Tuesday, June 24, 2008

How to Produce a Short Film

Article on producing a short film.



Get started on producing an indie film now.

Taking on the task of producing a short film might seem like an impossible feat, but if you can assemble a good team and if you break down each stage of production down into small blocks of tasks, you’ll come to realize that producing a small-scale movie isn't too bad. On an indie movie set (I’m going to assume, if you’re reading this here, you’re interested in making a small-budget indie flick), a producer is essentially a director’s right-hand man. You two will be working side-by-side for the duration of the filming process, and that includes the prep before the shoot and the aftermath. Just follow these steps and you’ll be on your way to Kevin Smith-like fame in no time. [Note: I’m also going to assume you have a solid script and a director.]


Step 1

You and your director need to go over the script and see what characters will be cast and what locations will be needed—those are the essentials. With this information, you can get started on your first two tasks: Setting up auditions and securing locations and location permits if necessary.

Step 2

This might be one of the hardest parts of being a producer: securing funding. Some producers fund their films with their own money, some hit up their family, some reach out to investors (who help out with the promise of a producer credit or a cut of the profits). If you’re Kevin Smith, you run your credit cards to the max and sell your comic book collection. This step is up to you—just whatever you don’t try not to use your own money.

Step 3

Once you have a list of roles, start hitting up local colleges, local newspapers, alternative weeklies and coffee shops—anywhere creative types hang out—and post notices for open auditions. Depending on your budget, you’ll have to let people know that you’re auditioning for a indie film, which means little or no pay. You’re going to have to entice them by telling them you’ll feed them and they can use their performance for their clip reel. Basically, this whole venture is for experience--for everyone.

Step 4

Start plotting out locations. This is an indie film so you do not want to pay for places to film. Look into friends’ houses, apartments—if you know the owner of a store, ask them if you can use their shop after hours. You might have to tweak your script around for this, but considering all the money you’re going to be spending, $1,000 permits to film in a park for a few hours is not good.

Step 5

Assemble a crew. This might be the most important part of the production-end of your film. I’ve been on indie film shoots where everyone on the crew was a rookie except for one experienced guy who worked on "Pulp Fiction"--he was sort of like the unofficial leader of our shoot. When we were scrambling around without a clue, he would round us up and give us step-by-step directions on what to do next. My point is, get a rookie crew if you have to, but get one guy who’s been on a movie set before—and expect to pay him something.

Your best bet for a crew is local film schools or colleges with media departments. Look for camera operators, lighting specialists, a script supervisor, a boom mike guy and runners. Of course, realize that there are going be times when you’re the person holding the boom mike or running cable. When you’re the producer on an indie film, you’re the utility player and you’re going to do just about everything once—even fill in for a role on camera.

Step 6

Now that you have the auditions, locations and crew on the burner, now you just have to rent equipment. Back in the days of “Clerks” and “Reservoir Dogs,” all action was shot on film and if you lived in places like Boise, Idaho, you were screwed because no one rented pro-level cameras. But now, almost every small-budget indie film is being shot on handheld digital hi-fi cameras—you can get a great rig at your local electronics store—you don’t even have to rent them anymore, you can just buy them. The other advantage to digital is no traditional film, and you can ask any film producer and they’ll agree, film will drain your budget almost immediately.

With digital, you can shoot and erase whenever you want.

Step 7

Going with a digital camera is almost non-negotiable on indie sets these days. For everything else, you can go to equipment rental shops. These places always offer packages so look for a deal like that. One time, on a film I was working on, the producer was able to get a package deal (cameras, lighting rigs, cables, play-back monitors) and have it delivered to the set in a 15-foot moving truck. We were able to load and unload the truck from shoot to shoot—it worked brilliantly.


Step 1

Your job as producer doesn’t let up during production even though you’re not going to be that involved in the creative process (although depending on your relationship with the director, you very well could make some important creative decisions). At this point, you’re going to have to be one step ahead of the filming schedule, calling ahead to make sure the next day’s location is still booked, calling around for last-minute props and negotiating deals with rental companies.

