I wanted to make a short film for as long as I remembered. And for the longest time, I held myself back… until I threw away every assumption I had. I allowed myself not to make something that has to end up on the Top 100 Films of All Time list. I did it because I wanted to. It resulted in a brand-new appreciation for the credits roll, as well as the effort it takes to make a film of any kind. And, well, it was fun!
Two years after my first short saw the light of the day, I’m here to give back what I’ve learned from others for free. This post likely isn’t for people who have some kind of understanding of any aspect of filmmaking. It’s not fully comprehensive, either. Treat it as a list of suggestions. It’s meant to be a starting point for your own experiments and research if you have absolutely no idea what to do. Hopefully it’ll give you some confidence!
Lights. Camera. Here goes.
Get out of your own way.
In most creative endeavours, everyone’s toughest enemy is themselves. And I’m not attempting to sound like a cringy self-help book author here, I promise.
As per the first sentence: I wanted to make a short film for as long as I remembered. Granted, I made something that resembled one using a Nokia 6020 and Windows Movie Maker without a script as a teenager. The Nokia part is absolutely not a joke, and no, the world will not see it; if you happen to have seen it, your time to speak has passed and may you forever hold your peace. A little later, I threw together a “music video” of sorts – the first thing I’ve scripted and storyboarded, ever. I’ve dabbled with vlogging here and there. But I’ve never made anything that I would consider a “proper short”.
When I got older, so many things started holding me back. The lack of time, obviously, because I’m an adult with responsibilities. The lack of skill. But I’ve never studied film formally! But there’s no budget, aren’t you supposed to have a budget? And a producer? I don’t have a camera that records in 4K. I don’t have a camera with a fantastic dynamic range. Ah, my camera doesn’t shoot RAW. I can’t shoot in any other format than ProRes, can I? An Arri Alexa costs over seventy grand to buy and the pros shoot on Alexas. Oh, if I had a Canon C300! I would be like the pros on a budget at least (disregard the fact they rent them, and that you probably don’t need that much of a beast). And what if I’m gonna be terrible at it? What will everyone think?! What if someone, don’t know who but someone for sure, thinks I’m absolutely shit?!
I’d voraciously read just about anything on the topic, accumulating theory. I’d watch other people’s works. But I wouldn’t even attempt to make anything myself. Which is bizarre considering that as a teen, I wouldn’t even need a script to improvise a story, however silly. It’s like waiting for external permission or validation that never comes your way because you need to make that decision yourself (and stop relying on external validation if we’re going all the way in with the IG motivational quotes, cause yes, you’ll find assholes everywhere).
And then, one evening I was going through some short stories I wrote at uni. One of them had imagery that struck me as particularly nice, so I decided to give it a full rewrite. Then, I thought it’d make a good animation. I’ve never made an animation before, but it just felt like a great idea. So I acted on the very same impulse I got when I suddenly got a spectacularly stupid idea as a teen.
Six months passed. Hundreds of articles and YouTube tutorials later, Kaleidoscope Eyes – my first animated short – saw the light of the day. Then I did it again with my first live-action short. I did have some prerequisites: I owned the software, and carved the time out after work to write, storyboard, work on my keyframes. I am fully aware that I’ve been lucky enough to be in a position to do so. But in this day and age, when Soderbergh and Baker shot films on an iPhone that got widely screened, as long as you’ve got the camera in your pocket and free software on your computer, you can make something. People do it all the time and even go viral for it. Quality will come with time and experience, or so I was told. This is not your main focus right now.
Draft a script.
Okay, I admit. I’m lucky because I formally studied the art and science of writing. However! Writing, like any other creative discipline, is a skill. No one’s born a Tarantino or Bergman, or a goddamn Einstein for that matter – they had to learn, too. We often fall into a trap of giving in to crap some absolute snobs say. Listening to that only helps those who want to gatekeep creative disciplines. And the gatekeepers are usually in a better position than others to be able to afford formal art education and
be a tortured genius do creative stuff full-time – a good creative opens the doors and doesn’t discourage others. One more time for those in the back: writing is a skill. Period.
