Ever dreamed of the opportunity to shoot your first short film like a pro, but felt totally overwhelmed by the process of making it?
You’re definitely not alone.
Filmmaking might seem like a mystery, but it’s really all about taking the right steps and avoiding key mistakes many make.
The real magic happens when the actors bring your story to life within the frame. Solid preparation and execution are the bedrock of great filmmaking.
With seven years on various film sets under my belt, I can tell you this: learn the craft first, and the art will follow.
Money, logistics, and time – these are the killers in any production, whether it’s your first short or a Hollywood blockbuster.
As a filmmaker, learning how to shoot a short film effectively can save you these resources.
We’ll teach you simple, practical ways to handle these and use them to your advantage. This guide is here to help you dodge common mistakes and use pro tricks to your advantage.
And while managing money is a big part of any production, how you allocate your budget starts with what you put on paper.
This brings us to the first major pitfall: unrealistic scripts.
01. Unrealistic Film Scripts
Your first film needs a great story that’s also easy to make. Many potentially brilliant shorts have been ruined because they were too ambitious for the budget or time available. Directors and producers often think they can make it work by cutting corners – squeezing the budget, getting cheaper equipment, cutting down the crew, and doing a lot of post-production on their own.
And sometimes they do pull it off.
Usually, however, this is what happens.
A couple of days before short film shooting, a cold realization kicks in – there aren’t enough resources to shoot everything on time.
The script gets chopped, and the film loses its essence without enough time for rewriting.
Cutting down the crew leads to less efficient shooting days, accumulating delays.
The director ends up juggling too much, neglecting critical aspects like actor performance and scene direction.
In the end, the film looks nothing like what was planned.
Be a Creative Filmmaker
Being creative and practical doesn’t mean you give up your dreams. It means tweaking your execution to fit your resources.
Want to shoot an epic like ‘Saving Private Ryan’? Scale it back. Turn it into a 15-minute short about two soldiers on opposite sides, trapped in a room with a knife and a gun, waiting to be rescued by their peers. Set it in the present to avoid the hassle with costumes and props.
Want to make a short film that’s both creative and feasible? Think big, but within your means. This is how legends like Robert Rodriguez got their start, and they use the same philosophy for their Hollywood projects.
Why not aim at filming a feature film straight away?
Aim for a Short Film to Fly High
It’s a bigger commitment and emotionally draining. While a short film can be shot in a few days with an inexperienced crew, a full feature film often requires over 20 days with a skilled team.
Moreover, there’s less room for improvisation in feature films. You might manage to be functional and creative for 5 days under pressure, but sustaining that intensity over a longer period is much more challenging.
Remember, short films tend to get noticed more easily and can be a great way to pitch for funding future projects.
For relatively new filmmakers, the lessons learned from short films are invaluable. Many renowned directors, like Martin Scorsese, started with shorts.
So, aim for a short film. Keep it under 20 minutes and limit the number of actors and locations. Fewer, the better.
This being your first film, you’ll likely be doing a lot of producing and management. The more time spent managing people and locations, the less time you’ll have for preparation and shooting.
Focus on creating a simple yet engaging script, paying special attention to character development and dialogue.
02. Doing Everything on Your Own
You might feel like a one-person army, eager to control everything. But trust me, focus on directing. You’ll probably be producing too, but delegate as much as you can. Get friends or acquaintances who are into your vision. They bring an energy and commitment that money just can’t buy.
A buddy who’s shot local commercials could be your ideal Director of Photography. An actor from an amateur theater group becomes your lead. Your cousin who does wedding makeup? There’s your makeup artist.
After the film, they’ll have awesome work to add to their portfolios, possibly leading them to more gigs.
Having a pro on set can be an advantage, but it’s not a guarantee of success in producing a successful film.
Surround yourself with a crew that wants to be a part of the project.
03. Improvising on Cast, Locations, and Equipment
Even big studios, with all their resources, have to deal with one same constraint as you do – time.
Make sure you cast your actors on time and rehearse. This can be a golden opportunity to improve your script. Be humble and assume that by “being” in character, they have insights you don’t. Often, this will be true.
Find Shooting Locations on Time
Take the time to scout properly. While your parents’ cozy cottage in the woods may appear ideal for your thriller, you may discover the living room is too small or the windows don’t provide sufficient light.
If you’re renting a location, make sure you have a contract specifying filming dates and add an extra day to prep the location. If possible, shoot a short test scene a couple of days prior to shooting so you can work out camera settings, lighting levels, and sound options. Rehearse with actors and give them a chance to “feel” the place. Discussing the scene with actors on location on the day of the shooting can take a significant amount of time and derail the shooting.
Confirm Shooting Locations
If you’re filming in a friend’s apartment, give them a sense of what the shooting looks like. Most folks assume it’s just “a guy with a camera” and get shocked to see their flat occupied by a bunch of strangers carrying equipment and occupying their living space.
Also, call a week and two days before shooting to confirm the locations and check that nothing unexpected has happened.
If you’re shooting outdoors, make sure you have a shooting permit or that you don’t need one.
The entrance to the national park might work great for your opening scene, but in most cases, showing up unannounced will end your shooting before you unpack your tripod.
And while we’re at it you cannot be too careful with your checklist when it comes to preparation for shooting your first film.
Don’t Assume, Double Check
Phrases like ‘I assumed,’ ‘They should have known,’ and ‘Everybody knows that’ are among the most dangerous mindsets on any film set. With so many different aspects involved in filmmaking, it’s easy for things to get overlooked.
