11 Lessons I Learned On My First Short Film

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This weekend I had the most incredible time.
This weekend, I directed my first short film.

I’m overwhelmed with the entire experience! And I’m just a bit lost for words.
Things didn’t go 100% perfectly, and we all had to adjust throughout the shoot, but for a first time of not only me directing but my cast and crew working altogether, I think we did a pretty awesome job!

Here are some of the things I’ve learned:

LESSON #1: Try to finish the script with sufficient time before principal photography so actors have enough time to learn lines & feel comfortable with it.

Sounds pretty obvious and I had never intended to leave it til the day before we were shooting to finish the shooting script (I had pretty much rewritten the whole thing) but I’d had a constant battle with my script & it wasn’t until 2am on Friday morning that things started to fall into place.

There are other lessons and recommendations that could follow on from this such as: Use understanding actors (particularly if it’s your first film) but this is sort of out of your control. The one thing you can control is having your script nearby so you can make amends or add things when you get a moment of inspiration.

Not writing by hand, I chose to use Celtx to write my script.
There are an abundance of scriptwriting softwares out there but I liked Celtx for the fact that I could access and alter my scripts anywhere.

At home I’d use the desktop software on my Macbook, on the go I’d use the app on my phone and during my lunch breaks at work I’d login in on the website.
All three would sync up so I would have the most recent version to work from, and this proved invaluable as the shoot dates were hurtling closer and closer when I would still be digitally scrunching my script up and Moving It To Trash.

LESSON #2: Get plenty of feedback & let a script breathe.

Another obvious point that I didn’t stick to.

Initially I’d written a script for this film back in April, I’d met my wonderful lead actress Celestine Carroll Allison in May and we were all set to shoot it in June.
Partly out of impatience for wanting to get filming, and partly because I didn’t know too many film-oriented people at the time, I hadn’t really got much feedback from other people about it.

To say that I’m incredibly grateful that availability conflicts occurred, pushing the shoot dates all the way back to November, is an understatement.

The extra time gave me an opportunity to meet up with filmmakers & industry experts such as Will Jewell from Fractured Films, and attend film networking & screening events like those in the Lighthouse in Brighton run by Rebecca Watson and Underwire Festival.
As a result, I watched other films that help to inspire the story and techniques of this short film, and met new people whom I trusted to give feedback regarding the flaws and weaknesses of my script, despite being rather nervous about sticking my head above the parapet.

I also got the opportunity to research more about grief by calling the world’s loveliest man named Geoff Warburton, a grief specialist and councillor, to ensure that the story was believable. It was actually his talk at the 2012 TEDxBrighton event that heavily inspired a big change in the film.

In all honesty, I dread to think what sort of film I’d have made with the initial script.

LESSON #3: Write everything down.

Being the only person, other than my DOP, Natalie, doing pre-production I found that I had to write everything down in order to keep track of it all: the availability of the location, what props I had and hadn’t acquired, where I would be acquiring equipment, and all travel arrangements & accommodation of all cast and crew.
I reached a point where I had asked my camera op three times if I’d told him the confirmed shooting date yet; I just couldn’t remember.

I ended up using Evernote so I could make notes on the go and sync them between my iPhone and Macbook, and GoogleDrive (nee Docs) which proved incredibly useful with sharing all documentation with my 1st AD, Alex Durham (nice matching initials to your role there Durham!).

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LESSON #4: If you own a car, use it.

Friday was when everything kicked off: travelling to Bransgore from Brighton, picking up all paintings from respective houses, picking up lights from the hire company, picking up cast and crew and taking them to their accommodation, food shopping for the shoot, courtesy visit to Nat’s Grandparent’s house (the location) to apologise for how we would kick them out of their own home in the following 2 days. We were running so low on time, that I didn’t even have an opportunity to see the actresses before their arrival on location on the Saturday morning – just idyllic for a director!

Without Nat and her automobile skills, I would never have been able to do anything on that Friday!

LESSON #5: Meet all actors prior to filming.

Following on from the previous point, it really was poor form on my behalf to not see my actors before the first shoot date.

As mentioned previously, I’d met the lead actress Celestine back in May, and we’d been in constant contact ever since via phone and email. However, I didn’t meet my second actress, Flora Allison, until she arrived on location on the Saturday morning.
I’d seen her do a reading of the script via an upload to YouTube, and had a gut instinct that she was right. I hadn’t however conversed with her at all, and ended up speaking through Celestine regarding the character Flora was to play, and all the filming logistics, as Flora is Celestine’s daughter. This fact was almost entirely crucial in my decision to cast her despite having never met her prior to the shoot.

It was decided that in order to keep accommodation costs down, we would film all of Flora’s scenes in one day so she wouldn’t need to stay another night. So, with the time restriction and 16 setups to do, the thought of conjuring up a believable mother-daughter relationship between two strangers in such a short space of time felt near to impossible. Therefore, the existing real relationship between Celestine and Flora as actual mother and daughter became an invaluable asset. Admittedly, it could have been a disastrous risk but immediately from watching the way Celestine and Flora interacted, I knew that it had been a risk worth taking!

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Going back to my lesson point however, I will definitely endeavour in future to meet all actors I work with at least once before the shoot!

LESSON #6: Gather a good crew.

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By “good” I mean reliable, hard-working, fun individuals that you know will not only do a good job but will also get on well with others, particularly if they’ve never met before.
The latter is an occurrence that occurred with a number of people on this film, but I had absolutely no issues. Without them, this film couldn’t have been made and I can’t thank the crew enough for all their hard work!!

And it really was hard work!

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LESSON #7:  If possible, pay expenses at least.

