Dreaming about shooting a feature? Or want to get more bang for your buck on your next short? Try these tricks!
Many filmmakers suffer from what I call Citizen Kane Syndrome: thinking their first feature film MUST be their magnum opus, the essence of perfection, or else it’s not worth making.
The problem is, this line of thinking is creatively paralyzing. I avoided even thinking about a feature for years because smart-filmy-people told me that if I wasn’t shooting with Zeiss CP2’s on an Alexa (or antique anamorphics on 35mm), then I wasn’t a “real filmmaker,” and I might as well quit now.
One crazy, oversimplified notion broke me out of that way of thinking—a hypothesis that goes as follows.
A short is just a short feature.
Think about it... think about it... yep, that checks out.
I didn’t have a filmmaking problem. I’d made about 30 shorts—well over 120 minutes of content. I had a problem with the way I was thinking about features.
It wasn’t just preemptive perfectionism keeping me down. It was the enormity of the task. It takes guts to make any film, and the feature is especially hard to fit in one’s head. So when I finally worked up the guts to try a feature I swung to an extreme.
“Since it’s impossible for me to do a feature, and I’m going to attempt the impossible, why not also attempt it in an impossible time-frame? Like... 24 hours. Is that possible?”
Not a sound syllogism. My logic teacher would be ashamed of me.
And yet, my curiosity pushed me over the edge. There are a lot of tricks and tools I either borrowed or made up to test this hypothesis, and I’m going to share a couple with you.
So, check your self-doubts at the door, strap on your ambitions, hold your story close—and your friends closer.
Because how I made my first feature film might just be how you make yours.
Save millions in the writing
“The easiest way to make a feature is to write a feature that’s easy to make.”
Who is the author of that genius quotation? I just made that crap up. But it’s true.
My first feature film (My Sisters) could have been a lot easier to make. It had about 40 locations and 20+ cast members, not my brightest idea. But despite those large elements, I did a few things in the writing that made it a lot more producible. Here are four of them, and you can watch them in action in the film on Amazon or Apple.
Genre/aesthetic can help reduce overwriting
Even though the general screenplay rule of thumb is “a minute a page,” and your average hour-long TV teleplay runs 45-55 pages, Aaron Sorkin’s West Wing scripts infamously found their way to 70+ pages on the regular. Why? Because he had his characters burn through dialogue at lightning speed.
But tone and aesthetic can have the opposite effect as well. An ethereal drama script might say, “Aisha sits in her car,” which might amount to five seconds of a screenplay page. But depending on what’s going on emotionally with Aisha in the scene, that moment might run a full minute.
And a full minute is one 90th of a feature.
Only 89 more to go.
So, think about the emotional reality of your characters and feel free to let certain scenes breathe.
I have written two different three-page scripts that ended up being 10-minute short films. So knowing that, I intentionally wrote My Sisters as a roughly 73-page script, which I knew would run at least 100 minutes for a rough cut, and ultimately 90 minutes for a final cut.
Yes, this made tracking my structure challenging. But if I had forced myself to write 90-120 pages, the final film would have been 2.5 hours!
A master location
About 30% of the film takes place in one room, with one lighting setup. Three to four women sit around a table at a support group meeting.
I wrote a non-linear story so I could return to this master location throughout the film, but there are hundreds of other ways that your story can justify characters reusing locations. The more you do this, the fewer the company moves, and the more money you get to spend on screen.
I’ve always loved realism vs. formalism, and I imagined My Sisters in the long takes that come with realism as I was writing.
Items that require more time when filming might include:
- An abundance of camera movement
- Focus pulls
- Complex performance elements
- Oners and one-shot scenes. These can actually hurt your production clock, because if it’s not super simple, it can take a ton of takes to get it right. On the other hand, if you simplify some of those elements in the storytelling, you can end up covering several minutes of a film in just a few takes.
Write around the dead weight
Finally, you can make your feature affordable the same way Blumhouse does it: reduce your number of locations, reduce your number of (speaking) roles, and reduce or eliminate your VFX elements. Those are all elements you can control when imagining the story you want to write next.
In the case of My Sisters, I replaced a gun/gunshots with a knife and had to simplify my action elements in a big way. It made me sad, but I would have been sadder if I had to give up on the film entirely because I was trying to do too much.
In summary, you’re going to have to carry everything you create. I’m not necessarily asking you to compromise your story; you may just want to consider a story that enables you to travel a bit lighter.
Shoot smarter, not harder
I was as surprised as the next Canadian-Texan to learn that working smarter might mean working harder upfront to ultimately make your production run smoother.
