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.

Ever-increasing numbers of micro-budget filmmakers are likely to be obtaining equipment directly from merchants in China and Hong Kong. Gone are the days when such transactions relied on business contacts. Today, anyone can log in to their account with household name websites and find marketplace sellers who are based in China or Hong Kong. Choose a product, pay for it through the normal checkout, and a parcel from China or Hong Kong arrives a few weeks later.

But are there issues to be aware of? Well, we think there are plenty.

Why Buy Imported Film Equipment Direct From China?

Clearly, the big advantage is the price. You will see products, including the equipment you’d love to have on set, available for a significant discount on what you’d expect to pay. Paying less for each item can mean a bit left over to improve your film. More props, good costumes, a better set; the list goes on.

Buying through a website with a strong reputation can also provide protection. Amazon and eBay, for example, have clearly defined return and refund policies.

How Can You Tell If It’s A Trader From China or Hong Kong?

Reputable websites instruct their marketplace sellers to declare their location. So you will normally see on screen, very clearly, that the goods will be sent from China or Hong Kong. Estimated arrival times will generally show the three weeks or so the item will take to travel from abroad.

Unfortunately, as UK customers have picked up on the risks of using overseas suppliers, some merchants have reacted inappropriately. It is possible to be tricked by a trader who displays a Union Jack flag and states they are in the UK, when in fact they are located in China or Hong Kong.

Be careful to keep clicking or scrolling through all the trader’s available information. Their registered address will give you the information you need.

And look at the customer reviews, where complaints identify those traders misrepresenting their location. 

If you come across this sort of misrepresentation, flag it up with the website administrators. Their reputation relies on their marketplace sellers acting legally and responsibly; so clear breaches of the terms and conditions should be taken seriously.

Do I Have To Pay Import Duty From China?

When a piece of electronic equipment is brought into the UK, Value Added Tax (VAT) of 20% should be charged. All UK based sellers will have paid VAT and will charge it when they sell to you.

Many Chinese and Hong Kong traders using household name websites to sell their wares in the UK do not pay the VAT. Instead, they label the parcel as a ‘gift’.

It’s thought about £1billion a year in VAT is not paid because of this practice. That’s £1billion that can’t be spent on schools or hospitals. And, meanwhile, it’s killing the UK businesses who lost your custom because they work legally.

UK Customs officers have the right to check all parcels coming in. If they open yours and discover the ‘gift’ is an imported purchase, you will be asked to pay the 20% VAT bill. Then the delivery company will add a clearance fee on top.

The parcel won’t be released until you pay, so you get delayed receipt in addition to an unexpected bill.

How Long Does It Take To Ship From China?

This depends – and has a lot to do with the price you paid.

High-quality sellers will pay for items to be transported via air freight. Your parcel will be with you within three days, typically.

But the cheaper prices you see advertised reflect the cheaper and slower postage method. By sea and land, it can take three weeks for your parcel to arrive. Which for many people is fine. But if you’re a filmmaker you’ve probably ordered the item less than a week before all your cast and crew are gathering on set. 

My Item From China Hasn’t Arrived!

Large reputable retail websites set out their terms and conditions clearly. You will find the process by which you can report items that never arrive.

Unfortunately, some marketplace sellers know how to exploit these rules. They politely respond to complaints, using a variety of delaying tactics. Sometimes they say they will look into the problem and get back to you; sometimes they say they will look into it when the factory holidays are over; eventually, they say they will send a replacement item.

By the time you realize the replacement item hasn’t been sent either, you are out of time to claim a refund from the website.

How To Return Imported Goods To China

If you buy a product online and discover, when it arrives, that it is not as described, you are allowed to return it and receive a refund.

The same applies to electrical items which develop a fault within the guarantee period.

 Sellers from China and Hong Kong will almost certainly ask you to pay for the postage when you return an item. As you will want to keep a track of where your equipment is going to ensure it gets there, the postage costs can easily hit more than £20 for a small, lightweight item.

And once it reaches Chinese customs, there is a very real possibility that your equipment will never see daylight again.

The Chinese customs team will not merrily wave your parcel through and allow it to reach the retailer for repairs. Instead, they will impound the parcel until the necessary duties have been paid. You will be officially informed of this. But because the import duties are so high for electronic equipment the bill would be another significant hit. You would also incur payment costs for the currency conversion transaction.

And, of course, all these costs are required just to get the equipment to the retailer, in the hope they do receive it and then repair it.

How To Buy From China And Hong Kong Without Tears

It is possible to buy products from Chinese marketplace sellers cheaply on reputable websites. But it isn’t as safe as you might expect, so consider the risks carefully.

Firstly, don’t spend more than you can afford to lose. If you are taking out a loan or using the last of your savings to purchase the item, don’t take risks. Pay the extra to get exactly what you need locally and with the guarantee provided under UK retail law. Only buy from abroad online if the expenditure is small.

Make sure the product and the marketplace seller have plenty of reviews, which look genuine. If the reviews are all written in stilted English, there is a risk they were written by the marketplace seller’s contacts. Where few reviews are present, perhaps the trader is new; or they may have just abandoned a previous account which was riddled with complaints. Whenever you see reviews which give you pause, walk away.

If the product doesn’t arrive, move quickly to claim a refund. The retailer will be playing a waiting game; don’t let them. Ignore polite messages asking you to wait and kick up a fuss with the website who hosts their account.

If the product arrives but is faulty or later goes wrong, prepare to write it off to experience. The costs of postage, customs and currency conversions added to the value of your time may make repair and replacement a frustrating waste of money.

At the end of the day, you are buying items to make your film. Don’t let the promise of a small discount get in the way of that.

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

In March 2017 London Casting Director Sue Odell was looking for a group of actors for a fun shoot. Presumably, every one of the actors submitted in response to Sue’s brief was someone who wants to work as an actor. The money on offer would have come in very handy. Along with the experience, the credit and the chance to make some great contacts too.

Sue would have looked at hundreds, if not thousands, of applicants. Like all casting directors, she would have chosen a very small number to invite in for an audition.

When the audition slots were notified to the actors, the sensible ones rearranged work and family commitments, organised their travel and worked out where they were going. They looked at their wardrobe for a sensible outfit. They tried to prepare mentally and physically for the audition. Perhaps they even googled Sue Odell, and were pleased that they had been invited to see an important casting director.

They understood that this audition offered them the chance of a job. Moreover, it offered a step along the way of a very difficult and treacherous career path. So they turned up as required, did the best audition performance they could, and then hoped for the best.

Amazingly, thirteen people did not turn up.


Only Those Who Turn Up Can Win The Work

WHAT were the thirteen no-shows thinking? They’ve not only shrugged their shoulders at the chance of some decently paid work but have effectively blacklisted themselves from at least one casting director’s future projects. The casting director’s client expects to receive the full array of suggestions, so the day’s work becomes more difficult.  The agent will certainly be receiving a message to drop the unreliable actor. And word gets around between the casting directors.

Those no-shows have therefore chosen to write off their careers.

Originally, five actors were going to be cast. Presumably, because the people who did turn up were so good, six got hired. They understood the importance of turning up and therefore got a great reward.

The really sad thing is, look through the Twitter feed of any major casting director working on commercials, and you will see the same story repeated again and again.

Actors Frequently Don’t Turn Up For An Unpaid Shoot

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. 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.

Find out more about finding – or becoming – 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.

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

Remember copyright issues.

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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