Making A Short Film

We recently took on the challenge of making a film in 48 hours for the 48 Hour Film Project, Delhi chapter. We have made a couple of films before, but nothing too worthy or too up-to-the-mark. This was an opportunity to pressure ourselves and come up with something novel, and interesting, in just two days. Two days is a very short time, even for a short film, and the lack of experience intoxicated with sleep deprivation took its toll on each and every member of the team. Needless to say, we lost the challenge. The film couldn’t be completed in the allotted time. But the film was shot, edited and is in the process of being made, for ourselves (and other festivals) more than anything else. On such a tight schedule and low budgets (which translates to everyone-does-everything), we learned more than we were hoping to, or even imagined. The best thing to do is to put these learnings down for future reference as well as for the benefit of the readers who are interested in making films their own way.

If you are a filmmaker who subscribes to the Godardian school of thought that a film is not a story then initiating a film becomes very difficult. Having been brought up on Bollywood, it is extremely difficult to see the story (plot) from the outside, from the point of view of a cinematic art form. The story becomes redundant after a while and the form of the film takes over. This, to many, may sound farcical and even incorrect but it is the truest representation of the story. If a woman is waiting for someone then the film must demand that same wait from the viewer (Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti), or if a killer is terrorizing the living daylights out of its adversaries  then the blood and gore must reflect that terror, even if it seems unnatural (Tarantino’s Kill Bill). So, the form of the film must go hand-in-hand with the story, right from the start. There is no way out of this.

Locations are an important part of any film and more so for short films because they impart character instantly, without much effort by the camera or the actors. So, choosing a location that fits well with the story and the form of the film is crucial. When the camera moves around in the alleys of a suburb then the alley, with its shops, houses, clothes hanging from the balconies and kids playing, becomes a new character of the film (Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers). On the other hand there might be films that downplay the locations because giving the setting a character might be too specific for the storyline (Dibakar’s Shanghai). So, choosing a location that gives a helping hand to the narrative must be a priority.

The actors must rehearse before the filming starts. For a short film, many tend to ignore the fact that the most prominent visual element is still the actor. And by rehearsal I don’t mean an extensive workshop with a theatre group to get into the skin of the character; just a familiarity with the lines and the co-actors would do. In a film, unlike theatre, an actor might have to repeat lines for the benefit of camera angles. And many a times these repetitions are devoid of context. All the more reason for rehearsals as the actors will be familiar with emotions, movements and voice modulation for a given sentence.

One of the more technical aspects of shooting is to maintain a TC for all shots being taken. TC is nothing but a system of time coding your shots, so as to identify the OK shots quickly while on the edit table. Short film crews are usually small and assigning one person with the task of maintaining the TC is not practical. He might miss noting down some shots as he is too engrossed in watching whether the actors are doing right, the frame is looking correct or he might be busy running an errand, or holding the reflector. So, another way of doing this is to have a clap board kind of a device which can be written upon and erased. All that needs to be done is to write the scene number, take number and the audio take number (if using sync sound) and place the board in front of the camera after rolling. This will make sure that every video file starts from a slate with numbers to identify the scene and the take. And the cameraman can easily do this himself. There are many novel methods to make sure that the editing goes smoothly, and each filmmaker might conform to what suits him best. But the key is to maintain a TC.

Film is an audio-visual medium. While focusing on the visuals, it is easy to forget about the audio and in the end the camera audio capture is used. This takes away from the film. It adds unnecessary noise and may even be distracting in case of an outdoor shoot. While thinking about the camera movements and scene transitions, it is very important to write down the corresponding audio. An intense conversation in the bedroom that demands attention of the viewers will be ruined if the external sounds of the traffic, people moving up and down the stairs etc. are allowed to interfere. But the same scene might get infused with more tension if the sound of flowing water is maintained (Anurag’s Dev D). Many Iranian films use 360 degree sounds. Even these are recorded separately and mixed. Short filmmakers might not have the equipment or the resources but they can certainly have the right intent. A simple Dictaphone works wonders as far as capturing sound is concerned.

Editing is something that is very technical and precise in nature. It is lining up of the shot sequences in a pre-determined order. This sounds easy but requires an understanding of the software, as well as the film. Lining up the scenes must not be perceived as a mechanical task. The editor must also realize that there is a certain feel that needs to be imparted to the whole film. So, the transitions from one scene to the other might be an abrupt cut or a fade-out/fade-in, depending on the flow of the film. A montage of abrupt cuts highlights the timelessness and the fast paced lives of people in the film (Ram Gopal Verma’s Company), or a 5 minute long sequence slowly dissolving into black shows the mundane routine lives (Bela Tarr’s Satantango). Many say that the edit makes the film. This might be true if the edit is in sync with the rhythm of the film. If cinema is an art form, then the editor needs to be an artist too, and not just an operator.

Apart from these elaborate themes, some small but important paraphernalia of filmmaking are: measuring tape to maintain frame size by noting positions of actors/objects with respect to the camera, duct tape to mark the position of actors and camera and a reflector (thermocol sheet would do) to ensure that the actor’s face is not in shadow.

Needless to say, this is nowhere near to being exhaustive. But every new film is a learning in itself and as newbie short filmmakers, we hope to incorporate as many creative and procedural aspects of filmmaking with every subsequent film we make. Let’s keep making films and hope that we get a hold of our own way of filmmaking as soon as possible.

5 thoughts on “Making A Short Film

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  1. Great stuff…………..a very good primer. However I think in the practical scheme of things…the biggest issue is that the crew/team isn’t really sure of what it wants…its more of a go with flow sort of thing, even if they have shot sequence written down. At some level, a bit of discipline and for lack of a better word abscence of a chain of command is the main reason for this. While its great to have everybody contributing, one person needs to take the final call n give the project some sort of direction. I completely agree with you that each individual should participate as an artist and not as a techician or operator, but i guess given the mad timelines, teams some time may not be able to afford this luxury.

    1. discipline is a must. not only in terms of people doing their assigned roles with diligence, but also having enough patience to let the others do their work without interfering. This primer, as you call it, is more generic and not just related to the 48 hour project. So, time crunch should not be an issue.

  2. Oh absolutely….patience is a must, unfortunately though it is not a trait many people possess. Leave alone appreciating others point of views, we don’t even stop to listen to the other person very often. Having said that its easy to get caught in your own web when you embark on such projects.

    My suggestion to work around this would be to do as much prep as possible before the project goes on the floor….giving all involved time to understand their and more importantly each others role….

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