Last Updated on February 13, 2021 by Tom Shu
So what’s the best way to make a movie that people will want to spend a little of their precious time watching?
There’s no easy answer, but what’s important to understand is that with the budget friendly camera technology available now, anyone is capable of making a movie.
In 2018, I had a crazy idea to pitch a documentary short film idea about the annual Matsu Festival in Beigang, Taiwan. Long story short, my proposal got accepted and it was the genesis of me quitting my corporate consulting job at a Fortune 500 company to pursue my career in filmmaking and photography.
Here are all the steps I took to make my documentary short film Spirit of Matsu and how you can use my learnings to make your film too.
Notes From the Field: as a heads up, this article is from my perspective of making a short documentary film. Even though some of this information might not apply to you if you’re filming a narrative, I still think you’ll find useful pieces of information.
Key Steps of Making a Movie:
- Figuring out equipment
- Creating your story outline and storyboarding
- Planning (includes location scouting and research)
- Production – (includes filming, capturing sounds in the field)
- Distributing the movie (includes film festivals and social media)
In reality, you don’t need the most expensive camera to create a beautiful, cinematic film.
I’d argue that a camera with a max budget of $1,500 is all you need.
If you don’t believe me, just do a quick YouTube search for cinematic iPhone films and you’ll find a large selection of amazing short films all shot on an iPhone.
My short film Spirit of Matsu is a good example of this too as I shot 95% of the short film with the Sony a6500.
Even though the camera was a “newer” model when I shot the film, it was not even close to the most expensive camera on the market with the best video specs.
What’s key to understand is how the camera will fit into your workflow and how it’ll allow you to execute your vision.
Mirrorless cameras are a good choice for most filmmakers starting as they give you more flexibility. For example:
- They have interchangeable lenses so you can change out lenses to get different looks at different focal lengths.
- There is a wide selection of cameras with larger sensor size options such as full-frame, APS-C, and Micro Four Thirds sensors. The bigger sensor will allow you to create a shallower depth of field for a more cinematic look and better low-light performance.
- There is a good variety of budget-friendly camera options. Here’s my full list of budget cameras specifically for filmmaking which includes some choices outside of mirrorless cameras too.
For those of you on an even tighter budget, one of my favorite all-in-one camera solutions is the DJI Pocket 2. It’s a tiny gimbal-stabilized camera that comes with some awesome frame rate options you don’t even find in more expensive mirrorless cameras.
Capturing Sound and Audio
Sound is one of the easiest places to mess up as most people will tolerate low-quality video footage, but not the audio. At the same time, since many filmmakers take shortcuts with their sound design it’s also one of the easiest places to separate yourself from the competition.
One of the quickest ways to improve your audio is to use an on-camera microphone like the Rode Video Micro. If you’re going to record people talking on camera, the Boya BY-M1 Lavalier Mic is another good choice too.
To get the best audio possible, you also might want to look into a field recorder like the Zoom H4N. These aren’t cheap, but they do an incredible job of capturing audio. It’s also one of the simplest ways to capture atmospheric sound on location, which will give your sound design another layer of depth.
For example, here is a sound clip from Spirit of Matsu. Notice the different layers of sound in this clip:
- Music track
- Sound of the monk chanting and ringing a bell
- Whooshing sound effect from a transition
- Sound of a crowd talking
Variable ND Filter
The variable ND filter is an important tool that will allow you to use wide apertures even in bright conditions. Shooting at wide apertures will give you a shallower depth of field and more cinematic looking footage.
Recording video is different from taking photos. You can’t just crank up the shutter speed to decrease the light being let in the camera when using wide apertures.
In filmmaking, there is a rule called the 180-degree rule which states that your shutter speed should be double the frame rate that you’re shooting in. Although you can break the rule, it’s still good guidance to follow as it’ll allow you to capture realistic motion blur that is similar to what the human eye sees.
Since your aperture and shutter speed will be fixed, the variable ND filter or an ND filter is the only way to block enough light to use a wide aperture in bright conditions.
If you need help finding a good variable ND filter, make sure to check out my Ultimate Guide about my 10 favorite variable ND filters.
Depending on how you plan to film, you might or might not need a tripod. If you plan to shoot most of your film handheld then you obviously don’t need a tripod. However, if you want to capture timelapses or need to keep the camera fixed in one position, the tripod is a necessary tool.
If you need help finding a good tripod, make sure to check out my Ultimate Guide about my 10 favorite travel tripods.
Even though the article is targeted towards lightweight tripods for traveling, they will still work well for filmmaking.
The 3 Steps in Making a Movie
There are 3 main stages to make a movie; pre-production, production, and post-production. Here are the most important parts of each stage of the movie-making process and how they can help you create your vision.
Creating Your Story
The first thing you’ll need to do is to figure out the story. Most importantly, you need to understand why you want to tell the story and why your audience should care about the story.
