You've thought up your idea, you've written it down. You're proud of what you've created. Now, why not make it into a short film? Nothing should stop you, right? RIGHT! There are a few things you need to know and prepare for though before showing up on set. After four years of film school, trust me, there are more steps to the process than what meets the eye, but by reading below, you'll have a great idea regarding the basics of how to make the best film possible and have it be a smooth experience throughout!
Photo by: Chandler Kravitz
To make a film, you need a script! One page of a formatted screenplay (see below) translates into a minute per page. You can of course format a Word Document yourself to look like this, but there are also programs like Final Draft (The industry standard and my preference if you're serious about screenwriting) or Celtx - which is fine if you're just beginning, that will format your action, characters, and dialogue for you (we'll talk about formatting scripts and things to think about in a later blog post). You do have to pay for both, though.
The script is a blueprint of the story you see in your mind for the director to ultimately visualize and put together. With a script, your job it to give your characters a unique voice within a story format that's engaging. Find links to both Final Draft and Celtx below.
Here's a bit of an example of a formatted screenplay. I don't agree with the scene heading (it's usually referred to as a slug line, but obviously scene heading makes sense and works too). If you're writing a teleplay ( a script for TV) you would need to center align (Cold Open for the first four minutes or so, then ACT ONE, ACT TWO, and ACT THREE with a page break after each is finished - besides act three of course because it's your ending.
Now look at you! You have your script! You’re on a roll! Now, what is your film going to look like? Who’s going to literally call the shots? You’re going to need a director - someone who has a vision and a way with people. This could be you, or it doesn’t have to be - just as long as the director of your film can make a decision, stick with it, and have a positive attitude along the way. Not only does your director need all of these things, but they also need the skill to communicate their vision with the Producers, Director of Photography, Wardrobe, Production Design, and most of all, their actors. Your director needs to be able to explain emotions and situations in order to get his or her actors in the right headspace to deliver the performance they envision. The director also needs rehearsals to go over blocking (movement in a scene and what the characters interact with) with the actors before the film and right before it’s time to shoot to ensure efficiency and understanding of what is going to be filmed. Make sure this person is reliable, hardworking, has great communication skills, is creative, and fun to be around. This person could make or break your film.
You'll also need a first assistant director, who is your first in command who whips everyone into shape, is in charge of the schedule, ensures that everyone is safe, and makes sure everyone is on time. I'll dive deeper into these roles with an e-book soon.
Tarantino is one of my favorite directors. Being that he was an aspiring actor himself, he has the ability to truly communicate with the actors about how they are unique and how they portray their particular voice. Ron Howard is also a great example.
For starters, holy cow this position can be a handful and is usually ridiculously underrated. The producer locks down your location, your crew, sets up your production meetings, handles legal work and permits, meals for cast and crew, makes sure everyone is accounted for, comfortable, on the same page, and doing their job, calls different companies, etc. to source funding, keeps track of spending, creates the budget, the shooting schedule, and makes sure everything and everyone are safe at all costs. They also decide the time of filming based off the creative needs of the director and director of photography along with the location's ability to accommodate the shooting. As your production grows, so do the needs and tasks of your producer. This person must be very level-headed, well-organized, a negotiator, timely, responsible, think of every possible thing that could happen imaginable - and be prepared for anything and everything. This person is very innovative and can think on the fly. They can't be shy. They can't be pushovers. They get things done, done well, and at as little cost as humanly possible.
When it comes to making or breaking your film, actors also play a major role in this as well. The casting process will be different no matter where you are, as will the talent pool. Sometimes your principal actors won’t be actors at all, and they’ll do a better job than most professional actors will. It all comes down to who seems the most natural in their performance. The best acting is when you can’t tell they’re acting. Also, the best actors are the ones who take their jobs seriously. They get their script. They memorize their lines. They create goals, intentions, objectives, tactics, and they execute them well. They show up on time and give the film everything they can. These actors are hard to find, so it’s best to ask all of the questions you can before you cast them such as - what’s your availability? How committed to this movie would you be if you were cast? Tell me, what is your on-set etiquette? Best of all though, ask them - why do you enjoy acting, and do you take it seriously? Making your movie should be a fun experience for you and everyone - and you can’t do it without actors - so might as well make sure they’re people you trust and that are fun to be around.
