Every fiction writer should experiment with screenwriting to learn about visual storytelling–and I believe all screenwriters should make their own film at least once. Luckily, making movies has never been easier, even if you have no experience.
This is a step-by-step guide to making your own trailers and movies with the iMovie app for iPhone and iPad ($4.99).
Although I am a screenwriter who co-produced a short zombie film in 2013 (Danger Word), I had never MADE a short film myself until a couple of weeks ago. I shot and edited (and starred in) a short horror film called “Lost,” which has a social justice message. It was great fun to film and edit on my iPhone, though many will prefer the larger iPad screen.
My flim is only nine minutes long. If you can, check it out before you read on:
I know it isn’t perfect. Every time I watch it, I notice something else I want to change. But I’m totally geeked about the fact that it exists–it’s out on YouTube just like a film with a full cast, crew and budget. And I made it literally from the palm of my hand.
I’m sure there are other video editing programs out there, but I have an iPhone 6, so I used the iMovie app. (The Sundance film Tangerine was shot on an iPhone 5s, so you don’t need the latest phone.) My mini tutorial here will be focused on the iMovie app and its editing capabilities. I have not experimented with other apps or video editing programs.
Start small — with a trailer
Even a nine-minute film is ambitious, and I would not have had as much confidence while I was shooting if I hadn’t started with iMovie trailers from templates. I’ve shot personal trailers I won’t share here (my son’s basketball game, for example), but I cut my teeth editing trailers for my books My Soul to Take, Devil’s Wake and Ghost Summer. The latter was a DIRECT inspiration for my short film: I found a spooky location I liked, and I wanted to build it into a longer video.
With the first trailer, My Soul to Take, I cheated and shot it all in one take. That’s the easiest way. No editing needed.
But most videos will need editing, and the iMovie trailer templates are a good tutorial on how to order your shots, choose which shots to use, and create a narrative from your footage. (Raw footage often won’t tell a story until you order it and give it meaning in context. My son’t basketball team never won a game, but my trailer made them look like champs.)
I won’t spend much time on trailers. You can watch YouTube videos on creating movie trailers. I also did not use the full iMovie program on my desktop–just the app–so its functionality was more limited. You can check out YouTube videos on how to use the full iMovie program. Apple also offers workshops on iMovie.
Push the “+” button to create a movie or trailer
When you sign into the iMovie app, you press the “+” sign to create a New Project. (Or press “Theater,” which will take you to a “+” sign option.) You’ll have a choice between creating a MOVIE or TRAILER. For practice, choose TRAILER and start having fun. The prepackaged trailers don’t give you as much creativity, but they look and sound like authentic trailers.
Once you select Trailer, you’ll get a menu of trailer styles, from Adrenaline to Family to Bollywood. Pick the style that best suits the project you would like to make. (If you like horror, pick Spooky.)
Now comes the editing work: you’ll see a basic storyboard with empty video spaces for the clips YOU will provide. Be sure to keep all of the video clips you incorporate in your trailer or movie even after you have finished your project, until it’s uploaded or downloaded–if you erase the original footage, you’re also erasing the footage in iMovie. (I learned this the hard way.)
Now you have your work space. Touch the first blank footage spot in your storyboard and you’ll get a menu of choices. All of my video clips were simply in my phone’s camera roll, which is where yours are likely to be. So, you can scroll through footage you’ve shot and try to decide what should go where in your trailer. (This is also true when making a regular movie, not just a trailer, but you won’t get the suggested shots and lengths. You’ll be on your own.)
Now you’re ready to start!
Bit by bit, if you follow the guidelines, you’ll see an actual trailer taking shape, complete with opening titles and a fancy thematic presentation that can entertain friends and family.
Or, if you’re actually promoting a book or film, your trailer can be the real deal: a teaser to help motivate interest in your project. I have done both kinds. Both are great practice for the short film you’ve always been dying to make.
Again, this isn’t a full trailer tutorial. This is just covering the basics. Like me, you will find yourself racing to YouTube to find videos on how to navigate the program. But the iMovie app is fairly intuitive (more so than the full program, in my opinion), so you should get the hang of it pretty quickly.
