How To Make Your First Short Film by Lorenda Starfelt

The goal with shorts is to keep it simple. Simple story, a handful of
characters and just a few locations. If you do that, you can make your
movie for under a few thousand dollars. How low you can get your
budget depends upon how creative you are, how simple your script is
and what resources you personally have. With some critical thinking
and good producing, you might even keep it under a thousand.

The way to keep your budget down is to put together a project that can
shot in one or two days. The key to creating a genuinely professional
short is to hire highly experienced professionals in key roles –
namely, your DP and your editor. These two people will take up the
bulk of your budget.You also want highly experienced actors on board.
You, as director, must be comfortable with people who know vastly more
than you do about what they are doing.

The first step in a movie project is a script. You can either write
one or buy one. Writing one requires talent that someone who wants to
direct may or may not have. Buying one takes money and drives your
budget up.

If you decide to purchase one, you should keep the purchase price to
under a few hundred dollars. If the writer wants more than that, move
on. With a little work though, you can find a writer itching to get
their work produced, who will allow you to shoot their script in
return for a small sum of money, partial ownership or a combination of
the two. This is a very good deal for the both of you. The best place
to find a script is to put an ad up on Craig’s List or on the numerous
screenwriting sites out there. Under compensation, state “to be
determined” – give yourself as many options as you can.

The advantage to writing your script is that you can gear it
specifically to your local and personal resources – locations, actors,
props and/or prosthetics. If you have access to something exceptional,
you can build a short around it. The drawback is that you may very
well be a lousy writer and you will doom your career. This is a very
big problem and the odds are better than not that you don’t write well
enough to sustain even a short.

We’ll get into screenwriting on another page and provide some very
specific pointers.

READ AND WATCH BEFORE YOU BEGIN

I’m amazed I have to say this, but one of the things I have learned is
that a lot of film makers jump in without really understanding the
form of screenplays. Before you begin writing your own script or
searching for one to buy, you must know what a good script reads,
looks and sounds like. To that end, you need to watch a lot of shorts.
After you have the form thoroughly absorbed into your system, you need
to read a lot of short scripts. Getting to know what good dialogue
looks and reads like on the page requires reading a lot of scripts
with good dialogue. For that, read as many Academy Award Best
Screenplay nominated scripts as you can. Good dialogue has a
particular look on the page. It doesn’t have structured sentences.
Questions and answers don’t always meet up.

THE SCRIPT

Whether you are purchasing a script or writing one, you want to begin
by determining what your resources are. Locations are a nightmare for
low budget films, so you want to draw up a list of what locations
would be available to you for free. Your home, your mom’s home, your
dad’s garage and backyard, maybe your place of business, a local pub
or diner that knows you well and would indulge you on this. Think
about what actors you know or who would be willing to be in your
short.

If you have a good script and you’ve organized your project in a
reasonable fashion, then you’ll be able to get the production personnel
on board to turn out a high quality project. If your script isn’t really good,
then that isn’t going to happen. Oh, and unless you’ve bagged Fry and
Laurie, improvisation is almost always unwatchable. If you can’t get it
together to either write a real script or have one written by a real writer,
then you aren’t ready.

What To Avoid in the Script

Don’t create a story and then assume that you’ll find the locations
cheap. Lots of places will want insurance and insurance will run you a
few thousand dollars. Avoid story lines that have schools,
restaurants, hospitals, retail stores, court rooms and jail cells –
getting those locations without insurance and a big fee is very, very
difficult. If you have direct access to some of those locations, make
sure that they’ll let you film there before you proceed.

Avoid story lines that have lots of extras – getting extras is always
a difficult proposition without money. What you should do for your
extras is promise that when you get your project on the IMDb, you will
give them a character name so that they appear to be more than an
extra. Everyone loves having their name listed in the IMDb.

Avoid story lines with children unless you are already close to the
parents. This is an area where you could wind up in a lot of expensive
trouble.

Avoid story lines with senior citizens unless you know some who would
be interested in acting or you live near a thriving live theatre
district.

Avoid story lines with special effects unless you have a friend who is
a special effects artist that agrees with you upfront on what you want
to do (this is someone else that you may have to share ownership and a
producer credit with – depending upon the amount of work they do).
Avoid story lines that involve prosthetics (aging, wounds, etc) unless
you know a budding make-up artist looking to build a reel.

