Editing your short film

Once you’ve got all your shots in the can, only one step remains: edit that sucker!

This step is many things: daunting, exhausting, thrilling, exhilarating. It’s where your movie becomes the movie it’s meant to be.

Assuming you’re all digital and not piecing together actual strips of celluloid, editing falls into a few key stages.

  1. Watch all your footage. How long this takes depends on how much you shot. You’ll want to check out every second of every take, and make notes on things that worked or didn’t work (e.g., your actor did a great reaction 3m 42s into take 5, their co-star delivered the perfect line in response 3m 50s into take 8…). Make these detailed notes, with the times of the things that worked (or didn’t work), so that you have a complete list of every shot, and which moments you might want to use. See you in a couple of months.
  2. Assemble. Not like the Avengers. This can be the most painstaking stage of all. This is you putting together your assembly, or rough cut. Mashing together different shots to see what works. It helps to be ultra-organized here: go line by line, reaction by reaction. Re-watch your clips for each beat, note down which parts of which shots you want to put next to each other, and away you go. Try out those combinations. If they don’t work, try different variations. (Yoda will be ok with all that trying, we promise). As you put your clips into your editing software, and then cut the small snippets of each one as you construct your movie beat by beat, you can mess with shortening them, intercutting them differently, experimenting with shots from different angles… Some takes are faster than others — you can see what speeds work, and adjust the clip lengths. Maybe that long pause that seemed to work on the day doesn’t now that it’s in context — so you can edit it down and make the scene fly. It’s mind-bogglingly slow and detailed work, but it’s fascinating and thrilling to watch your story coming together.

    External monitor

    Connecting an external monitor so you’re not looking at your clips in a little 3×2 inch box is extremely helpful…

  3. Continuity. You might be putting together your favorite shots to construct an argument that’s happening — but then you notice your actor’s hair is different (maybe they brushed it behind one ear in one shot, and the other ear in a different shot), or they’re leaning forward in one moment, then leaning right back the next. It’s not just about being guided by the best performances — you have to make sure the visuals flow and what’s happening matches up from shot to shot. So if your actor leans forward from one angle, you might cut to the next shot from a different angle that shows them continuing to move — this gives your movie flow and a good kinetic energy. The audience may or may not specifically notice, but they’ll certainly feel it. Watch out for cups moving around the table if the actors picked them up during the scene, or glasses getting more or less full, or any prop/furniture movement. There are a million details, and you need to see them all.
  4. Audio. Be prepared to separate your sound from your visuals. You might need to take a line from one take where you’re looking at actor A, and lay it over the reaction shot where you’re looking at actor B. Or take some “room tone” from one take, and lay it over a gap in another take where you had to cut out the sound of someone banging into a table. You might need to take dialogue from an entirely different moment and lay it over a shot where it doesn’t belong in order to create a beat that wasn’t there before. The possibilities are endless. So play with it. Have fun. Editing is where your movie is truly written, so embrace the “anything can happen” feeling!
  5. Polishing and cleaning. Once you have a rough cut, with your audio cut together too, you need to embark on the next phase: cleaning everything up. This means fine tuning each and every transition from one clip to the next to make sure your movie is tight and flows cleanly and dynamically. You’ll also work on your audio, adjusting the EQ, dealing with hiss or other extraneous noise, increasing volume in a quiet take, or reducing it if people start shouting and making the sound distort. It also means adding sound effects, e.g. footsteps, doors opening, cups clinking, background ambient noise, etc. Whatever you need to add that extra dimension to your story and evoke the world that your characters are living in.

    Audio

    Audio clips for days… Editor’s sanity not pictured.

  6. Color Correction. Technically part of the cleanup, this is a step unto itself, as you adjust exposure, shadows, color, saturation, in order to make your image rich and dynamic. You can really give your scenes life, warmth and a cinematic feel with this step.
  7. Music. If you need music for your movie, this is the time to add it. Once your picture is locked, sound cleaned up, color corrected, you can add the soundtrack.
  8. Credits. It’s up to you how and where the credits go, but they should be unobtrusive in the sense that they must fit your story and your mood. They can be simple, or they can be David Fincher in Seven-style insane (and awesome). Whatever works for your movie.

Watching your clips, cataloguing them, then piecing them together into a rough cut which you then fine tune, while you get all your audio clips cleaned up and in the right place, can take weeks, even for a 10 minute short. It’s all about making each moment sing, about doing your story justice, and making sure you do your actors justice too. They’ve worked hard for you — you need to choose moments that show them off.

Editing is where it all comes together, and the true identity of your movie becomes clear. What you thought it was, what you thought you shot on the day… that all falls away. You work with what’s there, and what’s there will tell you what works. It’s incredibly thrilling and fulling. And never more so than when you screen the finished product for the first time!

Making a short film: Planning The Day

Planning the day (or days) of filming your short falls somewhere between arranging a night out hanging with friends and, well… a wedding. Like a wedding, there’re a lot of logistics and contingencies to work out, and like a night out with friends, you want to be open to genius ideas and flexible enough to deal with last minute cancellations.

How the day of filming unfolds is often determined by how much planning you do beforehand. Because each project can be vastly different, there’s no universal checklist that you can print out and use. That’s not going to stop us laying out ten super important things that you need to consider though!

