5 Things I Just Learned About Film-Making

Barbara Agostini as the Goddess of Inspiration

Last weekend, I took part in the 48 Hour Film Challenge. It’s a challenge where you’re given certain criteria and have to hand in a finished short film 48 hours later. I started making short films last year and this is, by far, the most ambitious project I’ve undertaken so far. We handed in our entry five minutes before the deadline.

I started taking part in challenges like this as my own version of film school. It’s an opportunity to learn and to learn quickly.

It was exhausting, exhilarating and exciting, but it was also a learning experience. So I thought I’d share some of what I learned. Some of it was basic film-making stuff that I just didn’t know. Some of it was reinforcing useful creative points. But here are 5 things I just learned about film-making.

1 — Something that’s finished but not perfect is better than something perfect that isn’t finished.

I enjoy time-limited challenges. Part of the reason is that it’s a reminder to myself that I can finish projects. I’ve been working on a novel for a while now which is not moving as smoothly as it could. So, every now and then, I concentrate on a short project, where finishing is the most important thing.

For this project, this meant writing it, planning it, creating a shot-list, shooting it and editing it. We had a couple of cameras and a handful of small LED lights. Compromises had to be made.

There were sometimes small things we’d prefer to have fixed. Lighting points, editing points, performance points — a thousand little things that, given the time, we’d have fixed. But we could have spent hours doing every shot and we likely would have never been 100% happy that it was perfect.

Instead, the question was quickly ‘Is it good enough?’. If it did the job, and we needed to move on, then that was it. If we didn’t, we might not have finished on time.

2 — Discipline is good

I haven’t developed good habits yet (although I think I have some good instincts). Thankfully, I had two more experienced film-makers working on cameras and lighting (Joe and Yoni) who had better habits.

Joe, in particular, was disciplined about using the clapper board and reading out what was on it at the start of every take. When it came to matching up the audio and video later, this was vital. Rather than having to match the audio to the dialogue, it meant that I only had to watch and listen to the first ten seconds of every clip.

This is obvious stuff. But it’s only obvious once you’ve had a need for it. The only editing projects I’ve made before have either had no dialogue or the microphone and the camera have been on the same track. Working with different audio and video means you need those matching points. And if Joe hadn’t been disciplined about the take numbers, we’d have lost more time.

3 — You cut for the story

There were scenes and moments that I absolutely loved that we either didn’t film or cut during the edit. It was brutal. But it made the film better.

When we were filming, we began to overrun (and our LED light batteries were lasting a shorter amount of time than we thought they would). So a series of comedic scenes involving our two main characters sleeping together and annoying each other were lost.

The two actors involved were amazing. These scenes would have been funny. But they didn’t add anything to the plot that wasn’t already covered in other scenes. So they were easy to lose.

In the edit, I had to make the calls for where to cut for time. We lost, again, some of the funniest moments from one character because they weren’t vital to the story. We’d also spent time working on a costume for one character who then had dialogue with the main character. Despite the work that went into that, it made sense to pare that scene right back, because all it did was delay getting to the next scene (which was more vital to the plot).

These scenes would have added some humour and atmosphere. But the film had to be as tight as possible, so they were easy (but brutal) decisions to make.

4 — Your order is determined by your locations

Because of the nature of this project, we weren’t sure what we’d be making in advance. So I relied on the good nature of some local locations. The Prince (a fab craft beer pub) said we could film in the morning/lunchtime before they were open and while they were quiet. The Green Rooms Hotel (an arts hotel and bar in Wood Green) were incredibly generous and let us use their common room and part of their bar. And the Big Green Bookshop (who are always awesome) let us build a goddamn throne of books for a character in their bookshop, once they were closed.

This gave us a filming order. The Prince first, the afternoon in the Green Rooms and the evening in the Bookshop. This actually helped a lot.

5 — It’s an emotional experience

So many parts of this experience were emotional. Watching people become characters I’d written and then improve them was a new experience for me.

Being around talented people that were willing to give up their time and put so much effort in was both awe-inspiring and terrifying (because I felt responsible to make it worth their time).

And then seeing the film sparked off different emotions the first few times I saw it. The first time, everything was new and just the fact it existed was huge. The second time, I saw every little flaw and hated it. Then I saw some good details I’d missed. And so on, and so on. I’m writing this before I go to the cinema screening — I suspect that will be a whole heap of emotions too.

Cliff Chapman as The Muse and Alvaro Flores as The Writer

I started doing this because it was something I’d always wanted to do. A friend of mine made some short films that were shown at festivals. When I asked him how I could get started, he asked me ‘are you waiting for permission?’.

For those already making films, you probably learnt all the above ages ago. But this is aimed at the people who want to start or are just barely starting out. You can go and do this. In London, there’s the 36 hour documentary challenge, the 48 hour SF challenge and the 48 hour film challenge.

During one of those weekends, you could sit around watching boxsets. Or, by the end of it, you could have made a film. And you’ll learn a lot by doing so.