“WE SHOULD JUST SHOOT it ourselves.” Actor and writer Mark Famiglietti has uttered this phrase many times. However, until recently, making a short film remained an idle threat. Throughout his 20 years in Los Angeles, he’d sustained a robust acting career and even sold feature-length screenplays to studios and production companies — but until recently, none of the scripts had been produced, and he was getting discouraged. When dramatic writing goes unproduced, it’s as if it never happened — the screenwriter equivalent of getting endless call-backs but never getting cast.

Then in early 2016, Famiglietti was working on a pilot script for the TV show The Life of Ricky, featuring a former boy-band member down on his luck. Famiglietti and his partner decided that, if they could just shoot a few scenes, they’d have more leverage to score meetings and try to sell the TV show.

“In hindsight, I am 1,000 percent happy we went through the process,” Famiglietti says. “Had I really understood the level of commitment, I might’ve feared my own shadow going in, but I learned much about the physical aspect of shooting the film.” And — not to scare but to encourage and empower — he wanted to pass along the good, the bad, and the ugly. So he outlined for Dramatics what he learned as a first-time filmmaker in L.A.

Of course, Famiglietti’s experience reflects the resources and network of a successful L.A. industry professional. So we also reached out to Thespian filmmaker Allyn Huggins of Thespian Troupe 7406, Southeast Guilford (N.C.) High School, to supplement these aspirational pro tips with options and advice for the Thespian budget. Huggins has made six short films, three of them through her school. She has participated in two local film festivals, and she entered a film as an Individual Event at the 2018 North Carolina Thespian Festival.


If you intend to shoot an original short film, the script must be polished: artistically interesting, engaging, and worth the herculean effort involved in carrying it out. I cannot underscore how important this is to understand. If you think, “Hey, I’ve got this idea, and we’ll just do a bunch of funny or dramatic things,” you’re doomed. The quality must be on every page — not in your head or in some abstract premise — because you will spend the next four to six weeks convincing others to participate (usually for little or no money) in your vision. Even though you are making a short, in many ways the execution of your idea follows the same process as the biggest blockbuster. You must find a director, cast actors, recruit department heads, hire a crew, shoot your project, complete post production, and screen it.

This doesn’t mean the script can’t change based on creative conversations and the realities of production, but it does mean that you need a cohesive script. There are many writing programs, Final Draft being the industry standard. If you don’t have the program, read scripts and emulate the layout in your draft.

Next question, also of huge importance: Is your script shootable given your resources and constraints? If you have the main character globe-trotting to catch international bad guys with huge special effects … probably not. Remember that you want to make your short film at a high level of quality. Therefore, set yourself up for success. Limit locations to places that you know you can shoot. This means friends’ homes, businesses owned by people you know, parks — there often are reduced rates for state and local public lands — and other locales where you can reasonably expect to receive permission.

Additionally, keep the cast small. While it would be nice to have a cast of thousands for a big stadium scene, you probably won’t be able to pull that off. Craft a piece that relies on just a few main characters to tell the story. The smaller the world of your script, the easier it will be for you to create it.

For example, on Life of Ricky, we used homes of two friends, a local restaurant where we know the owner, and a studio space we knew was free. That was all it took. Worried that you need more scope? Companies like Filmsupply or VideoHive that specialize in stock footage might cover that need. Stock footage is generic content available for lease or license. Pricing usually depends on the breadth of film distribution, but it remains reasonable for small-scale operations aiming for, say, a festival submission.

Stock footage allows you to expand the world of your script through editing. For example, if your short takes place in a Parisian hotel, you can purchase stock footage of Paris and separately simulate a Parisian hotel room for shooting purposes, then seamlessly edit together this exterior and interior footage.


If you’ve never made a film budget, ask around for a line producer to create a “top sheet.” This is a general budget estimating the costs of broad line items. The line producer creates the top sheet after reading your script and determining what is required to realize your vision in a high-quality manner. For example, if your short film takes place in a diner, then the line producer might budget a location fee of $3,000 to rent a diner for a day.

