Making a first-time short film with a group of young people or community members can be an extremely rewarding and insightful exercise for everybody involved. The group gets to express themselves in a creative way and dives head-first into the technicalities of filmmaking. This instructional is targeted at group facilitators and will lay out a structure for accomplishing a group-led short film in 3-5 days.
The group can be small or large, from 4 – 20 participants, however the larger the group, the harder it will be to engage everyone all the time. For this exercise you will require the following:
- Space to meet and plan the shoot, and potentially be a home base
- Whiteboard, Blackboard or butcher’s paper
- Video camera. External Microphone optional but recommended.
- Computer with editing software in an accessible space, preferably home base.
- An external computer monitor and speakers are optional, but helpful for post-production
For a more involved look at making decisions as a group and choosing a topic for your film, check out the Moving Ahead Together instructionals.
Introduction to Film – 2-4 hours
Personal Introductions and Warm-Up Games
Everybody meets early in the morning at the beginning of the week. Begin the day by having everyone introduce themselves to the group. A good way to do this is to play the Introduction Circle game.
If the group has never met or is uncomfortable with the film medium, try out a few warm-up games before getting started.
Film School Crash Course
Many of the group will be first time filmmakers, so it is important to establish the basic principles of film before getting started. Run through the 20 Minute Film School videos and emphasise the main concepts here.
At this point also introduce the camera and tripod you will be using throughout the shoot and demonstrate how to use it. Establish ground rules such as:
- Treat the camera with respect
- Only one person may operate the camera at a time
- Remove the camera from the tripod when moving to a new location
Establishing the process and structure of the film shoot
The next exercise involves establishing the overall structure of film development, and sets a timetable for the rest of the week.
On your whiteboard/blackboard/butcher’s paper, create three vertical columns and title them; Pre-Production, Production and Post-Production. Ask the group if they know what these three terms mean. Make sure they understand that these are the three main processes involved in filmmaking; Pre-Production is the development of ideas and film preparations, Production involves actually shooting the film, and Post-Production is the editing and completion of the film.
Next we establish just what is involved in each aspect of the process. Invite one of the participants to the whiteboard and open up the question to the whole group: “What are the different elements that need to be considered in Pre-Production?” Write down all the valid answers (broad ideas and specific tasks are all acceptable) and hopefully at the end of you have a list that looks something like this:
- Location scouting
- Creating sets
- Creating costumes
- Film crew formation
Next, ask: “What are the different roles and tasks that need to be completed in Production?” The list should look something like this:
- Shooting the film
- Performing for the camera
- Sound recording
And finally, “What tasks need to be completed in Post-Production?”
- Film Editing
- Sound mixing
An example of this whiteboard exercise
Now that these elements are all broken down, establish that each of these roles and tasks need to be performed within the week to create your film! There are more than enough roles for everyone in the group to be involved.
At this point you may wish to plan the rest of your week and assign certain days for different parts of production. For example:
Monday – Pre-production
Tuesday, Wednesday – Production
Thursday, Friday – Post-Production
There is no set way to schedule this, sometimes Pre-Production can take two days and Post-Production only one. But establish a goal in this first session anyway, and try as best you can to stick with it. Your role as facilitator gives you the responsibility of moving things along at the right pace, so use your best discretion.
Pre-Production – 4 hours–2 days
Pre-Production can vary in length depending on the size of the group and the strength of the ideas developed. Sometimes this can be a quick and efficient exercise, other times it can be more of a struggle. Probably the biggest challenge of creating a film in such a short amount of time is developing an idea worth making a film about. This will be the hurdle that defines how well the pre-production process goes. The following outline attempts to demonstrate an inclusive method for achieving Pre-Production with groups who may or may not be operating at the same level.