Shooting your short film
If you already have some video editing experience, you might want to skip making a trailer and get straight to original filmmaking.
Be realistic. You have an Oscar-worthy film in mind, but you’re a newbie. Just have fun making your first one while you build your experience. I chose a found footage horror style because I wouldn’t have to recreate many traditional camera angles (with cameras that can pan or pull back more smoothly). I also chose an isolated location (a hiking trail) so I wouldn’t have to be bothered with bogies (people wandering into my shots) or endless explanations. I really wanted the editing experience, so I craved a simple shoot.
For some of you, that might mean a scene in one room, limiting your film to a simple location. Maybe a couple is arguing or experiencing an intruder or a paranormal event in their bedroom. Think of the short old-time radio shows like “Suspense” and TV’s “The Twilight Zone” how they created stories with limited time and locations. What is your film equivalent?
Filmmaking is all about the art of illusion. Instead of wishing you could shoot in a mansion, try to think about alternatives. Maybe someone will give you permission to shoot a mansion exterior, but the interior shots are in that great dining room in your mother’s house she only uses for Thanksgiving.
What can you subsitute for the thing you really want? How will you create your illusions? Be creative!
I did not explore ALL of the functionality of the iMovie app. Don’t feel frustrated if there is missing information here. I learned one piece at a time, one Google search and YouTube video at a time. This is a basic primer.
Here’s a list of apps for filmmakers you might find helpful. (But see Rule #1 below. I did not use these.)
CARDINAL RULES FOR NEW FILMMAKERS
- Try not to spend a cent. Your iPhone was expensive, and the iMovie app is $4.99. You’ve spent enough. Unexpected expenses will crop up (I had to call Uber when I got lost hiking once), but have the mindset that you’re going to spend as little as possible at every step. Wait until you’re more experienced to start spending money.
- A successful shoot is all about planning. Whenever possible, don’t “wing it.” Whatever can go wrong will go wrong anyway, so your plan is the only thing between you and chaos. Have a “shot list,” a list of the shots you need to complete on each day of your shoot. (There’s an app for this, but see Rule #1. Paper and pencil also work.) Give yourself time between takes to set up shots. Phones will ring, power will go off, people will interrupt you–so be prepared for contingencies.
- Keep it moving. Don’t fall in love with your visuals and linger forever. Don’t let characters sit too long in static conversation; mix up the camera angles or focus on an important item to enliven the visuals. Then trim, trim, trim.
- Make your film look pretty. Filmmaking is Photography Plus–so there’s a reason Hollywood films have large, sprawling sets. You won’t have the budget for helicopter shots, but try to find the beauty in each angle, each shot. Don’t let loose wires and misplaced shadows ruin a great take. KNOW what’s in the frame before you push “record.” If you can’t find the “big” beauty in a shot, look for smaller snatches of beauty. Along those lines…
- Light your scenes well. Even shooting outside, I had to do retakes because of shadows across my face, etc. Poor lighting dulls colors and details and makes your film less interesting–or sometimes impossible–to watch.
Which leads me to…
THE BIGGEST THINGS THAT CAN RUIN YOUR MOVIE
- A bad or uncompelling story.
Many readers of this blog are writers, so don’t skimp on the script just because it’s a short film you’re making with your phone. In today’s social media environment, you never know what might “go viral”–so give your film a chance. I use a free program, writerduet.com, to write my screenplays. (If you’ve never written one, that’s where you start.) Begin with a “logline,” a couple of sentences about what your film is about. Then expand it to a treatment–what happens in each scene–and then add dialogue last. Watch short films to see what other filmmakers are doing with the medium.
The rule of thumb is that if you want a six-minute movie, write a six-page script, and so on. (It’s not a perfect rule, but it’s a guideline.) If you’re not a writer, find a short story you like and approach the author about a free option. Many writers will be flattered that you want to make an adaptation of their short work, even if it isn’t for pay. Do not adapt works you do not have permission to adapt.
