Okay, you’ve decided to take the plunge and write your first short film - maybe even a feature! If you’re planning on shooting the short film yourself, or potentially selling it to a producer, there are a few things to think about while writing that will save you from a major headache and financial catastrophe down the road. Being realistic and innovative is key when bringing a vision to life.
When writing your movie, thinking like a producer is necessary, and will provide excellent guideposts and attainable limitations when you’re first starting out and even down the road. Taking the following tips into consideration when crafting your big-hit may also give you a different spin on your creativity and imagination that may surprise you - I know they sure did for me.
Without further adieu, here are my suggestions on what to think about while writing your script:
This is always the kicker. I know you want to create this elaborate, commercial/studio film that people are going to line around the block to see, but in reality, it doesn't happen like that when you're just starting. You have to think of what resources you have and be honest with yourself when it comes to spending. Think of all of the things you need in terms of locations and permits, crew, cast, costumes, meals, set decoration, and the like! This is where innovation is critical.
When you’re writing your screenplay, especially if you intend to make it on your own, think of what you know will be available to you for little to no cost and use that and everything that comes along with it to all of your might. In turn, be honest and realistic with yourself in how much money you think you can raise and spend in making this movie.
If you can only spend a minimal amount, make sure you write in attainable and more affordable locations, fewer cast members potentially, maybe shoot the movie yourself - whatever it may be.
With your budget in mind, and whether you intend on paying your crew (you may be shooting with friends or at film school where the people may be on board for the experience) knowing whether you can find/have the proper crew members who know what they’re doing on some scale is essential.
Do you have someone in your area/hometown who knows how and would be willing to use a camera who can shoot your movie? Do you have someone to record sound? Do makeup and hair? Someone who can watch for continuity? Are you directing? Who’s going to edit your movie? Is someone designing the set you’re going to use to fit the tone of your film? Are there weapons in your movie? Stunts? You’ll need a stunt coordinator and an armorer for safety purposes.
Depending on where you live and the scale of your film, keeping in mind the crew members you’ll need for the scenes you write is essential. You might just be making a film with your friends in your back yard - but of course, you’ll need to write for this scenario too and making sure you have everything and everyone you need.
When you envision the story, you’re writing - your imagination will, of course, take action. Realistically though, you need to know the resources you have, what you’ll need, and what you can afford when writing the scene to be shot.
What camera are you going to use to shoot? Do you have any lights to expose your scene correctly? Did you want a dolly shot - if so, are you going to take the camera off sticks and walk with the scene? Use a skateboard? Or will you have to buy a dolly track? Did you want to have haze in a room for a scene? Do you have sound recording equipment? A mic? Or are you just going to use your phone’s memo recording utility?
Understanding and going through each scene, and taking note of what you might need equipment-wise is important when you intend on shooting what you write. In that regard, if you write a space battle scene - know you’ll need a green screen, the proper lighting for that green screen, someone who can do the visual effects in post, and overall someone who knows how to shoot on a green screen - not to mention a spaceship. If you think you’ll have some trouble, either adjust or think innovatively on how you can make what you want to happen.
Characters & Acting
We all know that your characters are the most incredible thing out there, and you need to share them with the world- but make sure they're able to live in the world you create with the rules you've set up. Also - be sure you'll be able to dress them, train them, and do their makeup accordingly for believability and credibility's sake.
Do you know someone who can play the role you've created, or can someone you cast fulfill the needs of your character? If your lead is a knight from medieval times, be sure you know that you'll have to teach them how to sword fight, have a suit of armor/or whatever you envisioned him/her wearing, and make sure their teeth are possibly not the greatest. The same thing goes for the Robocop inspired character or even your pregnant alien from the planet Shmeeg. Make sure you're ready and willing to get creative and know what you're getting into before putting that character on screen - don't let it ruin your imagination - but always think of what limitations you have and how you can innovatively work with them.
Setting & Location
When you're planning on shooting what you write, you have to make sure you'll be able to do it! As cool as it sounds - shooting a spaceship battle scene is a bit difficult unless you're terrific at stop motion and want to use Legos in your film, and/or you are incredibly gifted in visual effects and computer graphics. The same goes for if you're going to shoot at a diner, hospital, laundromat, beach in Hawaii, etc., using locations you know you can shoot at that are practical locations, already set how you imagined, is always the way to go.
Props & Set Decoration
Whether you write your scenes big or small, it’s good to know what the characters will be interacting with and the mood of the setting that they will be in. What I mean by this is if you have your character listing to an 8-track tape and watching a movie on VHS - make sure you’re able to get ahold of those things for when you’re shooting. On a bigger scale, if your character rides a motorcycle, a vehicle, you need to be able to provide that vehicle, maybe have a “stunt” driver if your lead doesn’t know how to ride, and a stunt coordinator.
The same thing goes for set decoration. If your screenplay mentions a character escaping through a window and getting caught in the Christmas lights in the process - make sure you’re able to shoot in a place where your actor can easily escape from a window. On top of that, make sure the site that you’re shooting has that window, and make sure those Christmas lights can believably be hung up in a way that your lead gets tangled up in them.
Costumes, Wardrobe, & Makeup
In terms of what your character's wardrobe and makeup, make sure you'll be able to follow through with that vision. For example, if you have zombies in your script, you're going to need a lot of special effects makeup (or improvise) to make your zombies look dead and disgusting. On the other hand, making tattered clothes and dirtying them is another thing to keep in mind. Also, if you're planning on getting a costume dirty: for example, if the lead character shoots a zombie down, and a squib shoots blood all over the zombie's tattered shirt, for continuity purposes - you'll need multiples of the same shirt, with the same tatters and dirt stains.
Finding the costume can help create your character. It's a lot of fun! Further advice would be, though, if you can't make it, find multiples of it, or buy your desired costumes and makeup at a reasonable price, keep them out of your scripts for now. What I mean by this, is if you have a 16th-century, elaborately dressed, queen, in your short film that time travels to your zombie apocalypse, you might have a tougher time in this department.
During my sophomore year at Studio School, I ran into a problem that involved weapons with my script, and it almost got me expelled because of miscommunication with the location. Weapons are a tricky situation. It would be best if you had an armorer, a permit wherever you are shooting (unless you are shooting in your garage, backyard, inside your home, or anywhere where anyone on the outside who doesn't know what you are doing can't see you).
If you don't have a permit and you are using fake guns on your set or out in the open - people are going to call the police, and they might do some horrible things to you if they think you're waving a gun around willy nilly - especially nowadays. Make sure everything is squared away with your weapons, that people know you're using them and that they're fake, and you have the proper permits and armorers.
Going off of what I said above, if you're planning on having a space shoot-out in your film, or maybe teleporting from the 1950s to present day, or only looking to use the screen of a phone for a text-messaging conversation, you're going to be needing visual effects to create the desired impact for your audience. If you're not entirely keen on the subject of using visual effects, don't know how to create them, nor do you have a close friend or someone else who is willing to do them for a wallet-friendly price - I'd suggest keeping them or the thought of them out of your script...until further notice.
now go out & make your movie!
Have fun and just go for it! Don't hold back! Your idea is better experienced out in the world compared to staying inside your head. Share your gifts!