Thursday, November 17, 2016

How I Made My Biggest Short Film in Three Days

How do you film a 20 minute epic fantasy adventure short film in three days with no budget while you’re in school? 

If you said blackmail, slave labor, or sell your soul to the devil, then you're a horrible person. Also, you are probably a filmmaker. Also, have you been reading my notes?

Also, can I introduce you to this guy?

(If you didn’t get that joke it means you haven’t seen the short film yet. Which you can rectify below and then read it again to laugh uproariously. )

I did this question back when I made my last student film Happy Never After. After filming my previous film over six weekends in a schedule that made everyone involved hate life (and me) and pray for the I they knew would not come I decided to try a different strategy: one, breakneck pace weekend where we work like crazy and get everything done. As crazy as it sounded--and it sounded Joker, Annie Wilkies, and Norman bates on a road trip in a stopped car crazy--it worked. What I learned helped me learn the best ways to use your time best to get the most from your crew in the shortest amount of time.

1. Preplan, preplan, preplan.

Everything that went right that weekend went well because we pre-planned things well. Everything that went wrong went wrong because we didn’t pre-plan enough. The Cinematographer, Forest Erwin, and I went over the vision for the look of the film and the shots and scenes beforehand so we knew exactly what we were shooting, where, when, and for how long. We figured out we could save so much time if we divided our shoot into everything we filmed in the FiDi (Ron/Sarah’s coffee meeting, flashback, walk by the water) Day 1, the chapel scene Day 2, and everything else in Brooklyn (zombie chase, funeral, party) Day 3. This served us amazingly well. This meant everyone knew where they should be when and for how long and could plan their other stuff accordingly.

2. Have dedicated people.

You can’t convince people to give up so much of their weekend for free unless they really want to be there. Nobody will do it unless they really like you or really like your idea. Fortunately, I had both. I had made a lot of amazing friends while at school who wanted to work with me, and a great script I'd written that people loved. My cinematographer was excited about the project, my actor friends were excited about it. Everyone wanted to make it work and so they put in the work to make sure it did. They even convinced their friends and family to be on the project too. Most of the extras where there because of our line-producer, Deryka Tso. We got the church because of Forest. If they didn't, the movie could not have happened. So make friends and have a good script is the lesson here. 

Was it hard? It was hard, but selling your soul to the devil is more costly in the long run. 

Don't ask me how I know.

What say you? What are stories you have about making a film at a breakneck pace on no budget? Let me know in the comments.

Friday, October 21, 2016

How (I Learned) to Make a Christian Film (So Far)

In case you didn't know, I am a Christian. That being the case, I always wanted to make a film that talked about the things I love about God, I.E. a "Christian" film. But I was always afraid of doing it badly because that was the unfortunate reputation of Christian films. Even so, I finally got up the courage to go for it and in the process I learned a lot about what I think makes a Christian film work and not work.

Since a lot of my fellow Christian filmmakers are right now in an ongoing conversation of the best ways to make Christian films, I thought I would add my two cents to the topic. This is not an exhaustive list and I’ve by no means learned everything. It’s just one more voice in the conversation based on my small bit of experience.

Watch it in the player below and then read on!

Spoilers, ahead, naturally. 


One reason I was nervous to make a Christian film was that Christian films have a (somewhat) deserved bad-reputation for being too preachy. Sometimes a Christian film will have a great scene and then they will ruin it with too much talking.  I think this is because the Christians making these films think they’re job is to teach people what to think about God when it's not. Your job is to share what you love about him.

Don't get me wrong, I love this movie, but man the
scene would have been so much better if they'd just
 stopped talking at some point.

Imagine two lunch dates: one is with your mom and the other is with your newly married best friend. Your mom is telling you that you should get married and is listing all the reasons why you should and asking what excuse you have for not being married yet. Your best friend is bubbling over telling you how much they love being married and sharing all the details. The first wants to tell you what to do while the second simply wants to share what they already have. Which of these actually makes you want to be married? Both make an argument for why you should get married but the latter you actually enjoy and makes you desire it yourself.

My reasons for wanting to make Happy Never After were the latter, and that is the magic switch that made me feel comfortable really talking about faith in film. I knew what it was like to be afraid God wasn’t real in the face of death and I really wanted to share how glad I was that he was real and that he made eternal happy endings possible. 

