Behind-the-Scenes with a First-time Writer/Director

A first-time director's personal journey behind-the-scenes of their recently released scripted short film, By Five.

Behind-the-Scenes with a First-time Writer/Director

Months ago, I embarked on a journey. My family came along. The trip wasn’t far, just to a corner of our living room, but it took many weeks to get there, and many more to tell the tale.

Hey, I’m Ralston – a new filmmaker who is humbly grateful to have just released his first scripted short film, By Five. I shot it with the generous involvement of my wife and daughter in front of the camera, and my son behind the camera with me. Now, finally clear of a challenging post-production process, Olaf asked if I would share about my experience making the film.

Thing is, I wouldn’t know where to begin.

I’m still trying to discern which of the methods, tools, and practices I used to make this film are to become part of my “process” as a writer/director for the next short film project. But, as I shared By Five with family and friends, I’ve gotten several thought-provoking questions that helped me reflect on my filmmaking experience.

In the hope that some of those questions are similar to your own, I’m sharing my responses to provide some perspective on the what, how, and why behind the making of my first scripted short film.

Two determined women pull in opposite directions to make an impossible deadline.

Why did you start this project?

Foremost, to begin to get experience as a director.

I’ve been steadily learning about screenwriting and filmmaking in various ways for the last three years. And while I believe much of that study is serving me well, I realized the only way to get hands-on, lived experience as a director was to direct.

Tracee Beebe, an award-winning screenwriter in Austin, TX, put a challenge to me earlier this year: write three short film scripts in three months then pick one to film – and film it! By Five was developed as a result of that prompt.

Did you collaborate on writing the script?

I wrote the screenplay for By Five alone, completing the first draft in about 10 days, but the script evolved through rehearsals and conversations with the cast and crew (i.e. my wife Alicia, daughter Cadence, and son Caleb). They asked questions and discussed personal interpretations that helped me determine how on or off the mark I was with an intention. Even more refinements were made in post-production as I reshaped moments and removed lines of dialogue while editing the film.

Did you have ego-check moments when a suggestion might not fit your vision?

I'd say yes, in pre- and post-production. But I think there's a lot to be said about ego vs. purpose in filmmaking.

I'm finding that "vision" is a sort of controversial topic in filmmaking with some experienced professionals finding it indispensable and others finding it pretentious. Because of my brand strategist background, I've learned to take foundational things like purpose, mission, and vision very seriously, and I bring that with me on my journey to become a writer/director. So, for me, it isn't a simple question of ego when evaluating suggestions that veer off vision, but a matter of focus and service to purpose.

In the rough cut review process that I facilitated using Adobe's, there were instances where well-meaning creative friends made suggestions that, while technically sound, would have resulted in a story other than the one I was interested in telling.

What was the size of your crew on the shoot?

While my wife and daughter shared slating duties on the first and second scene, essentially, the crew on this production was Caleb (14 years old during filming) and me.

I directed, operated the camera, managed the shooting schedule, shaped light with each setup, etc. Caleb worked right alongside me, helping with boom mic operation, audio monitoring, slating the third scene, and moving equipment. He was even the focus puller on a tilting shot.

My son Caleb familiarizing himself with boom mic operation just before filming scene two.

How long did it take you to shoot and edit the film?

The first two scenes took a half day each to shoot. The third scene was a full-day shoot – early morning to late evening with a catered lunch break midday. But there was a span of a few weeks between those two half-day shoots and the full day, in part due to everyone’s availability, but mostly due to the need to prepare for the film’s third and most challenging scene.

In that gap of time, I held rehearsals and one-on-one character conversations to help my wife and daughter prepare for their characters’ interactions. It was important to me to help Alicia and Cadence build understanding and empathy for their characters, which I think moved them to think a little less about their lines and timing, and feel a little more of their wants and needs.

After principal photography wrapped and post-production work began, editing, grading, sound mixing and mastering took a month to complete – if not more. Post-production was actually funded by Caleb who generously loaned $1,200 of his own money to the project so that needed software and hardware could be acquired – thus his Executive Producer credit on the film.

Caleb’s loan has since been repaid.

Did you have to do reshoots?