Step 2

A fed crew is a happy crew so make sure your catering tables are always stocked with bottled water, soda and snacks. Also, lunch is a big deal. You’re probably not paying your cast or crew much (if anything) so make sure lunch is more than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. On the shoots I was on, the producer was able to wrangle his mom to make lunch. Or you can consider barbeques: they're cheap and fast. Just remember, get lunch started about an hour before you actually break—you don’t want your cast and crew to be standing around while the guy in charge of lunch is trying to light the coals.

Step 3

Keep yourself free during filming. While it’s going to be part of your job to make sure actors arrive to the set on time, cameras have film in them and the director is unburdened so he can concentrate on the creative end of things, you’re the person who picks up the slack. So be prepared to do the most menial tasks on the set. Don’t be shocked if you find yourself as the guy behind the barbeque every now and then either.


Step 1

Filming is done and you’ve returned all the rental equipment. Splurge on a cast party. And remember, as the producer in charge of the budget, you can never buy too much booze.

Step 2

If you went the expensive route and shot with film, find a facility with an editing bay. These facilities are usually one-stop shops for all your production needs. As a matter of fact, the place you rented your monitors, cables, lighting rigs and cameras probably have editing bay rentals, too.

Step 3

If the indie film you produced was shot on film (and if you’re a smart producer, it was), you don’t even need to rent an editing bay. If you have a good computer (it has to be a Mac in this case), you can load it with Apple’s Final Cut Pro. You'll be able to professionally edit your film with synched sound and everything--it’s an amazing program. It’s a little difficult to learn at first, but if you can master it, you’re in business. It’s also expensive and if you don’t have a Mac, you can rent a editing suite with a Final Cut Pro rig and rent by the hour, day or week.

Step 4

On to the website. While your director (and editor if you have one) is cutting and splicing the film, this is when you start in on the administrative stuff. These days, a website dedicated to the movie is a must. Look around at some of the websites that are out there. Most of the big budget sites suck: too much java, too little content. If you’re adept at designing websites, do it yourself (or hire someone cheap who knows their way around Dreamweaver) and showcase your film in a very simple and minimal fashion.

Make sure there are pages for the film synopsis, cast, crew, film stills (if you shot in digital, grabbing a still is easy) behind-the-scenes photos and a page with contact information. When your film is edited, make sure to post a few key scenes on the website.

Step 5

When your film is fully edited, you’ll have to look around for a company that will mass-produce your finished product onto DVDs. You’ll also need cover art for the DVD cases.

Step 6

Now that you have a polished-looking DVD with cover art, you can start submiting it to film festivals. (How else are you going to get the film discovered?) Get trade magazines like Variety and read the ads. I guarantee that every issue has at least one film festival ad in it. Pick and choose your festivals wisely thouhg. Not every fest will suit your movie. Plus, these festivals almost always charge entry fees.

Step 7

When you send your DVD and entry submission to these film festivals, you’ll want to include some sort of press kit along with it. Lots of filmmakers and producers are going with digital press kits, but they always look low rent. Go for the traditional hard copy kit. It should include the sypnosis of the film, short bios on the actors, director and you. You should also send along a disc of hi-res still shots because if the festical organizers like your film, they’re going to want to include your film in print ads to promote the festival.

Step 8

When you get accepted by a film festival, it’s your job as the producer to research the town it’s being held in and start contacting the press there. Newspapers, alternative weeklies, local blogs with a little heft--send them your press kit and let them know you, the director and your cast are available for phone interviews. Also, find out who the big critics and writers are, and make sure they get festival screening passes to your movie.

Step 9

Obviously, this is just a basic overview—the thing about producing a short independent movie is that the whole process is unpredictable. You can only set yourself up for the basics, but as long as you know things will go wrong every day, at least you’ll be prepared to deal with the pitfalls.


Brian M Logan

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