What I Learned From Making an Award Winning No Budget Short Film Alone at 19-Years-Old
This 19-year-old filmmaker reminds us why the fundamentals of filmmaking still holds true today.
This post was written by Elijah Anthony F.
My name is Elijah Anthony F., and I’m a 19-year-old writer/director based out of Southwest Washington. I’ve been making videos and shorts since I was 12-years-old. This last October, I won Best Cinematography in the biggest youth film festival in the world for my short film Clairvoyant, which I made as a solo filmmaker over the course of my senior year of high school.
In the weeks following the festival, I’ve started building a community on TikTok, where I’ve received a lot of questions about my process and how to get into filmmaking at a young age.
So, I’m here! I don’t know everything or have all the best methods. Truthfully, I know very little and the workflows I’ve developed that work for me are not going to apply to everyone. I only know what I’ve done. As I hurl myself into pre-production on a much larger short, I can already see these methods evolving in real time.
I think sharing my process and being transparent about an experience as contained and unique as making a solo short film with no money is extremely valuable, and isn’t something I’ve seen enough of from artists my age. So, I encourage going forward with a grain of salt.
Table of Contents
Meet the Filmmaker
Before I jump in, let me introduce myself because I understand that it can be hard taking advice from people on things like this without knowing where they come from.
I live in an extremely small logging town in Washington State. My parents are not artists, and I grew up fairly isolated from culture, especially cinema, until I turned 15 and started seeking it out myself. When I started making videos at 12-years-old, I was shooting GoPro style videos on a $35 knockoff action camera off eBay, which was replaced with an actual GoPro that served as my birthday/Christmas gift. After about a year of making videos with the GoPro strapped to my head or whatever else I could attach it to and editing in GoPro’s free software (that in retrospect trained me on the basics of Adobe Premiere), I wanted more.
Specifically, I wanted to take the camera to new heights. I couldn’t afford a drone, so I spent months building versions of a device that acted like a Nerf football that held the GoPro on the end that I could throw as high as I could to get new perspectives.
Eventually, the GoPro was replaced by a drone, one of DJI’s entry level models, and I shifted toward making videos set to songs I liked, which all ended up on my YouTube channel for my 134 subscribers. I did this for another year. After a while, I started to drift into a new format: carrying the drone like a Steadicam and following people around. It's funny to look back and see where that shift started.
My next evolution came in the form of a Nikon D3200 equipped with my mom's favorite lens from when she did portrait photography 15 years earlier, along with a video tripod she’d bought by accident before I was born. That became my setup for three years. I started out making little videos documenting my life, again set to music I liked, and slapped the videos onto my YouTube. Those videos are a perfect representation of what being 14-year-old me felt like, and I’m still incredibly proud of them.
Again, I did this for about a year. In that year, I became familiar with how the camera worked, and how to best get quality images out of it. When I ran out of life to document, it became time to evolve past that phase. I decided to try something that led me to where I am now: blending my love for writing and storytelling.
I made my first short film, Felix, over the course of my freshman year.
Something I’ve realized looking back is a consistent desire to share my point of view and express myself. With the GoPro, I was trying to share my literal point of view by putting the camera as close to my eyes as I could. When I got bored with that, my focus shifted from filming from the perspective that I see, to the perspective that I wished I could see, and I’d always wanted to fly. Ever since I made the move to a more contemporary visual style, I’ve been trying to bridge that gap creatively, which is the closest I can get to my mission statement as a filmmaker.
Okay there's a mini biography, let's get on to what I’ve learned since then, and production of Clairvoyant.
'Clairvoyant'Credit: Courtesy of Elijah Anthony F.
Behind the Writing Process
When you're starting out with your first couple short films, you should look at the process like an experiment. At the end of the day, your first few shorts are experimental, regardless of what genres or ideas you're trying to explore.
Thinking of it like that for me was a far healthier way to approach at the beginning, rather than the classic “your first few shorts are going to suck” anecdote. Before you even start, train yourself to think of it as an experiment, not a failure. For me, as a visual person, my earliest work is all videos made up of pretty images set to music I liked with zero real storytelling. When that felt like those types of video making hit a wall, I decided to write my first “real short film.”
I came into the process with an understanding of how to make images that looked good, thanks to those “‘visual experiments.” When I sat down to write something to shoot, I did the thing every filmmaker our age has done and went down the “how to write a short film” YouTube rabbit hole, which is something I feel creatively set me back. I was faced with a lot of rules: top ten things beginner filmmakers do that you should avoid, people preaching the three act structure. It was a war zone for someone who likely feels completely overwhelmed already.
