Here’s the complete article on Brian Tufano’s 10 guiding principles for would-be makers of short and low-budget films.
(Originally published by “The Guardian” website.)
You’ve got an idea for a short film – but how do you actually make one? Veteran cinematographer Brian Tufano has 10 tips.
Brian Tufano is one of Britain’s most illustrious cinematographers, and is also known in the film industry as the man with the Midas touch – Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, East Is East and Billy Elliot rank among his recent successes; Quadrophenia among his earliest. But Tufano also regularly deploys his talents on short films, and is frequently sought out by first-time film-makers eager to co-opt his expertise.
Here are Tufano’s guiding principles for would-be makers of short and low-budget films.
1.) Start with the script
Even with shorts, it all comes down to a good script. Maybe it’s a personal thing, but if the script grabs me then I want to be involved in the film. Short films are a good testing ground for writers as well as directors. Can you tell a story in the time you’ve got? It’s usually about 10 minutes. Does it have a beginning, middle and end? Does it make sense? Logic tells me that if I were a producer looking for new talent and viewing a whole bunch of short films, I’d need to see what the script was like, and whether it was translated onto film by the director in a way that enhanced it or moved it forward.
2.) Be professional – do your homework
It’s wrong to think of short films as different from feature films. Setting up a film is setting up a film. On a short film you’ve got between eight and 12 minutes of screen time and, instead of six weeks, you have maybe three days to shoot it. But you still have to tell a story. You have to approach it with the same attitude and professionalism with which you’d approach a feature. Most directors I have worked with on short films have been involved in their projects for a long time before shooting. Their homework has been done really well. It’s essential to be prepared.
3.) Be resourceful and flexible
Having said that, you have to think on your feet. You can sit around a table for hours in the pre-production stage saying, ‘We can do this, this and this.’ But the reality is that things never go smoothly when you’re making films. A wild card will suddenly get thrown into the mix and you have to be prepared for that – because you have less room to maneuver around it on a short film than on a feature film. You have to be prepared to take short cuts to achieve the end product. You can’t simply say, ‘I’m not shooting this, the light’s not right.’ Forget all that kind of thing. You have to come up with ways of getting the material.
On short films, because there’s little money involved, there’s very little time to get everything done. So it’s essential to talk about the practicalities of doing as much as you can in the time available. You probably work more collaboratively on short films than on features. On a feature, there’s usually a structure of people who have worked and reworked the script by the time it gets to me. On a short film, when I read the script, if it strikes me that it’s not quite there, I’ll put my ideas to the writer or the director (on short films, they very often work together, which isn’t always the case when you’re doing a feature), and we’ll kick ideas around. There are often unexpected ways to achieve what the director wants.
5.) Don’t waste time
I encourage the director and the writer not to get hung up on the minutiae. I did a short film two years ago and it was the director’s first attempt at anything. On day one, he got so involved with the performance of one of the actors that the time was slipping away. It’s worth bearing in mind that this isn’t Gone with the Wind, it’s not The Ten Commandments. You’ve got three days to finish a film, and you need to pace yourself so that you get everything you need. It’s no use going into the cutting room on the last day and not having all the material.
6.) Select locations judiciously
I worked on several films a few years ago as part of the Spotlight short film season at the Edinburgh festival. Each of the films had to be shot in one day. There was one Pat Harkins directed with Peter Mullan, called Exterior Park Day. And on that shoot we did 58 set-ups. Now that is an amazing achievement. But it was possible because we had three actors and one location – a park bench. And we were there all day, so there was no unit moved to another location, which is time-wasting. I’d discourage anybody, whether on a feature or a short, from arranging a unit move during the middle of a shooting day, because that’s dead time. On another film, we lost time because the director insisted on a location about an hour’s drive from Edinburgh.
7.) Don’t over-experiment
The more money involved in a film, the more restrictions there appear to be on how things are done. Correspondingly, British films seem to be more creative than a lot of American films, and short films have a bit more flexibility than feature films. But I don’t think short films should necessarily be seen as opportunities for experimenting. Every short film director with whom I’ve been involved has been very concerned with the end product – because they are using these films as calling cards. I don’t recall having worked with a director who thought of his or her film as art house. You certainly wouldn’t experiment to the point at which you would fail – all that should be done in your own time in the form of tests. It’s important to have a sense of responsibility for the money and for the end product.
8.) Stay on budget, stay on schedule
If I were a producer interested in the director of a short film I’d viewed, I would make inquiries into how that film was made. Did the director go over schedule or over budget? What was the budget? How did they cope with it all? I would suggest you stay on budget and stay on schedule. Because at the end of the day, unless you turn out to be another Orson Welles – and how can you know that at the time? – then you would be advised not to make yourself unbankable.
9.) Use cinematography creatively
What I want to know is this: does my cinematography advance and enhance the narrative? Are my pictures telling the story? Trainspotting was an ideal vehicle to do things with the camera that you would not normally do, simply because of the subject matter. You wouldn’t even think of applying those techniques to a more conventional story, unless there was a particular reason for it. You don’t just turn the camera upside-down because you think it’d look good. So an understanding of how photography works is very useful to short film directors, who by definition need to find ways to tell stories as efficiently and economically as possible.
10.) Get involved in marketing
Short films are not given enough exposure. There’s even a theory that audiences don’t want to see them. But, to my mind, there’s an audience out there for everything. It all depends on how it’s marketed. Titanic doesn’t appeal to everyone; there’s an audience out there wanting films that you have to think about. So how do you encourage distributors to show these films? I, in my naive way, don’t know why you can’t put short films into a feature program. I’m a firm believer that young film-makers should get involved in all aspects of film production. The more compartmentalized the industry is, the more likely nothing will happen and things will stay the same. There may well be other ways of doing things – but we won’t discover them unless young film-makers make it their business to get involved.