I know — you’re not Quentin Tarantino yet, so you can’t find A-list talent to star in your short film. But there are good actors everywhere, and many are eager for a chance to get any kind of film experience. The problem is, instead of looking for the best actors we can find, we tend to look for the best actors we know. My son has worked with me on trailers, but I would look at a children’s theater for a child actor to carry a film. Or a local talent agency. Or a school drama program. Or ask parents at my school PTA. I may not find perfect casting, but it won’t be for lack of trying.
Using actors we know well can sometimes pay off great: We’re giving a friend or loved one a break, we’re keeping harmony on the set, and we’re sharing a bonding experience. But few things will ruin a film faster than a terrible casting choice. And not all relationships can withstand the pressures of filmmaking–even a small film. (I was very nervous about starring in “Lost,” but I decided I could make it faster if I didn’t look for an actress. My passion for the film’s subject — and weariness on the hiking trail — helped me produce the tears I needed on demand.)
Try to be objective. Do video screen tests, when possible. Good acting is half the battle. And make sure they don’t look at the camera unless you’re breaking the fourth wall for a direct address, or documentary style.
Let’s say you shot your footage while you were in Miami, but now you’re back in Iowa and you have no access to a beach. But you forgot to shoot the important scene where your heroine swims from the ocean to the sandy shore. Unless you do reshoots, lack of coverage often means reimagining the scene–and sometimes improving it. But it’s never fun to realize you didn’t get enough shots to convey your story. Gaps in your footage will create confusion you may not be able to fix in editing, literally What’s going on? Where’d she come from? (I returned to my location for reshoots when I made “Lost,” so try to shoot somewhere reshoots would not be a hassle.)
- Poor visual quality. Unless you’re doing a shakycam style on purpose, your camera should not shake. Invest in a cheap iPhone (or iPad) tripod so your camera work will look professional. Fill up the screen with rich images.
As your process goes on, you will learn what footage to fight for and what to let go.
Too many novice filmmakers underestimate the value of sound quality. The iPhone has terrific microphone access both in the camera itself and in the iMovie app, so there’s no excuse for poor sound. You can buy filmmaking apps that would improve sound, but even if you go with the basic setup, the mic on my iPhone was sensitive enough to pick up the sounds of a beetle’s legs crackling small twigs, shot up close.
Rules of thumb: Make sure your microphone is close enough to pick up strong sound. (And even if your sound is too low, as my cat’s mew was near the end of my film, you can adjust the volume of the clip in iMovie to make it louder–but you’ll make any background noises or hums louder too.)
Make your actors PROJECT. Just like I tell my screenwriting students about writing dialogue, acting is not conversation–it’s a RECREATION of conversation. That means slowing down, more careful enunciation, a few more subtle pauses, fewer “uhms.” All the while making it look and sound natural.
Check your footage as you go to make sure you’re satisfied with the video and sound quality. With a film crew, you would have a unit dedicated to creating great sound, and then a sound editor later to make it sound ever better. With “Lost,” I did it all myself. (And I have a passing airplane hum in in important shot I can’t do anything about. I would have lost too much I wanted if I’d muted the sound in the clip. Plus, I didn’t notice it until later.)
A note on cars and driving: Moving cars have a loud hum. Often, filmmakers will record sound later to recreate a conversation in a car–which is what I did in “Lost.” The opening phone conversation in the car was recorded over the video footage. (In our Danger Word short, actors Frankie Faison and Saoirse Scott spoke only after their truck was parked, for example.)
- Missing foley (Don’t forget the footsteps!)
iMovie allows you to record sound over your video, even if you don’t mute the original sound. I was shooting in woods full of crunchy leaves, so I had plenty of footsteps. But I did notice a scene that was more like a still photo with no sound, and it didn’t fit–my character would have been in motion around the camera she had “set aside”–so I went back to shoot ambient sound for that scene. That’s called “foley.” If characters are walking across floors, or someone is approaching, amplify sound so that it will stand out. Footsteps matter in creating the illusion. If someone is preparing food in the kitchen, add a bit of clatter if it isn’t there, or running water. I added a cat’s mew to broaden the scene outside of the shot and lead the appearance of a cat on the bed, which might have looked odd without the preceding mew.
