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5 Lessons I Learned From Making Short Films

Ryan Estabro​oks

about 2 years ago

I recently made a post on my blog detailing some of the hard lessons I’ve learned from making films. And I thought I would share with you Mubians since the Garage is a place for other filmmakers and such. Maybe you can avoid some of the mistakes I made! Enjoy!
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(Originally posted on http://ryanestabrooks.com/Blog.html )

Contrary to what you may believe, filmmaking is an extremely tough endeavor. It’s easy to watch a 90 minute movie and think about how effortless it looks but truth is, many times, hundreds of people pitched in to help, each in a crucial role. To get an idea, try taking the time to ACTUALLY look at the end credits from a movie and count each name. I’m sure you will give up after you hit 500.

There is also a misconception that short films, due to their length, are easy to make and require little effort. If it’s only 10 minutes, why not shoot it over the weekend, slap an edit together and be done with it? And it will be great, right? Well, sorry to be a parade-pisser but any film of any length is hard work. Don’t believe me? Try it yourself! Write the screenplay, gather up some actors, shoot, edit, color correct, and do the sound mix. You will learn a LOT. Each area I just mentioned is an art and a craft all to its own with some people devoting their entire lives to mastering that one thing.

So then why do it? Because after you reach the end of the tunnel, you will be smarter, more experienced in life, and if you’re extremely lucky, will have a piece of art on your hands. Not to mention you have a medium of self expression, a therapist to help you exercise your all of your inner thoughts and demons. And the biggest thing of them all is, even though it is a ton of work, it is insanely fun and the hours become seconds as time flies by.

Having made several short films, I decided it was about time I shared some of my experiences and lessons I learned the hard way. Whether you are about to make a short film yourself or want an insider’s view of the short filmmaking process, I think you will find these tips helpful and interesting.

1.) Always white balance frequently

When you white balance, you are telling your camera what exactly “white” is in your scene so that it is able to make your colors appear more realistic. It is designed to remove color casts that our eyes may be used to and may not pick up immediately. If you do not white balance, you may shoot your film only to take it home and realize that it is too red/orange/blue/green. When that happens, you have to spend more time correcting this with color correcting software and sucks up precious hours you could be spending on something else. This is especially true when shooting outdoors or using natural light.

For example, for one of my short films, I decided to have a go at shooting it only with natural light. We were shooting the film in a living room that had a giant wall-sized window with lots of light shining through. “Perfect! I won’t have to use as many lights!” was my initial thought. This would save time and allow us to do more straight shooting.

But here’s the problem: when the sun is shining brightly, it gives off a color temperature of 5000-6500 degrees Kelvin, or a very blue-ish color. As the sun sets, the temperature changes and it goes towards a temperature of 3000-4000 degrees Kelvin, or a very golden/yellow-ish color. So what happened was we set up our camera rigs, did one single initial white balance and left it at that for the entire day. Granted, it was a rushed shoot but when I got all of my footage home at my editing bay, I was a little taken aback to see the first half of my shoot in full, bright, popping colors and the second half covered in a murky, golden color. It was as if I had shot two different films with a different tone to each.

So how did I remedy it? By spending hours upon hours in Apple Color (a color correcting software) that were wasted away. I’m talking DAYS here, people! Entire days were wasted on something that would have only take a few minutes, tops, to set while shooting. And simply put, time really is money.

I would recommend getting a White Balance card. Instead of using your camera to Automatic White Balance (which is good but not great), you put this card in front of your camera, hit your White Balance button and it is corrected almost perfect. I personally recommend using the WhiBal card from Michael Tapes Design:

It’s the best $30 you will spend. Get one at http://michaeltapesdesign.com/whibal.html

2.) You can never have too many lights

Now I’m not saying you have to bust out $10,000 for a deluxe professional lighting rig (although if you can afford it, it doesn’t hurt!) but you will quickly find that having a plethora of lights on hand is never a bad thing. Even if you’re using all natural lighting, it still doesn’t hurt. If you can’t afford decent lights, you can pillage Home Depot or Lowes for their work lights and lamps.

The trick is to find the biggest, brightest halogen bulbs you can that have a color temperature of around 5000 degrees Kelvin. Most lights have this information on the back but if it does not, ask one of the workers because someone there should know. Personally, I’m a fan of the clamp lights because they’re cheap as hell so I can afford 20 of them and I can clamp them anywhere on set.

Typically, the actual clamp reflectors are on a separate aisle from the lights. I would also recommend grabbing a couple of extension cords for your lights, those will come in handy too.

3.) Be nice and reasonable

This may seem like common sense but I have seen people doing this without them even knowing it. Let’s start with the reality of the situation: most short films are made with no money. Some are made with a little bit of money. A teeny tiny portion have budgets that actually go into thousands of dollars. Most likely, you will fall into the first category and odds are, you will probably use several non-actors or amateur actors…and you won’t have any money to pay them.

Now this in and of itself is no big deal. When we’re all starting out, we all kind of rough it together and do these projects not for monetary reward, but as a way to gain experience and add something to the resume. And it should be fun! But since we are all not professional actors/writers/directors yet, life frequently gets in the way of things. Most of us hold down full-time or part-time jobs in addition to going to school or doing local theater or a myriad of other things as we try and make the most of life. As the director of a short film, you can never forget this fact.

Actors will sometimes cancel and have to reschedule. That guy who was going to help you with the lighting may have to go to his grandma’s house for their family reunion and can’t make it. You may have to quit shooting early because someone has to go work at Office Depot the next morning. And those are all perfectly okay things. But you cannot be too demanding!

