Updated: Feb 7, 2019
Today, you'll learn the basics of how to successfully write, film, and complete your very own movie. It's not easy, but all the hard work of making a film pays off in the end (usually). It takes a lot of time, effort, and perseverance, and it's not something you can just do in one day, or even a month. Because of all this, it's difficult not to give up. Which is why perseverance is very important. If you want to make a movie, you'd better be prepared to work on it a whole lot and never stop even when things get hard or frustrating. And trust me, they do. But we'll get into that later. Now, it's time for the basics.
Lesson 1: Write the script. If you don't enjoy writing, this part might not be very fun. But trust me, a script is extremely necessary. Without a script, your movie will be unorganized, confusing, and just plain bad. Don't make up lines as you go along. That technique will make your film seem unprofessional and random. Your story has to have structure and developed characters, which doesn't really work if you don't have a script. So, really. Just write a script. If you don't have any ideas for what to make a movie about, there are plenty of things to do to help inspire you. Many movies are based off of books, too. I made a short film of my novel Future, and of one of my other books. Here are a few helpful tips and guidelines for writing a proper screenplay:
1. 1 pg. = 1 min. - This is a basic script format, meaning one page equals about one minute. Therefore, if you want to make a twenty minute film, you'd write a twenty page script.
2. Plan out your story before you start writing. Like in Writing a Novel: The Basics, I definitely encourage you to make an outline of your story. If you don't, things might seem random and confusing. Of course, you technically can write a script without an outline, but it's harder and sometimes not as good.
3. Write character bios. This helps with the development of your characters, and helps you expand them and make them more realistic and layered. You can make bios for just your main character, but it helps to do bios for the supporting character(s) and villain. Character bios can be as long or short as you want. One page is a good length. Write out the character's fears, desires, personality, past history, weaknesses, strengths, etc.
4. Make the dialogue realistic. If the dialogue seems artificial, the audience won't like it and may lose interest fast. You don't want an audience to lose interest in your film. Ever. So try to make the dialogue as real as possible and flow smoothly. Of course, you don't want to let it flow so much that one scene turns into a twenty-minute conversation between two characters. Make things short and cut to the point. Unless you're doing a mystery, of course. Then, you want to drag out the suspense (but not too much). There is a fine balance with everything, and sometimes it takes a while to find it.
5. Know your limits. In other words, don't write a script about superheroes fighting aliens on a magical world in outer space. I'm assuming you don't have access to that kind of special effects. Instead, write things you know you can do, requiring minimal effects and no expensive, crazy technology. That doesn't mean you can't make an awesome movie. You definitely can, but be realistic when you're writing your script. Think, Can I really shoot this with the things I have?
6. Create a writing schedule. This should help you get the script done and just write it. Plan out times when you can write, and know how fast or slow you usually can write. If you don't do this, you might never get your script done.
7. Once you've finished your first draft, have a reading. Yes, the first draft is just the beginning. But don't lose hope. Sure, it takes time, and a lot of work, but you'll get it done. You have to. So anyway, a reading is an important step of developing your script. Get a small audience of friends, family, or anyone else to come to a reading of your script. Assign parts to some people, or maybe ask for volunteers. Don't worry, you don't need to cast anyone yet. This is just a reading. Once you have a few people to read the parts (and one person to read stage directions, too), start the reading. The people will read through the script, and you and everyone else will get to listen to it. Afterwards, ask people what they thought of it, or simply give them a piece of paper with some questions on it. The second option is preferable, since people might not want to state their true opinions in front of you, the writer. If you get negative feedback, don't freak out. It's okay. After all, it's just the first draft. Use the feedback from the reading to rewrite your script.
8. Rewrite the script. As I just mentioned, use any feedback you have from other people to improve upon the script, and fix things you might have noticed in the reading that you wanted to change. Rewriting can take a while, so make sure you don't endlessly rewrite it and rewrite it and rewrite it. You'll never get your movie done that way.
