My Top 7 Lessons Making Three 10-Second Films

This past Friday was the deadline for the Chick-fil-A Leadercast Film Contest. Every year Chick-fil-A hosts an amazing 1-day leadership training event where they get some of the top thought-leaders on the subject to speak (e.g. Marcus Buckingam, John Maxwell, Soledad O’Brien, Tim Tebow, Andy Stanley, and more). This year the theme is “Choice” and they had this film contest inviting filmmakers to make a 10-second film where the central character is faced with a choice. But here’s the hitch: we could not see the choice the main character made, the film had to be 10 seconds or less (and not a frame more), oh…and there could be NO AUDIO!

I love committing to film contests like this because they force you out of your comfort zone. Also, when you commit to making one, and you get other people involved, it forces to get off your butt and make your own film.

I always learn something when I make a film. Here are seven lessons I learned making my entries to the contest. These are lessons any filmmaker should heed, whether you’re making 10-second shorts or three-hour features.

#1 – Read the Rules…CAREFULLY

This tip is specifically geared towards contests. It may seem like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised. I spent a lot of time conceiving an idea that weighed heavily on hearing either music  or a sermon on the radio. A week later I looked at the rules again and discovered the no audio rule. Not even ambient audio. Other examples of not reading the rules I discovered: on Twitter I saw a guy mention how he was exciting about going out to shoot his film the weekend of April 7. The films were due the 6th. Even now that the submissions have been made, I saw a few that broke the “don’t show the decision” rule.

#2 – Never Underestimate the Importance of Lens Selection

It may be easy to minimize the value of selecting the right lens. You may think, “It’s such a short film. Let me just shoot it real quick and not spend so much time fretting over which lens.” Lens selection is almost MORE important for short films like this because you don’t have a lot of time to communicate a lot of info. The wrong lens could hinder that communication. For my “Game On” entry (see below) I needed a wide angle lens for one shot. I used an 18-55. Since I had to shoot it real fast as I only had 2.5 hours left before the deadline, I was just going to zoom in for a tighter shot. Well, the 18-55 I had was only an f5.6 lens. My tighter shot was too dark. I did not have time for an elaborate light set up, so I had to switch to a faster lens (a 28-70 f2.8). Imagine if I only had the first lens?

Likewise, for my “Hurried & Homeless” entry, my original plan was to use my wife’s 50mm fixed. She needed it, so I had to stick with the aforementioned 28-70. I’m glad I did. The 50mm (which  is the equivalent of an 80mm on my T2i) would have been way too tight for some of the shots I needed.

The moral: lens selection is critical, no matter how short the shoot.

#3 – Communicate Your Message

A number of entries had to explain what was going on in the video description. If a person can’t figure out what’s going on from just the visuals, the film has failed in its execution. This is one lesson I wish more filmmakers would heed for their regular shoots. Whenever you find yourself resulting to voice overs or subtitles or something to help the audience “get it,” go back to the drawing board. (Obviously, there are exceptions to this where V.O.s and subtitles may be necessary as part of the story. But I think more often than not, they aren’t needed.)

#4 – Story Trumps Scenery

When you have limited shots, go with the ones that do the better job communicating the story; even if another shot is prettier. Every shot in your film should serve the story. When your film is only 10 seconds long, every frame counts!

#5 – Original Ideas Make a Huge Difference

I originally planned to make only one entry: “Hurried & Homeless”. Then as they started posting some of the entries online, in the first nine they posted, three of them were the exact same idea I had: a person deciding whether or not to give money to a homeless man. One entry even had practically the same prop I had: a cardboard sign saying “God bless.” After seeing those, I committed to making three more. (I only had time to make two more). Originality is one of the judging criteria for this contest. Based on that, I think the “homeless-themed films will have a hard time winning.

But originality is important in all the work you do. The more original your ideas are, the more you and/or your business will stand out.