CS Lewis didn’t originally intend Aslan to be part of his Narnia books; he didn’t write the books intending to preach a Christian allegory. Aslan forced his way into the story almost against his will because Jesus was part of CS Lewis’s imagination. That should be a strong model for how we make Christian films too.


This goes back to the preaching thing. Films are—first and foremost—a visual medium. That means the power belongs first in the images and then the words. Christian films often try to preach the Gospel by giving long speeches about it. But really, a picture is worth a thousand words.

I made a concentrated effort to make a lot of the theology visual. In my film, Ron’s “come to Jesus” moment is just a look toward the cross.

Do you think that moment works? Let me know. Regardless, it was my attempt to apply the principle of doing faith it what is a primarily visual medium.


This one is not as obvious as it sounds. It’s is not enough to say that Christians should make films that are “high quality”.  You won’t make a really great film unless you are passionate about great filmmaking for itself and not just as a way to get your Christian message to people.

I was blessed that everyone on my project not only loves God, they love great films and great filmmakers. My DP and I would share movie clips to each other from Terrence Malick and David Lowery films to inspire shots in the movie. We all regularly read film education sites like No Film School and watched the amazing film essay series Every Frame a Painting (example in the player below) because they showed us great new ways to make great movies. If you’re a Christian and you aren’t doing that because you enjoy it, you probably should serve God in some other business.


Audiences care both about a good story and a movie staying true to the source material. This means if you're going to appeal to Christians--one of your main audiences--you've got to make sure you're not trampling on Orthodoxy that will unnecessarily cheese people off.

It was important to me that Ron and Mary came back as messengers from God to kill Jacob Applegate at the end. Because I wanted people to feel the thrill of the hero beating the villain to show that obeying God is as thrilling triumph over evil as a typical hero adventure story. But my story editor—Tessa Duckson, as strong Christian--was concerned that this would send the wrong message about God condoning vengeance. We went back and forth and decided that we needed to make clear that was not the case in three ways a) make it clear they are coming back to save Sarah, b) set up their return by having Jacob mention “God send a messenger to strike me dead”, and c) have them wear their hoods while they kill Jacob to emphasize that they are acting on their role from God and not as Ron and Mary.

This turned out to be a blessing because Ron and Mary concealing their faces with hoods and then revealing themselves to Sarah when they pull them off became a very cinematic touch. This goes to show that if you wrestle with orthodoxy you can come up with an even better film than if you just disregard it entirely.

So that's it. I hope, whether you're a Christian or not, you find some of that helpful in this if you ever decide to take a stab at dealing with faith in film. I certainly have much more to learn in that regard. (And I've learned so much more even since then.) And I look forward to being inspired by other great filmmakers--Christian and non-Christian--as I continue to work in this amazing medium that I love.

What have you learned trying to deal with faith in film? Leave a comment and let me know.

Friday, August 19, 2016

How to Make a Short Film: Happy Never After

I just released my latest short film Happy Never After this past week. Of all the films I’ve made in my time filmmaking, this is the one that is most personal to me and of which I am the most proud.  It is the first where I explored expressing my faith in film, and learned to grapple with far darker material. I also wrote this story during my father’s illness and he passed away when I was in post-production.  So the story’s theme—death—holds an added importance for me.

(Watch the movie here!)

It was also where I learned some of my best lessons about how to make the kind of films I want to make: (SPOILERS BELOW.)

How Do You Express Faith in Film?

I made Happy Never After to find a way to express how my faith shapes my view of death. I’ve always struggled to express my faith in film. Why is it so hard? Because we have very few good models to go off of. People think a faith movie means arguing with the audience about what to believe. Usually in speeches that go on too long.

Not that I'm talking about anything specific...

I wanted to, instead, invite people to share in my experience of joy at being a Christian. So I wrote my thoughts about death as an exciting cosmic tale of good vs evil where you are drawn to root for a couple to choose faith over the alternative. The villain has the main speech in the film, and the “come-to-Jesus” moment is done with a simple look toward the cross.

How Do You Collaborate With Others?

The two biggest things I learned about collaborating was a) it should be done early and thoroughly and b) you need to know what you are willing to compromise on and what you’re not. Forest Erwin’s cinematography and Kyle Trivanovich’s performance as Jacob Applegate were so amazing partly because we spent so much time together getting on board with the same vision.

One of the best shots by Forest and best performances by Kyle.

