First Person: Filmmaker Maura Smith With Tips for Making Your Film
I love short films. I love how you can become totally immersed in a story and connected to a character in a film that might only be a few minutes long.
I’ve spoken to a lot of people who think that, since the film is a short, it will cost less and be less challenging to produce than a feature. After shooting my second short film this past summer, I can say from experience that although making a short might not be as difficult as making a feature, making a good short film is hard. Deceptively hard.
Last year, I was entering my second year as a graduate M.F.A student in Film Production at Boston University. At the end of the program each M.F.A. directing candidate must make a thesis film. This film can be no longer than 28 minutes, and can be either a narrative or a documentary. The school allows students to check out camera, lighting, and sound equipment to use for their film, but the student is responsible for finding and acquiring everything else needed for production.
My thesis film was a short entitled Dear Santa, which I wrote, directed, produced, and cast. The story focuses on Ann Dunham an energetic and free-spirited girl who loves hockey, dance class, and video games. When Ann asks Santa Claus to turn her into a boy for Christmas, her request throws her conservative mother into a tailspin. Dear Santa is a lighthearted look at the complicated, funny, and sometimes dysfunctional ties that bind a family together.
The film presented several production challenges. We had a very large cast: seven principal cast members, 24 dancers, and over 75 extras, all of whom had to be costumed and fed each day. The film was set at Christmas, but due to time issues we had to shoot in July. We needed 6 locations, one of which was a hockey rink. Making this film proved to be an incredibly challenging but rewarding experience.
During the twelve-day shoot I learned a lot of lessons. Here are a few of the most helpful, as well as some tips I picked up along the way, which might help make shooting your next low budget short a little easier.
1. A Hot Meal Goes A Long Way
On Dear Santa, I wasn’t able to pay anyone, but I always made sure that there was plenty of food and drink on set all day. In the morning, I always had coffee, bagels, and yogurt. For lunch I provided sandwiches, salads, chips, and fruit. There was a hot meal for dinner every day. For me, this food was a way that I could show the respect and appreciation I had for how hard everyone was working.
Tip: Before you start shooting, check in with your cast and crew about any foods that they are either allergic to or don’t care for. There is nothing worse than being on set and realizing that you don’t have anything an actor or crewmember can eat.
Before I went to film school at Boston University, I spent ten years in New York working in theater as a director and assistant director. Working in the theater, I really came to understand how important collaboration is. As a director, the theater taught me that two of my most important jobs were to clearly articulate to everyone what my vision was, and to make sure that everyone understood that I valued their opinions.
I’ve brought that sensibility with me into my film work, and I’ve found that it is just as vital in film as it is in the theater. When I’m working on a project, I go out of my way to make sure that everyone knows that their opinions matter. The more people feel that they have some ownership of the film, the more invested they will be in the project.
Tip: The director/DP relationship is one of the most important on any film. I’ve been on sets where the only communication that occurs between the director and the DP is when the director barks out what lens they want to use. I don’t understand this. I’ve been lucky. The DP on my first two films, Kate Brown, and I have a very similar style, both in terms of shooting and storytelling. When we discuss the shooting of a particular scene, we talk as much about the emotion that a particular character is feeling as we do about what lens to use. Talk to your DP about story and character. It will get their imagination firing, and it will lead to exciting possibilities.
3. The Tricky Task of Media Management
How many hard drives should I buy? Should I do a back up in the field or wait until we wrap for the day? Should I erase the memory cards as I use them, or should I buy enough so that I don’t have to erase until the film is completed? These are just a few of the key decisions we had to make during the pre-production phase on Dear Santa.
My first film was shot on 16mm film, and there was something reassuring about knowing that no matter what I had the film negative as a backup. Dear Santa was shot using the SONY F3, and we used the SxS adapter to enable us to shoot using 32GB SD cards. I was able to search out sales and find good deals on the SD cards, but I was still on a budget, and faced an important choice. I could use a card, dump the footage onto a drive, erase the card, and then re-use that card, or I could only use a card once and then keep it for archival purposes until the film was completed. I chose the latter option.
For me, the idea of having only hard drives as our main storage and backup system felt a little too dicey. Instead, I opted for having two back ups. We had all the footage on the main 1 TB hard drive we used for editing, a second 1 TB drive we used as a backup, and all of the original SD cards. Hard drives can malfunction, and after working so hard and spending so much money during production, not having two different types of media backups felt like a risk that I didn’t want to take.
Tip: Look into using photographic slide books for storing your SD cards. These books, which come with plastic sheets that hold 20 slides per page, are great. An SD card is about the same size as a slide, and the cards fit perfectly into the slots. This was a great tool to help us keep our media organized.
4. Everything Flows From the Story
When you’re on set either directing or producing a movie, you have to make a lot of decisions very quickly. These decisions will have a huge impact on how your movie will ultimately look. Knowing this can make each decision a difficult one to make. A professor of mine at BU once told me a story about the director Elia Kazaan. He said that everyday before Kazaan went to the set all he would do to prepare is tell himself the story, over and over again. This really struck me. It reminded me that the story always has to be the most important thing. If the amazing crane shot that you have spent weeks preparing for doesn’t serve the story, then it isn’t going to be effective and you may end up cutting it. When I was making Dear Santa I tried to make every decision, whether it was about performance, costuming, lighting, or lenses, based on what would best serve the story.
Tip: While you’re in pre-production go through the script and write down one sentence for each scene that describes what the major dramatic event is for that scene. Shooting scenes out of order in film can be confusing. Writing down this one simple sentence can help you as a storyteller keep in mind where a particular scene fits into the larger overall story.
5. Have Fun
Movies are hard to make, and the fact that you are actually making yours at all is already a major accomplishment. Enjoy the process. Share your excitement with everyone else. Your excitement and passion can be infectious, and it will help motivate people to work hard and be committed to your project. It is easy when you’re making a film to be caught up in the stress of the moment, but, if you can, try to step back at least once a day and look around you. You are getting to make your movie, and that is really cool.
Tip: Don’t talk about the movie during meal breaks. Let yourself and everyone else decompress. Meal breaks can be a great time for the cast and crew to bond.
For more information about Maura and her films, visit ourwayout.org.
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