Director of Photography and Camera
Good golly, this department has so many parts. To keep things simple for now though, let's just stick to the director of photography, who usually on smaller and lower budget productions, handles moving the camera as well. The director of photography (or DP) listens to what the director wants the scene, frame, movement of the camera, tone, atmosphere, and lighting to look like, and the director of photography makes it happen. They tell the gaffer (the chief of lighting on the production) what they need done and where, then the Gaffer has his or her team of "electrics" make it happen. The Best Boy is the assistant to the Gaffer. The DP also tells his or her team of "Grips," the head being the "Key Grip," what they'll need regarding support of the camera, whether it be building a track for the camera to dolly or rigging anything regarding lights.
You need lights for your production! If you're indoors especially. If you're using natural light outside, that's a different story, but it doesn't hurt to have a little extra light on your actor or subject's face! If it's night time - then obviously a little light wouldn't hurt either - unless you have a killer aperture on your camera with high optic quality. That brings me to the need of your camera. Obviously to make a movie, you need something to document it with.
If you have a cell phone, are on a tight budget, and are just beginning to make movies (or not -Tangerine was an Oscar nominated film and shot on an iPhone 5) just use this as your camera. Why spend money on something when you have an incredible camera already in your hands. If you're looking to get more funky and/or have higher resolution on more close up shots, then you can level up to a DSLR and purchase or rent different lenses depending on your preferences, that you can keep switching out based off of the director's vision.
You also need a shot list - a detailed and scheduled plan of what you will shoot, what frame it will be, if there is movement within the scene, which scene it is, when the scene will be shot in sequence to everything else being shot, in what location, and what is actually happening in the scene. This will usually be created amongst the director, director of photography, first assistant director and the producer.
I almost forgot! Slating your scenes is necessary as well (this is the clapper thing you see in the movies about movies). This labels what scene it is, what shot, what take, what day of the shoot it is, and when the sticks of the slate clap - that's an indicator of where the editor should sync the audio as that's when the scene starts. The person who usually takes care of the slate is the second assistant camera - who also verbally expresses the take and the scene number as well. For example, they'd say, "Ronnie, Scene 204B(eta), take 4,"with the clappers open, and when they finished their label, would smack the sticks shut to create a peak in the audio .wav file for the editor to see.
Sound is something so many people forget about when in the midst of pre-production of their movie. It is one of the MOST important aspects of your film. You need at least one person with a shotgun mic on a boom pole getting in there on the scene between actors to catch separate sound levels of their dialogue. What records this sound is an external device, something within the "Zoom" series works well. It will need a separate SD card, and with this device you can adjust the levels of "gain" which ultimately opens up the range of the microphone you're using. If your actor speaks quietly, you will bring up the gain to about a 7 compared to someone who speaks at a normal volume. Their gain would be at about 4 or 5. Also - you can't forget to turn your shotgun mic ON! I've personally done this when my camera didn't run audio automatically...it was a mess and the footage was unusable as a silent film wasn't what was intended of this particular project.
If you're not able to afford a shotgun mic along with a boom pole, using your phone can work as well. You can use your "Voice Memos," app to record separate dialogue. Recording sound is especially important, and making sure it's recorded well is something you should do with every take. If there is a car horn, an airplane flying past, a dark barking, or a cell phone ringing (volume nor vibrate should be on during production), you should wait until the sound is gone to start shooting and rolling sound. Also - make sure that the recording device, whether it be a mic or a phone is not in frame.
Production Design & Art Direction
This is the person who makes your set a set! They bring life to it! They pick the furniture, the colors/pallet, the posters, what your character has in their living room, what kind of music they are into, what food they eat, what they drink, what kinds of cigarettes they smoke, if they have a stuffed animal, and/or what their decorative tastes are. this person makes your movie cohesive and gives it style and a heartbeat. Your production designer takes the mood and description from the script and creates it in real life. If your script is about a haunted house that as a sheesh tone of clown paintings - you best bet your production designer will find every clown painting they can scrounge up to make that house creepy as as Hell. If not, they will turn to their art director.
If there is a specific label or brand involved in your story, or your character is a painter, your art director will create these things for you. In the situation described before, your art director will either paint those clowns photos for your scary house, or they will figure out how to do it so they match the tone that your production designer has set for the film already.
Usually on smaller sets, the production designer takes care of the props as well. If your character swings a bat, has a special notebook, throws a tomato at a different character or so on, your production designer decides what that thing that your actor interacts with, looks like, and makes sure that it's it in the scene at the time you're shooting it. That's also why it's important to have shot lists, schedules, and locations set - so everyone is prepared on the day that specific scenes are happening.
No matter what kind of movie yours is, or your budget, you need production design. It will always make your film that much better and tell the story you're trying to tell on a deeper level. If your production design is completely out of line with your story though, it will instead be a distraction, so make sure you and your production designer are on the same page before you shoot. Having mood boards and visual examples of what you're looking for are extremely important and help a ton.