First, start putting words on paper. I normally start with a loose idea – I’ve heard or seen something that inspired me, or I had a bizarre dream that I can’t get out of my head. It helps to have an outline; for me, an idea is usually the beginning or the middle, but when you start putting these bullet points on a blank slate you’ll surprise yourself with where you can go. It’s a little brain gym – the more you do it, the more ideas you get.
For your first script, I’d avoid anything too complicated. It’s going to be a challenge to keep up with the entire ensemble of the characters in the story in a short time span and close their arcs in a satisfying way. It’s also easier to find actors to play one or two characters and coordinate everyone’s schedules – a bigger cast involves more planning.
Use the same principle for things like special effects, colour grading, and other post-production work. Do you have a budget for a specialist? Can a friend help you out? Are you willing to practice to learn some small things yourself? If not, maybe aliens or jetpacks are out of the question. Also, don’t set your story in inaccessible places – if you can’t shoot at the airport because you’d likely have to get a costly permit for it, set your story elsewhere. Say, your kitchen. That can also give you some great ideas!
Everyone learnt at some point that a story has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and if you draft it that way, you can experiment with the order of shots at some point, too. There are small ways to take your story to the next level, and you might want to spend time googling to check what makes a good script. But before you fall into that rabbit hole, write down where your story starts, and where it ends. Then, make your bullet point list to outline what happens in between. Then start writing. And only then, edit and improve and do all the googling you want.
One more thing to note: if your script is formatted as any other film script (i.e. the Courier 12-point standard; there’s free software that I love, that lets you write without worrying too much about formatting), one page translates roughly to a minute of your finished short. I’d aim for it to be under ten minutes – both from the standpoint of film festival submissions later, and from the perspective of time you’ll spend shooting.
Scout for locations, pick the costumes.
If there’s a way to improve the production value of your low-budget film, I’d bet on locations and costumes. Film is a visual medium, so thinking carefully about those two elements can help you create the mood, reflect the character’s emotional state or personality traits, and move the story forward.
As I’ve mentioned before, you don’t have to go out of your way when it comes to locations. Keep in mind that some places require filming permits, so just turning up somewhere with a camera without one might cause you some disappointment (unless you go guerilla and GTFO before someone catches you if you’re into that kind of stress; people have done it before, Aronofsky has done it for some Black Swan shots, for example, I’m not legally responsible for whatever you do with this nugget of info).
But you might know somebody who knows somebody who will let you shoot in an interesting place you wouldn’t have considered. Or you might have a visually interesting place around the corner from your house. Think about the amount of light and the time of the day when you scout, listen out for any noise you might have to account for, check for power sources. Take some reference shots for yourself – it’ll help with storyboarding later!
When it comes to costumes, they will help you to tell the story of your characters. They’ll reflect who they are, and where they’re at in life right now. There might be something that looks particularly interesting on camera too, so make a bold choice or two. Chances are, you’ll let your actors dress in the clothes they’ve already got, but work with them to give them a bit of a direction.
Give yourself ample pre-production time.
Every big production has a team of people that start their work in pre-production: script supervisors, storyboard artists, assistant directors, producers… On your first production, you’ll likely do the work all by yourself. Don’t try to skimp on this time: if you plan, you’ll be able to execute the shoot better. Plus if you are paying for studio time or camera rental, your credit card will thank you. It’s just a good habit to get into.
Start with making a copy of your script. Then get yourself a set of colourful highlighters: one colour for locations, one for props, one for characters, one for any music or sound effects you might need. After you find them all in your script, it’s time to think about how to break down your shoot day(s). No film production shoots the scenes in order unless you’re one of the experimental one-shot-one-take directors, so think about grouping them for maximised convenience. Are there different scenes in the same locations? How to make sure you respect your actors’ time? Is there a prop that you can get for one day only? Consider those things carefully.
