There are any number of reasons you might have a limited amount of time to create a short film (even from scratch), including intentionally for competitions like the Asian American Film Lab72-Hour Shootout. Time is one of the most valuable resources a filmmaker can have, so creating a short film in a crunch can be quite the challenge.
New York Film Academy has pooled advice from the chairs and faculty of our many different departments—including Cinematography, Producing,Filmmaking, and Digital Editing—to give a well-balanced list of offered tips and best practices for creating the best possible short film in a short amount of time:
Try to come up with a great idea that works in a few minutes. Keep the concept simple and focused. A good logline can help you focus your idea and keep you from wandering too far off course.
It is sometimes said that a short filmmaker has about 30 seconds to capture the audience’s attention, so try to start strong and don’t give them an excuse to stop watching. And don’t save your best for the end because the audience may never get that far.
A good starting point is to ask yourself a very important question: “What do producers do?” To answer this question, remember that there are different kinds of producers: A Line Producer is responsible for the physical aspects of production, also known as production management. Executive Producer, Co-Producer, and Associate Producer are specific titles that we often give to different people who are doing various things for the production. However, the person (or people) who receive “Produced by” credit is the person we refer to as the Creative Producer. This is the person who oversees the producing process from start to finish.
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. Moving locations can be a killer and waste tons of time. Try to group scenes together that use the same cast members and costumes. Be efficient in your scheduling and don’t be afraid to shoot out of order or out of sequence. 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.
When shooting a scene, start with your biggest shot first and then shoot all your closer shots looking in the same direction. Then turn around and, again, start with your biggest shot and work progressively closer.
Cast carefully. Allow your actors to contribute. If they’re inventive, give them a chance to improvise. Shoot takes with alternate lines of dialogue. This can be especially effective in comedies.
When directing your actors, remember these tips:
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, even if it’s just pointing them the right way, metaphorically speaking.
Or literally speaking! 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.
Put together a reliable crew that believes in you and is willing to work hard. Since you probably don’t have the money to pay them well, try to motivate them through inspiration. Make them believe in what they’re doing. And be generous with your praise. Everyone likes a pat on the back.
Set designers, costume designers, hair and makeup artists—they’re all waiting for an opportunity to show what they can do. So don’t be afraid to ask for favors—it’s a mutually beneficial relationship for everyone involved.
Put together an inexpensive but effective equipment list. Your story won’t be improved with more pixels, but you also don’t want your camera breaking down in the middle of your shoot. Test all the gear before you leave for the set.
Once you’re on location, if something breaks and has to be replaced, you’re going to lose valuable time. Don’t be afraid to be inventive. You may not have a professional dolly but some of the most inventive directors come up with novel solutions that actually make their shots more interesting. The same goes for lighting. If you don’t have the advantage of a professional lighting kit, then use the practical lights found in your location. Sometimes merely increasing the intensity of the light bulb in a household fixture is all it takes.
First of all: don’t panic. Even under the pressure of a limited amount of time, the quality of your image needs to be a priority. Don’t be afraid of using natural lights and don’t be afraid if not everything is lit and bright. Often enough, beauty lies in the darkness. Silhouettes, high contrast, backlighting, and dramatic shadows can create a very dynamic and powerful cinematographic look.
Work with the director to stage scenes in a cinematic way, keeping in mind the location you have and its possibilities. Don’t try to emulate a look you can’t achieve—find your own look and make it special for your film. Above all, believe in your film and enjoy the ride.
Sound, on the other hand, is another issue. Bad sound is often said to be the hallmark of amateur filmmaking. If your audience is struggling to understand what your actors are saying, there won’t be much room left for emotional involvement. So do everything you can, within your limitations, to get the best sound/dialogue recorded on the set. Whoever said, “we’ll fix it in post,” must have had tons of money, so erase those words from your vocabulary.
When working in post-production, remember these key tips:
Tell a story: Stories have a beginning, middle, and end. Keep the message of your film in mind at all times.
Less is more: Be ruthless and do not be afraid to cut, even if it means undoing hours of work.
Clip length: Varying your clip length will change the mood of your film. Every frame counts. Think about the effect you want to create.
Back up: Always, always, always back up your project and footage in different locations.
Shortcuts: Learn to say goodbye to your mouse and learn keyboard shortcuts to become a faster and more efficient video editor.
Music: Music can go a long way to positioning your audience. If your film is a drama, don’t step on it with goofy, comedic music. There are tons of copyright free music sites from which to choose, but don’t be afraid to reach out to composers. A composer will tailor the music to your film in a way that prerecorded music never will. There are many music schools and musicians that are hungry for an opportunity to work with you.
GENERAL PRODUCTION DO’s AND DON’T’s
Keep your productions simple. Limit the number of cast members. Limit the number of locations. Avoid big scenes with elaborate sets, costumes and props. Stay away from period pieces, children and animals—they are far too unpredictable. And be as professional as you can be. Although you may want to break the rules when it comes to content, there’s a good reason professional shoots are organized the way they are. The better prepared you are, the more likely you will capture your vision.
You can register for the Asian American Film Lab 72-Hour Shootout here.