What are your characters wearing?!?! Is it a period piece? A sci-fi?! Is your character a robot? Or an alien? Well, if your medieval queen is wearing a sweater from Zara and a pair of hot pants, it's probably not going to be too believable that your movie takes place in 1378 - you know, unless that's what you're going for. Wardrobe is extremely important and having a trustworthy person who's willing to study the characters in your script, what the setting is, what social status each character stands within, paying attention to what kinds of things your characters like, if they're fashionable or not, if they are more of a recluse, or if they're a "nerd," etc., is necessary.
Like production design, wardrobe brings a movie together in a whole different way. What clothes your character wears helps the audience to get to know who they are a little bit better. Also, it should be cohesive with the color palette of the movie. Your costumer should also make sure to have all of your actor's sizes and measurements, and be innovative if you're on a budget and need specific costumes based on your script. A rack with labeled hangers with already scene-separated wardrobe for your actors should also be on set in order to be efficient and organized for each scene to be shot.
The wardrobe stylist also ensures that the attire that they put the actors in looks great on camera and is diligent at all times.
Hair & Makeup
You know when on screen, you must look fabulous...or bloody...dirty...like an alien...have a disease...whatever it may be, whatever the script and director call for, the actors must look accordingly to the imagined character they portray. This type of thing calls for a make artist and hair stylist. If your film includes both beauty makeup and special effects makeup, chances are you'll need two artist who specialize in each on set. Same goes for hair. If you need pigtails, long braids, wigs or hats, helmets, or horns - you're going to need someone who can do those things - these tasks go to the hair stylist...unless you need those horns - those go to the makeup artist - but either way, you're going to need these two or three key crew members to have your actors looking ready for camera.
These people should usually always have their own kits of the essential items, and if what you need is a bit more specific, that must be communicated with them so they're prepared for the proper look on the right days. They must always have the shooting schedule as well so continuity is also in check. Hair and Makeup should also be on set at all times to be sure that the actors are still looking at their best - whether it be wiping off sweat and reapplying powder to someone's face or fixing a flyaway hair after an actor was running. These people should always be prepared and know which tools/products to use as well as know whether or not the actors are allergic to anything (which the producer and 1st AD should know as well).
This. THIS is what EVERYONE forgets on set and doesn't truly understand the importance of. Your script supervisor watches every scene like a hawk and analyzes the continuity of everything going on, along with eye lines, details in the script being logical, and ensuring that the scenes that are being shot that day are brought in, compiled together, on small documents called, "sides." Not only that, but they keep logs and photos of what wardrobe, makeup, props, etc., were used in scenes sometimes MONTHS ago to ensure everything makes sense and is fluid, as well as what scene was just shot, what lens it was shot on, the frame of the shot, if there was movement, the time code of each scene, the details of what happened, and which was the best take. An example of this would be if there are twelve background actors moving in a busy street scene behind the principal actor - who is twirling a baton, it would be the script supervisor's job to make sure they are all moving to the exact same places they were in the previous take, doing the exact same things with their bodies and props, and make sure they do what they're supposed to be doing at the proper time.
An example of failed supervision would be in Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts and Richard Gere are eating breakfast at the table in the hotel room and Julia switches from eating a croissant to a pancake every other shot. It's hard to notice if you're not paying attention, but if you are, it's comical that even at such a high level of filmmaking - continuity errors still happen. This also happens with logistics as well. For example, if your film or pilot is dealing with medicine or doctors, legal work, forensic science or the like - you better do your research to make sure what you're saying is correct - and if you have a good script supervisor - they'll double check for you. That being said - don't forget your Scripty. They can save your lives and your movie.
Video Village ( Monitor)
Whether you're shooting on a high resolution camera or your cell phone, having a monitor where you can see what you're shooting is necessary. Even if you're shooting film, you can't see everything going on, on screen through your viewfinder. Whether it be the lighting, the hair in your actress's face, the water bottle on the table from a crew member, or the boom pole and mic in frame - a take and time will have been wasted if you're unable to see what's going on.
My suggestion is to have a separate monitor from camera, that's attached to it, so the crew that needs to be able to pay attention to what's happening on screen - can. The more eyes on frame to spot something off the better - that way every take can be an option - just as it should!
Crafty & Meals
If your cast and crew are on set for 12 hours or more and are doing their work for free - you have to feed them. It's the least you can do. Besides, food really is the way to so many people's hearts, and if the food on set isn't good and tender love and care don't go into each meal, people aren't really going to want to come back.