Depending on individual circumstances, it may not be possible to pay a penny towards anything regarding crew. But my makeup artist made a point to me on the train back to Brighton that it appears as if the willingness to pay is rare, instead most people ask for free work. To me this seems crazy; people are already giving you their valuable time and working hard for you, the very least you can do if possible is pay for their travel and food.

This film was expenses-paid as well as all food being catered for (all 3 meals), but I hope in the near future I’ll be able to pay people for their work as well.

LESSON #8:  Use a monitor.

We filmed on a Canon 5D MKII, mostly due to its availability (owned by the camera ops) and thus not having to fork out more money for hire costs.

As we all know, the LCD screen on the MKII isn’t great for reviewing due to its size which then leads to more time being devoted to the reviewing process. With a monitor however, I would have been able to watch the action as we were filming at a decent size.

I won’t specify what they are, but a few ‘mistakes’ did occur which unfortunately have only been noticed in post-production whilst watching the footage on a larger screen. Not ideal, but post-production skills should be able to save them (“fix it in post”).

LESSON #9:  Eat and drink PLENTY whilst shooting.

Come 5pm on Saturday I’d started to feel pretty awful; I felt exhausted, my body was aching, my throat was hurting. It became too much effort to even stand.

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Come Saturday night I felt like I had the flu; I was shivering, had a stonker of a headache, and every part of my skin hurt to touch.

In hindsight I’d realised that it was due to insufficient intake of both food and water over the course of the day. I’d used up all my energy, plus my reserve energy and was running on beyond empty.
It’s so easy to do when you’re filming because you’re busy running around, but that’s precisely why you need to take 10 seconds to go get something to eat and drink.

So on Sunday, I still didn’t feel great but throughout the day I was regularly keeping on top of my food and drink intake and despite losing my voice, I felt a thousand times better than the day before.
(my voice didn’t fully return for another week so maybe I needed to drink more and have some cough sweets to hand)

LESSON #10: Have faith.

In the week leading up to the shoot and particularly on Friday night I couldn’t help but entertain the idea of what I’d do or how I’d feel if we didn’t manage to shoot everything over the two days. If we didn’t have a product to show for all our hard work.
Would I just make a trailer for a film I’d never managed to make?

I suppose that this harks back to Lesson #3 of writing everything down, and I found that lists became my new best friend to keep track of all aspects of pre-production. I ticked over pre-existing ticks just to make sure that that item was ticked, and come Friday night, I was sure that 99% of things were sorted prior to shooting. The following 1% comprised of things that I probably couldn’t foresee and would therefore have to be dealt with on the day.

But knowing that on the shoot I would have the help of the cast and crew, I didn’t feel so much like a floating, lonely island anymore. And so any doubts I had were very firmly cuddled by the reassurance of just having faith that things would turn out ok.

LESSON #11: Thank everybody.

I can’t believe the number of people who intentionally or unintentionally played a part in this project. I think in total it racks up to 23, and they are:

  • Celestine Carroll Allison (actress) – for being a fantastic human being as well as a fantastic actress! I feel very lucky to have met and worked with you.
  • Flora Allison (actress) – for bringing the character of Andrea perfectly to life despite our minimal contact prior to the shoot. True professional!
  • Natalie Lloyd (DOP) – for working your magic with the lights, as well as being my patient and understanding partner particularly in the weeks leading up to the shoot.
  • Alex Durham (1st AD) – for being my right-hand man on the shoot, as well as helping me refine the script & listening to me waffle for an hour at a time over the phone.
  • Jake Baggaley & Oliver Robbins (Camera Ops) – for working your magic as Camera-Ops, letting me use your kit, being awesome people on the shoot, and putting Alex and Tom up at your place.
  • Tom Oswin (Sound Op) – for being so reliable that I don’t ever have to worry about you getting good audio.
  • Michelle Young (Makeup) – for creating about 20 different looks with Makeup and Wardrobe in the space of 2 days!
  • Faye Leppard (Runner) – for chipping in everywhere and anywhere on the shoot. You really were invaluable.
  • Marian & Norman Wilkins (location) – for letting us take over your home! … I still can’t believe you did but I’m eternally grateful!
  • Kathryn Craigdaillie, Cal Grace, Ralph Thompson (painters) – for all the awesome paintings and drawings!
  • Geoff Warburton – for your incredible TEDxBrighton speech that inspired much of the narration of the film.
  • Debbie & Bob Lloyd – for letting me bring the havoc of the shoot back to your home and driving to pick up & drop off equipment.
  • Sarah Wilkins & Dave Prior – for not only welcoming us all into your home on Saturday night, but also catering for us with the most incredible home cooked meal!
  • David Lloyd – for being our go to runner for Sunday’s lunch, despite forgetting your sister’s lunch.
  • John Lloyd – for picking up Flora when I just couldn’t make it in time.
  • Graham Rankin – for letting us use you as the fictional deceased husband.
  • Will Jewel – for inspiring me, and for your time reading my script, meeting up and giving me some invaluable advice!
  • Natasha Langridge – for also reading my script and asking me some of the most thought-provoking questions I’ve ever been asked in my life!
  • Maddogs TV – for local lighting hire – thank god for you guys!!

And finally just to everyone and anyone who I may have neglected (most likely my parents) during this period of time! Thanks for putting up with me.

Post-Production

We’re now in post-production colour grading and producing the score for the film.
Every element is new for me, particularly regarding audio and music so it’s still a steep learning curve. I’ll keep you posted with new developments.

Thanks for reading!

Below are some of my favourite snaps taken by the ever-epic Amy Oulton

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