Checklist

  1. Create a shooting schedule. Chances are, you have limited time in your location and/or with your cast and crew.  A table read and run-through will help you figure out how much time you’ll need in each location, and for each scene. Factor in time to build sets, eat, and take bathroom breaks. Then add at least 15-45 minutes to each block of time for interruptions or inspiration. It might sound crazy, but you don’t want to throw out a good idea just because you ran out of time to explore it.
  2. Have a list of all your props and organize accordingly. Treat setting up your sets or locations like you would moving house. But instead of having boxes labeled by rooms, have everything packed according to the timing of your shoot. And be sure to make a note if a prop will be used in a later shot so you know to move it to the “next box” when finished.
  3. Bring extra. If the script calls for two cups of coffee… bring three — just in case one breaks. If you are relying on your cast to provide their own wardrobe, be sure to bring alternate clothing options or accessories, in case what they bring doesn’t work with the lighting or vibe with the story — sequins only work in certain light, and patterns can be attention-sucking. And bring extra scripts. Someone will probably forget theirs.

    Mugs.jpg

    Safety mug not pictured

  4. Take roll call. The week before, the night before, and even the morning of, reach out to your cast and crew and make sure they’re still on board, know the time and location, and are prepped. Just send a quick, nice note about how you can’t wait to work with them and open the door to any questions or concerns they might have.
  5. Confirm, confirm, confirm. Make sure you have your location booked, and that anything being borrowed has a pick up and drop off time. You can be more pushy with this kind of thing, especially if money is involved.
  6. Prepare for weather to mess with you. Even if you have all indoor sets and shots, a thunderstorm can mess with your lighting and sounds. A really hot day can have the AC buzzing in your mics, and the threat of snow can cut your available time in half. Severe enough weather might force a delay in shooting, so keep an eye on the forecast and keep your cast and crew up to date. You’re going to be like your grandparents constantly watching the Weather Channel, but at least there’s an app for that now.
  7. Make sure your crew is reliable. A short on a tight budget often means cashing in favors and handing out IOUs. When reaching out for support, do your best to find positive people who are passionate about your project, and genuinely want to contribute. People who love what they do, whether it’s acting, lighting, sound, etc. You don’t want anyone on set who doesn’t want to be there or has their own agenda. You also don’t want anyone there who’ll drain the atmosphere and prevent everyone else from reaching their creative potential. You need to set the tone, as the director and leader of this team, and choose people who bring good, creative energy. Your set needs to be a happy, creatively conducive place. With lots of snacks. Which leads us to…
  8. Keep everyone and everything charged. Make sure you have enough chargers, back-up batteries and power cords for your lighting and equipment (especially for your camera!). And bring food. Lots of food. Loaded with sugar and caffeine. If anyone in your cast or crew has a food allergy or special diet, be sensitive and work with them to make sure there’s something safe and available for them to eat. No one gives their best when they’re starving.
  9. First-aid kit. This sounds like it should be on a camping list. But remember that third mug you’re bringing? Whoever ends up breaking it will probably hurt themselves in the process. Hopefully you won’t need it, but you don’t want to delay filming because someone has run out for band-aids.
  10. Find a Snapchattist. When you’re in the middle of changing a set, finding the right camera angle, or trying to shoot dialogue between rolls of thunder, you won’t have time to take candid shots of the cast and crew. But you’re going to want those shots later, either to help promote the film, or just to laugh and remember the good times once you’ve shared the finished product with everyone that came together to make it happen. This person can be a member of the cast who isn’t in every scene, or someone in the crew whose camera phone is never off.

Depending on your script, you’ll probably have a lot more to add to your list, even for a 10 minute short. Plan as much as you can beforehand, think of possible roadblocks and how you’ll get around them… and it never hurts to wake up really early. But, once you’re rolling, keep rolling. Go with whatever happens, let your cast explore their characters and ways to play the scene, and let the sun shine on your main character. Work with what the day gives you, and with any luck, you’ll wind up with something better than you could have imagined.

Making your short film: what equipment do you need?

You might want to make a short film, but feel like you can’t because you don’t have a RED camera or know anyone who does. You might believe that because you don’t have access to professional sound and lighting, you won’t be able to make anything good. Basically, you might think it’s all about how expensive your equipment is.

You’d be wrong.

It may have been true even 10 years ago, when digital was still not the norm, and you had to deal with actual celluloid — there were a lot more logistics to handle back then. Now? Honestly, you can do it all on your phone or iPad. Seriously. You can shoot using your iPhone’s video, edit using the free iMovie software, and upload right to YouTube, all without ever needing any other devices or equipment.

Of course, there are some technical limitations to that approach — sound and lighting could be limited, and your movie will have that high frame rate iPhone video look. Here’s the thing — you can come up with a story to make those limitations work for you, just make it a feature of the story, e.g. your short could be a “found footage” movie based on video that your characters have been shooting.

One of the key skills you need as a low budget short film director is making your limitations a virtue. Since equipment costs money, it’s usually the case that you need to work around visuals, sound and lighting, to some degree. We’ll go into detail on that in a second, but back to the camera itself.

You can use an iPhone as is, or you can start tricking it out, depending on your budget. The two things you can do are use apps to film the movie, instead of the phone’s native video function, and add lenses to the phone. Both of these can immediately give your short a more cinematic look and feel, and for a relatively low price. For example, the critically acclaimed Sundance movie Tangerine was shot on an iPhone 5, using the FilmicPro app and the Moondog Labs anamorphic lens for iPhone. The lens is around $150, the app is $10 or so. Still an expenditure, but a relatively affordable one, given that a RED camera will set you back a substantial five figures.

