How To Direct A Short Film (With No Experience)

Ever wanted to direct a film, but had no idea where to start? This post is for you.

Confession time

Before we go any further, it’s time for a little confession.

I had absolutely no desire to direct anything before this. I didn’t go to film school, I didn’t run around shooting movies on a Super 8 camera when I was a kid. Hell, I didn’t even know how a camera works. (At least, not in any meaningful sense.)

All I wanted to do was act and write.

So, Why Direct?

The most obvious reason was control. Since I wrote and was acting in the film, I had a good feel for the tone and energy for the piece. The last thing I wanted was to expend all this time and effort, only to get overruled by somebody I brought on to run the show.

The more important reason is that I was SCARED. Even directing a little comedy sketch in my apartment seemed impossible. Which made no sense at all. And incidentally, irrational fear is a good indicator that you should pursue a goal.

I also have a tendency to over-research and over-analyze things to death. I knew that if I started reading filmmaking books and “studying”, I’d never get anything done. So I decided to just jump in and make a movie, no matter how it turned out.

Getting Started

Since I was also producing this short, I had already assembled the crew. The DP (Director of Photography) would be handling the shooting, so he volunteered to swing by my place and scope out the filming setup. And we had this exchange:

DP: Can you send me your shot list so I can go over it?

Me: Uh, let me get back to you on that…

I had no freaking idea what he was talking about. So I Googled around and found a shot list template at Filmsourcing.com. A shot list is exactly what it sounds like: a list of all of the shots you’ll do over the course of filming.

So what I had to do was go over the script and pick out what shots would go with each beat of the scene. And since I didn’t understand some of the sections of the template, I just cut those parts out and made a simplified version:

How To Direct A Short Film Shot List

What About Story Boards?

It seems like every behind-the-scenes on filmmaking has some section on making story boards. I didn’t do any story boards for two reasons:

  1. I suck at drawing.
  2. I already had a good idea of how it would look.

The Day Of Shooting

Here’s where the real work started. Even though we now had a shot list and a basic lay-out of the day, we still had to go through each set-up to make sure we got the angles and distance right.

How To Direct A Short Film 1

Talking about the angle of a shot…or how much I wanted a sandwich.

 

 

Directing The Scene

In addition making sure the setups were right, I also had to track the camera movements while the scene was going on. When I wasn’t on camera, I was usually looking at a monitor that displayed a live feed of the shot.

Another hiccup was that in such a small space, the equipment and crew sometimes blocked the view between me and Liz, our lead actress. Poor Liz often had to deliver her lines to the leg of the tripod. Thankfully, she is a pro and nailed every take.

In between takes, I’d suggest some different approaches for her character. As an actor, I always hated when directors would give me line readings (i.e. “Say it like this…). And as a writer, I knew that it was more important for the scene to be alive than to sound a certain way.

So I kept things focused on the point of view for her character, with notes like:

“You’ve had this conversation with him a million times in your head. But today is the first day you’re going to say it out loud.”

How To Direct A Short Film 2

Giving notes about the character…or about how much I wanted a sandwich.

 

Directing Myself

Here was the toughest part of the whole day. In addition to keeping track of the shots and tone, now I had to perform in the scenes at the same time. We kept a small monitor just out of frame so I could keep an eye on the framing of the shot.

And since I made the incredibly foolish choice to play not one, but THREE characters, Liz stepped in to read their lines so we could keep the pacing right. Poor Liz.

Next time,  I’m definitely going to make the shoot more organic so that the actors can actually look each other in the eye. I delivered most of my lines to a piece of tape on the wall, not actually reacting to anything.

 

How To Direct A Short Film 3

Take one…and also, someone get me a sandwich.

 

Post-Production

After we wrapped, I got the video and audio files to Jay, the editor. (For more detail on this, check out How To Produce A Short Film.)

Working off the shotlist, Jay assembled a rough cut. And thankfully, it was pretty solid right away. All I did was suggest a few minor tweaks, like cutting down some reaction times and adding in a couple of establishing shots.

And since the main character was watching a horse race, I went to a site called Pond5 to get some royalty-free horse racing audio. Jay mixed in the audio that you’ll hear at the beginning of the short.

The Final Product

And after all that, here’s how it turned out: