Short films are one of the best mediums to make a name for yourself. They’re a perfect way to start in the industry and a short film can also serve as a proof of concept for a feature or TV series.
Whiplash, District 9, 12 Monkeys, and Saw, all started as short films. But how exactly do you make a short film? For what budget and what’s the process?
From the screenplay to the scouting and call sheets, we will give you all the information you need to have the perfect short film checklist for the next time you hit the set.
1. Keep your script on a tight budget
When writing a feature on spec, you usually don’t have to overthink the script’s budget.
When doing a short, it’s one of your main concerns. Every single thing you write has a cost. That incredible scene where that badass girl jumps from a helicopter or that one kiss happening on stage at Coachella? They probably won’t make it into your short if you don’t have a massive budget.
On a tight budget, if you’re lucky enough, you have friends that agree to crew on your short for free. That’s a great way to minimize expenses.
If you already have the equipment, great. You can also greatly reduce costs by renting from a friend or from different websites that offer equipment for great prices.
Once the script is ready, you know where you’ll shoot, you know how much it’ll cost, lock it.
2. Scouting as early as possible
Scout early on. It’s easier to write the script when you know where you’ll shoot and what you can actually do with the locations. Scouting can be pretty fun.
If you’re shooting outside, be prepared by knowing what you’re getting yourself into. Outside locations can be challenging for sound, especially on a busy street.
The weather can be another factor that might result in your shooting schedule. Make sure you have a plan B in case it rains.
3. Casting the next Oscar-Winning Star
On these websites, you can post a quick summary of what the project is, and who your characters are, what kind of profiles you’re looking for. Most likely, in a big city like LA or NYC, you’ll find yourself going through 400-500 profiles within 1-2 days.
Watch the submitted reels, and headshots, select the ones you like and invite them in for an audition. For your actors to prepare, you can either post the sides on the audition page or send them only to the actors you selected.
With a quick Google search, you can find several rooms to rent for the audition. Something we advise is to invite more actors than your time allows because most likely there will be no shows. This would help avoid having 20 minutes of nothing between two auditions.
On audition day, make sure to have another person with you (the AD or someone you trust). They can help film the audition for example. A very common thing to do as it allows you to rewatch together, to make a clear decision, etc.
Our advice is, even if the actor nailed his audition first take, give them notes so they can do it again. It’s not about the scene in particular, it’s to test their ability to take notes and work with you if you hire them. You’ll be on a set with these people for hours/days, you want to make sure they can take notes and are willing to work with you.
From here, either you selected some you like for callbacks, they come in and audition again or you already make your choice.
Callbacks are a great thing for an actor, it means you liked their attitude, outfit, and performance. For the actor, it’s good to come back with the same outfit or same type, and obviously, the same attitude that got them in the first time.
Often in callbacks, you might have more people with you than just the AD, you might also invite other crew members or producers depending on the size of your short.
A thing we love to do is chemistry reads: have two actors that will share a lot of screen time come in to read lines together. We believe this is crucial as a lack of chemistry can break a movie.
Some filmmakers also organize table reads to hear the actors play the characters and to get a feel for the script. We usually don’t think it’s necessary for small projects but think it’s a wonderful opportunity for writers and actors.
4. Get your filming permit
In this article, we will assume you do get a permit (which we advise you to do as shooting guerilla can cost you a lot).
In a city like LA, you would turn to FilmLA.com They’ll ask you the address of the shoot (some addresses count as special and can become more expensive), the number of people on set, if you need parking, etc.
You can find the whole process on their website. If you’re in an area with a lot of shops and houses, they might ask you to fill up a filming survey and a notice of filming.
The filming survey needs to be signed by anyone living/working within a radius of 300 ft from your shooting location, either they’re fine with you shooting or they say they have concerns and need to be contacted by film LA.
The notice of filming needs to be dropped at every address within a 500 ft radius from your shooting location. It’s a little bit of a mission, so take a buddy and plan at least half a day to do so.
Once you have all the signatures, send/take it all to your coordinator at Film LA and he will be able to greenlight you if you meet the requirements.
Then, you’ll have to pay for the permit. If you’re a student, this is the great part as the cheapest you’re looking at would be $25. Can be more expensive depending on the location and if you have to close a street, and so on. For non-students, you’re looking at a starting cost of $740.