Okay, I could go on and on about writing scripts. But I probably shouldn't, because it would fill up this entire post. Let's move on to the next step.
Lesson 2: Pre-production continues. In this part of pre-production, now that you've finished your script, it's time to make a storyboard, shot list, budget, cast the parts, gather equipment, scout for locations, spread the word about your film, and make a production schedule. Let's go through these, one by one:
1. Make a storyboard. Now that you're done writing your script, draw your script! If you're not good at drawing, don't worry. Stick figures work, too. Storyboarding is very important for films. It shows what the shots will look like. Basically, you make a box (the screen) and draw one shot from the movie inside it. And then the next. And the next. Storyboarding can take a while, because movies have a lot of shots in them, even if it's a five or ten minute short.
2. Create a shot list. A shot list is pretty self-explanatory; it's a list of all the shots in the movie. A shot list usually has these components: shot number, framing, angle, movement, and description. The shot number is the scene number followed by the shot number (letters are used for shot numbers) in that scene. So the shot number 1A would be the first shot of the first scene. 4E would be the fifth shot of the fourth scene. Framing is how close or far from the subject the camera is. Some types of framing are Wide, Close-Up (CU), Medium (M), Over-the-Shoulder, Medium Close-Up (MCU), etc. Angle is, well, the angle of the camera. Types of angles include Low, Eye-Level, High, Bird's-Eye, Canted (tilted), Worm's-Eye, etc. Then is the movement of the camera, such as Push-In, Pan, Crane, etc. After that is the description, which describes what is happening onscreen.
3. Budget your film. It's very hard to make a film without any resources, unfortunately (unless you have a relative or friend with a lot of film equipment, props, and costumes that they could lend you). But that doesn't mean you have to spend a bunch of money on things. My films, actually, barely have a budget at all. Most of my equipment and props were given to me as gifts. Some basic equipment that you will need is a camera (obviously!), a mic and a boom pole (for better sound quality), and lights. A green screen is also helpful. These things don't actually cost hundreds of dollars (depending on where you get them). You can ask friends and family to loan you their things if necessary. Don't be afraid to ask for help with your film. If people need a little more persuasion to give you things for your movie, tell them they will be put in the credits or mentioned on the opening night of the film or some other benefit. Don't spend money when you don't need to. It's just not necessary.
4. Casting! You need people to be in your movie, right? Assuming it's not an animated silent film, you're going to need actors. You can hold auditions if you want to, or cast friends and family who you already know will be perfect for a part. Make sure your actors can act, and follow directions easily. Also, try to get nice people to be in your film. Movies never work if no one can get along. You also need to get a crew. It doesn't have to be huge, just a few people to work at the camera, the lights, the mic, and any other equipment. Also, you might want to get an assistant director to help you with your job. Make sure everything is organized and goes according to plan. Try to avoid saying, Oh, we'll fix it in post. In other words, don't rely on editing to save something you messed up. Get it right when you film it.
5. Scout locations. You need to find places to shoot, right? So find them. You might need to change things a bit if you don't have the right location available, so leave plenty of time to scout locations. Also, some places are off-limits and won't allow you to shoot there. Be sure you can film at a location safely before you start, or else you might have to pay.
6. Spread the word about your film. You want people to see it, right? Even though you haven't even shot it yet, you need to gather an audience. If you don't, you'll have to scramble to get people to come see it on opening night. Use social media, word of mouth, and any other tactics to get people aware and excited about your film. You could even start a blog or update people about your film regularly (kind of like what I'm doing with Spy Squad).
7. Make a production schedule. This step is very important. You need to finalize the dates you will shoot, and make sure your actors and crew are available. Of course, the schedule might change, but make at least a rough idea of when and where you are going to be filming. Write down the dates. Reserve them. Also, put other dates down if those don't work. All sorts of things can mess up your schedule - weather, vacations, sickness, actors not being available... the list goes on and on. So you have to be flexible and adapt to the situation.
