What You Need to Know Before Making Your First Short

DP, Adam Carboni, frames a shot.Credit: Robert Gregson
This filmmaker takes you through pre-production all the way to the festival circuit.

This post was written by Robert Gregson.

I recently finished the festival run for my award-winning psychological thriller short, A Good Couple, and it just premiered online over at Film Shortage. From pre-production through post, here are some of the most useful things I learned throughout the process of making this film and my other shorts.

Check out the teaser below.

Pre-production

Workshop the Script & Vision

After a few drafts of the script, I shared it with a small circle of friends for feedback. I discovered that there were opportunities to remove exposition, change things about the characters to enhance the conflict, and clarify the logic of the film. I also mapped the story beats against Dan Harmon’s story circle, which helped me restructure the story so that certain beats came earlier, and the ending had more of a sense of calling back to the story’s start while showing a shift in the main character’s world.

Think about the page count. On a practical level, it’s easier for festival programmers to program a 5-minute film vs. a 20-minute film. There are a limited number of slots to fill at festivals and in order to schedule a long film, it means several other great short films aren’t going to get screen time. Those 20-minute films do get programmed, but they have to be incredible.

In addition to the script, building out a deck with images to communicate to collaborators how the film will look and feel is really helpful. The process of creating it will help you hone the film’s style. I also sometimes cut together mood reels for my films because music and tone can be hard to communicate just through words. Sharing all these materials with collaborators will also bring them into the world of the film. Many directors do this for commercials and features—here’s one from Hustlers.

Credit: Robert Gregson

Find Amazing Collaborators

Having a great team and a good vibe on set is everything. For me, the producer and director of photography are often the first people I bring onto a project, and in this case, my friend (and fellow director) Jacqueline Dow produced the film, and my friend Adam Carboni was the DP.

Try to collaborate with people who have more experience than you because you’ll inevitably learn things from them through the process. Jacqueline had tons of experience ADing and helped formalize the filming order and the way we would block and light scenes to maximize efficiency. I often DP commercial and corporate projects, but Adam has a deeper understanding of optics, lighting, and camera movement. Collaborating with him to communicate things visually is always one of my favorite parts of the process.

Casting would normally come after this, but on this particular project, I actually wrote the film for Julie Ann Earls, an actress I had cast in PSAs I directed for the UN. She’s got a wide range and excellent work ethic and was someone I knew would elevate the film. We both agreed Alex Mandell would be ideal as her eerily perfect boyfriend in the film. They knew each other, and I had wanted to work with Alex forever—he was great at inhabiting the uncanny vibe needed for the character. These happened to be actors I knew from previous experience, but you may be casting actors you don’t know. In that case, you can post on Backstage.com or reach out to actors you’ve seen in other shorts.

The rest of the crew was incredible as well. Tansy Michaud, who does graphic design on Severance, was our art director and elegantly transformed the space with limited resources. Our costume designer, Holly Rihn, recently made the shift from stage to television on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I learned a lot from her about layering, textures, and planning a narrative arc for the costumes through the film. In the opening, our main character starts in a dark, long sleeve shirt that covers her neck. When things seem perfect, she’s wearing a soft, white sweater. Every piece of the wardrobe was planned to reflect the story.

Special shout out to John Gebhart, Ambrose Carroll, and Evan Elwell for saving the day multiple times in the G&E/camera department. And to Jazmin Patiño for her excellent HMU work and attention to detail in assisting with costumes.

Previsualize

Before getting together with the DP, I’ll make notes on how I imagine each scene coming together. Sometimes storyboarding every shot is necessary, for visual effects or for an action sequence. Other times it’s enough for me to walk through the space with the DP and kind of act out the scene and imagine the actor and camera blocking.

is a visual medium, and it’s important to bake the concept of the film into the setting of every scene. Previsualization can help you come up with color concepts, rules for camera movement, the relationship between shadow and light, and other visual motifs. For instance, my film is about a doppelganger, and I created reflections and visual “doublings” at key points to underscore this narrative idea. I remember a great moment from Knives Out early on where the author is killed but the audience doesn’t know it yet—Rian Johnson does a circular dolly move around the character and lands on a frame with a dagger out of focus in the foreground.

