Short Film Tips For Aspiring Filmmakers

May 3, 2024

Short films offer a unique platform for filmmakers to explore experimental storytelling techniques and poignant themes within a limited runtime. Often serving as a stepping stone for emerging talent, short films provide opportunities for creative expression and artistic innovation. Iconic short films like Nine Lives (2005), Two Cars, One Night (2003), and The Lunch Date (1989) are great examples of this, demonstrating that, with creativity, careful planning, and efficient execution, filmmakers can produce memorable short films.

In April, the 11th Annual International Short Film Competition of the Forum on Life, Culture & Society (FOLCS) held its award ceremony at NYFA New York, screening some of the most innovative short films on the festival circuit. From films that addressed inclusivity to immigration, the display of short films proved the effectiveness of the medium, with storytellers telling compelling narratives in a concise timeframe.

Best Short was awarded to Things Unheard Of by filmmaker Ramazan Kilic, a Turkish film about a girl who tries to reconnect with her grandmother. The film is available on Movistar Plus. In many cases, filmmakers start dream projects like Things Unheard Of as short films, using fewer resources to limit costs, and effectively coming up with a well-executed proof of concept.

While some filmmakers prefer to make short films, feature films like the horror film franchise Saw started as a short, as well as the animated film Marcel the Shell, and the award-winning film Whiplash. This helped the filmmakers iron out their vision, and have something to show production studios.

short film tips
Whiplash, which started as a short film, earned J.K. Simmons an Oscar.

Short Film Tips For Aspiring Filmmakers

While there is no perfect way to make a short film, there are some best practices. Here are some of our best tips for crafting an impactful short movie.

1. Simplify Your Story

Keep your productions realistic. 40 complicated shots in a 10-12 hour production day is not feasible. When creating a story for a short film, focus on stories that work in a few minutes. A good logline can help you focus your idea and keep you from wandering too far off course. If you can’t describe your story’s conflict in a basic logline, then you need to revisit your story. Your actual film’s running time doesn’t need to be that long, but you will be able to dramatize shorter events in a more grounded way.

In We are the Music by Guillermo Rosabal-Coto, which won 3rd Place at FOLCS, a protagonist dances for the majority of the film, posing the question, Do you know who you are in music? The simplicity of the film makes it more impactful, helping the audience fully resonate and connect with its message.

2. Work With Your Actors

Some actors may be more comfortable with ample rehearsal time, so make sure they know the time restrictions of your shoot. Try to shoot takes with alternate lines of dialogue, and if your cast is inventive, give them a chance to improvise. This can be especially effective in comedies.

When directing your actors, remember these tips:

  • Try to fit in a table read with your actors in advance. This will affect your story in ways you didn’t realize.
  • Let your actor know what their objective in each scene is.
  • Make sure you and your actor are on the same page about their character and their motivations. If you disagree, take a few minutes to discuss, listen, and compromise.
  • Be there for your actor. While some actors may prefer to do things their own way, most seek and thrive on direction, metaphorically speaking, even if it’s just pointing them the right way.
  • Blocking is very important not just for your framing but for the intensity of the scene itself. Work with your actors to find the right blocking for each scene–what feels right for them and what looks best for the camera.
  • Always provide lunch and plenty of coffee if you’re not paying your actors or crew.

In The Gold Teeth, a FOLCS submission, a daughter hires a dentist to remove her deceased father’s gold teeth. The blocking had to be set up strategically, as the film featured various family members surrounding a table with her father’s body. Careful planning ensured a successful shoot where the director and crew could capture every scene.

3. Communication is Key

When working on a film, make sure your schedules are detailed out to the minute. Plan accordingly – if you have multiple locations scheduled in one production day, then plan ahead for crew moves, break times, lighting setup, makeup blocking, etc. By having everyone’s contact information and communicating clearly where everyone is expected to be and when you can avoid unnecessary production delays.

A few important things to do when putting together the schedule:

  • Directions and expected travel times to the set.
  • Organize your days so you can shoot several scenes in one day.
  • If you have multiple locations, select the key location for the day and then find your other locations in the immediate area.
  • Be efficient in your scheduling, and don’t be afraid to shoot out of order or out of sequence.
  • Create a call sheet (a daily schedule) so actors and crew know where they need to be and when.
  • Host Zoom or in-person calls with your department heads so they can meet and discuss possibilities with you before the rehearsals and definitely before production begins.
  • Schedule your exteriors first—that way, if it rains, you have the option of delaying those scenes until the following day. And have a cover set (or interior) waiting to go so you can move inside and not lose a shooting day.
  • Always have a rain set (backup location in case of inclement weather).

All of these steps can help prevent delays in filming.

4. Get Cost-Effective Equipment

When selecting equipment for a low-budget short film, prioritize essentials based on your specific project needs. Opt for versatile and cost-effective options, such as entry-level DSLR or mirrorless cameras, which offer good image quality without breaking the bank. Consider utilizing natural light or affordable lighting kits, and explore budget-friendly audio solutions, like external microphones, to enhance overall production value within the constraints of your budget.

Additional tips include:

  • Put together an inexpensive but effective equipment list.
  • Test all the gear before you leave for the set. Once you’re on location, if something breaks and has to be replaced, you will lose valuable time.
  • Don’t be afraid to be inventive. You may not have a professional dolly, but some of the most inventive directors develop novel solutions that make their shots more interesting.
  • Ensure all batteries and other accessories are charged before the shoot, and spares are charged during the shoot.
  • Bring plenty of batteries for sound equipment (AAs)

Remember, with a short timeframe to shoot, every minute counts.

5. Be Creative with Cinematography

When it comes to cinematography, don’t be afraid of using natural lights if not everything is lit and bright. Often enough, beauty lies in the darkness. Silhouettes, high contrast, backlighting, and dramatic shadows can create a dynamic and powerful cinematographic look. You can even use your phone or cinematography apps to frame shots on location before bringing out the camera.

6. Prioritize Exceptional Sound

Bad sound is often said to be the hallmark of amateur filmmaking. If your audience struggles to understand what your actors are saying, there won’t be much room for emotional involvement. Whoever said, “We’ll fix it in post” must have had tons of money, so erase those words from your vocabulary. Keep sound in mind before you even begin filming–make sure the locations you choose and even the story you tell will make your sound recording as easy as possible. 

7. Make Hard Cuts 

In digital editing for a short film, leverage accessible software like DaVinci Resolve or HitFilm Express, which offer robust editing capabilities at no cost.

A few additional tips include:

  • Prioritize the efficient organization of your footage, making the most of available editing tools for seamless transitions, color correction, and sound editing.
  • Optimize your workflow by learning the fundamentals of the chosen editing software, ensuring a polished final product while keeping costs minimal.
  • When working in post-production, remember it’s okay to be ruthless- do not be afraid to cut, even if it means undoing work hours.
  • Always, always, always back up your project and footage in different locations.
  • Save often so you don’t lose time due to a computer error.

If you need to brush up on your digital editing skills, consider seeking additional education.

Go Beyond Short Film Tips at NYFA

While these tips will get you started with a short film project, in the long term, building essential knowledge in the craft of filmmaking is vital. Ready to learn more about pursuing skills in film? Explore NYFA’s film school today!