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Making Your First Short

Updated: Nov 6, 2018

A case study on the psychological thriller ‘Eric Clapton’


Do you have a script, a story or even just an idea? Do you want to make a film but don't know where to start? The great news is, there's never been a better time to give it a go. You don't need permission, approval or funding. What you need is passion, commitment and creativity. For everything else you find a way. Here's what I learnt from making my first short.



Introduction


Anyone can make a film. You don’t need contacts or qualifications. Storytelling is ingrained in all of us. The smartphone you carry with you everywhere can shoot, edit and distribute your film. If your ambitions grow, technological advancements mean it’s cheaper than ever to purchase equipment that filmmakers could only dream of a decade ago. The only thing stopping you is you, which is often the hardest hurdle to overcome. It certainly was for me.


When nobody else sees you as a filmmaker, how do you make your thoughts and ideas a reality? How do you convince those around you that you aren’t just 'playing'? How do you convince yourself when the rest of the world doesn’t care whether or not you make a film? These are tough questions with a deceptively simple answer. You just start doing it and keep going. It's the best way to learn and convince everyone else that you're serious.


Filmmaking podcasts are a valuable resource for filmmakers. You learn an incredible amount with nothing expected in return except your loyalty. The insight gleaned from those blazing a trail you wish to follow is priceless. At the same time, be careful with advice (mine included). No two people’s journeys are the same. Origin stories can serve to discourage if you don’t feel you are walking a similar path of filmic destiny, first discovering the joys of filmmaking from inside the womb. If I didn’t vlog my way through the uterus then do I really have the credentials to pull this off? But don't fear. The more you learn the more you realise there are no secrets to uncover. Everyone else is just having a go and seeing what happens.


At the turn of the year I decided to make a short film. Along the way I learnt a hell of a lot which feels valuable and worth sharing. Everyone wants to be seen as an expert but I want to make it clear that I am not, nor is this the intention of the article. I am trying to offer something back to those people stood where I was nine months ago. Making that first leap is a big deal. It can feel like an impossible jump. But it’s far more achievable than you think.



Make the most of what you have


Everyone’s situation is different. My starting point was to consider my strengths and existing resources. I already have scripts, stories and ideas. I like to write. What I don’t have is anyone to make them. For you, the script may be the most daunting part. My approach was to limit the scope of my idea to one primary location and two actors. From here, I sought to write the most interesting and compelling story I could within these parameters. In its simplest form, the story is a conversation between a student and a psychologist. I initially wanted to find an office location but eventually decided to stage it at home. This way I would have complete control over the environment. I could practice the lighting, sound and camera angles beforehand. Plus it was free. I condensed a lot of questions with this one decision.


However, I was keen it didn’t look like it was shot at home. It felt appropriate for the story to be shot in a black infinity space so I learnt how to achieve this look by filming with a black background. I own a Panasonic GH5 mirrorless camera with a Leica zoom lens (12-60mm) which I used to shoot it. I spent a few hundred pounds on production equipment I didn’t already have, such as basic LED lights and stands. All the equipment I already owned, such as the GH5, is sat on a credit card waiting to be paid back. You don’t need this camera. A smartphone would have sufficed; it’s the story that matters. Plus, if you ask around you’re likely to find someone with a camera they’ll lend you for a day, or better yet they’ll offer to help. If you want more but can’t afford it, credit cards offer a tempting solution. This isn’t advice but a practical reality. Either make the most of what you have (recommended approach) or find means of getting more (the-sometimes-impossible-to-resist approach).


Set a production date you won’t change


One of the most important parts of the entire process was setting a date for the production. After deciding to make a short and progressing the script, I knew it wasn’t anything more than an idea until the production took place. My friend had agreed to shoot it with me and his partner was potentially playing the female lead. Their availability was crucial. I agreed a suitable date for everyone involved as soon as possible in the process. The logistics of bringing people together is always more difficult than you expect. Most people’s weekends are lined with a calendar of commitments that can’t be moved. We also had to find a time when my son could spend the day with relatives as my wife was involved in the production and it was taking place at our house. I decided the date could not change, no matter what.