This process all takes place on a whiteboard/blackboard/butcher’s paper, with one of the participants responsible for writing down the suggestions of the others. The initial Brainstorm should be a broad one, something like “What kind of movie would you like to make?” The responses could be as broad as a genre (ie, horror, mystery, documentary) or a specific idea (ie, Kids take over the school). In this first brainstorm, all ideas that are suggested should be written down, as should further ideas that are inspired by the initial ones. The goal is to fill up the board or paper with as many ideas as possible.
Once all the suggestions have been recorded, assess the results. If there are some ideas that are very similar, group them together with arrows. Otherwise, distribute a few pens amongst the participants and instruct them to read all the suggestions on the board. They now have three votes, and can place their votes beside their favourite ideas on the board simply by adding a vertical line beside the idea. They can vote for three ideas, giving one vote to each, or vote for two ideas, giving one vote to a single idea and two to another. They cannot use all three votes on a single idea. Give the group time to do this and then tally the results.
REMEMBER to photograph or copy down the whiteboard before you wipe it! Do this throughout the entire exercise.
The genre or idea with the most votes wins (again, use your discretion here and ensure that this idea is appropriate for the group). Then the same process is repeated, except this time its more specific. So if the “romantic comedy” genre was selected, the group now needs to brainstorm on specifics such as story and setting. The ideas need not be more than a few words, but try to fill the page again and allow the participants to bounce the ideas off each other. Once these ideas have finished, the participants go through the voting process again. Establish the most popular story and setting and write them on the top of a fresh whiteboard.
If you have a larger group, you might want to go through the above process one more time to stimulate details like characters and conflict, especially if these ideas haven’t been suggested at all in the previous discussions.
Once the main ideas are locked in, the session becomes more of a discussion. Now use the whiteboard to map out a structure of the film, with a beginning (establishing characters and settings) a middle (conflict) and end (resolution). If a documentary has been decided upon, you still need to plan out a structure in order to approach the film correctly. The best way to do this is to draw a basic flow diagram, with the key plot points listed and then an arrow pointing to the next one.
The ultimate output of this should be a diagram or list that tells the story of the film, and contains a short description of each scene and the characters involved.
There may be one or two participants who have developed very strong ideas in the brainstorming process, and they will likely lead this part of the process. Ensure everyone’s opinion is heard, but allow the one’s with a strong vision to establish that as well.
If the group is less engaged, you need to lead this part of the process more closely, making lots of suggestions developed from earlier discussions and correcting ideas that will not work. It is also important at this point to moderate all ideas and ensure that they are all achievable within the week and on whatever limited budget you may have. This can be tricky, and you will often need to come up with alternative ideas for the participants who may be committed to an idea that is far too unrealistic.
Limit the number of sets, locations and scenes required to tell the story so shooting in a day or two can be accomplished.
At the end of this Brainstorming Process you should now have a story and structure for your short film! Up until this point everyone has had input, so everyone should feel a sense of ownership already, even before roles are assigned.
The aim of this task is to assign production roles to every member of the group, giving each one at least one responsibility. Offer the roles to the group and see who is interested in what and assign accordingly. Its ok for roles to be shared, for instance many members may wish to work behind the camera. In the interest of keeping the exercise engaging, allow the roles to be shared, but in these cases be sure to supervise those roles closely.
The basic roles include:
- Director; manages the shoot and is responsible for each shot. Should have a strong vision of how the film will ultimately work as a whole.
- Cameraman or Director of Photography (DOP); responsible for being behind the camera and capturing each take.
- Sound recorder; this person monitors the sound from the camera on headphones and ensures sound is being recorded correctly.
- Actors; these people perform onscreen and have dialogue or large roles
- Extras; also in front of the camera but have lesser roles, little dialogue or appear in the background
- Production assistants; each shoot needs production assistants to help with some of the logistics and behind the scenes technical issues.
- Writers; anyone passionate about writing should be involved in the scripwriting.
- Costumes; designing, preparing and maintaining costumes throughout the shoot.
- Makeup; applying any makeup necessary throughout the shoot
- Props; responsible for any props used in the film.