Pre-Planning is Important

We did the entire film over three days with pretty much no budget. How? By lots of pre-planning by dedicated people. We had all the shooting days picked out and filmed all the scenes in close locations to each other. So everything to be filmed in the FiDi we filmed on the same day; everything at the church the same day, etc. There were screw ups, of course. But when there were, it was because we didn't pre-plan enough.

What About When Things Go Wrong?

I learned the best thing to do when things go wrong in filmmaking is to keep calm, figure out what’s really important, and cut out the rest.

One day we were filming in the park and some of the equipment was late getting to us. It was so late that we knew we wouldn’t be able to film everything before the actors needed to leave. So Forest and I cut down drastically the number of shots we needed to take before they left. It was rough, but we got the shots we needed to make the film work.

Everything Works Out

The biggest thing I learned filming this though was that God is in control and everything works out. This is something you learn making films for a while. For some reason, when everything goes wrong, things still work out.

Comment by Forest: "I caught a barracuda thiiisss big." 
Before I finished the script for Happy Never After, most of my school’s filmmaking club—of which I was president—dropped out. I had no crew so I was pretty sure the film couldn’t be made.

But two coincidences happened that made the project possible: My friend Hope Epperson (now Hope White) told me she still really wanted to be a part of the film. So she worked to get her friends to be the actors. I had also just reconnected with Forest Erwin. So, since Hope really wanted it to happen, I called up Forest to see if he wanted to be DP. And he said an enthusiastic "yes". If these two things didn’t happen, Happy Never After probably would not have been made. And I wouldn't have had had the tribute to my father or the God that makes seeing him again possible.

The best films not only teach you about filmmaking, but also about life. This film did more: it because one of the best parts of mine. Thank you, everyone, who shared it with me and made it possible.

Friday, August 5, 2016

How to Create On-Set Community Like Suicide Squad

Want to create a real community on set like the director David Ayer and cast raved about on the set of Suicide Squad?  Filming can be a lot of work. When people on set bond, and begin to feel like more of a family, then the experience is a lot more fun for everyone. Yourself included. Frowns become smiles. And smiles mean people might agree to work with you again. Also… smiles are just awesome.

Well... some smiles
I looked into their interviews to see if I can find what the secret was. And I’ve found some tips that have matched my own experience working on films: Particularly my webseries Churchill on EverythingThe first time I realized how much fun you could have filming because of community. (See the video below.)

#1. Pick the Right People.

If you work with great people who work hard and have great personalities, building chemistry is really easy. David Ayer picked for Suicide Squad people like Margot Robbie (Harley Quinn), Will Smith (Deadshot) and Jai Courtney (Captain Boomberang), great actors everyone loves working with.

The Churchill on Everything team: Me, Nathan Sherrer, Alex Foley, David Wright
 and Jordan Best (not pictured)
I picked Alex Foley for the titular role and other friends of mine, Nathan Sherrer, David Wright and Jordan Best who were the crew to be the crew because they were all real professionals and also just tons of fun to work with. I knew those qualities would make the atmosphere very chill. . 

Of course, just like David Ayer got such a great cast only because they liked his previous work, Alex Foley agreed to this project because he loved how our previous film Kelly vs The Philosophers turned out. So make sure you do good projects that can attract great talent. 

#2. Give it Time 

Jai Courtney put rehearsal time is a reason that such great community was made on the set of Suicide Squad

"It was probably the rehearsal time that we were afforded, I think that meant that there was this period of concentration where we got to trust each other"

With Churchill on Everything, pretty much all of us were already friends. So we had a built in comfort level and chemistry. So the community was easy.

We've all been friends for a little while...

#3. Pick the Right Location.

Margot Robbie points out filming in Canada where none of them knew anybody as a reason for why such great community came out of Suicide Squad.

"[A] lot of people are married with kids and stuff and if we were shooting in their hometown, they would just go home to their significant other, their kids, their life, and their friends that they've known since forever.  But since we are all away from home you stick together even more.

Beside Myself squad left to right: Zeke Ward,
Ashley Morris, Rachel Sheldon, Deryka Tso,
Joseph Holmes, Tianna Halldorson

For Churchill on Everything, we all camped out in the apartment of one of our apartments. Between filming we played video games and had great food. For Stars we road tripped through Brooklyn singing songs in a car and for Beside Myself we all took a train out to New Jersey. Having adventures where it was just us really helped us pull together as a little dorky family. 

