How You Can Make a Short Film With Few Resources

I am currently in post-production on my next short film project, Exodus Road. I wrote about the genesis of the project in a post titled "Be An Artist Right Now." I wanted to write a follow-up and talk more about the process of writing and shooting the film.

The Idea 

Creatives often get asked the question, "Where do your ideas come from?" For this particular story, the idea came from a single image and a single scenario that kept popping to mind. That image and situation involved someone coming back from somewhere to retrieve a hidden box for some reason. What the box held and why someone was retrieving it were details that we had to fill in.

Every time an image, scenario, or idea pops into your head, write it down. Keep a notebook of these ideas. Collect them. Even if you don't use them right away, you can circle back around to them when you need an idea in a pinch. 

 

Parker Aultman and Sarah Hyde in Exodus Road. 

Parker Aultman and Sarah Hyde in Exodus Road

The Script

As you have probably heard from other short filmmakers, it's important to write to your resources. Develop a script that fits realistically into what's available to you. Think small. Limit the entire story to one or two locations. Keep your cast of characters to a minimuum. And keep the length of the script manageable (5-6 pages at the most). For Exodus Road, we knew that both our time AND our resources were limited. Since the entire project was a spontaneous exercise in creativity, we knew we wouldn't have much to work with. 

The Camera

The Sony FS-700 provides an incredible amount of manual control over the image, but I wanted to shoot as flat as possible, especially since I wouldn't have access to any supplemental lighting, reflectors, or bounce cards. I searched online for some recommended picture profile settings, and finally settled on one from Alistair Chapman. Not knowing exactly what our lighting situation would be like, and knowing that we would have to run-and-gun the entire time, I needed a look with as much dynamic range as possible. I was pleased with the look we dialed in.

The disappointing thing about using the FS-700 was that I had no other lens on hand except the kit lens which, for starters, isn't a very fast lens. Then, when you zoom in, the aperture stops down. I wasn't able to open up wide enough to get the shallow depth of field that I wanted, so I would shoot my medium shots and my close-ups by placing the camera far away from the talent, and then zooming in. The lens would automatically stop down, so I would have to adjust the internal ND filters accordingly. However, despite the smaller aperture, I was able to keep the backgrounds soft.

We also had some trouble with the microSD cards on the second day of shooting. We had been using a microSD with an adapter on the first day and we had no problems. On the second day, however, we couldn't load the microSD into the camera without receiving an error message on the LCD. We ditched that card and went with a standard SD card instead. 

The Shoot 

The shoot itself was a great experience, because we were doing so much of it on the fly, with no real preparation. We had a general idea of where we might shoot certain scenes, but we didn't do a proper scout, we had talent who had never seen the script, we had no shot list, and we had actors who could only give us a couple of hours of their time. So, what did I learn from this experience? 

  • Trust your instincts. You can develop your instincts by shooting and editing as much as you can. The more you shoot and the more you edit, you will start to see how shots fit together and you will learn what kind of coverage you absolutely have to have for each scene. For Exodus Road, I had ideas in my mind of how the film should look, so I tried not to overthink things too much. I made a decision and stuck with it.
  • Shoot in shaded areas, or areas with diffused light. Even with a flat picture profile, hotspots in your footage can be a nuisance. If you have to use natural light and don't have any reflectors, or supplemental lighting, you will want to shoot in shaded areas that provide ample coverage foreground to background. If you are shooting interiors, setting up shots by an open window with an opaque curtain will give you a nice, soft look. Shoot your exteriors first thing in the morning, or late in the afternoon (when the sun is low in the sky) and save your interiors for mid-day. 
  • Take time to review the footage at some point throughout the day. Despite your best efforts, some details do get overlooked and things will fall through the cracks. We started reviewing, logging and editing our footage right away. And it wasn't long before we noticed one scene that desperately needed a cutaway to help us bridge the gap between two other shots. We were able to run back outside and grab the pick-up shot before we lost our talent. 

If you have any DIY production tips, or if you would like to share some of your production tips, please do so in the Comments section. In the meantime, make the time to get out and create.