by Makrenna Rose Sterdan
Here’s the situation: you want to make short films.
But you don’t have any professional equipment. You have never made a film before, so you’re not quite sure where to start. You don’t have a whole lot (if any) money. And, when it comes to getting funding, to get money you need to prove you’ll finish the film . . . by showing a film you’ve already made.
If this is you, then this article is made for you. How do you make your VERY FIRST film? I’ll walk you through it!
Below are practical and achievable tips to get a short film finished from start to finish!
STEP 1: WRITING YOUR SCRIPT
You probably have a million ideas for short films. After all, if you want to make a film, you’ve probably been thinking about it for a very long time.
Right now, I’d like you to put all your script ideas on the shelf. When making films, most of what you’ll learn about the process will be done on the job. Treat your first film as a practice exercise.
Revisit the amazing ideas you’re passionate about later, when you have more experience, more money, and better equipment.
For now, write a script that uses the following parameters:
--> Make a silent film. Seriously, sound is the most complicated aspect of filmmaking. For your first film, don’t even go there. Make a silent film, add music while editing, and include no dialogue.
--> Make the setting somewhere with lots of natural sunlight. Fluorescents are your enemy. Natural sunlight is your friend. So you can go somewhere outside, or somewhere where there’s lots of windows. If it’s a cloudy day, that’s even better because clouds diffuse the sunlight nicely. With that being said, using natural sunlight can be It’s risky because it might rain or snow. But for your first film, it’s worth the risk.
--> Another note on setting: a great place to start a script is asking where will I actually be able to shoot? and go from there. If you have a public park you can shoot at, great. A cafe where the owner will let you shoot? A library? Many places will kick filmmakers out. So just make sure that you set your short film at a location where you will be welcome to shoot.
--> Use as few actors as possible. Think about the most simple storyline with the fewest characters. If it’s your first film, you’ll probably be working with volunteers and . . . well, almost guaranteed, at least one is guaranteed to cancel the day of filming.
The above parameters are made for practicality. The last thing you want for your first film is a script that you have no idea how to shoot.
To make your script look professional, use the formatting below:
STEP 2: GETTING YOUR EQUIPMENT
Here’s the deal: you can shoot a film on your smart phone, and it will be great. Sure, if you have a DSLR camera or high end camera you can do a lot of cool stuff. You totally can! But if you have a great story, great actors, and good shooting skills, you can make a smart phone work.
If you go to your phone settings, you should be able to use the following settings on your phone:
Video quality: 1080p is the ideal, and what you want. This means your video will be in high definition, and suitable to be viewed on television screens.
720p is less quality than 1080, but is suitable for watching on a smart phone or on YouTube. If your phone can only do 720p for your first video, don’t panic.
Frames per second: 24fps or 30fps are both good for shooting film, as they are the standard in the movie industry.
Don’t worry about the other settings.
Now, what other equipment do I need?
You will no doubt see lots of film equipment, and there are A LOT of different things out there for you to use. Equipment can help you do really super incredible creative shots—but only if you know how to use them.
For your first film, keep it simple, and use the bare minimum:
First, you’ll need a smartphone holder. These are dirt cheap, and should not cost any more than $5. These holders will allow you to secure your smart phone onto any tripod. The hole on the bottom will screw onto the top of your tripod.
Second, a tripod. There are tripods you can get for around $20 or less. There are also super small tripods you can get for even cheaper. Whatever works for you. When you’re doing a shot where nothing is moving, set your tripod up. If you’re doing a shot where you need to move, collapse your tripod and hold the legs so you maintain some stability. If you want the “handheld” effect, hold your phone directly.
Third, as an optional piece of equipment, get a selfie stick. Holding these offers relative stability when you’re shooting and moving at the same time.
STEP 3: STORYBOARD
Do you understand what equipment you have to work with? Good. Now, let’s talk the paperwork you need going in.
Most film companies take months, if not years, preparing for a feature film. If this is your first time, give yourself some time, but you don’t need that long. You might hear you need things like a shot list, or continuity sheet, or any number of things.
Don’t worry about those. The number one thing to focus on is a storyboard. Your storyboard doesn’t have to be pretty. Heck, if you’re the one who’s going to operate the camera, it doesn’t even have to make sense to anyone but you.
Here’s what you do: take a piece of paper, and divide it into squares. In each square, draw your script out as if it were a comic. Write notes about what you want to do. Make sure everything in your script has at least one box on your storyboard.
Your storyboard is your blueprint for your short film. You take it onto set with you and make sure you get all the shots on your storyboard. It serves as a visual checklist.
STEP 4: CAST AND CREW
This is the hardest part—finding people who will work for free. You might have friends or family. Or, you might post a casting notice for cast and crew.
Either way, if you’re shooting a short film, you’ll need the following as a bare minimum for your first film:
ACTOR(S), the people you need to act out your short film.
