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Film as a Major Work (Getting a Band 6)

By Susie Dodds in HSC
7th of January 2019
band 6 film

Are you a budding director? Are you interested in cinematography or editing? Did you just get a nifty camera for your birthday, and want to put it to good use? Then you are probably considering making a short film for your Drama, Visual Arts or English Extension 2 Major Work.

Well slow down Scorsese – before you commit to this incredibly rewarding, but also difficult and time consuming project, I think we should have a chat. In no way do I want to scare you, or even necessarily dissuade you from making a short film, but you should be fully aware of the realities of creating one in year 12 before you commit to it, because it is NOT easy.

I studied Drama in year 12, and for my major work, I created a short film titled ‘The Black Sheep’ (which you can watch here)! According to my raw marks report (yes, I was crazy enough to buy them), my film received 95%. Today, I am studying a Bachelor of Communications: Media Arts and Production at UTS. Here is everything that I have learned from my experiences.

Should you make a short film?

This is obviously the first thing you need to decide. The truth is, the short film is probably the hardest of all the options. I can hear all the actors, sculptors, and novelists getting out their pitchforks, but hear me out.

There is no such thing as an “easy” major work, and all options present their own unique challenges and obstacles. However, if you’re writing a short story, it’s not like your pen and paper can suddenly catch a cold and be unable to attend the writing session you had been planning for weeks.

There are three significant things that sets the film apart from the other options, and make it a particularly difficult project;

  1. You are dependent on other people– if even one of your cast members can’t make it to a shoot, that can set your project back by weeks. Even if you have been doing EVERYTHING right – flu season could put a damper on things.
  1. The workload is pretty insane– Creating a film is like doing lots of different major works, but only getting the credit for one. You’ve got to script it, organise it, shoot it, re-shoot it (after the inevitable failure of the first shoot), create a soundtrack, edit it – you get the idea.
  1. It’s expensive– The equipment alone can set you back $1000+ if you have to buy it all from scratch, plus you’ve got to think about buying costumes, props, catering for the cast, potential location fees, etc. The cost of a short film can very quickly get out of hand, especially if your only source of income is a weekend job.

This is not a project for someone with a casual interest in film production. If when looking at the options, the only thing that crossed your mind was “hmm, that could be fun”, then PLEASE, do NOT do a film for your major work.

However, if film is something that you are passionate about, maybe have a bit of experience in, or even want to pursue in the future, then despite its challenges – taking on this project will be worth it. If you want to go to a film school, like AFTRS, you may need to submit some past work, in which case, you could kill to birds with one stone – your HSC and your uni applications!

Still here? Cool! Now let’s have a chat about how you actually go about creating this thing!

Coming up with your story 

I’d say this is probably the hardest part, but we haven’t got to working with actors yet (only half kidding). At the end of the day I can’t tell you what to write about – that’s up to you and your imagination – but there are some things that I CAN tell you to consider while brainstorming.

  • Have a message– Now I know a lot of the blockbusters we watch seem like they’re devoid of any meaning beyond stuffing the pockets of big Hollywood executives, but those films aren’t being marked by HSC examiners. Yours is, and they want your short film to have something to say. Think about causes, issues or themes that you are interested in. For example, my film dealt with the struggle between conformity and individuality.
  • Remember your audience – The markers have probably watched about 20 teen angst short films before they got to yours – don’t make it 21. As much as those themes relate to you and your age group, they’re probably not as relatable to your middle aged marker. This doesn’t mean you need to avoid topics related to high school or being a teenager altogether, or that you should instead try and write a period piece (is that what old people watch?), but if you do so, make sure you still have that universal message that we mentioned earlier!
  • Keep it simple– This is NOT the time for elaborate twenty-person fight sequences, crazy stunts, or insane stage effects. You don’t have the time, or the resources. Don’t set yourself up for failure by writing something that will be impossible to shoot.
  • As small a cast as possible– Kind of along the same line as the previous point, but you want to limit the size of your cast as much as you can. Limiting your cast, is limiting the amount of people you depend on. For my film, I had a HUGE cast, and it was one of the hardest things to manage, and caused a lot of grief. The hard reality is that no one cares about your film as much as you do, and if they get a better offer (especially if they’re in a “small” role), they’ll probably take it.
  • Adopt a style – Remember how I said to consider your audience? Well there’s no better way to do that than to adopt a theatrical or cinematic style (especially if they’re drama teachers)! Rather than just sticking with the typical realism, consider adopting something else, for example surrealism, or magical realism (this was what I did), and using the conventions of that style in your storytelling (and cinematography/set design/editing, etc. etc!). You can also find inspiration from famous directors with a unique style, like Tim Burton or Tarantino – as long as you acknowledge this inspiration and the film is still your own, this is a great way of the demonstrating depth of research that went into your project.

Pre-Production – Scripting, Casting and Organising

So, you have your idea. Now how are you going to execute it?

It’s very easy to want to jump straight into filming, but make sure you give yourself enough time to properly plan everything, and I mean EVERYTHING. In my opinion, you need at LEAST a term (or a summer holiday!) for pre-production. Pre-production includes a variety of things, all of which take time to perfect.

  • Scripting– This is probably the largest and most important pre-production task. It’s so big, that many people will write a script for their major work, and leave it at that! To make it easier, I recommend downloading scriptwriting software to help with formatting. Celtx is a great option for students, as it’s free, easy to use, and has some helpful add-on’s like character/cast catalogues that can make pre-production a lot easier. When writing the script, remember that roughly one page equals a minute of screen time.
  • Storyboarding and creating a shot list– A lot of people ignore this step and plan to wing it on the day. Don’t be one of these people. Yes, on the shoot day it is fine to try out new things, but you still want to go in with a general plan of what you want to get. It doesn’t need to be crazy detailed, stick figures will do.
  • Casting – Casting is a very tricky thing, but it is important. Though the markers aren’t going to mark you down if your actors are not, to put it nicely, “Oscar-worthy”, if they are really bad, it is going to reflect poorly on your directing, and can also be quite distracting for the audience. Don’t give anyone a part until you know for sure they are right for it, either by holding auditions, or requesting show reels. If you’re struggling to find a cast, consider contacting local theatre groups, or university theatre societies – they may be able to recommend some actors to get in contact with. As I said before, keep the cast to a minimum, preferably no more than five people.
  • Costumes and Props – Though they may be an after-thought for many of you, costumes and props are another way that you can draw out symbolism and meaning. Consider the colours, quantity, style and shape, and what it contributes to the dramatic meaning of your film. At the same time, remember that you will have to be able to locate and afford everything on this list, so Versace wedding dress, though beautiful and symbolic, might be off the cards. Especially because,where possible, you want to have two copies of all important costumes. You’ll understand why when your actor accidentally spills coffee down his shirt mid-shoot.
  • Locations – This is another important aspect of the film that you can use to further the dramatic meaning of your story. However, there is a lot that you need to consider when it comes to selecting a location.
    • Distance and Accessibility – How far away is it, and how easy will it be for you, your equipment, and your cast to get there? If it is far away, you will probably be expected to organise and/or pay for your casts transportation.
    • How busy is the area? – Are there likely to be lots of people going in and out of the area? Not only is this disruptive, but it is also a continuity nightmare.
    • Budget – For many locations, you will have to pay to film there – can you afford this?
    • Indoors or Outdoors – Though outdoor shoots may seem appealing due to natural lighting, you’ve not only got to navigate the weather, but also the movements of the sun – if you film one shot at 10am, and the next one at 1pm, they’ll look very different, and cause continuity issues. However, shooting indoors can mean that you need to consider investing in a lighting set up, as there will be less natural light. The less light there is in an area, the grainer the picture will come out (I learned this the hard way – see Figure 1 and 2).

Figure 1: Using indoor lighting, without a lighting set up resulted in my final shot appearing grainy

Figure 1

Figure 2: Using natural lighting from outdoors, the shot is sharper.

  • Noise – You do not want to film in a noisy location. This doesn’t just include people noises, but also such small things as an air conditioner. Air conditioners are the bane of any film students life, the rumbly sound that they make, though easy to ignore in everyday life, can be overpowering when on screen, and it is very difficult to get rid of in editing.
  • Legal issues – It goes without saying, but make sure that you’re not breaking any trespassing laws, or damaging the area with your film equipment.
  • Scheduling – A shoot schedule is very important, not only for you, but also for your actors. Make sure that you give yourself enough time to get everything done. A single day shoot may seem tempting, but it is (probably) not realistic, so don’t promise that to your actors. A schedule is more than just deciding which days to film on, you want to be super specific and outline what shots are being filmed and when during the day (so you know when you need specific actors, to prevent them from having to wait around all day for their scene). Remember that you don’t need to film in order – be strategic about what shots you film, grouping them together based on; location, costume, which actors are needed, time of day, etc. etc. Also, make sure that you give yourself enough time between the first shoot and when you need to start editing – you will probably have to schedule at least one re-shoot (probably more – That’s show business!)
  • Equipment – The markers aren’t marking you on whether or not you have the most expensive camera or sound equipment, in fact, it is possible to film some really great shots on an iPhone, or record high quality audio using the mic on your apple headphones! However, there are a few things that you will need;
    • Camera – As I mentioned before, this can be your phone, but most prefer to use a proper camera. Film cameras can be expensive, but you can find some good DSLR cameras that will do the trick! (I used a second hand Canon T2i).
    • Tripod/Stabilizers– Unless you are specifically going for a hand-held vibe, you don’t want the camera to be moving around all the time, so getting a good tripod or other stabilizing system is important.
    • Microphone– You don’t want to rely on the microphone from your camera. As I mentioned before you can use apple headphones for recording dialogue (just make sure you hide the wires), but you may want to invest in a proper film microphone (and possibly even a boom pole!)
    • Lighting – This does depend on where you are filming, but getting some lights and reflectors could really save a shot (especially if you are filming indoors). An over/under exposed shot is really noticeable.
    • Editing software – It’s a good idea to choose what editing software you plan on using as early as possible, so that you have enough time to practice with it before you jump into editing your final work. Some possible options include;
      • Adobe Premiere Pro– This is the industry standard (it’s what I use at uni), though it may be a bit tricky to learn if you’re a beginner. There is a 7-day free trial, but some schools have the adobe package, so you may be able to get the full thing for free through them!
      • Final Cut Pro – This is what I used for many major work. It’s not too hard to learn, as it is made by Apple, so it has a similar interface to iMovie, just with more features. However, it is quite expensive.
      • iMovie– Some may scoff, but iMovie is actually a pretty good editing software, especially for beginners. If you film doesn’t require a lot of crazy editing (i.e. it’s mainly just cuts), iMovie will work fine. Just avoid any pre-sets, especially title cards and sound effects.
      • Windows Movie Maker– No.

Production

Shoot time! Hopefully you followed all of my advice from above – unfortunately, you’re still probably going to run into problems. No matter how much you plan, it’s likely that something will go wrong – that’s the case even for major film sets! What is important here is that you are proactive, not reactive. If something goes wrong, rather than freaking out, try and keep a level head and work out a solution. This might mean postponing a scene, which can be frustrating, but if it means that the final product will be better, it is normally worth it.

Directing is a tricky thing to get a hang of, especially if you’re a nice person(which most people are). It can be really hard to tell someone that they are doing something wrong, and for girls especially, there tends to be the fear of acting “too bossy”. Just remember it is your job as the director to get the best possible scene out of your actors, and they know this – it’s not like you’re coming up to them randomly and telling them what to do, they’re trying to replicate YOUR vision. If you’re still worried about being mean, these sayings can work so that you can make sure that your comments are taken as constructive criticism and not as insults.

  • “I want to try that shot again, this time, can you try it like this…?”
  • “When I wrote this scene, I imagined it like this?”
  • “That was good! But I have a very particular vision in my head, let’s try it again, a bit more like this…”

When it comes to the camera work, make sure that you are familiar with the camera that you are using before getting on set (especially if you’re using a DSLR). It is very easy to make a mistake, as the viewfinder can be deceiving sometimes. Make sure you are familiar with the following; aperture, shutter speed, IOS, white balance, etc. An overexposed image is very difficult to fix in post-production.

Post-Production

Finally! We’re on the home stretch, how exciting. This is also probably the most relaxing part of making the film, because you are no longer dependent upon anyone else, just yourself! It’s just you, and your computer. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with the editing software that you plan on using before you get to this point.

How should you edit your film then? Well that’s up to you. However, there are a few things that I will suggest;

  • Use what you have at your disposal– if there is a cool effect that you can use, that will also add to the story, then give it a go! This will prove to the marker your proficiency with editing. For example, I learned how to create ‘masks’ in Final Cut Pro, which allowed me to drain the colour from certain parts of the shot, while leaving colour in others (see figure 3). It showed technical proficiency, while also contributing to the dramatic meaning of my film.

Figure 3: I used masks on Final Cut Pro to create this effect – draining the colour from my main character when she felt isolated and excluded.

  • That being said, don’t overdo it– don’t use special effects for special effects sake. Just because you can do it, doesn’t always mean you should. If it doesn’t contribute to the story, then it will probably just be distracting.
  • Colour grading – Don’t be afraid to mess around with the colours a little bit. Chances are, what you shot isn’t as vibrant (or possibly, as muted) as you would like it to be, so have a go at changing the saturation levels. Colour grading can also be a good way of fixing up mismatched colour schemes (for e.g. say you filmed with yellow light for one scene, then blue light for another).
  • Audio – Fun fact! Did you know that almost all audio to year in film (bar maybe the dialogue) is recorded in post-production? Foley sounds like rustling, footsteps, doors opening and closing, etc. are rarely ever filmed on set. If you want your audio to be at its best, you’ll probably have to do this as well. I mentioned before that you should avoid shooting in noisy areas right? Well chances are, there are some things you couldn’t avoid, and now you’re stuck with a weird grainy sound in the back of your shot. Unfortunately, this is really hard to get rid of in post-production – it is possible with Adobe Audition, but it’s almost too much work to try in my opinion. Instead, what you will probably have to do is re-record audio.
  • Soundtrack – A good soundtrack can really make or break a film. It adds (and can even change) the meaning and tone of scene, so it’s important that you get this right. Unless you are planning on publishing your work, you don’t have to worry too much about copyrighted music, however just copying and pasting the ‘Harry Potter’ soundtrack probably isn’t going to go down too well. There are a lot of websites online where you can buy royalty free music, like audiojungle.com, that sort the music not only according to instrument, but also according to what emotional category they fall under. This can be quite useful when trying to find the perfect soundtrack.

And there we have it! Everything that you need to know in order to get that Band 6 mark. Creating a short film is not for the fainthearted, but if you do decide to take this on, I can promise you that the feeling of accomplishment when you are done is definitely worth it. Good luck to everyone, and make sure to send us a link on the forums when you’re done – We’d love to see them!

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