6 Essential Steps to Writing a Short Film - (you plan to Self Produce)

My storyboards from "jack." a short film I wrote and produced following these steps.

My storyboards from "jack." a short film I wrote and produced following these steps.

YOU | SEE | IT all the time; your friend writes a script they tell you they're setting up to shoot. The following weekend you find out they're on set filming. A year later they've left the industry and become a personal trainer or in school for finance, never having finished the film.
That probably happened because they design stories well beyond their means, got frustrated, felt embarrassed and scrapped it altogether.

I been there. We all have. Took a while but I got through all the "green" mistakes a filmmaker will make all the way from writing a short, to getting it into a festival. It all starts with the script. You need a feasible, realistic, cost effective script that'll give you the least amount of trouble in production. So, to those of you hoping to dodge a few hurdles on your way to star-studded public demand, here are 6 essential steps you should follow when writing a short film you plan to produce yourself.

  1. WRITE AROUND ONE LOCATION. Sounds kind of obvious, and yet when we're writing, our minds will find a way to justify including additional set designs. You'll tell yourself I only need 1 shot there. It'll be real quick. It'll just be me and the actor, I can afford that. Yeah, that's never the case and you know it. One location can very possibly mean a one day shoot, which is a blessing on your wallet!
  2. MINIMIZE THE CAST. Yeah, same situation. Write around one or two characters max. (Minimal will be a reoccurring theme). Less cast means less money spent on actors. Even if they work free, they gotta be fed. They also need to be lit up - setting up lights and camera angles takes time. Time is money. It also means you have to depend on yet another person. If just one person on a shoot is unprepared or a no-sho, you've wasted the entire day.
  3. WRITE AROUND WHAT YOU HAVE. If you don't own a Ferrari, don't write about a guy who drives one! Have a huge collection of G.I. Joe's, maybe a story around that. Own workout equipment? Maybe the protagonist is getting in shape for a scheduled day at the beach and he knows his love interest will be in attendance. The story can center around his battle with a talking refrigerator. Get creative!
  4. FACTOR IN YOUR LIGHTING EQUIPMENT.  If you own a small kit, you're already ahead of the game. But, remember it might not be enough to light up a whole room. Do look for other resources - lamps, candles - they'll add additional lighting and are extremely cost effective. On the other hand if you don't own lights, you're good because DAYLIGHT IS FREE and universally agreed to be the best light you can get. Write your story around day hours. (Just be sure to prepare your angles in advance before production. The sun changes direction within minutes!)
  5. SOUND IS AS IMPORTANT AS SIGHT. If you're going to put your money somewhere, hire a good Sound Mixer. This person is responsible for everything on set from vocals to effects. If you absolutely can't afford that, write a film without dialogue, and record the sound effects afterwards - then mix it into the edits. Or, a character voice over.
  6. STORYBOARD STORYBOARD STORYBOARD! For the love of your reputation storyboard your script! Storyboard like a monkey was going to shoot it. Each frame should:
    • be drawn to the general idea of the frame
    • include the key light placement
    • include a written description of what is happening
    • include the equipment you'll need + lenses
      All your frames should be grouped together in an order that allows you to shorten your shoot time - meaning don't shoot chronologically. So, if the first, fifth, and final scenes all take place in the bedroom, shoot all three together in the same day. That way you won't have to worry about remembering the setup which can lead to inconsistencies in your film.

THESE STEPS are certainly going to test your talent as a writer. It'll take you twice maybe three times as long just to come up with an idea - then of course the rest of the story. But that's a good thing and you should welcome the challenge! It will make you a better writer, wiser director, and superior filmmaker. Still kind of skeptic? Scorsese's first film was 3 minutes of a guy shaving. Seriously, YouTube it! Tarantino shot his first in 2 -3 locations, just people talking!

Best wishes!