This is also something you want to account for in your budget. If you have twenty people on your cast and crew, that's twenty lunches you need to buy, or a catered meal for twenty, along with coffee in the morning with some sort of breakfast options.
You also need crafty! Crafty are the snacks your cast and crew can go to between takes to tide them over during the long days on set. Having healthy options will only do you better. If you have chips, cookies, doughnuts, and candy on set - everyone is going to crash and burn, but if you have veggie trays, nuts, fruits, yogurts, and tons of water, you will have a cast and crew who are ready for anything! As long as they have full bellies and are treated right - everyone will be happy.
That being said, food can get expensive, so just remember its necessary you have it, and the fact that it's a necessity, means you need to budget for it. If you're making a movie at home though, take advantage of pre-cooking everything and making trays of foods yourself. It'll save time and money.
Depending on where you're shooting, you'll need a permit to shoot at the location you're wanting. If you're in Los Angeles or any film-heavy city or state, you will definitely need a permit. If you're in a more relaxed state with small towns or cities where they don't thrive off of getting money from every movie made (especially if you have little to no budget) you can get away with just asking someone if you can shoot at they're property when is most convenient for them and is consistent with your script. Better yet, write for locations you know you can use for free and on your own accord - like your house or your friend's backyard. If you do need a permit though and you're out in LA making your filmmaking dreams come true, go Film LA to obtain your filming permit if it's a public place, otherwise, if you'd like to save time and have less of a hassle, you can go to shooting space sites like Peerspace or Giggster to pay by the hour for a place and be just fine legally. Using these spaces are always my preference, because Film LA can be a pain and expensive.
Practical vs. Built:
Like I said above, paying for locations can get expensive, but obviously you need locations to shoot your film. That being said, writing locations into your script you already know you can get for free is really the way to go when you know your budget will be tight. If you have a connection with some amazing, vintage ballroom though that will set your movie apart from all of the student films shot in the living room of some place - you go for it. Using practical places that are already built, available to you, and fit your story are always the way to go, but if you just aren't feeling anywhere you've visited, have a giant shed or garage that's relatively sound proof, and are magically a carpenter or can build things, you can also create your own sets. That's what they do in the big movies or TV shows in sound stages where they need the set to be unique to that particular motion picture and they'll need it for longer than a day or two. These are called standing sets built of wood, wooden flats, styrofoam, chicken wire, and the like! Those these sets can get extremely innovative and creative, they can also get pretty pricey - it just depends on what your director envisions and how to make the story come to life in order to help you choose which you'd rather go with!
Last but not least, you'll need an editor! Preferably, you choose someone who's edited digital media or film before. This person should know how to format your digital SD cards or Mags that go into your camera, how to upload it onto your hard drives (you should always have two just in case something happens to one of them - that way you have a backup), knows how to label and log each take according to the slate, can sync your audio files with the video files, and can navigate around an editing software so they can splice your movie together in a creative way.
With that being said, sound design, sound mixing, visual effects (if you need them), and coloring are also giant aspects of editing that need paying attention to. If you are supposed to be in a busy bar in your script, but need everything quiet while shooting to hear your character's dialogue, you're going to need to put those diegetic sounds in to make the atmosphere of the character's believable. This could include murmured voices, glasses clinking, muffled music, etc. - that's part of sound design. Sound mixing would determine the loudness of any of those sounds, where they peak, where they crescendo, when they're super quiet - sound mixing is an art, and also a strategic form of not allowing any of the other sounds to be distracting from the story.
Visual effects are a whole other ballgame. If you need visual effects, it's best to know someone who can do them after your editor has finished your picture. Visual effects take time and skill - and it's good to know if you'll have them readily available to you or not while you're writing your piece -and if you're not sure you will, nor might you have the budget for them, it's best to leave them out.
Coloring! All can be done in multiple different softwares, but if you're doing the editing yourself and/or aren't experienced with coloring to an extensive degree and want to give your film that specific look - you can color within Adobe Premiere Pro. They also have speed looks if you're really stuck. Coloring is when you create the tone of what you want people to feel when they watch your movie. You could make it cooler blue tones to make your audience feel more unfeeling and afraid, or warm golds and soft reds if you're looking to inspire. It all depends on what you're going for, but the overall style of your film comes from coloring - take your time with it. It's worth finding someone who can do it well.
If there is anything you feel I missed, please share and comment below! I would love to hear and add to this list!!! Either way, please, if you have an idea, bring it to life! Make a movie!!!
Mary Gabrielle Strause