Nowadays, people have a nearly unlimited amount of content they can watch, so the question is why should they spend time watching your film?
If you can’t capture the audience’s attention within the first few seconds, they’ll quickly move on to the next piece of content that interests them.
Having a firm understanding of the “whys” of your film is like your North Star. It’ll help guide you when things get tough (trust me, they will) and will guide how you craft your story.
Here are some questions to ask yourself to help formulate your story:
- Is it possible and practical to make this into a film?
- Why should I care and why should the audience care about this story?
- Am I the best person to tell this story?
- Do you have the budget to make this film (both time and money)?
Why You Should Create a Proposal for Your Movie
From my personal experience of creating Spirit of Matsu, even if you’re not going to pitch your film to receive funding, I’d still recommend creating a proposal and act as if you were pitching your movie idea to a producer/investor.
The reason why I think this is important is that it’ll give you a much better understanding of the objectives of your film, expected results, and a plan to move forward.
It’ll also force you to nail down your budget, which will give you a better sense of what you can and can’t do during the production phase of the project.
Just in case you need it, here is the proposal I created for Spirit of Matsu.
Depending on the type of movie you’re creating you might need a script.
I’m not going to get into the details of how to create a script as I focus more on documentary-style filmmaking with a minimal narrative. However, here are some great resources that might help you get started:
- Aaron Sorkin Masterclass – for those of you who have the extra budget and want to learn from the best, Masterclass is an interesting option. As part of your subscription, you also get access to courses taught by David Lynch, Shonda Rhimes, Spike Lee, Martin Scorsese, and many others.
Storyboarding and Shot List
Once you have your story ready, it’s time to create a visual representation of what your film will look like.
Don’t skip this step!
A storyboard and shot list are important to make as it will help you visualize the different scenes in your movie and how you’ll organize the scenes to tell your story. It’ll also help you get a better understanding of your shot list and what types of shot compositions are absolutely necessary for your story.
If you can’t draw, don’t worry about it. A storyboard isn’t about how pretty your drawing is, it’s about having a way to visualize your story.
Just take a look at how my storyboard helped me capture the shots I wanted.
Notes From The Field: Shot List – the shot list is exactly as it sounds. It’s a shot-by-shot breakdown of all the specific shots you want to capture, the focal length of the lens, the movement of the camera, and any other notes. I found it easier to create the shot list after I created the storyboard, but just find what works for you. If you want an example of what a shot list looks like, here is the basic shot list that I created for Spirit of Matsu.
Planning for the Shoot – Location Scouting and Permits
Once you have your story figured out, it’s time to start planning for the production or filming phase of the project.
I know that you’re excited to just get out and shoot, but take the time to plan it right!
From my experience, the more time you can allocate to pre-production planning and scouting, the more successful your filming will go.
The best way to location scout is through a combination of digital and physical location scouting, historical research, and research into similar films created in the past.
Just be aware that for most locations, you’ll have to obtain permission or permits. You might also have to pay to film at a specific location too. You could do it “guerilla-style” without obtaining a permit, but I don’t think it’s worth the risk.
Digital Location Scouting
Before you get on location, it’s a good idea to do some reconnaissance online too. This is important as you can cover much more ground online than in person.
Scout the location using Google Earth, Google Images, and Instagram to get a good idea of what the location will look like at all times of the day.
You can also use an app like PhotoPills to get a sense of how the sun will move throughout the day which could impact the lighting of your filming location.
Notes From The Field: Make sure to save screenshots of any compositions that catch your eye online so you can reference them when you get on location. The reason is that many times a photograph of a specific composition will look entirely different when you see it in person.
After you have conducted research online, it’s time to get to the location in person for some in-person scouting. If at all possible, get to the location 1-2 days before the actual shoot to give yourself as much time as possible.
Some of the things you should look for during your location scout include:
- What does the location look like at different times of the day? Take note of the colors, light changes, and mood that you see at these different times of the day.
- Stop and soak in the sounds. Get an idea of what the atmospheric sounds in the location are like and how you can capture them or mitigate them if necessary.
- Get an idea of where and when you need to set up, especially if there’s an important scene you want to capture.
- Talk to the locals to get a better sense of the history and importance of the place you’ll be shooting in.
This might not be possible in many cases, however, in some cases, it might help. One way to avoid having to go through a permit process is if you can develop a relationship with a local organization that has ties to the location you’ll be shooting in.
For example, for Spirit of Matsu, I was introduced to a local Matsu chapter in Taipei. They then connected us to the leaders of Chaotian Gong Temple where the Matsu Festival was going to be held. After hearing about our plans to create the story, they were more than happy to help and gave us press passes so we could move freely throughout the event.
Without developing these relationships there would have been no way I could have created the short film that I did.