There were times when I wanted to change it, but I feared moving the date would mean it might never happen. If I showed the date was flexible now, it could be flexible for someone else next time around. Everyone knew it was happening on Saturday 10th February. Only four weeks away. Scarily, I still had a number of parts to put in place, including my actors. But I decided that if it really came to it, I would play the main part (and I can’t act). That’s how committed I was to making this film. The week leading up to the production was incredibly busy and intense. The living room was transformed into the set. I was planning shots, testing equipment, sorting food for the day, creating a production schedule, going to rehearsals, shopping for outfits; all around a busy day job. As the big day approached, the number of little things that needed doing was overwhelming. It felt like organising a wedding. This is where the fixed date helped. It focussed the mind and meant there was no time for excuses.



Connect on social media


Finding collaborators you need to make your film is daunting when you don’t have connections. After committing to a production date, I set about finding two actors to play the main roles. I knew without good performances the quality of my film would be limited. I joined Shooting People and perused the job advertisements for paid and non-paid work. I considered advertising my project but I didn’t have any money to pay people or a track record to entice people in. I felt a better path was to approach an actor directly and see if I could persuade them to take part with my passion and vision. I looked through Mandy and Spotlight; two casting websites that allowed me to search local talent and view showreels. I needed a young man to play a student. I was keen to have someone of the right age rather than an older actor playing a younger part. This is where I discovered Kieran.


He had uploaded a monologue that really resonated with me. I watched it a number of times and could see him delivering the opening section of my film, which is a minute long monologue delivered straight to camera. So how do you go about making the connection? I followed him on Twitter and speculatively tweeted my intention to make a short film and have him in the lead role. He followed me back. I sent him a direct message with information on me and the project (including the fact it was unpaid) and asked if he wanted to read the script. He did, so I sent it over. He (must have) liked it as we agreed to meet for coffee. Before I knew it, two strangers were on a blind date (of sorts). Luckily, we hit it off. We spoke about the film for twenty minutes and then chatted about life for another ninety. We shook hands and there it was, my lead actor secured, two weeks before production.


WhatsApp auditions


Before Kieran came onboard, I was exploring other avenues in the quest for actors. It all seems inevitable now but at the time there was a tremendous amount of uncertainty and I was spinning a lot of plates. Another approach was to ask around at work if anyone had friends who were actors or interested in being in a short film. I had a couple of bites. I was given phone numbers and permission to approach. Without having seen or met these people before, I needed to get a sense of whether or not they were the right fit, and if they could act. I asked for a short video monologue to be sent via WhatsApp. Some people said they would and didn’t. Others put a lot of time and effort into it, sending across multiple versions, taking notes from me on performance and re-crafting their monologue. WhatsApp became an incredibly useful tool when time and money were limited.


Vitally, I secured my second actor for the film via WhatsApp. Yecara - the female lead - isn’t an actor by profession but she’s passionate about the craft and used to act at college. She's also the partner of my camera operator. As long as she was good, the relationship was ideal as her partner was already invested in the project. We’d discussed her potential involvement when the production date was agreed but it all hinged on the audition. Yecara recorded a monologue and sent it via WhatsApp and I was really impressed. Phew, two actors secured.



Do as many roles as you can


There is a certain status afforded a production with a big crew that allures people into seeking one for their own film. Moving forward I may look to expand my team as there is so much to do, but I really benefitted from taking on as many roles as possible. It feels like a good way to go for a first time filmmaker but is also recommended by many successful filmmakers too. Werner Herzog talks of this during his insightful Masterclass. He refers to holding the boom and recording the sound, both of which I did. The key for me was the experience. I wanted to do everything to learn about all aspects of the process. It was a journey of discovery. What can I feasibly do myself? What do I enjoy? What would be better achieved through collaboration? To know the answers to any of these questions I had to submerge myself in everything. Practically, it also made sense as I was self-reliant. I was the producer, set and costume designer, caterer, editor, composer, colour grader, sound mixer. I did everything apart from act. My friend operated the camera and my wife helped with script continuity. It was like a mini film school. For your first project, I recommend getting stuck in.


