Early in my video career, I wanted to make a film to enter into a local short film festival. Just one problem: none of my friends or family were available to help me. We all know that filmmaking requires a whole team of collaborators, right? How could I create a film without any cast or crew, much less one that might actually win? Keep reading to find out.
Know your limits
The first step to successfully making a film all by yourself comes before you even write your script. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you know you’ll be flying solo during production, write a script that you’ll be able to execute yourself. This means it’s probably best to limit your number of characters to one, and don’t get too ambitious with your locations or actions either. Remember, every little change in your scene might require you to move the camera, lights, microphone and more — all by yourself.
If you know you’ll be flying solo during production, write a script that you’ll be able to execute yourself.
This tip goes for your storyboard too. Unless you have access to fancy motion control equipment, you’ll want to plan shots for which you can leave your camera locked down on a tripod. It’s pretty hard to move a camera and act simultaneously, though not necessarily impossible.
In my case, I wrote a film called ‘Penciled Percussion’. The short piece followed a boy — me — mindlessly tapping a pencil against his desk as he does homework. Over time, the rhythmic tapping leads to an all out pencil-drum solo on the desk. One character, one location, no dialogue and lots of quick close-ups that would easily cut together in post. Piece of cake.
Planning Your Shoot
You’re going to have a lot on your plate during production, and no one to keep you in check. Therefore, I suggest planning everything out ahead of time and keeping copious notes and lists of everything you need to remember. This includes the obvious stuff like storyboards and shot lists, but how about a checklist of everything you’ll need to setup before a take? Even things that are usually second nature might slip your mind when you’re wearing so many hats. Personally, I’ve forgotten to lock my exposure, set focus, and even hit record before “filming” entire scenes. So give yourself plenty of reminders to avoid these time consuming mistakes.
Use your gear
Now is the time to make use of all that gear you’ve got piled up in your closet. After all, who needs a cameraman when you’ve got a tripod? You’ll most likely want to have your camera on sticks for every shot. You can even add some jitter in post to make your locked down shots look handheld, though this filmmaker prefers the static look. I’d also recommend throwing your boom pole on a c-stand for overhead audio, and external monitors and remotes will come in handy as well.
Likely, the most challenging part of being a one-man cast/crew is setting up your shot. How can you be in front of and behind the camera at the same time? Sure, a swivel screen or an external monitor can sometimes do the trick. But what if that’s not available, or if your mark is too far away from the camera? This is where a stand-in comes in. Find something that approximates your size and height and place it on your mark, set up your shot — lights, focus, etc. — then hit record and swap yourself in.
You can use a plethora of inanimate objects to stand in your place. A full-size mannequin would be ideal, but assuming you don’t have any of those lying around, your best bet will probably be an extra tripod or light stand. But I’ve used chairs, pillows, boxes — if it’s the right size and you can easily move it around, it’ll work.
Watch back your footage
This might be one of the most important tips for shooting by yourself, and it’s made effortless by digital cameras: watch back your footage right away. If there is something wrong with your shot — and there probably is — you’ll want to catch it before you move on. Don’t even move the camera an inch if you don’t have to. You don’t want to have to reset everything just because your cat was walking by in the background. Oh, and if you record audio separately, make sure you listen to that as well.
Take your time.
One last tip: take your time. When you’re doing the work of an entire crew, things are bound to go slowly. But the beauty is, you’re not wasting anyone’s time but your own. Take as much as you need to get everything just right. Your future self will thank you.
Shooting by yourself isn’t ideal, but the lesson to be learned is this: Don’t let any obstacle stop you. In my case, ‘Penciled Percussion’ won first place in the festival and took home an audience choice award as well. It's easy to give up in the face of your limitations, but it’s much more rewarding to power through and find a creative solution.
That said, just because you can go it alone doesn’t mean you have to. Having an extra person on set will always lighten the load. But even if you’re lucky enough to have a big crew on your next project, these tips might make things go a little more smoothly.
Daniel Hart is an independent filmmaker and freelance videographer. He co-created the YouTube channel ‘Xavious Pictures’, where he has been creating family-friendly comedy films for over a decade.