#6 – Original Execution Can Be Just As Important

The truth of the matter is that there are very few 100% original ideas under the sun. So, if you can’t come up with an original idea, come up with an original execution of that idea. Of the 83 entries that were made, the one I’m choosing to highlight on my blog (aside from mine of course) is “Finders Keepers” by Colin Krieg. Why? Because of all the homeless-themed entries, it alone had the choice being made by the homeless man, NOT the person who would give him money. That was a clever and creative twist. He even shot it well.

Original execution could be in the idea itself (as above), or the cinematography, the editing, the choice in casting. If you’re working with an idea that is not original, put effort into the originality of how you make it.

#7 – Collaborate on Ideas

Lastly, don’t be afraid to collaborate on ideas. No matter how good a writer or idea-conceiver you are, other creative colleagues or friends can lend value input to help you come up with original ideas. My “Need a Lift” idea was born out of an email brainstorming session with my mentee and partner in crime Phil Stevens (the husband in “Game on!”). As far as I can tell, it’s the only film on that subject. (I’m hoping to get originality points for that. :) )

#8 – Bonus Lesson: Stay Calm When Under Pressure

I miscalculated the deadline date. I thought the April 6 deadline was on a Saturday. I actually didn’t even realize my error until Friday afternoon at 2:15 when I was in the middle of filming “Game On” at Phil’s house. He asked me how was I going to finish editing all of these by 5 pm (I still had to shoot “Want a lift?” at a location that was about 25 minutes away). Luckily, my wife did was she does so well and reminded me to keep a cool head, lest I would make more mistakes. I started “editing” in my head as I drove between spots. I ingested the footage and started editing the DSLR without transcoding first. In the end, I had all three films submitted with 15 minutes to spare.

Just Do It

So those are my top 7 (er, 8) lessons. Now go out there and make a film. I’m strongly considering making more 10-second films just for the practice and discipline. In the meantime, good luck to all of the entries. Here are mine.

FYI: the “shaky-cam” work here is purposeful. I was going for a verité look. But honestly, for a 10-second film, it just looks like shaky camera work. Hmm? Okay. That’s nine lessons. :)

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8 thoughts on “My Top 7 Lessons Making Three 10-Second Films

  1. I must emphasize the 1st rule on reading and re-reading the rules thoroughly to avoid being left out just like I did or being disqualified for overlooking something. I couldn’t believe it when Ron mentioned on his tweet that the deadline for submission was on the 6th yet I was preparing to film on the 7th. I had to cancel it eventually out of frustration but I now know better.

    1. Hey Jeff. I was thinking about you last Friday when my filming partner revealed to me that the deadline was that day. I knew the date but got the DAY wrong. Thank goodness I was able to still get it in on time. So I guess another lesson I learned was read the rules, then look at a calendar. :)

      You should have shot the film anyway, just for the practice. :)

      Thanks for sharing.

  2. The number one thing I would suggest is to give yourself more time to plan the shoot. If you spend more time with preproduction looking at the details and things that could go wrong you will be able to concentrate on making the film instead of reacting to all of the problems that suddenly occur. To go along with the planning you need to be flexible because everything isn’t going to go the way you planned it. When things don’t go the way we want them to you need to be creative.

    Being creative was the best thing about this contest. Before this I didn’t even think making a 10 second film without audio is even possible. Now I see it as something that can be done. Its amazing to see how many different ideas everyone had from homelessness, to bullying, to drinking and driving, and even abortion, the entries really are all unique.

    The other valuable lesson I learned from Ron videos is to never trust anyone in a red jeep.

    1. Ha! That’s funny about the red jeep driver. :)

      And your point about pre-production is dead on Seth. Preproduction is so essential. The more the merrier. Thanks for reminding us about that.

  3. You get points for actually casting a believable homeless man. It doesn’t surprise me that so many people had that idea. I both went to film school then worked at one and every student has to make a homeless man is befriended by a biz man. Our staff at the end of each semester would screen all the films with a list of 10 student fim cliches and would turn that into a drinking game.
    there are some more similar type of things that were overused in film schools and out.

    http://www.filmmaker.com/DUMPS

    1. That’s funny Nic. Speaking of looking believable. While we were “on set”, a group of guys drove by in a truck and stopped to offer him some money. :)

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