The importance of rehearsals


What a difference the rehearsal made. I was only able to get the cast together for a few hours on the Thursday night before the Saturday shoot but it made such an impact. Any time you can all get together before the production begins will save you time on set. We were able to get all the awkward introductions out of the way and run through the script a number of times. This allowed the actors to get used to performing with each other and test out different approaches to their character. I could then direct the performance where I wanted it. As a specific example, on the rehearsal night Yecara played her part in two ways. At first she was under playing the part and I asked for more. Then I felt she was over playing it. After a discussion and a few days reflection she turned up on the day and absolutely nailed it. I could have used the first take from most of her sequences throughout. If we’d not rehearsed we would have wasted time on the day trying to find that performance and with only a one day shoot we may not even have found it. Next time I’ll aim for further rehearsals but my overriding take-out is that any rehearsal is better than none. Make sure to include them.



Capturing dialogue on-set


I decided to operate the microphone, boom and sound recorder. I knew poor sound would break my film so I took responsibility for ensuring its quality. Also, on the day I would focus on dialogue only. The script was written with a vast array of sounds which derive from the story but I would capture these at a later date. I have acquired some entry level equipment over the years as my interest in DIY filmmaking grew. I used what I owned for the production. A Rode VideoMic Pro shotgun microphone and boom pole, a Zoom H1 recorder, and a basic Amazon mic stand. As we were filming in my living room, I was able to practice with sound levels in the shooting environment before the day. Also, as each shot was static on a tripod, I was able to agree the framing with the camera operator before getting into place with the sound equipment and calling action. That moment days later when you’re checking everything on your SD card is captured properly… pure terror. What a relief when it has.


Sacrifice sleep


One of my biggest lessons from the entire process is just how long everything takes if you want to do it well. The more you do it the quicker you’ll get, but there’s an unquantifiable element of time consumption that’s required for creativity and discovery. So much of what ended up in the film, from the various stages of production, came from spending a lot of time playing about. Trial and error. Yes I planned everything out up front but going deeper into the material you have, especially in post production, rewards you with more satisfying creative discoveries. How do you fit this all in with a day job and a family? By going to sleep after everyone else and getting up before them. Sleep deprivation is a toughie and not one most people are prepared to endure but for me it was essential. It’s surprising how your body adjusts too. As long as I catch-up once a week with a few good nights sleep, I can really push myself and still function during the day. Just be prepared every now and again for the moment you realise you’ve gone at it too hard and your brain screws into a psychedelic mess where you can’t look anyone in the eye because the world’s become an inhospitable vacuum of self-doubt and paranoia. This is your body telling you to get some much needed shut eye.


Increase your production value in post


When you have money and access to the latest equipment, you can focus your efforts on trying to achieve as much of your film’s look whilst shooting it. In-camera effects are of huge importance to directors like Christopher Nolan and cinematographers like Roger Deakins. At the other end of the scale - where time, money and equipment are limited - I found post production a tremendous opportunity to elevate the visual quality of my film. The major opportunity for me was the ability to turn my living room into a black infinity space.


The first image is taken straight from the camera. Below is the edited and colour graded version.


DaVinci Resolve is is the greatest tool available to independent filmmakers and it’s free. There is a studio version for £270 (which I have now purchased for de-noising footage and adding film grain) but 99% of my post production needs were met by the free version and for any filmmaker on a budget, it’s an absolute must. It has everything you need in one piece of software, ranging from editing and colour grading, to sound mixing and special effects. I only scratched the surface of its capabilities but I was able to do so much. Another useful trick was to film in 4k and edit on a HD 1080p timeline which meant I could crop into shots during the edit, taking the viewer much closer to Aiden as he wrestles with his own mind.