Creating a preproduction budget helps you to be realistic about what you can film with your resources. It also allows you to make creative changes that save money. For instance, if you could shoot a dinner scene as a state park picnic instead of a diner meal, you could save that $3,000.

Most short films are made on a tight budget that relies on many favors — from inception to completion. But there are two important things to keep in mind. First, do not skimp on the food and catering budget. And second, keep a 10 percent contingency in reserve. Why? Because if people are working for free, you must feed them well. And things always come up at the last moment, costing you more than expected. When you are four weeks from production and issues arise, you can always find another favor for cheap. However, when you are four hours from production and something goes awry … you’ll need the cash on hand for a quick solve.


Having been a member of SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) for about 20 years, even I was leery going through the union for clearances. I thought it would be a huge, costly barrier. But I’m happy to say I was wrong. SAG-AFTRA has a short film agreement that allows union members to defer their pay for your project as long as it meets certain standards, namely that it is under 30 minutes long and costs less than $50,000.

I highly recommend you become a union signatory for a few reasons. First, it legitimizes your project. Second, you can use union and nonunion actors. Third, it allows you to exhibit the piece in festivals. Aside from some related, worthwhile costs (see below), there is nearly no downside. The process begins with you filling out an online form. You are then assigned a production ID number with pending status, and a representative assists you through the process. Once all paperwork is complete, your status moves to “approved,” and you are good to go.

SAG-AFTRA does have a few requirements. The most important being …


For SAG-AFTRA clearance, whenever you serve as a producer of a project, you must carry production insurance, which mitigates liability should an unforeseen accident occur. Additionally, SAG-AFTRA will require you to carry workers’ compensation insurance as part of the package. If a worker is injured on your set, the insurance provider will replace wages and other benefits as stipulated by the plan while they are unable to perform their normal occupation. In exchange, they relinquish their right to file a lawsuit.

You may be thinking, “Yikes!” All you want is to make a small film, and suddenly you find all these costs and obstacles. The first time I walked through it, I also found it overwhelming. However, if you want to run a professional production, it must be professional. Not to mention that any company renting cameras, props, wardrobe, or other items will want to see a copy of production insurance before signing a rental agreement.

Unfortunately, many insurance carriers don’t prorate for just a few days of shooting versus 30 days. Those initial quotes can feel daunting. But there are two equitable solutions. First, use school, college, or university insurance.

Institutions of learning often carry insurance on students that extends to projects they undertake while enrolled in classes. Speak to your teacher, professor, or department head to see if your short film can be covered under the umbrella of institutional insurance. If your project can be covered, ask for details, including proof of the policy to show to vendors.

If you can’t be covered, then the second solution is to consider becoming a co-producer with a production company. For example, research and approach a production company that services a local TV station, advertising agency, or commercial house. If you sign a co-production letter, you can access the company’s insurance policy. You should have an attorney review all agreements, but typically you can maintain full ownership of your film. The production company becomes your partner for the duration of shooting, usually in exchange for credits and a negotiated fee, which depends on your project’s risk assessment. So think twice about pyrotechnics or car chases!

Behind the scene. Film crew team filming movie scene on outdoor location. Group cinema set


The crew can make or break your short film. Whenever possible, treat your production like any Hollywood film or TV show. That means recruiting department heads for camera, hair, make-up, wardrobe, design, grip, electric, etc. Even if these are friends donating their time, you want a dedicated staff ready to execute as if they were on a set of a $10 million movie.

You can artfully combine departments to save time and money, especially if you are paying a stipend to crew members. For example, combining hair and make-up, grip and electric, and catering and craft service are effective ways of streamlining your crew. If you have experience and understand the responsibilities of these disciplines, you can build a crew yourself. However, if you feel overwhelmed (as I did my first time), consider hiring a production manager. Not only can they walk you through building a crew, but they also have strong relationships and can help recruit people for your production.


While casting directors are supremely valuable resources when mounting normal, large-scale productions, I would advise casting your project with the help of fellow actors you know personally. Why? First, a casting director needs to be compensated for their time. And even if you land a casting director, agents and managers most likely won’t engage in a project that pays clients little to no money. Save money here. Rely on the kindness of friends and acquaintances. There is one caveat: if you are casting for a crucial and specific role, like a famous historical figure, then you might consider hiring a casting director to perform that particular search and present you with options.


