Beginners: things to keep in mind when producing your first movie

I am currently co-producing a 5-minute short movie for a YouTube channel. Although it seemed simple at first, the project has proven to be very hard and quite longer than expected. Well, I am someone with no real experience on these uncharted waters. What was I thinking? I’m no movie director, I am just a Software Engineer. Which is as helpful to producing a movie as having a house on the beach (i.e., not helpful at all.)

Now that I think about it, it’s not the first time I’ve undertaken such a project. I’ve worked both as director and co-producer for a couple of low-budget movies. The last motion picture I co-produced was a comedy inspired on “I know what you did last summer“, the renowned, academy-awarded drama with a 5,5 on IMDB. Sigh. Not a good starting point for a movie, but I was on 7th grade. I didn’t know better.

Jokes aside, co-producing that 15-minute movie during school and the video I am now working on left me some valuable experience on the many different tasks to take into consideration when planning a movie project. There were many things I expected that reality proved wrong. Due deadlines, dead time and lack of skills are just some of the issues we had to cope with in order for the movie to come to life.

I am going to list several things I learnt. They are are listed in no particular order and are by no means a comprehensive list of the things you have to do in order to produce a movie. Let’s say this is just a heads up for total beginners like me of things I’ve had to learn the hard way. Again, I am neither a director nor a professional producer.

  • The script is of the utmost importance. No matter how straightforward the video may seem at first, always prepare a script or screenplay in advance. If shooting a movie was like building a house, writing the script would be digging the foundations. Everything you do will arise from this document. Even if you are filming a short that includes only a couple of scenes, or even if there is no dialogue at all, write a script first. Try to write the script in a way in which one page equals one minute of movie. Writing a script takes time, and you might have to do a lot of iterations for the final version to come off. However, it is far better to tweak a script than filming a scene you didn’t like again. The less you leave to improvisation, the better.
  • There’s this thing called the ‘shooting script’, and it’s a must. This document is basically the script divided into scenes or shootings. It describes the type of filming for each shot, the position and angle of the camera, the lighting, etc. This need not be in chronological order as the screenplay. This document might also list all the things needed for each shooting.
  • You have to make a plan. As with any other type of project, shooting a video can be depicted as a series of tasks that need to be done. There’s the literary script, the technical script, casting, set preparation, shooting, edition, etcetera. Planning before you start will increase your odds of being successful. If you don’t plan, you are at least going to lose a lot of time assuming task A will be ready in time for task B.
  • Convincing people is hard. Don’t assume you will get Mr. X or Mrs. Y on board just because your idea is great. It takes time and several refusals. Start by searching for a Director, which is the guy who does the magic: he or she will convert the script into an actual movie, and is thus responsible for the product. This is the key player. Don’t micromanage him!
  • Filming: Working out the lighting is hard. I never knew how hard it could be until we had to shoot a scene that portrayed a conversation in a room at sunset. Shooting takes time, and the sunset lasts only a few minutes. To shoot a scene like that, you have to create a sunset. There are also other difficult tasks like eliminating double shadows. Alas, lighting is needed not only for scenes like that one, but basically for every scene, wether indoor or outdoor. And you have to accommodate the lights (or light screens) for every different angle you are shooting from, which takes time. Before rolling, test the lights. And assume the lights you have in your room won’t do the trick.
  • Filming: Capturing sound is hard. Unless you are replacing the ambient sound with music, syncing sound during post-production, or shooting at a very silent place, microphones embedded in cameras usually don’t do the trick. Also, saturating the sound (i.e., totally blowing the clip) is easy if you don’t test your recording equipment beforehand.
  • Filming: Test everything before shooting. You have to test everything is ready before beginning to shoot. Do this at least a two days before the real filming takes place. This way, you will have time to react if things are missing or go wrong. Shoot a couple of the scenes and look at them on the PC. Is the light ok? Can you hear the sound? Is the framing ok?
  • Filming: Plan your day. Plan the filming day with the shooting script and don’t forget to include time for these: preparation of every scene, lighting, and meals for the team, if applicable. Also, keep in mind that batteries discharge and memory cards fill up rather quickly: don’t loose the day because you didn’t have a second SD card.

Best of luck and happy producing!


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