Tangerine

Tangerine, directed by Sean Baker, shot using an iPhone 5

If the phone isn’t an option for you, consider regular digital cameras/camcorders, which you can get hold of for a couple hundred bucks, although if you don’t already have one, you almost certainly know someone who does (and hopefully they’ll lend it to you!). This can be an easy, low cost way to get decent quality shots. Put it on a tripod, MacGyver a dolly track of some kind (that’s basically a way to move the camera through a space smoothly) to give you more fluid movement, and you’re on your way.

When shooting, you also need to think about sound and light. If you know your camera, you’ll know what kind of light it likes — basically, what light conditions does it perform well in. If you’re not sure, take it out for a spin and find out. We’ve covered lighting before, but if you don’t have a professional you can work with, or a student cinematographer, then do lighting tests to work out how you can work with everyday light sources. You’d be surprised how far you can get with some well placed lamps, funky-cool IKEA lights, and even strings of lights. Experiment until you find the perfect blend of natural and artifical light that gives your actors enough of a glow so that they don’t look washed out or overlit. And so that your movie looks cool. Improvise.

You can record your sound using the phone or camera onboard mic. It won’t be the best quality, but as with all of the above, remember this: what will really hook viewers of your short is a good story and good performances. Those are the top priorities for you. Remember we talked about the Duplass brothers’ Sundance-winning short in a previous post. That used on-camera sound. And won Sundance. It can be done. If you prefer to step it up a notch, you can buy a microphone to mount on your camera, as well as a boom pole to get your mic much closer to the actors, for under $200. This will make a noticeable difference in your sound quality, and again, is fairly affordable.

With all of these things, of course you can spend more. Your budget will dictate whether you spend low three figures or north of four on equipment to shoot the short. The key thing is to make use of what you can get your hands on — and make it work for you.

Once you’ve shot the movie, you then have to edit it. We’ll get into the art of editing another time, but you do have to decide how you’ll edit. As mentioned earlier, you can do a lot with iMovie. It has a timeline to allow you to edit clips and move them around. You can add filters to give your movie a certain look (including black and white). You can add songs and sound effects from Garageband, and you can upload to YouTube. Very simple, very easy, and free.

If you want something more robust which will give you more control over your picture, consider Adobe Premiere, or Final Cut. Both of these feature a complex and exhaustive array of sound and visual editing capabilities. Final Cut, for example, which is what we use, gives you extensive sound editing capabilities, so if you were forced to use on-camera sound, you can clean it up to a certain extent. Same for the visuals — there are sophisticated color correction controls that really let you give your shots a filmic look (even if they were taken on a camcorder).

 

One more question

Rachel Keefe in our short film The Real Quinn Hardy, shot using a camcorder, lit using IKEA lights, and edited on Final Cut for a moodier look

Final Cut also allows for “plugins” — paid extra functionalities that you can “plug in” (see what they did there) to the software, to give you additional editing powers, like cleaning up visual noise from low lighting conditions, or even more advanced sound enhancing options. Some are free, some cost money. Final Cut itself is $299, so not cheap, but if you plan to make more than one short, it could be a sound investment.

The point is, you can have access to all the equipment you need for under $500, or under $1000, depending on what you already have or what you can borrow. You might have everything you need right now! Of course, an awesome script and wonderful actors are pivotal, but we’re assuming you took care of that. Now you just have to make sure you do your story justice, and make your actors look good. And the good news is, these days, it’s very easy to do that for free, or close to it.

Or as JJ Abrams put it recently in a Star Wars Twitter Q&A when asked if he had any advice for aspiring directors:

Rewriting your short film script

When you first start writing your script, you should censor… nothing! Let the ideas flow, let the characters do something crazy. Think big, dream big… all that good stuff.

You need to get all Field Of Dreams up in here... if you build it...

You need to get all Field Of Dreams up in here…

When you’ve finished that first draft though, you’re going to need to switch out of writer mode and put on a different hat.

Spoiler: there's more than one hat

Spoiler: there’s more than one hat

Several hats, actually. The first is your editor hat. With any type of writing, you need to go over your work and approach it with unnerving, surgical precision, cutting away and removing things that you couldn’t possibly imagine losing but that the piece will be much better without.

You, editing

You, editing

It’s often brutal, always necessary. If something is slowing your story down, making it too long, or is tonally off — snip snip! Once you have a tight script, in which every word is weighted with pivotal importance, it’s time for a wardrobe change as you look for your set designer hat.

This is where you have to evaluate your script on the basis of what the director (spoiler: this is you just with a different hat) can actually, practically shoot. This means dealing with the reality of your situation. If you set your script in a cafe, or a store, or an airplane, do you actually have the ability to (a) shoot in a real cafe, store, or airplane, or (b) recreate the interiors you need using creative set design (see our previous post)?

Shooting in a real location, such as a cafe or store, involves getting permission from the owner and working out all the details with them. Most will only let you film after hours for a set period of time, and they may insist their employees are present to keep an eye on things… which could be costly. They may let you use the location but not their materials — meaning you’ll have to bring in your own props (mugs, coffee machine, etc.). Along with props, you’ll need to bring in lighting and, if the script calls for them, extras. There are a lot of logistics involved with real locations, and depending what your relationship is with the owner, there could be insurance issues involved as well.

But don’t let this deter you!

The golden rule of making short films is that it NEVER hurts to ask. Just be polite and make sure they are comfortable with every aspect of your set and production. Don’t paint a wall or move a table without clearing it with the owner first.

