7 Lessons I learned making my first short film
Way back in 2015, when I still had a very clear vision of where my career path would lead me, I decided to take the plunge and produce my first short film. As a future director, I’d need a body of work to showcase my talents, right? And if I’m not producing my stuff, no one else will.
With an abundance of enthusiasm and a healthy dose of realism, I set out to write a script tailored to locations and actors I had access to. The result, “Acceptance/Akzeptanz”, is a bilingual short of 17 minutes that took over a year to complete.
Of course there are about as many cautionary tales about embarking on a directorial debut as there are short films, yet I feel like my perspective has something to add to this discussion. So here are the 7 lessons my first short film taught me, in the hopes they will help other creatives on their journey!
ONE: Be brave when asking for funding. Also, think outside the box.
While I was fortunate enough to find a cast and crew who would donate their time to this project, there were still some costs that you simply can’t cut: catering, certain materials and equipment rentals. I also decided to put money towards a professional makeup artist since styling isn’t my strong suit at all.
Because my family is awesome, I got all locations for free as well as guest rooms to accommodate cast and crew. My sister went a step further and took over craft services, aka food, including the bill. Which left us with equipment rentals and miscellaneous expenses for things like props, last-minute needs and of course gaffer tape (never start any project without gaffer tape!).
I pursued two strategies to acquire the necessary funds: First, I set up a crowdfunding campaign with the goal of raising 1,000 €, which was picked up by local media and gained enough exposure to reach its funding goal.
My second idea was to involve outside “investors” and provide value in the form of product placement. Schwandorf is home to the headquarters of HORSCH, an international manufacturer of agricultural equipment, and the family in charge does a tremendous amount for local arts and culture. I reached out via email and met up with the head of marketing to pitch my film. My plan was to have the character of the protagonist’s father be a retired employee of HORSCH, thus creating a narrative reason for him to own stuff with the company’s logo on it.
To my delight, HORSCH agreed to not only provide props from their company shop. They also handed us 300 € for the film! In my excitement, I overdid it slightly (ha) with the product placement, so I guess part of this lesson is to not get too carried away.
TWO: Smaller communities have their perks.
It took me a while after moving out in favor of Berlin to appreciate my rural hometown for the perks it offers. Despite its lack of infrastructure and opportunities for young creatives (as opposed to cities like Berlin, Cologne, or Frankfurt), I am incredibly grateful to call Upper Palatine my home.
For one, there is SPACE. Single-family houses built in the prosperous era my parents settled down (the utopian times of Gen X) tend to be huge compared to big city standards.
For another, people are genuinely supportive. Sure, I had the bonus of having grown up in the area, but even without this advantage, soliciting support would have been way easier than in over-saturated towns like Munich. Schwandorf isn’t used to people filming here, so the fact was newsworthy and created some buzz. A jewelry store lent us an engagement ring to use as a prop. An aspiring composer who wanted to turn his passion into a career once he retired reached out and offered his services for free. Our neighbors indulged us blocking the street for our outdoor scenes. The permit for this alone would have been difficult to get in Berlin, not to mention expensive. In Schwandorf, a few emails and 10 € later, we were allowed to film on the street in front of my parents’ house.
So, if you’re on a tight budget and not afraid to think outside the box, rural areas and smaller communities can be a great asset for short film production!
THREE: Have a back-up plan in place for all essential equipment.
My DP, who had gained previous filmmaking experience in Berlin, and I settled on a cheap rental service for the most crucial part of our setup: the camera.
You can imagine our panic when, one day before we’ve planned to start with test shots, the company calls to tell us that the client before us had an accident and the camera is now ruined. They can’t supply us.
Deep breath. UGH. We had no plan B. In retrospect, I can’t believe how naïve we were, but alas, that’s what happened.
My aunt suggested calling up SnapShot, a video production company that a musician friend of hers hired to do his music video, and asking if they have any equipment to spare for a few days. We did, ended up getting an appointment the next morning and left with a camera, sound equipment, as well as several lights, thrilled and utterly relieved. They didn’t even charge us any fees.
I learned my lesson, though, and shall never embark on any project without having a backup plan.
FOUR: Write with production in mind.
This one, I actually learned BEFORE making the short film, thanks to ample research. This advice truly resonated with me, and I implemented it right away when coming up with the script.
I had three actors I could call upon as well as any locations my family would provide access to. Since the two actresses were of similar age and the actor able to portray a parent, I went with a father-daughter-girlfriend constellation, and since the actress who would play the girlfriend was a native Brit, I decided to tell a bilingual story. I also kept the father character rather open, since my plan was to win a local company as a sponsor, so he could be rewritten as a former employee (which ended up being the case, yay!).
FIVE: No matter how well you plan, you will have to improvise.
This lesson is self-evident, I guess. Yet knowing something or expecting something is still different from experiencing it.
For us, one issue was the lighting of the room that would be Fiona and Sam’s home. Parts of my room, an open-floor bedroom/office/living room combination, were perfect for this… except for the ceiling. My room is directly underneath the sloping roof and light bounced off and off and off, creating shadows that were visible in our intended shots. My DP and I experimented until 2 o’clock in the morning and kept experimenting the next day until we made it work.
SIX: Be ready to rewrite on the fly.
At that stage on my writing journey, I was still quite insecure and clung to what I’d put on the page a lot more than I do today, five years ago. Yet even I had to face the fact that, given the great actors’ performances that we captured, there would be a pacing issue in the finished film. The emotional arc of our protagonist was missing a beat and we had to figure out a feasible way to solve it.
We ended up filming another mini-scene to show the protagonist’s thought process, using a completely new location, a prop we’d used before, and our female lead’s willingness for a late night. I’m still really happy with how this “quick fix” turned out and the experience helped me tremendously to lean more into the ‘kill your darlings’ mentality of writing.
SEVEN: Invest in good catering.
“Feed your crew” is one of these ground rules of filmmaking that I caught early on. However, there’s a difference between having a crafts table and actually decent craft services.
In the past, my sister had supplied the dress rehearsals of the theatre group I helped run with food and snacks, and decided to support my filmmaking endeavor by doing the same on a larger scale for the shoot. She values good food, is a great cook and, as a doctor, has the disposable income to pay for quality ingredients.
Ha, no — we weren’t snacking on caviar or anything. But there was always fruit and veggies, nuts, brand muesli bars or even freshly baked cakes to help ourselves to. All allergies were taken into account for main dishes and there was never any sense of deprivation. A hungry crew is the biggest threat to filmmaking success, but a happy, well-fed crew that is shown appreciation on this level will make for a much better work environment. I’m so grateful that I never had to learn this the hard way! (… though I fear that my sister has spoiled me for all future crafts services^^)