Today we have an article from filmmaker Josh McCausland, who’s here to share his thoughts on making a short film. I think readers will get a lot of value from the learning experiences Josh gained through making this film.
How to Make a Short Film
My name is Josh McCausland and I just recently finished up a film dedicated to my grandparents and in specifically my grandfather and his struggle with Alzheimer’s. The technical description of the film is:
“Anamnesis” is a dive into a man’s conscious and unconscious mind as the physical and imagined world blend in front of him through his struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.
First of all, here is a link to the film.
Anamnesis was a very challenging film to make form multiple approaches. Firstly, the film was about something very deeply personal. It was inspired by the relationship of my grandparents and the ultimate deterioration of my grandfather’s memories of my grandma after she passed away due to Alzheimer’s disease.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. What a way to start. Technically, this was a very intensive intricately planned out film. From the way I approached making it, to the way it was edited, to the premiere and how it was released was all planned in a certain fashion that I think really respected the project.
To really help breakdown the film I have to start from the beginning. The music. Anamnesis was a film that I produced, directed, wrote, and composed the music to. I started with the music.
In January of 2018, I completed a film called Chaos Theory. The night that film released I started thinking about another piece of music. Something more mature. Something more raw and classically rooted.
I started composing piano melodies only a week later. Within a couple more weeks I had all the piano parts written. A month or so later I had the string lines written and had a rough version of what the Anamnesis score would become. At the time I had the music named, “Movement number 1”.
After completing the music, I had thrown around the idea of just releasing it on SoundCloud and Spotify and having a beautiful piece to my name.
It wasn’t until I was on the phone with my father and heard him talking about his father’s (my grandfather) worsening condition with Alzheimer’s that I started to concept up the film.
I played the music I had written right after I got off the phone with him and the image of a woman being torn away from her husband’s memory in front of my eyes came to mind. I wrote the blocking and the script for everything that night.
I sat on the project for about a month and then reproached it with a logical eye and was a little overwhelmed. I was mostly overwhelmed by the fact that I wrote it as a theatre style show with special effects.
Essentially when I looked back on what I had written I realized I had a very challenging 15 minute one take short film. It was May 2018 at the time and I officially started planning for the shoot.
The biggest technical challenges I faced were, crew, the daunting task of a one take and the organization behind that, and the right cast members.
So, I started where any modern filmmakers start their inspiration. YouTube. After hours of research and multiple distractions from the hordes of cat videos, I came to the simple conclusion that I couldn’t do this by myself.
I reached out to my friend Morgin Madison and sent him the music and due to his massive support I felt I had someone on my side. I reached out to my friend Vienna Dohler, who is a very respectable musician in Nashville.
Another challenge that came up was that Vienna hadn’t done much acting, and in my head I was a little nervous about how I would do directing that. Nonetheless, I had such a good gut feeling about her. She just had the right demeanor I was looking for and I knew she would kill it.
At this point, I had a supporting actress and music. So I scoured Facebook groups around Chattanooga posting and looking for my lead actor. I was recommended a man named Bruce Shaw.
We met for lunch at a local coffee shop and I did what I always do when I am nervous and I scarfed down an excessive amount of food down my gullet as he introduced himself and told me his story. He was perfect.
After talking with him for a long time and with I’m sure some food hanging out of my mouth, I graciously welcomed him into the project.
Now that I had my two leads, I could start scheduling rehearsals. We decided to two weekends in July and two weekends in August which came to three rehearsals and the actual filming being on the final weekend which was August 11. Fun fact: we only ended up needing two rehearsals.
I brought on an executive producer in June, Rachel Petrillo who helped coordinate with all the extras and crew involved. Once she joined, this thing seemed to take life.
“I have an exec. Producer. What is happening?” is what I was probably thinking at the time.
I had people messaging left and right wanting to be part of this project dedicated to Alzheimer’s. There were so many people interested in being part of it and contributing to the story I was telling.