If you're starting out, then my advice is to stay out of those echo chambers. The writing process for me is deeply personal, and being told what needs to happen on page two of your five-minute short film isn't going to help. A short film can be a scene, a conversation, or anything you want to write about. There are absolutelyrules and scripts worth studying, and there's plenty of time for that after these first efforts.
'Clairvoyant'Credit: Courtesy of Elijah Anthony F.My first short film is about a kid left behind after a sudden alien invasion, looting houses, and avoiding danger when he finds a camera and starts talking to it. Is it cliché as hell? Yes, it is. But I believed in the idea completely, and that's all that matters. Write something you want to make, something you believe in, and go from there.
The next topic that comes up every time is, “What if I can’t afford what I want to make?” I’ll expand on this in the pre-production segment and how I managed this on Clairvoyant, but start by taking stock of what you have instead of what you don't during the writing stage. What is something you have access to? Do you have an interesting location or some woods near your house, and how could you utilize that? Do you have any friends who would be down to spend a couple of hours making something, or a friend who wants to be an actor that you could write the story around?
For my first short, I had a mutual friend who was interested in acting and had a small cabin on his property, so the story became about him hiding out in the cabin during an alien invasion. We used the ordinary spaces we had access to in a more heightened context, while still keeping the story contained. The whole process is an exhausting imagination exercise. It won’t always be easy, but things will only improve as you stick with it.
The writing process for Clairvoyant was very similar to my first short. I was coming off the back of a short adaptation ofThe Invisible Man, a black and white ‘30s set-horror short, and was itching to work with color again. I was also desperate to tell a story about a haunted house. I had full ideas for scenes and individual shots and visual motifs I wanted to explore, but nothing to ground them. It was September of my senior year when my best friend, who I’d wanted to write a role for a while by that point, shared a short story she’d started writing during our English class. It was a one-page-long inner monologue of a girl in the car on the way to a house her parents were moving her to, a girl who could see ghosts, that she’d stopped writing as the car pulled into the driveway. I read it again, and it all fell into place, and I immediately opened a document and picked up where she left off.
I already had a location in mind, and wrote the story around the same house I’d used to shoot the noir film the year before, a historically preserved farmhouse on a pumpkin patch near my house used as a sort of living history museum. The writing process lasted from September to February, and pre-production started in December.
'Clairvoyant'Credit: Courtesy of Elijah Anthony F.
Breaking Down Pre-Production
Pre-production on Clairvoyant can be broken down into the five different aspects that I was managing all at once: locations, cast, gear, wardrobe, and planning the shot list. The film itself in the end cost me $300 from beginning to end.
I emailed the owners of the house in December to check on availability. When we shot in the house the first time, they let us use the place for free for two days. For this four day shoot, we negotiated a daily rate of $35, adding up to $140.
The exterior location for the house on the hill is a location that I’ve driven by and wanted to use for years. When I finally found a place for it in the script, I knew I had to reach out to the owners who live there and ask if I could use it. I gave the couple who lives there my contact information, but I reached back out to them after two months of silence. We had a conversation emphasizing that their house and property would remain completely anonymous, which included their address, cars, and more would be absent from the film, and they agreed.
The third location, young Claire's house, was a family friend’s property of the actress's family, who had no problem with us shooting on their property.
The cast is one of my favorite parts of the short. The star, the best friend who shared the idea for the film, was a built-in lead. She’d grown up doing community theater, but dreamed of becoming a screen actress. The character she’d written the story around became a thinly veiled avatar of herself. It was the easiest part of the process in hindsight. Her parents played the roles of Clair’s parents in the dinner scene, which I’ll touch on later.
Her older sister, who’d starred in The Invisible Man the year before, took the role of the ghost of the house opposite of a husband character, played by another actor who played the titular invisible man in the same previous film. It was a funny experience to shoot a second scene of his character killing hers in the same house in a completely new context.
'Clairvoyant'Credit: Courtesy of Elijah Anthony F.The ghost of the 1950s bedroom was played by a friend of the lead, and the prelude/flashback version of Claire was played by my younger sister, who only shares a similar skin-tone and hair textures as Claire.
The cast was an extremely tight web of people made up of family members and friends, whose characters were written keeping in mind who would play them, which is super important when working with non-actors.
One of my proudest moments as a writer is Claire’s Dads’ monologue about getting a job, which was designed to sound natural when her non-actor dad performed it.
