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Making a Short Film With Little to No Crew: Can It Be Done?

Filmmaking is a collaborative process, but what happens when you can’t collaborate? Is it still worth the effort?

Top image via Kotcheff & Leder

Why do we want to tell stories? The idea of entertaining through visual imagery has been around since the dawn of humankind. Some of us take to the written word, others need to express through images, be they still or moving. One of the more common (maybe even easiest) methods to bring a visual story to life is with a short film. Short being the key word. Vimeo and YouTube are inundated with short films each month, and a good majority of them tell a superb story given their short length.

Short films can often be a tiresome and thankless process. Grasping at whatever freebies you can attain, working at all hours for little or no pay, the list goes on. Filmmaking, of course, is a collaborative process, but what happens when you can’t collaborate? Perhaps it’s because of the location you live in. You may live in a rural town where there’s no other aspiring filmmakers or people interested in helping you. Or maybe you just don’t have the funds to hire people.

Shooting a short film for free when you’re younger is a lot easier than when you work with film or media. When you work in media, the people around you have their jobs because they’re good at what they do. You can’t expect them to give up their weekends for a cheap sandwich and a few cans of beer at the end of the shoot.

Alexandra Kotcheff and Hannah Leder Image via CinemaWomyn

If you want to make a short film, but for whatever reason can’t seem to get a crew assembled, what other options can you exhaust? What about making one by yourself? Or at least with a minimal crew of three to four people?

It sounds like a ridiculous notion, but two women are currently in the process of making a feature (and history) solely by themselves, and they are doing an excellent job at it. Alexandra Kotcheff and Hannah Leder are two filmmakers who successfully raised $27,561 on Kickstarter to fund their film, The Planters. Not just a short film, but a feature film!

To the best of our knowledge (and after much Googling), what we are doing here has never been done before. Two women, making a feature film, doing EVERYTHING (Writing, Directing, Cinematography, Sound, Costumes, Make-up, Props, Coffee, etc.have). We have heard of a few examples (very few) of a two-person crew making a narrative film. But none of those two primary crew members were ALSO starring in the film. The two of us are literally the only people who touch the equipment. And to the chagrin of one of our other actors, we won’t let him carry or help with anything on set. The purpose of this film is to make it ENTIRELY with our four hands and we won’t stop until this film has been seen by YOU!

I imagine there is a somewhat social stigma behind the idea of making a film without a crew. It does on the exterior seem like a frivolous exertion. However, when push comes to shove, it is on you to make your film happen.

I have been working on a short film with a minimal cast and crew, and while it has so far been a strenuous path, there are a few pointers I can offer those who are going to take the same journey. One of the most important aspects which will make or break this undertaking: Was your film written to cater specifically to a minimal crew, or are you trying to make a movie which realistically should be done by more than two people? A car chase between a thief and police officer in a city street? It’s not going to happen. A foot chase between a thief and a police officer in a forest? Very possible to achieve. Create to your limit.

Story

SCRIPTImage via Shutterstock

It’s incredibly hard to go into a challenging story with a limited crew. It’s easier to build the story from scratch and tailor to the needs of a small team. Fewer locations, fewer actors, less action, more character focused and with an emotion driven story. This is the premise for The Planters.

The Planters is a dark comedy set in a small, desert town. It’s a lonely place for lonely people like Martha Plant, a reclusive young woman, who spends her days telemarketing and “planting.” As a “planter,” Martha buries stolen items in the desert and receives donations in return from whoever digs them up — the “receiver.” Martha finds her world turned upside down when another woman, Sadie Mayflower, literally runs into her while on one of her “planting” excursions. When she discovers that Sadie is homeless, Martha takes her in. She quickly learns that Sadie has multiple personalities, and the ever solitary Martha begins to find three friends in one.

If this were the blurb for a review or the information on a cinema screening, you (as an audience member) would expect that the film isn’t going to be populated with hundreds of cast members on a bustling city street. It’s a great premise for a film that has a limited team as the story itself is limited in cast and locations.

Writing for a singular location is an essential element of making a short with a limited crew. Take a look at the short film below, Nothing about Nothing by Daniel Levi. Within the eight-minute duration of the short, we are only introduced to two characters. We don’t know who they are, nor their history, there is only handful of dialogue, and it all takes place in a single location.

Without the information that’s usually provided by a feature, you still become connected to the characters and the situation.  You come to wonder what the outcome of the situation will be. The credits do however list around twenty people in total made the film. With careful planning and logistical thinking, this could be done by a small cast and crew. It might not be as good, but you don’t know unless you try. These short films that take place in a singular location while focusing on the outcome of a situation are a great opportunity for a minimal crew.

Realistic Expectations

When you have finished writing the short, and you move toward the planning of the shoot, plan for practical and achievable results. Of course, try to push the boundaries — that’s what art is about. However, you need to accept early on that you’re not going to be able to do a lot of the cool stuff you would be able to do with a twelve-person crew, like a ten-foot tracking shot through the kitchen into the hallway. Ok, you might have the equipment, but not the manpower. If you’re acting as a director/cinematographer, are you also going to be able to delegate time to key grip duties?

Some of the best scenes in films and televisions have come from very basic shots, but the acting has captivated the audience enough that you don’t need a constant track or multiple angles. The scene below from Breaking Bad is arguably one of the most memorable scenes of the series — and it consists of only six stationary handheld shots.

Sound

In the feature film The Planters, Alexandra Kotcheff and Hannah Leder have opted for capturing sound with two Sennheiser 416 shotgun mics and lavalier microphones, which is fed into a SoundDevice 633 recorder. It’s a light setup, perfect for a small crew. However, what about the idea of removing an on-set sound altogether? This needs to be a decision that is made before you start writing your short. You won’t get very far if you have two characters having a conversation and you don’t have a microphone.

My own short film follows the last man on earth and his last few days before he dies, which leaves the human race all but extinct. On the fifth redraft, I decided to remove any dialogue and have the character remain speechless until one of the final scenes. I only have to worry about capturing audio for one day. This has helped the production process massively.

With the majority of films, most character movement, prop sounds, and sounds of the location are recreated in post-production by a foley artist. By removing the on-set sound recordist, it allowed us to work through problems that would have otherwise plagued the production.

The lead actor and I often joke about how much we wouldn’t have been able to complete if we had a sound recordist. Plane overhead? No problem. Keep on going. Construction site near? Yeah, we can keep recording. Now, of course, this is only going to work if your lead character doesn’t speak.

Inspiration for a short film with little to no dialogue:

Voice Over

There are some elements to a film which just have to be conveyed to the audience through voice. If you have no sound recordist, narration would be the next best thing.

Narration is quite widely looked down upon. Some film purists say that filmmakers use narration as an escape because they couldn’t figure out how to incorporate that information into the script. I like narration, and I very much stand by what Martin Sheen says in the video below.

You know, it’s often said that narration in film does not work. You know you talk to a studio head, and they say ‘no, no, you can’t narrate it [the film].’ Three of the best films ever made are narrated [he laughs] and people don’t even think about it… Apocalypse Now is narrated, Platoon is narrated, Citizen Kane is narrated.

Inspiration for a narrated short film:

Location

The core concept of making a short with a minimal crew is to isolate things that require extra hands and to remove those things. One obstacle would be far-away locations or locations out of your reach, such as an open floor office in a police station. That wouldn’t be an easy location to recreate. Look to keep your film set in natural areas such as the forest, meadows, the beach, the desert. Being away from convoluted areas will ease your mindset and production.

Inspiration for a short film set in the wilderness:

Visual Poetry

A poet needs nothing more than inspiration and a means to write down their thoughts. You too can make poetry as a filmmaker with a camera. Visual poetry can capture and evoke emotions without the need of having a narrative; it’s expressive filmmaking. Terrence Malick, love him or hate him (I love him), has made a career of visual poetry. Although admittedly, his films do somewhat contain a narrative. Filmmaker Salomon Ligthelm is a master of this genre in short form. His Vimeo is a treasure trove of inspiration. While these videos do not provide a story or character that you can relate to, his shorts make the audience feel something — and isn’t that the point of filmmaking?


The advice listed above focuses primarily on the undertakings required in pre-production. Here are some quick tips to take into account when making a film with limited people.

  • If you’re also acting in the short or are unable to be behind the camera after you’ve hit record, make sure you use a wide-angle lens with a wide aperture to keep the focus area as large as possible.
  • A monitor or flip screen is a must. You do not want to return to the camera to see that someone was out of focus, or it wasn’t framed correctly after someone moved.
  • Keep your scenes within the day time.
  • Limit your kit to three bags/cases.
  • Keep lighting simple. Stick to one light or just natural light. Here’s a handy guide from PremiumBeat for lighting without a budget.
  • Have fun with this. Don’t take it too seriously.

Do you have any other tips for making a film by yourself? Let us know the in the comments below.