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Tips for Mobile Movie Making

The hard realities of being really short...

The challenge every short filmmaker must face is how to affect an audience emotionally, say something, take the audience on a journey, all within a few minutes (Running times for short films vary, but a short is generally considered to be a film under 30 minutes, and for Mobile Stories we're limited to 3 minutes or less. That's a challenge!)

And let's not forget that short films for the Web are usually enjoyed on small laptop screens and cell phones, often with additional distractions while the audience of one sits in an airport lounge, or a cafe, or a subway car.

So what can you do to tailor your story to successfully work within this particular medium?

Keep your story small

One character with a single question is going to fit more comfortably in a short running time than an epic with many characters. If you do include a group of characters, they probably share the same problem or circumstance, though they might have different perspectives on it.

Start a scene late; end a scene early

This is actually a great rule to follow for all filmmaking, no matter what the length, but it's even more important in the short film. Try and move your scene as far into the "action" as possible, and get out as fast as possible. You don't have much time to tell your story! It also keeps the pace of the film moving along.

Keep the screen size in mind

Tiny things often don't translate well to tiny screens. Unlike the 30 foot screens at the multiplex, mobile shorts will probably be viewed on screens that are 3 to 12 inches wide. So expecting your audience to see or appreciate the tiny details in your images could be a mistake. Get the camera in closer to your actors'. Fill the screen with the most important elements of the image. That's not to say you can't include "long shots" but we have to know that the long shot is a showing person not a tiny fly in the distance. The same goes for titles. Make the font big enough to read on a small screen.

Lighting

Just like a good story, the most interesting lighting has contrast (that is, bright areas and darker areas in the same scene). Try to illuminate the most important elements in a scene, and let the less important elements either fall into shadow or at least not be brighter than the point of interest. Usually the most important thing is your actors' faces. So, generally, you want to be sure that your actors' faces are lit brightly enough to stand out from the rest of the scene, without over-exposing your image.

Sound

Almost without a doubt, the microphone that comes onboard your video camera just isn't very good. These days the picture quality of cameras is much better than the sound quality of onboard microphones. Plus, the onboard microphone will usually pick up the sound of the whirring camera and ruin your dialogue anyhow. You're going to get the best results by using an external microphone, and running it on a cable away from the camera. Figure out what sort of audio-inputs your camera has and research some options for an external microphone. And hey, if you really want good sound and don't want to buy additional equipment you can always rent. Most major cities have audio rental shops.

Keep it legal (music, logos and actors)

Music: You gotta stay legal here. Great music can make a good film better. But you have to have the rights to put that music in your film. There are all kinds of websites that sell excellent "royalty free" music (meaning you pay a small, flat fee and get to use the music in your films). Or you could approach musicians and online communities to try and find music to use in your film. You don't have to own the music, you just have to have the owner give you the right to use it. Get it in writing.

Logos: Speaking of staying legal, keep logos and labels out of your film. That means t-shirts with recognizable emblems, posters, CD covers, labels on food products. If someone is drinking from a can with a logo on it, you'd best cover it up or have it turned in such a way the audience can't read it. That's because almost every logo is trademarked, and you're not supposed to reproduce those trademarks in unauthorized media.

Actors and contributors: Finally, get a release from everyone involved creatively. You might all be best friends, but if your film turns out really well, you may be asked to show the paperwork to prove you had the rights to film those actors and use that script. Again, get it in writing. There are all kinds of examples online that show you what an actor release and a music release look like.

Editing

Don't own higher-end video editing software? Don't worry, there are other options. People have edited entire movies with a video camera and the free video editing software that comes with their home computer.

Even if you don't have a computer, you can still make a film. There is a technique known as "editing in-camera." That basically means you shoot your film in the same sequence as the story/script unfolds. There is no editing! Every time a scene ends, you stop recording and don't' start recording again until the next scene is ready to begin. It's a tricky technique because if a scene doesn't work, you can't do it a second time. The entire film has to be shot successfully in one go so it's complete and intact on the tape. But it means you work fast and you don't have to do any editing after the fact. For a 3 minute short you could probably run through the story several times in a day this way, and simply upload the version that worked best!

Low-budget production gear

Digital filmmakers are resourceful. There are all kinds of alternatives to expensive production gear. And we're talking cheap alternatives. Sometimes even free:

  • Lights: Try the hardware store. Or your dad's garage. Worklights are powerful and cheap too.
  • Dollies: To add those moving shots to your film, don't forget you can use anything with wheels, as long as you and/or your tripod can fit on it. A garden wagon. A wheelchair. A skateboard. Get creative.
  • Costumes/wardrobe: Raid your closets. Raid your used clothing stores. Sometimes a piece of clothing can inspire ideas for a scene, and add color and production design for pennies on the dollar.