Simple steps to become a successful film-maker for less than $500
This year has been a great adventure for me in that I have directed several short films that are receiving recognition in the form of official festival selections and an award nomination. I have never been to film school, and each of these films was shot and completed on a budget of around $500 or less, including festival submission fees.
Official Selection for A Special Kind of Love
If you have a desire to make a film, I very much encourage you to do so because it has never been easier. Also, by doing one simple film you will gain exposure to the entire process from beginning to end. There are so many cool short film festivals out there today – some free to enter – that there has never been a more fun time to have a small inventory of shorts in your repertoire to play with. But let’s start with that crucial first film.
Pick a simple story that matters to you. Use the “rule of 1 or 2″ – think in terms of 1 or 2 characters, 1 or 2 locations, 1 or 2 situations and a simple story arc that can be shared visually in 1 or 2 minutes. Maybe 1 person wonders how it all went wrong, or 2 people meet and something hilarious happens. Maybe you decide to frame a story around that anthill you’ve been observing in the park. Keep it very simple for now – you have many years to put together your epic feature film!
Write down a simple narrative script. Don’t sweat proper screenplay structure unless you really want to – there is time to learn that later. Focus instead on what the characters will say and do in your story. Think in terms of 1 or 2 pages (there’s that rule again). Craft your story until you can start to see it happening in a 1 to 2 minute film. Building in story elements that are easy to film (daytime, natural lighting, available locations, absence of explosions or car chases) makes your job a lot easier.
Take time to visualize. This is the best lesson your director self will ever get. Take the time to picture your film happening as you sit in the audience watching it, each second from beginning to end. I find the moments before falling asleep to be a great time to do this. Go from the opening credits through to the end. Keep refining this vision to include what the camera sees, what angles the viewer sees and other details. Don’t get hung up on this step though – nothing will happen exactly as you predict, and the result will be magical anyway.
Use your smartphone. Sure, you may want to use a more elaborate camera, but try to avoid the temptation for your first film. The more you are shooting and grabbing quick footage without over-thinking, the easier your life will be. Do the minimum. Remember, all films can be re-shot later if they are that important to humanity – the key here is to learn lots, get to your mistakes quickly, finish something and get it out there. There are lots of great films being made with smartphones now. Just be sure to hold the camera horizontally if that’s what gives the best video quality – ask an experienced friend if you aren’t sure.
Rehearsal with actors Andrew Hill and Lauren Donnelly
Rehearse with your actors if you can. Do most of your directing in the rehearsal. If you can’t get actors, don’t let that hold you back – do a simpler story with a voice-over narrative for your first effort. Act in it yourself and use a tripod. The main thing is to get something done, finished and out there. I’ve seen great performances with little or no rehearsal, and I’ve seen extensively-rehearsed efforts come out flat, so don’t let lack of rehearsal time stop you.
Plan and execute the shoot. Divide your script and your vision for your film into filmable chunks, fire up your camera and then go for it. If you can get what you need in one single run from beginning to end, then do it and start editing! Go back and grab close-ups if you need them, but remember this is a first film, not your magnum opus. Every additional shot should be justified by really needing it in your final vision. If you don’t need that complex shot to tell the story, save it for a later film. Don’t over-shoot, and don’t go beyond 3 takes unless there is a compelling reason. There is no “safety” in getting more and more takes, and it just ends up causing agony when you are trying to choose between takes during the edit.
Organize your footage. Upload your video clips to Youtube from your phone and give each video segment a meaningful name so you know what is what when it comes to editing. Download the footage from Youtube onto your working computer when you get home.
Edit your film. Grab a free trial download of an editor like PowerDirector and just wade in and learn to use it by doing. Buy the software once you find one you like. There are tons of video clips on Youtube that will show you the basics of editing. Grab one of your pieces of footage, drag it into the editor, add beginning titles and ending credits, and hit save. Congratulations, you are now an editor. Now you are ready to pull in more pieces of footage, cut away unnecessary bits and do transitions from clip to clip. When you have a simple, complete cut of your film, save it in a usable format like MP4 or mov. Congrats, you are a film-maker! Now the rest of the job starts.
Submit your film to festivals. Target appropriately. Your first 1 minute film may not be right for Sundance, but it might find a welcome acceptance in a festival geared toward micro short films shot with smartphones. Signing up with FilmFreeway or similar websites like Withoutabox can be a great way to find festivals that will be right for your film. Getting your first official selection or acceptance into a festival is a major confidence builder and you will be starting to build a track record of accomplishment in film. Later on, you can explore how to sell your film or distribute your film for money online, but more likely you will treat your early work as just that – early work – and move on to learn more by doing more films. Congratulations on getting this far!
Nominated for Best Drama Micro Short
Congratulations, now go do it again!
Remember, most people who dream of making a film will not even start. Of those who start, few will finish. Of those who finish, few will get as far as submitting to a festival. If you are able to start and finish a short film, however simple, and get it into a festival, you will be on your way! If these steps I’ve outlined help by encouraging you and cutting through some of the mystery, then I am happy. I encourage you to return the favor by helping someone else in the future.
You will find that the film-making community is a very friendly, collaborative and helpful one. Most people are more than willing to help out a newcomer and will share their hard-earned knowledge with you. The most important lesson though, is that the film that gets finished and out there is the one that matters. Do your first film fast, by yourself if needed, but get it done. Don’t self-censor your work – get it out there and submit it to festivals, you will be pleased with the results. Best of luck to you!