Avoid story lines that require costumes unless you have access to the
costumes already.

Avoid story lines that involve car chases, explosions and gun fights.
These are scenes that will require insurance and quite possibly
expensive supervision (easily $150 an hour with an eight hour minimum)
by the local police department. Even if you shoot on your property,
there is a fairly good chance you’ll be shut down if you alarm the
neighbors in any way.

Avoid story lines with stunts. The guys on Jackass have money and
insurance. You don’t. If someone gets hurt, it will be a catastrophe
for you personally.

I’m sure that as time goes on there is a lot that will be added to the
“avoid” list. It all goes back to assessing what it is you can get for
free and building your first few projects around those assets.

What To Look For In The Script

What you do want is a script that requires very few locations and a
handful of actors. If it’s a choice between a story with two actors
and a story with five – go with the two. Keep it under ten pages – a
seven to eight page script is ideal for your first few projects. The
dialogue should be crisp and most of it should be under a sentence and
a half. No monologues until you know what you are doing.

If there are outdoor scenes that would need to be shot in a public
park or parking lot, you want to do a little research. Talk to your
local authorities and find out what the film permit requirements are
for a micro-budget shorts – if they charge for the permit and if they
require insurance. Emphasize that you aren’t going to have trucks,
booms and lighting, and that your cast and crew is tiny. A lot of
localities will allow you to get by under those circumstances without
a permit. If this is case in your area, find out what locations the
city and county will allow you to shoot in without charge or concern.

THE BUDGET

The goal here is to keep your first budget under a few thousand
maximum. With a few personal resources, you can even bring it in
comfortably under $1000.

The Script

If you purchase the screenplay, you want to keep the cost under $300.
Your first short is no place to be parting with big bucks. There are
plenty of really, really good screenplays out there, written by
really, really good writers who just want something produced. That’s
what you’re looking for. Be firm. Offer them some money, partnership
in the project (at least 1/3) and perhaps a full producing credit in
exchange for the script.

Director of Photography

You want a DP with a lot of experience and because your script is so
short, you’ll be able to find someone reasonably. Unless you have a
camera, you’re looking for someone who has their own 3 chip digital
camera and a basic light kit. In Los Angeles, you can hire someone
like this for $250 a day – sometimes less. You’re only going to be
shooting for two days maximum. This is a person who will prevent
numerous mistakes, make sure that your footage looks professional and
that it can be edited beautifully. No beginners or students in this
role.

Grip/Pa

If you have to hire someone for this job, you should plan on spending
no more than $75 a day max. You aren’t going to get a lot of
experience, but you will get someone who needs the credit for their
resume. If you can get a buddy or two to pitch in instead, great.
Perfect. This isn’t a technically complicated film so mostly you need
someone who can take orders from the DP.

Catering

If you can get your mom, your dad, or you best friend to cater this
short – great. You want big, tasty meals, with a killer desert and
lots of beverages and snacks. Put aside a couple hundred for this.

Sound

For this project, you are going to run the sound through the camera
but you still need external mikes. A microphone on a stand run through
a small mixing board will give you good sound. Bought new, the
microphone and stand will run around $100. A mixing board will start
around $50. Depending upon where you are, a boom operator with equipment can be had for $125 a day with a little searching and luck.

Make Up
If there is a make-up artist who wants to throw in with you for their
reel – great. If not, don’t sweat it. Don’t pick a script that has any
make-up demands. The men don’t need to wear make-up and the women can do their own. Let the actors know this before the audition just in
case they have issues.

If you have to hire a make-up artist, they must have a FULL KIT. This
is going to run you $150 a day. Students, unfortunately, aren’t
likely to have the kit but that’s where you should start. If you hire
a student, it’s still a good idea to give them $50 for their time.

Costumes

You shouldn’t have any elaborate costume demands the first few times
out. This is a good place to hire a theatre student in exchange for
screen credit and a stipend (maybe $150 for the whole project). You
may need to pick up a few items of clothing, but hopefully it won’t be
any more expensive than the local thrift shop. A costume from a
professional costume shop will run somewhere between $25 and $300 (or
maybe more) for the day. A theatre major at a local college may have
access to the school’s costumes.

