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How to Make a Short Film: Part Two

In this second piece, writer/director Michele Meek takes readers through editing, scoring, obtaining music rights, submitting to festivals, and finally, screening her film.  The result, Red Sneakers screens this month at the Rhode Island International Film Festival.

By Michele Meek

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Director Michele Meek with cast members James Patrick Flynn Jr. and Shelby Mackenzie Flynn at the Woods Hole Film Festival.

A few month ago, I wrote the first part of this piece which covered the planning, casting, and production of Red Sneakers.  Of course, a film is not much more finished after production than it is after a script is written.  In fact, I was surprised to hear from the actors in Red Sneakers how often they simply never hear back from a filmmaker after the shoot.  But the key to making a short film, no matter how awful or great it might be, is actually finishing it.  So here's how it works.

After the Wrap

With the weekend shoot complete in August of 2006, I immediately digitized the footage (about two hours worth) and was eager to get to work. A few obstacles surfaced to cause me delays -- I decided to take on creating a nonprofit organization for re-launching The Independent magazine and, as it turned out, I was due to have a baby in March 2007, which meant my training and passing over the helm at my other two businesses -- NewEnglandFilm.com and BuyIndies.com. But still, I was able to throw together a rough cut in a few months and had found an editor who was going to take it from there. I literally dropped off an EDL (edit decision list) and footage for him the day before my daughter was born.

It seemed like the perfect plan.

Alas, this editor became another drop-out in my growing list. Over the next few months, I would email him, but each time he’d reply that he had more pressing (i.e., paying) work that took priority over my project. So I decided to post another call for an editor. It appeared more difficult than I would have expected to find a short film editor, especially since I was willing to pay to get the film complete. The qualified editors who did respond to my post had no experience with short films, but rather were experts with documentaries -- a skill set I felt was just too different to be useful. When I began to ask other filmmakers how they found editors, I came to realize that most short film directors edit their own films. But I felt as writer/director of the film, it was crucial to have another set of eyes for the film. So I kept looking.

After a few weeks without success, I had the idea to contact Kevin Anderton of Midnight Chimes Productions. I figured he had made and distributed loads of short films in the area and he might have an idea. And, he did: David Eells. David had edited documentaries for NOVA, but he also had edited several short narrative films. And luckily, he was interested in the film.

So I handed over the EDL and raw footage once again. This meant the inevitable technical problems. Like, there seemed to be something wrong with the way I originally digitized the footage. So once again, I rented a HDV deck for David to re-digitize the footage (this was the third time -- first by me, second by the original editor). And we discovered that Premiere Pro (where I had edited the rough cut) did not import cleanly into Final Cut Pro (David’s editing software), which meant he had to redo much of what I did.

Nonetheless, David got to work on the film in mid-November 2007 and we agreed upon a completion date December 15, 2007, which was the deadline for the Tribeca Film Festival. (I picked Tribeca because it has a children’s category.) After the footage sat idle for over a year, completion in one month seemed a bit absurd, but there’s nothing quite like a deadline to motivate. David got a rough cut together right away, and we had a talk.

One slight problem: David didn’t think the film really ended, and once I thought about it, I had to agree. He had said it needed some final harkening back to the red sneakers, but to me it was a bit more than that. So we brainstormed some ideas, and I got back in touch with Shelby Mackenzie Flynn (who played Cassie, the lead) for a re-shoot. Since I needed to get a new pair of red sneakers for her, I asked for her shoe size. It was then that I realized that a 10-year-old could change quite a bit in one and a half years. So I asked for a recent picture. She had grown, no doubt, but luckily she looked pretty much the same. And since these shots were for the end of the film, I decided it would work. So I rented an HDV camera (the same camera was no longer available so I had to use another one) and drove up to New Hampshire on December 1, 2007 to shoot some extra shots with Shelby. It went smoothly despite the fact that I barely knew how to operate the camera and hadn’t brought any professional lights. I certainly appreciated the work of my DP (Amy Elliott) even more that day. After the shoot, I drove the footage directly to David’s house to digitize.

With the new footage, David did a few iterations (I think final number was six), adjusting each time for comments, until we locked picture. Overall, I highly recommend having a separate editor if you can. David brought a new perspective to the film, made some necessary cuts, solved some real problems (like how to transition the film backward and forward in time), and definitely helped make the film the best it could be.

Making Music


This shot cost $2,000 in music rights. 
[Click to enlarge]

Once picture was locked, I consulted with local composer Evren Celimli who had agreed to create original music for the film. He and I had spent nearly a year conversing via email. Luckily, he was still available when I was finally ready.

There are many ways to get music for your film. There are now a ton of sites like Rumblefish, designed for an independent filmmaker budget. However, there is just nothing as perfect as a professionally-composed score for your film. Never underestimate the power of music: it can clarify moods, depict revelations, and assist the pacing of a film. I told Evren our target deadline and braced myself for his shocked reaction. But he took it in his stride and told me he had scored longer films in shorter amounts of time. So we were good to go.