Here’s an example of how I was able to completely remove a passing train from a shot.




During the edit I realised I didn't have a shot of Aiden walking and I really wanted one. Scrubbing through my unused clips, I found a shot where the camera was rolling but we hadn't yet called action. That is me behind the chair. After a lot of jiggery pokery in DaVinci Resolve, I was able to turn this into the shot below it. The power of post production!




Record your own sounds


Sound is a very important component of my film beyond the dialogue. I recorded a lot of the foley sounds separately, months down the line from the original production, once the editing was largely complete. For the bird sounds, I went into the woods opposite my house with my sound equipment, capturing the chorus of bird song as the morning sun rose. Aware of the awkward attention I’d get spotted in the bushes with a fully extended boom pole housing a furry wind cover, I dodged the dog walkers and surreptitiously went about my business. For the train sounds, I stalked Stockport train station in search of key moments to record. I embraced my embarrassment and held the microphone aloft as the train announcement bellowed out, before shifting my focus to a breaking train screeching into the station. Stood at the end of a platform capturing sounds and filming an approaching train, I was mistaken for a potential suicide jumper and challenged by staff as I got close to the edge with my equipment deployed discretely. I had to smile. Life imitating art. My story going full circle.


Score using Apple Loops


Scoring the film was a challenge, especially after the gargantuan effort it took to get that far. I intended to create an original score but learning the MIDI keyboard was a challenge too far on this project. I still wouldn’t have finished it now. However, I looked for ways to be creative and original. I scoured Logic Pro X’s twenty thousand royalty free loops for a soundscape to match my vision for the film. After hours (days/weeks) of exploring and experimenting, I collated a number of complementary sounds to score the film, playing with pitch and tempo. In Logic Pro X, a video can be imported and the sound composed and mixed to it, before exporting the music file to import back into your non-linear editor. Adding the music really does elevate your film to another level. Using Apple loops won’t be appropriate for everyone and I’ll most likely find a different approach next time around, but it really worked for this story and it allowed me to make the film on my own terms. I don’t feel my vision was compromised in any way. Rather than composing original music, I spent a lot of time stitching different sounds together to support the story, matching the mood and pace of the piece. From those who’ve seen the film so far, the soundscape always gets a mention.



The post production black hole. Set a get out date


Production on Eric Clapton was a one day shoot in February. Naively I informed the cast and crew of my intention to finish the film by the end of March. I completed it in August. This is five months later than anticipated. Admittedly, I grossly underestimated the time and effort involved in finishing a film to the standard I wanted. Added to this was the fact I had to teach myself DaVinci Resolve for editing and colour grading, before moving onto scoring the film using Logic Pro X, another software program I needed to learn. I deliberately picked a project that would enable me to explore these applications and learn specific skills relevant to my project, rather than trying to master everything before I got started. I knew the other way around would result in never making a film as you can’t learn everything. So, early into post production I made peace with a longer process and settled into learning on the go.


Another major factor was my limited time, as I’ve had to make this film during the twilight hours. This has enforced a slower pace. Interestingly, the closer I got to the end, the less I wanted to finish it. I was so attached to the project that I think I subconsciously resisted its completion. Also, no one else was relying on it. I had as long as I wanted to tinker, adding new tricks as I learnt them. It’s a better film for the additional time spent on it but I needed an end point, a time to say stop, much like the initial production date. This came when I organised a reunion for the cast and crew; a day to screen the film and share the outcome. This had to happen on a specific date as the main actor had relocated to London and was dropping in especially. This focussed the mind, and in the early hours of the morning before we reconvened, the film was complete. It felt incredibly difficult to step away and declare the film finished, but the response to the screening was a major highlight of the entire process.


