Tuesday, November 18, 2014

How to Create an Original Short Film

Step 1: Choose Your Characters
Step 2: Set the Time Period and Backdrops
Step 3: Create a Main Goal
Step 4: Make Conflict
Step 5: Resolve the Conflict and Write the Plot
Step 6: Write the Script
Step 7: Preparations
Step 8: Filming
Step 9: Editing
Step 10: Plan a “Big” Debut!


            A few years ago, my cousin and I decided to write, direct and act out a play. We named the play “Two Pesky Boys”. We set up a camera in my unfinished basement and forced our brothers to be the pesky boys. My cousin and I did the whole thing in one take, yelling something along the lines of “Next scene!” instead of stopping the camera. We had a great time and we loved it!

            We loved it so much that we made many more plays after that, including my other cousin those times as well. Looking back on that first play, I am amazed at how many improvements we have made since then. They are becoming more like a short films rather than plays. Our last play included a title screen, music and fades between scenes!

            I’m not a good actor, an expert editor, or a brilliant director. However, I know that making a short film can be a fun, exciting experience and I want you to try it. Join me as I explain the ins and outs of short-film making (from start to finish).


Step 1: Choose Your Characters

            When you have the freedom to create a short film from scratch, I highly recommend that you start with your characters. To some people, this may seem strange. However, I have found that it is much easier to start a plot when the characters are better developed.

            For example, I started watching the classic television program, The Andy Griffith Show. After watching many episodes, I found myself easily creating funny scenarios that included Andy and Barney (the well-developed main characters). Recently, I was thinking about the very idea that developing the characters before the plot might make the creating process easier. I discovered that it is much harder to think of a new, memorable character entering the Andy Griffith Show than it is to create a new, memorable plot. For this reason, when you are creating a plot from scratch, I recommend that you start with the characters.

            Create no more than three main characters. Having a short film with more than three main characters can create confusion for the audience. This is because a person can typically only remember three objects/things in a group at once. Having more than three characters, (each with personalities, traits, quirks, and names), can confuse your audience and take away from the overall plot.

            While you are creating characters, you must keep several things in mind:
  • ·         If you have actors picked out, try to write for their personal acting type. For an actor particularly good at shy characters, it is probably a good idea to give them a shy character and keep them within their comfort zone.
  • ·         If you know what kind of play you are planning on writing (drama, comedy, etc.), create characters accordingly. Typically, it is best not to create a wild, hilarious main character for a serious, dramatic play.
  • ·         Out of the main characters, pick one of them to truly be the main character. The other ones are, in reality, “prominent sub-characters”. Every story needs a dominant character. If you have a play with no true, main character, the story may lack an important trait. The prominent sub-characters may be a large part of the story, but you should still have a truly main character.
  • ·         Wait to choose names until you have developed a setting (Step 2).
  • ·         If you are having trouble making a character, start with a friend or family member’s personality and grow from there.

Step 2: Set the Time Period and Backdrops

            The first thing that you should do (before we dive into the wonders of places, names, and backdrops) is think of a time period. This is important in the development of not only the plot, but also in the setting(s), dialect, film location specifications, clothing and props. If, for example, you choose the 1700’s, you have now narrowed down your locations. If you want to be accurate, you cannot be in a location newer than the 1700’s.

            Now, you must choose a setting and backdrop. The setting is different than the backdrop. A setting, in my own definition, means “the typical sort of area where the scenes take place”, and a backdrop means “a specific, individual location where the scenes are filmed.” In other words, during this guide, when I mention the setting, I mean the overall summary of location. For example, “the city”, “the country” or “nature”. And when I mention backdrops from now on, I mean to say “the specific locations”. For example, “downtown”, “the farmhouse” or “by the fire pit”.

            When choosing a setting, think of your characters. Do you want them to be in the city, in the country, roaming around the wild, at an orphanage, etc.?

            Choose the main character’s and prominent sub-character’s names. Carefully consider the time period and setting as you choose the names. If you need, you might want to research to make sure that you names are location and era appropriate.

            When choosing a backdrop, think of your setting. If the setting is “the farm”, for example, choose a few specific places like “an old broken down barn”, “the oak tree by our house” and “the farm house down the road”. Remember that the backdrop has to be a place where you are allowed to film. Hint: think of some of your favorite places and use them as backdrops, but make sure they are either your property, public property, or a place where you are allowed to film!

            While you are thinking of possible backdrops, keep several things in mind:
  • ·         You can use these locations as inspiration for your plot. This is one of the reasons why I think it is better to create characters, settings, and backdrops before you start the process of creating a plot. You might already find yourself coming up with ideas. If this is so, congratulations!
  • ·         For low-budget filming, the backdrops should be close to your house. After all, if the short film script ends up wonderful, you should have the right to use it!

