Thinking About Shooting Your First Short Film? This Is How I Did It

I shot and edited a narrative film in the last month. It was a first for me. I had this scene in my mind of a person burying a suitcase or bag in the woods, like it’s something he or she wanted to hide or get away from. I had a second idea about a guy walking down a long passage way and knocking on a door with no one opening for him. I decided these two contrasting visual ideas will be my story. 

I believe we all have these scenes or ideas that we want to shoot or direct, so I’m going to go through the workflow and tell you from arranging the shoot, shooting day, and editing it to produce it. Again, it’s a first, so it’s not perfect, but I surely learned a lot and there surely are certain things I’d do differently with the next one, like recording sound, and getting a Foley library where it’s possible to search and test different sounds, like a single footstep, rather than downloading a sample from the web and having to listen to ten minutes of someone walking on tar or gravel or rocks. 

 

Visualizing the idea

First, you must have a scene. You need to have the story or moments figured out in your mind, and you must either be able to explain it to someone else, or you must be able to show it visually, with either photos or drawings. The people you are working with must have a clear idea of what you want to achieve. This also excites them, as they now have a better understanding of what is expected from them, and they also respect the time and effort you are putting into it, so they feel like they are working with someone who takes what they do seriously.  

The actor I used in the scene was a friend of mine. He’s in the finance industry, but I’ve always had this gut-feeling that he will be a great actor if he wanted to. So we both concluded that it will be a good thing for both of us to shoot it, for our portfolios but also experience. There is no dialog, which made it less-stressful for us, and also, it’s a first attempt, which worked well for both of us, and for the story. 

It’s also good to have an idea of where you’d like to shoot. In Cape Town South Africa, once you get out of the city, there are many changing landscapes, and although some places are off-limits, you can most certainly find a place where you can park the car and get a shots you need. I’ve driven past and walked through the woods I used in the short, so I had a good idea of what to expect and what I would get from the location.  

Arranging the shoot day

In my plot or scene I only had one actor, so my styling, make-up, and location wasn’t too difficult to get hold of. We used one of his own suits, shoes, and hat, plus his mother collects old Mercedes Benzes so that was also a lucky strike. You might think this might not be relevant because I knew the actor, with a car etc, but if you look at your resources, friends, and what story you want to tell, you’ll soon find that it’s really amazing what you can put together with a budget basically covering the fuel for the car for the day.  

Shooting Day

I had the car, the actor, and his girlfriend (who was a great help on the day, assisting with the direction of the various scenes) in the car on the way to the location. I had the clothes, the gear, and the idea ready for the day. We got out early morning which worked perfectly as the mist on the mountain pass with the drive there was perfect for the mood of the story.

Gear for the shoot:

 

After the shoot

Importing to Adobe Premiere is now much easier than before, and it’s possible to ingest proxies, so it’s not needed to work with 4K footage and overload your laptop. I usually break up the shots into folders, depending on the scene. So I’ll have "driving there," "running into woods," and "waking up" as Bins and import the footage from all the cameras I used in to the allocated folder.  

I’ll then add music, and although I’ve written about where to get music for your movies before, for this particular short I used 909music.com, which gave 99 tunes away as a launch promotion. I was lucky with the songs fitting in perfectly, quieting out with the tense moments adding to the tension, and then picking up as the scene needs it.  

Gear for editing and post

 

Software

 

Stock Items

 

What I learned for the next one


Inserting the Foley sounds with the footsteps is where I really took the most time, and it’s still not perfect. I need to get the volume of the footsteps fade in and out depending on how far he is from the camera, to give the sense of distance. This sounds like a small thing, but it makes a huge difference in the overall production quality of the film, and also just sounds like it must. Next time I will most definitely have sound recorded, just to give me a kind of idea of the sounds I need to get. 

The OSMO’s recent update stops the fans when recording starts. This is good, but the gimbal still has gears running inside that make strange, unwanted noises, and the sound overall isn’t something you want and will most certainly not use.  

My reflection appears every now and then, whether it’s in a window or the car’s black paint. I didn’t pick it up, and I only have a limited amount of shots so there’s really nothing I can do about it unless I want to crack open After Effects and setup some tracking masks. You can reduce reflections by using a polarized filter. I’ll definitely have this filter for the next video.  

Conclusion

This is the first of what I hope will be many more. I can honestly say I had a lot of fun doing it. I was making something for myself. I think there isn’t really that much market for narrative stories like this, but that was not the point. The aim was to create a story I had in my head, and actually executing and doing it. It’s not perfect, and it’s not supposed to be. If you have any advice or positive criticism, please leave it in the comments.  

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4 Comments

Keith Walters's picture

Nice! I like the overall premise of the video, but I think it could use some quicker cuts in the beginning. From the time the title fades out, there is a downbeat in the soundtrack that I was expecting to lead into the first scene. Also, the door closing (in the BW clip) seemed a bit long.

Watch your reflection in the car when you're trailing the actor after he grabs the duffle from the trunk.

When he's digging you cut to an angle immediately after the spade hits the ground showing his backside. I like the cut to keep things interesting, but maybe from a different angle, or have a close-up shot of the spade digging into the earth. Lastly, I thought I had missed something when you cut to him walking out of the woods — I was expecting to see the duffle go into the ground :)

Nice drone footage. I'd also look into a glidecam if you're interested in smooth motion.

Really enjoyed the video, but especially enjoyed the write up to explain it. I want to do my first as well, and this has some excellent information to start off with. I am a photo guy turning video and wouldn't have thought much about the sound. Great point. Well done all around.

Jed

J Bellantine's picture

I think you did a great job! I've made a couple and know it's not as easy as people think. One tid bit of advice to you or anyone thinking of doing one, the "audience" is all about audio. Posting on a photography site I understand many people focus on the visual ... but if you have your audio in check, the audience will forgive a lot visually. Using a separate audio recorder with a mic makes a huge difference and you can do your own foley. Bravo!! Well done. A DP once told me before I did my first, "You're about to grab the tiger by the tail". It's addicting, isn't it?? haha

Wouter du Toit's picture

It sure is, thanks for the tips!