If you do manage to make a deal and secure a real location, and get the limitations worked out, you’ll have to put your director hat back on (retroactive spoiler: you were wearing your producer hat in the last couple of paragraphs) and work out your shot list. That’s basically a list of all the places you want to point your camera — we’ll cover that in a later post.  A shot list will help you as the set designer figure out what will be in the scene. If it’s not exactly as the script described — you can’t have your lead character cleaning out the uber-expensive espresso machine because part of the deal with the owner was no touching anything that cost more that the coffee you were buying the cast and the crew — then you’ll have to change your script.

Sometimes it’s as simple as a tweak to an action sequence (e.g. instead of running across rooftops, your chase takes place on the street), but if that espresso machine represented all your character’s hopes and dreams of one day moving to Italy (and your short was a beautiful yet melancholic ode to the poetic symbolism of said machine, which actually sounds kind of cool!), you’re going to have some serious rewriting to do.

It's so pretty...

It’s so pretty…

Being unable to get a location you were hoping for, like getting turned down by American Airlines to make your movie on a 747, doesn’t mean you have to toss your script out the window. First, that’s littering and we would never encourage that, and second, it’s all part of the process, baby. With your set designer hat back on, you’re going to have to look around at what you can do. Is it possible to recreate the interior of an airplane? How about just the tiny space where the flight attendants hang out as they load the drink cart and talk about that rude bastard in row 23. All you need is a cart and a ridiculously small room.

If your original script had a flight attendant who’s scared of heights walking down the aisle, dealing with one flyer after another as she/he rolls past the rows, you’ll have to put your writing hat back on and change the dynamics without losing the tone, or the essential point of your story (it’s surprising how well the point of your story can survive intact through huge rewrites). Having the flyers approach the attendant as they load the cart instead could be a quick solution, but if it’s not as funny, or seems too contrived, you’ll have to dramatically change the scene, and possibly even aspects of the characters. If you changed the setting to a bank, for example, where customers are more likely to approach a teller, your bank teller being afraid of heights wouldn’t be so impactful, and any callbacks to that fact would have to be removed from the script: anytime you make changes, it’s a ripple effect.

Any excuse to reference Jurassic Park...

Any excuse to reference Jurassic Park…

This is the messy art of rewriting.

Seriously, it's messy

Seriously, it’s messy

Sometimes you might need to lose the scene altogether. In that case, you’ll have to make sure the important information in any cut scene is dispersed throughout the rest of the script. Keep in mind that you may also need to adjust the scenes before and after the cut scene, so that your story still flows (ripple!). And watch out for any callbacks to that lost scene. If you edit out a set-up, you need to take out the payoff too. You might even need to create a new scene to replace the one you lost. If you can reuse a set that is already booked or built, all the better for the set designer (which is still you, by the way).

As a writer, it can be extremely soul-crushing to have to change your vision to cater to the pain-in-the-butt reality of the situation (#writerslife). But don’t give up. Ever. Try to be open to all the possibilities. You might have written a REALLY cool fight sequence in a train station, but thanks to ‘security concerns’ you weren’t allowed to film it. Exchanging that scene for one in which your character stumbles out of the station doorway, covered in blood, clothes torn up, could be all the action you need. Add a few words to another character about the fight and you’ve taken a logistically challenging three minute scene and turned it into a 30 second scene that was simple to shoot. Nothing of the plot was lost, and your film is now tighter.

Short films: the art of the shortcut.

Setting isn’t your only potential obstacle though. If you’ve written a key part for a 6’4″ lady with extreme martial arts skills and the ability to trapeze (because, you know, your short is called Circus Ninja 3)… kudos for the creativity, but get ready to rewrite the part if you can’t find an actress with the physical look and skill set to do that. Gwendoline Christie just might not be available, sorry! Depending on your pool of available actors, you may not be able to find someone to fit that role, so you grab your casting director hat. It fits snugly over your writer’s hat, don’t worry.

As casting director, you have to remember that it’s far more important to get the best actors you can to really make your lines sing. As a writer, you’ll need to zero in on what is important about your character, and find an actor who can work with those aspects and make them their own.

Rewriting your short film can seem overwhelming, especially when you started out with an in-air action movie about a vertiginous flight attendant and her extremely tall arch-enemy who works at the circus… and it then becomes about a bank teller fighting a spirited average-height nemesis who studied judo for a few months. Your new version will still have a comedy and truth all its own; all your own. The key thing to remember throughout the rewriting process is that operating with restrictions can spark your creativity even more (there’s a reason you could write a 5000 word term paper the night before it was due), whether it’s with set design, casting, or shooting.

Embrace these moments as you work towards making and finishing your short as opportunities to make your script even better.

Costume design and set design: not just the icing on your short film cake

Wardrobe and set design may seem like frivolous aspects of filmmaking, as if they’re the frosting on top of a cake — nice when they’re there, but not necessary to satisfy your hunger. Wrong! Trying to capture an audience without a setting is like serving a cake without having mixed the ingredients together first. And without icing. And who wants that?! Wardrobe and set design are what give the ‘cake’ its shape, and are often what holds everything together.

Mmm... cake

Mmmm… cake

Visual clues give the audience a deeper understanding of a character or situation; they appeal to our visual intelligence. It’s a way of communicating a ton of information without saying a word. Visual clues give the audience the time: are we in the future, the present, the past, an alternate reality timeline? They can also convey the financial and social standing of your characters, their points of view, as well as where they’re from. You can reflect their beliefs, morality, even their education, just by giving them the right background and attire.

So, not going to a rave, then?

So, not going to a rave, then?

