How to Make Your First Serious Short Film – at UC Berkeley or Anywhere Else: Bootstrapping

There is an inherent logic problem in making a short film when you are starting out – film is a collaborative medium, hence you need friends who come on board and help you with your film. If you haven’t done much film before or are new to Berkeley (or wherever you are), you don’t have many friends yet. If you have no past work to show, there is nothing that gives you credibility, hence you won’t find new friends to help you with your project.

The solution? Pulling yourself up by the Bootstraps.

There is four principles to successfully pulling a Bootstrap on filmmaking:

  1. Don’t lie about anything.
  2. It all starts with you, so max out your dedication and time.
  3. Give yourself a minimum of 2 months preproduction, from the project’s inception to the shooting date.
  4. No “I’ll just … use my friends as actors and shoot in my apartment/dorm” type projects – you doom yourself before you even start.

Now, what does Bootstrapping really mean in this context? You basically have to create something from nothing, and that’s not easy. The best way to go about it is to lay a solid foundation and then find people to commit to your project one by one; each person that commits becomes part of the “package” – and in the end, you can pull either quality or quantity people on board by having a great package to present.

Expectations, Syrup Metaphor, and Preproduction

If this is your very first film, make it 3 minutes long. 3 pages of a script. Or 1 minute, 1 page of script.
Why? Let me give you a metaphor:

Think of yourself as a jar with syrup inside. Depending on your experience level, you have a certain amount of syrup in your jar. If you are a beginner, there’s only a tiny layer of syrup at the bottom. Now, add water to your syrup. The longer your film, the more locations, the more complex the action, the more water you are adding. Now drink it. If it tastes bland, you have stretched your syrup with too much water. Your goal is to pour in only so much water that the mixture in the end tastes pretty sweet. The more experience you gain, the more syrup will be in the jar, and the more water you can add without diluting the mix too much.

The Syrup Equation - a Metaphor for filmmaking that contrasts quantity and experience.

The Syrup Equation – a Metaphor for filmmaking that contrasts quantity and experience.

Bottom line is: Instead of making a boring, shallow, unprofessional 10 minute film, make an awesome 1-3 minute film where you can pour your most dedication and heart in every single second of screen time.

Plan on spending 2-6 months in preproduction for a serious short film. Filmmaking is not easy. This film has to become your NUMBER ONE PRIORITY in that timeframe. If you work, work around your film. If you go to school, do your homework once you have the prep film work for the day done. If you watch TV, watch it after you confirmed the location that day. If you have friends, involve them in your film. There’s absolutely no point in wanting to be a filmmaker but not making it your number one thing to do every day.

Also, expect to be the number one hardcore worker on this project. There is no money, no fame, nothing of the superficial goals that make people as hungry as you – you have to be the driving engine, you have to solve 90% of what goes wrong and/or help 90% of all troubles to be solved. The more experienced your crew, the bigger your status, and the better of an established teamwork you have going, the less you will have to take care of these kinds of issues.

If this is your very very very first film project as a director, and you’re only looking for gaining directing experience, keep your cast and crew to a maximum of 5. Just 1 or 2 actors, just 1-3 crew members including yourself. That way, you can bang out one project after the next and quickly gain experience working with actors – but beware, once you feel comfortable with it and your skill sets are rising, challenge yourself to actually do a serious project… as described below. You’re ready now to play with the big boys.

Getting yourself organized

What you need to learn is to organize a film like a company. May it even be a 3-actor, 3-crew project; if you have no prior work to show, there will be five other people on the project that will doubt if it will ever work out. Especially in an environment like Berkeley, where scepticism and rational questioning is the absolute key ingredient to  why the theoretical program is so interesting and mind-blowing. Anywhere else, people will always be sceptical to work with someone with no experience.

So, if you have no experience, remember rule 1  – don’t lie about it. Don’t impose yourself. Don’t compensate the lack of experience with embellishing or making yourself look more important than you are – it will only backfire. Instead, build a legitimate foundation that you then can build a package on, and the first step is to get yourself organized.

When I started my project “All I Want Is Silence” at UC Berkeley, I had only been at the university for about 2 months; there was no real organization as in who is good at what, and where I would be able to find people; once I had about 30 people together, I created a conact spreadsheet for the crew. It became a big challenge to manage the tasks that each department and/or person was assigned, so I created another spreadsheet – and so on and so forth, creating more and more spreadsheets as the project went on. I erased my data on it, so here it is – download/duplicate it and upload it again on Google Docs – it’s one of the best ways to collaborate online on the logistics of a film.