 Step 3: Create a Main Goal

            Yes, this is (finally) plot development.  Hooray!

            Try to think of something your main character would strive for. Think of something that your character wants, but cannot have.

            Tip: Try to think of a situation and place your main character in it. This is hard, but don’t fret. Spend some time trying to realize what you character would want.

            If your main character is a poor farmer (determined in Step 1) who lives on a farm (determined on Step 2), maybe he would like a new barn. If he wants a new barn, you have a goal! We will worry about the conflict of getting his barn later. Just focus on the fact that he wants a barn but cannot have it. We will call this the “main goal”.

            As another example, if your main character is a young child (determined in Step 1) who lives at an orphanage (determined in Step 2), maybe she wants a family. If she wants a family, you have a goal!

            It may take awhile to think of a main goal. Don’t rule out any ideas that you think aren’t exciting enough. In step 4 we will create a dramatic or comedic scenario.

            While you are choosing the main goal, you should keep several things in mind:
  • ·         Use the setting and backdrops to help you create ideas. Remember, the farmer wants a new barn because he lives on a farm and the young child wants a family because she lives at an orphanage.
  • ·         Remember the type of person you made your main character to be. If you have a shy person, perhaps the main goal could be to become a singer and sing on stage. If you created a character within the comfort zone of an actor, you have the opportunity to not only take the character out of their usual comfort but to take the actor a little out of their comfort zone as well. This can create amazing emotions within your film.
  • ·         If you created an interesting or prominent sub-character, he could be the driving force of the main goal. Perhaps a mean prominent sub-character won’t let someone on public property, and the main character wants something on it. That might make an interesting main goal.
  • ·         Many stories, movies and plays have “sub-goals”. These are, like they sound, goals that the sub-characters or the prominent sub-characters want. For a short film, I recommend that you avoid too much of a sub-goal, if you choose to have one at all. Remember, movies are long and short films are short. This means that there isn't enough time for a complex sub-plot.

Step 4: Make Conflict

            Generally, in life, it is best to avoid conflict. Why? It can create drama, sad or angry emotions, separation and self-denial. It can drive the two conflicting people apart; it can start wars and create unresolved issues. However, in a plot, these are all of the things we are looking for. It may sound insane, but you should look for these things when you are creating a plot. Why? It can create a wonderful, driven plot. You don’t have to go into the extremes of starting a war in a nice, Victorian era short film, but you should still have conflict. Even children’s TV shows have conflict.

            While I was reading the book “A Novel Idea”, I came across an exercise for creating conflict. This may be the hardest thing that you do in the whole short film writing process, but give it a try. Work out your brain, and give yourself a long while to think.

1.      First, think of the worst thing that could stop your main character from achieving his goal. Think really hard, and come up with a tough, conflicting situation.
2.      Secondly, think bigger. If you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it can!
3.      Third, make the scenario even more difficult for your main character. It might take a long time to think of a solution, but think hard!

            The key: don’t hold back. Give your best ideas at first, and don’t try to save it for the last step. Force yourself to think big, but within a reasonable, true-to-life event. Don’t outgrow your short-film and make it into a movie-like scenario, unless you would like to make a movie and you think this one would work. In that case, go ahead! But otherwise, stay within the boundaries of your characters, time period, setting, and backdrops. Also, if you know your budget (which might be $0), don’t create a scenario that requires props you don’t already have or editing software you don’t already own. Remember these tips and think big! Don’t worry about fixing the issue now; we will do that in Step 5.

            Think of these questions to help with each step in the exercise:
  • ·         Is there a sub-character who could stop the main character from his goal?
  • ·         Is there anyone (maybe you could create a non-prominent sub-character) who is opposed to the main character’s goal?
  • ·         Why does the main character want this goal? Is there anything in his personal life that could be stopping him?

Step 5: Resolve the Conflict and Write the Plot

            This step includes several big decisions that can, quite literally, determine the outcome of your story.

            First, you must ask yourself, “Do I want to resolve the conflict?” In stories, plays, movies and short films, much like in life, the conflict is often left slightly unresolved. Sometimes, the conflict is completely left unresolved. However, more often than not, it is either only slightly left open or completely resolved.

            To help with that question, decide whether or not you would like to satisfy the audience. Would you like to leave the audience feeling happy, content, sad, thoughtful, mournful, overjoyed, etc. Sometimes, the conflict is partly resolved, to the point when the main character and the prominent sub-characters know they are happy, even if they will never go back to their original way of life. This is a good alternative to a “happily ever after”, because it is often more true to life.

            The character’s journey and strive for a resolution is a main part of the plot. Try to think of a solution to the main character’s conflict, determine whether or not you would like the main character to achieve his goal (because he doesn’t have to) and only then should you start writing your plot.

