What I Learned From Making A Short Film
by Mandi Harrison
There's a lot of talk about whether a filmmaker should start with making short films or not. (And by lots of talk, I mean Internet comment sections) Some people stick up their noses at short films, saying that it's a waste of time and energy; if you want to make features, then make a feature. I think the real issue is that they don't see the value in a short film. They don't consider it to be a real project.
"What constitutes a short film?" you may ask. Well, by festival and award show rules, a short film is any film that is under 50 minutes long; 5-15 minutes is the norm. Short films are an extremely powerful medium. The filmmaker has to convey a message or emotion and still hit all the story arcs. Film Festivals often have a short program because the programmer can put 5-7 shorts together to fill a time block.
There are many benefits as a filmmaker to making short films, including developing your techniques on a much smaller scale (and budget), so that when the time comes to film your feature, you have more confidence in your skill level. It's also the perfect opportunity for more established filmmakers to experiment, to just keep creating.
You can also use short films as a way to attain financing for your feature. There are many examples of filmmakers taking their idea for a feature, creating a short film from that idea and using the short film to secure financing for the feature length film. One such example was Whiplash, from Damien Chazelle. He took 15 pages from his screenplay and was able to get financing to create an 18 minute short and premiered it at Sundance. He won the Jury Award for short film fiction and was able to secure financing to film the feature. Whiplash went on to be nominated for 5 Academy Awards, winning 3, including Best Supporting Actor for J.K. Simmons, who starred in both the short and the feature. Of course, this is the exception, not the norm, but it can be accomplished.
Towards the end of last year, Chris and I were both chomping at the bit to film something. We haven't filmed in a while, and with all the writing and development, we've been discovering what kind of storytellers we are. Chris had just finished a draft on our feature, but we knew it wasn't ready to film. He told me about a story idea about our dog, Ozzy, and we decided to make a short. This is what I have learned from this experience.
*Preproduction is the key to success.
There are some people that will just grab a camera and start filming; more power to them. Chris and I both like to be prepared. Chris had a story idea, he wrote a script. We had production meetings, complete with a production binder and scripts for notes. Before we started filming, we knew what the end goal was.We planned out our shot list and how we wanted things staged. We talked about camera angles and the tone of the film and even how he wanted to edit. I went out and bought the props we needed. We already had our stars, so we didn't have to cast. We picked a day to film. The day of filming, I made sure the crew had coffee and everything was where we needed it. We were set.
* Sometimes, you have to go with the flow.
There's a saying in Hollywood that you should never work with children or animals. We were extremely fortunate that Ozzy was so cooperative. We actually planned on him being more difficult, but our boy was a born star!
There was two reasons we were successful: 1. there weren't a lot of people in the room; he just thought it was a normal day and 2. we were quick to improvise. If a shot wasn't working out, we thought of something else that would work. We were patient with him and worked fast, sometimes just getting one take. Once we knew we had the shot, we moved on, not wanting to wear our star out.
Oh, I forgot; there was a third reason: peanut butter.
*Knowing what you want
I always ask Chris "What's your vision?" and we roll our eyes, because it's such a cheesy, cliche thing to say. But as a filmmaker, you have to have a sense of what you want your final project to be. The tone, the look, the feel, even a color- there has to be a blueprint other than the script and it's the director's vision.
Chris knew what he wanted Ozzy to be from the beginning, and we got it there. Once filming was done, Chris began the post-production. Editing, coloring, music and everything else that goes into the finished product. He did what he had to do to make it what he knew it could be.
As we were completing filming and starting the postproduction, Chris and I took a moment to talk about about what we learned from this experience. It's something we learned from our photography training, and now we do it after everything. What worked, what didn't; we just wanted to compare notes so we could continue to grow.
On set, we had the two of us and our two actors, which meant that we all were having to multitask. Chris and I are so used to having to multitask (and secretly enjoy it), but having one more person would have been extremely helpful. At the time of filming, our documentation of what we were filming (writing down the order in which everything was shot, how many takes, which take to use, etc.) was done after the fact. That is the one thing that we both would have changed, being able to do it at that moment. It ended up not being a problem for this project, but for people who like being organized, it did bother us and going forward, that will be a priority.
The main thing we learned, or maybe it was just me, is that we can do this. Just do it.
* On to the next step
Even before post-production was complete, we were working on a plan of action. Chris submitted the screenplay to some festivals; it was named a finalist at The 2018 Phoenix Film Festival for Short Film Screenplay. We researched film festivals that specialized in short films. We copyrighted the screenplay; yep, our bubs is in the Copyright Office in Washington, D.C. We have entered him in several festivals, and have received several "Unfortunately...." letters. But it only takes one yes...
Ozzy is an official selection of the 2018 Jerome Indie Film Festival!
We are so excited to be included in this - it is a nice feeling to have your work validated. At the same time, we both know that there is a lot of work ahead. We are still entering Ozzy into festivals, and are in various stages of development on several projects. This is an exciting step, just one of many down the road. And we are ready to go!