Make a short film by yourself: 5 steps you can’t afford to skip

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I’ve written extensively about finding a creative partner and building a creative community, but the truth is, not everyone is lucky enough to have filmmaking buddies who are game to just pick up a camera and make a movie. So many indie filmmakers–especially women, people of color, and other marginalized folks–struggle for years before they find folks who are safe and enjoyable for them to work with. That’s actually how and why New 32 got started! I’ve always said that a creative partner who doesn’t respect you and your work is actually worse than no creative partner at all. But I don’t want you to feel like you have to put off making your own movies until you’ve found your people. Even if you don’t have filmmaking buddies, or you don’t have the cash to hire a crew, you can make a movie. Yes, seriously. Here are my top five tips for how to make a short film by yourself.

Set the scope of your project.

This is a part of any production process, but if you want to make a short film by yourself? It’s vital. As indie filmmakers, we wear so many hats, and we sometimes feel like we have to know how to do it all. That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself, especially when we’re talking about something that’s supposed to be fun. So your first step is to set the scope of your project. Have a production meeting (that’s right, all by yourself) and outline what you can and can’t pull off. Think about what your limitations are. This could be budgetary constraints (I only have $500 to make this happen) or skills that you don’t have mastered and don’t have time to learn (I know camera but not sound.) Then, it’s time to do what you do best as a filmmaker: get creative. If you want to make a short film by yourself, you’re going to need to set some pretty firm boundaries with yourself. Going back to my example of a filmmaker who doesn’t know how to make sound, it might be smart to see if they can write a script with no dialogue. For the filmmaker who has a seriously tight budget, they should see if they’re able to pull off filming their movie entirely in their home and other free to use locations.

Once you’ve established the scope of your project, it’s very important to be firm with yourself about sticking to those boundaries. I know I’m guilty of letting extra work creep into my process, but if you want to make a short film by yourself, that just won’t work. Remember, you are playing literally every role in the production process, so do not give yourself extra jobs after you’ve already established what you can pull off. Remember that when you’re working on this (or any) project, it’s okay to take shortcuts where you can. Don’t know how to do color? Buy a LUT pack you love. Can’t compose a whole score? Check out royalty-free music options. The point of this is to have fun doing what you love and build your portfolio, not to conquer every skill in one go. 

Write a script that’s easy to produce.

I’ve written about creating scripts that are cheap to produce, but let’s take another moment to discuss writing a script that allows you to go easy on yourself. Say you live in a beautiful, spacious, modern-looking apartment, and that’s where you’ll be filming. First of all, congrats to you. However, writing a script set in 1920’s Brooklyn is… well, it’s going to be tricky to pull off in that space without a lot of intensive set design and probably some tricky camera work. That might not be the best bet if you’re going to make a short film by yourself. So, just like how you got realistic with yourself when setting the scope, be realistic when you’re writing your script. As I already mentioned, that may mean not including dialogue at all, or it may mean relying exclusively on voiceovers. It may mean only including props and costumes that you already own or can easily find at your local thrift store. It may mean keeping scenes short and snappy (less for you to memorize, since you’re the actor, director, producer, DP) or trying to film everything in one room (less time and effort lugging your gear around). Remember, your limitations can actually make you more creative; when I start thinking about short films I could write that take place in just my living room, my creative gears immediately start turning and I get really, really excited. Like with any micro budget film, allow the things you already have easy access to to inspire you!

Spend a really long time in pre production.

The amount of time you spend in pre production is relative to every project. A five minute film is going to be easier to produce than a twenty minute film. You set the amount of work you’ll have to do in the first two steps, when you set your scope and wrote your script. But now, I want you to really, really take your time pre producing this thing. Make a super detailed shot list. Storyboard every single moment. Really take the time to play with whatever gear you’re using, even if you’re already familiar with it. Pour over your budget until you know it down to the last cent. Make sure your prop list and schedule are air-tight. Remember, if you get ready to film and something is missing, like a key prop or costume piece, you’re either going to have to pause filming to go source it yourself, or you’re going to have to totally rethink the scene. If you only have a weekend to film and your schedule isn’t equally realistic and ambitious, you won’t be able to get it all done in time. If you don’t leave room in the budget for every last detail, you’ll run out of money. I could list a dozen more examples of things that could go wrong, but you get the gist. 

A solid pre production plan is a gift you give your future on-set self. This is true for all projects, of course, but if you’re going to make a short film by yourself? You literally can’t afford to not take your time. Every second you spend on set costs you time, money, and energy, so do yourself a favor and really do an impeccable job up front. Now, will you make mistakes? Of course, you’re only human. But that’s why it’s so important to take your time here. Fewer mistakes means less time and money wasted. Remember what they said to the kids in school who finished their standardized tests early? Check your work. If you fly though pre production, take a really long time to check your work, even if you’re an experienced producer and you’re feeling confident. This doesn’t mean spending months agonizing over the project until it’s literally perfect (like I keep saying, this is supposed to be fun) but, if you’ll forgive my use of cliche, when you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

Grow your skills

If you are truly going to make a short film by yourself–like, fully by yourself, not a single other human being involved–there are certain things you’re going to need to know how to do. I know I keep harping on about only taking on realistic responsibilities, but some of these things are non-negotiable. If you’ve never operated a camera before, you’re going to need to get comfortable doing that, even if it’s just the camera on your iPhone set up on a tripod. As part of the pre production process, really take your time to get to know your gear. Is editing not your strong suit? Take the time to watch a ton of Youtube videos that will teach you how to be a better editor, because like it or not, you’re the entire post production team. Do you know how to light a shot to your standards? Are you comfortable being on camera? There are countless free resources out there that will help you not only make a short film by yourself, but also grow your filmmaking skills for future projects. And remember, this step can be fun too! Find the excitement in growing your skills, and take note of what you enjoy or don’t enjoy as you move along this process. Maybe you’d actually love to do more acting, or perhaps you discover a passion for color grading. This is all good data for future you!

Use your film to build community.

It’s an amazing accomplishment to make a short film by yourself, but if you’re anything like me, you probably dream of running bigger film sets full of nice, hardworking people who are just as passionate about the project as you are. So once you’ve completed your film, use it as a technique to build community. Submit to local film festivals so you can meet other filmmakers in your area. Post it online and invite people to get in touch with you if they like your style. Join a local Facebook filmmaking group and see if people in your community want to set up a low-key screening so you can get to know each other. Remember, you’ve worked hard on this, and you deserve to be taken seriously and use your short film as a stepping stone to making even more work you’re proud of. Even if you’re 100% content to make films by yourself for the rest of time, you should put yourself and your work out there so everyone can see how hard you worked and what an incredible film you made. Pat yourself on the back, and get out there. 

Have you ever made a short film by yourself? I’d love to see it! Get in touch so we can chat, and have fun filmmaking!

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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