Asian American Film Lab

The Best Tips For Making a Short Film in a Short Amount of Time

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:

Story

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.

Come up with a story that can believably occur in a very short amount of time, even ten minutes. 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.

Actors


Cast carefully. Some actors may be more comfortable with ample rehearsal time, so make sure they know the time restrictions of your shoot.

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.

Producing

Make sure your schedules are detailed out to the minute and remember that communication between cast and crew is key. By having everyone’s contact information and by communicating clearly where everyone is expected to be and when, you can avoid unnecessary delays in production. Give them 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.  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

Equipment

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.

Make sure all batteries and other accessories are charged before the shoot, and spares are being charged during the shoot. Remember, with only three days to shoot, every minute counts and every delay needs to be avoided at all costs.

Acting Audition

Cinematography

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.  

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.  

Sound

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.

Keep sound in mind before you even begin filming–make sure the locations you choose and even the story you tell will be make your sound recording as easy as possible. If you can, have a good portion of your film dialogue free, with scenes that can use music or non-sync sound in their stead, as sync sound will always take longer to shoot.

Digital Editing

When working in post-production, remember it’s ok to be ruthless–do not be afraid to cut, even if it means undoing hours of work. Always, always, always back up your project and footage in different locations. Save often so you don’t lose any time due to a computer error. Learn to say goodbye to your mouse and learn keyboard shortcuts to become a faster and more efficient video editor–with only three days to make your film, every second counts!

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.

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Racial Inclusion – or the Lack Thereof – in Mainstream Media

By Jennifer Betit Yen, President of Asian American Film Lab

Inclusion and diversity have been trending in Hollywood, yet we are — or should I say we remain? — in an inclusion crisis.

Statistics about racial inclusion in film have remained stagnant since 2007, meaning that despite more light being shed on the issue through headlines, social media, and discussion, little real or consistent progress has been made over the past decade. Black Panther aside, we are still seeing a larger story that it is not an easy time to be an American actor or filmmaker of color. Frankly, there’s never really been a good time.

To put this in perspective, The Hollywood Diversity 2018 report states that only 1.4 out of every 10 leading actors are people of color. And USC Annenberg’s 2017 report on diversity the top 900 films shows the sad difference between diversity in the real world compared to the current state of representation in Hollywood:

  •      29.2% of all characters were from minority racial/ethnic groups, compared to 38.7% of the actual U.S. population coming from minority racial/ethnic groups.
  •      Despite the low number of minority characters in the top 900 films, 49% of the movie-going public who went to see these films come from minority racial/ethnic groups.

Clearly, these numbers are just not adding up.

And it’s not better behind-the-scenes: Annenberg found that there were only 30 Asian directors in all 900 films — and only two of those directors were women.       

From problematic classics such as The Good Earth and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where white actors played Asian characters, to recent major films that have made the problematic choices of casting white stars to play minority characters, actors and filmmakers of color are often shocked and confused by the choice to whitewash minority characters.[1] Strangely, as the population of Asian Americans in the United States has increased, our representation on TV and in film has decreased — the only racial group this was reported as happening to.

Yet study after study shows that, actually, diversely cast films and shows make far more money than homogenous shows. Yes! It’s true! Audiences are demanding diversity.

In an article in The New York Times, one journalist put it quite succinctly, saying, “Economics has nothing to do with racist casting policies. Films in which the leads have been whitewashed have all failed mightily at the box office. Inserting white leads had no demonstrable effect on [increasing] the numbers. So why is that still conventional thinking in Hollywood? For years, audiences have essentially boycotted these films, yet studios keep making them.”

Change is coming, though, and it’s coming from independent filmmakers who work outside of the Hollywood system to create original, diverse, and authentic films — and that’s why I work with the Film Lab. That’s why the Film Lab[2] is here. We create and produce our own content. We encourage our members to create and produce their own content. Content that is bold. Content that is innovative. Content that is — wait for it — diverse. Through the 72 Hour Shootout, an annual global filmmaking competition that gets winning filmmakers network mentorships, exposure and more, and with our incredible sponsors, we provide our filmmakers with platforms on which to exhibit and disseminate that content to a wide range of audiences –not just one homogenous ethnic group, but all audiences.

As U.S. women’s national soccer player Alex Morgan (who, coincidentally, was part of a wage discrimination lawsuit demanding equal pay for equal work) has said, “It’s all about learning to create your own success.” Alex Morgan is one of five players who brought a wage discrimination complaint against the U.S. Soccer Federation, as reported by Health Magazine (June 2016).

By making diverse films, we empower ourselves and, by extension, all of us. And by “us,” I don’t just mean Asian Americans. I mean Latinos. I mean African Americans. I mean Native Americans. I mean LGBT. I mean women. I mean men. I mean all of us. #ActionUnites

You know the saying, “If you can’t beat them, join them” right? Well, the economics show we can beat the inclusion crisis. The changing face of the entertainment media landscape shows we can beat the inclusion crisis. And the rise of diverse America shows we will beat the inclusion crisis.

We will make our own content and we will support other diverse content. And we will not support content from Hollywood in which Asian American and other diverse faces, characters, voices, and stories are excluded.

As rising filmmakers and storytellers, I encourage you to work hard to tell your story, raise your voice and show your face. So, go on. To the filmmakers out there with the tenacity, the passion, the power, and the talent: carpe diem!

***

Jennifer Betit Yen is the President of the Film Lab, a 501c3 dedicated to the promotion and support of gender and ethnic diversity in mainstream media.  She is also an actor (Search Party, Royal Pains, Film Lab Presents, The Beacon Street Girls), writer (The Opposite of a Fairy Tale) and producer (La La Land, My Not So subConscious, The Opposite of a Fairy Tale, Mirror Mirror). She has received mentions by The New York Times and Backstage Magazine, among others, for her work as an actor. Her film The Opposite of a Fairy Tale, a fictional take on elder abuse, sold out at MOCA and was an official selection of the 39th Annual Asian American International Film Festival, the Palm Springs Desert Film Society, the SAG-AFTRA Foundation NY Shorts Showcase, at the NYC Conference on Elder Abuse, at WOMANKIND, screened at HBO, and was licensed by the City of New York.  A graduate of Cornell University, and Boston University School of Law, Jen authors the blog Ethical is Beautiful.  Be Beautiful (www.EthicalIsBeautifulBeBeautiful.com) and enjoys boxing, fine vegan dining with her adorable husband and running with her also adorable rescue mutt.

[1] Check out the “Fairy Princess Diaries” blog for more on this topic.

[2] www.film-lab.org

Learn more about filmmaking at the New York Film Academy.