How to Make a Short Film with No Budget (and Questionable Talent)

Let’s suppose a few things. First, you want to make short films (or want to read an article about the process). Let us further assume that you are in your teens or early twenties and more than a little lacking in money to spend on this new endeavor. Finally, we assume that you have at least a halfway respectable computer and, more importantly, a digital camcorder or respectable smartphone (possibly purchased as a graduation or Christmas present).

As long as you have the camcorder, you can make and—yes—even “edit” a film. The computer enables you to actually do something with your creation, which probably means putting it online. It is also necessary for real editing, the benefits of which will soon be revealed.

Before we get into the details, an observation of a philosophical nature is required. Many people have spent tens of millions of dollars on feature films. They may have spent years in the process, hired talented actors and worked many long hours on the script and production plans. Despite all of this effort, more than a few people have managed to completely bungle it all and produce nothing but an unwatchable train wreck of financial ruin and audience-repellant garbage. And these people are professionals! As long as your movie does not lose millions of dollars, you’ve already made something more successful than The Last Action Hero. Just keep that in mind.

The first step to making your short film is to come up with the story. Remember, as a filmmaker you are telling a story; make sure you have one to tell. You could try to tell a serious story, but our experience tells us not to. It’s like this: you have no budget and probably are not working with world-class talent. Audiences are discriminating these days. It’s not like back in the days of “nickelodeons” when someone could just ride a unicycle to jazz music and people would clap (though I still might). You’ve got competition now. Leave the weighty material to people with honorary titles of knighthood, or at least the requisite skills. If you’re like us, you should aim low, so it’s easy to hit the mark. In short, you should make a comedy. Your glaring lack of talent will serve only to further the humor.

For our first short film, I merely looked around the room before eyeing a roll of quarters. The result was “When Rolled Coins Attack.” You may choose to put in a little more creative effort. This stage of the filmmaking is made far easier if you have another person to brainstorm with. You can bounce ideas off each other (be careful; ideas can hurt). When you find yourself saying, “That’s absurd,” you’ll know you’re on the right track. It would also be prudent, at this point, to start using a spiral notebook to keep your ideas in. Make character lists and write down any funny lines that pop in your head. I also heartily recommend the use of storyboards. For the uninitiated (that’s you), those are essentially just like comic books. Sketch out any key action sequences.

If you’re this far in the process, you probably already need to know your cast. Ask your friends for help. You need not restrict yourself to just the most outgoing, either. That seemingly meek friend of yours might even be willing to discuss masturbation on film. Just leave out any plans about releasing it on the internet. She might not like that part. Once you know who is going to be involved, it’s easier to plan the parts. You might also want to enlist your friends to help create their own characters.

I should also take the opportunity to inform you that you need not limit your roles to the number of people you actually have. In our first film, we had three actors for six speaking roles, plus three non-speaking roles (two of which were just quarter rolls). Our best use of the same person for two roles was Fiona’s Rona/Mona fight in “Mercenary Alpha Force.” You probably didn’t realize that you could have a fight with only one actor (at least without any computer effects). You were wrong (unless you did think it possible, in which case you were right!). With quick costume changes, and first-person perspective camera shots, it’s surprisingly easy to have someone fight his or her evil twin. We did end up using a body double (a very unbelievable me) for one very brief shot of Rona hitting Mona. We felt it necessary to see her, at least once, actually hit a distinctly separate person. The benefit of computer editing is that we were able to film the same shot several times, and then simply chose the one that showed the least of me. Was it perfect? No, but it got the job done. Had we done a few more takes, we probably could have got one that looked really authentic. But we pride ourselves on our low production values. It’s part of the charm; embrace it.

Once you’ve got everything planned out, it’s time to start filming. Make sure that your camera is fully charged and that you have plenty of free storage. Feel free to film your movie in any sequence you desire (you’ll put it together later in what’s known in the biz as non-linear editing), but keep a few things in mind. Since you don’t have a budget, any lighting is either going to be natural, or coming out of light bulbs in the 40–60 Watt range. Such bulbs may be fine for normal living, but they don’t result in the best picture. There might not be much you can do about that, but it’s something to think about. If at all possible, film during the day; the sun provides great light, and it doesn’t cost a thing! Also, always try to film with the light source behind the camera. Otherwise, you end up with silhouettes, and this isn’t an iPod commercial.