SPECIAL TIPS FOR IPHONE USERS:
This may seem obvious, but a ringing phone will stop your video during a shoot. Put your phone in airplane mode when you’re shooting. Also be sure that you do not have your phone in “selfie” mode–I lost a great take because my camera was facing the wrong way! (I didn’t have a crew or cast, so I was both videographer and actress and couldn’t see it in progress.)
NOW YOU’RE READY TO EDIT YOUR FILM!
Don’t wait until the film is entirely shot before you start editing. I edited “Lost” as I went to see how the footage fit together, and to suggest story changes I hadn’t thought about when I wrote the script. Because it was set on a hiking trail (and I often literally could not FIND the location I’d written into the script), I ended up doing a lot of improvisation during the shoot. Editing as you go will give you an idea of necessary reshoots, or give you ideas to tighten or reshape your story.
If you select Movie from the “+” menu, you’ll also get a list of themes and options. Depending on which you choose, the movie will have a very different look: from a CNN iReport to a travel video, etc. I always choose SIMPLE, which gives me a clean work space. This is how it looks when you first start a “Simple” movie:
Opening titles (secret hint)
You can create your movie to fade in (with the gear tab on the right side, which has a few other options), but the app does not include a black screen for your opening titles, i.e. your movie title, who is directing it, your stars, etc. You can add text over any video image, but in my film I wanted to open with a simple white-on-black title: “A film by Tananarive Due.” (I also made a separate producer’s logo video I have used for a couple of different projects, but you don’t need to. If you want to make one, it’s just a mini movie you import like any other video footage once it’s on your camera roll.)
So here’s a quick hint: Cover your camera lens to create a black screen, about 15 seconds. You can go back to that footage to create closing titles too–although I didn’t see a way to make them scroll on the app. (Also, remember to turn down the VOLUME on your black screen, since sound will be captured even if the screen is black.)
Use the top “Add Media” symbol above to access your camera roll and import the black video footage. Then use the “T” symbol to add text (more on that below).
With text on the black screen, your opening title will look like this:
Now it feels like you’re making a movie!
In the photo below, I have already imported my video and recorded some sound. As you’re working, here’s what your iMovie work space will look like. (When you tap the “?” key in the top right side, hints light up like this:
In the photo BELOW, notice the symbols on the right and left side of the images: these are your editing tools. Once you have selected a clip, the clip will light up in yellow. (This will be familiar if you’ve used the bigger program.) Once a clip is in yellow, you can trim it, edit the sound, or edit the image (slow motion, speed it up, freeze it, etc.)
Now you’re ready to edit
See the sybols on the lower left:
SCISSORS: Trim your clip down.
CLOCK: Change the pacing of the video.
AUDIO: Adjust the volume in the video clip, or adjust the sound.
T: “Text” — This is where you add text either in the center or bottom of your video, usually at the beginning and end.
The last symbol will give your video different hues, shades, etc. I usually prefer to work from the raw footage. Overdoing stylistic tricks like different hues, etc., may be distracting and look amateurish. (I only changed the hue once, for a flashback.) But take a look and see how the different filters change the appearance of your video.
How to trim a video clip:
Admittedly, trimming clips is my biggest frustration with the iMovie app–and will be the thing that drives more experienced filmmakers crazy. It isn’t super precise. When you tap the clip you want to trim, it will show up in YELLOW (as in the photo above). Tapping the SCISSORS icon puts you in trim mode. While the clip is in yellow, swipe your finger down vertically to trim it. It won’t always work the first time. There’s a magic touch involved. And it’s way easier to trim a clip down the center than it is to just lop off a second or two at the beginning or end–if it’s too close to the beginning or the end, it may not work. You will want to play with this and experiment.
Once you have successfully trimmed the video, the part you lopped off will show up in its own editing box. You can tap it to turn it yellow to DELETE or to edit it–say, if you wanted to add a sound effect or text only to that portion. (Unless you delete a trimmed video clip, it will still play in order in your movie, as if it was never trimmed.)
The more precise you want your trims to be, the more time it will take to play with the app to learn the magic touch.
