The dream of just about every filmmaker is turn their shorts to features. It’s the Holy Grail for those who want a career in the film world, but it doesn’t happen overnight. You should make a few shorts and learn the basics first. Once you get through the “wax on –wax off” training montage, you’re ready for the competition. But, the question remains, how do I make the transition from shorts to features?
When I made my first feature film, Clean Break, these were the top five things that short filmmaking taught me.
1. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Use the relationships with companies you’ve built when you were making shorts. Big companies like William F. Whites, Sim Digital, Total Two Way, Notch, Urban Post, Deluxe and even smaller companies like to help up-and-coming filmmakers. These companies understand that everyone needs a little help up front. But don’t think it’s completely altruistic.
By helping you out at the beginning of your career, the expectation is that you will continue to work with them when you start to have actual budgets. The deals they are giving you on your shorts and first features are an investment in YOU, so show them that you’re worth investing in. By the time I finished my last short, these companies knew I was a serious filmmaker, and would be around for the long run to give them business in the future.
2. It’s not what your crew can do for you, but what you can do for your crew…
…because chances are they’re going to volunteer, work for deferred payment, or take a small honorarium. First features can be notoriously tight in the finance department, but you don’t want to sacrifice the quality of your crew. You need people who believe in you and the project. In the interview process, you have to sell yourself just as much as they do, so having an extensive resume can only help. If you understand why they are coming out to work on your film, and you can provide them with the experience they want, it can be just as valuable as a salary.
Working with people you’ve already worked with on your shorts is a bonus. Short films are a fantastic way to test out working relationships. It’s a lot like going on a first date.You meet, get to know one another, and see if you click. Hopefully you’ve found some key relationships that earn at least a second date.
3 Write a script that can be made on a low budget.
Now that you’ve made a short, you understand where the money goes. Take advantage of that knowledge early in the game. Start with what you have access to a location, certain actors, cool props or set dec. Create a script around what you know you can get for free. The key thing you start to realise is that you can control your budget with the script. And since getting big bucks for your first feature is a very rare thing, it’s best to think within your means.
We shot my first feature in my parent’s house. The script took place in one location. Interior. The cast was written to be in their twenties, an age where actors are trying to gain experience, and where landing a role in a feature film is more important than the pay cheque.
Rewrite, rewrite and rewrite some more. Make sure your script is ready to go to camera before you shoot. The editing should be done as much as possible in the script stage. A lot of times when you make a short you learn this the hard way. Either you cut a scene in the editing room, you run out of time on set and have to rewrite in the moment, or you realise that a particularly expensive choice just didn’t add anything to the movie.
Pressing delete on the keyboard is much cheaper.
4. Be prepared!
You’ll be lucky if you get more than 10 days to shoot your first feature. The shots are fast, intense, and you have to roll with the punches. If you thought short films were stressful wait till you see how many pages you’ll have to shoot in a day (hint: it’ probably the length of your whole short). So, my best advice is to be prepared.
On your shorts, make sure you storyboard, even if you don’t think it’s necessary. Make shot lists. Make sure your key creatives are on the same page. The more you prepare in preproduction, the more time you’ll save on set. Incorporate these processes into your early work, and you’ll discover that you’ll be able to think faster and more creatively when problems arise.
5. Investors are giving money to YOU, not the project.
If there was a magic answer to pulling in money, everyone would be making features with million dollar budgets. Whether you get financing from a government film funding agency, private investors, crowd funding, or even your family, you need to prove that you can handle the money properly and deliver a good finished product. The best way to do this is to have successful shorts under your belt. No matter how good your feature script is, if they don’t trust you, you don’t get the money.
So, start thinking like a producer even when making your short films. Apply for funding. Create a proper budget. Find a distributor. Get into festivals. Learn the business of film. All of these will make you more trustworthy to someone who is willing to invest.
If you think now is the time for to make the transition from shorts to features, remember that people will help you because they believe in YOU. So, prove yourself with your short films. Every one of your shorts is a step toward your feature. Keep getting your work out there and show people you’re serious and good at what you do.
I’m of the belief that you should go out and make your first feature any way you can.
While we would all love to hit it out of the park on the first at bat, the reality is, that your first film is a continuation of the learning experience you started on your shorts. If you’re waiting for the perfect alignment of budget, talent, and cast, you will be waiting for a long time, and the pressure to make sure that your first feature is the be all and end all, will only add to the stress. Make it, learn from it, and move on.
About the author
Tricia Lee is a Canadian writer, director, producer with over a dozen film credits.