Yes, for you, the director, this next film is your life. It’s all you think about, it’s all you want to do and you stress out incessantly until it is finished…and stress out some more when you submit it to 10 film festivals and none of them accept it. It’s stressful. Trust me, I know. When someone cancels on you or keeps delaying their availability to shoot, it is easy to take it personally but more often than not, life is simply getting in the way for that person and they do not have a choice in it. The last thing you want to do is call them 3 times a day and keep pestering them. If they are extremely irritated, they may decide to drop out altogether. Granted, if they keep putting you off for 6 months or longer, you may want to simply hire someone else. But give them a chance first!

If you attack them personally, try to guilt them into shooting or even yell at them, you can almost guarantee they will tell you “Adios”. This also applies to being on set. BE NICE! Thank everyone for being there! When you ask someone to grab the microphone from the other room or help bring in your big bulky lights from the trunk of your Mazda, say “Please” beforehand and “Thank you!” afterward. Be TOO nice! It will make a difference and morale will skyrocket. Everyone simply wants to know that they are appreciated in life and this is no exception.

If you aren’t paying them, don’t give them a reason to say “Why am I even doing this?”. And even if you are paying them, don’t be a dick unless you want them to give you less than 100%. Even if you truly believe they are being unreasonable or putting other priorities ahead of your precious film, just smile, work something out, and go home so you can chug vodka and punch the wall until your hand bleeds while listening to your mix CD of Slipknot and Tool.

Be mature. Be a leader. That’s what directing is all about.

4.) Storyboarding is your best friend

Now I can already hear the indie kids or art house aficionados say “Pfff, storyboarding? I can just make it up on set, it will feel more real and fresh”. And you know what? That’s fine if you want to do that but it will not hurt one bit to have something as a backup, something on hand to give you inspiration.

When you are first starting out and especially when you aren’t paying anyone, it helps when you at least appear to be professional. One way to appear professional is to seem like you actually know what you are doing (even if you don’t). Why is this so important? If one of your actors or technicians do not have complete faith in you, they may not give it their all or may even start having regrets about joining your project. Or even worse, they may not see you as a voice of authority and may disregard your suggestions, opting to instead do what they want to do because they feel that you are a total amateur. I have heard of scenarios were secondary technicians have tried to take over the shoot because they felt they knew more than the director did.

One simple way to appear to know what you are doing is to storyboard before hand. When the actors ask you “What’s next?” the last thing you want to say is “I have no idea and I wouldn’t even know where to start”. You want to be able to point to a shot list and a page of storyboards that you can show them, that they can actually look at and prepare for.

But even more than that, it will typically benefit you the most! Why? Well, for obvious reasons, storyboarding helps you work out your shots before you spend a single minute on set. When you spend hours and hours over-thinking how you might want to frame a certain shot or how a scene will play out visually with exquisite camera angles, that is all time that you will be saving yourself on set. Because if you didn’t know it already, every second on set is precious. PRECIOUS! It flies by and you NEVER have enough time to get everything you want. So why waste hours on set thinking about how to shoot your bicycle explosion when you can think about it by yourself at your house without wasting everyone’s time?

Am I saying you have to slavishly follow your storyboards when you’re filming? Absolutely not! But it will give you a rock solid foundation, the sand on the playground that you can confidently play in. It will free your mind and allow it to be in the moment, which will inspire you. When you’re on set, it’s easier to have some sort of idea of how you want to shoot it and go off of that instead of starting completely from scratch.

Do your homework! Think think think, cross check as much as you can before you shoot. You already have enough things to do on set, no need to overload your plate. You will thank yourself and your crew will thank you as well. And you may save yourself from an ulcer, heart attack, or both. (ulcer attack?)

If you’ve never looked at a storyboard in your life, I personally recommend picking up Film Directing Shot by Shot: Visualizing from Concept to Screen by Steven D. Katz as a solid primer on the subject.

5.) Have someone to operate the boom mic

Good sound, no, GREAT sound makes up 50% of your film. It’s one of those weird things that may not be noticeable unless it’s really bad. So if you do a good job on it, the general audience won’t even notice that you did a good job. But at least they won’t be trash talking your film after!

So, if at all possible, have someone handle the microphone with a boom stand. Make sure they aim it down at your actors and follow them so the voices don’t get distant if they walk away or anything of that nature. In previous films I’ve done, I didn’t have the luxury of having a boom operator so I had to use a mic stand the best I could. Although this is better than nothing I suppose, there were moments when my actors moved around and it didn’t pick it up clearly 100%. So I had to edit it a bit in post and polish it up but the simple fact is, if I would have had someone there in the first place, I would have saved a couple of hours and it would have sounded better overall.

odilonvert

about 2 years ago

Nice post, Ryan!

Polaris​DiB

about 2 years ago

These points cannot be said often enough, or emphasized enough.

—PolarisDiB

keldon

about 2 years ago

thank you for this, I hope to be beginning work on one in the next few months and this is really informative! And I work at an Office Depot, so thanks for that example :)

Ryan Estabro​oks

about 2 years ago

haha hey, ain’t nothing wrong with Office Depot!

Let us know how it goes Keldon!

Danny Indio

about 2 years ago

Good job, Ryan. Solid advice for beginners and good reminders for veterans.

Shjoon Eleel

over 1 year ago

LoVe it

Rly rly Thanks

I rly learned Alot <3