As a huge David Fincher I found this article incredibly helpful for me in my approach to filmmaking and seeing his growth and challenges was super inspiring to me.
Location, Location, Location
So, it’s July. I now have a lead, a supporting actress, score finished, makeup artist, a costume designer, a camera operator, and a handful of extras.
Things were looking good. Until, I realized…. “Oh yeah… Location”.
So, I started stressing for locations and made calls for weeks and interviews with many healthcare professionals looking at different retirement homes and wings.
I balanced prices, quality of content, and how communicative the location was. See, those are really important factors you have to weigh when you’re looking for locations.
- Quality of Content
- Communication of location to you and your team
Also see this article for a really great guide to location and what to look for when you’re scouting.
We eventually met with Rick Radar of the Orange Grove center and they fit perfectly with our list of needs.
Things were going swimmingly and rehearsals up to this point were going great. I was feeling really good about things. I realized that I would need some serious help with set design since the space and managing the extras as well as the leads was going to be way too much on shoot day for me alone.
So, I talked to a good friend of mine, Cole Sweeton and he helped really bring this thing to life. He became my trusty AD and Set Designer. He took on the role of directing all the extras and set designing so that on the day of the shoot I could just direct and manage my leads, Vienna and Bruce.
Shoot day is coming up and about a week out it starts really sinking in how much pressure is on me for this thing to happen. We would be filming live for 15 minutes in one take based on calls and cues from yours truly.
If I missed a cue or was late on something, we had to start over or something would be out of time with the music. So I did what most millennials would do in this situation and figured out a way to use technology to help me.
I created a timer that ran on a television behind the camera facing the cast that had the time as well as a color behind it. The timer ran to help myself and my line producer, Sai, stay on schedule the whole time.
It also cued Cole and all the extras when to come on and off. It was a simple but super-efficient method of keeping us in time.
I still had to make sure I kept to the timing of Vienna and Bruce meticulously. Thankfully we had rehearsed pretty well and they knew the blocking very well at this point. They were so great to work with. We had one small technical detail that I hadn’t worked out yet.
The part where Vienna gets yanked away literally and metaphorical from Bruce’s memory. For this, I struggled with so many ways of going about this. But, I wanted everything to be as practical as I could get it.
Cole came up with the idea of having Vienna wear a rock climbing harness the whole time and then the costume designer, Terrance cut a small slit so we could sneak the tie in loop out the back of her dress.
During filming all she needed to do was walk off frame and then myself and Terrance Wright would clip in a parachute cord and physically drag Vienna off. It was a simple idea that worked really well with the concept.
The set on shoot day was so heavy. Everyone in that room could feel how powerful this piece was going to be. There were multiple people on set that day that remarked on how heavy everything felt and how they were holding back tears just being around the characters.
The actual filming went really well. It was a tight shoot schedule and we were able to squeeze out of the day with three full takes and we eventually decided on the third take being the best one.
After production had been wrapped I felt great and the edit was extremely simple. I did some neat things with overlaying layers of Vienna’s character. But, as you can see by the edit, it’s one take, one shot. I faked some camera movement due to us filming in 4K.
The biggest challenge was comping out our chord from the scene where Vienna gets drug out. Besides that, post-production was a breeze.
I learned a lot on this project. I learned about myself, my process and the people around me. It meant so much to let people in on such a personal narrative and see the reactions of the people working on it. I hope to continue doing experimental film projects like this.
There is something deeply satisfying and at the same time terrifying about approaching film from new stand points. There were plenty of days along Anamnesis when I said to myself, “Josh, you’re trying to do a 15 minute one take video…. What are you doing? No one is going to get it.” But, it worked out.
My technical brain was overpowered by the emotional components of my brain that knew a one take was possible and would be extremely powerful played out on camera.
How to Make a Short Film – In Conclusion
I am open to any questions anyone may have about the film that I didn’t cover! Thanks for the opportunity to talk about the film and I hope you all enjoy it.
Links to the film: