We're shooting our short at the end of this month. Many of you have shot short films. Let's all pool our mistakes, and then maybe I won't make so many of them.
When I shot my MFA thesis film, these were my worst mistakes:Too long
: My thesis film was 27 minutes long. That was the requirement, but I bet they would have waived it if I'd come up with a really nifty 15 minute idea. Or I could have made an anthology of 3 short stories that I could have shown together or separately. I would stay away from anything over 10 minutes that's under 92 minutes ("feature length"). Too slow
: I let the actors feel their way through all the moments. The acting is really good for a student film, but the film is about 30% too long for the number of things that happen. I should have kept the emotional truthfulness, but got them to pick up the pace by giving them an organic sense of urgency. "Okay, do it again, but this time you have to meet your boyfriend and you're late." "Okay, do it again, but you think someone is trying to come in the door."Not enough camera movement
: Probably the opposite of most people's mistake, but I shot the first 18 minutes of a 27 minute show entirely on sticks. It was a style. It also let me focus on the actors. It looks dull.No hook
: My story was emotional: girl comes out of the desert looking for the man she thinks killed her father 18 years ago. But nothing about that screams "Wow! I gotta see that!" As opposed to, say, "a short film about a man on fire." Or, "a jet, a freeway, and a little old lady in a car." (And gee, can you guess the twist?)
What are the biggest mistakes you've made shooting your short films?
Losing control. You obviously have this licked, but I realised on the first day that even if I didn't do anything the film would pretty much happen anyway. It was written scheduled, cast, and had it's own momentum. So I unconsciously withdrew creatively, and just let it happen.
Terrible, terrible idea. Sure, it happened, but of course nobody was really looking out for the quality of the whole thing, just their own areas. It was educational, which I guess is the point of a student film.
Pay attention to your sound/audio. Most people making shorts or first time films tend to put a lot of their energy into getting the 'pictures' and say they'll 'worry about the sound later'. A crappy audio/dialogue track will distract as much as out of focus or poorly framed images.
Know your hook or angle and focus filmmaking on that. Eliminate all scenes/elements that don't serve that cool hook/angle (which pretty much goes for all cinema storytelling, but making a short can be like shooting a long commercial or telling a long joke...stay on point.
And keep it simple (which goes hand in hand with making it a shorter length)...and realize your limitations ahead of time. Filling a story with lots of action, effects, gizmo's/props, even characters may all sound good, but if you don't have the budget or experience or talent to execute effectively, whatever good idea/story that may have been in there will often get lost or overlooked.
People will recognize and honour a simple, short cool idea that is well executed everytime.
Mistakes? No problem.
Storyboarding: My lack of artistic ability dissuaded me from charting every shot. Big mistake. Bought a book titled "Setting Up Your Shots" which really helped me become more conscious of composition, editing techniques and basic cinematic techniques, etc.
Being "understaffed": During a shoot last year, I found myself keeping time code, occasionally holding lights, and when time permitted, spending time with the actors. If I had a "do-over", I would've had more people helping so I could work with the actors more intimately. I did a horrible job of working with the actors, setting up scenes and providing motivations, which leads me to...
Casting: Don't cast family or friends who you think might do a good job. Take your time. A good script is easily ruined if the casting isn't right. And good actors can sometimes make a decent script even better.
Scheduling: We filmed an entire eight-minute short in about six and a half hours. We had a great crew who worked efficiently. As a director/producer, I wanted to be respectful of people's time, but I did so at the expense of the project, which in the long run makes everyone look bad. Should've shot over two days.
Getting "hot feet": I cut corners on some props and visual effects. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
Being the amiable driver: There were certain shots (ones that I wanted) that I discussed with my camera crew. They basically punted on a few occasions. In retrospect, I should've politely told them exactly what I wanted and then, if appropriate, try another take using their idea.
i'd reiterate the comment about sound. even if you know you're going to adr, try and get the best sound you can. it's a bitch to make up later.
and use whatever equipment you bring. we had a 24" monitor (shooting on hd), that we didn't have hooked up as much as we should have the first day (remedied that for the second day). if nothing else it would have made my two co-producers much happier.
Too much coverage / Not enough coverage. At the same time.
Basically, too much of stuff I didn't need and not enough of the "spicey" stuff that gives flavor.
too much music... wall to wall music is a sure sign of an amateur.
Not enough rehearsal LONG BEFOREHAND with the actors.
Not taking a camera with me when we first scouted locations.
