Short Filmmaking Checklist: Everything you need to do before the shoot
So, you have decided you want to make a short film – welcome to pre-production! In filmmaking, pre-production begins once a decision has been made to go ahead with a project (it has been “greenlit”) and ends with your first day of filming, which is when production begins.
Pre-production is the planning stage for your film and includes refining the script, casting your actors, finding your crew, sourcing equipment and scouting locations.
An effective pre-production period is vital to the success of any film but it is especially important for short films where you are likely to be working with fewer resources, a limited budget and you may only have a short window of opportunity to shoot the footage you need.
This article will help to ensure that you arrive on set with everything in place, ready for the cameras to roll.
The checklist is your friend
While you will work with a larger crew when shooting your short film, much of the pre-production work will fall on your shoulders. Even if you are lucky enough to have someone to share the load, a checklist (or, more likely, a series of checklists!) is essential to make sure nothing gets overlooked. Draw up a timetable with milestones and deadlines to monitor the progress of your preparation. That way you can make sure everything is on track and reprioritize tasks if the schedule starts to slip. Ensure you have a full understanding of the filmmaking process from pre-production, through production and all the way to the end of the post-production period. For example, if your editor wants the footage logged in a particular way then you need to prepare the paperwork and processes as part of your planning stage.
Find a story
A good story needs a beginning, middle and end
Alfred Hitchcock once said: “To make a great film you need three things – the script, the script and the script”. Short films need to tell a story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Make sure your script has a clear focus. Who is your protagonist and what is their motivation? It is best to limit the number of characters and stick to one story, so avoid sub-plots which can just be a distraction. You need your audience to become engaged with your characters to care about them. Don’t try to cram a feature-length story into a 5 minute short! While you shouldn’t restrict your imagination, you do need to be realistic about your resources. Setting your film on board a trans-Atlantic airplane might make for great drama but how will you find a plane interior for filming? Think about the locations you will be able to access and temper your ambitions accordingly.
Make sure your story has a clear focus
The narrative structure of short films has to be condensed with a close cause and effect relationship between events. You should look to follow a modified version of Freytag’s Pyramid for your dramatic structure:
- Exposition: establish your characters, the setting for your film and the challenge faced by your protagonist. Be brief! A short film needs to get into the story quickly.
- Inciting incident: the event that pushes your character out of their comfort zone to confront their problem and drives them to achieve their goal.
- Rising action: the steps the protagonist must take to achieve their goal. Don’t give them an easy ride! Include additional challenges for them to overcome to raise the stakes and the drama!
- Climax: the climax is the emotional summit of the film and decides the protagonist’s fate (for better or worse depending upon whether your story has a happy or a tragic ending).
- Dénouement (resolution): this can be brief in short films and may be combined with the climax. The short film format works well with a punchline (which can be comedic or dramatic) or twist at the end.
If you are struggling to find your story then get in touch with local writers’ groups or colleges which run creative writing courses. You will discover a wealth of short stories, many of which will be perfect to adapt to a film script. Whether you are working with your own script or one from another writer, invest some time editing and refining it. Pay particular attention to any dialogue, ensuring every word has meaning and significance. “Show, don’t tell” is a very relevant concept for a short film script.
Plan your production
Plan how each scene will be shot
Once you have the final draft of your script, it’s time to plan how to lift the story off the printed page and bring it to life in front of the camera.
Think in sequences
Consider the different ways in which a scene could be filmed and the camera angles you could use. Do you need a wide shot to establish a scene from the outset or would you prefer to create suspense with closeups before a big reveal? Break down the actions of your characters into steps, stages and processes. Something as simple as pouring a cup of coffee will rarely be covered with just one shot or one angle. Fine details such as a message received on a cell phone, or the subtle change of expression of a character’s face, may need to be brought to the audiences’ attention with a closeup. Think about the pacing of a scene – emotional scenes may benefit from longer shots whereas action scenes work better with faster cuts and more camera angles. Shot lists and storyboards will help you visualize how your finished film will look and will be invaluable when you start filming. Without proper notes, it is all too easy to forget to shoot a pickup or cutaway that could be vital to the telling of your story. Don’t worry if you aren’t an artist – even simple sketches with stick figures can serve as an aide-memoire on set and help you communicate your vision to the cast and crew.
Make a shooting schedule
Once you have broken down the script into sequences you can draw up a shooting schedule. It is rare that films are shot in chronological order and you should plan your shooting schedule so that you can work in the most efficient way. If several scenes take place at one location, aim to shoot those together even if they take place on different days in the script. Consider how you are working with your actors: if a character appears in three scenes could those be filmed in one day rather than calling that actor back on three separate days? When you are filming scenes out of order, it is important to create continuity notes to accompany your shooting schedule. Consider each characters’ clothing and other aspects of their appearance which may need to change to show the passage of time. The shooting schedule will be your starting point when you are putting together the call sheets for cast and crew prior to each day of filming. For more advice, check out this article on the importance of call sheets.
Scout shooting locations
When scouting for locations for your short film, be sure to consider the practicalities as well as the look you want.
Remember that when filming interiors, you won’t just need to accommodate your actors but also the crew along with a camera, sound equipment and possibly some additional lights. Apart from being a tight fit, small rooms can limit the choice of camera positions and so the variety of shots that you can obtain. Make a note of the available power sockets so you can take along extension reels if needed.
Exterior locations can present additional challenges as you have less control over certain aspects such as the weather, or onlookers when filming in public locations. Make sure you scout exteriors at the time of day you intend to shoot. You may find that the deserted back alley you discovered one evening is full of parked cars during office hours.