This probably isn’t something they just found on the day, and it’s the kind of thing that subconsciously communicates what’s happening to the audience on a purely visual level.

Production

No Time Like the Present

You may have an idea for a film but are waiting for schedules, circumstances, or the weather to line up. After making many shorts, I feel comfortable saying that there’s never a good time to make one. However, once you put a date out there and have your core team set, a lot of momentum will gather around that. Having some degree of control over your locations is going to be a major part of the puzzle—we rented both the house and the cave where we filmed, so those major pieces of production were guaranteed to be ours on those dates.

Flexibility Is Everything

It’s important to plan everything and then be ready to adjust constantly to reality. When the generator for the cave sequence arrived on set, it didn’t work. While we worked on getting a different power source, I was forced to rethink how to cover all of the action completely out of order to prioritize portions of the sequence featuring the mouth of the cave since that would lose light first, and then shoot angles looking into the cave with our lights later to match.

Limit the Length of Shoot Days

Scheduling well is extremely important. It’s not only important for getting all the shots you need, but it’s also important to keep everyone sane on set. A good goal to aim for is 12 hours with 10 hours of turnaround before the next call time.

One thing I see and hear regularly on independent films is that the director had an unrealistic idea of how much they could fit in or that there was no attempt to simplify the coverage once it became clear that there was not enough time to achieve all the shots.

Post-production and Festivals

Workshop the Edit

After you’ve got every scene captured, hand it off to your editor along with a copy of the script and wait for the assembly. Even though you may guide your editor with selects of your favorite takes, it’s highly likely that you’re going to see this first version of the film and think you’ve made a horrible mistake. I’ve often felt this way looking at first drafts of my films.

Friends whose films eventually ended up at Sundance have expressed the same thing after seeing early cuts. This is normal.

This might sound odd, but listen to the film and let it tell you what it wants to be. Scenes will require complete rethinking and some might be fine as-is. Like you did with the script, workshop the edit. I have a lot of editing experience, and I actually edited my film, so having outside eyes was valuable.

I emailed the film along with an anonymous form via Survey Hero so people could feel free to offer constructive criticism. I discovered there were parts of the film where the score was ahead of the story, where viewers didn’t believe a character’s reaction to something, and that one aspect of the twist wasn’t clear, along with other valuable feedback. After several weeks, I removed about two minutes from the film, restructured the score, changed a character’s reaction, and added a visual and aural motif to key points in the film. The final edit will only be as strong as its weakest link, so feel free to lose anything and everything that isn’t working.

The Score

On many of my films, I’ve used source music, but on this film, I collaborated with Jerome Leroy who is an excellent composer. When I described what I wanted for this film, he knew that some of it could be achieved using digital libraries of instruments, but that portions of it needed to be scored using an orchestra.

He recommended hiring a Budapest-based orchestra for an hour to record portions of the score. He directed the orchestra remotely from LA while I was in NYC and the orchestra was in Europe. It was incredible to watch.

This isn’t going to be an option for many shorts, but if you need to record something live, it’s an interesting option that exists.

Consider Your Festival Premiere

I created a spreadsheet that allowed me to map all the festivals I was interested in against the due dates, notification dates, and festival dates. I chose a handful of “premiere” festivals to submit to first because many major festivals prioritize World Premieres of films. We premiered at Dances with Films in LA, and the film screened at Grauman’s Chinese Theater.

For the first time for any of my shorts, I hired a PR company to get exposure for the film. Shark Party Media handled PR and did an amazing job. This is really only something you would do after getting into a major festival, because the main thing they’re going to mention in the press release is the premiere along with any notable actors or other aspects of the film. The short got screening mentions in several major publications, received around 15 positive reviews from critics, and I did several interviews.

This is not 100% necessary or doable for most films, and I haven’t done it for any until this one, but it was all part of the process and worth sharing. The film went on to play nine other festivals and won Best Screenplay at Rhode Island International FF.

Aim high, but realize there are a ton of good films out there. I’ve found I have a roughly 15% acceptance rate for the festivals to which I’ve submitted.

Conclusion

If you haven’t made a short before, start small and just collaborate with friends. Read as much as you can and study other films. If you know people who have done it before, definitely pick their brains. If you have any questions, ask away in the comments.

And check out A Good Couple over at Film Shortage     

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