A free production template - a blank version with notations of what we used that can simply be duplicated as a google doc - will follow in the next article on U, S, and Toby.

A free production template – a blank version with notations of what we used that can simply be duplicated as a google doc – will follow in the next article on U, S, and Toby.

In its revamped Version – all cleaned up and ready to go:
Download or duplicate your own Production Document for free

It contains:

  • TASK LIST
  • BUDGET
  • SHOOTING SCHEDULE
  • CREW CONTACT LIST
  • CAST CONTACT LIST
  • TRANSPORTATION SHEET
  • COSTUMES
  • PRODUCTION DESIGN
  • MOOD BOARD

Once you have that spreadsheet duplicated, start filling it with your “knowns”; even if it’s just your name in the contact list, you can already write down the tasks that need to be done (I left some in there that you will need anyway, as a pointer; feel free to erase them if you already did those steps; the spreadsheet is all yours now). Then, add images to the mood board; and within about 5-10 hours of work, you have a legitimate-looking framework. Now,  this assumes that although you have little experience with making your own professional short films, you have done your research and reading. If not – then go to the Film LTK I put together and spend the next two months in total immersion. You NEED to know as much as possible – all the knowledge in there will come in handy in one way or the other. For your first serious short film, I recommend to read the producing, writing and directing sections first.

Organizing is great, but what do I actually need to do?

For putting together a package, you need 6 things:

  1. A Script – a GOOD script. Good means that you showed it to 10 people, got 10 pieces of feedback, and made 2-3 different drafts. Try to show it to film professors, and absorb all the constructive criticism.
  2. A Cast – dedicated, semi-professional actors
  3. A Crew – people that believe in the project and have vested interest in its success
  4. Locations – NOT your apartment. Think bigger, think real places that you have to ask for permission, think of cool public places where you guerilla-shoot, etc.
  5. Equipment – a camera, a mic&sound recorder, lighting gear
  6. A Budget – for buying food, buying/renting props, paying the Makeup kit, paying people’s gas etc.

Before anything, you need to have a presentable script (more about that in the Writing Section of the Film LTK). Then, you start with Cast, Crew and Locations; the order does not matter, it’s more about which assets you can realistically get first. The whole idea of bootstrapping is that each asset becomes the next step on the ladder to get the next key ingredient. For example, a good cinematographer might only participate in your project if you have good actors on board, and a production designer lined up. A good actor might only say yes to the project if you can show a well-developed shooting schedule and good preproduction. A producer might only hop on board if you have all your locations lined up etc.

In the “real world” it’s no different; a distributor might only hop on board if you have well-known actors attached to your feature, and you might only get financing if you have your distribution lined up, and you might only get the actors to agree to be on board if the project has financing. What to do in this scenario where each asset has the other as a condition and you’re stuck in the middle? It’s called a “Letter of Interest” or “Letter of Intent”. Each party says they are interested in the project, and as soon as you  all of these letters, you can bring each of them on board.

Similar in your scenario – find out what each person wants in order to come on board, and slowly build your tower of Babel – start with the people who want the least, and then grow your team. It’s useful when you get a good cinematographer or production designer or makeup artist or costume designer on board that you can show their reel or portfolio to people who you want in the project. When you get good actors, you can use their track record or reel to get additional people on board.

1.) Getting a Good Script

Either, you write it yourself, or you get it from someone that writes better than you. Either way, get it peer-reviewed. Show it to other film students or filmmakers, ask them to read it and give you feedback. Show it to your film professors. Show it to your parents. If people don’t answer, ask them again and again. Ask them for criticism, not compliments. Let the critical minds strike down on your ego. This is not an exercise in self-glorification, this is the very basis for your film. Famous saying – “A film can only be as good as its script” – totally true. This is the basis for everything. Try to write at least 2-3 drafts, and get feedback on each.

Impression from the Writing of a documentary - hundreds of pieces of paper and posits, notes, arrangements etc. - a lot of work has to be done to make a script as good as possible.

Impression from the Writing of a documentary – hundreds of pieces of paper and posits, notes, arrangements etc. – a lot of work has to be done to make a script as good as possible.

Impression from my writing process of "All I Want Is SIlence", with a combination of "regular" writing on paper and processing with the computer. The second draft was based on the actors I cast and the feedback I got, the third draft was based on what we learned in rehearsals - things that I would have never found out if I would have "stayed in my head".

Impression from my writing process of “All I Want Is SIlence”, with a combination of “regular” writing on paper and processing with the computer. The second draft was based on the actors I cast and the feedback I got, the third draft was based on what we learned in rehearsals – things that I would have never found out if I would have “stayed in my head”.