Other than scouting out the location, it’s also a good idea to do some historical research about the location you’ll be filming in or the story you’re trying to create. By having more historical context, you’ll be able to dig deeper into the story you’re trying to tell.
Now for the fun part. After all your hard work, it’s finally time to film your story.
The production phase of the project can be as simple or as complicated as your story needs it to be. For many of you starting, you’ll probably be in a similar situation as I was and only have a 1 or 2 person production crew.
That’s ok and don’t stress about the size of your crew.
As long as you think you have enough people to capture all the shots, then you’ll be ok.
Each of you will go about filming your movie differently and it’ll largely be based on your storyboard and shot list. What I will say is to make sure you capture wide shots to set the scene and mid-range and close up shots to keep your final edit visually interesting.
Other than that, here are 3 important lessons that I learned which might help you strategize how you produce your movie. As a note, these tips are geared towards those of you who will have a small production crew (think 1-3 people).
Lesson #1: Stick to Shooting a Single Location Together Instead of Splitting Off
I found it much easier to cover a single location together versus splitting off as it will allow you to capture the location from different angles. Here’s an example from Spirit of Matsu:
In this section of the film, you’re seeing the build-up inside Chaotian Gong Temple before the pilgrims exit the temple. Before the pilgrims exit and while they exit the temple, massive amounts of fireworks are being lit off. To film this section, I was inside the temple filming the pre-exit ceremonies and Melissa was on the roof of an adjacent building capturing the commotion outside the temple.
By focusing on this location together we were able to capture scenes from inside and outside the temple which gives a more well-rounded view of what was happening.
Lesson #2: Shoot the Same Location at Different Times of the Day
When you’re covering a live event like a festival you will be surprised at how many unique scenes can unfold from the same location. Here’s an example from Spirit of Matsu:
All these sections of the film were shot from the same location outside the temple. From my pre-production research, I knew that pilgrims would be going in and out of the temple throughout the day. So all I had to do was find a good spot and wait for the story to come to me instead of chasing the story.
By shooting the same location at different times of the day, I was not only more efficient, but it also gave me more footage to choose from to make the final edit.
Lesson #3: Block Out Time Specifically to Capture Field Recordings
Even though recording sound is not as fun as shooting a video, trust me when I say sound design is just as important or more important than the video you capture. Here’s another example of how I used field recordings in the film:
This sound clip takes place at the very beginning of the film and it was created with sound recordings all captured in one day. In it, you’ll hear a variety of different people talking about what the Matsu festival means to them in Taiwanese and Chinese.
In the background of the voices you’ll also hear a field recording of music from the festival. By having layers of authentic sounds in your audio track, you’ll be able to provide a more immersive experience for your audience.
Editing Your Movie
Organizing and editing your film can be the most daunting part of the entire process; at least it is for me. Even though each of you will find the best editing workflow which works for you, here is a good general process to follow:
- Organization of your files and file conversion (if needed).
- Rough Cut
- Final Cut
It’s the most boring part of the editing process, but make sure you spend time organizing all your clips (video and sound) before you start your edit.
This is also when you should convert your files to a different format if you need to (more on this below). The more organized you are, the faster your edit will come together.
The last thing you want to happen is for your editing flow to be thrown off because you have to spend time looking for certain clips you remember capturing.
Here are some tips on how to organize your footage in preparation for the rough cut.
- Have a dedicated hard drive that you edit from. For the dedicated editing hard drive, I like to use the LaCie 4TB Rugged RAID Pro. This hard drive is more expensive, but it’s fast and is still much cheaper than an SSD. If you need help picking out storage and editing hard drives, make sure to take a look at my Ultimate Guide to Hard Drives article.
- Go through all of your video clips (and sound clips if you’ve captured field audio) to get an idea of what you have. A fast way to do this is to scrub through the video files or play them back at a faster speed. This is also a good time to delete any video or sound clips you don’t need too.
- Organize your video footage by day and sound clips by the type of sound that was recorded.
- If you have a slower/older computer, one of the easiest ways to speed things up is to convert your video files to a ProRes codec to edit with. As a heads up, ProRes codecs are much larger so make sure you have the hard drive space.
All you’re trying to do with the rough cut is to lay out your clips on the editing timeline in the general order they will be in the final movie.
Once you have the general order of your clips it’ll make it easier for you to go in and add or remove clips where needed.
The key to the rough cut is to keep it at a high level and to ignore smaller changes or details. Remember, all you want to do is to get your clips in the right order. Don’t worry about anything else like the sound, transitions, color, timing of clips, etc.
The final cut is where everything comes together. After your final cut, your clips will be trimmed to the right length. Sound effects, field audio, and voice overs will be added and your footage will be color corrected and color graded.
Here are some tips to help you with your final cut:
- Be ruthless with your clips and trim away anything that’s not needed.
- After your final timeline has been put together, go over it again and again. Does the timing of your clips feel right? Do any clips in particular feel too long or too short?
