IS IT WORTH THE SCREEN TIME? How Making a Short Film Taught Me the Most Important Screenwriting Lesson

By Kathy Berardi
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When I began my film school studies at UCLA in 2006, I thought I was a great writer. After all, out of over 300 candidates, I was one of the select 30 who would study in the legendary MFA screenwriting program. And, as I began interacting with my fellow writers in our feature film workshops, I found that we all agreed with each other. Our ideas were original, our stories were worthy of being told, and it should only really be a matter of time before Hollywood discovered our brilliance.

It wasn’t until my first full year was completed, however, that I truly realized how much I had left to learn—and I would never learn it in a writing workshop. In fact, it would take until the summer when I l stumbled into producing a short film that I learned the most important lesson about writing for the screen (be that tablet, mobile, movie theater or TV).

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This particular short film was a parody based on the cross-pollinating of two pop culture elements; both of which are long forgotten (as is the fate my first short also endured). Having co-written the script with the director, I thought producing would come totally natural to me. However, within five minutes of being put in the role of calling and recruiting random—yet essential—crew from gaffers to grips (whose roles in film I actually had to Google) and everyone in between, I realized just what a big “production” movie production truly is. And, we hadn’t even started shooting yet!

My biggest wakeup call came when I heard the actors tripping over lines that seemed so eloquent when I’d written them on paper. ‘Gosh,’ I thought the first time I heard a line being read unlike how I had intended it, ‘I wish I’d thought that through a bit more in the writing phase!’

After that crash-and-burn of a producing experience was over, I started my final year at UCLA. I have to say, that experience was a key turning point in my filmmaking career. Suddenly, having produced something where my carefully selected dialogue was spoken by real actors and my scene setups dictated the actual set dressing budget, I truly understood not only the power that I had as a writer, but that incredible responsibility to make everything I wrote worthy of actually being invested in—from time and money to human capital being involved.

Making a short film, and going through the blood, sweat and tears to make my written words into a film, made me ask myself moving forward about my scripts:

“Is this truly ready…. Is it worth the screen time?”

And many times since, answering that question honestly has forced me to rewrite at least one or two drafts beyond what I would’ve done prior to working in production.

Working on a short film also opened my eyes to the possibility of concepting, writing and producing content for an audience in the on-demand style that so many mass communication viewers want. When I first began at UCLA, I had great expectations to be a very distinguished woman feature writer in Hollywood. However, having stumbled into writing and producing a few shorts, I caught the bug for short-form content. And, while I still create different types of content for various mediums and media platforms, my true love is actually now short film. In fact, I have started my own business creating both entertainment and business short form content to engage online audiences.

The best advice I can give any writer who wants to see how words on a page transform into actual moving images on the screen is to learn the full gamut of how to produce a short film. I would recommend volunteering as a production assistant for any short film crew that will have you and then building up and eventually producing or even directing one of your own shorts at as low of a budget as possible to have those projects serve as your foundation-setting education in film.

I am grateful for the invaluable knowledge I soaked up from UCLA’s screenwriting program. Knowing how to tell a story is an art form lost in too many projects today; so, if you master the art of telling a good tale of any length, you’re already ahead of many professional and hobbyist filmmakers alike. However, for me, going through the experience of producing a short film taught me far more than sitting alone in front of a computer screen ever would. If you’re a writer and haven’t yet worked on the production side of the business that’s essential to bringing your pages to life on screen, there’s no easier way to jump in than learning to make a short film.

Learn how to create a short film with Kathy Berardi’s 4-week online course at Screenwriters University. Spots are limited! Register now! Or for her short film webinar via The Writers Store!

About the Author:

Kathy Cabrera Headshot 2015Kathy Berardi is a filmmaking instructor and writer-producer who graduated from the UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television’s MFA in Screenwriting program. In addition to penning eight feature-length screenplays and a drama television pilot, Berardi has also written and produced several award-winning short films with budgets ranging from less than $2,000 to hundreds of thousands of dollars with the support of well-known industry sponsors such as the Director’s Guild of America (DGA), Kodak, Technicolor and Panavision. Berardi has one screenplay optioned and was a finalist for the 2007 NAACP & NBC Screenwriting Fellowship and awarded the 2008 Young and the Restless Fellowship in Television. In addition to filmmaking for the entertainment industry, Berardi is the founder of Red Clip Video, a video production firm that specializes in short form content to help organizations of all sizes create affordable videos to attract, inform and engage their audiences.

 

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For invaluable advice on short film ideas, download the 1st chapter of Roberta Marie Monroe’s book How Not to Make a Short Film! and create inspiring short films today.


3 thoughts on “IS IT WORTH THE SCREEN TIME? How Making a Short Film Taught Me the Most Important Screenwriting Lesson

  1. kirk

    How about get camera, get sound person, learn lighting or get someone who knows lighting and film something. Make mistakes. Learn. Then if you want more knowledge become a production assistant. Amazing how no one ever says that on here.

    1. Jeanne Veillette BowermanJeanne Veillette Bowerman

      Working on set, in any capacity, is a great learning experience for writers. If we’re building the foundation for a story, we should understand what people do with our blueprint. It’s even better to write and produce your own short, but if you don’t want to go through that effort, working on someone else’s is invaluable.

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