2.) Getting Your Cast

For the cast, set up an audition and write a casting call. Reserve a room in your school (reserve it 14 days in advance) or any other facility. Then contact local acting groups (real life or facebook), and make a casting call on a legitimate website like www.sfcasting.com (Bay Area) or www.lacasting.com (LA), in which you can already set the date and location for the audition to happen.

Don’t take shortcuts. There’s barely anything as important as great actors. Even if you have a friend that would be PERFECT for the role, let them be in a fair competition with everyone else and have everybody audition without prejudice. Your goal is to get the BEST actors that you can get with whatever package you offer them to be part of.

Casting page for my most recent film, including role and wardrobe descriptions for every character. The actors you get out of a real yet free casting are obviously going to be a lot better than "using your friends".

Casting page for my most recent film, including role and wardrobe descriptions for every character. The actors you get out of a real yet free casting are obviously going to be a lot better than “using your friends”.

3.) Getting a Crew

For the crew, ask people that you know and trust. Even if they have no actual work experience in a field, they can do amazing work. I now made the experience twice that I asked a good friend to be my production designer although they had no experience – and in both times, they did a fantastic job. The position of the cinematographer and the location sound mixer should be filled with someone that really knows their stuff – these are two areas that are extremely technical, and a badly exposed or badly lit shot, a dialogue recording with hiss, wrong levels or wind pops will ruin your scene, so try to find the best people around you that you can.

Makeup is also a tricky one; if you’re trying something new (like beards) or something crazy (like prosthetics) either let non-professionals do some practice samples before the shoot to make sure they know what to do, or get someone professional on board.

Don’t take shortcuts. Every serious short film production should have a Production Sound Mixer, a Production Designer, a Costume Designer and a Makeup artist. If you cannot get that (i.e. you are doing a crazy guerilla super-low-key production), or you just don’t have any experience and are scared of a bigger team, try to find locations that don’t look bad without production design, use actors that do their own makeup, spend time with the actors to choose outfits and try to get the best audio gear possible.

Remember – these people are incredibly important in filmmaking, and these shortcuts will only hurt your project if you have made a few smaller films prior to this and are confident that you can manage a team of 10 or 15.

When we started out in 2010, it was just Hiroki Kamada and myself. It was just us two, but we worked really fast and prepared everything together. In 2013 on the Berkeley Student Film "All I Want Is Silence", it was again Hiroki and myself, but now joined by 38 other crew members. We gained lots of management experience in the years in between, so a big crew was perfectly realistic for this project - and did an amazing job.

When we started out in 2010, it was just Hiroki Kamada and myself. It was just us two, but we worked really fast and prepared everything together. In 2013 on the Berkeley Student Film “All I Want Is Silence”, it was again Hiroki and myself, but now joined by 38 other crew members. We gained lots of management experience in the years in between, so a big crew was perfectly realistic for this project – and did an amazing job.

4.) Getting Good Locations

Here is where you need to balance hustling with being a gentleman. You want that park? Ask the city and/or local film commission, find out how much a permit costs. Too expensive? Get a student producer on board. Still too expensive? Do it in another town. Too much of a hassle? Do it in an easier location, change up your script. Your school or work or family might have a great location that could replace your park. No way? Do it guerilla, and don’t get caught.

You want that public bus? Do it guerilla. You want that piece of desert in the middle of nowhere? Call the local sheriff or visit them and become friends. Chances are, they don’t know much about film permits and will not mind as long as you stay away from public roads.

You want that ranch? That museum? That warehouse? That mansion? Bring everything you have prepared, ring the bell, say hello. See if you know the owner through three corners and get an introduction or a phone call, or a mutual friend to come with you. Show the owner your hard work. Tell him about your limitations, about the great people that you have on board. Tell him about the story, and why this film matters to him. Tell her about why her mansion would be a perfect fit. Tell him why you appreciate 19th century architecture for this film just as much as he appreciated it when he took over that ranch.

Locations are the biggest gamble ever, mostly depending on local culture. Sometimes, you will get an amazing museum for free, sometimes you will be asked to pay a huge sum and come with a $2 Million liability insurance for a shitty little warehouse. The more film experience the locals have, the more jaded they usually are. Make it part of your location scouting to figure out the vibe that is going on. A city like LA is extremely difficult to shoot in. A desert like the Mojave is pretty chill to shoot at, and a town like Niles, CA is a paradise on Earth for filmmakers with a historical love for Charlie Chaplin and the movies, and not much motion picture production going on in the last 5 years (this is where I shot my latest film, “All I Want Is Silence”).

