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How You Can Create a Short Film

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It might seem to be an easy transition for a photographer to become a filmmaker. At the core of each of these disciplines is storytelling. A photographer tells a story in a single instant captured at the decisive moment, while a filmmaker tells a story over a period of time, often incorporating elements such as editing and sound to help tell that story.

Many photographers are intimidated by the prospect of filmmaking, and some avoid it entirely. Although I would encourage photographers to explore both filmmaking and videography, I don’t think the skills of photography transfer easily to videography or filmmaking. I have watched photographers who are great at photographic composition seemingly ignore basic rules of composition when they are filming video. Photographers who are considering becoming filmmakers should shoot as much video as possible. Filming videos of your family is an easy way to practice filmmaking, and the videos you create will be appreciated by your family for years to come. Photographers should also consider taking an online course that can give basic information about framing, sound, composition, and editing.

In this article, I will detail a process you can use to generate a story idea for a short film. To assist us in creating this project, we will incorporate information from a presentation by Jeff Greenberg titled “15-Second Film Workshop.” This seminar was hosted by The Creativity Conference, who recently staged a free online event featuring 80 speakers who spoke on a variety of topics, including “Creativity From Intention to Product” by Robert Sweeney, “Nothing is Impossible” by Adam Howard, and “Finding that Creative Spark… Again” by Nick Harauz. This was the second Creativity Conference. The first was held in NYC earlier this year and was covered by Fstoppers.

In his presentation, Jeff advises keeping your first project simple and suggests you create a 60-second film. Focus on the process rather than the final product. Showing up to create is more important than what you create when you show up. You don’t have to share the final film if you don’t like it. Often, we set unreasonable expectations for ourselves. If you are a good photographer, perhaps you expect that you will be a great filmmaker as well. In time, you may become that. But for this first film, let us remove the burden of perfection from the filmmaking process. Creativity should be about liberation. Free yourself of expectations and focus on the journey itself.

If you were in film school and this was an assigned project, it would be graded and perhaps even shown alongside the films of your peers. If you were in a class of 20 students, there is a statistical likelihood that your film would not be among the best in the class. From an artistic perspective, anyone can get lucky and create something memorable their first time out, so even if you were more skilled than your classmates, it is very possible that one or more of them would make a more compelling film than you. So, Jeff suggests you dismiss thoughts of making a great film. Creation, not completion, is our focus here.

Short-form videos are popular on Instagram in the form of Reels. Some photographers may be turned off by this platform, since many of the popular entries on this platform are centered around the creator themselves. Reels are often humorous to the point of being goofy. Many Reels feature the creator dancing or acting comically. This may not be a comfortable space for a photographer who chose this craft precisely because she they don’t like being in the spotlight. Photographers are comfortable using their technical skills to help others be the center of attention.

Feel free to take your 60-second film in any direction that drives you, but the guidance here will assume that a Reels-type video doesn’t appeal to you. What story can you tell that might hold a viewer’s attention for 60 seconds? One approach would be to start with a photograph and build a story from there.

Consider this photograph of two women smoking cannabis. How many questions can you ask about the scene depicted in the photograph? Here are some that come to my mind.

  • How do the women know each other?
  • Are they in a relationship?
  • Why is one woman holding the joint for the other? Have they smoked together in the past?
  • Is it possible that one woman is a regular user of cannabis and the other isn’t?
  • Where did they get the cannabis?
  • How will the rest of their day be affected by the effects of cannabis?

Imagine sitting with a friend and coming up with two or three different answers to each of these questions. In this phase of the creative process, there will be no judgment. Allow your mind to wander. One question asked was: what is the relationship between these women? Here are three possible answers. They are strangers who met only a few minutes ago. They are longtime lovers. They are grade school friends who haven’t seen each other in 10 years.

As you begin to write these various answers, a story will likely jump out at you. I performed this activity as I wrote the above paragraphs, and this is the story that came to mind. The girl on the left is a long-time cannabis user. She is going on a date with the girl on the right. Before they leave the house, the mother of the girl on the right says to the girl on the left: “you make sure she doesn’t touch any drugs.” The girl on the left smiles and says: “Ok, I will.” Cut to the girls smoking in the park. The girl on the left looks into the camera and says: “Cannabis isn’t a drug. It’s a plant.” And then the girl on the right says: “And besides, I never touched it.” End of film.

This story took shape instantly as I answered the questions in the exercise. If you were to make this film or something similar, what would you gain? Remember, we are focused on the craft and not the result. You would practice booking talent and negotiating for them to work on this project for free. You would experiment with filming two characters having a believable dialog. Perhaps you would learn about the 180-degree rule to ensure that the back and forth of the conversation wasn’t confusing to your audience. You might explore options for recording sound with external equipment, or perhaps you’d just work with the talent to find a quiet place to film so that the on-camera mic of whatever phone or camera you were using was adequate for this short film. You would have to think about lighting as you filmed scenes taking place indoors as well as outdoors. It occurs to me at this instant that instead of having the characters speak their final lines directly into the camera, you could have them speak the same lines to each other and the film could end with them laughing after doing so. There are many directions you could take this simple concept and many skills you would work on in the process of creating this short film.

In the video, Jeff discusses his process for creating a short film and goes into detail about concepts such as: show don’t tell, setup/tension/resolution, and the best stories are your stories. He also walks through the process of using Adobe Rush to assemble clips into a final project.  Check the video for more insight into creating your first short film.

Dozens of sessions from the Creativity Conference can be viewed at no cost by creating a free account here.

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