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Black Widow wears a simple arrow necklace. As a spy, her clothes, even her hairstyle, are often arranged to fit the job she’s working. That necklace was the only piece that was her: unconnected to any SHIELD assignment. The arrow reminded the audience of her relationship with Clint Barton, and that underneath her killer moves was a person with relationships that she would break her own rules for. It was pivotal to the story that the audience remember that Natasha has a history, and isn’t just an action hero to provide backup to Steve.

Statement jewelry. Steve not pictured.

Statement jewelry. Steve not pictured.

The wardrobe can give the audience all they need to know about a character, and the set design can ground the story in less than a second. The messy desk of a lawyer in a well-tailored suit shows us someone who presents themselves as having it all together, but has a messy hidden life. A woman in flip flops on a cream couch surrounded by nautical-themed accents has the audience smelling salt in the air without a shot of the ocean or the sound of waves crashing.

You can hear the seagulls. Seagulls not pictured.

You can hear the seagulls. Seagulls not pictured.

Design is especially important in a short film, since you have limited time to tell your story. You need to use as many short cuts, visual or otherwise, as you can. However, coupled with a limited budget, design can cause some massive headaches. As with every aspect of making a low budget short, you’re going to have to get creative to to work with what you have. We hate to break it to you, but you’re not going to be able to build that Nancy Meyer kitchen set. But (assuming you don’t know anyone with a Nancy Meyer kitchen willing to let you use it, or Nancy Meyer herself), you can find a kitchen island at IKEA, put it in front of a large window, and have your cast orbit around it, giving the impression that there’s a large kitchen around them, just out of shot. As long as you evoke the impression of a large fancy kitchen, your audience will see it.

No one fights in this kitchen.

No one fights in this kitchen.

The key things to remember are:

  1. No blank spaces (sorry Ms. Swift). Actors standing in front of blank walls gives off a vibe — the boring kind. Everything the actors say to one another will be infused with that vibe. Don’t undercut the dialogue and their performance by sending out the sleepy signal. (The only exception to this is when a character is about to say or do something integral to the story and you want all the attention on them. Which bring us to…)
  2. Don’t overwhelm. Everything in the space should serve a function. If it’s not there to reflect something about the location, story or characters, it shouldn’t be there. You don’t want your audience so engrossed in your beautifully designed backgrounds that they lose focus on the unfolding story.
  3. Downsize. If the scene is taking place in one location, you only need to create a part of that location. Like the kitchen example above, why create a huge set if your actors are just sitting in place? Dressing up the corner of the room can be all you need — just remember to ensure that all your angles are covered, so wherever you want to point your camera, we’re seeing what we need to.
  4. Reuse-Recycle. This is where it’s good to be a hoarder. Or know one. If not, try craigslist, eBay, garage sales and flea markets. Felicia Day even picked up abandoned pieces of trash off the street for some props in The Guild! Home decor magazines, Pinterest, and of course movies and TV shows can provide inspiration. Just make sure to keep your characters in mind. A pig-shaped cutting board may be cute (and hopefully cheap), but ask yourself, would your character have that in their kitchen? (If you are going for a Nancy Meyer’s look then the answer is definitely not!)
  5. Have fun. You know what makes movies repeat-watching worthy? All the little things you discover each time you watch them. Keep that in mind when putting together your set. On the God’s Work episode of SouthLAnd (moment of silence for that AMAZING show), in one scene children’s alphabet letters were arranged on a table to form the producer’s initials (admittedly, this is not character-based, but it’s a fun easter egg, which is another reason to spend a lot of time on the details). In every J.J. Abrams movie there’s an R2 D2 hidden somewhere (probably won’t be too hard to spot in his next film). In Supernatural’s season 2 episode Playthings, the Shining homages didn’t end with the desolate old hotel.
That's a spooky room number you got there...

That’s a spooky room number you got there…

As we mentioned before when talking about writing, characters don’t often say what they mean. With an absence of history or internal dialogue, the setting and wardrobe are what raise the volume of what is not being said.

Casting your short film

Casting is one of the trickier aspects of making your short film, but it’s also one of the most rewarding. Watching a great actor bring your words to life in a way that’s better than you could have imagined is a genuinely thrilling experience.

Even something as simple as a coffee shop scene comes to life with great actors

Even something as simple as a coffee shop scene comes to life with great actors

So… how do you find actors?

You can check out local theater companies or groups, general acting classes, or try to reach out to college students on film and theater courses. Finding groups or classes is a matter of googling in your area, but you can also check the noticeboards in local coffee shops, or go to some theaters near you and ask if they know of any acting classes nearby. For schools, you can reach out to the relevant professor of acting or theater courses. In all cases, speak to whoever runs the class or course or workshop, and ask if you can sit in. This way you can watch the actors doing their thing, and start getting an idea of who you might want in your movie.

If you find a local acting class or workshop, consider joining it and taking part. It will only help you as a writer if you know what it feels like to be saying words in front of a camera, and it will also help you genuinely connect with actors. You might also get the chance to test drive some of your pages or scenes — this is a hugely helpful process, since sometimes you only know when a scene is working once you get it on its feet. Oftentimes, you’ll want to rewrite when you see things aren’t working, or if the actors discover something about your scene beyond what you originally wrote — that’s especially satisfying!