A film can’t work without delegating. However, I’ve delegated projects where it didn’t come out the way I wanted it.
So, how do you circumvent confusion and empower your team to capture the shots as you’ve envisioned them?
Surprise! If someone didn’t capture what you wanted, odds are there is some communication that could have fixed the problem. Here are the ways I took communication to an extreme for My Sisters in an attempt to keep shots from falling through the cracks.
I’ve tried to do these for every project I’ve made, whether I’m partnering with a storyboard artist or just doing my own (ridiculous-looking) stick figure boards.
Photographs as Storyboards
Starting on my film Privacy, where I had access to the location during prep, I decided to shoot all my boards as photographs, with stand-ins.
While a great storyboard artist is worth their weight in gold, I repeated this photographic approach for My Sisters because it helped me to assemble a mass amount of boards in a short amount of time.
And while I’m already there with a camera and stand-in(s), why not roll the camera a little bit?
For My Sisters, because I would be running multiple units, my DP Edward Digges and I opted to actually film our photographic storyboards so I could cut together a crappy edit that would help give our unit directors a sense of camera and actor movement.
It doesn’t matter if it looks like crap if you nail framing, camera movement, and actor blocking, if possible.
So, it worked out perfectly because I did all of this prep, right?!
Blindspots are inevitable, which is why it’s essential to surround yourself with people who will question you and support you.
My 2nd Unit Director Tiffany Murray articulated one of my blindspots on My Sisters perfectly.
“I felt pretty prepared, but what maybe would've been even more helpful is a master storyboard. Not just a shot list, but drawn out key-frames. Also, maybe some kind of master shot list document that each unit has access to mark off scenes/shots as we went, to ensure we had every single shot we needed before moving on to the next location.”
First off, I want to recognize that the master shot list/document is genius. A live, visual script supervisor-esque tool. Can someone invent that, please?
But second, did you catch it? I already told you the boards existed, right?
But I only gave each unit director their scenes.
I didn’t distribute the entire film to every unit director and, as a result, did not fully prepare my team for this massive shoot day! I had failed to share the entire vision with my team!
In a perfect world, I would have hired my unit directors/camera team to spend several weeks before filming to review and ingest the live animatic, to know the film by heart before production. Otherwise, it’s too easy to lose track in the heat of filming!
So don’t just create these tools, but build in time to make sure the team has them and can utilize them!
Bank on it
I’d be remiss if I didn’t say at least a little bit about the cash money piece of trying to make a movie.
Hae Ji Cho, fellow producer on My Sisters who inspires me to no end, said it best: “Many of us get intimidated by the budget of making a film, but this art form shouldn't be available only to the ultra-privileged."
There are all sorts of ways to cut down that budget.
- Speak to your local community members to find affordable (or free) locations
- Get to know your crew and talent and learn their strengths
- Listen when those around you express concerns or suggest ideas
- Always have strong back-up plans
- Clearly communicate your vision to your department heads
- Remember you don't need a RED camera
- Encourage the director to rehearse with talent before production starts
- And make sure the director knows what they want when D-day rolls around
"Just never skimp on food, safety, or kindness," Hae Ji Cho added.
One could spend a whole masterclass just unpacking that one statement, but even, in summary, it is a fantastic reminder that might help you dream big.
I’ll have to cover this more in another article, but you’ll notice when you watch My Sisters that I knew exactly what my "money shots" were going to be.
I knew I couldn’t make every shot equally cinematic, so I aimed to invest in specific scenes, moments, and shots to create tone and set a visual bar for the production value.
Let the film be your guide—see if you can find those shots and moments in My Sisters, and think about how you can craft your own!
When I came to Hae Ji, neither she nor I were sure we could pull off My Sisters with inadequate resources, but we adopted a specific framework and mindset which enabled us to reassess our obstacles and turn them into assets.
But that’s a story for another time.
If you’re looking for a deeper dive into some of the systems we created to try to pull this production off, you can sign up for Justice Creative’s email list here, where we will share things like:
- Do I make a short or a feature next?
- Can a bad feature be a good first step?
- Building the dream team
- So you shot a feature: paddling through post
- Distribution: why and how
- All the things I wish I’d done on my first feature
I hope this stuff brings you a step close to the edge of diving in!
The truth is, I could never have made My Sisters without a brilliant, committed cast and crew fueled by positivity and determination. For that reason, I’ll leave with you the words of co-producer Brit Kinnard, who distilled our experience down to this brilliant acorn:
"Nothing is impossible with a team that believes in a shared dream."
It’s your job to create the vision, prep the vision, embody the vision.
Then you can share the dream.