Teamwork and delegation are the biggest strengths in any film endeavor. Art follows.
If you didn’t communicate to your director of photography that you plan to use a 70 mm lens as your key narrative tool, he might assume you’re fine with his standard 20 – 50 mm set.
Similarly, if your set designer isn’t aware that you plan to use desaturated colors to reflect your main character’s emotional state, they might leave that rosy painted wall as it is.
However, there’s a balance to this. Avoid micromanaging every detail, but make sure you don’t miss anything crucial.
To make your life easier, adopt three main soft skills from a professional film set:
Even if you’re shooting on a budget (or without one), you’ll benefit from delegating. Agree with your key departments on what you need, even if they consist of just one individual, and let them find the solution instead of imposing yours. Involvement breeds dedication.
Team members usually feel more motivated when they believe they have contributed to the solution, even if you guided them.
Be Open to Solutions
If you’re aiming to rent that new Red Monstro 8K VV, but your director of photography assures you his Canon EOS C70 is more than enough for your first short shot in controlled indoor locations, he might be right. You can then redirect those resources into set design and enrich your backgrounds. It’s all about the end result and making your first film better overall, not just following your initial idea.
Casually Double Check.
‘I just wanted to check if I mentioned we planned to…’ and
‘Let me know if we have any problem with…’
is far more effective than
‘I told you to bring ______, and I expect to have it tomorrow’ or
‘I hope you won’t scr.. up and forget to bring…’
Always double-check to ensure your crew has understood you, but do so gently, giving them ownership of their department.
It might seem overly optimistic to expect a smoothly running set on your first film, especially with an inexperienced crew, but it’s quite achievable. I’ve seen ‘amateur’ film sets operate like clockwork because everyone worked well as a team and understood their responsibilities.
04. Not Thinking Strategically
There are some practical questions you might overlook if you’re filming for the first time.
Is there power at the location, and how does it work?
If you’re filming in multiple locations, how do you get people from one place to the next?
And what about parking? Is there enough for everybody?
Include these in your timeline and don’t forget to add time needed to pack and unpack the gear.
Feeding your crew, even if you’re working on a zero budget (consider asking for sponsorship from local restaurants and fast-food places), is a must. Besides being a small token of appreciation for their efforts, it will save you time. Gathering your crew in the middle of nowhere after they’ve gone hunting for the nearest fast food can set your schedule back.
Can you start to see the benefits of having a small crew and fewer locations for your first short film?
05. You Don’t Have a Priority Shot List
A shot list is like your filmmaking GPS. It tells you what’s happening, who’s in the scene, and how it’ll be shot. It’s a tool to help you prioritize.
Take a look at these two scenes:
SC 01 EXT – IN FRONT OF THE BUILDING – DAY
Harry walks into the building.
SC 02 INT – LIVING ROOM – DAY
Harry, Danny, and Tim play cards and chat while John fixes drinks in the background.
If you had a “slow” day and you’re getting behind schedule, it would be best to shoot the bigger interior scene and schedule the exterior as a pickup day. The interior scene needs four actors, lights, a crew, and a lot of setup time. On the other hand, one actor walking outside can be shot with two people and a camera.
Always shoot the scenes requiring the most resources first.
The tricky part is prioritizing with your actors’ performances in mind. Leaving the crucial scene where Larry and Sally break up as a final scene after 12 hours of shooting, when your actors feel tired and everybody just wants to get home, isn’t a good idea.
Prioritize and execute.
06. Not Having a Backup Plan
I have never been on a film set, amateur or professional, where something didn’t go wrong. Even if you do your best and prepare to shoot your first short film like a pro, be assured – something WILL go wrong:
- The main location won’t be available one day before shooting
- The principal actor will break a leg playing squash
- It rains on location for the next 10 days
- The camera malfunctions and you need a substitute
- Your friends who agreed to be extras don’t show up
- The Director of Photography has a car accident and can’t shoot for a week
You can’t overplan for contingencies in film. Cover as many areas as you can, starting with the easiest.
For example, if rain is forecasted when you’re supposed to shoot outdoors, swap in some indoor scenes instead.
Ask the actress who was almost your first pick to stand by in case something happens to your lead actress.
And don’t forget the unspoken rules of every film set:
- The first part of the shooting day is more efficient than the second. That scene that took 1 hour to shoot at 10 AM will take 2-3 hours at 10 PM.
- Your first day of shooting will be less effective than the others. It takes time to get used to working with each other. Schedule to shoot only 50% of what you initially planned on day one.
07. Being Rude
Confidence is important in any creative project, but make sure you always treat your team with respect. These folks are here to help you make something amazing. They deserve your respect.
Two things film crews appreciate most are a calm demeanor and clear, concise communication.
Acknowledging your mistakes and praising good work by others is always appreciated.
Stay humble, learn from your crew and the challenges you face.
Give respect to your crew, and you’ll earn their respect in return.
Filming is a complex puzzle with thousands of moving parts. Chasing perfection is like chasing a ghost. Just start with what you have.
Don’t postpone filming your story. Make a decision and see it through with the resources you have.
But before you do, go through the checklist in this article and prepare properly. This guide is here to help you dodge common mistakes and use pro tricks to your advantage.
If you ever get stuck, check out our blog for real-life filmmaking tips, or send an email to our HayotFilms team. We’ve dealt with most of the situations we’ve described here (it’s the best way to learn), and we’ll be glad to help you.
Now, go ahead, make that film, and good luck!