When actors make you look good

When actors make you look good

Before you cast, you will need to consider whether you want to hire SAG actors, or nonunion actors. Working with SAG will require more logistics and a great budget. If you’re at the lower budget, DIY end of the short film spectrum (like us, and most others), your best bet is to use nonunion actors. If you’re really low budget, you may not be paying them at all — the key thing is to be upfront about your project with them. You will absolutely have to feed them, on the shoot day, maybe at table reads, and you should make sure to burn the movie onto DVDs for them afterwards, so they have material they can use for their acting reels. Many low budget shorts don’t pay the actors, and often don’t pay anyone else either. The art of making a low budget short movie is the art of calling in favors, and being amazingly efficient with the money you do have. (More on that in a later post).

Good actors love working, and nonunion actors will often agree to work for free if your project is genuinely small, low or no budget, and you are upfront with them. They get to do the thing they love, get something for their reel (and free food for however many days you shoot for), and they get to work with someone who might make it big someday (we’re talking about you! Yes, you!). Be passionate about your script, and be understanding and supportive of your actors, and you can get beautiful results.

If you attend an acting class, you may get an idea of which particular actors you’d like to cast, especially if you bring some scenes and have different actors play the roles. If you’re not sure, you can set up an audition. If it turns out that you can’t find the right actor for a particular part, it may be worth rewriting the script slightly to accommodate the actors that you have access to. (We’ll cover that later to0)!

If you’re part of a local class or course of actors, setting up an audition in the space they use can be relatively easy, if you have the OK of the class leader or professor. You’ll have a ready made space, and usually cameras and lights too. Again, as long as you’re respectful and professional, actors won’t mind auditioning for you — it gives them extra practice at the nerve-wracking art of auditioning.

Auditioning -- it's how you'll find your Joey

Auditioning — it’s how you’ll find your Joey

If you don’t have a connection to local actors, you can advertise locally, by putting up notices in coffee shops, or theaters, or community centers. You can also put your notice on backstage.com, which is an essential resource for actors. You’ll need somewhere to hold your audition — you might want to try asking favors, e.g. if your local coffee shop has a room for events or readings, you can ask if you can use it for a reduced, or no, fee. Same for your local library. Be resourceful — you need a room, with an area outside for your actors to wait their turn. Be aware, this all refers to open auditions, so you have no idea of who is going to show up! It’s easier all round if you can sync up with a local group of actors, but we get that it’s not always possible. As with every aspect of making a short film on a low budget, you can only do what’s realistic for you and your situation. If you can’t make a local connection, and the idea of setting up and holding auditions seems beyond the scope of what you had planned, you may need to use friends and family. You never know, you may uncover some hidden talent!

Once you’ve tracked down your gang of actors and hired them, you should have them sign release forms — basically, you cannot use someone’s likeness unless they specifically give you written permission to do so. You can then proceed with the rest of preproduction, and also start scheduling your shooting days.

It’s always exciting when you lock down your cast, because then you can really start to see how great your short is going to be!

Making It Big In Shorts (and other books to read)

While you’re thinking about making a short, or as you’re writing one, but definitely before you get into postproduction, it’s a good idea to get to know the world of short films. While you can find a ton of info online, there are some books out there that provide very useful looks at the short film industry and ecosystem.

Two we’d particularly recommend are —

Making It Big In Shorts, by Kim Adelman (2009):

Making It Big In Shorts, by Kim Adelman

Making It Big In Shorts

And Short Films 101, by Frederick Levy (2004):

Short Films 101

Short Films 101

Some of the practical info they discuss is out of date, sure — some of the websites they mention no longer exist, and technology is already WAY ahead of when the books were written. Like, so far ahead. Like Star Trek level. There are chapters on negative cutting and film processing, for example, which likely just won’t apply to you anymore, with your digital camera or iPhone and Final Cut. (Somewhere, Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan are weeping)

However, both books are JAMMED with fascinating, insightful stories into how many different directors made their first few shorts, and translated them into movie careers. Inspirational!

Both books also contain immensely practical guides to writing, casting, preproduction and shooting short films, as well as ways to budget effectively, editing, and, of course, submitting to festivals. Well worth checking out.

More generally, we’d also recommend a couple of other books just for sheer getting-it-done inspiration. First up, Robert Rodriguez’s brilliant classic, Rebel Without A Crew. It’s the story of how the filmmaker, now known for Sin City, From Dusk Til Dawn, and the Spy Kids movies,  went out and made his first movie, El Mariachi, pretty much on his own, for $7000 (worth noting: that’s a lot less than some of the shorts mentioned in the other two books!). It took Sundance by storm, and made his career.

Rebel Without A Crew

Rebel Without A Crew

The book really gets into the nitty-gritty details of how Rodriguez took matters into his own hands, worked out what he could film that was around him, who he knew that he could cast, and what equipment he realistically had access to. Pretty much everything he says can apply to you as you work out what your short will be, who will be in it, and how you’ll shoot it. It’s a great example of how to think practically, and make something for you. For more on Rodriguez and his super-practical approach to just getting out there and making movies his own way, check out his interview on the always inspiring Nerdist Podcast right here. It’ll get you fired up!

Lastly, we must recommend Felicia Day’s WONDERFUL book, You’re Never Weird On The Internet (Almost):

You're Never Weird On The Internet (Almost)

You’re Never Weird On The Internet (Almost)

Did we mention it’s WONDERFUL? Not only do you find out how she became the awesome nerd/geek/gamer legend that she is today (it’s basically her origin story), but there is also a huge amount of detail about how she motivated herself to write and shoot The Guild, the epically brilliant online series that truly set her career in motion (it’s had 300 million online views to date!). She made her own destiny by writing the perfect script for her strengths as an actress, but also one that could easily be shot on an almost nonexistent budget in her own house. The story of how she wrote and made 70 episodes across six seasons of The Guild alone makes this worth buying. Luckily, there’s a whole lot more inspiration where that came from, making this book indispensable for any kind of creative person. Buy it! And then watch The Guild if you haven’t already!