Not scouting the locations thoroughly enough for all times of the day. (air traffic patterns shift as the day wears on - what can be quiet in the morning is a symphony of jet engine scream in the afternoon).
Not keeping the momentum going between shots (meaning grabbing the DP and moving to the next camera position right away as soon as the gate is cleared).
Sitting down too much. When you stand and look at the monitor you tend to direct more (and better). Yes, you do have to sit down occaisionally but not while you are shooting.
Shooting too much.
Oh the mistakes I've made...
1- Third acts. My first short was a comedy that people seemed to enjoy, but all made the same unfortunate comment: the first half is funnier than the second. Woops. I forgot to ask myself a simple question: is this movie getting funnier/more dramatic?
2- The only time you can relax is when you absolutely shouldn't. Another seeming no brainer, but 'action' to 'cut' is the only time in the day when you won't be answering creative/logistical questions. Too many times I've caught myself thinking about anything (the next shot, on-set drama etc.) but the actual performance taking place.
3- Care less (via John August). This is a tough one when no one is getting paid, but not every one has to/will ever get along, and it's not your job to make sure everyone is best friends. Treat everyone with the same respect, protect your actors, and remember that your responsibility is to the story/audience. No one has ever walked out of a film fortunate that the DP and AD got along.
4- Boosterism. Maintaining relentless optimism amidst the grind of production is part of your job, but I know that I've been so caught up in the difficulties of assembling the elements (cast, crew, locations etc.) that it becomes difficult 'on the day' to ask that awful question: 'why isn't this working?' The elements have to serve the story, not vice-versa.
5- Everyone whiffs. Stanley Kubrick was so embarassed by his early attempts at filmmaking that he tried to buy up all of the prints of his student films and destroy them. For everyone's sake, don't take yourself this seriously. But the larger point is not to over-interpret success or failure. Corny advice, I know, but the next best thing to a good short is a bad short, and you're a filmmaker now, isn't that what you've been dreaming of for years?
6- Don't cast yourself, even if your protagonist is a slacker genius who can't get laid.
I filmed my exteriors in Kansas City (where I'm from) in early August. In the afternoon. During the worst locust season in 20 years.
Even after a lot of sound trickeration, it still sounds like someone just offscreen is trying to start a motorboat.
Casting: I definitely second that one. I cast people from my fairly low-level acting class, not realizing I wouldn't be able to coax the same performances from them that our instructor was. Should've gotten more experienced actors for such an inexperienced director.
Not Enough Footage: Closer, closer, closer. I would do a couple more takes of some of my more emotional scenes to get in much tighter. I thought that was happening on my second camera, but apparently there's a lot of room for interpretation in the word "close-up."
Always LOOK and LISTEN: Since my camera folks and sound recordist were so much more experienced than I, I often assumed they knew what I wanted when they didn't. Not really.
Not necessarily a mistake, but good advice:
Lee Goldberg blogged this week about building style sheets for his movie/pilot. He simply cut out images from magazines and whatnot and pasted them on boards to show fashion, architecture, vehicles, color, etc....
The Germans I've worked with call these "Mood boards" (a term they also use for storyboards/ad boards)and well worth the time when you figure that a picture is worth a thousand words.
apparently there's a lot of room for interpretation in the word "close-up."
haha. very true! i had this exact same problem.
Congrats on gearing up for the shoot. I'm way behind in my blog reading, so I'm just catching up to this one. I think Will's advice is awesome (as always). From my recent experience on this short that is still in progress, I'd add lighting. Don't go crazy trying to light the thing like Dante Spinotti, but do a camera test for the lighting scheme (especially for HD) against the background and wardrobe, etc. Digital doesn't have the same contrast values as film, so the lighting can be tricky. Most DPs are still learning how to adjust, and if you are using one of those HD adapter rings it can throw the exposures off. We just did our camera test on Sunday, and had to make some new lighting equipment assumptions -- better 10 days out than on Sunday afternoon during pre-light.
Don't lose your passion because everything might be falling apart the day of your shoot.
Make sure you have a good AD if you are the Director, and a good camera, grip, and electric crew if you are the DP.
And when I say good, I actually mean people who want to work with you, that have team spirit and are willing to ignore the fact that are not getting paid. Choose wisely, they can totally play mind games with you if they don't collaborate.
Do as much pre production as possible, expect to pre light, pre set and try to stay calm. Making movies always involves mistakes. The point is to manage to learn from them on our next one.
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