The process of borrowing the gear used during the production was a complicated endeavor that is worth touching on. The camera and lens were borrowed from my art teacher at school, and the lighting and audio gear was borrowed from the school's ASB, which became a point of tension that ended up restructuring the entire shoot at one point because we were refused access to it. I think my biggest learning point from the experience is to make sure that if you're informally borrowing gear from somewhere that isn't similar to a rental shop, then you must communicate clear expectations on dates and ideally have it in writing. That would’ve saved me so much stress.
Wardrobe was something I was extremely excited to tackle purely from a color standpoint. Again, after making a black and white short, working with color felt unbelievably exciting. I just generally do a lot of thrifting and walking around vintage stores, so this process was made up of creating a color palette and keeping an eye out for specific pieces I wanted to highlight. The three things I purchased for the short specifically were the green flannel Claire wears in the first half of the short, the vintage white blouse, and skirt (both found on the one dollar rack of a vintage clothing store funnily enough) coming to a total of $14. The red sweater Claire wears in the second half of the film and everything else worn in the film were owned by me or the cast members.
Lastly, being my own DP gave me the opportunity to ponder the shot list and sequencing without needing to fully articulate it until I felt it was ready to write it down, which ended up being three days before the shoot.
Every shot was painstakingly listed into Studiobinder’s fantastic shot list template, used it as a checklist I entrusted to the most detail oriented friend-turned-crew-member on set, and it kept everyone on track. This gave the cast and crew a tangible look at where we were in the shoot, and how what we were shooting related to the rest of the story and the script. Communicating to everyone who volunteered a weekend or two to help your project is so important. I’ve found that spending $10 on paper and folders to print out a script and shot list for e every member on the set, in my case it was nine people in total, and labeling them with their names is perfect for overall morale.
Something I found to be extremely useful and at this point necessary to my short film process is finding films I admire and using them as curriculum. A lot of my cinematic education has come from finding films that I connect to on a stylistic and emotional level, finding the filmmaker behind them, and exploring their filmography. If I connect to the rest of the filmmaker’s work in the same way as I did with that first project I watched, I seek out any interview or behind-the-scenes content they’ve done to learn about who they are as directors.
I try to learn from the decisions those filmmakers make behind the scenes, so that I can implement them into my own workflow. In short, finding films that feel like what I want to make, and studying the people who made these film helps me to hone in my skills as a director.
In prep for Clairvoyant, I studied the work of Mike Flanagan extensively, watching a project of his, then seeking out podcasts and interviews he did as press for said project. I even looked for interviews from his casts to get their perspectives on working with Flanagan, and learning how he directs his casts. Finding interviews with his DPs, learning why they make the decisions they do, and how they manifest for the audience taught me a lot about the filmmaker I wanted to be.
Clairvoyant isn’t a copy or rip off of Flanagan’s work, but his language and style obviously had an impact on how I crafted the language of the film.
'Clairvoyant'Credit: Courtesy of Elijah Anthony F.
This is the million dollar subject.
I’m fairly gear savvy purely out of necessity, but I find it to be so frustratingly unimportant for how much people ask about it. I think a lot of people ask about gear, hoping for me to reply “Alpha 7R II” so they can look it up, see how much it costs, and think that's why it looks like that. So, before getting into the specs of what Clairvoyant was shot on, I want to talk about that noir short I shot before it.
I shotThe Invisible Man on a used Sony NEX-6 I found on Adorama for $150, and vintage Canon photography lenses I found at a local thrift store. The NEX6 D3200 is the camera Sony made to see if the Sony Alpha a6000 had a market in the film community. It was a step up from the Nikon D3200 I’d used for three years before I sold it to upgrade, a decision made from a detail and dynamic range perspective. While it was an improvement in those areas, the colors are really, really hard to work with.
Sony NEX-6Credit: Sony CamerasWhen I decided my next project was going to be an adaptation of a chapter of a book written in 1897, I decided to use the opportunity to my advantage. If the colors on this camera suck, then why not make this film in black and white. And if we're going to make it a period piece (thanks to the built-in production design of the house we shot it in), then why not stylistically lean into that?
I bought a Black Pro Mist filter (and I will never shoot without one again), and studied films from the time period I’d landed on, particularly Vampyr from 1932. I covered big windows from the outside with $8 shower curtains to soften the lighting, giving the room that studio era set quality. While it is far from perfect as a whole film, I can confidently say it looks way more expensive than it was because I saw my restrictions and weaknesses in what I had access to as guidelines instead of barriers. It's not an original idea, but I found ways to make it my own.