Lesson 3: Shoot your film! It's time. The moment you've been waiting for. Now, you get to take the camera, get in the director's chair, and yell, "Action!" You have a lot of responsibilities as a director, and you're going to have to work a lot to get this movie done. Be nice to your cast and crew, and they'll be nice to you. If you're having a long shoot, maybe have a table with food (referred to as 'crafty' in the film business). Professional shoots always have this. Trust me, I've been on plenty of them. Everybody loves food, so get some for them if you want. Again, it's easy to overspend on this. So please, try not to. Continuity is very important in movies. For example, if a character is drinking a cup of water, make sure that the level of water doesn't change in different shots unless the person was drinking it it in the last shot. Also, if a vase of flowers is on one table, make sure it doesn't appear in a different place in the next shot. Things like this accidentally happen all the time in movies. A script supervisor is supposed to make sure this doesn't happen. If you don't have a script supervisor, use your assistant director or some other crew member. Making a movie can be exciting, but it can also be very stressful. Try to get enough sleep and stay hydrated. Seriously. It helps. You could also try having a production journal, where you write down your progress and thoughts as you go on the journey of filmmaking. Stay positive around your cast and crew, and encourage them as much as possible. If you don't like something, try to be kind about it and gently ask someone to change whatever it is. One of the worst things that can happen is having a bad, angry cast and crew who will probably quit and force you to start all over again or maybe give up on the film.
Lesson 4: It's time for post-production, when you edit, market, and finish your film. Once you're done shooting everything, it's time to edit it. Editing is fun for some people, but not everyone. It often takes a long time and can be complicated. There are many types of film editing software, but you don't need an extremely advanced, complicated, hundred dollar program to edit your film. Simple works. You can even use free ones like iMovie. If you want special effects (which I already warned you about), you'll have to get something better that probably costs. There are also special effects websites that you can use, but sometimes it looks fake and artificial. Like I said, minimal effects is better. Now, you need to make a trailer for your film. A trailer is incredibly important, and has to be really great to capture an audience's interest. If your film is a comedy, make the trailer really funny. If your film is an action movie, make it action-packed. If your film is a drama, make it very dramatic. If your film is... okay, I'm pretty sure you get it. Make the trailer good. Also, create posters, ads, and other marketing materials for your film. I'm assuming you want your film to get seen, right?
Lesson 5: This is it! You've done it! You've completed a film. Well, you, the reader, might not have, but this is what happens at this step. It's time to get your movie out into the world. Get a place where you can show your movie and announce its grand premier to everyone you know. Get lots of people to come. Put up posters. Ask people to come (politely, of course). Now that you've actually finished a film, you can show it. So, show it! If not many people show up to watch your film, don't be discouraged. It's fine. Just keep on spreading the word. Of course, don't become too obsessed with your film and too proud of yourself that you go around bragging to everyone you see. Seriously, just don't. But that doesn't mean that you can't be happy that you've finally completed a film and shared it. Your story has been told. Your film is out in the world. And so, you're done with your movie...
But this is only the beginning. If you really are passionate about filmmaking, you'll probably make another movie. And another. Each time you learn from your experience. If you don't think your movie turned out well, or it wasn't what you wanted, don't give up. I have made several short films I haven't liked very much. But I learned from them. That is very important. Learn from your mistakes. A failure is just a lesson (sometimes an unwanted, rather costly lesson, though). Making a film is hard. It takes a lot of work. But if it was easy, it probably wouldn't be good. Sure, it takes a lot of time and effort, but can be worth it.
And that's it for Making a Movie: The Basics. If you haven't read my other posts, including the first post in the Basics series (Writing a Novel: The Basics), go ahead! Well, I hope you learned a thing or two about filmmaking from this post. Maybe you'll try making your own movie. Who knows...