- Set designer; designs the sets for use in the film
- Editor; responsible for editing the film together during post-production
Further production roles can be found here. Its important to find the balance that suits your group and to ensure that everybody is involved and has at least one role.
This can be one of the most difficult tasks to achieve, and is often absent in films made in such a short time. However if you can get a script and storyboard developed, it will greatly increase the quality of your film and make the shoot much easier.
If the group is small enough, scripting can be done around a table, however generally this will be a task undertaken by only a few of the main group.
Take the results of the brainstorming exercise and turn each scene into a script. For some tips on script writing, go here. Even if a limited script is written with only a few lines of dialogue, it will help firm the structure of the film and make problems more obvious.
Storyboarding is also an extremelly useful exercise, where the key shots in the film are drawn into a frame so we know how to frame the shots during production. The drawings can be rough and accompanied by text. Check out the Knight Digital Media Center’s article on storyboarding for more info!
At the very least, attempt to write up a shot/action list. This list will contain each shot that needs to be achieved and what needs to happen. This will serve as a checklist during the shoot to ensure that everything gets captured.
Costumes and Props List
This can be the responsibility of those assigned these roles, or can be discussed as a group, but it is imperative that the film content and structure is looked at and some decisions are made as to what costumes and props are required. It is useful to do this as a group to work out who can bring what. Make sure the list is written out on the whiteboard and people are given responsibilities for what to bring.
Sets and Locations
Something to be mindful of throughout the Brainstorming process is the consideration of WHERE the film will be shot. If the ideas are too extreme and obviously can’t be shot near where you are, reign the idea in. Hopefully during the brainstorming exercise, some of the locations became obvious.
Bring the group together to discuss where things will be filmed. Using places that the group are familiar with will create a film that better represents them and where they are from, so take all suggestions seriously.
If you have time, it is highly recommended to scout the locations and sets before production. Check that where you are filming has adequate lighting, can fit actors and a camera, etc. Often places that seem like great ideas for film locations are not suitable for filming with a group. The location scout will help you plan the next day as well, as you will often want to film multiple scenes in single locations.
Due to the short amount of time here for production, its also a good idea to use pre-existing locations and settings rather than having to build or completely re-dress something.
At the end of the last Pre-Production day, you should make sure that you have the essentials required to shoot the film. If not, you may need to fill these in yourself. In particular, have an idea of all the scenes that need to be shot and what needs to take place in them.
Make a timetable or running sheet to ensure the shoot will be realistic, and don’t feel required to shoot the film in the order the story takes place in. Shoot all the scenes that will take place in one location or on one set at once. This will maximise your time.
Finally, ensure that if a script has been written, the actor’s learn their parts! Otherwise, prepare for a lot of bad takes and improvisation the next day.
Production – 1-2 Days
This is the bit where you shoot your film! If you’ve done enough work in Pre-Production, this part should be easier. Ensure everybody knows their role and preforms it throughout the day. Make sure somebody is responsible for maintaining the shot list and the running order for the day, ensuring that everything gets filmed that needs to.
Some tips on making this day run smoothly and successfully:
- Provide water for the cast and crew
- Get as much done before lunch as possible, productivity and everyone’s attention will slow down after a meal
- Don’t forget to shoot establishing and environment shots
- Remain positive and enthused and the group will respond to this accordingly
- Its easy to forget about sound, make sure somebody is monitoring with headphones
- If you have an external microphone, use it! Good sound makes the film far more successful
- Its useful to record ambient sound from each environment to plug audio holes in the edit
This will be a very hard day or two, but a lot of fun and very rewarding. You can usually have everyone involved in the process.
Once the shoot is complete, make sure you call out “That’s a wrap!” and everyone will applaud each other. A total cliché, but the sense of relief and achievement at the end of a film shoot is truly tangible, and a bonding experience for the participants.
At the end of the day, capture all the footage in preparation of Post-Production. This is a time consuming and boring task, so best to do it alone rather than with the group. If you like, review the footage, but it is often more fun to do this with everyone together the next day. If there is an excessive amount of footage, you can cut out a lot of the bad takes at this point if you wish.
