Guest Post: 5 Short Film Tips

Here’s a guest post from Phil Lowe: 5 top tips before you write a short film (based on his experience of his multi-award winning short The Driving Seat, which you can watch here or via the embed below. There’s a short BTS doc here & you can follow Phil on Twitter here). Take it away, Phil!

I first met Danny a few years back when I attended a great workshop he ran with Dave Cohen on creating your own web series. I went home with a stack of ideas, weighed them up against a couple of ideas I had for a short film, and thought “I’ll do the short first – that’s probably a quicker option”. Dear reader, we have already tripped over the first thing you need to think about before you realise your dream of seeing your own short film on the screen.

1. It’s never a quick option. My short film The Driving Seat has just been released online, three and a half years after I started writing it. What on earth did I do for all that time, you wonder? Well, there were the three months writing and workshopping, nine months preproduction, eleven months post production and seventeen months showing in festivals. Oh, and one day’s actual filming. Luckily, it was worth it: we were selected for forty festivals worldwide and won six awards.

But let’s go back to the beginning. I’m not going to give you a magic wand for doing it more quickly, but I can save you taking even longer by going down blind alleys. The other four things to consider before you commit are:

2. Writing a short takes more craft than writing a feature. If you want to create a memorable short you’ve somehow got to shoehorn three acts and a meaningful character arc into ten minutes or so. Which is tricky. Of course, there are plenty of impressionistic shorts which don’t go the whole hog on the story front – and lots of them are instantly forgettable because it’s story that tends to lodge in people’s heads. It’s not just the audience you’re hooking, of course. Do you want good actors to be in it for little or no money? The best crew you can get? My producer came on board because he liked the fact the film has a midpoint where the whole thing teeters on its axis and becomes deeper and darker. My lead actress came on board not just because the script made her laugh, but because she saw an emotional depth to her character.

3. Think very carefully about making it easy to shoot. The logistics of a shoot throw up all kinds of challenges. Even The Driving Seat, set mainly inside a parked car, caused me headaches with its one minute of action that took place outside the car. The one thing you don’t want – and we got – is “cloudy with sunny intervals”. That one minute of screen time took 90 minutes to shoot, and we had to decide at the start of the day how sunny it was going to be and for how long – because if we shot the outside in sunshine, then the lighting for the inside scenes had to be sunny as well. So, if you want your first film to be as easy as possible to shoot, set it indoors. But of course, there’s indoors and indoors. Writing a script set in an office? Whose office could you shoot in? (When you’ve never made a short, the answer is “that’s the producer’s problem”, but if your producer’s not getting paid, you may find the trickiest problems getting delegated back to you.) It’s a bit like thinking about your target audience when writing for commercial film or TV: you don’t want to constrain your creativity, but you have to be realistic

4. You’ll need the most talented team possible. The accessibility of film making technology means you are competing with more and more short films for the attention of festival goers and online viewers. Of course you could just shoot it yourself on an iPhone and rely on the purity of your art to come through. Or you could scour your network for a cinematographer who is on top of her craft, hugely experienced in shooting ads and music videos, and wants some fiction on her c.v. You could cast an old friend who went to drama school who looks kind of like the lead character and at least is easy to work with; or you can spend months searching for someone who can really bring the character to life; who will do your short for expenses only because they love the script, not because that’s twice the amount they usually get. The same goes for directing, editing, sound, post production. Start networking now!

5. You have to really love your script. You are going to be living with it for a long time. Apart from the writing of it (which you will probably love because, hey, you’re a writer) you will be having a LOT of conversations in which you persuade talented people to work on it by conveying your excitement about it – and then waiting patiently for months until they are free to work on it. Then you will sit through it over and over again in the editing and post production; then you’ll be watching it at festivals and being asked questions about it. So if it isn’t the best script you’ve written, and the best possible production of it, you may be in for a miserable time.

So my advice is: write the script that is the easiest to make, but the most difficult to write. Somewhere between those two benchmarks is the sweet spot of the low budget short that will hook its audience.

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