Clairvoyant was shot on a Sony a7R II that I borrowed from my art teacher, equipped with a Tamron t1.4 cine lens. The whole film was shot with that set up, aside from one specifically artistic shot meant to be from the point of view of a crying character early in the film. For that shot, I used a gimmick photography lens from LensBaby from 20 years ago that my mom had in a storage bin.
I made the decision early to shoot in LOG, which was a challenge. I used the weeks leading up to the shoot setting up compositions in my house and learning how to expose it and color it in DaVinci Resolve.
Becoming familiar with a camera and learning its boundaries first hand is, in my opinion, far more important than the camera itself. Even with all those tests, I spent the first of our four days on location doing camera rehearsals of 60% of my shot list to make sure I was doing it right. The last thing I wanted was to come as far as I had and mess up the LOG exposure, which was an additional pain in the ass without an external monitor. If you decide to shoot LOG, then I highly suggest not working off the flip screen. It's an unreasonably stressful guessing game. But by some miracle, it all worked out. There are two shots I cut from the film due to them being just below my standards, and one shot in the film that I wish I could do again but couldn’t without derailing an already loose sequence.
The other piece of gear I’d like to shout out that I borrowed from my school that I will never shoot without again is the Aputure MC lights. The film was lit largely with natural and available light, but the MCs were absolutely perfect in helping to supplement that light when needed, as well as acting as fire light twice.
A tip that I haven't found anywhere else that I “invented” for creating fire light with zero budget is to shin a work light at the gold side of a round reflector and assigning someone the job of twisting the reflector in place to create an extremely convincing flickering that can light a whole room. I’ve used it twice, as the fireplace in The Invisible Manand the fire-door scene (supplemented by the MCs) in Clairvoyant.
The Aputure MC-12 multi-light kitCredit: Aputure
What I Remember From the Shoot
To be completely honest, I don’t remember a lot of the shoot.
Directing for me is an out-of-body experience where I get to let a part of my personality that doesn’t get exercised often take over. Due to this, I don’t remember half of the specific decisions I made. There are just too many. But there are a couple random things I’ve picked up over the last couple of years that I wish I’d known sooner that I’ll rapid fire here:
Gaffer tape is cheap, and is the most important and used tool on set outside of camera and sound equipment.
Buy shower curtains at Walmart and tape them over windows and other light sources to soften and control light.
Foam core boards (in black and white) similarly make excellent lighting controllers and cost like 20 cents each.
Give people jobs and make them feel important on set.
Sound is a bitch on a budget, so research the hell out of it. But don’t forget about it in the midst of focusing on the visuals.
Don’t forget to eat.
Don’t forget that the cast and crew also need to eat.
Instead of telling an actor what to act like, explain why they're acting that way from the character's perspective.
That's a very basic way of explaining a very complex part of being a director, but it’s the best I can do here without writing an entire essay.
The Post-Producion Process
Post-production starts almost immediately when I get home after a shoot. I want to edit the scenes together as quickly as possible to make sure they work. The moment after the fire door scene where Claire is on the ground and the ghost opens the door behind her was a shot that we had to reshoot, and I’m so grateful that I caught how poorly the original take worked with everything around it.
Being able to show the crew a rough look at what we did the day after we shot was also extremely helpful in keeping everyone motivated, which is always helpful.
I spent three months editingClairvoyant. I didn’t show the edit to anybody until about three weeks before I released it, which is not how I’d recommend doing this, but it's what happened. I could probably write an entire book about this process, but I want to instead go over the things that have made my life easier and my projects better.
Comparing my shot list to the final edit of the film, it's fair to say that, for me, 90% of the editing process happens before I step on set. By the time Clairvoyant was wrapped, I basically had to find the takes I marked as the best and most important, put them in order, and save for the prologue, which went from five pages that came back to close the film out at the end to a cut down version of what we shot.
'Clairvoyant'Credit: Courtesy of Elijah Anthony F.Things were obviously tweaked and inserts were cut, but at that point it became a game of cutting frames off the ends of shots and restructuring scenes to work with the original score produced by my 16-year-old brother. Because we shared a room, I would edit a scene and send it to him across the room, and he would send it back with a music track and back and forth fine-tuning it.