#4. Let Your Crew Create Community.

Because Harley Quinn giving you a Tattoo seems
 like such a smart idea. Good thing that 
didn't backfire. Oh wait... 
On Suicide Squad, one big thing cast and crew talk about in building trust and community was how much David Ayers gave them room to have fun and create their characters and their dynamic with each other.

One of the big things I learned on Churchill on Everything was that, as a director, I didn’t have to make everything happen. I picked the talent and picked the location, and gave people direction and space to have fun. And you know what? They made the experience amazing.

Want to create community like director David Ayers on Suicide Squad? Pick the talent, pick the environment, and give people space to be the amazing people they are. You might just create a lifelong squad of your own.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

How to Make a Short Film: Working with Your Editor

Benjamin Capitano (left) and Joseph Holmes (right). Director/editor dream team.
Editors are one of your most important collaborators as a filmmaker trying to make a short film. So how do you work with them well?

A film editor has incredible creative power over the final film product. It’s been said—not inaccurately—that a different editor gives you a different movie. A bad editor can make a good product look cheap and trashy. A talented and skilled editor can make a film look professional and exciting. (Provided you’ve given him or her something to work with; they are not magic. I don’t think. I sometimes wonder. I’ve had some amazing editors.) When you make your short film, you really need to have the good kind. I was blessed to have one of the best, Benjamin Capitano, work with me on my first short film Kelly vs The Philosophers

It's about college students. Fighting philosophers. With textbooks. And dropkicks. 
Here is what I learned on how to help a good editor do his best to give you a great final cut of your short film.

#1. Bring them in at the beginning. This is especially true on a smaller film, the editor is going to have a lot of say in the aesthetic of the film. So it’s good to get them on board and inspired with the vision in the pre-production stages. Ben Capitano doubled as a creative developer and the two of us had a blast going to comic shops and watching Scott Pilgrim vs The World as research. (I swear it was research.)

I'm serious! Debating for hours whether Romona or Knives is better for Scott is critical research for my film!
#2. Give it to them Organized. Once we got all the footage and audio compiled, I dumped it all on Ben like a pile of dirty laundry. Prompting a “uhhhhhh what is this?” to which I naturally replied “But aren’t u majik?” to which Ben calmly played Scotty to my Captain Kirk and told me that he was not a magician and needed to organize the footage in a way he could work with it.

"But, can't you just... I don't know, put all the footage in a sorting hat?"

"...You don't know anything about Final Cut. Do you, Sir."
Ideally, during production, you have the shots you got matched to the shots you wanted in the shot list, and the assistant editor would be responsible for organizing which is which, and you show the editor which shots you want used. But we were all students and this was my first short film so I combed through the footage myself and sent it to Ben. 

I do not miss those days.

#3. Collaborate. In order to do his or her best work, the editor needs to have a little freedom to be creative. However, the director usually has a very particular vision for what he wants. (At least I did.) I learned that there is a balance of give and take with the editor. On the one hand, most of Ben’s ideas were extra-ordinary: from the animated video game text and music, to using the final shot as an end-credits scene. But sometimes there were things I just insisted on doing a certain way. It was a balance learning which was which.

I’ll be honest, when I finished shooting Kelly vs The Philosophers I didn’t know how the film would turn out. When I first saw the edited footage of the film--that was when I knew my baby would be okay. I’m grateful to all the editors who I’ve worked with since. I hope I've been a decent director and learned something. Haha. You have helped make my films what they are.  

Which is awesome. 

Just like you guys.

Movie magic. Some After Effects required.

How about you guys? Do you have any tips working with editors or as an editor you'd like to share? Sound off in the comments below

Friday, June 17, 2016

How to Make a Short Film: Surviving Your First Day of Filming

The first day of shooting a short film—or any film—can suck. Here’s how I learned to make it suck less.

Chillin' on set waiting for the action (Rachel Kyle, Jennifer Verzuh)
At the point you are on your first day of shooting to make your dream project you have somehow convinced/conned a bunch of people to believe, a) you have a story worth telling and b) that you’re capable of leading that story to screen—keeping all the spinning plates in the air on set and managing every crisis that comes up. But when you get to set you prove you either can or you can’t, you either get the shot or you don’t.