CAMERA PERSON, someone to operate your camera.
Assuming you’re the camera person, it might only be you and your actor(s).
But, I would also recommend having an:
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR, someone checking off your shot list.
CATERING, someone handling food.
DIRECTOR, assuming you are the director, and another person is the camera operator.
There are a million positions on a film set. These are the bare minimum of people you need.
PRO TIP 1: if people are willing to volunteer, don’t turn anyone away if you don’t have to. Volunteers are notorious for quitting at the last minute, so if someone is willing to come onto set, give them a position and have them on hand as a backup in case something happens. If an actor doesn’t show up, put your assistant director into the role. If your camera person doesn’t show up, step in to operate. You get the idea that you might need to be flexible on the day of, so have as many people on set to be flexible with as possible. In the event everyone shows up and you have way too many people on set, put your extra people in the background to be extras. Just be flexible—there’s no wrong way to divvy up the roles for your first film!
PRO TIP 2: prepare food and drinks. It’s a common courtesy that when you’re working with volunteers, at the very least you feed them. If you know someone who loves cooking, get a big vat of perogies or hotdogs to bring to set. Purchase pizzas. Honestly, catering will probably be your biggest expense. But you can look into cheap options.
PRO TIP 3: writing a professional casting call. Include the following: film title, brief summary, cast roles you need, crew roles you need, put in bold that it's volunteer but catering will be provided, how long filming will take.
STEP 5 - THE CALL SHEET
Call sheets don’t have to be complicated or elaborate. A call sheet’s basic purpose is to inform all your cast and crew where and when they are meeting. It includes names, roles, and contact information, as well as a schedule for the day.
You can create one of your own, and send to all your cast and crew.
STEP 6: SHOOTING DAY
Come onto set with an open mind, and with extreme flexibility. You’re working with volunteers who are giving you their time and energy. Be thankful and polite no matter what.
But also, be prepared for people to cancel last minute, prepare for people to be late, and prepare for some disorganisation when you first settle in on set. As mentioned before, be prepared to shuffle people around when they arrive on set. It’s all normal. Just don’t be thrown off by it, keep your cool, and get ‘er done!
PRO TIP 1: make sure you’re following your storyboard, and you get the shots you need. However, if you think of some really cool shots while you’re shooting, don’t be afraid to include those as well! It’s much better to have too much than not enough.
PRO TIP 2: give yourself more time than needed. Things go wrong even on the most professional of sets. Also, if you have a bunch of people on set, there will be socialising. And you know what? That’s okay. Just make sure that when you’re making your schedule you allow enough time for the work to get done.
PRO TIP 3: get more footage than you need—always. If you have a scene where someone is sitting down, opening their phone, then getting up, make sure to get full footage of them doing the full action. For all the different angles, make sure you get that full motion as much as possible.
STEP 7: EDITING
iMovie seems to be the go-to for free editing software. There even might be iMovie on your iPhone!
Another free option is Davinci Resolve.
This one is my personal favourite. I love it! And: there is a free version that is perfect.
Play around with it, and have fun editing your work. Try things from different angles.
One thing though: make sure when you’re exporting that you’re exporting as an Mp4 file. MOV files are HUGE! If you’re using iMovie, you might not have a choice. But if you’re using DaVinci, make sure it’s in Mp4.
STEP 8: SCORING
There are so many royalty free music sites this day. Audio Library on YouTube channel is what I would recommend:
Just make sure you credit the artists. How you credit them is in the YouTube description.
STEP 9: DISTRIBUTING
This one really depends on who you want your audience to be.
General audience? YouTube / Instagram / Facebook / etc. Can’t go wrong with those.
Companies that offer film grants: same as general audience is fine. You also have the option of making the video unlisted, so you can only share your video with the people you’re applying with. Uploading to Google Drive is also an option.
Film Festivals: so you’re ambitious and confident in your film? That’s great! You can do unlisted YouTube videos, upload to Vimeo, or upload directly to the festival depending on the requirements.
STEP 10: THANKING EVERYONE WHO HELPED
When you work with people, they’ll want to know how it went. Keep your entire crew informed when you finish the work and upload it! Make sure they’re the first people you’re sharing with.
Also, as a general rule of thumb, if your film gets a substantial amount of money, you’re required to pay your cast and crew. That’s ALWAYS the expectation when working with volunteers. You’re not paying them because you CAN’T. But, the second that changes, you owe it to them to pay them for their hard work.
So that’s it! That’s the cheapest, most practical method of shooting your first film. Make sure to let us at Red Lips Productions know how it goes!
Makrenna Rose Sterdan
Owner, Red Lips Productions
Makrenna is a producer and writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba. She started Red Lips Productions in the summer of 2018, and has been producing several shorts and web series since. Her main passion is writing, but she also produces and directs when the opportunity arises.