This is where things get interesting. One of my favorite parts of the editing process (and there aren't many) is invisible VFX, things that realistically enhance a shot without drawing attention to itself. My favorite and probably the least subtle example in Clairvoyant is the first wide of the house on the hill. I replaced the sky with one that made the composition look more like a painting. Later in the film, the same composition is shown again 80 years earlier, but instead of leaving it the way it was, I digitally removed all buildings and power lines and more modern aspects of the landscape except for the house. This changed the landscape without drawing attention to itself. The option to change your shot like that is at least something to consider in my opinion because it costs you nothing and can drastically improve the quality of a shot. Every single shot in the film is enhanced like this beyond the color grade. While they are all fairly to extremely subtle, I believe it makes a difference.
The most important part of the process visually for me is the color grade. I spent so many hours tweaking and fine-tuning the grade. Like I mentioned earlier, I graded in the free version of DaVinci Resolve, and the amount of power that free program gives you is overwhelming. Again, I could write an entire article about this, but there are tutorials and articles that go over all of this better than I could.
I will give a huge shout-out to the glow tool. This tool gives a lot of subtle character to the highlights if used well. The FilmLooks LUTs built into the program served as a solid jumping off point after converting to rec.709. The look of the film took a few different forms, but I’m unbelievably proud of how rich the colors are in the end. Clairvoyant is, in a lot of ways, the first example I’ve made of the exact kind of movie I want to make, and the look of the film is the most successful example of that.
'Clairvoyant'Credit: Courtesy of Elijah Anthony F.
Where Clairvoyant has gone and what's next.
While it’s still early in its run, Clairvoyant has been accepted and nominated in several festivals, most notably the biggest youth film festival in the world, The All American High School Film Festival. The short was nominated for Best Direction and Best Overall Film, and won Best Cinematography at the fest. I am still processing how well the film has and continues to be received in festivals full of films with larger and more experience crews.
Currently, I’m working on a 1950s set adaptation of Robert Frost's masterpiece Home Burial. It’s a production that will be significantly larger in both scale and cost in comparison to any other project I’ve ever done. As I move forward with this project, a lot of the skills I’ve learned through producing five zero budget shorts on my own are already making the funding process easier.
My last short marks the pinnacle of what I can personally accomplish with the resources I had, and any constraints I had making it are now falling away. I can’t wait to see what happens.
Resources to Take Advantage Of
Here are some resources that I think you should take advantage of.
The All American High School Film Festival: This festival has changed my life in so many ways. Attending this fest might be the most important thing I’ve done, but even if you can’t attend, submit your work here. It’s an incredibly caring and safe space for young filmmakers, as well as providing a truly grand experience complete with a private cruise on the Hudson, screenings in the AMC 25 in Time Square, and an Oscars scale awards ceremony in Brooklyn. I met some of my best friends and made connections that will continue to blossom as we all grow into this industry. There is nothing quite like it out there.
National Film Festival for Talented Youth (NFFTY): Much like All American but on a more intimate and mature scale and on the other side of the country in Seattle, NFFTY is a festival for filmmakers up to 24-years-old that I attended last year with The Invisible Man. I will continue to attend until I age out. The curation of screenings is extremely nuanced and thoughtful. After your film screens, every attending filmmaker has the opportunity to answer questions from the audience on stage. The week is full of mixers and connection making. I recommend submitting your work and seeing what happens. Again, I met some of the most talented people I know, and that's a priceless opportunity.
TikTok: I'm still somewhat new to sharing my work on TikTok, and it can be an odd place to be. But I’ve made a few fascinating connections and I am beginning to grow a small community of people that are extremely excited and passionate about what we do. It’s obviously very different from the two examples before it, but I recommend giving it a shot because I truly believe the next generation of great filmmakers is there right now, and it's never a bad time to get in on it, throw yourself in the mix, and see what happens.
Things to take advantage of:
Freesound.org is a massive library of free audio and foley assets. Not all of it is the best, but there are so many gems and in a pinch in post it's usually a safe bet to check.
This shot list template is free and incredibly well organized. It’s made my life a lot easier and I have no plans to stop using it.
This screenplay template for Google Docs I used for all of my shorts before I got access to WriterDuet through a festival win last month. It’s served me well and it's the best one I’ve seen online.
David Sandberg's PonySmasher channel has so many invaluable tips and anecdotes from a filmmaker that has been successful with projects spanning the entire budgetary spectrum. I’ve even built and continue to use his shitty dolly.
To follow Home Burial’s production, me, and to find all of my work, follow me on Instagram @chinookproductions, TikTok @elijahanthonyf, and YouTube at Elijah Anthony F. You can also email me at email@example.com. If you have any questions, reach out!