A How-to Guide to Preproduction for Indie Short Films
Hello filmmakers, today I am going to walk you through a practical approach to pre production for your indie film project. I've directed close to 20 short films and been to over 50 film festivals. My films have won 12 best picture awards. I don't say this to do anything other than to demonstrate that I have experience and know what I am talking about. I am here to help you.
First, I am going to outline a few assumptions:
You already have a screenplay ready to go into production
You have a very small budget (less than $5K)
You are the director.
If these three assumptions apply to you, then read on!
How to Create a REALISTIC Indie Short Film Budget
Creating a film budget doesn't have to be an arduous task, especially when you are working with a small amount of money. But just because you don't have millions of dollars, it doesn't mean you can skip this step. You are going to need to squeeze every dollar for value across the entirety of your production if you have any hope of making it to the film festivals.
Normally, I would recommend on bigger projects that you have additional staff help you with the budget, but since this is a small production, you are likely going to have to do it yourself.
Here is a simple budget outline that I often used for indie short films.
1. Things I can do myself
2. Things I cannot do myself - $5000
Now, every situation will be different. Personally, I am a fully capable editor, so that saves me money in post production which in turn allows me to spend money on locations. Perhaps you have a location you can film in for free and that will allow you to spend some more money on crew. You might not even have a budget (we've all been there) and in that case, you are asking for favours all around town.
Let's assume for argument's sake that you do have the five grand.
My $5K budget breakdown might look something like this:
script rights - free (me)
director - free (me)
producer - $300
AD - $300
actors - $800
crew - $1100
gear - free (owned or borrowed)
locations - $350
wardrobe - $150
props - $200
hair and makeup - $200
craft services (food) - $300
editing - free (me)
music - $200
insurance - $400
parking - $100
marketing and film festival submissions - $500
It's pretty slim, isn't it? These rates are non-union rates and require you to find people who really believe in the project. You may look at the budget and see places where you can trim more money. If it doesn't harm production value or morale on set, do it and add the money back in places where you can have a bigger impact. Maybe you hire a well known cinematographer or a known talent. Maybe you actually have an art department. It's up to you. You're the director.
Whatever you do, DO NOT neglect distribution/marketing/film festival submissions.
It seems rather silly, especially when you look at formal film budgets for bigger projects. For a proper film budget template, you can easily do a search. You will find budgets with a hundred line items. That won't help you with your scale of production. You need to be realistic about where to spend your money to maximize production value.
The Casting Process for Indie Short Films
Finding people to star in your film is easy. Finding the right people to star in your film is exceedingly difficult, especially at your budget level. You will need to be methodic (and lucky) to have success. Do not overlook the importance of this part of the filmmaking process. Your quality of your movie will largely be decided by the actors. It has been said that 90% of directing is casting. I have found that to hold true.
There is no point in doing a huge cattle call and getting 50 people to come in and audition for your lead roles. It's a waste of time and money - both of which you do not have. Instead, set some time aside for youself and really break down each character. Ask yourself what are the most important qualities you need to represent with your choice of actor. Arm yourself with a deep understanding of your characters so that you can develop an intuition about your future choices in the casting process.
Step 1. Post your casting on your website and social media.
Let people know the following details:
Name of production
Writer and Director
Non-union or union
Character (lead) - physical attributes, brief description of who the character is, what their false belief is, the world they live in, and the main goal they have in the film
Repeat this step for all roles. Do not forget to cast extras. I repeat, DO NOT FORGET TO CAST EXTRAS. Nothing screams amateur like a film with no extras! How do I know this? I did it when I first started!
How to apply: send your name and resume and link to any past work by JULY 1 to email@example.com
Step 2. Investigate the local creative world
Chances are, you know other directors and actors in the area. Take an evening or two and watch (not skim, actually watch) through other short films that have been shot in your town. Don't get caught up in production quality. Just focus in on the actors. Did anyone stand out? Write their name down. Find their contact info. If they are an actor, it will take 5 seconds to find it as they are looking to be found by people like you! Invite them to read the script.
Step 3. Auditions
Now that you have a list of names it's time for the auditions to begin. It's totally up to you whether you want to do in-person, virtual or self-taped auditions. Each of these are a valid method. When time is tight, I often do self-taped or virtual. In-person is nice as it really gives you a chance to see more of the actors in action, and you can ask for a second read, if need be.
