6 Short Filmmaking Lessons Learned On Set

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by Angela Bourassa

A few months ago I was on a walk with my husband, and I asked him to help me come up with some contained comedy ideas. I wanted to write something low-budget, as most of my scripts require big set pieces and casts. We pondered for a bit, then he came up with the idea for a movie that turns the game F*ck-Marry-Kill into a game show. I liked the idea a lot, but it sounded more like a short than a feature film. That’s how FMK was born.

I’ve worked on some minor productions in the past, but my experience with actual filmmaking is very limited, so we thought why not try to make this thing? We’ll learn a lot, hopefully have fun, and maybe end up with something great.

In the end, we definitely accomplished the first two goals.

If you have seven minutes, take a peek at the final product before reading on.

So, if you watched it, hopefully it made you laugh and you enjoyed the experience. That’s the most important part of any comedy film.

But you probably also noticed some glaring flaws. Granted, this was shot on a micro-budget (we spent more on food for everyone than anything else) with the help of our friends, none of whom are filmmaking professionals. That said, there are a lot of things we could have done better given the exact same budget and conditions.

These are the top six short filmmaking lessons that I learned from this shoot.

1. Friends are not professionals

We could not have gotten this project done without the help of our friends. They were incredibly generous with their time and energy, giving us an entire Saturday of their lives to shoot this thing. The two main actors in particular went above and beyond with rehearsals and camera tests.

But friends who aren’t trying to get into the film business are never going to take your projects as seriously as you are. They’re going to try to be helpful, but they’ve got their own priorities. Memorizing your carefully prepared shot list is not one of those priorities.

If you do enlist your friends, make your expectations clear from the get-go. Let them know exactly what they’re signing up for, and be direct with your demands.

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2. Shoot test footage and audio in advance at your set

We couldn’t get access to our set until the day of the shoot, so we had to do our best to simulate the lighting and sound conditions in other rooms. That caused some problems with both the lighting and the audio on shoot day that we just had to roll with. The more you can test and prepare and rehearse in advance, the smoother everything will go when it’s time to shoot the real thing. That includes testing all of the equipment, making sure the lighting is bright enough and matches at different angles, and rehearsing both the lines and the blocking.

3. Have someone on set whose sole job is continuity

I thought we had enough eyes and had blocked out the movements clearly enough that continuity wouldn’t be a big issue. But when it came time to cut the film together, we realized that we had an entire scene where the main character had worn his glasses in every single take, and no one noticed. In the end, it worked out alright because we needed to cut the film down anyway, but it was one of those face-palm mistakes that could have been easily avoided if we had someone watching placement, movement, and details.

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4. Pick your camera carefully and learn everything about it

We shot this thing on DSLR cameras. They were free, and we were able to get three of them, so they felt like the right choice. But the whole thing might have looked better if we shot it on an iPhone. On shoot day, we didn’t know the cameras as well as we should have, and as a result, several shots ended up out of focus without anyone really noticing.

We also seriously under-estimated how heavy the cameras would get during long takes. I wanted the shots to have a bit of movement, so most angles were hand-held. But about ten seconds into every hand-held shot, the poor camera people’s arms started to shake, and we ended up with some very bouncy shots.

(This is one example where professional assistance would have made a big difference. An aspiring DP would have addressed these problems with me in pre-production meetings.)

5. Brevity is the heart of comedy

This is a lesson I knew in theory, but not until we started to rehearse did I realize just how slow a span of twenty seconds without a laugh feels. In comedy shorts in particular, you really have to keep the laughs rolling and the story moving. A comedy short on YouTube should ideally be in the three to five minute range, at most. Our video clocked in at 7:35. It felt brief on the page, but on the screen, it takes a bit too long to set up the premise and get to the laughs. Then it takes too long to get to the big laughs. If I rewrote this script now (which was ten pages), I would cut at least three pages out of it.

6. Failure is the best way to learn

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think FMK is a total failure. There are parts that make me laugh every time, and I wrote the damn thing. But I know it could have been so much better.

And now, the next time I make a short, I’ll have a much better sense of how to succeed. I’m sure I’ll make a new series of mistakes (and probably some of the same mistakes over again), but I’ll get better.

That’s how our screenplays improve. That’s how our indie film projects improve. That’s how we improve. We practice by doing, over and over again. And in doing we fail, over and over again. And, if we’re paying close attention, every one of those failures should teach us something that takes us one step closer to success.

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~

Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.

2 thoughts on “6 Short Filmmaking Lessons Learned On Set

Add yours

  1. Everything you say is spot on. Maybe add an Item 0, too:

    0. Have an uninvolved writer read the script and tell you how bad it…er…how WELL it pulls vacua, measured on a scale of 0 to 760 mm of mercury. Not that your film pegged the vacuum gauge. But Item 0 could have at least identified the flat spots and tightened the script BEFORE the shoot.

    I would phrase item 6 a little differently: SOMEBODY ELSE’s failure is the best way to learn. And here we are, learning. Many thanks!

    1. Didn’t need to learn that — the script went through several drafts, table reads, and was read by trusted critics who helped tighten it up. I agree that this is an essential step, but sometimes the flaws only become apparent in production.

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