What’s the last excuse you used to avoid shooting a short film? It probably sounded something like this:
- “I would shoot it if I had a crew.”
- “I just can’t seem to nail down a good location.”
- “I really just don’t have the time to shoot all weekend.”
Sometimes, you just don’t have time, and that’s okay. But, in reality, you probably do have the time. It’s just always daunting to get a project rolling. It’s easier to say that you’re “working on” filming your next project instead of — you know — actually doing it.
So today we’re going to talk about how to take that weekend-long shoot and condense it into something you can knock out in a day.
Writing for a Quick Shoot
When you’re beginning your short film project, you have to start with a good script. Now, a good script is completely subjective — it may be good to you, and it may be bad to someone else. That doesn’t matter. This isn’t really a screenwriting exercise, but I’ll give you a tip on writing a bare-bones short film — write for what you have. Don’t overextend yourself with extensive props and dreams of giant budgets — a good story doesn’t require flash to capture an audience. Good characters and a good story will suffice.
Keep your script tight. No unnecessary dialogue or filler; just get to the point. A page of script equals about a minute of screen time, which equals roughly about an hour of shooting. So keep that in mind when writing your script if you really want to get it done in a day.
Location really affects shooting time. If you have multiple locations, moving from one place to another can eat precious hours. Stick to one location.
Once you’ve got a location in mind, head over a few days before and do a quick location scout. For this short, we wanted to shoot in a downtown area and use the buildings’ lights as practical lighting, so I went out and got a few test shots. This inspired the vibe I wanted, and it gave me an idea of what I had to work with.
We found a theater with some overhanging marquee lights that served our script’s vision perfectly, so I settled on that as our location.
Crew and Gear
Here in the studio, we just got one of our favorite new pieces of gear — the BlackMagic Pocket Cinema Camera. At a cost of $1,300, it’s practical for incredible quality video. We also used a Rokinon 50mm, which is about $400. Now I know, for some, that is completely out of reach, and you may call me an idiot for suggesting that this gear is practical. And I totally understand. When I’ve worked with bare bones budgets in the past, I relied on friends in my local filmmaking community, and I borrowed their cameras and lenses. If you find the right community, the people will be willing to help you out on a shoot or lend you gear for a quick weekend project.
As for the camera, find one that is versatile enough for your lighting conditions. The Sony Alpha Series and the BMPCC are great low-light cameras, and they are sure to get you a good shot, no matter how bad the lighting conditions may be.
Now, for the hardest part of getting a short film off the ground — finding crew and actors. If you’re on a shoe string or no-string budget, getting people to help you out can be an ordeal. But when you minimize your crew, it can be easier to get four people on board than ten. When you reduce your crew to the bare minimum, all you need are your actors, a DP, and an audio guy. Don’t skimp on the audio guy. You definitely cannot run audio while running the camera, and bad audio will ruin your short. I promise.
Keeping Things Rolling
So, everything is set up, and shoot day comes along. What’s the magic tip to get this thing done quickly? Get in and out as quickly as possible. Maybe you’re depending on the daylight, or maybe you need to shoot before someone kicks you out of your location. (We aren’t saying you should go trespassing — always get permission to use your locations.) Whatever the reason start moving and keep moving.
Use a shot list to stay on track. Write down the shots that you need to get: a master shot, a few over-the-shoulders, and some inserts (if you need them). When you have that all on a list, you throw the guesswork out the window and drastically reduce production time on-set.
Lighting can also be a huge time suck on set. Setting up and maneuvering lights can take up almost half the shoot day. So I recommend shooting with as many practical lights as possible. Find a spot with ample lights to work with while location scouting. Some creative blocking will also help you out with minimal light set ups — set your actors’ positions to take full advantage of the available light.
In our short, we used almost no extra lights — just the marquee lighting to get our key, our fill, and our back light. When you run into a situation where the practicals just aren’t cutting it, you can use a bounce to reflect some of that light onto a specific area. Here, we weren’t getting adequate light on our subject’s chin, so we set up a bounce to get that little bit of extra light to even out his face.
When that doesn’t seem to help, it doesn’t hurt to have a little LED in your gear bag to help you out in a pinch. We have an Aputure AL-MX that’s a little beast when it comes to clutch lighting situations. Throw it on a light stand, clip it into place — the AL-MX can probably fit just about anywhere.
Remember, there’s really nothing better at helping you hone your craft than getting out there and shooting something. Trial and error is one of the surest ways to learn what works, and what doesn’t. You may ask, “What if the film sucks once I’ve finished it?” Who cares? You still created content. I can’t count how many bad shorts I’ve made in my life, but they all gave me the experience I needed to improve.
I’m a huge believer in the 10,000 hours theory — it takes a lot of hands-on work to master your craft, so it’s best to get started now.