I typically ask actors to read from one or two scenes from the script along with another actor or myself. I try to be as transparent as possible and ask them to give me a certain emotion in the scene. Most good actors will have already read the script you sent to them ahead of time and have a solid grasp of who their character is and where they are in the narrative arc in the audition scene. If an actor gives you a performance in the audition that leans emotionally in the wrong way, they were not prepared and are not likely a good fit for you. Or, it could be that you didn't prepare them well enough. It's important to be thorough.
It is very important that you record the auditions, if you are doing them in-person. The way you feel about an actor that day and the way you may feel about them after watching them on your computer monitor at home, side-by-side against other potential candidates can change quite a bit. You aren't directing a play. You are directing a movie. They actor should leap through the screen when you watch them perform. Cameras pick up subtleties that might surprise you.
During the audition process, you need to trust your gut. You know the movie you want to make. You know how hard it is going to be to make this thing fly. Methodically go through casting tapes again and again and again. Leave no stone unturned in your search.
Next comes the fun part. Contact the actors you like and offer them the role!
Make sure to have them sign a contract. You can find contract templates for film production online.
How to Find Crew for Your Indie Short Film
The next important step is to find crew members. Depending on how you creating your budget, you are going to have to think hard about how to get this step done. The first thing I always do is ask myself, who do I know that could fill each role? Make a list. Keep in mind that everyone's day rate can shift from year to year so people you worked with before may be out of reach now. Or they could be cheaper than before. Reach out to all the people you know and let them know the basic details of the project. Check their availability and current rates.
Keep in mind that in the budget, you would have allocated some funds for crew. Don't spend too much in one area (ie cinematographer) and skimp on another (ie having no boom op). Half of the movie is sound. Ensure you get a quality mixer and boom op. Nothing will make you lose your hair faster than getting into the edit and having to deal with sound production issues. I tend to be the cinematographer on many projects and I know what I need. That might not be the case for you. If you are hiring a cinematographer, ask them to outline what kind of support they need to do the job. Are they having to hire equipment? Do they need a 1st AC, 2nd AC and dolly grip? Do they have a gimble? Have an open and honest discussion that balances what you can do with what you have in terms of budget and personnel.
After you have gone through the people you already know, you may have your crew in place. Chances are, you will have holes. This is where you ask your friends who THEY know. A friend of a friend is often better than a stranger. Lean on your relationships. If you have none, guess what? This is the project where you start to develop your network and begin to understand just how important it is.
Sometimes it will come down to having to post a crew call to strangers. I do it on my website and social media from time to time. Why? I have lot's of connections already. Why would I do that? It's because a network need to continue growing to survive. People move on and leave the film industry. Some make it big an move to LA or New York. There is no telling what the future will bring, other than change. Try and bring on at least one new person with every project. That way, your family will grow.
As with the actors, ask the crew to sign a contract that details the job, the responsibility and the rate.
How to Find Locations For Your Indie Short Film
Many times in indie short film production, the location is found first, even before the script is written! Why? Finding a good location can be very difficult and once you have one, you can often write a script to fit the location. Let's assume in this case the script came first.
To make this easier to relate to, let's assume you are looking for a bowling alley. In the old days, I would say pick up the Yellowpages, but these days I say, open your web browser and start searching for local businesses. I have found far more success in booking locations with local businesses than national ones. Too much red tape. Oh, you want to film here? Okay, let me contact my boss in Toronto and get back to you. 3 weeks later: sorry, we cannot accommodate your request. Would you like to be added to our mailing list. SMH.
In your chat with the business owner, be very courteous and clear about your intentions to film at their establishment. Tell them why it is the perfect fit for your film, but more importantly, try to find a logical reason why you could actually help their business by filming there. It could be exposure, a special thanks in the credits, or perhaps you could even give them BTS shots they can use on social media. Hey, look at the cool indie movie being filmed in OUR business! Trust me, everyone wants something cool to share on their social channels. Politely haggle on price. There is no set amount to book most spaces. It could be free or it could be half your budget. A note of warning: don't commit to additional demands that you cannot accommodate. If the price isn't right, move on. There are more bowling alleys in the sea!
Once you do book the location, plan to have insurance and make ultra, ultra certain that every single member of the crew understands how to SAFELY film in the environment. Don't scratch the floors with your C-stands. Don't break anything. Be respectful!
How to Create a Production Schedule for Your Indie Short Film
Now we are in a good place. We have our budget sorted out and we found cast, a crew, and a location.
Now it's time to create the production schedule. You might be very excited and anxious to move into production as early as possible, but it's not in your best interest, my friend. You need to consider a few things first.
