Ten Tips for Producing and Directing Your Own Short Film

When I sat down to write these I was blanking. ‘Woody’ is my first short film as a director and it was a huge learning experience, but in no way did I feel qualified to write a super educated list. I am very much a newbie. However, once I changed the paradigm of the list to ’10 things I wish I could have told myself before I started shooting my short’ suddenly I was waxing eloquent…ish. In articulating these points I feel hypocritical because I often forget a lot of this advice – most of which was given to me during the making of my film. So if you’re heading out on the voyage of making your own short film – do it!. Maybe check out these points – some may be helpful. Or…just do what I did and run blindly/optimistically into the task and hope you don’t stuff up too much…then write your own top ten tips list and share it. I’m about to shoot another short film and could do with some tips.   

1) Start with what you know.  
Making your first short is challenging enough – so placing it in a context you know well, either thematically or skill-wise, allows a certain level of ease and shorthand. It also allows you to focus more on the areas you aren’t as fluent in. I’m from an editing background and I have played the piano my whole life – ‘Woody’ is a stop motion animation about a character who wants to play piano. Making an animation meant I could create the whole animatic for the film and edit it as I was going – keeping tabs on tone and performance in a much more considered and slow way than if I were on set with actors.   

2) Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
‘Woody’ was partly funded by crowd-funding – and it was such an amazing way to get the film made and to build an audience for it even before we had finished making the film. Utilising Facebook and other online social networks is also a great idea. I was often surprised by the people keen to get amongst it and help out. We needed to clothe a crowd of 100 wooden puppets for a concert scene in the film so we put a shout-out up on Facebook for Barbie clothes. This led to us sourcing enough clothes from 5 different kids via their parents and saving over $1000.  

3) Quantify to people why they should help out.
Everyone has limited time, so if you are asking for someone’s time/effort/skill quantify to them why it’s worth it for them to get involved. Often with short films you can’t offer much money, but you can offer them things like a great experience, a chance to build their skills, a chance to work with great people, a chance to trial a different department or a credit for their CV.  

4) Collaboration is the bomb. 
This was the most rewarding experience I got from making ‘Woody’. Because of our small context I had to cover a few more roles than I probably would have liked to. When I did get the chance to work with talented people on specific areas of the film, it was such an inspiring process. Being able to utilise the specialised skill of these different people allows you to create something that is far better than any one person could achieve.   

5) Think outside the *insert shape here*. 
Compromise does not need to be evil – it can often be your greatest ally. This is something that took me a long time to realise and will probably always be a struggle. It was certainly one of the biggest things that Woody’s producer Jodi Matterson made me realise. Clever/thought-out/weighted compromise can be the difference between making your film and it falling over. I would often get fixated on an idea and stubbornly say that it had to be this, but often if the idea was skewed – or even changed completely – the intent wasn’t diminished at all and we could move forward. Obviously compromise after compromise can lead to the project unraveling – at which point you need to work out whether it has been too detrimental and whether you want to move forward with it or not.   

6) Don’t spread yourself too thin.
I did this a lot on ‘Woody’. Often times I had too many departments and jobs to cover that things would fall over or get a lot messier than they needed to. Most of the time it was out of necessity, but if you find yourself pasting brick texture onto foam core at 5:30am after days of little sleep, with hours of work to go and your animators due in the studio soon – you have to prioritise your time better. Do we really need said wall? I had to keep remembering that my main role on the film was director – and I had ‘directory’ things to prep so the animators could hit the ground running and we could maximise their time. I am saying this in theory obviously – I got it wrong often.  

7) Remember your context. 
I have an illness where my ideas are always too big for my context. If you want to make something a reality there is no point setting out to create something that you can neither afford, achieve or sustain. A lot of this can be sorted in the concept/idea stage – not being simply blue skies/camera crane shots and a crowd of thousands. While it’s awesome to be unhinged with your ideas – it’s good to keep somewhat of a practical beanie on at this stage so you don’t idea yourself out of reality.   

8) Don’t rely on fixing it in post. 
Perhaps this is something that comes more out of features and commercials, but you hear it a lot – ‘Don’t worry – we’ll fix it in post’. A lot of the time what is an easy fix on set is a very time consuming and costly process to fix in post. Anything from making sure a curtain is closed to making sure a green screen is lit properly so a key can be pulled later – a lot of times it’s worth getting that extra take or pausing to adjust a light. Obviously though this goes back to classy compromise – you don’t want to finish a day with only 5 of 20 shots on the hard-drive (#digitalgenerationwhatisfilm?)  

9) Pace yourself – keep healthy and sleep. 
This is a good thing to do anyway, but often making a short film takes a lot longer than you think it will. The concept of an all out assault with little sleep and maximum productivity can work for a while and often times you need to do that during a shoot, but making your short is so much more than just the shoot. For ‘Woody’ , the shoot went for about 7 weeks – often with two units running at the same time due to the painstakingly slow stop motion process – getting 3 – 10 seconds a day at 24 frames per second. After that the post process went for almost a year which I was not expecting. If I had of known the film would take as long as it did I would have paced myself better…I hope – the power of hindsight.  

10) Have fun.
Making short films should be fun. Sometimes in the stress of low budgets, time constraints and working in with people’s schedules – things can get pretty stressful. But step back – look at what you’re doing – it’s awesome – living the dream and making a film. Who does that? Often times the director and producer set the tone of the production – and I know as an editor I always appreciated the set I was working on that was professional, as stress-free as possible and fun. I am not the best student and often get a bit bored by film theory books – as in, I’ve never finished one. I still buy them though. They look good on the shelf. One book I have read twice though was Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without a Crew – he sells his body to science experiments to fund his film  – unhinged/inspiring.

Stuart Bowen is the writer and director of the short film WOODY which was this year nominated for the AACTA Award for Best Short Animation.