Sometimes a sword is just the answer to your problems
And even when it's not it's awesome.
My first day filming my first short film (Kelly vs ThePhilosophers) was one crisis management after another. We had lost one of our costume people the other night and so the costumes hadn’t been tested. We were left with costumes that didn’t work and hadn’t been tried on the actors. Several actors had to pitch in to pull stuffing out of jackets or run back to their apartments nearby to try on different sets of outfits. Because the DPs and I didn’t thoroughly block things out beforehand, a lot of actors who came in their timeslots had to wait around for us to be ready. This was frustrating for them and stressful for me. (Remember this, guys? Ahhh good times.)

No, this is an actual scene. The set didn't come to blows. (Marry Cassella, Rachel Kyle)

But it worked out. Here’s what I learned.

Lesson #1. Do pre-production right. Almost all of these things would have been avoided if I put more work into pre-production. I’ve learned you can almost never do too much with pre-production. If we had planned out for costumes to be done long before, if I had planned more blocking of the scenes before the actors were there, things would have gone more smoothly.

Lesson #2. Work with forgiving people. It makes so much a difference when you're starting out--or anytime--to have friends who love you working with you. Because these were all my friends—as well as great at their jobs—everyone was on my side and wanted to make things work. During the whole debacle, I didn’t have one person act angry with me, annoyed with me, or give me a hard time. Everyone was helpful and supportive.

I say this over and over, but there is probably no better lesson to learn than that the people you work with matter. As a filmmaker your film family is your closest family for the time you’re filming. And if you can build as great a film family as I did not only will your filming suck less—life will suck less.  In fact, it will be great.

Lara Jane, Rachel Kyle, showing what we all feel.

Love all you guys. You are the reason that first day--and every day--didn't suck. It was amazing. 

Josh Shabshis, Hope Epperson, Alex Foley

Friday, June 3, 2016

How to Make a Short Film: Dealing with a Difficult Person

How do you deal with a difficult person on your film team who doesn't do their job but it's all volunteer and you have no money to pay anyone ?

Because running is not always an option. Believe me, I wish it was.

I’m going to be honest: I don’t like dealing with conflict. But as a filmmaker, the filmmaking business requires you to work with lots of people, and it attracts some people with egos the size of a small planet. (Including probably you.) If you are going to make a short film, or any film, conflict is liable to come up and it is good to know how to deal with it. 

Because you never know when an unassuming person will start kung-fuing you because why not?
So what do you do if you butt heads with someone who you can't just talk things through with? A lot of conflict is just creative disagreement and can be worked out. As long as everyone knows their job and is willing to do it and believes in the movie. But sometimes people just don't want to work out the conflict. If you can learn to spot trouble beforehand and don’t invite them on that's best. But if they slip past you, do these things:

Free these words of wisdom these are. Welcome, you are.
1. Make sure you are communicating clearly with everyone what your expectations for them are--and those expectations are public--so no one can say “You never told me to do that"

2. Try to make sure you know people who can fill in for the role if need be. So you aren’t stuck with them or not getting to make the movie.

3. Confront them about their behavior privately.

4. If they have complaints, figure out if there is legitimacy in them.

5. If you have to get rid of them, do it as early as possible.A difficult person will continue to add stress to a filmmaking experience that is going to have its own stress anyway.

Also bring a suit of armor. And shield. Just in case.
On my first short student film Kelly vs The Philosophers, I brought on an assistant to help out my main costume manager. I knew the girl was a bit snarky but I found that more charming than anything. I explained what we needed her to do and when and she was on board. But for weeks after the girl didn’t do any work and tried to pass her work onto other people, then complained when we were only a couple weeks out that we didn’t have enough time.

When even Loki can't make excuses for you.

The night before shooting I asked her where she was with things. She still hadn’t done them and was blaming me again, so I reminded her—someone sarcastically—that she had been blowing me off. At this point she threw a fit and quit.

Sorry not sorry?

What should I have done differently? I should have confronted her earlier about her blowing off the project. I should have confronted her with more love and less sarcasm—even if she deserved it. But I am glad that I solved the problem before shooting. And I'm glad we had someone else who could do costumes. Because it would have been a nightmare otherwise. 

And that's my first major conflict as a filmmaker not knowing what I was doing. Really, God was covering my back and I can't take much credit.

Do you have any stories about dealing with conflict in film? Any advice that you can share? Leave a comment below!