- If you can get another person’s feedback, this is the place to do it too.
Again, sound design is where you can separate your movie from others and is how you can create an authentic and engrossing atmosphere for your film.
The key to great sound design is to layer sounds on top of each other as that is how sound is in the real world.
For example, when you’re walking outside, you’ll hear many different layers of sound. There’s the sound of cars passing by, birds chirping on a tree, people talking, and the sound of leaves rustling in the wind. Even if you’re sitting in a quiet room, there will be one form of white noise or another which is called room tone.
Using field recordings can provide the most authentic sounds. However, you’ll also need music and other sound effects that you weren’t able to capture in the field. Here is where I like to go for all my sounds:
- Music: I’m using Soundstripe right now but used Musicbed for the audio track in Spirit of Matsu
- Freesound.org: Is a site with a huge library of user generated royalty free sound recordings. I go here if I need a specific sound that I wasn’t able to capture in the field.
- Zoom H4N for field recordings
- PMSFX: A high-quality SFX library for unique movement sound effects that’s worth the purchase. I like to use these for my timelapse or hyperlapse shots.
Color Correcting and Color Grading
Honestly, I’m still not the best at color correcting and color grading my footage, so I can’t provide much guidance here. For the most part, I’ll shoot my footage in a flat profile, tweak each clip in the final cut and apply a LUT.
After buying and trying out countless different LUT packs, this is the only one I’m still using:
Distributing Your Movie
First off, congratulate yourself for finishing your film! Making a movie from start to finish is a daunting process that you should be extremely proud of.
Now that the movie is finished, it’s time to distribute it. It’s worth spending extra time on distribution strategy because if you don’t optimize how you distribute your movie, then no one will see it!
Other than the usual social media platforms there are also a few other routes you can take too.
Here are my key learnings from publishing Spirit of Matsu to the different social media platforms and getting it accepted into a film festival.
What Does Success Look Like?
First off, make sure to understand what success looks like to you.
Are you looking to receive a certain number of views?
Do you want to get your movie accepted into a film festival?
Are you looking to leverage this project into other filmmaking opportunities?
Your criteria for a successful distribution campaign will guide you in how to best publish your film.
YouTube is unique because it’s owned by Google and is a search tool. The cool thing is that even if you’re not established on YouTube, you still have a chance to get seen by a lot of people.
The key is to find unique keywords that can be associated with your film and to use the power of YouTube’s search functionality to bring people to your film.
For example, the reason why Spirit of Matsu has over 60k views on YouTube is that its ranking for the primary keyword “Sony a6500 Sigma 16mm”.
In other words, people are watching the film because they are searching for a cinematic video shot with the Sony a6500 and Sigma 16mm lens; not because it’s a cool video.
Instagram is different because it’s not primarily a search tool and how broad your content reaches depends on its algorithm.
A person’s mindset when using Instagram is passive, so you’ll have to do an even better job of catching a someone’s attention in the first couple of seconds. To give yourself the best chance on Instagram, you should do the following:
- Instagram’s audience is looking for bite-sized pieces of content, so break your film out into 15-30 second chunks of content.
- Optimize your video for Instagram in-feed posts, stories, and reels. This means your video should be exported in a 4:5 ratio for in-feed posts and 9:16 for Instagram Stories and Instagram Reels
- Export your video in 1080p resolution.
- For Instagram Reels, use meme cards on top of your video to let the user know what they’re about to see.
Facebook is similar to Instagram in that it’s not primarily used as a search tool and the audience is mostly looking for short-form content.
One noticeable difference is that Facebook relies more heavily on shares and likes as the content will be shown to the friends of people who have shared or liked it.
This means if you’re able to get your friends and family to like and share your content when you publish it, you might be able to get enough momentum for it to be seen by thousands of people.
Here are some additional tips to help you optimize for Facebook.
- Optimize your video for Facebook in-feed posts. If you know your audience primarily uses Facebook on a desktop computer then the video ratio should be 16:9 landscape. On the other hand, if your audience is mainly viewing Facebook on mobile, then use a 9:16 portrait ratio.
- Export your video in 1080p resolution.
- Get as many of your friends and family to like and share your movie once you share it.
FilmFreeway is one of the easiest and best ways to find and submit your movie to film festivals. If you’ve never heard of FilmFreeway before, it’s an online platform that allows you to search and submit your work to small and well-known film festivals around the world.
The process is very simple. All you have to do is create an account, set up a project describing your film, find a festival, and submit.
Just note there is an application fee for each film festival submission, so it’s a smart idea to only apply to festivals you’re interested in and ones you think you have a chance of being accepted in to.
Other Film Curation Websites
Short of the Week is especially cool because if your film is selected, they will partner with you to strategize and tailor a launch strategy to get your film out to as many people as possible.