You have assembled your cast and crew, as well as the insurance, permits, equipment, and other material elements of your film. Now, for preproduction, there are two key elements that you must execute to have a successful shoot.

Location scouting: Bring your relevant department heads to actual locations before you shoot. This includes your director, director of photography, first assistant director, gaffer, key grip, and anyone else responsible for the physical setup of filming. This gives the team a head start on where the equipment for the shots will be placed, the order of execution, and the overall workflow schedule.

Preproduction meeting: Approximately one week before principal photography, hold an all-crew meeting. The first assistant director should go through the script page by page and lay out the responsibilities of the various departments. For example, alert the hair department about what scenes require what hairstyles and whether there are changes in those styles between “script days.” This also allows each crew member to ask questions to prepare for production.


Time to take a deep breath and enjoy the moment. If you have done your job, you have funneled countless hours into getting to the first day of principal production. All the hard work and proper planning have paid off. It’s time to switch your brain from logistics to creativity and work alongside your fellow producers, your director, and your cast and crew to fulfill your vision.

Will something go wrong? Most likely. But when obstacles arise, huddle with your team and find a solution that keeps you on track. Time is your most important asset, so if something derails, find the solution that returns you to shooting your short film as quickly as possible.


You’ve been through a lot by this point. But after an active pre- and principal production, it’s not time to rest yet. At this stage, the editor and director will complete the “rough” (or director’s cut), which is an assembly of the whole piece. Once the director is happy, you and any other producers will review the cut and add your notes. This process is largely subjective and opinion-based.

Ultimately the producing team has the final say. If you have a sponsor, sometimes the person funding the project will want the final word. Remember that the accomplishment of producing a short film is huge in its own right. Don’t get pulled into the minutia of whether one line is funnier or more dramatic than another. Look to the macro. If the whole is working, then you’re on the right track. Don’t bicker over trivial things. The point is to get your work out to the world.

Once the picture is “locked” (meaning no more edits will be made to the content), it’s time to “color” and “sound design” the picture. Coloring the film enhances the overall look and makes it uniform, because no matter how perfect your filming conditions are, there will be variables beyond the control of the director of photography. Additionally, a director can finely craft the “look” of a film by playing with color contrasts and ratios.

Meanwhile, the sound design cleans up the audio track. Remember that plane that flew overhead during a master shot? Sound design removes it. The actor that spoke too quietly during takes? Sound design boosts the audio in line with the other performances.

Admittedly I didn’t understand the road I would travel when I decided to make my first short film. But in hindsight, it was a master class in producing. There were many ups and downs, during which I had no one to turn to but my producing team. Thanks to proper planning, the final product has served as a calling card. While we haven’t set Life of Ricky up as a TV show yet, it has led to some other rewarding experiences as writer, namely getting two original projects — a film and an original TV movie — produced in the past two years. I was even crazy enough to write and produce a second short film — Brackett, based on the life of NFL Super Bowl champ Gary Brackett — which led to a full-scale feature now in active preproduction.

I learned that producing a short film in the right way takes heroic effort, dedication, resolve, and caffeine (lots of caffeine). However, if you persevere and execute your project well, you have created a calling card that can open many doors on your behalf and define your voice for an audience and for industry players you may approach for representation or assistance with your next project.

I certainly wish you a smooth road and encourage you to turn to your friends with confidence and say, “We should just shoot it ourselves!”

This story appeared in the August/September 2018 print issue of Dramatics. Subscribe today to our print magazine.

  • Like What You Just Read? Share It!

  • Other Related Articles You May Enjoy

    The future, by design

    The future, by design

    Traditional fine arts in the digital age

    Apr 01, 2018

    Let’s put on a show!

    Let’s put on a show!

    The frugal dreamer’s guide to producing a musical

    Feb 01, 2018

    The Power of Projection

    The Power of Projection

    Peter Nigrini’s masterful multimedia world

    Apr 01, 2017