Per Evren’s request, I forwarded some notes based on timecode on what mood I envisioned for the music in each scene. I got that over to him at the end of November and he got to work on the music. And I absolutely loved the song he wrote -- a piece of which you can hear in the opening clip. I had only a few suggestions for a re-work of some of the other parts which he was able to tweak. He also contributed some suggestions on sounds to add throughout the film which was helpful.

The three of us worked virtually from home computers but we set up December 13th as the day to all meet at David’s house to lay down the final soundtrack together. Of course, that got foiled due to a huge snowstorm (that’s Boston, for you). So we resigned ourselves to completing the project virtually. David output the final film on a DVD and FedExed it to me. And sure enough we did finish in time for the Tribeca deadline. A few weeks later, I stopped by David’s with a disk drive and copied over all the footage -- Final Cut Pro files, etc. -- in case I needed to do any final changes before screenings. It is important if you have an editor to make sure you get all the files once the film is complete. Storage isn’t as expensive as it used to be, but you can’t guarantee that your editor will hold onto your files for you forever (or even a few months).

Meanwhile, having gone through the hassle of obtaining music rights for a film I worked on years ago, I was thrilled to have the simplicity of a composer. Wait: not so fast.  It turned out that one scene had the kids watching TV and one of them coming in and changing the channel. David had popped in the Spongebob Squarepants theme, with Andy changing the channel to Entertainment Tonight. In the shot, you don’t see the TV, but you do hear the music. It worked perfectly.  And as much as I wanted to believe this would be covered under ‘fair use,’ I just am not that naïve especially since I have an aunt who works in music copyright (see LoroMusic.com).

So, I began the quest. There has been one improvement since I last obtained music rights (about 10 years ago): the Internet.  Basically here's how music rights work: you need to get two types of rights, master (the actual recording) and synchronization (the right to match the music and lyrics to visual media).  If you decide to re-record the song from scratch yourself, then all you need is the synchronization rights.  Read more about it in an article from NewEnglandFilm.com's archives "Getting in Tune: A Guide to Acquiring Music Rights for Your Film."

Anyway, it's quite simple to find who owns the rights to the songs you are seeking at www.bmi.com or www.ascap.com. And there is also the All Music Guide (www.allmusic.com) as an alternative source. The contact information is easily obtained that way. It sounds so simple as I explain it, so I’m not sure why I find music rights always so confusing but they are. I guess it's because there is usually lots of paperwork, several type of rights (among several songs) to keep track of, and several people at different companies who you have to follow-up with.  Anyway, the Spongebob use was approved but for some reason the writer or publisher for the Entertainment Tonight theme rejected my application. Probably because they don’t want to look foolish, although they do a fine job of that without my help. So I started to look for back-up music with the help of a very nice woman who works at Sony ATV licensing, and ultimately settled on the Jeopardy theme. All in all, the total cost was $2,000 -- essentially $500 for each song for each type of right. This got me one year of festival-only screenings and nothing more. A hefty price to pay if you ask me, but I did it. You can be sure next time I will be making sure there is no necessity for licensed music in my script.

Since the rights I bought only lasted a year and didn’t include Internet rights, I also purchased a song (Sugar Power theme) from Rumblefish ($25) and found one royalty-free new song and was able to create an alternate version of the film with those songs in it.

Festival Dance

Submitting to film festivals is not glamorous -- it’s a lot of paperwork, post office trips, and rejection. Each festival costs on average about $25-$40 for submission so it’s not cheap either. I got a few rejections for festivals that were clear reaches: Tribeca, Aspen. But happily, I received a few acceptances as well: Woods Hole Film Festival premiered the film on July 26, 2008 and the Rhode Island International Film Festival will screen it on August 5, 2008 at 9:30 am. Most festivals I found were very considerate in replying with a rejection or acceptance by their own notification deadline, but there were a few unfortunate exceptions. For example, the Newport International Film Festival sent me their rejection email on May 8th, over a week after the notification date and even after they had posted their schedule to the general public online.

Finally, once you are actually accepted into a film festival, you need to provide them with a master. Not surprisingly, every venue accepts different formats. So the HDCam master that I had made worked great for Woods Hole, but for Rhode Island I rushed to get a BluRay mastered (George Marshall the festival director assured me that DVD would be fine, but I just couldn’t do it). Since BluRay is relatively new, I had to do some research on what companies provide this and came across Gamma Ray Digital, Inc. in Boston who was able to get it out in the nick of time with the help of Video and Vision in Newport, RI (literally as I write this)!

At the premiere of the film last week, I also learned that it’s wise to take on the marketing of your screenings and this can’t just mean posting it on your website. A little slimmer of an audience than I expected, but it was still great fun to see the film on a screen larger than my TV and get reactions from the audience. But there are lots of things you can do to promote your screening: post it on NewEnglandFilm.com, send out emails to friends and family; send out press releases; mail out postcards.  Promote it in any way you can.  And here I am doing that -- come to the next screening of Red Sneakers!

Red Sneakers screens on August 5, 2008 at 9:30 as part of the Rhode Island International Film Festival.  More information on the screening can be found at http://riiff2008.withoutabox.com/festivals/event_item.php?id=16754 and the film festival website at www.film-festival.org.  For more information on the film, visit www.redsneakersmovie.com.