If you’re new to filmmaking, it can be tough to wrap your head around the idea of creating a shot list. It does take some time to develop good shot listing skills. Because of this, I’ve met new filmmakers tend to think they’re better off just figuring out how to shoot each scene in their film on the fly. I’ve even worked with filmmakers who believe in the value of a shot list, but can’t seem to get around to making a shot list in advance of shooting. Because of this, I made sure address the importance of shot lists in my new book, Short Films 2.0: Getting Noticed in the YouTube Age.
I have also created this short video describing a helpful exercise for new filmmakers looking to get the hang of creating a short list. Check it out below.
But why does this all matter? Well, let me give you one example. The following is a short excerpt from Short Films 2.0, which includes the steps in the exercise :
I once was involved with a project by a very green director who never made a shot list. Everyday we would show up to set with no real plan other than knowing what scene or scenes we were going to try to shoot that day. The first two hours or so of our shooting day were regularly lost to the director standing around and starting at things on set, thinking about how to shoot the scene. At times we did some blocking with the actors, which was followed by more standing around. Finally, he would have an idea of where to start shooting the scene and we would at last begin shooting. But, as we proceeded, he would invent more and more shots. Even though I was rather green myself, I had studied filmmaking at the LAFSC [Los Angeles Films Studies Center] by this point and cut several of my own early short films. I knew enough to know that many of the shots this director was coming up with on the fly where not shots any sensible editor would ever use when cutting the film together: they would not fit with the flow of the scene; they would create awkward jumps in perspective; they would likely create an inconsistent visual style. On top of this, many of the shots he invented on the go overlapped material that we had already covered in two or three or four other angles.
Any sensible director or cinematographer is always thinking about how a scene will ultimately cut together and make camera placement and shot decisions based on how they envision the edit playing out and how they are utilizing the visual grammar (shot size, angle, movement, composition, lighting, color, so forth) of the particular style they have embraced for a given project. The problem was that this green director was his own cinematographer and his own editor. The concept of visual grammar was not even remotely on his radar, as the end product ultimately demonstrated. And, in spite of my warnings that he would likely never use certain angles in the final edit that he wanted to get on set, we spent a lot of time covering scenes with more camera set-ups than most Hollywood studio movies. This resulted in an incredibly slow and draining shooting pace on set that just drug on. And the real kicker? We were shooting a feature film! It’s one thing to pull this kind of amateur stunt on your first short film over a grueling weekend. People are likely to forgive this and extend some grace to a first time filmmaker shooting his or her first short film. It is quite another matter to try to direct in this fashion on a feature film project. The patience of your cast and crew will run out long before you complete production.
In spite of this director’s lack of editing experience, it would still have been incredibly beneficial for him to at least think through each scene and try to compare it to other movies he felt were similar to the one he was making. If you find yourself having a hard time making a shot list, I recommend the follow exercise:
- Choose two or three scenes from major movies by seasoned directors. Be sure they are movies or scenes that are similar to the scene you are about to shoot.
- Carefully watch the scenes a few times, making notes about the size of the frame, shot composition, and camera placement.
- Note how the scene progresses. Does it start with a wide shot then cut into mediums or close-ups? Does it start on a close-up and cut to a wide in order to first introduce a character and then reveal their whereabouts? Does it use an establishing shot?
- Note if the camera moves, is hand-held, or stationary. Does the camera pan or tilt to follow the action on screen?
By analyzing scenes that are similar to yours, you will be able to develop an understanding of how seasoned directors might approach shooting analogous material. Initially, such analysis can provide you with at least a rough template to follow. But as you work through this process a few times you will begin to grasp why directors make certain choices and why you might want to make similar or different ones depending on the nature of your film project.
I wish the above director had engaged in this kind of preparation since he felt unable to create a shot list ahead of time. More importantly, he might have managed to grasp the nature of style and visual grammar and made better choices about how to cover each scene. He might have grasped how movement, low angle shots, high angle shots, composition choices, frame size, and other cinema grammar elements could be best used to tell his story. His problem wasn’t so much that he lacked knowledge as much as he was in too much of a hurry to become an indie filmmaker making feature films. He should have taken the time to read good books on filmmaking and make several short films first, in order to develop firsthand knowledge of style and visual grammar before taking on a feature film. His haste led to him being ill-prepared to make a feature film and this was only compounded by his continued unwillingness to even try to plan ahead with a basic shot list. In the end, we lost countless hours on set and it hurt the final film significantly.
You can read more about shot listing and about how the whole medium of short films have changed dramatically in the past ten years by checking Short Films 2.0 on Amazon. In fact, Zach Lipovsky, the creator of a fantastic app that helps with creating and managing a shot list and schedule, Shot Lister, has endorsed the book and called it “a practical tool for filmmakers facing the challenges of not only making short films but getting them in front of viewers.”
Short Films 2.0 addresses the unique challenges that short films face when compared to feature films and includes real-world examples and stories as well as loads of links and bonus materials like sample scripts and suggested reading. The book is out now on Kindle and will be out in trade paperback on June 7, 2016.