Tips for shooting your first short film

Towards the end of last year, hot off the success of our first short film we started production of Homunculus Rises.  Unlike our first film “The Youth of Today” Homunculus Rises was shot with a budget raised via external funding.  I want to be able to share my experience of getting funding for a short film as well of giving an insight into how the money was spent.

My first piece of advise for anyone wanting to fund a short film would be realistic, if you haven’t produced any films before then i would suggest finding or writing a script which doesn’t need a lot of money to produce and film.  I funded my first film with money from my own back pocket, and there are a few reasons why I did this ; Firstly I had little experience/idea of how much money was need for the production. Secondly I didn’t feel comfortable asking people for money, without the knowledge that I could actually pull the film off, and finally (probably and most importantly) I knew if it was my money at stake it would be make or break for me as both a producer and first time director.

I had the idea for Youth spinning around in my head for a while, however, I knew my strengths were not in script writing. Lucky enough I had the pleasure of working with a great script writer, back when I was acting.  I contacted him (Neville Steenson) and told him about my story and asked if he would write the script for me.  As we share a passion for Horror it was an instant match made in heaven.  Connecting with writers is a great way to get your ideas down into scripts and if you are in experienced in this area, its a great way to learn art.  If you are a talented writer then, I would suggest that maybe you contact some budding script writers and ask politely for them to read your work and provide feedback.  I feel some people can get to precious over their ideas and work, if it’s your first piece its most likely someone is not going to run off to Hollywood and sell your script for millions of dollars.  Find some one who writing or storytelling you connect with, who knows a collaboration might just be the perfect solution, as it was for me.

Be realistic, the script for Youth was quiet long (10 pages) and it involved quiet a few different locations.  I probably would have changed this if I wasn’t lucky enough to work with Film Division who I knew were behind me 100% providing the camera equipment and crew at a very low cost.  Shooting at multiple locations costs money and more importantly it’s very time consuming.  Many of the best short films have been created using a few members of cast and a single location.  I should add here, I had free access to the house which we used in Youth as a friend of the family.  I also massively underestimated the shot time on set.  My original schedule was around 12 hours and yet filming took just over 18 hours on set.

Look to save where you can.  It pains me not to pay actors for their work especially when they are incredibly hard working and talented, but the truth is your budget will most likely have to be spent on providing the basics such as food, camera and lighting equipment.  No one on my set either cast or crew got paid, everyone was working with the same mentality of getting a great short film shot to show off exactly what we can do.  I would advise that you don’t get side blindsided by expensive equipment and unnecessary extras, most short films today are shot on DSLR’s and make shift low budget lighting, which brings me onto my next point.  Pick your crew carefully.  This is something I spend quiet a lot of time thinking about and researching.    When you are filming a no – low budget movie you must have people on board who are 100% committed and if you area a beginner you need people with experience too.

An experienced camera man/DP will know what equipment you need and nine times out of ten he or she may have their own kit which they are willing to use for free or a small fee.  If you have a good DP they will also be able to light the set for you too, again using simple cost effective lighting.  I  was lucky enough to work with Stewart Addison for Film Division who was able to provide a cannon C300 to shoot on and suitable LED lighting.  A super sound guy can also make a huge difference.  Sound is one of the most important aspects of film and you can’t afford for it to be poor.  Record all sound externally to the camera and make sure you sound guy is passionate! I worked with the lovely Sam Cousins on Youth and he did a perfect job.  He wasn’t afraid to shout up on set if his recording was inferior or being interrupted.  I cannot stress how important this is, the biggest nightmare for you would be having a super looking film with horrendous sound which you note only during the edit when it is too late.

Do a start search! Having a background in acting really helped me when casting for youth. I was aderment in finding the right people for the role.  I used casting call pro to find my actors as well providing an open casting session.  Open or invite castings are great, however I have always found you can get a great idea if a actor is right and talented by their showreel.  I only cast people who have showreels, or if they can send me a video audition.  It sounds obvious, and yet I have seen it done too many times but don’t cast someone last minute just to fill the role. I would rather cancel a shoot then let the wrong person in front of the camera.  Also, talk to your actors, but I will come to this in more depth on another post for you! If you want to see how I managed to cast and work with Eileen Dietz from the Exorcist you can read it here.

Plan, plan and more planning.  To be honest pre-production can be boring at times especially if you are doing schedules or writing up contacts list but it must be done.  Here are a list of must haves I would do without doubt:

  • List of cast and crew including contact details
  • List and distribute a shooting schedule – check it with your DP to make sure its realistic
  • Information sheet for cast and crew: list local hospitals and transport routes to your locations
  • Risk assessments and method statements (this might sound like hard work) and it is but even on a small production you need to ensure your cast and crew are protected against hazards.  Here is an example of how to put one together.
  • List of equipment, this is to ensure everything arrives on set and can also be used to ensure everything leaves set as it should do.
  • Storyboard and shot list – a shot list is a must, if you don’t do one you will probably miss vital shots and you will kick yourself later.  Storyboarding can be time consuming and frustrating if like me you can’t draw for toffee. If you can draw do it!!
  • Food list – firstly check what people can and can’t eat then work out how much you need to feed casts and crew
  • Cast sign off sheets, again you need your actors to sign release forms, here are is a basic example of a sign off form.

Finally go ahead and have a blast, if your filmmaking is not a fun experience then what is the point? Don’t get me wrong its stressful but if you enjoy the work on set then the rest will fall into place.


I will share my experience and advise for post production in an up coming post.

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