How to direct a short film: ten tips you can’t miss

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So you’re directing your first short film. Congratulations! This is a big honor, and I have no doubt that you’re going to do an amazing job. But you may be wondering how to direct a short film. There are lots of resources out there that walk you through the process, so I’m going to go in a slightly different direction and give you ten tips that will help you become the best director you possibly can be. Regardless of if this is a passion project or a bigger studio film, these ten tips will enable you to do your best work AND make the cast and crew love you. Let’s dive into our top ten tips for how to direct a short film.

Give yourself space 

This is a simple tip, but it will help you a LOT when you get to post. Before calling action on a scene, and before calling cut after one, wait for about ten seconds. This will give whoever is editing a lot of options, and they’ll be grateful for it. You should do this even if you have a crystal clear editorial vision, and even if you’ll be editing the movie yourself. You won’t know what a big gift you’re giving yourself until you make it to post, but once you get there and see the difference it makes, you’ll be grateful you took that little bit of extra time.

Trust people to do their jobs

If you’re a producer on this project, you worked hard to hire people who are good at what they do. That means it’s your job to trust your cast and crew. If you’re not a producer and you’ve just come on board to direct, that means your job is to trust that the producers made good hiring decisions. A director who trusts people to do their jobs is more easygoing, less likely to micromanage, calmer, and makes better directing decisions than a director who is second guessing every element of the production process. Trusting people to do their jobs is a great way to earn the respect of everyone on set, and will make things go a lot smoother than if you were trying to single handedly run the entire production. This could mean things like trusting that the AD knows what they’re talking about when they suggest a schedule change, trusting that your actors have a tried and true process that will help them get their best performance, and trusting that the producers have a plan. 

Take care of yourself

On a film set, it’s easy to get caught up in the ridiculously long days and the nonstop action. I’ve met so many directors who do things like forget to eat, don’t drink enough water, stay up all hours of the night working, don’t take any breaks… the list goes on. I’ll never tell you that you shouldn’t work hard. In fact, you should aim to be the first person on set and the last person out, and model working extremely hard for your crew. But you should also model taking care of yourself. This does three things: it makes sure you have the stamina to get through the shoot, it enables you to be your best, kindest, and most creative self, and it allows the crew to feel like they can take care of themselves as well. Win/win/win.

Make space for vulnerability

Everyone on set is an artist putting some of themselves into this big crazy group project we call film. Remember that some of the people on set are in a more vulnerable position than others, especially your actors. Consider having a closed set when actors are performing particularly emotional scenes. When choosing costume pieces, check in with your actors about what is going to make them feel comfortable. Check in with them after each scene in order to find out how they’re feeling and how you can help them. Basically, go out of your way to help your actors feel comfortable, keeping in mind that they’re in an incredibly vulnerable position and will probably need some extra support from you.

Even your crew is in a vulnerable position. Make sure you take the time to regularly thank them for their hard work and point out what they’re doing well. They’re giving a lot of time and energy to being here and making YOUR vision come to life, so make sure they know how grateful you are.

Keep a level head

We’ve all seen the representations of directors in the media, where they’re always barking orders and raising their voice at people. It goes without saying that this is a no-no. It’s 100% possible to direct a movie in a way that is kind, understanding, and respectful. It’s important to give notes and make suggestions in a way that makes your cast and crew feel respected, even if you’re behind schedule or someone has made a mistake. Part of your job here is to model the behavior you want to see on set, so make sure you take time to center yourself when you’re feeling stressed or things are going wrong. Remember, everyone is here because they love movies, and even if you need to correct a mistake, set an expectation, or move the schedule along, you can and should do this without raising your voice.

Have a clear vision… but know what’s possible

Before you get to set, you should have a clear understanding of what you want to achieve. You should also have a clear understanding of what’s actually possible. Maybe you want to request highly elaborate props or costumes, but you know that the art department is working on a thrift store budget. What’s a creative way to solve that problem that works within the set budget but also helps you achieve your vision? Maybe you have a super specific shot in mind, but your DP tells you they can’t pull it off. How can you listen to their expertise and get a shot that you’re happy with, working within the limitations of the shoot? It’s so important that as an artist you’re able to realize your vision, but it’s equally important that you understand what it takes to make that vision happen, especially if this is your first time directing. 

Don’t forget about the extras

When you’re filming a scene that includes background actors, it’s only natural that most of your attention will be focused on your principal actors. After all, they’re the ones doing the scene! Except… that’s not entirely true. Every single actor that’s in the shot is important, and even one bad extra can make or break an entire scene. While you’re providing direction to your lead actors, make sure you’re also giving the extras some love. Notice how they look in the monitor and give them plenty of direction as well. On bigger sets, you probably have someone whose job it is to wrangle the extras, but remember, it’s your job to direct the ENTIRE scene, background actors and all.

Communicate clearly

At my old job, we always reminded each other that clear communication is kind communication. Anything that comes up can be directly, clearly, and respectfully communicated if you just give some thought to your delivery. This can be as simple as having a morning meeting to review the schedule for the day, taking the time to lay out your expectations for your crew, and letting people know if you need to pick up the pace or take things in a different direction. Part of clearly communicating isn’t just letting people know when things are going wrong; you should also be clearly letting them know when things are going RIGHT. Tell the DP that you loved that shot, tell the PA they’re doing a great job keeping things running, tell the grip that you appreciate how quickly they’re working. When everyone knows how you’re feeling about things and what, specifically, your expectations are, it’s that much easier to make a good movie and keep everyone feeling comfortable.

Model collaboration

Of course, as the director, you’re the one with the vision for this short film. But film is a highly collaborative medium, so you’re going to have to work alongside a lot of people. This tip is really an amalgamation of a lot of things; if you’re trusting people to do their jobs, communicating clearly, and creating respectful dialogue, you’re already well on your way to modeling collaboration. But you can take this a step further and be really intentional about fostering a sense of collaboration. For example, if you’re ahead of schedule, maybe take a few minutes to ask the actors to do the scene again and do an actor’s take where they do whatever they want. You can also ask the crew if there are any shots they think you should be trying to get while you have the time. Of course, there won’t always be time for this, but it’s a great practice if you’re able to swing it, even if you don’t end up using any of those takes. It makes everyone feel seen, heard, and appreciated, and who knows? You might get some amazing footage out of it!

Be receptive to feedback

As a producer, one thing that really makes me love a director and want to work with them again is when they’re receptive to feedback. You’re not going to do this perfectly the first time (or probably ever, you’re only human) so it’s important that you’re receptive to feedback. One thing that will really impress the producers is if you specifically ask for feedback. Let them know you want to grow as a director and ask them what they feel you’re doing well and where you could improve. Then try to implement any suggestions they give. Remember that feedback is best given in private and when the other person is feeling relaxed, so don’t corner them in the middle of a five minute cut; wait until a longer break like lunch, or even follow up with them after the shoot is complete. This is a good practice even if you’re also producing the film. Are there any experienced crew members whose opinions you trust? Offer to take them out to coffee once you wrap and ask them how they think things went. Keep your ego in check, listen carefully, and use feedback as an opportunity to grow your skills.

These are my top ten tips for how to direct a short film. What would you add? Do you have any other suggestions or questions about how to direct a short film? Feel free to contact me at my Instagram and ask away!

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Author

Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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