5. Know who to hire in your crew
How many people will be on set all depends on the size and length of your short film. We’ve been on sets for short films where 3-20 people are crewing. There are no rules.
We’d say for a short film of about 5-15 minutes; these are the key roles you need:
- Director of Photography
- 1st AC
- Sound department
- PA (I always feel like these are required, as they make everything so much smoother)
If on a low budget, you can skip the AD as you can be your own AD unless you hate paperwork and scheduling. Having both hats is highly stressful and depends on what kind of person you are.
Some filmmakers highly disagree that you can be the director and the AD. It’s really up to you. If you can get an AD, we advise you to do it. But be sure it’s a pro at scheduling and paperwork and everything annoying and stressful.
6. Call sheet / shot list / floor plan
A floor plan shows a view from above. You can draw a space, rooms, characters in that space, etc. Some people love them, some don’t work with them.
A shot list contains all the shots you want to have in your film. It’s a checklist. It allows you to have structure and know exactly what’s shot next and in what order. This will enable you to win so much time on set. It’s, in our opinion, indispensable.
Additionally, your AD (or yourself) will prepare a call sheet. It helps the cast and crew know when and where to report on the day of filming. Add extra time if they need to get through make-up and hair first.
7. Be prepared on set for the shoot
Even when everything goes according to plan, shooting is stressful. That’s why it’s important to have the right cast and crew, people who like to work together and solve problems on set. Because there’s going to be plenty of problems to solve!
As the director, you need to trust your crew. As you begin your career, you might end up on set with people way more experienced than you are, which can be stressful.
Remember, you’re the director. They answer you. We personally always recommend making an intro right before the shoot, motivating the troupes, telling everyone that we’re in this together, that this is teamwork, and that they can come to me with any questions or ideas they might have.
Be always open to people’s opinions, although you might not be able to apply them all.
Always plan enough time for blocking with cast and crew!!! Especially as it might be the first time on location for most of them. The importance of trusting your team is knowing that everyone knows their job, and knows what to do, so you can concentrate on storytelling and your actors.
When it comes to your actors, we will give you one rule, never correct your actors in front of everyone. Always praise them in front of the cast/crew and take them aside for your notes. Actors can be sensitive and you don’t want to hurt anyone’s ego in front of a whole crew and other actors because you will then get a lesser performance from them and lose a lot of time.
When applying this rule, you’ll see you’ll have greater performances and more motivation from your actors.
8. A Whole New Movie starts in the Editing Room
We often say that a whole new movie is created in the editing room, and that couldn’t be truer.
Never rush a shot on set, and if you’re not completely sure of how you shot a scene, reshoot. Or make changes to it. If you don’t, you’ll regret it in editing. Same with sound.
Sound is kind of that middle kid no one really thinks much about. It’s not the oldest, it’s not the youngest, yet if that kid were to disappear, something would feel off but no one would quite know what.
Okay, that’s a bit extreme but there have been several studies showing that it’s harder for people to identify sound than it is to identify image.
If we watch the same movie once with great image quality and great sound quality, and another time with great image quality and poor sound quality, most people will think the second movie has a poorer image. Because the brain doesn’t quite identify sounds the same. It knows something is off, but isn’t sure what, so it’ll assume it’s the image quality.
Sound can change a movie. So if a take has a great image but poor sound, redo it.
One last thing; always let the camera run for a little longer and take extra shots, this will allow you so much more room to play in the editing where new ideas might germ.
9. Think of Festivals and Distribution
Once you’re done editing your movie, look up the different festivals. Festivals can be an amazing way to meet other filmmakers, and producers and to create a name for yourself.
It’s a great way to get people interested in your other projects and to open new doors. You might also think about distributing yourself on Youtube for e.g., which can also be smart depending on your marketing plan.
But chances are, if your project has been viewed on Youtube, many festivals won’t accept it anymore as many of them want to be the first to screen your movie.
Always look up the requirements before you enter a festival.
Remember, It is a stressful process to create a movie from A to Z, but also absolutely amazing because you have total control over what you’re creating, from script to distribution.
Remember to take a minute sometimes and let that sink in. You have total control. When creating a short film, it is so important to be around people that can bring more into the process, elevate it, and that you like being around, because you will be a lot.
Filmmaking is the ultimate team sport.
Can’t wait to see your next short!
Article by Lena Murisier