Get Your Short Film Into Major Festivals

August 8, 2012 at 6:59 am

Get Your Short Film Into Big Festivals | Independent Film Blog


Aspiring filmmakers who produce short films usually have one goal in mind.  Festivals.

One of the biggest festivals in the world is the Toronto International Film Festival.  A massive gathering of some of the biggest stars, filmmakers and the up and coming artists of tomorrow.  Getting your short film into a major festival like TIFF can be absolutely huge for people trying to make their mark in the industry.

But what does it take to get your film accepted?  What do selection committees and programmers look for?

As an independent filmmaker myself, I decided to find out what it takes to get a short film into TIFF.  So I contacted the festival and was granted an interview with Magali Simard.  It’s her job to help decide which films are accepted into the prestigious festival so there is no better person to ask.  Her wonderful responses offered a unique look inside the process including a number of great tips and helpful advice.

So how do you get your short film into a major festival?

Here is an exclusive look behind the scenes from someone who has seen a TON of shorts and knows what it takes to get accepted.

Special thanks to Magali Simard and TIFF.

Can you briefly summarize the overall selection process for short films?

The Festival is in September, and filmmakers get to submit to us between February and May, by filling our form online through Withoutabox and sending us their films. We make our decisions in July and announce our selection in August.

What’s the first thing you look for in a short?

Maybe it goes without saying, but we look for excellence! Some films achieve high levels of production value, but if the content isn’t there, it just isn’t. It’s about artistic value, originality, execution. We see over 600 short films in couple months, so a film needs to stand out.

What are the most common mistakes filmmakers make?

There are so many steps to making a film – things can go wrong on so many levels. I’d say a recurring mistake is overwriting. The image usually conveys enough. It’s important to trust that the audience will be able to understand and absorb things without having to hammer it over and over.

In your experience, what is the ideal length of a short?

It really depends on the subject. The best run time is the one that is appropriate for what the film needs to achieve. Cutting back is hard for filmmakers, it’s their material and it’s hard to let go of some of it during the editing process. This past Festival we had a 1:30-minute short, and a 30-minute short. They were both wonderful, and time-appropriate.

Does a movie shot on film have a better chance of being accepted than one shot on a lower quality format?

Certain subjects are rightfully approached with a less polished look, and it serves them well. There’s something to be said about the ever changing formats people use.  Just about anyone can make a film, and it creates a ton of new content. Some great, some not at all, but the bigger the pool of production, the more chances good things can come out of it. Nothing should be limiting people from going ahead with their projects.

What would you say is the number one reason that a film is rejected?

Some films nearly make it, we have a certain amount of slots, and it’s heartbreaking to reject some excellent work, but it’s the nature of the beast. Others are not close to making it, of course. Films fail to impress for as many different reasons as they succeed. Concept, plot, character, and aesthetic – you basically need everything to come perfectly together. Yes, bad production can hurt a film, but so can a bad script, bad dialogue, untimely editing, choppy acting, etc.

Each festival usually asks for a submission fee which can add up quickly for many indie filmmakers.  Would you say it’s better to enter only the biggest festivals, the smaller festivals or a combination of both?

For short films, the Festival circuit is vital. So I suggest investing in those submissions but it’s not about submitting just anywhere – there thousands of festivals. Filmmakers should research the places they submit to and see the kind of selection they usually tend toward. Some festivals are more niche and that can be an advantage depending on the film at hand.

What advice would you give aspiring filmmakers before they begin their projects? What would you say to those who have submitted their films but have yet to be accepted?

Keep on submitting. Having your film(s) seen by programmers is invaluable. As a programmer, I want to follow filmmakers’ careers, see what they are up to, how they develop from year to year. Without the submissions, it’d be nearly impossible to track so many. Also: you can have a word with programmers after the submissions process to get some feedback. And festivals talk to each other, and if your name’s not out there, it’s kind of impossible to have it discussed. Keep’em coming.

Producing A Low Budget Short Film

January 22, 2012 at 3:58 pm

Producing A Low Budget Short Film | Independent Film Blog


We filmed The Climb over a weekend in May 2010 for about $300.  It was the first project we developed after I launched this blog so there was a ton of coverage here.

There are posts about every topic including budgets, screenwriting, stories from the set, post-production, marketing, promotion, trailers, posters and more.

Now that the film is completed I thought it would be useful to gather every post in one place.  So check out the entire story of how we produced The Climb.