Outside of these books, of course you need to hit Google. Look for interviews with filmmakers about their early experiences, look for blogs from people who have made shorts (oh wait, like this one — go you!), and do your research. Even though most of what you’re going to learn will happen during the process of making and editing your short, the more you know going in, the better.

 

Writing short movies

When you first start writing something, it can be hard to know what it is.

You might have a line of dialogue in mind, or a character, the beginning of a scene, even just an emotional atmosphere. You might write a few more lines, but still not know… is it a primetime sitcom? An edgy cable sitcom? An indie movie? A webisode? It’s only as you keep on writing (and keep on writing, and keep on…) that you realize what shape your story is… e.g., is it novel-shaped, movie-shaped, short-story shaped, just a single scene… or maybe, is it short movie-shaped?

(This is why the best way to write something is to write it… if you don’t start putting words next to other words, you’ll never get to the words after that… eh, that sounded better before we wrote it — but you get the idea! You won’t write if you don’t write. Boom!)

What counts as short-movie shaped, you ask? (Thanks for asking!) Well, we’ll tell ya.

Firstly, you don’t really have room for the traditional three act structure of movie storytelling. If you’re on the (ideal) shorter end of the spectrum, up to 10-15 mins, you don’t have a lot of runway to set up a story, develop it, and pay it off. Everything in a short movie has to be brutally efficient: each line, each beat, each shot has to work hard to propel your short to its (hopefully awesome) ending.

So a short movie will usually drop you into a situation, which means your writing has to be extra sharp, and your characters have to show themselves quickly and organically. If you want to think of your short movie in acts, each act might only be around 1-3 minutes.

The key to short movies is the reveal, also known as the punchline, or the twist, or the pay-off. A short movie is basically one set up, and one payoff. You can structure that any way you want. As we saw in our last post, Eric Kripke balanced his set-up and pay-off pretty evenly, Colin Trevorrow’s set-up was in the first 30 seconds, and the rest of the short was all pay-off, while Neil LaBute’s short was 99% set-up, with a brilliant pay-off right at the end.

So, as you can tell, the other key characteristic of a short movie is how flexible it can be. That’s the beauty of shorts.

Sorry. Again.

Sorry. Again.

Their lack of formal structure allows you to be truly experimental and bold in your storytelling; the smaller canvas rewards bolder strokes.

Your short movie story could be real-time, or a day in the life, or have massive time-jumps and cover years, or even centuries. What makes it a short movie is that set-up, and pay-off.

You’re usually playing with one idea, or one concept. It could be a war between neighbors that gets resolved in an unexpected way, or someone having a really bad day, or something that’s a set-up and pay-off at the same time — one joke or idea played out to its conclusion, as in Jay and Mark Duplass’s 2003 “$5 short” This Is John, which got into Sundance, and opened a lot of doors for them. It’s the simplest of ideas, executed inventively.


As with all writing, there needs to be tension, conflict, something the lead character is fighting against, or fighting to get. Things need to go wrong in some way. In This Is John, all John wants to do is leave a successful answerphone greeting (remember, it was 2003. Old!). And it’s the one thing he can’t do. It’s the tension between dreams and reality played out to escalating, tragicomic effect.

Your short can be simple, like that, or it can be grandiose, like Neill Blomkamp’s Alive In Joburg (which was later developed into District 9), which obviously has a bigger budget, but it still uses guerrilla tactics to create the impression of scope and scale.


It doesn’t hurt that he had the CGI skills to pull it off. Don’t worry if you don’t. Remember, This Is John was literally just one brother pointing a handheld camera at another brother talking into an answering machine. And it got into Sundance, and it did great there.

As Jay Duplass has said, “the best thing to do is just make your stuff, and make it as best you can at the level you can make it at… and it will speak for itself.”

 

 

Watching short movies

Fun fact! If you want to make a short film, a good first step is to watch short films. It’s a great way to see what cool things other filmmakers have come up with, and also to see just how endless the possibilities are for what short films can be. You’ll see so many different ways of opening a short, of setting up a story, of telling and resolving a story, all within the space of a few mins (sometimes shorts are more like 20-30 mins, but most are 15m or under). And you’ll realize, you can do anything! Yay! Also? You can do anything! Argh! What will you do??!

cat choices

We’ll cover what makes a great short movie story next time, but for now, let’s focus on seeing what’s out there, and how some great directors got their starts.

Eric Kripke, creator and showrunner of CW’s Supernatural, got his start with short movies. His second, Battle Of The Sexes, was at the higher end of the short movie budget spectrum ($28,o00), but it showcases what short movies can do best: the reversal. We start with a low key situation (man hitting on a woman in bar), which partway through is flipped entirely into a more sci-fi comedy direction. Many short movies depend on a twist/punchline/reveal of some kind, since they are more in line with short stories, or even jokes. Your time and space are generally limited, meaning you have to deliver a setup and payoff, fast. In this case, the payoff is the super-elaborate and over the top scenes in the restroom, as compared to the sedate atmosphere in the bar. Check it out:

One filmmaker who has had a meteoric rise is Colin Trevorrow. His first short was Home Base. This led to his first indie feature the much-loved time-travel romance Sundance hit, Safety Not Guaranteed.

And that? It led to FREAKING JURASSIC WORLD (not the official title, although that would be really cool if it was).

And what did that lead to?

