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How to Make a Short Movie

October 31st, 2008

movie-production.jpgThis relatively long article (approximately 1,800 words) by Bozsi Rose deals with the various factors involved in making a short movie. As you can tell by reading through the article, there are many tasks that need to be done before you have a production that is viable for releasing to the public.


A “short movie” can be anything from a single shot posted on YouTube.com to a thirty minute high budget film. Filmmaking can be fun but it’s also stressful and demands a lot of hard work and energy. It takes a lot of time, talent, effort, and resources to make a short film. This article is full of tips to make the process easier and less stressful.

Step One: The Script

In order to get people to watch your movie, you have to give them something compelling to watch. Don’t film two people having a five minute conversation about their lame jobs. This isn’t a plot, it’s a conversation. Not to say some shorts can’t be conversation heavy, but a lot has to happen in a few lines of dialogue for it to be the basis of an entire movie.

Make sure you have clear and unique characters. Each character has to have a goal, and each goal has to be as singular as the character, but these goals can’t be easy to meet. You have to have obstacles, big ones. Make sure the stakes are high. It’s not enough to have a character in need of rent money, he has to already be late on the rent and one day from eviction and he can’t have any other place to go. He can’t just call someone for the money. No one can be in a position to give him a loan. He can’t get a cash advance through work. There can be no easy answers. Easy answers kill drama, and film is drama.

Keep in mind that you’ll be filming this script. If you’re gifted at CGI and have the right programs then don’t hesitate to add special effects. If you’ve never used After Effects or any comparable program before then stay away from anything fancy. Don’t set yourself up for failure with car chases, explosions, and the like if you don’t know how to do them properly. Focus on story. A compelling story will be more impressive than an alien spaceship, especially a poorly crafted alien spaceship.

Also bear in mind that you’re going to be the one finding the locations. A scene placed in a fast food restaurant may read well on paper, but it’s nearly impossible to find a burger place willing to let you shoot there. If you feel strongly about any location that may be difficult to secure, by all means keep it in. It never hurts to try, but have a backup plan for shooting purposes.

Proofread the script and then have others read it for you as well. Make sure you ask them pertinent questions: ask if they could follow the plot, if the characters were likable, if the action is believable, etc. If you can, get people together to read the script out loud. This will let you know which lines of dialogue are working and which are not.

Step Two: Pre-Production

Now we come to the dreaded pre-production phase. Here are a list of things you must accomplish before day 1 of filming:

Break down the script: Break down each scene and list the location, characters, costumes, props, and any special effects. This will make planning your shoots a far easier process.

Decide on a Budget: Nothing is made for free. You may only need to buy food, but it’s still a budget. Find out if you need to supply any costumes or props and research the cost. Also, some locations will require a fee, try to negotiate for the best rate possible or try to find a free alternative.

Secure Actors: If you don’t know who’s going to be in your movie, now is a good time to have auditions. You can put an ad on Craigslist or visit your local community theatre. You may choose to use friends, but be wary, acting takes hard work and talent. Set yourself up for success by using experienced actors if at all possible.

Find a Crew: This may be friends, family, or even people you know that have production experience. If you don’t know anyone that can help you, go to Craigslist or other classifieds and put out an ad. It’s free and it gets a response. Also, decide which positions you need and do not accept more people than is absolutely necessary. If you only need one person to help with lights and hold the boom, stick with one person. If 15 friends volunteer, thank them and tell them no. Cluttering up a set with extra people will slow you down and add to the budget.

Do a Shot List: Go by the scenes and write down every shot you need. Differentiate between angles. Don’t just write down, “Need shot of Jim”. Be specific: “Need close up of Jim”.

Storyboard: Use your shot list, go through every scene and draw the shots you have planned. This helps you make editing choices ahead of time and also helps you plan your shoot. Storyboards are also a useful tool on set. If you’re busy doing make-up in one room and you have crew setting up the scene in another, a sketch will let them know exactly what you need.

Find Locations: When looking for locations keep in mind that you’ll need enough power to run lights, low noise pollution so you can pull in good audio, and working restrooms for the cast and crew. Work with friends, family, and Craigslist to find locations.

