6 Filmmaking Tricks I Learned Directing My First Short Film

I recently finished directing my first Short Film! Thank you, thank you (pause for applause). 

Instead of adding “Film Director” to my Instagram bio, I decided to draft up this article and highlight some of the most important lessons I learned during this experience. 

Also, let’s not kid ourselves, I’m DEFINITELY going to add “Film Director” to my IG bio. Maybe I already have?? I guess you’ll just have to look me up @BrendanBald and give me a follow to find out for yourself 😉. 

Before I dive into the meat and potatoes of this post, let me tell y’all a tiny bit about this project so that you have some context. This will be short (kinda), I promise. 

The film I directed was a part of the 2019 4thWall Acting Studio Film Challenge. I know what you’re thinking, “is that like Sundance or something?” The answer is YES EXACTLY – well sort of. For the past year I’ve been studying at an acting studio in Nashville called the 4thWall Acting Studio.  Every summer, this studio puts on a film challenge solely for the members of the studio.  

It began with screenplay submissions. All studio members had the opportunity to submit a screenplay for consideration.  A neutral third party then selected the 10 best screenplays. I submitted two screenplays – neither got selected (sheds single tear). 

Next was director submissions. All studio members interested in directing a film were required to submit a rather intensive application.  The studio then picked 10 directors and matched them up with one of the 10 chosen scripts.  I was lucky enough to have been selected to direct one of ten films in the Challenge. 

One additional note worth mentioning is that casting for each film was done within the studio – meaning only studio members could audition for parts. Also, in order to avoid bias, the Studio arranged for a third-party casting agency to cast each film. 

Once each role was cast, it was then up to the director to bring the film to life. The Challenge allowed each film about 6 weeks for pre-production, production, and post-production. We literally had to make a movie in 6 weeks. It was a serious time crunch. We also had a maximum budget of $500. Now I don’t know if any of you have ever made a film before but $500 is NOTHING when it comes to making a movie. I sure had my work cut out for me. Have I mentioned that I’d never done this before??

Anyways, the road to premiere night was bumpy but I learned SO MUCH along the way. 

Here are 6 things I learned directing my first short film!

1. Forming a Production Team is Vital!

Have you ever heard the saying “it takes a village?” Nowhere is that phrase more applicable than in filmmaking. Filmmaking cannot be done alone. YOU NEED A TEAM. 

As soon as I was selected to direct, I began recruiting producers. I was SO lucky to find two extremely talented and creative individuals within my class that were willing to help me. These two individuals were INSTRUMENTAL in bringing this film to life.

Not only did my production team help with logistics (scouting locations, makeup, hair, wardrobe, props, shooting dates, etc…) but they were also an amazing source for ideas and creative feedback. I had done a tremendous amount of research and preparation for directing this project, but I was still a novice filmmaker. I relied heavily on my producers in pre-production and the film wouldn’t have been NEARLY as good without them. 

If you have an ego, you better check it at the door before directing a film. If you don’t, you’ll almost certainly FAIL. On top of failing, everyone will probably hate you too – just sayin. 

2. Trust Your Team!

This point ties into the first. As a director of a small project, you are essentially the manager of the film. I am by no means an amazing manager. But what I do know about managing is that nobody, and I repeat, NOBODY likes to be micro-managed. It’s always been my understanding that members of a team perform better when they know that their managers have complete faith in them. I attempted to implement this approach when I took on this project but feel as if I could have done a better job. 

I prefer having control. That’s just my personality. The old saying, “If you want something done right, do it yourself” is ever present in my mind and I’ve been working on shaking it over the past couple years. So, when I first started the project, my first inclination was to do everything by myself. But, once I started digging into the logistics behind the film, I quickly realized that doing it all by myself was IMPOSSIBLE. 

Luckily, I brought on two producers who were more than capable of not only getting shit done, but getting shit done RIGHT. They each took complete ownership over numerous tasks during pre-production and production. This helped tremendously and freed up my mind to think creatively. 

In hindsight, I definitely could have done a better job communicating my needs and delegating tasks to my team. If you’re able to delegate essential pre-production tasks to your producers, you will make your life A LOT easier – trust me. 

3. Thoroughly Scout All Locations!

As they say in the real estate world, LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION!!

