Short films are some of the favourite films at Raindance Film Festival. The beauty of a short film is you don’t need to have experience, money or training to make one. A short can be from just a few seconds (such as a Vine video) to 45 minutes (according to the Oscars).
This toolkit shows you how to make one.
1. Get a script together
A short film is a unique type of story. Because it’s short you can’t use the normal opening story techniques of a feature.
Here are some techniques professional screenwriters use to condense the opening of short films into a few seconds:
- Universal moment: a wedding, first kiss, national holidays, championship sporting events.
- Cyclical story: stories that tend to start and end at the same place, but with new meaning.
- Time bomb: where something specific must happen within a certain time.
Try some idea generation exercises. Write 100 words on a subject (the office prank, the local bus stop, a day in the life of), then ask yourself whether it could become the basis for a short film.
A script for a short need not be written in industry standard format, but it should be written in what filmmakers call a ‘Shot List’ – a simple one- or two-line description of each shot the camera will take.
To get your very own professional script format guide, send an email to ShortListShortsGuide@raindance.org
2. The budget and schedule
The script is always the most important thing in a film. The next most important things are the budget and schedule.
A budget is simply a list of all the stuff and people you need to make a film. The schedule is when and where you need the stuff and people to be. After each note, you should write down how you are going to pay them.
There are three ways filmmakers get paid. The first, of course, is cash – usually negotiated around a day rate. The second is deferred payment, which means a slice of the profits (if anything). And the third way is ‘in-kind’. Often equipment manufactures will loan you expensive equipment in return for a promotional credit. Other times, brands will pay handsome sums of money to have their product placed in the film (popularly known as product placement).
Can you make a film without any money? Of course you can. My first intern, Edgar Wright did. I met Christopher Nolan when he was making his first film, Following, for hardly any cash.
You can make your films with amateurs, keen friends or colleagues. But if you’re more ambitious, you’ll have to pay for actors (the more actors, the more mouths to feed), CGI and special effects (you can’t afford them) and locations (every time you move your cast and crew it costs money). So what type of film launches every single writer/director in the US? One where a dozen kids go to a house then get chopped up. Or variations of. See Paranormal Activity, The Blair Witch Project, Reservoir Dogs, Night Of The Living Dead.
Why does this work? Because it’s cheap to shoot.
What was your idea for a film again? Do you want to revise it based on locations and number of actors?
There are two things to look for in a camera: compression and lenses. The signal recorded by your phone is the same signal as recorded by the big electronic cameras – HD. Professional cameras use lenses, which allow you to ‘paint’ the picture and add depth where needed. Small digital cameras in phones use apps to mimic these effects.
Super 8 cameras
If you like the look of film, Super 8 is the entry-level format. Cameras are readily found in camera shops and on eBay, starting at £100. The trick is to get the film stock and processing with a transfer to digital to make it easier to edit. A roll of 2.5 mins/4 mins (depending on frame rate) will set you back £60. You’ll get that gritty image quality that is in vogue. Don’t forget you’ll have to record sound separately.
Most new filmmakers working on their first films choose digital cameras. The most popular is the GoPro camera, which can be bought online for between £100-£250, depending on resolution and storage.
Why make it more complicated than necessary? Most phones have excellent built-in cameras. The indie film hit Tangerine was shot on a mobile phone and no one realised it until after its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival this January.
4. Recording sound
The quickest way to ruin your film is with bad sound. Sound is more important than picture. Unless you have access to an expensive post-production sound facility, whatever you manage to capture on the set will be the sound you are stuck with.
- Be aware of where you shoot. Stay away from planes, trains and automobiles.
- Get a boom operator to position your microphone as close as possible to the actors.
- No boom op? Get a RØDE mic you can plug into your camera and point it directly at the actors
- Spend some money and pick up some tiny Sony digital voice recorders (less than £50), plus lavalier mics (less than £20), you can hide in your actors’ clothes
- for better sound.
- Record ‘wild lines’ – dialogue that is recorded on location, but not at the same time the footage it corresponds to – at the scene if marred by noise. Pick up the dialogue as soon as the noise has gone to give you a cleaner sound.
- Record room tone – the sound of the set – for at least 30 seconds right after the scene wraps.
- Tune into the ambient sounds around you. Mobile phones and hard drives should be switched off on set. It’s worth the effort to get good, clean audio.
5. Editing – a six-step guide
Take out any unnecessary pauses between actors’ delivery of lines, or sometimes simply tighten the gaps between dialogue sentences through some well-placed cutaway scenes.
It is a good rule of thumb to start with a cut that is precise from the beginning – if your first cut comes in at two minutes, you should be able to take it down to one minute by tightening the shots. If your first cut comes in at 10 minutes, you have a nightmare on your hands.
Matching actors’ hand positions, use of props, eyelines and stage position from one cut to another are all considered ‘matching action’. As an editor, your job is to make the cuts that drive the emotion in the scene, or move the story along. A good editor will discover the fine line between driving emotion and technical matched action.
Do not cut back to the same angle
If you happen to have a choice of different camera angles, do not feel you need to cut back to the same angle you had in the previous shot. Try to exercise the 30-degree rule – the camera should move at least 30 degrees between shots of the same subject occurring in succession. Be careful not to go beyond 180 degrees.
Save a longer version along the way
When cutting down film, it’s a good idea to duplicate sequences along the way, renaming them with sequential numbers (eg intro pass dump, intro pass 1, intro pass 2 etc). The theory behind this is that if you ever need to retrieve a clip or soundbite from a previous cut, it is there ready and waiting.
Moving camera shots
Moving the camera around is a key part of action sequences. Movement can be anything from a camera on a dolly, to handheld motion. In action scenes, this is designed to create a level of tension. The best way to create this tension is by cutting on movement, so that the camera is in constant motion from one cut to the next.
B-roll in threes
When a scene calls for cutaway shots, it is a good rule to group three cutaway inserts together, each one around two seconds long. A POV insert would work well in threes, because it gives the audience a good general idea of the surroundings the character is in.
You can’t put anyone’s music into a film without obtaining their written permission to do so. Just because your actor happens to pass someone on the street who has a ghetto blaster playing a Beatles song, it does not give you permission to put the song into your film.
Copyright basics for filmmakers
- There are three strands of copyright for featuring music in your film: the composer, the lyricist and the performer. If you want to use a track in your film, you need to clear all three rights. For a well-known song this can be expensive – Beatles songs clear for about $150,000 per track, for example.
- You can get free library music, or get your mate to compose some music for you.
- Get a music synchronisation licence to cover the music your mate’s made, or your film will be worthless.
7. Getting it out there
Congratulations! Your film’s finished and you want people to see it.
Film competitions such as ShortList Shorts are a great way to get your film in front of the people who matter in the film industry. The judges will watch your film and call you if your work has the ‘look’ they are seeking.
Film festivals are a great way to show your work to strangers. Having your film play on a big screen is an awesome experience – even if it is also utterly terrifying. If the audience laughs in all the right places, it can be also incredibly rewarding.
The top five entrants to ShortList Shorts will ‘enjoy’ this experience for themselves at Raindance. There you have it. Best of luck with your entries, and keep reading ShortList for tips on directing and more.
You can email Elliott and his team for further advice at ShortListShortsGuide@raindance.org
(Images: Raindance Drop Ins)
(Photography: Matt Holyoak)