            While you are writing your plot, keep several things in mind:
  • ·         The plot is not the script. The plot is like an outline. It is the journey the characters take to create a goal, make conflict, resolve the issue, and possibly reach the goal, while the script is the dialog. The plot and the script are different things; you should wait to write your script until step 6.
  • ·         When determining the plot, I recommend that you use bullet points. They are an easy, un-ordered list that can easily be changed as your ideas change.
  • ·         Once you have the way that your character creates a goal, makes conflict, resolves the issue, and possibly reaches his goal, split the scenarios into scenes. If your short film is really short, this may not be necessary. However, if your short film is more like a short, filmed play, you should make it easier to perform by splitting it into scenes.
  • ·         If you are an organized film-maker, you could write a “Film Location Guide”. Write the locations and then the scenes you would like to be filmed there. You will most likely have to film out of order!

Step 6: Write the Script

            Once you have completed the first five steps, you should be well on your way to making a short film. However, there are is still several steps to complete before you can have a finished product. You must write the script (this step), gather your actors, props, dates and time of filming (Step 7), film the actors (Step 8), edit the footage (Step 9), and stage a debut (Step 10).

            In this step, you should write your script. I prefer to write my script much like a regular play. However, you may prefer to not only give backdrops, actions, and dialog, but you might also like to place filming tips within the script. If you want, you can write the scenes you need to shoot. For example, you could write “Sky and creek”. This would tell you that you need to get film of not only the scene, but also the sky and the creek. I prefer to choose my extra footage when I get to the location, but this is your decision entirely.

            If you don’t know what a play (or short film) script looks like, search the internet or go to your local library. You should be able to find popular, classic plays for free. This may give you some good ideas on how you should write your short film. You might be able to also find some movie scripts (which should look longer than, but very similar to, your short film script). In the end, however, you should write your short film script in a way that will be easy for you and your fellow actors to understand.

            While you are writing the script, keep many things in mind:
  • ·         Writing the script might end up being the longest part of writing a short film. Take your time and try not to rush. By this point, you should have a fairly clear idea of what the short film is going to be like, and you are probably excited to get started on the filming. But remember, take your time, the filming should come soon enough.
  • ·         Remember to keep era-accurate dialect throughout the script. If you need, do some research about the dialect of the specific time period and region of the world.
  • ·         Even though you should already have a great main character, setting and plot, the script will still require a lot of creativity. Now is the time when you get to determine the style of speech (dialect) that your characters have, and you get to (if you choose) write down the emotions given with each movement of the actors. Have fun with it, and spend some time thinking about what your character might say in the situations you put them in.

Step 7: Preparations

            After your script is ready, you might feel like you are ready to jump right into filming. However, you probably don’t want to be the person to realize that you need a prop, the weather is bad, the actors haven’t practiced enough, etc. There is an important step between writing the script and filming: preparation.

            If you don’t already have your actors, this is the time to find them. Have them read a few lines off your script and try their acting skills with some of the other actors.

            Once you have your actors (and you might have already had them by this point) set up at least one camera-free rehearsal time. Sit around and read your scripts. If you think that everyone will do alright, you might only need one rehearsal. If you don’t think the actors have had enough practice, plan for another rehearsal time. It’s alright if you need more than one rehearsal. The point of rehearsal(s) is to prepare the actors. Having a rehearsal allows them to practice with the other actors before putting them in front of a camera.

            If any props are necessary for your short film, make sure that you have them ahead of time, before the day(s) you need them. Also, if a person besides yourself is going to bring the props, give the person a reminder the day before filming.

            If you are going to be doing lots of filming in the same day, make sure that you have snacks. If the filming schedule happens to overlap lunch, make sure that there is food for everyone (or ask them to bring their own).

            While you are scheduling days to film, keep several things in mind:

  • ·         When you have a general idea of the days that you might film, look up the weather and make sure that the weather is clear. Besides checking for weather issues such as tornados, rain storms, snow, etc, also make sure to check for other issues pertaining to your individual situation. For example, if you are going to film near a creek, check for flash flood warnings. Or, as another example, if you are filming in the summer time, check not only for rain but for heat index warning as well.
  • ·         If you are planning on using any backdrops that require permission, talk to the people in charge and plan a filming date accordingly.
  • ·         Of course, make sure that the actor’s schedules do not conflict with the filming schedules. Be courteous and tell them the time to arrive and the estimated time they will be leaving.

Step 8: Filming

            The night before filming, make sure that your all of your filming equipment is ready to go. Charge your camera, test your tripod, and make sure that your memory card is empty. Do any other preparations you need to the night before.

            Before you leave for your filming location, check to see that you have everything you need. Take your camera, tripod, phone, sun block (if the film is outside), an extra copy of the script, food (if you are going to eat during filming), and anything else you might need.