This is job that will require some running around, so there will be
gas receipts to pick up. Additionally, any costumes used in the film,
whether from the actor’s personal wardrobe or from the costumer’s
resources, will need to be dry cleaned or laundered.

Editor

The editor is another place where you want someone with vast
experience. A good editor can patch up any mistake you made, clean up
performances and turn your humble effort into something more watchable
than even you imagined. In order to get someone really good for cheap,
you’re going to refrain from burning tape and have no more than 2
hours footage when it’s done. They’ll also do titles for you and lay
in sound and music. You want to budget somewhere between $500 and a
$1000 for this. Your editor must have his own system, and have a
substantial number of credits. As with the DP, you want to check their
references. The editor does not need to be local.

Composer

The composer is another one who does not need to be local. This is
another place where you can afford to have a student. Put the ad up as
a no-pay gig, but budget in $200 just in case.

Miscellaneous

You want to pick up the gas receipts for the pa’s and anyone else who
is running around on your behalf. There may be some specific props you
need. Extension cords – it’s impossible to have too many. Ask the DP
if there is anything he/she doesn’t have that they require on their
end.

CASTING

First rate people work with first rate people. Second rate people work
with third rate people. It’s scary for a new director to work with
experienced actors. But just as you want a DP and an editor who are
experts at what they do, so to do you want actors who know their craft
inside and out.

Another note here – do not cast your friends unless they are part of
the impetus to make the short. Tell them straight up that you aren’t
hiring friends unless they are professionals. They’re welcome to come
audition but that’s as much as you’ll commit to. Your friends will
frequently behave badly the nearer you get to production – you don’t
want them sabotaging your project in some way. A wise producer once
told me that I would not come out of my first production with the same
set of friends I went into it with. He was right. And you won’t
either.

Casting is really easy if you live in Los Angeles, or New York or
London. Not so easy if you live in Red Bud or Zig Zag.

There are a few myths about casting, actors and acting that hurt indie
filmmakers:

1. Acting doesn’t require training. It’s just pretend.
2. Naturalism is the purest and most sophisticated style of acting.
3. Theatrically trained actors are too over-the-top for film.
4. If a role calls for a pretty girl, she doesn’t need to be able to
act – she’s just there as eye candy.

Acting is a craft, just like welding or carpentry. The more of it
you’ve done, the better you’re likely to be. There are a handful of
people who are simply brilliant from the get go. Your chances of
finding one of them are somewhere between slim and none.

Naturalism is great. DeNiro in Taxi Driver. Brando in Last Tango in
Paris. On the other hand, some projects call for more stylized acting
– Nicholson in The Shining, Peter Lorre in M and Nicol Williamson in,
well, anything he has ever done. You want to choose your performances
based on the needs of the script and the world you hope to create.
Naturalism is just one more stylistic cliche.

Theatre training provides actors with tools so that they can adjust
their needs to the piece. If someone seems over the top, ask them to
make it smaller. They’ll know how. Actors without theatre training are
less likely to have the confidence, or the range of experience to make
the bold choices you’ll want them to make.

No film has ever failed because the pretty girl was just too fine of
an actor. On the other hand, lots of projects have gone down because
some director or producer got it in their head that the only
qualification for the lead actress, or a pivotal supporting actress,
is that she be really hot. The viewer’s attention to the film does not
stop when a pretty girl walks in view. However, if you cast a model
that cannot act, you may well be sabotaging your own film. Don’t do
it. For every pretty girl who can’t act, there is an equally pretty
one who can. Your job is to find her – it won’t be difficult.

Finding Actors

Posting a casting notice in a major city is easy. In addition to
whatever local resources are available, there’s Backstage – both the
magazine and the online site – as well as Craig’s List, mandy.com and
nowcasting.com.

It’s when you live out of the way that it gets a bit trickier. You
should use all of the above resources, as well as develop a few of
your own. If you have local theatre companies, that’s going to be your
first resource. The next is your local college – even if it doesn’t
have a theatre department. If you have middle aged or older charaters,
you should definitely post those notices at the local theatre
companies and schools as well. Some of the instructors at the school
might have just the background you’re looking for. I’d also put
notices up at local libraries and coffee shops. For a greater range of
seniors, post a notice at the local senior citizen center.

If you live a few hours away from a major city with a thriving theatre
and art scene, it might be worth your while to cast from that
community. You’d have to provide a couple night’s lodging while you
are shooting, but it could expand the pool of talent you have to draw
on enormously.

In your casting notice, state the character’s name and description –
keeping it as open as possible. You want to get as many submissions as
you can so that you can choose who you see. State that if they don’t
have a head shot, they should send a good snapshot with a straight on
view of their face. Their submission – whether it’s a formal headshot
or a snapshot – should look professional. They should be attractively
dressed, well groomed and appear to be relaxed and comfortable in
their own skin.

You’ll get a huge amount of submissions – your first choice is always
going to be actors who have professional experience. An actor who is
Equity is someone who is likely to be very good – not always, but the
odds are very high. You want to avoid anyone who’s theatrical training
comes from a modeling school.

With legal pad in hand, and 5 minute time slots listed down the page
– call the actors you want to see and set up the auditions. A lot of
them may want to talk to you for a few minutes, indulge them. Get a
sense of who they are and whether you like them or not. It can’t hurt
and it may help you if you have to choose between a couple different
people. As for the audition, tell them you want them to do a monologue
that they know inside and out – it can be from theatre, television, or
something they wrote themselves. Also, ask them to bring a copy of
their headshot with them as well. Write their name and phone number
down beside the time you expect to see them (you’ll have the headshots
with you in the audition space. The notepad list goes with your
casting assistant who will check people in – so be careful not to make
any notes on it).

My favorite way to audition people is to have them perform a one
minute monologue that they know inside and out and are really
comfortable with – preferably similar to whatever role they are
auditioning for. The reason to do it this way is that it allows them
to show you what they can do when they have total control over the
piece. It’s very hard to get a sense of the actor’s range with sides.
It just doesn’t provide the kind of substance necessary for a one
minute audition – and, as I said in the beginning, you’re going to be
avoiding monologues in this piece. You want to know if they can act,
and this is the best way to find out quickly. It’s totally irrelevant
that they may have had weeks to prepare it. If they can do the
monologue beautifully, they can probably do your short well also. Bad
actors don’t become good actors, simply because they have weeks or
years to rehearse something.

Audition Day

You’ll most likely need a couple days to see an adequate number of
people. You’ll want a space with two rooms – a lobby with seating and
another room for the auditions themselves. You’ll need an assistant
for the day – someone to check the actors in, and send them in to the
audition. You’ll want to provide the assistant with a small card
table, a chair, and the list of actors you are expecting. You’ll want
a table and chairs for yourself and anyone else who is joining you
inside as well as notepads and pens. I like having the headshots
stacked in the order in which people are scheduled.

When the actors walk in the room, introduce yourself. Be friendly and
warm. Ask them if they have any questions – most of them will be
nervous and say no. Ask them what they are going to do, and after they
tell you, tell them to start when they are comfortable.

Chances are good that the audition piece will have obvious flaws. The actor
may even indicate that he/she would like to try it again. Even if you have
never worked with an actor before, there are several questions you can put
to them which will help move them in a better direction. There are:

1. what is your character trying to do?

If the actor responds with these words “well, the scene is about” or
“well, he is being” or “well, the person that they’re talking to is..”
– stop them immediately, and say no. What is the character trying to
ACHIEVE? and make them answer that question. While you’re doing this,
act as if you know the answers. If you’re an experienced director, you
do know the answers. If you aren’t, act as if you do, because the
actor wants you to know the answer. After they’ve answered that
question, then you want to ask…

2. What’s the character’s action? or idiomatically, “how is the
character trying to achieve their objective?” or, more precisely,
“through what means is the character trying to effect the character
with whom they are interacting?”

Examples, through seduction? By trying to humiliate them? by trying
to destroy them? by trying to appeal to their sense of charity? whatever.

Once the character has answered the fundamental question of action,
change the physical dynamics of the scene a little bit. If they’re sitting
make them stand. If they’re standing, make them lay down. If they’re
using some bad accent, have them drop the accent. If they’re rambling,
ask them to stand still, not move a muscle and focus. You can always
count on the fact that the actor is taking longer to do the scene than
they should. Tell them to lose the pauses. Speed it up. If they’re
obviously feeling physically awkward, throw them wadded up towel and
ask them to pretend as if they’re kneading bread – give them something
to do with their body. Then ask them to do the scene again.

