How to Shoot a Short Film

This is what I learned from spending four
days shooting a short film. “Scene 1, slate 1, take one” When we arrived on location, I already had a pretty good idea of the shots we needed,
so the first thing we did on set was to walk through the scene with Wayne and JP so they
knew the plan for the day. But of course any time you collaborate, the
questions that people ask and the ideas that they bring usually have a huge impact on the
final product. Whether it was suggesting some extra shots
that we should get, or Wayne’s thoughts on safety for stunts, or JP letting me know
when I was breaking the 180. Once we had run through all of the shots,
JP would set up the camera for the first one, often having someone stand in for the actors
so we could frame up. At this point we’d often walk through the
blocking with the actors, who often have questions and ideas about how they should move.
For example in this scene my idea was that Mark would be held by his arms, but someone
suggested that he could get spun around and pushed against the wall, which actually looked
a lot more natural, not to mention that I think the spin around is a clearer way to
visually show the power dynamics between them. For the biggest stunt, which involved falling
off a bike onto a crash mat, I demonstrated it first, to show the actors and everyone
that I did believe it was a safe thing to ask someone to do.
And as with all of the more complex shots, we ran through it at half speed first to make
sure everyone was comfortable before rolling any cameras. As soon as we had a rough idea of how the
scene would play out with the actors, JP would start setting up lights if we needed them.
We’d brought some water in a camping tank, so that we could wet the road to make nice
reflections of the light. But that was more about the aesthetics of
a night scene, and cinematography isn’t just about tone, it’s also drawing attention
to important things. We had this shot where Connor brings out a
knife, and I was a bit concerned that with it being a dark scene and there being a lot
of movement in the background, that the audience would miss this key part of the plot.
We could have just cut in to close up of the knife, but somehow that just felt too lazy.
Instead JP found the exact position of where the knife would reflect light, and placed
an LED panel dimmed all the way to the lowest setting.
Here’s the final shot, and I think it’s pretty hard to miss the knife. So we were finished lighting, the sound guys
would usually be ready and waiting, so we were ready to go for the first take.
“Camera’s rolling” “sound speed”
“okay, settle settle settle” “mark it”
“scene 5, slate 2, take 1” “thank you board”
“and… action” Now I personally like to just step back and
see what the actors come up with for that first take, because they will have thought
about the character and you know, interpreted the script in their way, so I don’t want
to miss the opportunity for a better interpretation of the script than my interpretation, just
because I was saying, no from the very beginning you’ve got to do it my way.
After the first take, that’s a great time to have a chat with the actors.
For example, to begin with, Oli was playing this scene with a lot of intensity, so my
notes were that if that was a 10 on the anger and intensity scale, and zero was just being
completely monotone, let’s see what a four looks like.
Now I don’t know if that’s the best way to talk to an actor, but in that situation
I think it worked out pretty well. Now I used a more conventional approach for
the fifth scene, when Lewis was playing the dealer fairly aggressively, and I wanted to
send him more towards towards caution. Rather than just asking Lewis to be less aggressive,
instead I gave him some backstory. This character had seen first hand what guns
are capable of, and also what murder does to the person who was using the gun, that’s
what I felt was loaded behind this line of “don’t use it, don’t even bother loading
it”. So with that in mind, he could then extend
that and interpret it into his overall performance. But I do have to be honest here and say that
quite often I was pretty happy with what the actors came up with naturally, without me
saying anything about the performance. Now that could mean that the actors were just
naturally in sync with my interpretation of the characters, nailing it first time, which
does happen. But I am also aware that I need to learn to
be more picky about acting, I’m still trying to fine tune my ideas for what makes a good
performance. Another thing that can need tweaking is the
blocking and positioning of everything – often setting more marks on the ground, so people
know where to go. But sometimes bigger changes need to be made
– in the early takes of this scene, we had this kind of awkward moment of moving past
the customers. Later we changed it so they would exit frame,
that opposite motion feeling more natural as well as wiping the frame much faster.
Another time it was simply asking the guys to spin slightly towards the camera so we
could pick up their faces better. And the same ideas apply to timings – for
complex shots you often need cues – “start walking when you hear this line of dialogue”,
or even a countdown as we did after having some trouble with gunshot timings. Now aside from making changes and giving feedback,
sometimes you just need to go for more takes, particularly if there’s complicated movement. Now, in the weeks leading up to the shoot,
we had so many surprises and problems to deal with, but on set actually the biggest issues
we had were waiting for cars.. Waiting for quiet… Or general obstructions… That was literally the worst of it: the weather
was basically perfect, all the cast and crew turned up, and we didn’t get kicked out
of any locations. It’s pretty rare for a shoot to go so smoothly.
But even so, this project overall involved a huge, huge amount of doubting myself, getting stressed
out, and genuinely just being unsatisfied with my ideas. I wouldn’t call the overall
experience ‘fun’. However, on that set (and there’s no way
I can say this without sounding super sentimental, so I’m just gonna go with it)
On that set I felt like I was in my element, I felt like this is what I’m supposed to
be doing, and in a deeper way than pretty much anything I’ve felt before.
In amongst all of the pressure and all of the panic, there were a few fleeting moments of what I can
only describe as purpose. And I think that goes deeper than whether
I happen to be enjoying myself at the time, or even if I’m satisfied with the end result.
My name’s Simon Cade, this has been DSLRguide, and I’ll see you next week.

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