Talk to the cinematographer. What times of day do you need to filming in? Exteriors are often in the first part and last part of the day. What considerations need to be made for setups. Are there specialty items like gimbals or dollies involved? Is there that one drone shot that you need? All of these things need to be taken into consideration prior to scheduling.
Get availability dates from your cast and crew. This is the most PAINFUL part of the scheduling process. If you were smart and you have an AD, they can lift this burden from you. Chances are though, you are doing it yourself. I found a great tool for scheduling availability is to use Doodle.com You can designate a few dates and times that work and have people says yes or no to each option. That way you can quickly (and visually) see what dates work.
Be sure to include rehearsals and or a table read in the schedule. You need to spend time with the actors to get things right before you move into production. Trust me, skip this step and you will suffer down the road.
Crew meeting. Be sure to schedule at least one meeting with the crew. Some of them might not know each other. Be very clear on your expectations and goals for the project. Set some ground rules, but at the same time, it is vital to keep it friendly and open. They need to know you are the director and in charge but also feel that their opinions and feelings are valued. It's a delicate balance. Be sure that the cinematographer has time to outline his or her thoughts about lighting setups here. If you can save time on set by having the conversation at a crew meeting, your production day will go that much smoother. One less bump in the road! Be sure to bring location photos. Even better - do a location and tech scout with your cinematographer.
Okay, now that you've gone through the steps above, you can go about putting together the actual production schedule. How many pages/day is reasonable to schedule? Many people say 5 pages/day is a reasonable amount. You might do more or less, depending on the complexity of the scenes involved.
Aim to film in the most efficient way possible. To do this, you need to mark up your script. Go through it and make your shot list. Aim to shoot exteriors on beginning and end of day and interiors in the middle. It's just a general rule of thumb. You might be scheduling night interiors at night as well, which would make sense. This is where your cinematographer can help you understand what needs to go where and why. Typically, you will film your master shots first, then one side for a few hours and then flip the set up and film the reverse. Finally, your inserts and other coverage followed by a pass for sound. It is of utmost importance that you schedule lunch and dinner breaks and make sure food and coffee are present. More on that later. There needs to be setup time for lights, too. I usually allow the crew a 15 minute window to adjust lighting between scenes. Keep in mind each scene will have multiple takes. Aim for 5-6takes/scene. If you are like me, that will be plenty. If you are like Fincher, you made need time for 30 takes/scene. I don't have that kind of patience. A slightly weird thing to keep in mind is that everything a the very beginning of the day tends to move more slowly as people lean in to the schedule. Mid morning is great and you hit your stride by lunch. Then usually the wheels fall off after lunch for about an hour, so make sure the schedule doesn't get too hectic until about 2pm. From 2pm to dinner, you can accomplish a lot. If you have enough coffee, you can accomplish anything. Ha!
I personally use Celtx to do all of my scheduling, but there are a number of other worthy options. Celtx allows me to schedule my days with certainty that no shot is missing from the list. Once the schedule is complete, send it to your cinematographer. They will most certainly have notes for you. Once you (and your AD) make the appropriate changes, do a last minute check in with the location to re-confirm the dates and times. If all is good to go, send the schedule to cast and crew.
Last Minute Additions
You might think differently, but this is usually the time I find hair and makeup, wardrobe, props and craft services solutions. Each of these components are vital to a smooth production, but they always seem to land about here in the pre production timeline. Amazon delivers so fast these days, it's nothing to sweat about if you need a Samurai sword or an old phone. They can be delivered to your door in a week's time. It's important to spend some time with the makeup artist if you are brining one in. They need to be aware of how things are scheduled. It is entirely possible for makeup to hold up your entire production day. If they need 1 hour but you only gave them 10 minutes, you are screwed. Talk to them and make sure the call times reflect what they and you need. I won't spend too much time on craft services other than to say serve fresh food, coffee and water. Stay way from greasy food and be certain to ask cast and crew about dietary restrictions and allergies. There is no shame in providing food cooked at home, provided it is fresh and delicious. When I first started out, I gave everyone pizza and Coke. I soon learned what a big mistake that was! Aim to keep the crew full of energy and happy. Good food and caffeine go a long way.
What is missing here?
A lot. We didn't discuss art department, equipment rentals and about a dozen other things. The thought with this article was to keep it simple and to go over the main aspects of pre production for a micro or no budget short film. I've worked on all different sizes of projects and at the end of the day, they often share the same set of headaches, just at a different scale of thinking. If you can master the steps outlines in this guide, you will have success down the road.
Thanks for reading! If you need help or have any questions, feel free to shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org