Don’t forget to edit the TRANSITIONS. (See the tiny boxes between clips–they are “fades,” “wipes,” etc.) You edit the transitions the same way you edit the video clips, by tapping the symbol between clips until it turns yellow and offers an editing menu. Experiment a bit to see how they look. You can always change them later.
Again, I suggest using the first option, NONE, for a clean edit the way most pros do it. In horror, I have used the Theme (“star”) transition a couple of times to draw attention to something scary–it’s a nice little effect–but too many gimmicks will make your film look amateurish, like saying “he exploded” instead of “he said” in your writing. Your viewer does not want to notice your transitions. The story is the most important thing.
So, that’s how you edit your movie. One clip at a time. One transition at a time.
A few words on sound editing:
The iMovie app has music and a few canned sound effects you can add to your film. The “Add Media” icon you use to import video clips will also take you to a sound menu. I have used the “Giggle” sound effect twice, but the options are very limited. More often, I have recorded my own sound over an existing clip to enhance it. Choose the spot on your video clip where you want to add new sound, press the MICROPHONE icon, and wait for the prompt to record. You can replay your recording before saving it and keep recording it until it’s right. (Notice all the added sound below, in blue and purple strips.)
Theoretically, once a sound clip is in yellow (like the one above), you can slide it from either end to trim it (careful!), or even hold it to drag it to another spot in your movie. But be careful with sound editing in the iMovie app. I have accidentally erased sound clips, or accidentally moved a clip that was too small to erase and would not light up in yellow. I suggest recording the sound exactly as you want it in your film and limiting any attempts to trim or move it once it’s recorded. And if you’re recording new sound to REPLACE the original sound, don’t forget to go to your original video clip, tap it to turn it yellow, and then MUTE the sound. Otherwise, your new sound will blend with the original sound. (You can adjust the volume of either/both.)
Your end credits
I haven’t found a way to recreate traditional rolling credits in the iMovie app, but you CAN use your black video footage I suggested at the start to create new title cards. iMovie offers a variety of styles for text, both at the bottom of the screen and the center of the screen, so have fun experimenting with the style that works for you. (Hint: Don’t linger too long.)
VERY IMPORTANT: Once your video is finished
As I said earlier, even once your project is finished in iMovie, do not erase the original footage from your camera–or it will wipe out the footage in iMovie too. Definitely save a copy of the finished film on your camera roll. Your movie is not truly “saved” as a final project until you remove it from your phone or iPad. For me, the easiest way to do this is to upload it directly to YouTube.
But I have never been able to get the iMovie app to work properly to upload to YouTube directly. In fact, uploading any project more than a couple of minutes long to YouTube can be a major hassle.
So here’s a workaround: get a FREE app called YouTube Capture, which is the most consistent app I have found for uploading longer videos. First, link YouTube Capture to your YouTube page. (If you don’t have a page yet, you’ll need to create one.) Once you have saved your iMovie project to your camera roll, open YouTube Capture, tap on the video you want to upload, adjust the settings (Is it Private? Public? Unlisted? You can always change this later in YouTube), and start uploading.
(HINT: In settings on YouTube Capture, the default is to add Video Stabilization and Color Correction. Because I shot a found footage style, shaky cam movie, I did NOT want video stabilization. But I always opt for color correction. In your video, these defaults may not matter.)
Make sure you’re connected to wifi to upload your video. When possible, I even suggest babysitting the process, tapping on the screen occasionally to keep it from going black, because sometimes the app will glitch when your phone sleeps. Depending on how long your video is, uploading might take from five minutes to thirty minutes. If YouTube will not allow you to upload a longer video, you may need to go to YouTube SETTINGS and authorize YouTube to allow longer videos.
Once your app says the video has uploaded to YouTube, it will take time–sometimes a long time–for YouTube to finalize it. But then it’s done! Show a few friends, get feedback, and go make changes in your iMovie project to upload again if you like.
As I said earlier, this isn’t a comprehensive course, but it should be enough to get you started.
Tananarive Due is an American Book Award winner and NAACP Image Award winner. She teaches creative writing in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles and Afrofuturism at UCLA. She has also taught screenwriting. Join Tananarive’s email list.