Short Film Production and Distribution

This article was published in a film magazine some years back. I'm including it here just because...

Principal Photography is the culmination of months if not years of work. The moment when the talking ceases and the Action begins. It can also be the moment when everything falls apart. The first thing to be remember is not to start production until absolutely ready. The key to a successful production is a combination of good contingency planning and maintaining an even keel. Simply put, if it turns out that it is raining on the first day, make plans beforehand. Pre-arrange some interior shots, just in case. Cover every possibility with a backup and an alternative. If you’re running short on film, order more and do shots which don’t use a lot of film, such as inserts, cutaways and shots which have complicated setups.

One of the most common failings of first-time directors and producers is to let things get out of control. In other words, to panic. Bear in mind that something will always go wrong, each and every shooting day. Ask yourself each morning, what could possibly go wrong, and plan a contingency. If indeed it does go awry, keep focussed. Nothing demoralizes a crew and cast faster than a director or producer who becomes an instant tyrant because of a mistake or accident. A crew with that mindset will be more likely to make mistakes, exacerbating the problem. Keep your balance, and the crew will too.

As a director, it is very difficult to maintain a clear head with regard to the scenes being unfolded in front of you. Rehearsal is the best time to hone the performance, when your attention isn’t required for eight other tasks. Delegate as much as possible. If you’ve done the casting and hiring task correctly, your crew will be better than you at their particular job. For this reason, don’t tell the cinematographer to use a 20mm f/1.8 lens. Explain to him or her what you require from the shot. Talk in terms of depth of field, motivation and framing rather than specifics. Very likely, the cinematographer will suggest a better way of shooting the scene, if they know what you are looking for. Similarly, don’t read lines to actors. They prefer to be told who their character is, rather than what he or she sounds like.

Often, various people on the set will make suggestions about how they feel a scene might be better constructed. It is important to listen to these suggestions, rather than dismiss them as offhand. Even if the lowest production assistant is the person making the suggestion. At the same time, remember who is in control. Never let the cast direct each other, or for a crew member to give instructions to an actor. It circumvents your authority, and confuses the cast. It is important, however, to listen to cast and crew, and take their suggestions seriously. No-one will remove your name from the credits merely because you took the advice of the person doing continuity. It can even be worthwhile to film another take because an actor feels they might be better with a different emphasis. If you can afford the time and the stock, it tells the cast that their input is important, and it may turn out that their way is better, in the cold light of an editing machine.

If possible, express the first roll or two of film directly to the lab and have someone collect the dailies. Ideally, you should examine the rushes from the first day, before starting the second day of production. Camera or lab problems must be detected and rectified as soon as possible. If it is impractical to collect the dailies, assign someone to telephone the lab each day, and enquire about the previous days footage. A good relationship with the lab at this stage is essential. They can often be an invaluable source of advice concerning exposure, grain, grading and image quality. Certainly when it comes time to strike the first answer print, you will be relying on their specialist knowledge almost entirely.

Even before production is complete, the editor can start to log the rushes from the lab, and the assistant can begin the arduous process of syncing the audio. Some short time after the wrap party, the editor should be able to screen the rough cut for you. An exciting moment. The first opportunity to see the film, even in its rough form. Generally, for low budget films, allow a day for every two to three minutes of screen time, with a few days thrown in. Editing should normally take anywhere from twice to four times that, depending on the complexity of the cutting and the experience of the editor. At this stage in the production of the film, things begin to happen outside your influence. In other words, be careful about telling a seasoned editor on which frame he or she should cut. For that matter, when it comes time to produce a sound mix and an answer print, bear in mind that these processes are highly technical. As such, you are divesting very little if any creative control by letting these professionals do their job. However, if you are unclear or confused, do not be afraid to question them. They are, after all, working for you. Furthermore, if you feel they really are doing something wrong, remember that it is your film, and as such, they should be working to your specification.

Finally, with a release print in hand, and several VHS copies (preferably in both PAL and NTSC standards), you are ready for the film festival circuit. There are over one hundred film festivals around the world which will screen short films like yours. Most of these tend to have themes. Don’t waste time and postage sending your thriller to a film festival whose main aim is to promote environmental issues. Festivals are strange beasts. Complex and often irritating rules govern. For example, in order to be considered by the Cannes Film Festival, your film must not be publicly screened before their festival. They demand it premiere at Cannes. Likewise, the London Film Festival will not accept films which have been screened in the UK, either in cinemas, other festivals or on television. This means that to have your film screened at the London Film Festival you must ignore the regional UK film festivals, which can often be better screenings for your film. Ignoring the Leeds Film Festival in order to be eligible for the London Film Festival, and then being refused by London can be annoying to say the least. Similar rules apply in other countries around the world. Carefully study the application forms, with specific reference to the requirements and the deadline. Finally, there are several festivals around the world which charge up to to submit a film. This is on top of the costs of sending a tape, preparing a press kit, and actually getting a bank draft for My advice is to avoid these festivals like the plague, unless a screening is likely and advantageous.