If you're starting out as a filmmaker, here are a few things to watch out for. If you're anything like me, you'll read them all carefully, maybe even make notes, and then go out and make all the mistakes you've been warned about anyway! Maybe the only lessons we truly learn from are the hard ones?
1. Your precious words are not so precious. It goes without saying that a good script is the foundation of any good short, and there’s lot of good advice out there about how to develop good character and plot structure. But being too precious about dialog used to cause me all sorts of frustration on set. As long as your characters are properly developed, and their motivations for acting the way they do make sense, then the words that come out of their mouths will not make or break your story.
2. Wearing way too many hats. If you want to know how much of a headache your next shoot is going to be, just ask one question. Do you have a 1st AD? OK, so you probably aren't hiring a Digital Imagining Technician or even a 2nd AC on your next project, but you have to ensure the director has enough time on set to do their job - and that means being able to work with actors. Find somebody early on in your career who has your back on set, reward them well, and insist on having a 1st AD on every shoot.
3. Where are all my close ups? Details tell the story - details on screen means close ups. The reason you're watching your movie - your own movie that you invested all that time and effort into - and somehow feeling flat or distant is probably because you haven't created enough intimate connection with your characters. You didn’t shoot enough close ups. Your coverage sucks because you were too busy being your own 1st AD, And pick ups ain’t gonna be able to fix it.
4. Hire actors - not just people who fancy they can do it. You may not feel as comfortable working with professional actors, but these are people who take it seriously and have put time and effort into improving their art. It may be tempting to cast all your mates, but resist. It’s easier than you might think to find actors willing to work on low budget shorts - as long as you can convince them the project is worth their while and you have a viable strategy for getting your movie seen.
5. Production design is not an afterthought. Don’t let your production design end up on the bottom of your list (back to those details again). Designing your production on set as you set up a shot is NOT OK. What sets an amateur short apart from a professional production (visually) is the production design. It doesn't matter how beautiful your images look - any decent DSLR can produce aesthetically pleasing subjects - but sloppy framing (trust me, it will frequently be sloppy) is going to show up all the distracting things you didn’t take the time to design out. Dogme 95 disciples can ignore this one!
6. Make the movie you CAN make. You may well have an amazing script idea which just happens to open with a single character swimming against a vast sea of people - a lone wolf rising from a tide of sheep - but how are you going to enlist 100 extras to do your vision justice? Save that script for a project with the funding to do it justice. If all you can shoot right now is 2 guys stuck in an elevator, then that's your story. (Art needs limitations - Chuck Jones said so!)
7. Don’t let your gear determine your story. I know I just said make the story you CAN make, but the key word in that sentence is 'story'. All the rest - your gear, your locations, your cast and your crew - must be applied in service to that story. So you only have two guys and an elevator? But you happen to get your hands on a drone... don't convince yourself you HAVE to use it! If it doesn't help convey the story, it's can be distracting at best and ridiculous at worst. I mean, handheld motorized gimbals are great, but have you noticed that ever since they came to market, zombies have started running a lot more than they ever used to! What's that about?
8. Stay away from your monitor. Another tech gripe! Just because you CAN play back every take immediately on set, does not mean you're able to judge what's a print and what's not with the aid of your 3 inch camera monitor. Even if you have something bigger, with decent resolution, live LUTs and all that jazz, the danger here is the false sense of security it gives you. Start running to the monitor every time you hear 'cut' and you automatically start paying less attention to what is actually happening in front of you. Sound familiar? Tune in to the performance of the actors in front of you, and use playback sparingly.
9. Thinking the movie you’re making in the editing room is the same one you wrote. Avoid artificially conforming to a preconceived idea of what the end result looks like! Stubbornly refusing to take stuff OUT of your final cut isn't doing you any favors. Any design professional worth their salt will tell you, taking stuff out until it looks better is the way to go.
10. There is no number 10. See point 9! (Actually, I stopped at nine because I realized I could go on all night - I have way more than ten hard lessons learned ... you’ll just have to wait for another installment).
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