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So, it’s time for your first big filmmaking assignment, and you have no idea where to start. Or, maybe you have some idea, but it’s intimidating, and you’d feel more comfortable reading up on some of the steps involved in making a student film. Well, I’m here to help, hopefully. I’ve been on many student film sets. But, disclaimer, I am straight out of film school and still far from being a professional. In any case, these tips have aided my own student filmmaking, so I hope they can help you too.
In this guide, I will discuss the process of pre-production on student films. What is pre-production? Well, it’s all the preparation that comes before you shoot your film. It is the starting point. This is where you lock down your script, determine the logistics of the shoot, and plan, plan, plan.
It may be self-explanatory, but filmmaking always starts with an idea. My advice (as I reflect on my own bad experiences): keep it simple. Simple stories are almost always the easiest to develop into a student film. As students with big dreams and small budgets, our resources are limited. So, our dreams might need to be taken down a peg for the time being. That’s not to say you shouldn’t go for the story you want to tell. Don’t limit your creativity. If you think you can accomplish it, go for it! But in my writing experience, I’ve found myself tangled in complex stories that I now see are messily written. Just try to keep it tight, somewhat understandable, and most importantly, filmable. After you’ve found your idea, write it out as a treatment. You can find treatment examples on StudioBinder if you've never written one. After you have a treatment, write it as a script. You can use free scriptwriting software like Celtx, Highland 2, and StudioBinder. Then have other people (probably your classmates) read your script. Then write a few more drafts of it until you have a final shooting script (though it will probably continue to change throughout the entire filmmaking process).
If you want to be the writer/director of your student film, you may have to pitch your idea to the class before you can get it greenlit. Pitching is hard. Film school is competitive, especially as writer/directors. And to top off the competition, you may have to conquer your fear of public speaking and become vulnerable in front of the entire class as you share the idea or script you’ve labored over with love. The trick is to be confident, which I know can be tough. But you have to try your best. Even if it’s impossible for you to project confidence (which I feel like it is for me), if your story and your passion for your story is great enough, you might just succeed anyway. Some tips for pitching: start with an anecdote, relate your idea to some of your favorite films (films your classmates would know), be detailed about your vision, have a killer logline, and summarize your story in a way that shows your passion.
Assemble Your Team
Your film is greenlit! Congrats! Now it’s time to assemble your team. Usually, in production classes, teams of writer/directors, producers, and directors of photography (DPs) form automatically or are assigned. The rest is up to you and your group. I suggest making a spreadsheet of the roles you absolutely need to fill. You’re going to want someone on sound, a lighting team, an art department, and so on. Think of the people you know within your film program that might be interested in helping out. Think of some of the people in your class that might be free when they’re not on their own sets. If there are any film clubs or organizations at your school, reach out to them. Do you know anyone who has an interest or specialty in the position you are looking to fill? Even better! Get people on board to help your set run efficiently when in production. But for now, in pre-production, you’ll mostly be working with your main team.
Not every student film needs crowdfunding, especially the smaller and simpler ones. But crowdfunding is typical on short films with more financial needs. A lot of students use platforms like Go Fund Me, Kickstarter, and Indiegogo to generate funding for their films. My advice for crowdfunding is to create a pitch video that introduces your team and the project you plan to create. Like in your pitch, you want to make sure that your idea is appealing. This time, you want to make sure it’s appealing enough to get people to want to spend their money on it. It is also nice if you can show your filmmaking skills within the pitch video. This will give the donors confidence in your ability to craft something worth watching. On your crowdfunding page, you might want to create incentives for each dollar amount the donor contributes. Get creative with it, but don’t wind up spending all the crowdfunding money on the incentives. Maybe $10 gets them a shoutout in the credits, $50 executive producer credit, $100 a BTS photo package. Your team will decide this, and the producer will most likely be the one to set this up. Make sure to market your crowdfunding page on social media. Create a Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter page for your film. Tell your grandma about it, send a link to your rich uncle. Just get the word out there so you can hit your funding target!
Once (or before) the money starts rolling in, the team–mainly the director and producer–should come together to decide on a budget plan. How much do you intend to spend as a whole? How much do you want to spend on art department needs? Extra equipment that your school doesn’t provide? How much on craft services and location rental? How much for miscellaneous materials like gaff tape and C-47s? Look to the future. How much do you want to spend on film festival submission fees? Make a spreadsheet of everything you intend to spend money on, and try your best to stick to the budget you set.
You’re going to need a place to shoot the film. Right? This may be as easy as a dorm room, your family home, or a nearby woods, but sometimes the places that are easiest to access aren’t the best fit for your film. I suggest looking on Airbnb for potential sites that might fit your vision. You could also look for places on campus that you might be able to book. You could post a call on social media to see if anyone knows of a location that features what you are looking for. Ask friends, family, co-workers. You may not find the exact setting that you had in mind, but you can find something close. And remember, your art department can transform the space into your vision.
If your film features characters (which it probably does) you’re going to need actors to bring those characters to life. You may want this to be simple. You can cast friends or family to assume the roles. But I tend to prefer student films that feature real actors. A great resource to find actors is Backstage. They usually have codes that allow student filmmakers to find actors for free. Ask your professor if they have a code you can use. If not, there are usually discounts. You can also make a casting call poster, listing the types of characters you are looking for and the dates and locations you are holding auditions. Put the casting calls up on social media or post them in your school’s theater department. It’s very helpful to have someone serve as a casting director. They will schedule auditions, book a room to host auditions in, contact the actors, create the sides the actors will read, run lines with actors, and help you decide on who you should think about casting. Make sure to bring a camera to auditions so you can look over the tapes afterward. If you want an extra audition from certain actors, you can always do callbacks!
Organization is the key to pre-production. You’re going to want to make sure you have everything planned out before you are officially on set. Map out your visuals with a storyboard. Your drawings do not have to be too fancy (take a look at Rian Johnson’s storyboard of Knives Out (2019), for instance). Just make sure that you have an idea for how you want to shoot your film. You can find free storyboard templates and examples at StudioBinder or just on Google Images. Along with the storyboard, the director will also want to collaborate with the DP on creating a shot list. Shot lists are basically a guide to the order you will shoot each shot/scene. They are absolute lifesavers. They save time and brainpower, so this is not a step to skip when you’re running a set for a short amount of time. You can find shot list templates at Boords.
Table Reads/Test Shoots
I think table reads, test shoots, and other rehearsal-type things are probably optional for student films. You don’t get too much time with the equipment or with the crew and actors who are most likely working for free. But, testing the waters before the big shoot is never a bad idea. Table reads can help you get a feel for how the actors will work together and how they will perform the roles written in the script. Test shoots will help you get a feel for your equipment, how you might organize your set, and how you might set up your shots. If you have the extra time for these, go for it!
There is honestly so much more to professional pre-production, and this list isn’t in exact order. There are things like shooting schedules and strip boards that you can also consider when preparing your production. But I think the steps listed above are the most important to a student-level film. Like I mentioned earlier, pre-production is all about planning and logistics. So, I also suggest having weekly production meetings with your main team to make sure that your plans are running smoothly. StudioBinder (which I’ve referenced here about a million times) is a great resource for pre-production planning. They have so many great templates and guides, so I suggest browsing everything they have to offer.
I know this all may look overwhelming, especially if you are only used to shooting scenes with your friends in a simple dorm room. But get excited! You get to make cool art with talented people! And production is just around the corner!