So you’re about to make a film for the first time? Maybe you’ve got a couple of credits under your belt but there are aspects of your filmmaking that you think you could improve. Here are some common filmmaking mistakes and strategies for avoiding them.
Development. Coming up with an idea can be one of the most difficult stages in the film production process. Remember that ideas don’t just appear from nowhere. You need to watch films and experiment with technical equipment. Since film production can be such a long and difficult process, you need to decide on something that is going to sustain your interest. Make sure you also settle on an idea that is achievable. Limiting the number of characters and locations is a good way to reduce the complexity of your film. After all, there are a bunch of terrific films that occur in a single location, such as Lifeboat, Buried, Phone Booth and Devil. Recognise the possibilities of the locations and actors that are available to you.
Story question. Ultimately, your short film needs to tell an engaging and interesting story. When you’re developing the treatment for your film, think about your ‘story question’. According to Randy Ingermanson in Writing Fiction for Dummies, your story question is usually about whether your protagonist will achieve a particular goal. It doesn’t matter that Ingermanson is writing about fiction, the sample principles apply to short films and even documentaries. An example of a story question might be, “Will Jane pass her maths test?” According to Ingermanson, the story question should be simple, important, achievable and difficult. The story question should be very clear to the audience. They need to understand what your protagonist is trying to achieve. If your character’s objectives are unclear then you’re going to find it very difficult to engage your audience. The story question also needs to be important. It needs to make a difference to the life of your protagonist. If you can’t show your audience why it’s important that your character gets the girl or arrests your murderer, they simply won’t care. Although the protagonist’s goal might be achievable, they’re going to encounter difficulties along the way that prevent them form achieving their goal. Without obstacles and difficulties, without the prospect that your protagonist might fail, there is no drama. Carefully defining your story question can help you flesh out the structure of your story.
Three act structure. Keep in mind that all stories have a three act structure: a beginning, middle and end. The beginning of your film should plunge your audience straight into the action. Introduce your characters! Put them in peril! Disrupt their lives! Give them conflict! By the end of your opening sequence, your protagonist should be faced with a disaster or dilemma that pushes the narrative forward as they try to resolve it. The bulk of your film will involve this character trying to achieve their goal despite increasingly difficult obstacles. The closing scenes of your film will be the climax. Remind your audience that your characters may indeed fail. Think about what your audience wants to happen at the end of the film. How many times have you come out of a moving thinking, “That was kind of cool but the ending sucked.” If you’ve put your audience through the wringer in your short film, they might feel cheated if you don’t give them the ending they expect. If you’re making a romantic comedy, there’s nothing wrong with having a happy ending. In most cases, this is what your audience is craving. When making a short film, consider resolving the film in a clever or unexpected way. If you’re planning a twist ending, however, always remember that you need to signpost what’s going to happen. If the ending appears out of nowhere, your audience will feel cheated.
Character. When you’re developing your film, take some time to think about your character. Who are they? What do they like? What do they dislike? If you understand the character then you’re more likely to know how they will respond to problems and obstacles in your short film. Don’t add any scenes with pointless character development. Anything you show the audience about your character needs to be relevant to the story question. Don’t be afraid to spend time making your character interesting, intriguing or likeable for the audience. Encourage your viewers to identify with their point of view. If your audience doesn’t care about your characters, they won’t care about your film.
Exposition. Sometimes there are important facts about your character that need to be conveyed to the audience. The laziest way to convey this is by using exposition. Let’s just say that your main character’s father died and it has taken a huge toll on his life. Using dialogue is the lazy way to establish this for your audience. “I’ve been finding it really tough since Dad died,” he tells his friend. A more sophisticated filmmaker will show this to his audience. Perhaps you have a whole sequence where the character is alone at home, wan light spilling in through the kitchen window. Cut to a framed photograph of the character and his father, pull focus to reveal a vase of flowers in the foreground, then cut to a handwritten card with the words ‘loving memory’ visible. This is a much more interesting way to establish this for the audience than simply conveying it through dialogue.
Time. When you’re first starting out as a filmmaker, it’s very tempting to show everything. Let’s imagine that in the opening sequence of your film, your protagonist meets a girl on his way to school and falls madly in love. An inexperienced filmmaker would feel compelled to show every aspect of the character’s morning routine: the alarm clock, feet hitting the floor, turning on the shower, taking a towel off the rack, toast popping up in the toaster, getting a jar of peanut butter from the pantry, spreading the peanut butter on the toast, pouring a glass of orange juice, grabbing his schoolbag and heading out the door. All of this is utterly unnecessary. It has nothing to do with the story question. It’s irrelevant. A much better way to do this would be to start with an alarm clock going off, the sound continue into the next shot of a schoolbag as it’s picked up and our character leaves for school. While he’s walking down the street, we cut to a point of view shot of a girl walking in the opposite direction. Cut to a close up of his gobsmacked expression. This is a much more engaging way to start the film, throwing the audience directly into the action. If you find yourself falling into this trap, consider revisiting the ways that filmmakers can manipulate time.
Preproduction. Because filmmaking is a time consuming process that requires the collaboration of many different people, planning your film is vitally important. For everything to run smoothly, you have to be extremely well organised. This means writing a treatment, developing a screenplay, completing a shotlist, storyboards and call sheets. Going through this extensive planning process means that you have a clear sense of what you are going to make and you’re more likely to see your film through to completion.
Casting. Selecting actors is one of the most difficult stages for amateur filmmakers who often rely on the generosity of their family and friends to act in their films. When you’re developing the idea for your film, think about available actors and the roles they could play. It’s no use planning to make The Godfather if your cast is composed entirely of your school friends. A seventeen year old boy in an ill-fitting suit is not going to make a convincing Vito Corleone! But maybe your parents or your grandparents would fit the role perfectly. Inappropriate casting is one of those things that will take your audience out of the moment and remind them that they’re watching a film.
Camera. When you’re making a short film, your use of camera, lighting and composition is incredibly important. Let’s be honest. Your audience is accustomed to watching professional films. Every time your shots are poorly composed or the lighting isn’t quite right, the audience forgets about the plight of your characters and remembers that they’re watching a film. At some point in your film education, you would have learned about how to use shot size and camera angle to tell stories. First time filmmakers sometimes become so absorbed in their story that they forget the importance of using close up and extreme close ups to show the audience important details, such as the expression on a character’s face. When you’re creating a shotlist for your film, always consider whether your choice of shot size, camera angle and camera movement is contributing to your story.
Sound. When they’re making films for the first time, people often ignore sound. Focusing on the quality of your sound is one of the best ways to improve the overall production value of your film. When you’re shooting, use an external microphone to capture dialogue rather than relying on your camera. Make sure you also capture a few minutes of atmosphere or room tone for every location. In post production, record your own foley sounds and use sound effects libraries to build up your soundtrack from scratch.
Music. First-time filmmakers who don’t take the time to find royalty free music. While it might seem like a nice idea to use one of your favourite songs, this can cause all sorts of problems later on when you try to upload your film to YouTube or enter it in film festivals. Purchasing a song doesn’t give you permission to use that song in your own work. Any copyright work needs to be licensed from the copyright holder. Depending on who owns the rights to a particular song, this can be a time consuming and expensive process. When you’re in the pre-production stage of your film, it’s a good idea to start looking for royalty-free or Creative Commons music.