Hindsight is 20/20: Lessons I Wished I’d Learned Before Making My First Short Film

Kathy Cabrera

Guest post by filmmaker and ATLFF instructor Kathy Cabrera. See the end of this post for details on Kathy’s series of online seminars about short film production.

When I produced my first comedic short film in August 2007, I was taking on a bigger feat than I could possibly imagine. For one, my focus up until then had been on screenwriting at the UCLA School of Theater Film & Television. I found myself falling into the producer role as I had previous corporate experience in project management and pretty savvy organizational skills. What I didn’t have, however, was the experience of making a short, nor did I make it a point to invest in any course on actual short filmmaking. So, when the director asked me to line up resources like a “grip” and a “gaffer” and to get estimates on a “gennie” (film crew lingo for “generator”) in addition to helping line-up casting, get sponsors and balance the budget – I was wondering: a) just what these foreign sounding resources and equipment were and b) how these assignments had anything to do with creative storytelling, which, as a producer, I assumed my role would be since I was also a co-writer on the script. 

These things were just the tip of the iceberg. The calamities that befell both me and the production – caused by relying on too many low-budget or no-budget “favors,” including one from an editor who couldn’t stay out of rehab long enough to complete our project and an audio guy who couldn’t record audio clearly enough to be considered a professional – were immense. Combined with my sheer inexperience, these aspects made the production itself as laughable as the subject matter should have been. 

What I learned from that crash and burn experience of attempting to make a short film that, ultimately, never saw the light of a post-production day, let alone the lofty screens of a film festival, was invaluable to me. And, I later went on to produce professional-grade short narrative films that won awards and helped establish my film career. These were done working with Emmy Award-winning crews, having budgets that were larger than the cost of a starter house in the metro Atlanta real estate market and by obtaining support from major sponsors like the Director’s Guild of America, Panavision and Kodak. While I have since stopped grieving the loss of that first project, I use those hard lessons from it to help me instruct aspiring filmmakers in those key areas in which I should’ve better prepared myself. My quest is to save future first-time filmmakers from the lost energy, time, money and resources that I squandered in my first production.

In truth, that first painful production actually was an achievement for me in that it was my first lesson in short filmmaking. And, what I advise to my students as being of foremost importance is to learn from others’ experiences before making their own films. I also recommend starting with low-budget or no-budget films. Use friends and family as volunteer cast members, shoot with a smart phone and download inexpensive or free editing programs and apps to get the final version produced. The goals of your early short films should be to learn the process and the key roles and responsibilities of all involved. Once you have several of your own low-budget films underway and have also volunteered to work on others’ short film sets (which differ significantly from features and television), only then should you invest your time and money or that of others into producing a short film of substance. It will provide the gateway for you to enter your filmmaking career.

If your next short film is one that you sincerely strive to make to get you noticed as up and coming talent for Hollywood to pay attention to – I’d love nothing more than to guide you in the best and proven practices used by the industry’s top professionals. Join me for a free webinar on Wednesday, 9/10 that serves as a preview to the four-course series on Short Filmmaking 101 (starts Wednesday, 9/17). 

Kathy’s short film seminar course will be held online every other Wednesday starting 9/17/14-10/29/14; 7:30-9PM ET. The webinar series is designed for both new filmmakers to learn the steps they should take to make a short film; and for experienced filmmakers looking to start a short film project they will either personally finance or seek funding from outside investors.