Low Budget Filmmaking: The Climb’s Budget

The Climb’s 1st Location Scout

Screenwriting: Rewriting The Climb

Meet The Cast Of The Climb

Storyboarding When You Can’t Draw

Designing The Tattoos

The Director Of Photography

First Tattoo Sketches And Tests

No Budget Filmmaking: Producing A Short Film

The Need To Edit A Movie

Improving The Screenplay

Pre-Production Day

Final Make-Up Tests

Wardrobe And Props

Rehearsing A Short Film

Tweaking Your Screenplay

Directing Short Films: The Calm Before The Storm

Making Progress

Making A Short Film: The Little Details

Final Location Scouts

It Begins!


Technical Specs

Can’t Complain About Early Call Times

I Dislike People Who Honk During Filming

Destiny’s Tattoos

I Don’t Like To Hold The Camera

Rushing To Capture Footage

A Computer, Some Footage And Me

How The Weather Almost Killed Our Short Film

Directing Short Films: Playing Through vs The Climb

That’s A Wrap!


Editing A Short Film: Little Moments

How a dialogue heavy script became a quiet movie

Short Film Editing: Is This Scene Boring?

Tough Cuts: Letting go of a scene

Taking on the opening scene

Editing a short film you directed: The Annoying Part

Editing a short film: You have to start somewhere

I got stuck editing my short film

We Have Picture Lock

Marketing & Promotion

Short Films, After Effects & Video Copilot

The Climb’ Trailer

Planning The Trailer

A new poster for The Climb has arrived

First official still from The Climb

Does this poster sell my independent short film?

The Climb’s poster is here


The Climb: A Journey Ends

The Climb is finished

The Climb: One Year Later

Junko’s Shamisen: From Vision To Reality

April 14, 2011 at 10:41 am

Junko's Shamisen: From Vision To Reality | Award Winning Short Film Junko's Shamisen by Sol Friedman


“I never thought I could be a filmmaker so I was trying to sneak through the backdoor when I started teaching myself animation.”

The short film Junko’s Shamisen is a pretty fantastic and visually impressive blend of live action and animated elements from director Sol Friedman.  (I envy everyone who can draw and animate by the way.)

I really can’t describe it better than the film’s website.

Blending the aesthetic traditions of Japanese Kabuki, contemporary Manga illustration and the use of cell, stop motion and computer animation; Writer, director and animator Sol Friedman brings you this stylized and haunting tale of vengeance.

Junko's Shamisen: From Vision To Reality | Award Winning Short Film Junko's Shamisen by Sol Friedman

“The film has, to date, screened at over fifty international film festivals spanning a pretty huge range of genres from drama, to experimental, to horror and most recently to children’s programming. The film has picked up a few awards along the way, but most exciting of all has been the audience reception. Although the reception has overall been extremely positive, people don’t really know what to compare the film against, so it’s always kind of interesting to hear.”

The film itself is beautifully designed and looks fantastic.  Combining so many art styles is an extremely challenging task to take on and I was eager to learn what inspired Sol to create the film.

“After high school I studied Zen Shiatsu in Toronto and I’ve traveled to Japan several times, so I’ve been fascinated by Japanese art and culture for many years now. For a long time I had been hoping to find a project that I could use to really get into some of the more specific nuances of Japanese art. I was in Tokyo in 2008 showing work at Takashi Murakami’s Geisai Museum art exhibition, and on one of my days off I went to see a Kabuki performance. The pacing, costumes, set decoration, and everything else about the performance really blew me away, but the hook that sold me on Kabuki as the direction was the way that the stagehands would run through and modify the scenery. You could see them running, but in their dark clothing they would float by and fade into the background like ghosts. It was pretty exciting for me.”

Knowing the style you’re attempting to achieve is only half the battle if you aren’t willing to put in the work to create something new.  Sol spent nearly 8 months working tirelessly to visualize the film.  An accomplished artist, the director credits several different influences that contributed to his design process.

“I’m not particularly well-versed in Manga/anime culture but I did look to a bunch of famous books and films. Some obvious connections for me were Lone Wolf and Cub, Lady Snowblood, Zatoichi. But I’m also a huge fan of Michel Gondry so I thought about some of his more experimental work when developing the stage treatments. I wanted  to really push the blurred edge between the computer generated and the handcrafted elements. I referenced many comic books when I was putting together the style frames, but also looked a lot to Kabuki to fill in some of the blanks in terms of the tonal treatment. But with most of what I do, the process generally resolves itself by just getting into it, and seeing what works and what doesn’t.”