FREAKING STAR WARS EPISODE IX, BITCHES!!! (again, oddly, not the official title…)

The power of shorts, huh?

Sorry

Sorry

Home Base is a more classical short is some ways: establishing shots, a quick set up, and an extended payoff. It’s more domestic than Battle Of The Sexes, although that could be Home Base’s subtitle, since it deals in a darkly comedic way with the fallout of a breakup. Take a look at how Trevorrow sets up his scenes, and how he uses the majority of his 8 minute running time to develop the payoff of the promise made by the guy in the first couple of lines. Fair warning: it’s completely NSFW!

These shorts are both somewhat elaborate in the way they payoff their twists. But there are other ways to do this, simpler, more low budget ways. Julia Stiles gives a brilliant performance in Neil LaBute’s short, Sexting (also probably NSFW). Here’s the trailer for it:

It’s very, very simple, one scene, mostly one take close on Stiles, and has a brilliant reveal right at the very end. It’s the reverse of Home Base — the entire short is the set-up to one quick sucker punch of a twist at the end. It’s a fantastic example of how a short can be incredibly simple — one locked off camera on one actress for one take. It’s a great way to showcase an actor (Stiles is excellent in this), and potentially an incredibly cost effective way to make a short that has real impact. It’s only available as part of the bundle of short movies called Stars In Shorts, which is available on iTunes; however, watching that bundle is highly recommended, since it contains a huge variety of different styles and approaches.

These are just a few examples of different shorts. Take some time to watch as many as you can; it’s eye-opening, inspiring, and lets you know — anything is possible. You just have to think of it.

We’ll focus on that next time: finding your story, and writing it!

How to make a short movie: The Real Quinn Hardy

This summer, we wrote, directed and edited a short movie called The Real Quinn Hardy, about an aspiring singer-songwriter who thinks she’s about to make it to the majors. When it all goes wrong, she digs deep to write a song that she hopes will change everything.

It all started back in April, in Nashville, at the Bluebird Cafe, where inspiration struck in the middle of eating a black bean burger, forcing us to actually stop eating (damn it though the burger was SO GOOD, the muse does not respect the burger) and start scribbling the first few ideas, beats and lines of dialogue.

Later that night (after an AWESOME Bluebird set by the way — shoutout to Jessica Roadmap!), we pretty much had a first draft. We spent a month polishing and rewriting it, because all writing is really rewriting, then a month in preproduction where we cast our brilliant and wonderful actors (Rachel Keefe, Ana-Lisa Gunn, Brian Gallagher and Brittany Kleban), storyboarded it, designed the sets, and wrote the song too (which our fantastic lead actress Rachel also sang!).

Then, yikes! We shot it. D went full Spielberg, while A basically ran the set. It was awesome.

Two kick-ass actors: Rachel Keefe and Brittany Kleban

Two of our kick-ass actors: Rachel Keefe and Brittany Kleban

11 hours, 3 scenes, 70 shots later…

Dean

…it was time to edit.

Editing

So, we edited. And edited. And edited. And six weeks later (glossing over Apocalypse Now levels of insanity), we had a short movie.

Like, we made a thing, guys. It’s real!

Charlie dancing

We learned SO MUCH from this experience.

The most important, practical thing? Write what you can reasonably shoot with the resources that you have. Think about who you might be able to cast (friends, family, nonunion local actors, your super famous A-list third cousin), what kind of props you can scrounge together, where you can shoot, and then base your story around that. Yes, spaceships would be cool. Couple of dinosaurs? Obviously awesome. Superheroes who can fly? Hell yeah. But, realistically, it’s more likely to be people drinking coffee. Which is FINE –two people talking in a room can be beautiful, epic, hilarious, devastating… As long as you write it that way!

No less a filmmaker than Judd Apatow summed up his entire filmography as exactly that — people sitting around talking. You could say the same thing about Cameron Crowe (the brilliantly mind-bending Vanilla Sky aside).

It’s all in the HOW, not the WHAT.

The what is “people talking.” The how is the kind of people, the subjects they talk about (and around), and where they’re talking. Are they in a cafe, on a space station, arguing about comic books, dealing with an alien invasion (you know, the usual short movie topics).

The question you need to ask yourself is how can you make your people talking interesting? What’s the hook? What’s the thing about your story that is purely you. The thing only you could do in that moment? Because there is something — you just need to find out what it is. Felicia Day was a hardcore gamer when she started writing her groundbreaking web series The Guild — it’s people talking, but the hook was gamers talking about gaming.

In our case, we love music, and we write music, and we were SUPER INSPIRED by the awesomeness that is Nashville. So we based our story around a songwriter.

Rachel Keefe as Quinn Hardy

Rachel Keefe as Quinn Hardy

Also important!! Don’t worry about whether you have expensive cameras, a crew, or access to all your dream locations. In the end, you have to find a way to make it happen on your terms, with what you have in front of you. If you can’t shoot in a real cafe, dress a room to look like one. If you don’t have RED cameras, use a regular camera, or even your phone. Make whatever you’re using work for you in the context of the story. Write the scene or the movie, find some actors, feed them, let them do what they do best while you point your camera at them. Then edit it together and…

That's a bingo

Over the next few months we’ll be posting regularly in a lot more detail about every stage of making a short, from concept to script to preproduction to shooting to postproduction and beyond.

But for now, we’ll leave you with this. We didn’t want to sit around thinking about why no one has offered us the next Star Wars movie (side note: Lucasfilm, please offer us the next Star Wars movie) — we wanted to make something — so we made something.

And you can too.