Plan Out a Schedule: Make a shooting schedule. If you were tight in the scripting and kept it to as few locations as possible, then scheduling will be a breeze. If you went crazy and have 40 locations then now is a good time to see if you can squeeze that down to a mere 25. When planning a schedule, try to make the actors come out as few times as possible, make your day count for as much as it can, and plan in meal breaks.

Find Equipment: You can go two different ways. If you’re making this movie to post online or for fun, then use a camcorder from a department store. Feel free to skip lights as well. If you’re doing this to get your name out there as a filmmaker, to show possible clients what you can do, or as a calling card for future film projects, then invest in good equipment. Rent the equipment unless you’re planning on making many movies. If you can afford to, rent everything a day ahead of time so you can get used to how it all works. Try different light setups. Use the camera. Test the microphone and the cables. This will save you many headaches on set.

Step Three: Rehearse

This is all too often skipped when making shorts. You have to get your actors together to go over lines. This is for them and you. You get to hear which lines are working, which aren’t and they get to work with the other actors. This also gives you practice directing. All actors work differently, you may be able to be blunt with some and have to be very gentle with others; rehearsal is a great time to find out how your actors respond to guidance. This will also give your actors a chance to run lines. All too often, actors show up without their lines memorized. You can’t direct people that can’t get the lines out.

Step Four: The Shoot

The most important thing about the shoot is the food. It may sound ridiculous, but it’s very true. Everyone’s working for cheap or for free and they will most likely be working long hours. Free food goes a long way to keeping your cast and crew motivated.

Try to follow the schedule as much as you can. Shooting is difficult and if you’ve never done it before then it’s easy to misjudge how long a scene will take. You may find on set that you have to cut shots in order to finish your movie on time or to get out of a location on time. Make sure you’re getting enough for editing purposes but, other than that, be brutally honest with yourself about what you do or don’t need.

Thank everyone. If they hand you something, hold the boom, or have their lines memorized, thank them. They deserve it for helping you realize your vision.

Work with your actors. Try to avoid this phrase on set: “say this line this way”. You’re going to have to resort to that sometimes but, the majority of the time, you want to have an open and ongoing dialogue with your actors. Remember, it is up to you to communicate your vision to the cast and crew. Allowing actors to explore on their own may also improve lines or even whole scenes. Filmmaking is a collaborative art for a reason.

Take the actors feedback. You may or may not use their ideas but always listen and respond. Sometimes actors envision a character completely differently than the director. You have to listen to the actors and prompt them with questions about their characters and the script.

The same goes for crew too. Listen to their suggestions, especially if they have production experience. As the director, it’s your job to make the final decisions, but great ideas come from all over a well-functioning set.

Have fun but keep working. Successful sets are ones that can keep a light mood while continuously working. Your cast and crew are there for a reason and they’re working for free. Don’t waste their time but allow them to have fun.

Step Five: Edit

If you’re doing a short you’re planning on festivaling or using as your calling card in the industry, then invest in good software. If you’re making a movie for fun and to show friends or post online, use the cheapest software you can find. The majority of online video content only requires basic editing tools.

If you planned a lot of CGI or find yourself stumbling through the editing process then seek help. Don’t be discouraged, editing software can be difficult to figure out and each program has its own quirks. There are many sites that have helpful information, tutorials, and forums where you can seek guidance. This is also a time where you might want to use Craigslist for help. Putting out an ad for an editor may be the right move.

The most important thing to remember is to have fun. It should be a pleasure, even a privilege, to make a movie. There are more opportunities now than ever for film making and more places to find an audience than ever before. If you have the time, resources ,and energy, then film making can be a rich and rewarding experience. If you follow the steps above, you can do it without getting an ulcer or going broke.



2 Responses to “How to Make a Short Movie”

  1. comment number 1 by: Ipsos Survey Panel

    Great post. I used some of the information on my website. Paid surveys are a great way to make money.

  2. comment number 2 by: jcrorcino

    its so helpful …thank you so much…

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