How to Avoid These Mistakes on Your First Short Film

Credit: Spencer Tuggle
I have a pretty different introduction into the world of film.

This post was written by Spencer Tuggle.

Becoming a director isn’t something I thought of as a kid. I liked watching movies as much as the next person, but it wasn’t something that I ever considered to be a career path that I would later pursue. 

I studied International Relations in college, and for my 20th birthday, my dad got me a GoPro. And so for the second half of school, I would make dumb videos with my friends and of my travels. 

I started my first full-time job after grad and the week I started was the week I finished editing a video I shot of me and my buddies’ month-long road trip hiking through national parks. I realized then that one; I hated my job, and two, I loved making videos. 

So I created a website, uploaded a few professional-ish videos that I shot with my GoPro, and began to reach out to anyone that I thought could benefit from my services. 

There was an illustration of Copenhagen above my desk at the time with the artist’s name, and so I Googled him, found his email, and sent him my pitch. A few emails and phone calls later, he agreed to pay for my travel to Copenhagen to shoot a video for him. 

That was the very beginning of this pursuit. For nearly three years, I would spend countless hours on YouTube learning how to shoot and edit. I upgraded to a more professional camera. I was constantly emailing small businesses, trying to connect with editors and producers at production houses and agencies, slowly getting freelance work, growing my portfolio, growing my network, and failing a lot. 

Those early days and early failures taught me how to set the right expectations with clients working in such a subjective field. It taught me how to become a better director, editor, camera operator. And each project and each failure taught me something new. 

When I look back on those early days, the biggest takeaway is just to not be so hard on yourself. There’s a reason why you got into this creative field, whether it be filmmaking, photography, music, painting, etc. 

And I don’t think most people, myself included in the beginning, are very proud of their work and promote their work and themselves nearly enough. 

It’s up to you to instill confidence in the people around you and the people you are trying to work with. Because if you don’t believe in yourself and your ability to perform, no one else will. So be proud of your work, own it, be kind to yourself and never stop promoting yourself and your work. 

My plan was always to build up a portfolio and grow my network, in order to get a full-time job in video production.

I thought that if I were to have that, then it would give me some security, I would be able to pick and choose the freelance projects I would take on outside of work, I would be learning from those who have been in the industry much longer than I have, and I would have time to be able to think about passion projects. 

So it wasn’t until I got my first full-time job in video production as an editor that I began to think about the end goal, which is to become a film director. 

Credit: Spencer Tuggle

And so I was living back where I’m originally from, Chicago. And I wanted to work on a project similar to that of my first-ever freelance gig in Copenhagen. I reached out to a bunch of artists in Chicago. Three of them agreed to be a part of this. And so I interviewed each of them individually for voiceover and then shot a roll of 16mm of each of them at work and then another roll of them in a studio setting. 

And because of the lessons that I learned making that short doc—called Profile PictureRunner is what it is today. 

With Profile Picture, I spent very little time in preproduction and I handled 95% of the entire production process. And it shows. I’m still proud of what I accomplished with Profile Picture. But because I didn’t spend nearly enough time in preproduction, it was really challenging to edit because I didn’t shoot for the edit and I didn’t have a clear vision for the end result. 

And by going about this project as I had done in the past, by being essentially a one-man band, I didn’t have enough time on set to really think about the vision I wanted to show and possible alternatives to shoot differently, to light differently, etc., had I assembled a small film crew or planned ahead and given myself the time I really needed. 

Credit: Spencer Tuggle
So when it came to writing and making Runner, I gave myself months to write the script, to hone in on my vision and how each scene will lead to the following, the music I want for a specific scene, time scouting locations, and overall tone, feel, and color of the project. 

I also knew that I needed to put a team together to make this happen, and so I hired a DP, AC, and sound mixer in order to allow myself to really focus on my vision and creative direction for the film while on set.

As for lessons learned while making Runner? We shot the short film in two days. Day one was all of the interior apartment scenes, and day two we shot in three different locations. Two being in Los Angeles and the third and final scene in Malibu. 

We ran into a few problems while on set that I did not anticipate. The first problem we ran into was the echo in the apartment. We were on a tight schedule and unfortunately didn’t have anything to completely omit that sound.

The next problem we ran into was on day two when we were shooting outside and there was an unusual amount of traffic right next to where we were filming. This one scene ended up being 10 takes due to the noise, which for big productions may not seem like a lot, but for a micro-budget short film on a tight schedule, that added time to our already packed schedule. 

The last problem we ran into was getting denied from our final shoot location. We wanted to shoot the final scene at a park that has a trail entrance via the road and not the official park entrance. When I came to scout locations, it was nearly empty. When we arrived, there was a cop at the start of the trail. Luckily, my AC knew of a trail a mile up the road and saved the day. 

I don’t think you can ever be too prepared to shoot your film. Problems will always occur that you never expected. If you have the time to test locations prior to the shoot day for sound as well as obtain permits if necessary, then that will ensure a much smoother production. 

Looking back I also would hire more crew, even for a small production. There were many times when a production assistant would have come in handy. The entire crew consisted of myself, my DP, AC, sound mixer, and talent who was kind enough to help out where she could. 

Runner being my first ever narrative I’ve directed, I am extremely happy with the end result. I think working on something that small is a necessary starting point before getting into longer and larger productions. 

I think that your last project, or at least your last passion project should be your proudest accomplishment in whatever creative medium you’re involved in. 

Someone asked me the other day, "What inspired you to write this story?" And I just felt like it was time to close this chapter in my life and share the early years of this struggle to make significant progress in this field. 

I think it’s really important for aspiring writers and filmmakers to write what you know. I know that’s nothing new. But if you write about something that carries weight and means something to you, it’ll be more genuine, more authentic to who you are, and you’ll likely be able to invoke that same emotion that you feel writing it with the audience watching the final film.     

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