Part One: Production
In today’s climate, the Do It Yourself attitude is ever more present from growing veggies to making clothes, and here at Aesthetica we’re advocating this motto, and encouraging you to get creative, get your camera and make your own films.
So you have decided to make a short film. Great. We hope it’s a good one. The difference between a great short and just another YouTube splash, is for you to ask yourself this aching question, why do you want to make a film? Maybe you’ve spied some funding deadlines? Perhaps you fancy following the festival circuit? Or even because you’ve a powerful story burning in your cortex and a short is the only way to relieve the epistolary pressure? Or is it, by chance, because you got dumped (actually, not a bad reason)? The precursor to making any film is: think “why”, before keying anything into final draft.
Philip Ilson, Film Programmer (London Short Film Festival, Branchage Jersey International Film Festival, East End Film Festival and London Film Festival) and James Mullighan, Creative Director of Shooting People, and co-author of Get Your Short Film Funded, Made and Seen offer their real world insight into making a short film. Read it as an amalgamation of two approaches: ‘How?’ (James) and ‘Why?’ (Philip).
1. Work with people you love
This is the best place to start. And this doesn’t just mean “mates rates” (pulling your flatmate in to work for free), although you will also do this repeatedly, but it can also mean finding new collaborators you jive with.
2. Don’t make your short film a calling card
This is the most important point for any discerning maker of short films. There are thousands of media students waiting to break into television, to direct soaps, comedy or drama, alongside many film school students graduating and wanting to hit Hollywood and gain Oscar glory. How can anyone compete? Screw ‘em all! The only thing that exists for you is your current short film. Harbour no secret dreams of directing EastEnders or walking up the red carpet. Stay focused on the job in hand.
3. Planning, planning, planning
The more work you do in pre-production, the zillion times better your film will be. Making the days of the shoot work is your biggest responsibility. Where possible, team up with a production manager (or producer) who will production manage the shoot. This is one of the most valuable people on your team and you want a person who is incredibly organised, a great communicator and a lovely problem solver. If they can plan things well, you can then just concentrate on making the film fly.
4. Short films must not have endings that tie everything up
This is the Raymond Carver rule: think slices of life and powerful scenarios. So many short films think they need a punch line, a final joke or a Sixth Sense–style twist to tie things up neatly and make the audience go away contented, but it’s not necessary. How many more times do we have to hear that collective groan in a darkened cinema as the film comes to a close? We want to reflect on a character’s life or to think about what move he or she will make next, even though we have no way of knowing. We need to think more and to be kept guessing. We need to have discussion. This is what the best art does.
5. Communicate, communicate, and communicate
Meet with your DOP to discuss the aesthetics of your shoot and a style you both feel will best serve the film. Also decide what you want to shoot on, and make a kit list. Make sure you also meet well in advance to discuss a realistic shot list. If you prefer not to plan your shots, then it can still be vital to prepare an outline shooting schedule. It is often at these meetings that find you need to adapt/change your script or schedule to work within your money and time constraints. It goes without saying that EVERY shoot runs out of time; set-ups always take longer than everyone thinks. So discuss this with your DOP and see what suggestions they have.
6. Short films must not be accompanied by a slow and poignant solo piano soundtrack
Plinky-plonky piano music to create a mood? No! Please no one else go there. Unless of course that piano is integral to your vision rather than it being cheap because your mate has a Woolworths’ stand-up electric. But please, for the sanity of short film programmers, find another option for your soundtrack.
7. Creativity, and managing your team
If you have a good plan, and people know what to expect each day, you are setting yourselves up for a dream shoot. Some of the most exciting aspects of making a film can be in the moments when you make a mistake and it looks great, or when you decide to try something new, or even grab totally different shots on a whim. But finding the space and confidence to allow that creativity and spontaneous collaboration to emerge, paradoxically often comes out of giving your team a clear sense of where you are going each day. If everything is chaotic all the time, it can be hard to stay focused, inspired and open to new possibilities.
8. Short films must NOT have an optimum running time
Films should exist in their own time-space continuum. No one should tell you it has to fit into a specific slot. Short films are as long as they need to be to tell their story or play out their scenario. (NB: Festival programmers may have a problem with this point. Tough luck.)
9. Food, glorious food
Low-budget shoots often mean you have begged your crew to work for a nominal fee, sometimes unpaid. So make sure (at the very least) that you have delegated someone to look after decent food/drink throughout the shoot. Good food makes for a very happy crew and a happy crew is the lifeblood of your film.
10. Short films must not be about showcasing cinematography, editing or other technical skills
You are the director. You must make your film exactly as you want. If you need a ten-minute single cloud shot mid-film, that’s your choice. You don’t need to prove anything to anyone except yourself. If a scene needs a fast complex edit, then do it, but remember it’s because the scene needs it and not because you want to show off your new Final Cut Pro skills.
Now that you’ve made your film, what’s next? In Aesthetica Issue 30, part two of this guide was published, which answered that question. www.shootingpeople.org, www.branchagefestival.com, or www.shortfilms.org.uk for more information.