Making a movie or a short film can be an extremely exciting and fun adventure. It is a ton of fun being on a set and shooting your own film. However, it can also be a complete nightmare, especially if you are not prepared or really have no idea on how to go about it. I have been making short films now for five years, and I have had some success at it. And I keep growing as a filmmaker, because no matter how many issues come up, I keep working at it. But for the most part, each film I have made has been very challenging because problems ALWAYS come up on a film set. It will be your job to navigate through these rocky times as it will most likely be your film. Don’t worry about it. If you learn how to stay calm and be focused on just solving these issues as they arise, you will have a great and rewarding experience. Following are five tips that I feel can smooth your way into filming. These tips address issues that I feel tripped me up several times and I want to share them with you, so you won’t make the same mistakes, because “Time Is Money”. If you remember this one thing, it will go a long way to keeping you on track and making a great film.
1. Be A Storyteller
The Bottom Line is this: The director is first and foremost a storyteller. You must have a cohesive, compelling story to tell. This is not a difficult thing to do, as everyone has at least one story to tell from their life. Whether it is a breakup, or a family trauma, or a secret desire… the list is endless. You have to trust that no matter how painful the story is, or how embarrassed you are of that story, it has been experienced before by someone else. This is not a bad thing… it means that we are all connected in many ways and that these stories are indeed universal. We all have a unique story to tell that many people will relate to and identify with.
2. Write Every Day
Many times I hear writers say they are stuck or are in a writer’s slump, because no ideas are coming or they don’t know what to write. They want an original idea for a film that nobody has ever seen before. They want the next great original idea that rocks the film world. Some of them will wait for years for that inspiration for the next great film. Now…you might get angry with me for saying this, or you will probably vehemently disagree, but I don’t think this should be your goal. Just write… let the words just flow out of you. Edit it all later. Write gobble-dee-gook, write crap, write anything. Just write. You can worry about judging it after you are finished. Think of it this way… A sculptor starts with a huge block of stone. This is your “gobble-dee-gook”. Then begin to slowly carve away the stuff that you don’t need. Carefully reveal the story you want to tell. In the end you will have something that you will be excited about putting on film.
3. Learn How To Communicate
Several directors I know have become very successful in their careers as filmmakers. They learned how to have some knowledge about every aspect of the process of filmmaking. They have learned how to speak the language of every person on their set, from costumes to the actors to the director of photography (D.P.) to the grip to the sound designer to the art director. What I am trying to say is this… I have almost totally screwed up a couple of my films because I didn’t communicate well enough with my crew. I wasn’t clear enough with a couple of my crew members of what I wanted, which then led them to do what they thought I wanted. It almost destroyed me and my film. Think of it this way. Everyone of your crew is an expert in their chosen field. You are being respectful of them, in turn they will do their best to give you what you are seeking. And that is called “Collaboration”. And good collaboration almost always leads to a great film.
4. Set Up Your Shot List Before Shooting
There are some directors who will storyboard every single shot on their shot list. Alfred Hitchcock was notorious for this, as he was also notorious for giving his actors very little freedom in their movements and portrayal of their characters. I don’t do this personally. I write out a complete shot list of every scene that I want to film. This is my process of making my shot lists:
I look at my script and write down the first scene and how I want to shoot it or how I want it to look on film. I normally start at the beginning and work my way through. I study the first scene over and over again. I look at the number of ways that I would like to shoot it. I will then write down the first set-up in regards to the camera angle and type of shot I want. Then I will choose another angle to shoot the same scene. I will then need to get coverage on these shots so that when I am editing, I have something to cut to for a reaction. And so when I have 4-5 different shots or set-ups for that first scene, I will then move on to the next scene and do it all over again. I find the act of setting up scenes is one of the most creative parts of the filmmaking process… for me anyways. There are so many options to choose from andso many different ways that you can tell your story. This part is where I go through all of my options and run the scene in my head and visually see how it plays out. Does it work? Or is there another, better way to do it?
What I am trying to say is this – ALWAYS finish your shot list before you get to your set. It will give you a road map of what you want, and how you will shoot your film. And, because you are so well prepared, you can easily replace or remove a shot that you don’t need. Or you will be inspired to get another shot…one you didn’t think of before. And when this happens, it always feels great.
5. Create a Real Environment
Creating a real world or environment for your actors or for the film is so important, that you will be surprised how easy filming is when you get this right. This is why I love shooting on real locations. The environment is real, as it is the world of the story. This is very helpful for your actors to believe the world they are in. Their imaginations must have something solid to grasp, in order to create believable characters. Wardrobe, lighting, their creativity all help in achieving truth in their performances. Now shooting on a sound stage is great as well, as long as you have the money to do it, or if your production is large enough where this is in your budget. I am at the stage where I go and rent locations as this is much cheaper and more time efficient. Even if you are on a soundstage you must not skimp on making the world as real and believable as you can.
So these are five important tips that every filmmaker should have addressed before shooting your film. If you take the time to prepare for your shoot correctly, when you actually get to the set, things will flow much more smoothly that if you were careless. Because if there is one thing you can always count on, is that there will be “challenges” that arise on the set. It is how well you deal with them that will make or break your film.
About The Author: John Montana is an actor living with his wife in L.A. and has begun to make short films. His most recent film, Hungry has been accepted into 27 film festivals all over the world. Watch his free online movies at No Title Production Films.
Images courtesy John Montana