If you are following the instructions so far, you’re filming some ridiculous comedy with a group of friends. This means everyone involved should be laughing hysterically at times—perhaps so much that it is hard to film. That’s okay. If a person keeps laughing halfway through his line, keep the camera rolling and just do the scene over and over again, immediately. You’re bound to get one decent take, and as an added bonus, you’ll have great blooper material. If the line is long, and the person really just can’t get through it without laughing, try breaking it up. Film as much as you can, cut to a different camera angle as the person takes a fresh breath and hurries through the rest of the line.

So now you’ve got your masterpiece filmed and it’s time for editing. This is where you really make the movie; it’s crucial. If you don’t have a computer to edit this on (or you have a computer but not the right cables, or a big enough hard drive), then you’re stuck with a modified way of filming. You simply film everything in order. If the scene works, great, move on. If not, you have to rewind back to the beginning of the scene (or wherever it when horribly awry) and film over. Obviously, such a technique is not preferable. You lose your valuable bloopers, and you risk accidentally recording over a good scene (as happened with my second death scene in “When Rolled Coins Attack”).

But let’s go back to the assumption that you have a decent computer. Hook up the camera and import the video. Keep in mind that you will require an enormous amount of space for these videos. Five minutes of 720 by 480 DV will take up over one GB of your hard drive (and that’s not even HD). That stuff adds up fast, especially if you don’t have a lot of free space available. From this point on, editing varies quite a bit, depending on what program you use to edit. If you have a new Mac, you’re more than set with excellent video editing software. Just look for iMovie. If, gods forbid, you’re running Windows XP, you have the not-so-excellent but still workable Windows Movie Maker. It’s buried in the “Entertainment” folder in the “Accessories” folder. No, really. If you’re running a newer version of Windows then you’re on your own. I switched to the Mac, so I have no idea what the current situation is. Godspeed.

Be bold in your editing. Is that scene with the guy running by in the chicken suit really adding to your film? I know it may have been difficult to get, but sacrifices must be made. Your finished product should be no more than ten minutes long. Why? Because few people will invest more time than that in watching it. So hack away at that raw footage: trim and cut scenes, change up the order, have fun! If, in putting it together, you realize you made a mistake in filming, such as forgetting to say a line, or saying the wrong thing, all hope is not lost. You have three possible ways to fix it. The easiest fix is simply adding a subtitle. These can be helpful anyway, but are especially so if you didn’t provide a sufficient introduction within the scene itself. These are great to account for an abrupt change in location. If the situation is more severe, and you have a microphone, you may be able to edit in a bit of off-screen dialogue, or even dub over a misspoken line. If the error is truly tragic, you have no solution other than to pull out the camera and film again. Don’t feel bad though, the pros do this all the time; they are called “pickups.”

So you’ve finally got your film edited. At this point, you should add a title sequence and closing credits. Both are absolutely crucial. People need to see the name in the beginning (and the end), and the most certainly need to see your name in big letters in the closing credits. However, make sure that people actually watch your closing credits. How often do you watch the credits of a movie? Perhaps a few seconds, but that’s normally it, unless you’re waiting to see who sang something, which is always at the end, and you know you don’t pay attention to the stuff between the cast and the music. This leads us to the other way to make people watch your credits: music. An original song plays in the background during the credits to our film “Mercenary Alpha Force.” It’s truly horrible—a cacophonous assault on the ears—but I think it’s funny.

Now the most important step: getting people to watch your film. I’ve had to edit this paragraph considerably since the original version. When I wrote this originally, YouTube had been founded only months prior. But real artists don’t use YouTube; they use Vimeo. So just put it on there. Then bombard your friends with links to it using Facebook and Twitter. With any luck someone famous will tweet about it and you’ll be a star!

Originally posted January 2006, updated 2012.