Most of all – leave a location better than you found it. Write them a thank you card. Come by after the film is done, and give them a copy, personally. Don’t break their stuff. Instruct your crew and cast to be careful and respectful – so that they will be happy to give another ambitious filmmaker after you another chance at telling another great story in their place.

Evolution of locations, from 1-4. First, a relatively crappy film that we shot in 48 hours behind my house in an alley. No planning, no professionalism. Second,a small but well-planned., location-scouted mini shoot with 2 crew and 2 cast that we shot on an amazing cliff in Palos Verdes, no permit. Third, a location I actually got from being persistent and nice, for my film "Terminated"; it's a huge cubicle array and we had permission from the department that managed this space. Fourth, a location from my most recent film "All I Want Is Silence" - a complete result of blind luck, but I spent 4 days location scouting in order to have this blind luck happen to me - also, with official permission from the owner.

Evolution of locations, from 1-4. First, a relatively crappy film that we shot in 48 hours behind my house in an alley. No planning, no professionalism. Second,a small but well-planned., location-scouted mini shoot with 2 crew and 2 cast that we shot on an amazing cliff in Palos Verdes, no permit. Third, a location I actually got from being persistent and nice, for my film “Terminated”; it’s a huge cubicle array and we had permission from the department that managed this space. Fourth, a location from my most recent film “All I Want Is Silence” – a complete result of blind luck, but I spent 4 days location scouting in order to have this blind luck happen to me – also, with official permission from the owner.

5.) Getting Equipment

Equipment is inherently linked to your surrounding resources and your budget. If you study at UC Berkeley, read the Cal Film RUB to learn everything about the equipment present and available to students. If you study at Santa Monica College, then you’ll have a good amount of equipment to your disposal, just ask people that work either in the Broadcasting dept. or on the AET campus. If you study at USC or UCLA or Chapman or AFI, you will have a ton of equipment present on campus but have bureaucratic barriers to overcome, depending on your status within the university. If you study at CCH, you have a ton of decent gear and a really easy time renting it. If you study anywhere else, talk to the production teachers. If they lay bureaucratic red tape in your way, ask what you need to do to get an exception. If they say it’s not possible, move up in the hierarchy and ask the next highest person on staff.

If you don’t study anywhere, and you have a limited budget, and no friends who either study and have access to gear or own gear themselves, you will have to consider that in writing your film. Try to at least get a DLSR for filming, and a Zoom H4N and a boom mic and boom pole for sound. Try to at least have a laptop with Premiere or Final Cut for editing. If you have little money, read my DIY section on the Film LTK. Make the hardware store your new home.

There’s all sorts of nonprofits (like Film Independent in LA or BAVC in the Bay Area) in larger cities; do some research in local resources and make calls. Do the same that you were advised to do for getting locations above.

6.) Setting a Budget

You have no money? Save money. Don’t drink Starbucks for half a year, and you’ll have at least $250 if you are a decent coffee drinker. Save up money from your work. Become a lab rat like Robert Rodriguez did. Do freelance work in what you are good, and save that money.

There is two foolproof ways of getting someone to never work with you again:

  1. You don’t feed them well on set.
  2. You promised to pay or reimburse them but don’t.

Don’t make these mistakes, only douchebags make them. Have a lunch,  a breakfast, a dinner, all three – totally depends on how much you shoot, and at what time of day. Provide a meal every 6 hours, and provide snacks throughout. Use your budget wisely, be open about the budgetary restrictions to your department heads. You never want the situation of having the costume designer arrive at your house with $100 worth of thrift store clothing that she can’t return and you can’t pay for, all because of a miscommunication or inappropriate secrecy on your budget.

Closing Statement

We live in a big world. There is millions of people out there competing for being the next big director or writer or whatever. Stay humble, and work like a horse. You will never make it if you don’t push the last drop of blood from your body into your films. Don’t die, but always be aware that filmmaking is one of the most difficult things you can do – and nobody will do the work for you, you have to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

If you feel like I missed something or wrote something misleading, please use your capacity to constructive criticism. Welcome channels are via the comment function, via email to tobias@tobiasdeml.com or via my facebook. There’s more treasures to find on the U, S, and Toby Facebook Page.

If you are currently studying at UC Berkeley and feel like I can help you make a better project [and keep putting Berkeley on the filmmaking map], please feel free to ask me out for a coffee; I’m happy to help if I am available.

Next Steps – the FILM LTK

You want to know more? There’s a million things to learn. And I tried to organize all this information in the (obviously free) Film LTK – 240+ Links, Tutorials and Knowledge about all nearly areas of filmmaking. When I say “nearly”, I mean…: