Make A Short Film: 25 Essential Steps

Want to make a short film? This simple list should help you avoid those little mistakes which can have a big impact on your project.


You Can Easily Break The Law

Many students filmmakers are told to independently create a short film but with little guidance about the crucial steps to follow. It can lead to a lot of simple mistakes that spoil the end result or make the filming process a miserable experience for everyone involved.

Novice filmmakers follow their passion with even less guidance and none of the insurance cover student filmmakers enjoy. Accidents do happen on set so you must prepare for the worst case scenario.

Furthermore, there are legal considerations affecting the safety and privacy rights of everyone involved, and not just your cast and crew.

Passing pedestrians who were accidentally filmed in the background of one of your scenes can legally force you to delete that scene from any public view. You must obtain copyright permission for every protected element included in your film. Therefore check everything from your short film’s music and script right through to the books and vinyl record sleeves sitting in the scene background. An actor who trips on a wire and breaks a leg can seek compensation and report you for unsafe working practices. Child actors and teenage actors who have yet to take their GCSE exams are subject to very particular child protection rules that affect all individuals on set.

And yet every year thousands of filmmakers start filming without any idea about the planning, their responsibilities or the destination of the completed project.

25 Essential Steps To Creating A Successful Short Film

1. A Decent Script Or Documentary Idea

From the beginning, think through the implications of budget, set, actors, prop and travel requirements.

If you can’t do that, start writing drama for podcasts instead!

2. Funding

Patreon and Crowdfunder are useful ways for friends and family to support you, even though a percentage does get deducted.

Volunteer actors can be happy to support a project which gives them showreel – think this through. (Though most student films don’t get completed which is just stupid.)

3. Film Insurance

Seriously, don’t overlook this because an accident could lead to fines, lawsuits, and even health and safety prosecution.

If you’re a student, your course will probably cover you. But check the limits of your insurance.

4. Storyboard

If you’re making films, you should be WATCHING films all the time. Work out the shots and scenes you like, work out why you like them and how to achieve them.

Then when you storyboard, you can incorporate them.

But you storyboard should take some time. It’s where you can make mistakes and work out the weak points.

Once you’re happy, you can start planning what you need for every one of those shots, and how to schedule them.

5. Schedule

Your schedule should co-ordinate every aspect of filming. You need to know what equipment, people, space and items are needed on each day, and for how long.

Everyone involved must know too. So prepare your documents in a way that relevant sections can be sent to actors, extras, and anyone lending you their possessions or home.

6. Equipment

Cameras, Tripod, Lighting, Sound, and Clapperboard at the bare minimum. Ideally, borrow what you can. Hire items you’ll only need occasionally. Otherwise, you’ll have to look carefully at your buying options.

Before you make an online purchase, check out our article about buying direct from China.

7. Set Location

If you’re going to film in someone’s home, ask them to check their insurance in advance.

Public spaces usually require official permission from the local Council or the landowner. If you arrive in a busy city centre for filming without permission, expect the police to move you on.

8. Transport Arrangements

Often forgotten, but how are ALL the people and items you need going to get there? You can’t just sort it out as you’re going out the door.

9. Crew

It’s easy to find volunteers from friends and Facebook Filmmaking Groups. Finding sensible, skilled and reliable ones is a different matter.

10. Actors

Use Casting Websites or Facebook Filmmaking Groups, depending on your budget.

In addition to assessing an individual’s talent, take care to measure their reliability.

Actors Can Be Unreliable Even For Paid Work

Last year we were progressing well on a microbudget shoot. Everyone on the project was unpaid because it was not commercially funded and no one will make money from the short film. But we were hoping it would do well in film festivals and give everyone involved some good showreel. 

Crowdsourced finances are always tight so planning had been precise. The location premises had been secured. Equipment worth thousands of pounds, some of it borrowed, was ready. A full cast and crew were raring to go. So we knew everything was in place. Or so we thought.

One of the actors texted the producer at 9.30pm with some flimsy excuse as to why they were no longer coming at 7 am the next morning.

Luckily the producer was incredibly efficient with an amazing film network in place. An aspiring actor jumped at the unexpected chance just before 10.30pm. It was a great day of filming. The replacement enjoyed their very first shoot. In addition to the experience, they earned an IMDb credit and showreel.

The dropout had expressed a real passion for becoming an actor and was applying to acting agencies. The role was unpaid, and that had not been a problem. The shoot dates were agreed. They understood the benefits and the obligations of the role. And they knew other people wanted that role. Yet they felt a text allowed them to leave everyone else in the lurch.


Same as for actors.

12. Set Props

Facebook nearly always helps with this. Just be reliable about picking the items up and returning them at the time and place you said. And don’t forget to take care of them!

13. Film Costume And Accessories

There are some truly talented costume designers trying to get started. Social media is also a great way to find people who randomly have small collections of police costumes, doctors coats, camouflage gear, etc.

Historic reenactment groups have fantastic costumes. but usually only for use by the owners. You can ask them to volunteer on set as long as you pay travel expenses, provide decent food and drink, film quickly and efficiently and remember to thank them and their group.

14. Hair & Make-Up Artists

Every student and micro-budget film needs someone to take care of the hair and makeup of everyone who will appear in focus on the screen. It is not just a specialism needed for horror films and big-budget productions.

You can ask friends, but they need to understand how skin tones look different on film to real life. “Less is more” has very real meaning when it comes to this form of artistry.

See: Film makeup artists are vital – and not just for horror!

See: How to become a film makeup artist

15. Child Actor Protection

Under 17s on set must be licensed in almost all scenarios. If you have a child actor, you must obtain a UK Child Performance Licence, a Licensed Chaperone & DBS Checks.

See: 10 Ways Filmmakers Endanger Kids On Set

16. Phone Numbers

You need every single person’s phone number to know what’s happening if they don’t arrive on time. Don’t rely on social media profiles or message apps, they are easy to ignore and often don’t connect if someone’s stuck in traffic.

In 2018, the lead role in one of our short films called in sick TWICE during filming. The second time happened when the crew was already preparing on location and the other actors were on their way.

And that’s in addition to the experience of flaky actors detailed in item 10 of this list.

You definitely need phone numbers to hand at all times.

17. Permission To Use Image

Every single person who will appear on screen must give you written permission. Otherwise, they can insist you take your short film off Youtube, for example, even if they were just a passerby in the background.

This can be tricky but you must be careful.

Remember the scene in Shaun of the Dead, where they flip vinyl records at the zombie girl in the garden? Permission was received from the copyright owners for every cover you see. Where permission was refused, the record was not used.

You have to do the same with DVDs, games, books, etc.

Equally, none of your characters can start quoting from their favourite book or film without you having obtained permission.

19. Food And Drinks

All actors and crew need food and drink. Can you get a relative to be on set making drinks?

Food preparation spaces for the public are supposed to be health checked by the local Council. Anyone preparing food for public consumption should have a health preparation certificate. It’s much easier to buy takeaway pizzas, a sandwich platter from a supermarket or provide a range of breads and fillings for people to make their own lunch.

20. Thank Everyone For Taking Part

Volunteers taking part seldom get thanked. But it’s an easy way to keep people feeling the love for your projects, and sharing the final result on social media.

21. Film Post Production Equipment

Most student filmmakers have access to great post-production equipment. Many colleges and universities consider requests to hire the equipment for specific blocks of time.

22. Film Music

Social media can be useful, but there are also websites dedicated to film music. Some of them even offer free tracks, as long as you give credit to the composer and performer. Paid tracks are often affordable.

Don’t use music from your DVD collection. It’s subject to copyright. Obtaining permission is sometimes possible – but will cost at least £1,000.

23. Sound Effects

Sound effects change the setting, atmosphere and perception of each scene.

See: ADR, Foley sounds, Rerecording and SFX sound effects.

Remember not to infringe copyright sounds, especially when using free resources.

24. IMDb

Very few short films get added to IMDb. But it’s easy to do, popular with the actors and crew taking part, and gives your profile a body of work which people can see when considering whether to volunteer with you in the future.

25. Getting Your Film Seen

Film Festivals, Youtube, Vimeo, DVDs, one-off screenings or – if you want to lose money – cinema distribution.

What Is Plan B?

And finally, it is also a great idea to have a Plan B for every eventuality. Because if there’s one thing that will happen on any set, it’s the unexpected. And when lack of money means you rely on the goodwill of others, a lot of unexpected things will happen.

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