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Make your film tell a story

Filmmaking tips from a winning teenage director

Filmmaking tips from a winning teenage director

May 08, 2007|by ROWAN COPLEY

I recently filmed a couple of movies to submit to a contest about Teen Pregnancy. The contest, organized by the Washington County Teen Pregnancy Prevention Coalition Inc., was geared to get teens to spread the message "sex has consequences."

Five writers for Pulse decided to work together to create a 10-minute film spot. I learned a lot from my role as director on what exactly filming a short film required.

A key way of thinking about filmmaking is visual storytelling. You don't just tell the story through dialogue or narration; you show it. That's the strength of film. Have you ever seen a movie in which there was a scene that told nothing about the story, or the characters at all? It feels pretty pointless, and as the saying goes, a waste of celluloid. Everything that happens in the film - every line of dialogue and every action the characters do - needs to either move the plot forward or tell something about the characters.


In "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," there's an infamous scene where the creature Gollum talks to himself. The scene does almost nil in getting the movie closer to the climax, but it brilliantly illustrates Gollum's split nature, his inner moral dilemma. It is also a good opportunity for comic relief, and a scene you remember.

Pack thoroughly

A key for me to shooting our short film was organization. Planning ahead of time is the bread and butter of filmmaking. Familiarize yourself with all the equipment. They are the tools with which you will make your film.

You need to make sure you have everything you need to shoot a scene. Obviously, you need a camera and lighting, but that also means extra batteries, power cables, duct tape, access to a power source and much more.

If you're serious about making a film, you need to be super-organized. Make sure you pack all your gear to bring with you - nothing is more frustrating than not being able to use some of your equipment because you forgot a cable or you didn't bring enough extension cords.

Trivial stuff like this will be the bane of your filmmaking existence.

Get permission

Another part of being organized is always making sure people know you're filming. Our script, written by Sara Martens, opened with a scene in a school hall. So for our first night of shooting, we got permission to film in North Hagerstown High School from principal Valerie Novak.

But when we arrived at North High, we didn't think to notify anyone in the building. So in the middle of a shot, a custodian comes up and demands in a gruff voice to know what we are doing. Luckily for us, when we told him we had permission to film, he was understanding, and he left us on our way.

If you're filming on someone else's property, even if it's public land, get permission. It would be incredibly embarrassing and frustrating to be kicked out of someplace just because you didn't make a phone call ahead of time. Sure, guerrilla filmmakers out there who think they could get away with something like this. But you really don't want to be directing a crew of people when someone asks you what you're doing there. It'll make you look bad and amateurish to all your actors and crew.

Planning shots

You need to scope out wherever you're planning to film. Figure out what's happening in the shots and generally where you'll put the camera. I'm definitely not the most organized person ever, but when I film, I have to be super-organized. There's no other choice.

As director, you're either in control of your movie or you're not. Because you want people to take you seriously and follow your directions, you need to earn their trust. Plan the shoot carefully.


After you're finished with the production side, you'll spend a lot more time with your movie putting it together. Just remember to keep it short and sweet. A quote by Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind: "Have the guts to cut." Condition yourself to think critically of your movie. You might have invested a lot of time and effort into a scene, but if it makes the movie drag, you need to chop it out. Invite family and friends to watch the movie at various points during the editing process to see what they think. They can see things from a different point of view and might see things you don't think of.


Sound is almost as important as visuals. One thing you will need to think about for each scene is background noise, known in the film business as "ambiance." Ambiance makes scenes flow together much more smoothly. North High is very quiet after school hours, which was good for filming. But we wanted to simulate a scene that took place during school, so I went back at the end of a school day to record the sounds of students leaving the school in huge masses.

For another scene, I turned on the hose at my house and recorded the sound of water pattering on the ground to simulate the sound of rain - which added to the somber feeling of an emotional scene between a boy and a girl.

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