Post-Production – 1-2 Days
This is probably the hardest section to engage the whole group. Editing can be boring, so you may find some people are not interested at all and just want to see the finished product. There are a few ways, however, to keep everyone involved in the post-production process.
The main part of Post-Production is editing the film. In most cases, the edit will take place on only one computer and you can’t have more than two or three people operating that computer, having 15 people crowded around one monitor can be a real distraction.
To give everyone a chance to see what is going on, a good idea is to setup an external monitor that mirrors what is happening on the main computer screen (ie, plugging in a second monitor into a laptop). In this way, you can have two or three people behind the computer and the rest of the group on another side of the table watching the external monitor, and everyone can see what is going on. Setting up some loud external speakers will make sure everyone can hear it all too.
Hopefully there are individuals who have expressed an interest in editing, they should be the ones working the computer. Somebody with editing experience needs to be involved in this part. For more details on how to edit video, go here.
The first thing to do is watch all the footage shot during production. At this point everyone will be into it, watching what they had created the previous day. As they watch each piece of footage the editor should delete unusable takes and keep the good ones. It can also be fun to keep bloopers (funny mistakes made on the shoot) in a separate timeline, but make sure this is a secondary concern.
Next, try to order the takes as best you can, getting the shots into vaguely chronological order. Now begin editing the shots down and assembling the film into something that makes sense. Editing will also involve adding titles, credits, sound and music. Much of this will depend on the capabilities of your crew and editing software, but most films will include these elements. Some films may also include Special Effects but this is something that shouldn’t be relied upon, especially for first time filmmakers.
Sound effects may be necessary to add to the film and this can be one or two people’s responsibility. Sounds may be recorded by the participants themselves during production or during post-production as the required sounds become obvious. If they have access to another computer they can edit the audio and deliver it to the editor for inclusion.
If you lack a device to record sound with, using the camera is an easy option. The editor will then remove the video and keep the audio to include in the film.
Another way of getting sound effects is by accessing sound databases with pre-recorded effects. For example, if you search for “foley” in Garageband, you will see a list of sounds (barn doors opening, police siren) that you can include in your film. If you don’t have access to a sound reservoir on your computer, you can search the internet for sound effects as well.
Another task for Post-Production is music. Often an imperative addition to a film, it should be someone’s responsibility to source or create the music.
Music can be made on programs like Garageband on Mac or FL Studio on PC. Or you might want to record one of the local bands and include them on the soundtrack with their permission.
If the film is only for private use, you might get away with using copyrighted music (music which has been officially released by a record company) but do so at your own risk!
Whatever the source, provide a full quality (aiff or wav) music file to the editor for inclusion in the film.
Additional titles or Graphics
Some members of the group may wish to make something like a title screen using Photoshop or photography, and this can be another task undertaken while the film is being edited.
Once all the elements of the film have been combined, play the first cut back to the group and get feedback. This will show how much extra work needs to be done.
Throughout the day, you may lose a few participants who get bored, but make sure you let them know when and where you will be screening the final video!
A few tips on finishing off the edit:
- Leave a final sound mix until last
- Don’t be afraid to cut out entire scenes or characters if they will help the film work better
- If a film isn’t quite making sense, sometimes a voice-over can help
- Edits can take quite some time, don’t stress if the edit isn’t perfect at the end of the week, you can always change it later. Most edits are never truly completed, merely abandoned
- Have ALL the data (including footage, sound and music) backed up on a single external hard drive so you can change things later if need be
You will know your edit is finished when the film makes sense, when the story is told, and when the film has the emotional resonance or entertainment value you desired.
Once this is done, you’ve completed a short film in less than a week! Congratulations!
Screening & Publishing
Be sure to screen the final product for everyone in the group! Then publish your work online. Post any short films you made in the comments below, we’d love to see them!
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