Below are nine essential tips that can help filmmakers prepare, produce, and navigate through the many trials and tribulations of making those first few short films.
1. Get Your Head Out of the Clouds
It’s okay to set lofty goals and have grand aspirations, but the worst thing that you can do is go into the process wide-eyed with high expectations. You need to be realistic. You need to stay grounded. The moment you begin to believe that your projects will get fully financed by approaching venture capitalists, local doctors or dentists (local rich people in general), investors, or through pre-sale distribution, is when you’ll soon realize that what you’ve read in a lot of independent filmmaking books is a myth.
2. Know the Responsibilities of Crowd Funding and Know It’s Likely a One Time Deal
The filmmakers that are successful in crowd funding know that it is a full-time, pride swallowing pit of a desperation and despair.
You need to be overly and ridiculously active on Facebook, Twitter, and any other social media outlet that I’m too old to know. It’s 30-40 some days of endless Facebook posts, Tweets, and emails — all of which have you begging not just strangers, but mostly friends, family, and relatives — for money. You will be overtaking their social media feed with countless requests for money from them and from everyone they know and you can’t let up for one single day or night until you’ve met or surpassed your dollar amount goal because remember, if you don’t raise the full amount, you don’t get one single penny and all of your work is for naught.
And with that, there are responsibilities that you will have if you do make your goal. Through most crowd funding, you promise certain packages that backers choose to invest in — their name in the credits, DVD copies, posters, t-shirts, and whatever else you’ve promised. Those things cost money, so you need to be sure to budget beforehand, otherwise you’ll see that $10,000 you’ve raised suddenly become more like $6,000 after expenses, processing, and shipping. Keep your integrity and be sure to know your responsibilities beforehand because — and this is from personal experience — there’s nothing worse than having to go to your backers to request that they further support your film by “donating” their rewards to save costs and have the money go to the production. Respect backers and remember that without them, you have no money to shoot in the first place.
And finally, yes, know that one crowd funding campaign is likely your last. First and foremost, you’ll be so tapped out from the experience that going through it again would be like facing the fires of hell one more time. Secondly, you can only beg your family, friends, relatives, co-workers, and everyone they know for money so many times. One to be exact.
3. Audition, Audition, Audition
You don’t need people to just say the lines — you need actors.
It’s one thing to use your friends and family (i.e. free labor) as grips and PAs. It’s a whole different thing to utilize them as your cast. Bad acting will kill a short film the moment it shows up on the screen and audiences can smell a bad and self-aware actor a mile away.
Your casting, especially for your lead(s), will be everything in the end — for you can shoot an amazing performance on a simple stage and still make it compelling. A great actor will draw an audience in with their performance.
So go to your local universities and theater companies. Find the nearest talent agencies that handle booking models and actors for local commercials and print. Put ads online and in the paper. The actors will come. They’ll come from near and far if you play your cards right. They’ll come for the chance to act out their passions and they’ll come for the opportunities to add to their resume and reel.
And you must audition, audition, audition. Seeing just two actors for a key role isn’t enough. And you can never settle. You can never settle for an actor, especially for one of the leads. Whoever you cast will make or break your film, plain and simple. So audition, audition, and audition until you find the one. The one that doesn’t just read the lines, but becomes that character before your eyes as your jaw drops to the ground in awe.
And finally, audition your crew as well. Take the time to choose your sound designers, your editor, your film composer, and especially your cinematographer. Examine their body of work and pay particular attention as to how they seem to carry themselves. Can they work well with you? Can you work well with them? When you sit down with them and talk about their body of work and their thoughts on the project, what you’re really doing is auditioning them.
Audition, audition, audition. Cast and crew.
4. Create a Compelling Cinematic Experience
The lighting, lenses, and camera work is so utterly important with short films. If you can create something that looks feature worthy, you’ll be doing yourself and your actors a grand favor. And yes, while some screenwriters will hate this fact, in short films the visuals are sometimes more important than the depth of story. So many great short scripts have been so utterly undersold by pour production value and lackluster visuals.
So find the most visually enticing locations you can. Hire or partner with some talented lighting technicians and an amazing cinematographer —and hope that they have some great equipment. And if they don’t, put a good amount of your budget into finding some through local companies, news stations, or universities. And if you have special effects to deliver in your story, make sure you can truly deliver on them visually.
Cinema is a visual medium. Make your short film worthy of that medium.
Along with visuals, pay particular attention to quality sound, which includes musical score. There’s nothing worse than watching a short film that utilizes only the captured audio from the camera or an otherwise lackluster audio track. Have an audio system and someone that can run it. And do your best to find a talented film composer, because music is also so vital to the cinematic experience and can also offer the cheat of filling in transitional and quiet moments within the film.
5. Avoid Cliches and Give Us an Engaging Story
You as a filmmaker need to stand out amongst the rest, thus your short films need to do the same. There are a belly of short film cliches that haunt each and every film festival, causing the instant eye roll from judges — but none more than the talking head cliche.
Avoid the talking head short films where characters sit around a table or location and just banter back and forth. It’s a tempting cliche for filmmakers because it’s easy to shoot and usually requires limited locations, however, it gets boring for audiences. And it gets boring fast.
Yes, we’ve all seen My Dinner with Andre. We’ve all seen Before Sunrise. But with all due respect, you’re not Richard Linklater and chances are you’re not going to have Andre Gregory, Wallace Shawn, Ethan Hawke, or Julie Deply caliber actors that can carry such a dialogue heavy short film. The added problem is that the writing all too often doesn’t warrant the type of attention to dialogue either.
6. Keep the Running Time Short
Short films can be as long as 45 minutes — but please, don’t do that. Not for your first few couples of short films at least. 45 minutes — or even 20 minutes — is a huge commitment for short film audiences and nine times out of ten it’s less about more story and moreso an example of overwriting and over-directing.
You can make a much bigger impact with a shorter running time. And, of course, a shorter running time means that there’s less to film. And when there’s less to film, you can put more focus on those vital story and character moments during production.
Less truly is more. Keep everything short, sweet, and to the point. When you cut away all of the fat and offer something lean, audiences are more quickly engaged and the impact of the film is much more memorable because they don’t get lost in unnecessary scenes, sequences, and dialogue.
7. Don’t Be a Dictator, Be a Collaborator
It’s very tempting to fall under the spell of taking that stereotypical role of the dictator that has final rule over all. Yes, as a director, it’s your ship. You have the responsibility of all aspects of the production on your shoulders.
But you need to be overly collaborative with your cast and crew — at this stage especially. Let your cinematographer come in with some ideas. Ask them how they think the shot should look. Let your cast come in with some ideas as well. Give them some freedom with their characters. Allow them to question some of the choices made within the script. Trust the lighting and sound people to do their job. Trust your editor and their instincts. Trust them all and listen to them. Surround yourself with talented people that you can find online, at universities and theater companies, etc. Don’t be afraid to work with strangers that clearly have a talent or skill that you can benefit from.
Film is a collaborative art form. Even Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Woody Allen have to rely on their respective collaborators to make their films the classics they usually end up being. They rely on their cast and crew to do their part and to bring their talents and viewpoints to the table.