Junko's Shamisen: From Vision To Reality | Award Winning Short Film Junko's Shamisen by Sol Friedman

Getting an ambitious project like Junko’s Shamisen off the ground is extremely challenging but Sol’s dedication prevailed by truly being able to communicate what he wanted to achieve and what the film could be.

“In Canada we are very fortunate to have a supportive arts community. I was able to secure financing at a federal and provincial level as well as from a private broadcaster. Which is really amazing. This obviously meant a good deal of time spent on the administrative side, but it allowed me to hire a top-notch crew, and ultimately to develop some familiarity with the pitching process.”

So armed with his passion for Japanese culture and a keen interest in various filmmaking techniques, Sol set out to realize his vision of Junko’s Shamisen.  A vision he would have to execute while taking on the challenging roles of writer, director and animator.

“Each presented its own challenges. I am a self-taught animator, so working with actors is quite a bit different. I like to keep massaging elements until the final print, but on set you have a limited amount of time, and there’s a lot less wiggle room so being economical is hugely important . This was also my first time working with a proper producer and crew, so with regards to writing and directing, I had to step outside my shell to communicate to the team about what was in my head. Again, working on my own, in the dark, for weeks on end, those concerns aren’t as persistent. As far as animation went on this project, there were several styles mixed together so as you can imagine, there were various challenges along the way mainly in terms of keeping the aesthetic coherent but eclectic at the same time.”

Junko's Shamisen: From Vision To Reality | Award Winning Short Film Junko's Shamisen by Sol Friedman

Once on set, the director relied heavily on his artistic background to communicate what he wanted to his crew.

“I definitely think being an artist was an asset. It certainly helped in communicating and executing my idea, but perhaps more importantly, it informed a flexibility in my approach. I am not terribly stubborn in the real world, and even less so in art. So I try to keep doors open wherever possible.  Ironically, I had the least on set experience out of anyone, including the eleven year old lead, but since it was an all greenscreen soundstage, and I knew what I needed in order to composite my shots, it felt like the field was somewhat leveled. All things considered it went very smoothly.”

Once the shooting was complete Sol had a whole new set of hurdles to clear in post production.  The daunting task of creating all the animated elements now presented him with challenges he was excited to take on and overcome.

“A typical day during the VFX on this project would have been about 18 hours of me sitting in front of the computer drinking coffee, clicking buttons, and mostly just waiting for things to render then tweak . We shot on Red and for the final composites, used 16-bit TIFF sequences so the files were really heavy-and by the end pretty belligerent.  The editing was done in Final Cut Pro and I worked completely in Adobe After Effects for all compositing, animation and hand drawn elements.  I pushed the software (After Effects) as far as I could with some shots composed of over 1200 layers. The Fox was animated by Pete Levin in LA (who just directed a foo fighter’s video). He sent me files that I played with using a mixture of AE and FCP as necessary.”

Next up for Junko’s Shamisen?

“The film has far exceeded my expectations. I thought we’d play it in a few local film festivals, but our premiere was at Slamdance in Park City (running parallel to Sundance), and from there it has gone on to screen at over fifty festivals worldwide. I recently released the film to the public online and am hoping to build some word of mouth and get the film into the hands of somebody who can help turn this into a killer feature version.”


As for Sol Friedman, the director has already begun work on his next project.

“I am in pre-production right now on a robot love story which I am pretty excited about. Hopefully in the fall we’ll have something to show.”

Special thanks to Sol Friedman for the interview.

If you would like to see you film featured on The Athletic Nerd, email me the details at

Finding Your Muse: Creating A Short Film

February 4, 2011 at 12:34 pm

Finding Your Muse: An Interview With Screenwriter David Spies | Screenwriting Blog


“Inspiration is a funny thing”

It can be difficult sometimes to get a short film project off the ground.  There are thousands of elements that have to fall into place.  Crew, Locations, Actors, Schedules, Budgets, Equipment…

Above all else, you need to possess a high level of dedication to a project.  You have to believe in the film you are producing.  You have to be passionate.

Screenwriter and director David Spies has that passion and used it to produce a brand new short film.