If you’ve never directed an actor and following these directions
scares you, bear in mind that the actor is there to please you. Even
if you mess up, you really haven’t lost anything. You can have the
actor do it a third time or call them back. And the more actors you
see, the more experienced you’ll become. And your technique of working
with actors will develop accordingly. Besides, these are questions you
should be asking yourself – what is the character’s objective? What is
the action of the scene? What are the moments?

Which leads us to the final aspect of all this – the moments of the
scene are all important. The technical term for this is “a beat”.
Where the action shifts from A to B. Let say the character is being
defensive, mouthing off to his mother and denying her accusations. The
mother produces an incriminating photograph and the son or daughter
bursts into tears. That’s a beat. That’s a moment. The character now
has to shift from denial to some other behavior. Scenes are filled
with beats – you should identify them and make sure the actors
identify them. What you can say to an actor auditioning or about to
film a scene, “hit the beats”. The trained actor will know that you are
looking for them to be mindful of changes in action, and the scene will
automatically improve.

REHEARSAL

Rehearsals are all-important. The proper rehearsal of a scene will save
precious time on production days. Rehearsal also provides you with an
opportunity to make sure your actors are interesting – that is, making
interesting choices. Lots of new directors shy away from experienced
actors and that’s a disaster. You want the best trained cast you can get
and too many neophyte directors don’t bother. Charm matters for both
good guys and bad. Audiences need a reason to say with a story and care
about what happens. Casting an actor who possesses charm, and
encouraging them to use it will infuse your scenes with magnetism.

HIRING DP’S AND EDITORS

What you want to look for in a DPs reel is composition and lighting –
are the shots composed in an interesting fashion? Is the lighting flat
or are there shadows and highlights? Is the footage interesting to
look at? Does it affect you emotionally? Am I being “brought into”
the action? And, most importantly: Is the story being told in visual terms?

This last question is an all-important key to selecting an editor,
many of whose reels will contain a plethora of fast image-cutting, set to “action
music” scores. It may seem flashy at first, but will indicated nothing about
the editor’s ability to cut together scenes with multiple actors, scenes where
as many as five or six character play key parts, or to tell a coherent story.
This proposition becomes even more difficult when one or two of those actors
are not making the grade. How does one fix those substandard performances
without affecting the performances that work? In choosing an editor and DP,
you must ask to be a broad range of work before making your choice.

A couple of tips:

1. Don’t overshoot your master shots. Rehearse them, then try to keep the
number of takes limited to no more than four. Why? Because you have very
limited time, and you don’t want to burn it all on master shots when you’re
going to be needing a lot of time to get your coverage. And coverage is what
your editor will be needing later on to bring the scene to life. You wouldn’t believe the number of indie filmmakers who shoot 20 mastershots and then virtually no coverage. There is nothing an editor can do with that, and if it’s imperfect, you’re stuck.

2. Hire a good editor and let them do an assemblage, unsupervised by you.
They are the expert, not you, and all you’re going to do is make the whole process
take twice as long as it needs to be. When the assemblage is ready, then go through
it and provide copious notes. Continue this process until the edit is almost ready,
then work side by side with the editor until completion is at hand.

3. If there is any chance that someone other than you will be editing, slate all your takes. It makes organizing footage much, much easier.

4. Let the shot roll on a couple seconds past where you think you need it. It just gives you more space in post.

As a producer, my big piece of advice is to make certain your actors know their lines. You want them totally off book and able to do anything with their dialogue. Then rehearse them several different times. If you know your locations, work your blocking out before you get on the set. If there is no time for that, then work your blocking out before you start shooting. Don”t waste tape on that. Also, don’t shoot your rehearsals – just don’t. If there is no time left for rehearsal, then have some speedreads on the set. No acting, just running through dialogue as fast as possible. If you have actors who are on set, but who aren’t shooting, encourage them to rehearse. Rehearsal makes a huge, huge difference. If a scene is supposed to be funny, get rid of the pauses. Pauses kill comedy. Just say to the actors, “that’s great. Now do it again without pauses.”

