afford before the shooting starts.
Check out this article on Essential Film equipment for Beginners .
Hire your Crew:
Now, you need your crew to run that equipment. Apart from your cameraman and his assistants, you need technicians to handle lights, sound, reflectors, editing etc. You will need people to handle production-related services.
As a director, you will require assistance. Get some assistant directors. Production Designer will require their art and costume staff. The crew can add up quickly and for beginners, you should keep your crew at its minimum because each headcount will increase your budget. So, you have to choose them wisely.
You can always resort to your friends and family for handling production or assistance. You can handle the camera as well while directing. Similarly, others can multitask as well.
When you have your storyboard and scenes chalked out, the first thing you should do is to take your cameraman, sound editor, and production designer to the locations. You carefully observe the light sources and the angles you need for the scenes.
During your location recce or days prior to shooting, sit with your crew and figure out the camera blocking and movements . Also, figure out your staging of scenes (Link) and the movement of your actors.
It gives your videographer/cinematographer a clear idea about your shots and his lighting requirements. He will then share with you his sequences to better your efficiency during the shoot.
The respective crew members too will figure out their requirements. It will help in optimizing their productivity.
Call time for Actors and Crew:
Before the day of the shoot, all the actors and your crew members must have their call time for the shoot. Call time should be given an hour or two before the real action begins.
Actors need time to rehearse, wear makeup and costumes. Others also need to be ready with their respective responsibilities.
Similarly, the crew from other departments needs to arrive at their respective time to make things ready before the camera rolls.
The Production Phase:
The production phase is where the real action is. Any goof up here and you sabotage your film. So the better the preparation more confident you are during shooting the film. So, let me share the process that I go through during shooting.
Rehearse before Shoot:
You have already figured out your camera blocking and staging earlier but not with your actor. Sometimes actors bring some interesting modifications to the table. They enact the scene and have a better sense of interacting with their environment. You shouldn’t ignore their inputs.
Rehearsing with the camera helps in tweaking the blocking. You should always rehearse with the master shot of the scene. Coverage may not need prior rehearsals.
Get the Actors Ready:
Actors should be ready when the lights are being set up. They should apply their makeups and get ready with their costumes. Check out beforehand that the fittings don’t restrain their movements.
Talking about costumes, if it is not a period or a costume drama, you can always request your actors to get their clothes. They will be happy to do so as they are comfortable with their clothes unless you are roughing them up. You can also offer them to buy their clothes and you can get those reimbursed.
Lights, Sound, Camera Action:
Voila! It is time for the camera to roll. It is the proudest moment. You have been dreaming of this day and here you are with your actors in their position and the cinematographer waiting for your order. You say “Action” and your first short starts to film.
You should always attempt to film simple scenes the first day to get the feel of shooting. Slowly move over to emotion heavy scenes. You should always shoot scenes based on priority, priority of the location or the dates of your actor. You have to plan it accordingly. Scenes are never shot as per its chronology.
Try to plan a master shot which covers the full scene. Then break it down to mid-shots and close-ups to cover the rest of the scene. The Master shot takes a long time to shoot but if ever you are stressed for time or challenges. You have your main scene canned.
Also, don’t forget to shoot your B-rolls and cutaways. They play a significant role in enhancing drama in the scene or transiting into the next scene.
Storing your shots as per its clap number is key. Data Management has become significant in today’s filmmaking. You should ensure that the video and audio are recorded and transferred correctly into the disk storage.
Also, ensure you have enough backup of the footage. For faster storage and transfer of files go for the high Mbps storage systems which capture lossless data. All the dailies are then transferred for the rough cut.
The Post Production Phase:
Editing involves assimilation of footage and sound. You have to transfer the data to your editing suite or desktop. Digitize the footage and organize them into folders or bins as per the scenes. You can also upload the sound files after that and then match the audio with the video.
Some of the popular editing software among the newbies are Final cut Pro and Adobe Premier. So, after the segregation, your rough edit begins. Here, you arrange the shots sequentially as per the flow of the scene. In a matter of time, your first line up is ready. But, this is not what an editor does. His job starts now, where he cuts, rearranges shots and shapes the scenes to enhance the drama and engagement of your story.
Once the editing is done, still some jobs remain in the film. You need the sound effects and music. If the need arises you need to fine-tune the edit again. Hence, it is still not your final cut.
Sound Designing :
The sound is 50 % of your film. It is subtle and subconsciously engages the audience. It is an invisible effect but crucial to support your visuals.
There are 3 to 4 components to your sound. Voice audio, sound effects, music, and sound design. If you have recorded sound in the shoot or want to dub it in the post, a crisp and clear sound of your dialogues is pertinent. The sound of footsteps, guns, the door creaking, ambiance are the effects which lay under the voice layer to transport the audience into the milieu of the setup of your scene. Music is the heart of your story and kindles the soul. And, the sound editor then designs the whole sound setup depending on the mood and demands of the scene.
You can start your work on the necessary effects needed for the visuals simultaneously. Whether it is any animation clips, an interaction of animations and live action or adding computer-generated effects, the time is now.
If you have filmed shots using green screens, you can key out the color to put relevant backgrounds. The visual effects and the CGI happen in parallel to other stuffs and most of the post-production time is consumed by it. Meanwhile, you can also get your film titling and end credits done too.
When all the sound and the visual effects are completed, it is time to gather all of them and tighten your editing. Fine tune your cuts, eliminate the drags and use transitions intelligently.
You final cut process should be realized after inputs from your close colleagues and producers.After everything is approved you can then move onto the color grading.
Color grading is the final stage in making your short film. This process enhances the visual quality of your film. If you have shot your film on cheaper cameras, grading can sometimes give you a film look.
There are special lookup tables with which you can work on the contrasts, color correction, gain levels, and noise reduction to achieve your desired look of a shot, scene or the entire film.
Final Print :
Now, your film is complete and it is time to transfer your film to various file formats like HD, mpegs or film formats. You can also print on film negatives if you are applying to any film fests or want to project into a panoramic screen. Also, take substantial backups to archive your film.
Congratulations! Your short film is complete and your first mission is achieved.
What should I do with the film now?
Now that you have finished your first short film, it is time to gather as many eyeballs as you can. You can take it to festivals, show it online, ask for assignments or sell it right away. The options are many but as I have told you earlier, to know why you are making this short. You should move towards that direction.
If you want to promote or sell your film check out the article- How to sell a short film
Also, check – Who buys short films .
We also have an article on how to make money from short films . Please don’t skip this step.
Finishing a film is like winning a war. Charlie Chaplin once said that he salutes a man who has made a film in his life. Such are the challenges in making a film. So, once you have made your film, write down where did you go wrong? What could have been better? Which mistakes you will never commit. Now, go and shoot your next. All the best!