A Musing

Synopsis:  Pete Matthews is a writer that hasn’t penned a word in three years. He’s under the pressure of his deadline-driven literary agent Bill Skinner to make a change for the better, or else… Pete sets out on a local journey to find the “muse” that will unlock his once-prevalent creativity. As his panic builds, he wanders through the streets of everyday life in Seattle and discovers that the key to reviving his imagination may just rest with a local liquor mart cashier. After several unsuccessful attempts to find personal inspiration through music, art and nature, Pete is forced to take a second look at the wisdom of this quirky character.

Finding Your Muse: An Interview With Screenwriter/Director David Spies | Screenwriting Blog

It begins with a screenplay.

“I spent several years living in Northern California, skiing just about every resort in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  I couldn’t tell you how many movie ideas I would brainstorm while riding a chair lift…”

David’s screenwriting journey literally took him to the mountains and back in a process he refers to as ‘self applied therapy’.  (I quite like that terminology.)  The Seattle based author enjoys writing horror and comedy with ‘A Musing’ being the latter.

“These were my two favorite genres when I was a kid. I figured the best course of action to fuel my creativity would be; write about what scares me and write about what makes me laugh.”

What fascinates me about other screenwriters is learning about their process.  Many stick to strict routines while others write only when the mood hits.  It all depends on what inspires you.

A Typical Screenwriting Day

“Most days start very early for me. I fire up the espresso machine and brew a triple grande mocha to get my morning started. My wife and kids are off to work and school and I take our dog Mazzy out for her morning walk. It’s during our walk that I brainstorm my current writing project and come up with several ideas around format, plot, characters and dialog. Once we return from our walk, I get on the computer and browse through news articles, local and current events. Believe it or not… I spend a great amount of time on twitter. I like to find those nuggets of information on screenwriting and filmmaking and share them with the world. In between tweets is usually when I start writing. I always write pen to paper until I have written several pages, then I type in Final Draft. A couple days out of the week I make a morning or afternoon trip to my local Starbucks and write for several hours. I like to people watch and pick up on conversations. This usually leads me to creating new characters and fielding ideas for fresh dialog.”

The Muse That Sparked… The Muse

What inspires a screenwriter?  It can truly be anything.  A casual glance with a stranger on the street or a moment of clarity while you stare at your ceiling before falling asleep.  When it came to ‘A Musing’, David found inspiration on a plane.

“I wrote the first draft of “A Musing” while in-flight from Seattle to Phoenix the first week of June 2010. Inspiration is a funny thing; you never know when it’s going to strike. That was the first thought I had while seated in the plane heading to Phoenix. I built off that thought by imagining the most unobvious place that one might find inspiration; a convenience store. Everyone has passed through a convenience store multiple times, but does inspiration strike while inside one? Probably not… What if the clerk at a convenience store was some kind of oracle of knowledge but he really wasn’t… it was at this point, I had the ending for the story before I had even begun to write. I knew I had something worthy to see on film.”

A Musing: The Film

Finding Your Muse: An Interview With Screenwriter/Director David Spies | Screenwriting Blog

David partnered with cinematographer and editor Phil Seneker.  The two combined forces to start gathering all the elements needed to get the film made.  The team took their project to Kickstarter hoping to leverage large twitter followings and savvy social media skills to secure the funding they needed.

It’s truly incredible what you can do when you use social media sites like Twitter to your advantage.  The filmmaking community online is extremely helpful and through many contacts, websites and other sources of traffic, they reached their goal.

“I built our website We received so much support from the filmmaking community on our project, we moved forward with “plan A” the entire duration of our campaign. Julie Keck and Jessica King provided outstanding support for ‘A Musing’ by creating a video just for us! Additional support came from being featured on Rex Sikes Movie Beat. During our radio interview with Rex, we met and exceeded our Kickstarter goal! It was awesome!”

Check out their successful Kickstarter campaign here.

XTRA: Read my 3 part interview with Phil Holbrook, Julie Keck and Jessica King for more on indie film, screenwriting, Twitter, Kickstarter and how they produced the feature film: Tilt.

Production Begins

A Musing Short Film David Spies Phil Seneker

Every film set is different yet they all share many similarities when it comes to scheduling, locations and various unforeseen challenges.  True, there are some nightmares every now and then but I truly believe if you surround yourself with passionate and dedicated people, the experience is unforgettable.

It’s what makes filmmaking so much fun.

The one thing that was clear from the beginning is how much David loved the experience of making ‘A Musing’.  It’s evident in the amount of detail he offered on the day to day adventures on set.

