Prologue to the feature: My short films. (Part I)

Memories of The Sea

Before I started thinking of my first feature I learned my directing craft through making short films. In this post I’ll tell you what the process was to make my first one and how it helped me advance my career.

I want to make a note here and say that even though making a short has usually been seen as the first step and then you would  “graduate” to making your feature, this is not the case anymore. Many accomplished directors with long careers are making both shorts and features and dancing seamlessly between them. The format has become appealing as audiences’ attention span shortens and as new platforms offer a space for shorts to live in. There’s also something to say about the opportunities branded content is offering to big directors to go back to the short form and make something spectacular. For example, Peruvian director Claudia Llosa went on to make her award winning short “Loxoro” AFTER having been nominated for an Oscar with her second feature “The Milk of Sorrow”.

I made three short films while in film school. Two of them while enrolled and a third one as an alumni director for a thesis project of a producing student. I started very small and with each new project, increased its complexity, its challenges and the opportunity to learn from them. 

So let’s talk about the first one: Memories of The Sea.

I shot this film for under $5,000 outside the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It’s the story of a little boy whose father has gone away and is waiting for him to come back only to realize, as his mother gets married to a new man, that that day won’t come. This short was done very efficiently, having one protagonist, four secondary characters and only one scene with extras. We shot for four days in four locations with a twenty person crew of very talented people who fell in love with the project and were willing to do it for a very small sum or even for free. We pulled a lot of favors and kept the post production to a minimum. How can you achieve this? By having a great script people want to be involved with and by offering to work with your collaborators again in a future project with a bigger budget that they’ll be able to benefit from. We shot with my Canon Mark II 5D camera and one of the wins of working with such a talented DP is that you might not even need color correction! The result? An 8 minute short film that went on to screen at various international film festivals, including the top ones for shorts in the USA: Aspen Shortsfest and Palm Springs Shortfest. 

Here’s a screenshot of my film production cost summary so you can have an idea of specific prices by category.

CATEGORYAMOUNT (US$)
Preproduction and Wrap 100
Shooting Crew Labor800
Location and Travel 756
Props & Wardrobe425
Set Design400
Talent700
Equipment 690
Post Production 600
TOTAL4,471

After the short made its rounds through the festival circuit, it was picked up for distribution in public broadcast television by PBS member KQED’s “Film School Shorts” series. The short aired in cities around the country and is now available to stream on their various online platforms. You can check it out here: https://www.kqed.org/filmschoolshorts/memories-sea

How has this short helped me in my career?

  1. It allowed me to explore my visual language in a contained project. Find my voice.
  2. It gave me my first opportunity to navigate the festival circuit, meet other filmmakers, film programmers and people in the industry. Once the film was accepted into those top film festivals, programmers from other film festivals approached me saying either they had seen the short at the festival or they were interested in seeing it, sometimes offering me a waiver to submit to their festival and sometimes even offering me a direct invitation to screen and paying me a screening fee!
  3. It gave me my first experience negotiating a distribution deal and now when I meet with people in the industry it adds to my proven record and desirability as a director: I can make content that people want to buy. (The deal itself allowed me to recoup some of the money I spent making the short).
  4. It allowed me to meet collaborators that I now recurrently work with.

All of this is to say, starting small is a great idea! Write a strong and contained script that you can shoot for cheap and get out there and start mastering your craft!

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