Short Films – Lessons Learned

I made a short film, Fatal.

The absolute best thing about making a film is that you learn what not to do next time. So in the spirit of saving you some trouble when you make your first short film, here’s a few things I learned.

Have a suitable script

I knew that the film would be a one-day no-budget shoot. So that means, realistically, two or three actors in one location.

I considered going as far as the garden, my bedroom, or the local Travelodge, but in the end decided that my front room would do. Then I wrote a script featuring two actors in a front room. So the shoot itself was quick and easy.

Record your sound separately

Seriously, this is the most important thing I learned. Always have a separate soundtrack.

I knew one sound guy, and he’s no longer working in the business. I tried a couple of other leads, but time was getting short, and the DP swore blind that we could just run the sound from the boom mike into the camera and it would be fine.

Not having a separate sound guy is the worst mistake you can have.

If no-one’s monitoring the sound levels when you’re shooting, this means that you can’t match sound in editing. There were some great shots I couldn’t use at all because the background traffic noise was too high. Sound levels vary from scene to scene because no-one was watching the meters, so the actors don’t sound their best – the recorded dialogue is either clipped, or too quiet and had to be boosted (with loss of quality, and added background noise).

Editing the film took maybe twice as long as it needed to because I had to dance around the sound problems all the time. Even now, there’s one particular shot where the traffic is super-loud – and that was the best take, even after playing with it to filter out as much background noise as I could.

And then there are the scenes which sound the way they should. But, of course, they don’t match the rest of the scenes. To make it work, I had to add extra traffic noise throughout, so that although it’s noisy at least it matches.

Sound guy. Don’t believe anyone who says you can run it into the camera.

One small crumb of comfort is that even Joss Whedon can get it wrong. Check the traffic noise suddenly springing up in the laundrette in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog when Captain Hammer confronts his nemesis.

Be aware of the background

I cleared out a lot of the front room to get a nice background. (See those nice empty shelves next to the music system?)

Not enough, though. All the clutter in the background distracts you from the important thing: the acting.

Also, there’s a piece of gaffer tape that appears and disappears from the bannisters, because it got stuck there to keep it out of the way and no-one noticed it was in shot.

Have more runners than you think you need

It was a five-person crew, including me. As little as one extra runner to make tea, sort out food, and check the background would have freed me up to do more actual directing.

Assign someone to be the production manager and deal with everything that’s not directing. If you’re the director and production manager on the same shoot, both jobs are going to suffer.

Mark off your coverage

I had a shotlist, but I didn’t make sure that all the dialogue was covered twice. In one place I had nothing but a master shot.

Fortunately, I had a master shot. The master shot is the first thing you shoot when you do the scene: Camera static, everything in view, run the scene from beginning to end. It meant I had something to fall back on when I was short of footage.

Which I was, because I didn’t mark off my coverage.

So there you have it. With my next film, I can look forward to making lots of exciting new mistakes.