Then, storyboard. I’m a big fan of storyboards, and before you ask, you don’t need to know how to draw. Stickmen absolutely work. This is for your reference. It’ll help you to position your actors, plan what coverage to get, and shape your film. My first short was an animation, and storyboarding the script was incredibly helpful – I had an idea of what every major frame would look like before I sat down in front of After Effects. I did it again with my live-action short. Not only does it help to keep your production on track and communicate with others who work with you, but it also encourages thinking about new ways to face challenges you notice. And it’s not binding; if there’s an opportunity to do something interesting on set, you can absolutely take it up.
It’s also your opportunity to learn about composing a shot – think about references from the films you’ve seen, for example! The rule of thirds is used far and wide, too, not just in filmmaking. There are some general rules of visual arts, such as repetition, balance, contrast… chances are, you know them even if you can’t put your finger on them. Consider different framing choices, too. You probably intuitively understand that a wide shot is good for setting up the scene, while extreme close-ups can magnify emotion. Where you place your subject in the frame matters, too: for instance, if you place them on the extreme right side of the frame and they’re looking right, they might not have enough “eye space”… but it can help create tension. And the camera angles: if you shoot something from below, the subject can overpower the frame and exert authority, for example. It’d make for an entirely separate post, if I’m honest, so feel free to research those concepts further.
If you’ve got time and space, it might be worth it to rehearse with your actors, too. This is a good moment to start rehearsing your directing skills. You should try to describe feelings and images to help them navigate their performances; that goes well beyond pre-production, of course. It’s even more important if you’re shooting with your friends who have no previous acting experience. If your actors are, well, actors, they’ll likely jump on the opportunity to help you craft their character. Keep in mind, though, that ultimately it’s up to you to preserve the coherence of your vision.
Learn a bit about cameras
You might have someone who helps out with the camera and lighting, but even if you don’t, it’s good to know your camera. I wrote a tiny bit about it – you might be able to recycle some of these tips. Most importantly, learn how to make the most out of any camera you have. I’ve read somewhere that the best camera isn’t the one you buy, it’s the one you master. I really like that quote. Yes, your gear might have its limits, but it’s the combination of factors that makes the final outcome.
Take a look at some YouTube videos to see how others set up the camera you own. Some general, simplified rules as I understand them that you can run with:
- Know what you can find in the menus. Obvious, but some camera manufacturers make incredibly complicated menus that make it tough to switch settings. Be sure you know where things are.
- Look at the icons on the camera display. I often switch on all the overlays the camera has; the grid helps with composition, and if you’re using manual mode, it’ll often give you hints for different camera settings.
- Not a setting per se, but prepare spare memory cards and batteries. If you know your camera, you’ll have a better idea of the usual file sizes, and about the time it takes to burn through a single battery.
- Make sure that you shoot in 24 frames per second. It’s the most “cinematic” or standard setting that doesn’t have that “video” look. Higher frame rates are useful for slow motion, hence if you’ll stretch the 60fps to make the clip roughly twice as long, you’ll still get your 24fps.
- We’re essentially making images using light and a sensor, so let’s talk about The Exposure Triangle: aperture, shutter speed and ISO.
- If you shoot at 24fps, set the shutter speed to 1/50. That’s the 180-degree shutter rule – double your frame rate. Go for less and you get a lot of motion blur, go for more and you get jittery footage which can have a creative effect when used intentionally. It’s even more important for photography, and I struggled to get my head around this until I’ve read somewhere it is a fraction (i.e. 1/2s is slower than 1/500s… basic maths, eh?). What’s slow or fast suddenly started making sense.
- Aperture controls how wide the “eye” of your camera is open and therefore how much light goes in. And the depth of field – how blurry the background is. Here, the smaller the f-stop, the lower the aperture. The lower the aperture, the more light goes in because “the eye” is open wide, the brighter the image, and the shallower the background. You’ll also see these are used on lenses to help you guide what you can achieve with them!
- Your ISO setting should normally be at the lowest option available to avoid grain. You might need to tinker with this a bit to get your desired depth of field. Essentially, you might need to compromise on something if you can’t get enough light, but don’t go crazy. If you up it to 128,000 the grain might become a distraction even if you can see the objects better…
- Now, for the fun part: ISO, aperture and shutter speed work together, so you need to find a combo for your lighting conditions. So the better you light your scene, the fewer compromises you’ll probably have to make with your camera.
- This can be super confusing if you’re starting out, so you can read more about this at No Film School.
- If your camera has this option, turn the “Zebra” setting on. You’ll see stripes on your preview that highlight the bits of your scene that are overexposed.
- Visible light has colour temperature (the maths and physics lessons I’m giving here today!) which you adjust your camera for using white balance. You’d normally have the camera settings named “Daylight”, “Lightbulb” and so on. These will help you control any yellow-ish or blue-ish tints that come from the light.
- And we haven’t even started talking about focus. Again, manual focus will give you the most control, and some older cameras have really unreliable autofocus, but it can be difficult to get on your own when you move the camera. Some people are firmly against AF but it has its time and place, I think, especially for a beginner.
- Finally, if you’re using interchangeable lens, give that some thought. Some focal lenghts are better suited for close-ups, some are better suited for wide angle shots where you show the entire location; each focal length has certain implications that you can use creatively. Here’s a way more detailed explanation. And I didn’t even start talking about stuff like ND filters, but I’m descending into a gear geek territory and knowledge that no one would expect from a legit first-timer so I’ll stop here.
Or don’t use these rules at all, and set your camera to auto. You call the shots, and it’s your first film so no one expects you to be an expert. It’s about learning, after all. But you can practice beforehand so you’ll be more comfortable and creative with your camera.
Make the most out of lighting and take care of sound.
If you made it this far, you’d probably figure out that good lighting is key. And it’ll also help you get the best picture quality possible, no matter the camera. I’ve written about taking care of lighting – that should give you a few ideas. You can get LED lights fairly cheaply, for starters. You can also shape the daylight to suit your needs a bit better if you’re in control of the environment. Simple household items will do – bedsheets, curtains, what have you. You can also use some other light sources available to you. You can get a daylight lightbulb for any lamp, for example, and use something like a lampshade or muslin cloth to diffuse light.
Another crucial element is sound. This is why we listened out for any potential noise while scouting – it can render your audio unusable. You can further improve the quality of your sound with external microphones. Most cameras allow you to use an external shotgun mic that can help to make your audio better. Even smartphones allow you to use clip-on mics. You can also find some on the budget. Be meticulous at researching not to spend money that’ll keep you at square one; I find YouTube extremely helpful for gear reviews. And if that’s not possible, an external sound recorder with a shotgun and/or clip-on (lavalier) mics can work; just make sure to use a clapperboard to make syncing the audio easier. Or if you don’t have a clapperboard, you can also clap your hands. It works just as well.
Don’t be scared of post-production software.
So, you planned and prepped. Then you went out and shot something. That was fun! And stressful, but fun! Now what? If you don’t know an editor, you’ll likely have to do this yourself, too. Now, I love using Premiere Pro, but it’s also paid software. There are cheaper options, such as Sony Vegas or a free version of DaVinci Resolve. Bear in mind that the more complex software you choose, the steeper the learning curve might be. And you probably have some software: you can use iMovie on a Mac, or Video Editor included with Windows.
When you pick your software, go on YouTube to start learning. I’ve used I for so many After Effects tutorials for my first short. All this knowledge at your disposal!
Share your own tips for making short films without a budget below. I’d love to see what you come up with if you use any of the above tips! See also this post with additional links to filmmaking courses and resources. Lots of them are free – we’re all frugal people with expensive hobbies, after all.