A Simple Three-Step Process To Filming Your First Short Film
A guide for beginners in demystifying the process behind short films
When people fling around the term, “Short film,” it’s not entirely possible to fully gauge what they are referring to. Especially when it comes to its length.
A feature film is a different story, as a general rule of thumb, that would be something worth jumping in the car for, and then visiting a physical theatre to enjoy. So, if you’re wanting numbers, depending on your source, you could expect a story ranging anywhere from 80 to 180 minutes long.
But, let’s consider the length of a short film now.
If you are wanting to submit it to The Academy Awards, then you’re looking at anything that is 40 minutes or less.
But, if you’re in the camp of people, where I classify myself, and you have your primary audience absorbing listicles and how-tos on YouTube, then a short film is where you start small, not to aggravate your audience, and put your heart on the line… Literally, online.
You shift into cinematic gear, focus on the story, and brace yourself that your audience may or may not respond to the story you are hoping to tell. And, regarding time, well, it’s whatever you want it to be. However, I have noticed that most short films on YouTube are between 2–5 minutes in length. However, there are always outliers.
This said, I cannot be more thankful to live in a time like we do, where we get to create content, challenge ourselves in terms of its cinematic quality, and distribute it onto a platform where anyone can watch it.
But, now that we have an idea of timeframes, and ease of distribution, let’s talk about the practicalities. Here are 3 things I focus on when it comes to making a short film by myself.
I don’t consider myself an avid actor, so I personally prefer to tell the stories of others. However, if you desire to be in front of the camera, then this point is still relevant for you.
The first thing I focus on is the story.
I ask my talent to write out a short story related to a specific theme. I give them The Story Spine as a point of reference.
Once upon a time there was [blank]. Every day, [blank]. One day [blank]. Because of that, [blank]. Because of that, [blank].Because of that, [blank]. Until finally [bank].
My short films have been passion orientated, so I prefer to let my talent form the concept and I will edit it if it's necessary. The only times I suggest edits are when I cannot imagine capturing the relevant shots within the timeframe of filming, or if the talent steers off course from the main concept and it dilutes the impact of the story.
Here’s a tip: If you’re reading this in the hope of filming your first short film, it helps to have a concise focus.
For my cycling short film, and open-water swimming short film, there was a clear concept that was easy enough to stick to, and therefore film. If you don’t niche down, you may add certain elements of complexity to the shoot which could only add further pressure to the day of filming. Keep the first few simple, and as you find your groove, feel free to spread your wings.
I’m walking you through my process, and planning for me happens in three phases.
Phase 1: Shot-list
I start by re-reading the script and visualizing the entire shoot. I re-organize the script into sections, that I feel need to be filmed together, and I attach the shot I am hoping to get to the section.
This is particularly important if you are filming yourself. You will need to know exactly where you are hoping to place your tripod. I like to give myself options here. I plan for wide and close-up shots- this gives me options in the edit. However, I am more specific with where I choose to use pans and follow-shots.
I have to be able to see the entire short film in my head before I move onto the next step.
Phase 2: Voice Over
I’m gearing this article to beginners and by opting for a narrated short film, when starting out, it helps manage the butterflies in your stomach.
There are so many things that can, and do, go wrong on the day of filming, that you want to manage your audio. Wind, microphones malfunctioning, echo, and even an aircon could interfere with your audio on the day. By pre-planning your audio, you set yourself up for having less stress on the shoot day.
Also, if you’re working with talent, it eases them into the process. It’s almost as if by verbalizing their story, that it becomes, even more, real to them. You get to play around with pacing and tone, and, you may even get a few more ideas to add to your shot list.
Also, this is a small win which helps with overall motivation. It’s easy to talk about filming a short film, but actually getting the ball rolling is a whole different ball game. Once you’ve recorded audio, it almost springboards your confidence to the point where you can’t wait to get out and match it to the shot-list. Well, at least that’s the case for me.
Phase 3: Practicalities
If you’re working with talent, be mindful of their energy.
You may be able to go all day because of adrenaline, but people get tired and the camera picks up on everything. I prefer to do the voice-over and physical shoot on different days.
Depending on the complexity of your shot list, you may feel the need to spread the filming over the span of a few days, especially if you need consistency in natural lighting.
Also, consider the weather, traffic, if there are going to be others in your shot who do not wish to appear on camera and background noise. Even though I record my main audio beforehand, I still film with my mic to capture background noise that could add to the feel of the video.
These three phases are what make up my planning for the big shoot. If I’m able to check them off, I confidently approach the day of filming.
Pressing the record button is the easy part, however, I’m mindful of a few other things on the filming day.
If you’re working with talent, it’s your responsibility as the director, to bring a good vibe to your set. Also, your talent looks to you for direction so you better have a good idea of what you are hoping to achieve.
I have my shot list next to me, as well as any highlighted constraints that I would need to focus on first.
For example, in my cycling short film, I was aware that I wanted GoPro footage from the bike’s point-of-view, that I planned to film last, as that would be as simple as strapping the GoPro accessory to the bike and asking my talent to go into the mountains and have some fun.
I saved this for last because mountain bikers are notorious for getting injured and falling off their bikes. If my talented decided to do something foolish, then it wouldn’t affect the other scenes of the film where I needed him intact.
Point is, action shots, locations, water, and lighting are variables to consider when decided what to film and when. But, if you’ve brought a good energy to the set, and you’re organized then this part is the world of fun.
As I mentioned, this article is for the complete beginner looking for how to make their first short film.
I wish I had this information available to me before I attempted to create my first short film, and so I hope it has provided you with insight that is practical enough so that you feel empowered to get working on your own story.
For me at least, it’s a three-step process based around the concept, planning, and taking responsibility on the day of filming.
Good luck with piecing your short film together- I’m sure it’s going to be great time!