As your scouting, pay extra attention to the audio conditions on location, and try to predict how things could change. This will help inform what audio gear you’ll need on set. It may be quiet during your location scout, but is there a multi-lane street near by? If you’re scouting on a Sunday morning but shooting on a Monday morning, traffic conditions may be dramatically different. If you’re in an otherwise quiet park, an unexpected dachshund owners club meeting may begin at the exact moment you plan to start rolling.
Research whether any permits are needed for filming in public spaces. You are unlikely to be able to access power outlets when filming outside so will need to advise to bring extra batteries for those shoots.
Be prepared to compromise. The setting you envisaged when preparing the script may not exist unless you wrote with a particular space in mind. Find locations that have the essential elements needed to tell your story and be flexible on the smaller details.
Think about creature comforts
For all locations that you intend to use, make sure you give consideration to cast and crew welfare. Where can people sit between takes? Where is the nearest restroom? What space is available to park vehicles? Is there anywhere to prepare food? For exteriors have contingencies in place in case it rains – even if that is just a selection of golfing umbrellas.
For more tips on finding the perfect location check out our top 5 tips every location scout should know.
Track down props
When assessing what props you need for a scene, don’t limit your thinking to specific objects or articles referred to in the script. Props can help to subtly establish the nature of a character in the mind of your audience even if they only appear in the background. Consider how the perception of an older person may change if their apartment is sparsely decorated compared with a room where photographs of family and relatives stand on every surface. A little careful set dressing can go a long way to help tell your story.
Make sure you have purchased all your props in advance of filming. It’s not recommended to rely on being able to pick up something you need on the day of filming — you will have too many other things to think about! Never rely on a location having what you need: if your character needs to drink a glass of water then take along a glass and some bottled water ready for the shot.
For more tips on how to make the best use of your props read Fully Furnished: 5 tips for using props effectively.
The first and most important piece of kit is a camera. Ideally you should plan to shoot in 4K and at the standard frame rate of 24 frames per second. This will make your film more adaptable to the current generation of theater projectors. Consider whether you need specific features such as a camera that is good at shooting in low light or can film at a high frame rate to give slow-motion playback.
Many filmmakers prefer to use prime lenses due to their higher image quality but this means having multiple lenses to cover the range of focal lengths that you may need for your film shoot. If your budget is limited, a zoom lens that ranges from a decent wide-angle to a reasonable telephoto focal length can be a versatile one-lens solution.
Although shooting scenes handheld can be an artistic choice, it’s a technique that requires skill and practice to avoid giving your audience motion sickness. For beginners, a tripod or monopod will help to ensure that your footage is more usable.
Audio is often seen as the poor relation in filmmaking but nothing could be further from the truth. Your choice of audio recording equipment should be given the same priority as your camera equipment. Audiences are much more forgiving of poor image quality than they are of poor audio. Award-winning films have been shot on cheap camcorders or even mobile phones, but they all had great audio. Ideally, audio should be recorded on a separate recorder rather than in-camera, and you should always use a good quality external microphone.
Even when filming in the daytime you may find that you need additional lighting in some locations. For exteriors, as a minimum, you should take a reflector that can help to brighten the actors’ faces without the need for a power source. As well as ensuring that you have sufficient light levels to achieve the correct exposure, you may also want to manipulate the lighting in a scene for dramatic effect.
When shooting outdoors, keep in mind the sun is almost always a hard light; the exception is when the sun is obscured by clouds. If you do plan on shooting in sunlight, diffusing the sun is often a top priority. Make sure you’re prepared with diffusion screens or, at the very least, a shady area to place your talent.
Also, consider where you will be using the lights: if you don’t have access to a power source then you will need lights that can be powered by batteries.
Finally, don’t forget to include a computer and a hard drive on your equipment list to back up your footage before you leave the set.
Get help with your production
Short films are often made with the bare minimum of cast and crew, but the work involved is usually too much for just one person. An important part of planning any production is finding people who can help you take your vision from the page to the screen.
Find a crew
Decide which roles you will take on, but be realistic and don’t overstretch yourself! Make sure the people you bring on board have the necessary experience and technical knowledge for their role. You need to be sure you can depend on their ability on set.
Look to combine roles where possible to make the most of the crew members that you have available. While some roles require specialist skills, there is always work that can be made easier with an extra pair of hands, even if it’s just helping to carry kit and equipment.
Cast your short
Make sure you set aside sufficient time in your pre-production schedule to find your cast. The actors you select will have to bring the characters from your script to life so choose wisely. Take time to audition each candidate to ensure they fit well with the role for which they are being considered.
It is also important that you assess how well you can work with an actor. Your cast will need to be prepared to take instruction from you regarding their performance but equally, you must be receptive to their suggestions and interpretations of the character.
Be prepared for anything
Despite all your careful pre-production planning, you need to be prepared for anything. If there’s a snowstorm, the romantic scene set on a park bench might have to be moved to a nearby café. If your carefully storyboarded scene is proving too difficult to film once you get on location, be ready to shoot it in a simpler way.
Most importantly, if something unexpected does happen, keep calm and work with your cast and crew to overcome the challenge. Filmmaking is all about teamwork.
And carry insurance
Even with the best preparation accidents can happen. Whether it is an actor getting hurt on set, a member of the public tripping over your kit when filming on the street or damage to property at one of your locations, having an insurance policy gives you peace of mind — and pocket. Short term, low rate insurance is available for short film productions and is worth every cent.
Focus on your story and your film will be great
The most important aspect of any film is the story, and once you have your story you are on the way to making a great film. However, successful filmmaking requires careful planning to achieve the best results.
Investing the time to work through this checklist before you start filming will ensure that your production runs as smoothly as possible. Every step you take during pre-production is moving you closer to that first day on set so enjoy it!