General Filmmaking

How to make a Short Film for Beginners

How do you make a short film? By starting.

Start by watching the following video:

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Often I hear advice like this:

Pick a camera and shoot something.

Anonymous armchair warrior

The problem is, no one tells you what that “something” is. If you don’t know what you want to shoot, why should you even bother with the camera?

So why don’t we turn this advice around, and start with “something”?

1 The importance of passion or curiosity

Young Steven Spielberg had something he wanted to capture. He wanted to film his train sets wrecking each other so he could watch it over and over again.

The camera his father gave him was just a means to that end.

Filmmakers are storytellers. Something doesn’t have to be a detailed script or complex story. It can just be a simple idea, or even an image:

ikujirô no natsu (1999)

Actor and filmmaker Takeshi Kitano started with the above image and then created a story around it.

How do you find this “something”?

The “something” can be anything you are passionate or curious about.

Why I don’t like the advice above is because it puts the camera ahead of this thing you are passionate or curious about.

Why don’t we change that? Here’s a revised draft of the advice:

Pick something to shoot with a camera.

Anonymous armchair warrior steps into the real world.

That’s better. Now you have a beginning.

But there’s more.

2 Put it in words

Pen or paper…typewriter…laptop or mobile phone…the choice is yours.

Pick something free like Google Docs and write a script. Lots of free templates out there.

Should you worry about Hollywood formatting? Of course not! That’s like worrying about what you’ll wear for your wedding on the first date.

The script is what gets others excited. You can talk all you want, but film professionals and actors need scripts (except in India, where actors don’t read anything).

The trick is to get your script out to people you think will matter.

Which brings us to the next step:

3 Get feedback

A lot of filmmakers write one draft of the screenplay and think that’s it. It’s perfect because it felt like a lot of effort.

I’m sorry to break this to you, but writing is rewriting. You write till you can’t make a difference to your script.

Then show it to as many professionals as you can.

Tip: Don’t show it to people who can’t read scripts or understand film language.

Finding the right group to show your script to takes years, and is a fluid process. If you don’t know anyone, show it to the people you want to work with.

Another tip: Keep your short film under 15 minutes if you want to send it to festivals. The higher the screen time the costlier it gets, and the lesser the festivals you can send it to later.

Filmmaking is easy to learn, but hard to do. You can learn everything in about a month, but it will take a lifetime of effort to get good at it.

The trick is:

4 Find your crew

There are already people out there – very talented people – who can help you bring your passion to life. Go find them.

Beg them. Motivate them. Excite them.

Here’s a secret: Filmmaking is half sales and marketing.

Look for people who need you just as badly as you do them. Look for people who understand your passion or who are just as curious as you are. 

Ignore those who insist they are doing you a favor. It might be true. But the person who puts it in words isn’t really the kind you should be working with.

Stay away from negativity and be positive.

Getting good talent on board is one of the important skills a filmmaker should have. If you give up here you might as well give up filmmaking.

Tip: If this is hard for you, team up with a friend who can help you grease the wheels.

5 Find your actors

The most important people you will recruit are the actors.

After you die the actors will live on in your film. The only way people will remember your message or your joke or your cool idea is through them.

Most people watch films for the actors. That’s always been the case, you can agree or disagree but it is what it is. Actors have a power that’s proven itself over a hundred years.

This is what we end up with:

Pick what you’re passionate about and find people who can help you bring that vision to screen.

Anonymous armchair warrior is now battle scarred.

6 About that money thing…

Depending on how much money you have, or have left, you can spend on production design and locations, and costumes and hair and makeup, because all of this is preserved for posterity to see and judge.

Beginner filmmakers don’t really have a lot of money for these, but they’re important.

Try to give time for them. Look for deals. When you don’t have money, get creative.

If you have anything left, then maybe you can think about the camera.

Watch most interviews of great directors, and very few of them talk about cameras or specific brands. Maybe as a beginner you should take a cue. If your team is good, and your actors are good, and you have a good script, it all comes back to passion, and that first big idea you had.

If you have an Arri Alexa in your hand and you point it at shit, it’s still going to look like shit. But when you have something really worth it, even a cheap DSLR can do wonders.

Here’s some help, if you want it:

And that’s how you make a short film!

A lot of passion, a lot of energy, surrounding yourself with the best crew and cast you can find, and then watch the magic happen.

When there’s passion and positive energy fueling a project, things have a way of working out by themselves.

The trick is to just get started.