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5 Rules For Shooting a Short Film

Are you an aspiring filmmaker? If so, there’s no way past shooting a couple of shorts. Here are some guidelines to help you on your way.

Robert DeNiro and Martin Scorsese on the set of “Raging Bull”

Stay grounded

Don’t write a complex historical drama or an action fueled short about a grand bank robbery. Always keep in mind your resources and possibilities, especially when you’re only starting out as a filmmaker. Gather inspiration from your own life and surroundings. Make a short about what you know. It will be more authentic this way. Martin Scorsese for instance grew up as part of a working-class family in Little Italy, New York and the rest is history.

Another great source for inspiration is watching movies. A lot of them. After all, films are just compilations of ideas from other films. Always carry a notebook (or a smartphone with the according app) with you, so you can write down whatever idea comes to your mind, where ever you are. On the other hand, you shouldn’t just wait around for inspiration to strike. Create mind maps, summarize ideas, make up characters, etc.. Chuck Close, renowned painter and photographer, once said:

“Inspiration is for amateurs — the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

Don’t overthink the distribution and reception of your short yet. Concentrate on getting it done and doing the best you can in the process. First things first.

Excerpt from the storyboard of “Star Wars IV: A New Hope”


Once you have the story you want to adapt, visualize the short in your head. Listen to music that captures the mood of your short, create a playlist for that purpose, and continuously make out each scene, each shot, and each transition in your mind, over and over and over again. Write down what you come up with. Create a storyboard. Pin everything down as accurately as possible. Once the movie already exists in your head, you only have to shoot it, so everyone else can see it too. This way you can also know exactly what you need for your production, which brings us to the next point.

Eszter Balint and Jim Jarmusch on the set of “Stranger Than Paradise”

Ask nicely

Almost all shorts are low- to no-budget projects, which means that as an aspiring filmmaker, you must rely on your own charm and the kindness of others. This spans across all aspects: from the equipment to the actors. This is where a good network comes in very handy. People who love film and want to set foot in the industry will most likely be willing to help out and take over whichever role necessary. Maybe they can even bring their own equipment. If you have a scene in a store in your script, you will have to ask a shopkeeper to open up for you on a Sunday or after hours. Show gratitude and always have good food on your set. A well-fed team is a happy team. 

Still from Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon”

Show, don’t tell

While this might be the oldest advice in the history of how-to-film listicles on the internet, it is the most important one. Never forget, film is an audio-visual medium. If you want to tell your story with words, write a book. If you want to tell it with moving images, shoot a film. This rule carries even more importance for short films. You will most likely not be working with A-list actors, if you yourself are not an A-list director (yet). Writing a dialogue-heavy script would very much rely on your actors’ skills, which are likely (still) underdeveloped, which would finally result in your short losing a lot of its quality.

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