It’s imperative to thoroughly scout every single filming location. I learned this the hard way. 

We filmed at six locations over the course of two days. The majority of the filming took place at one location. Thankfully I was wise enough to thoroughly scout this location with one of my producers. We were able to talk through lighting, camera set up, and blocking for each scene. This saved SO MUCH time on set. However, for a couple of locations, I relied on pictures and decided to “wing it” on the day of shooting – bad move. Here’s an example…

One of our scenes took place in a hotel room. It was my plan to rent a room at an old motel, not tell them we are filming, sneak in our actors and gear, get the footage, and sneak out.

Guess what? It didn’t work. 

I showed up to the motel for the first time on the day of shooting. My team rolled into the EMPTY parking lot with eight cars. I got out of my car and strolled into the lobby like a tired traveler seeking some shut eye. I was suave enough to get checked in without a hiccup.  My confidence must have been a little too high because once I received my key, I gave my team the thumbs up to start heading into the room. 

The move from our cars to the motel room was literally the most un-stealthy move of all time. We had a guy with a sound pack and giant boom mic walking across the parking lot. A guy with two huge camera cases following behind. I’m strolling behind him with a clipboard and a light stand. Both my producers and our lead actress are behind me. Another PA with a few bags is behind them. Literally the most obvious scheme of all time. I am cracking up just writing this 😂. 

Anyways, as soon as we got into the room the phone rings. It’s the front desk. They saw our equipment, knew we were filming, and proceeded to kick us out of the hotel!! I tried to get all lawyerly with them to try and salvage the location but FAILED miserably. Really putting that law degree to work 🤷🏻‍♂️.

Thank goodness our lead actress was able to call in a bunch of favors and get us access to a different hotel last minute. It just goes to show that “winging it” is usually not the best option!! Except it kinda worked out for us in this example. Hmm I might have to rethink this point. I’ll get back to you!

4. Lock Down Equipment Logistics ASAP!

When you’re working with a tight budget, equipment logistics can be a headache. I knew this going in and tried to lock down all of our equipment ASAP. Locating video equipment and lights weren’t a problem for us. Our Director of Photography had his own camera equipment and we all owned plenty of lights.

Finding a good sound mixer was difficult. I posted the gig on several different forums and received numerous hits. I then spent hours interviewing sound mixers and vetting their equipment and experience. I ultimately locked down a talented young mixer who agreed to work at a reasonable price. I’m so glad I locked our sound mixer down early in pre-production because procrastinating on this would have caused everyone a ton of stress. 

5. Ball Out on Food!

Food is SOOOOOOOO important on set. If your cast and crew aren’t fed, they aren’t happy. If they aren’t happy, they aren’t working hard. If they aren’t working hard, your film’s gonna suck. It’s science. 

A significant part of our budget went to feeding the cast and crew. We made sure that our crafty table was full of tasty snacks and delicious beverages during our shoots. 

The importance of food is especially true if your team is working for free. Which, in our case, they were. 

No actor ever gave an amazing performance hungry. Well – except maybe Tom Hanks in Cast Away. The guy must have been STARVING when he was skinny in all of those island scenes. Sheesh – the things we do for ART!

Anyways, food is a major KEY – along with water. Hydrate to dominate!!

6. Draft a Detailed Shot List!

Last but not least is the mighty shot list!

Having a detailed shot list for every scene is critical to time efficiency on set. I made it a priority to draft a detailed shot list and send it out to my team well before our shoot dates. This saved us countless hours on set. I was able to work smoothly with our DP and transition between setups in a timely manner. 

We primarily stuck to our shot list for the majority of our scenes and only came off it for a few creative shots. BUT we wouldn’t have had the time to explore those creative shots had we not efficiently captured the shots we needed first. 

Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. Sorry guys, just had to say it 😁.

That’s All Folks!

Filmmaking is no easy task!

But don’t let the hard work scare you away. Directing this film was an absolute BLAST. I cannot wait to work on my next project.

I cannot thank the 4thWall Acting Studio enough for giving me this opportunity. It truly lit a creative spark in my soul and for that I will always be thankful. 

If you’re interested in viewing the film, I’ll go ahead and post it below. Thanks!

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