“I was very impressed with the punctuality and professionalism of the cast and crew every day on set. However, scheduling of scenes was heavily condensed on the first day. Thursday Sept 30th – Our call time was 6:30am at the Sloop Tavern on Market Street. This shoot was seamless and we captured a lot of great takes. Andrew McMasters, Stephanie Hilbert and Mark Carr were great! We wrapped just after 11:00am and had lunch. The cast and crew then made their way over to Greenlake Park for a 12:00pm call time. The backdrop of the park on this warm sunny day made for the perfect shoot. Andrew McMasters and Andy Tribolini were the perfect combination for the park bench scene. We wrapped about 4:00pm then a break for dinner.

A Musing Short Film David Spies

Our next location was the Locks Deli & Grocery on Market Street. We had a 9:30pm call time. This is when it started getting interesting… After being up all day and night, we stretched our production into the following morning. Things were getting a little fuzzy… washing down Baklava from the display case with convenience store drip coffee is what kept most of us going… There were multiple takes due to framing, blocking and lighting. The lighting technicians did a fantastic job on toning down the hard fluorescent light with a mix of incandescent bulbs and filters. By the end of this shoot, I did learn that one aspect of the AD’s position is like a parrot with a stopwatch. It always followed me around… We wrapped an hour over schedule at 3:30am.

Our next location was 1 Union downtown Seattle for the office scenes. We had a 10:00am call time. I recognized some little issues while on set, such as improvising scene shots due to location space, lighting and props. During an office scene an actor’s RF MIC disconnected. There were about 10 of us in a 12×14 office. The audio tech was picking up the ambient as well as the direct sound from the other actors MIC, so we didn’t notice until well after the shoot. It wasn’t anything that couldn’t be fixed later in post. Paul Eenhoorn and Andrew McMasters performed exceptionally well during the office scenes. They really seemed to hit it off and that created a perfect dynamic for the scenes.

Finding Your Muse: An Interview With Screenwriter/Director David Spies | Screenwriting Blog

My favorite of all scenes was at Art Forte in Pioneer Square, downtown Seattle. The lighting was warm and inviting and the artwork was perfect for our shoot. Andrew McMasters and Tonya Yorke were the perfect match for the art gallery scene. You could feel the chemistry in the air. We wrapped our final scene about 10:00pm. It was a wonderful experience working with the entire cast and crew of A Musing.”

The Finished Film

“Phil and his sound team have been working on editing and music for some time. It became a long process as there were several changes to the film edit and music along the way. In addition to editing A Musing, Phil also dedicated his time to color correction and has indicated that A Musing Film is complete as of Feb 2, 2011!”

‘A Musing’ will now take on the festival circuit.

What’s Next?

“I’ve written another short and currently laying the groundwork to fund this project. I plan to cast two of the main roles prior to releasing any details.”

What’s Your Muse?

“My muse is all around me. It’s a collection of thoughts, ideas and experiences that I come into contact with on a daily basis. It’s when serendipity strikes that my muse is born. It’s being in the right place at the right time, developing your thoughts and building off experience. It’s a matter of recognizing those unique moments in life and capturing them, writing them down on paper before they are lost.”

Finding your muse can be difficult for some and easy for others.  No matter which category you fall into, what really counts is the incredible rush of creative energy you feel when inspiration hits.  It’s all built on a foundation of passion and belief that you can create anything you want.  You just have to do it!

Special thanks to David Spies and the ‘A Musing’ cast and crew.

PS: Follow David Spies and Phil Seneker immediately.

Low Budget Filmmaking: The Climb’s Budget

May 26, 2010 at 9:02 pm

Producing Short Films

A while back, I wrote a post about producing a short film for little money.

Click here to read: No Budget Filmmaking.

I wanted to follow that up by discussing the final cost of The Climb.

Essentially, we were saved by borrowing equipment.  It also helped that our cast and crew were willing to give up a weekend to work for free.

In total, The Climb ended up costing us a little less than $350.

  • $80 ($40 per day) for lunch
  • $20 Tim Hortons
  • $30 for tapes
  • $80 special makeup
  • $40 beer (nice)
  • $60 wardrobe/props
  • $40 supplies

I’m pretty pumped that we managed to pull it off with so little.

An important thing to note is that I handle all the post myself and charge nothing.  This would have definitely added a huge chunk to our budget.

I think it was a fantastic challenge to make this movie on such a minimal budget.

It definitely wasn’t easy but we have unbelievably generous friends to thank for that.

At the end of the day, I’m hoping when people watch the movie, they will believe we spent a lot more!