Three Mistakes to avoid if you want to make a BRILLIANT short film

Just last week, a former colleague of mine who was working as an editor in my company asked me to meet up for lunch. To give some context to this story, this guy was a junior editor in our company and had recently moved on to join another company for a slightly better pay package and a chance to work on more narrative type of video content. I had wished him well and told him to stay in contact and if I could help in any way in the future, I would.

This editor was also a short film maker and has directed several action short films and has dreams of becoming an action movie director. While I had always applauded his effort in trying to go for a genre that is not a conventional route for young film-makers to go, I had been telling him that ACTION is a tremendously difficult genre to do WELL. The keyword here is of course WELL. Anyone can be an action director, or for that matter, literally ANYONE could be a director, but to do it WELL is a whole different ball game altogether. But to do well in the action genre is many times harder than the conventional art house, drama, comedy or even the horror genre.

In the short one hour meeting with The EDITOR, in which he showed me his action short film, I very quickly identified 3 main issues, which I thought would be the same issues for any short film makers. That’s why I decided to write the learnings in this post. So here we are. Three Mistakes to avoid while making your short film. Enjoy!

#1 Mistake : Care about everything else except STORY!

story

Way too many film makers worry about the aesthetics and not enough about the story. This is a recurring theme in all my dealings with many film-makers. They spend time researching on the aesthetics, on the latest technology, cameras, lights, toys, but not enough time devoted to studying story, story arcs, turns in stories, how to build characters, how to create tension, etc. The list goes on. While many film makers do not write their own script, (for instance David Fincher) but all good film makers have a deep knowledge about STORY and about CHARACTER and about the human condition.

If the story is not good, no amount of beautiful shots or brilliant cinematography is going to save it. But people can generally forgive a badly shot film with a good story. Now am I saying that you must be a great writer before becoming a great director? No! You can work with a great writer if you are not good at writing. But you must have enough self awareness to know that you are not a good writer to begin with. Then you can actively seek to learn more about how to tell a good story, or you could just partner with a good writer. There are tons of resources out there on the internet which teach good screen writing. Copies of academy award winning scripts are also there to be read and studied.

There is no excuse. Get your story right! It’s like the foundation of a house. If it’s not done right, rest assured that the house will crumble in due time.

#2 Mistake : Spend money on the all the wrong things!

spend money

When The Editor told me that he spent close to 25,000 dollars for his short film and actually went into debt, my mouth opened wide in amazement. What the hell was he thinking? Let me clarify why my jaw dropped. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t spend money to make a good short film. But I was shocked at where he spent his money on.

His film was peppered with nice aerial drone shots, some nice cinematography, a rain scene which was unnecessary and make up with some blood on the actor’s faces which was not even evident. I asked him what he was trying to achieve in this short film. He thought for a while and then remarked “I hope that after watching this short film, investors or sponsors will give him money to make his next short film.” I immediately smiled and asked him matter-of-factly “Why would someone do that?” Unless you impress an investor so much in your short that they want to invest in a movie that you direct. It has happened before. Lights Out is a good example where the film maker went from an online horror viral short to a box office sensation movie.

But it was clear that the director had chosen horror as the genre to showcase his talent in doing horror scenes. But The Editor had spent money in all sorts of things that are not even related to action.

For instance, much money was spent on the rain scene to build drama for an unwarranted love story. Drones were spent for nice interesting shots of the city. But how does any of these relate to ACTION? Shouldn’t he be spending money on the stunts, on stunt choreography, on art direction to break stuff to showcase the action?

And you know what’s the worse thing? He ended up in debt cause he insisted on shooting another day for scenes that were totally unnecessary in the storytelling. On a side note, please don’t go into debt just to make a short film. If you have to spend money, work in all kinds of jobs and save money! Don’t EVER go into debt just to make your short. I have seen to many film makers go down that rabbit hole and has never met one that has come out of it.

#3 Mistake : Worrying that people will steal your ideas!

steal ideas

This is a personal pet peeve of mine. You know what I’ll do when someone writes me an email claiming they have written a fantastic screenplay and asking me if I am interested to read it? Oh and by the way, before he sends me the script, please sign an NDA. I’ll immediately delete the email and if I could, I will reach into the computer and then bitch slap the fellow who sent me the bloody email.

There are two aspects to why this is my pet peeve.

Firstly, ideas are worth shit! It’s the execution. Ideas are everywhere. Everyone from the toilet cleaner in my office, to my wife, to the top director in the country has a bloody idea. So what? Ideas are worth shit until they are executed upon. And if your idea is really so brilliant, trust me, people will PAY you. Which brings me to my next point.

Making a movie is a bloody expensive business. And I am not referring to those student projects or home video projects where a guy scraps together a story and asks his friends to film and then churn out a 90 minute video footage of epic horrible proportions. I am referring to an actual movie which has a distribution and which will hit the cinemas and generate real money. Because of the fact that movie making is a really expensive investment and business, investors and film makers are more than willing to pay you if you have a brilliant idea. Why would they steal your idea or screenplay so that they can start looking for millions of dollars to invest in the project and NOT pay you? Does it even make any sense?

Lastly, if you possess a negative mindset where you are worried that people around you are going to steal all your brilliant ideas, then how are you going to share your work? In today’s world of youtube and FREE stuff on the internet, the only differentiating factor is your talent. You got to produce as much content as possible and then share it freely with the world. And if you are truly talented, trust me, someone will spot it. Someone who might just change your life. But if you are so scared that people will steal your ideas and don’t even dare to share any of your works, then you can quit right now. Don’t become a film maker. Be a copyright lawyer instead.

I’m only kidding. Be a safety box designer.

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