            Arrive at the location before the time you gave the actors. Look at the lighting (see bullet point below), where you want certain scenes to happen, where the camera should be, and so forth. Film any non-actor scenery (such as a view of the farmhouse, a bird in the trees, the grass blowing in the wind, etc.) before the actors arrive. That way, when they arrive, you can move right into filming them (and not the scenery).

            When the actors arrive, tell them which scenes you are going to be filming. Run through the basics of what you want them to do, where you want them to stand, when you are going to be taking breaks, and any other important information. Be considerate and ask them if they need some more practice before you begin.

            When you are filming, keep some important things in mind:

  • ·         No matter if you are inside or outside, there is going to be light. Light from the sun, whether coming from a window or not, can cause lighting issues for the camera. For example, when you film towards the sun, the camera cannot focus on the subject because of the mass amount of light it is trying to process. This can make the subject (like an actor) dark and hard to see. When the subject is like this, it is called being “backlit”, a term you have probably heard before.The easiest way to fix back-lighting is to turn the camera in the other direction, so that the sun is on the camera (and the camera man’s) back.
  • ·         For a more professional look to your short film, try to film different angles within the same scene. This can be achieved even if you have only one camera; if you have the actors perform the scene several times, each time with a different camera angle.
  • ·         The scenes might take longer than you think to get right. If your filming schedule is taking longer than you thought, be patient! After all, it should only make your film better, so don’t worry.

Step 9: Editing

            Just like writing, this portion of creating a short film will probably be by yourself. Editing can be thought of like making a quilt. When you make a quilt, you have to cut up pieces of fabric and then piece them together. The same is in editing. When you edit, you have to cut up your videos and then piece them together. It is a fun, but time consuming, process.

            If you have had little to no practice editing, you might need to do some “research”. The next time that you watch TV, try to watch notice the transitions that they use between scenes. Next, notice how many times the camera angles change. Pay attention to any other details about compilation you might have been wondering about.

            Each editing program is unique, and it would be very difficult for me to explain the process of editing for each and every program. If you have trouble using your project you can search the internet or your instruction guide for an answer.

            While you are editing, keep these helpful tips in mind:

  • ·         Don’t bother with a transition between each camera angle. If you watched TV and paid attention to transitions, you might have noticed that there aren’t many at all. Typically, editors don’t use transitions. And, if they do, they usually only select a simple “fade” transition.
  • ·         Keep the music instrumental. If you are planning on adding music to your scenes, make sure that they are instrumental. If the music has singing and your scene has talking, you are adding vocals on top of vocals. This can not only distract the audience, but it can take away from the scene as well. However, there is an exception regarding vocal music. You can add it between scenes or during non-talking portions. If you have a scene where the characters are walking, for example, you could play music with words because nobody is talking.
  • ·         For a low-budget short film where only a few people do a majority of the work, make them feel special. When you get to the credits, feel free to name one person’s name several times. For example, if a person was an actor, snack provider, location organizer and script editor, you could name them four times in the credits and make them feel special.
  • ·         If a person let you use their property, brought lunch to you, donated a prop, etc., make sure that you mention their name in the credits.

Step 10: Plan a “Big” Debut!

            After your short film is edited and finished, you can plan a “big” debut. This step is optional, but it is a step you might regret discarding. For a simple debut, invite all of your actors and crew to your house. Turn on the finished short film and enjoy your little movie. For a bigger debut, invite more people to your house, talk to one another ahead of time, pop some popcorn, and watch the short film. In this step we will focus on the “big” debut, but you could use some of these ideas if even if you are going to have a simple debut.

            Plan the debut on a workable date. Talk to every actor, film crew, and important person and ask them which day would work best. For a short film, you don’t have to plan the whole day as a debut.

            After you have the date of the debut set, invite every name on your credits. If a person let you film for several days on their property, for example, you should return the favor by showing them the film you created. Beyond the credits, feel to invite any family or friends that you please.

            Make the rest of your debut as small or big as you like. You could just invite them to your living room to watch the film or you could literally roll out a red carpet. Have fun with it! The hardest part of making the short film is over, now is your chance to show people your creation!

            After your first showing, you have a decision to make. You can leave your short film alone or you can try to spread the word about it. If you want to tell other people about your short film, perhaps even complete strangers, you will still have to spend some time spreading the news about your newest film.

            While you are spreading the news about your short film, keep these tips in mind:

  • ·         Post it on the internet in every little nook and cranny that you can. Post it on any social media you are logged into. But remember, don’t annoy people. One post about your video on each website should be enough. If they aren’t going to watch the video, re-posting it probably won’t do you any good.
  • ·         Soon after your debut, post the short film on more than one video-watching website (you have the opportunity for more viewers that way). Post your film on YouTube and Vimeo. If your short film is faith-based, consider posting it on God Tube as well.

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