Create a poster. Cut a trailer. Interview the cast and crew


I want to be a self-sufficient filmmaker and I’m prepared to learn anything. My intention was always to create a web page to present the film and I wanted to build supporting material around it. I used Adobe Spark to create two posters. I tried my best to match the tone of the film using a black background - a key visual element of the film - and incorporating images and text consistent with the central premise of the piece. The marketing of the film centred on creating curiosity and intrigue for the story’s key mystery: why is the psychologist telling Aiden he’s Eric Clapton? This was followed through into the trailer. It’s a dark tale with a twist and a thriller hook, but underneath it’s a drama with meaning and relevance. Aiden is a young man struggling with his own mind. Also, on the screening day I took advantage of having the group back together and interviewed the two actors and made a video for the website. For those who discover the film and want to know more, it’s a useful addition. It’s also good exposure for the stars who helped make it. Finally, I included a number of stills from the film as well as head shots of the cast and crew. Here’s a link to the website if you’re interested in seeing how this came out. I created it using Wix, having never made a website before. It’s really intuitive and easy to use for non professionals.



Use the internet to teach you anything you don’t know


I genuinely mean it when I say I couldn’t have completed my film to the standard I have without the internet and the generosity of those providing free filmmaking resources on there. The internet is an interesting place and the quality of the free content varies considerably. However, if you seek out articles from writers, filmmakers and companies you respect, then you can learn a great deal. Anything I needed to know I just found a video for and taught myself. The following websites are my go-to filmmaking resources, all with excellent podcasts. I also found Casey Faris's DaVinci Resolve YouTube tutorials helpful.

Regular hosts Giles Alderson (The Dare), Dan Richardson (Retribution), Andrew Rodger (World of Darkness) and Christian James (Fanged Up) discuss how to get films made, how to actually make them and how to try not to f**k it up, in their very humble opinion.

Noam Kroll is an award-winning Los Angeles based filmmaker. His work can be seen at international film festivals, on network television, and in various publications across the globe. He produces a weekly blog, podcast and newsletter on micro budget filmmaking.

After over 20 years in the film business and watching countless of his fellow filmmakers get chewed up by the Hollywood machine, Alex Ferrari decided to create Indie Film Hustle. IFH is a resource dedicated to dropping truth bombs on filmmakers with a no-nonsense approach. Learn how truth, knowledge and some hustle can take you anywhere.

No Film School is the leading worldwide community of filmmakers, video producers, and independent creatives where filmmakers learn from each other — “no film school” required. I particularly enjoyed two podcast series; one on making your first feature, and one on making your first short. These provide great insight into the filmmaking process.



Learn an incredible amount from the journey


This is a natural by-product of making a film and a wonderful reward for your efforts. You can’t help but learn an incredible amount from putting yourself through the process. I have always tried to learn by theory before approaching any new skill but this will only get you so far. For me, it was invaluable to experience just how committed I was to the project, and how passionate I was about completing it to a high standard. I spent countless hours of lost sleep digging through the dark desperately dragging my vision into the light. I was creative, experimental, and dedicated to discovery through trial and error. By taking on the majority of tasks myself, I gained valuable insights into the key components of making a film, and I learnt those which I really enjoy and those I may look to find collaborators for future projects.


Writing, directing and editing are three stages I love. Each one is a form of writing as you hone your story. I enjoyed other areas too but a professional colourist would achieve great results much quicker. I would also love to work with a composer to create an original score. Editing music and sound is great fun but I just don’t have the time to teach myself to write music to a professional standard. However, at least I know I can make a film - from inception to completion - with very little help. Focus on the story and you can make something interesting and meaningful whatever your budget. Just make the most of what you have and try not to worry about that which you don’t. An approach for life, as well as art.


For anyone considering making a film, I hope this is useful. It really is possible and you can do most of it yourself. What you need is passion, commitment and creativity. There’s never enough hours in the day so maybe you have to sacrifice sleep. It’s surprising how quickly your body adjusts. Go on, make a film. Then you’ll feel capable of making many more.


There’s nothing stopping you but you.


Embrace every facet of filmmaking. Be creative where limitations lie. Make films not excuses.