Some Random Thoughts

Starting from scratch, I could shoot and get through post with $8k worth of equipment. I’d need a production budget for actor salaries and SAG expenses, insurance, location and permit fees, catering, some production design, costuming and maybe make up. But even buying the equipment, I could spend less than $35k and produce a feature that distributors would assume had cost hundreds of thousands to make. I’d enjoy the challenge of making a good feature for $10k and the goal would be to have good enough sound that a ton of work didn’t need to be done by the distributor once the film was picked up. So many films get hung up on sound.

I produced a feature-length adaptation of the Merchant of Venice. We used a Sony F-900 for shooting but kept the budget under $50k. Paramount was going to pick it up and they thought our budget was $2 milllion. It can be done. It requires thought, planning and the appropriate script. But as I said, making a high quality, low budget film is all about knowing when, where and how to compromise.

Remember: this is a guide to getting your first short film finished,
not a guide to working the Hollywood System.

A USEFUL MODEL

I think you have to look at theatre as the model. In a full Equity production, everyone gets paid and frequently gets paid very handsome wages. But most professional theatre work is being done under 99 seat contracts (or whatever the local variety is called) – and under those contracts, no one gets paid anything but a stipend. The directors, who are frequently highly experienced and professional, rarely get even a note in payment. Not the lighting directors, not the costumers, not the set designers. Actors spend 4 – 6 weeks rehearsing five nights a week, and then perform 4 days a week – and they’re total reimbursement is $5 per performance. And most of the beautiful, outrageous, and cutting edge work is being done under those circumstances.

Why? Because there are far more Equity actors wanting to work, not to mention directors, writers and crew, than there are funds available for production. If we limited theatre work to the productions which could raise sufficient funding for full Equity contracts, most skilled, worthwhile directors and actors would be twiddling their thumbs more often than not. And no one who has spent years honing their craft wants to do that.

I also want to add that I don’t know anyone of value in the entertainment industry that doesn’t throw in for free on projects from time to time. We certainly do. I’ve done business plans and budgets for free. My husband Brad has edited entire features for free. If the project is worthwhile, why not? I have a friend who is a studio director – he has 3 or 4 $25m+ features to his name. He showed up and directed a one man show for an actor he know from a retail haunt of his hoping it would bring some attention to the work. He then asked his editor edit without charge as well.

It has to be about the quality of the art. There are 25 year olds putting together wonderfully well-written work. If a DP and a couple of first rate actors want to show up and turn that into an even bigger vision than was originally intended, why not? What about the huge numbers of people in the entertainment industry, with a resume a mile long, who have gotten wiped out these past couple years? If they have a great idea for a series, and have put it together well, it might be worth it kicking in. Don’t take time off from your paying gig, but there is definite good karma attached to doing well by your fellow artists. Theatre depends upon it – film shorts and web series probably will too.

© Copyright 2011
All Rights Reserved

17 Responses to How To Make Your First Short Film by Lorenda Starfelt

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  3. Getting ready to shoot my first short and this is invaluable! It answered so many questions. As an actor who is theater trained and working in film & TV, and an acting school owner, I deeply appreciate your take on the Craft! Thanks for this.

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  7. thelastudi says:

    Really good stuff..Since I am planning my first Short next month, this article has been really helpful.

  8. chuks says:

    thanks a million for this information. God bless you.
    i plan doing my first short film next month.

  9. Lokesh reddy says:

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  10. This was extraordinarily helpful. As a musician and beginning director my curse is my ability to easily be overwhelmed with things to do so I make lists. This is the ultimate list in beginning film! Thank you for clearing my head for me and making this experience a much easier one than it could of been.

  11. Mitun Roy says:

    I’m much inspired by your informative and thoughtful writing. Our native language is Bangla, Should I make the characters speak Bangla with English subtitles downwords, or do it in English? What do you suggest?

  12. subhan says:

    Thanks for wonderful information, Now I can Make Short Movies Easily with Your Guidence

  13. Pingback: How To Make Your First Short Film | FilmmakerIQ.com

  14. loui says:

    Thank you so much lorendastarfelt. I am a producer, editor, director, and a camera man. I researched and learned to do all this to keep my budget low.

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