No, there weren’t any reshoots on By Five. Not because I didn't encounter instances in editing where that would have helped, but because I saw that this project had already asked so much of my family and our home. I would not ask them for more.

I suppose I also wanted to understand what it was to be in a situation as a director where talent or location was no longer available. It led me to finding little moments between takes where a look or a breath was authentic and useful. That taught me something: If possible, let the camera record a little longer before and after a take. Something precious might be found.

What hardware and software did you use?

I shared some of the technical highlights in the description beneath the film on Vimeo, but here’s the rundown:

  • Filmed on Sigma fp 
with three Meike Prime T2.1 full frame Cine Lenses (24mm, 35mm, and 50mm), and an Atomos Ninja V monitor
  • Edited with Final Cut Pro X
  • Graded with Color Finale Pro 2
  • Sound mixed and mastered with Adobe Audition

My workstation was my 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro with a SanDisk 2 TB Extreme Pro Portable SSD attached via Thunderbolt cable, and a 27” LG UltraFine display.

What were your working documents?
(Script, shot list, etc.)

A lot of artifacts got generated along the way, but I think there were a few core documents that persisted from pre-production to principle to post-production:

  • Journey journal - a very long Google Doc, acts like a diary for the project.
  • Screenplay - I used Final Draft 12 to write and refine the script, tracking versions with Revision Mode turned on.
  • Shot list - Scenes one and two of By Five were shot listed using StudioBinder. Great platform, but I had far more questions and uncertainties going into scene three and wanted more digital think space to figure out my approach to filming those moments. For me, that’s Mural. I ended up using tables in Mural in a bespoke manner to shot list scene three. I really liked that experience, but I’m not yet sure that it's practical as a shot list solution going forward.

Did you storyboard the film?

I didn't storyboard this film, but I did diagram the first and third scene a little – on paper first, then in Mural.

I also took several setup photos using my Sigma fp and Meike prime lenses as a way to find and test angles, focal lengths, etc. Taking those photos was also about figuring out exposure and lighting for the third and biggest scene of the film – which was to be shot in a single day. I wanted to maximize time on set to direct and help shape moments and not constantly try to figure out technical settings as we moved from one setup to the next.

I think I'd like to work with my daughter Cadence (@cadydae on Instagram), an illustrator and character designer, to storyboard a future short film project. She's game.

Aside from hiring Cadence, what do you think you will do differently in making the next film?

I’d very much like to make the next film collaboratively. Because this... project… was... hard to manage without more crew hands on set.

I would really like to work with a Director of Photography or Cinematographer, or both. Closely collaborating with the right person with shared sensibilities to technically and creatively shape the look of a film would be a blessing.

I’m also eager to work with trained acting talent. My untrained family members did a great job supporting this project, but they’ve made it clear to me that they're not interested in acting. Still, they’ve assured me that we can continue to create together until I have a few trained actors to work with. I’m so grateful for their support.

Beyond that, I’d like to…

  • collaborate with writers whose tastes and sensibilities align with my own,
  • work with a First Assistant Director to manage a production’s schedule and budget,
  • and benefit from a Gaffer’s help, creating and controlling lighting in collaboration with a DP.

What do you think about the film now that it’s released?

I’m so proud of By Five – flaws and all. And I’m really enjoying how it’s provoking thought for some viewers.

Mostly, I'm grateful to God for all that He orchestrated in this experience. I learned so much and have so much more to learn.

Will you be submitting the film to festivals?

Learning without seeking recognition feels like a lost path today. But, with intentionality, it's the path I've put beneath my feet.

The time for festivals will come, and I look forward to the experiences and relationships it will bring. I don't believe that time is now. I’m developing my 'voice' and learning to use it as a new filmmaker. In a sense, I'm taking the time and doing the work to 'know thyself.' I want to understand more about my own intrinsic tastes and sensibilities before inviting the opinions and interpretations of many others.

So, no, there was never an intent to submit this first film to festivals. That’s something I think I’ll consider after learning through the writing and directing of a couple more shorts.

What’s next?

With this first project released, promoted (watch the teaser trailer on YouTube), and archived, now I will leverage what I’ve learned from discovering, developing, writing, prepping, filming, and editing By Five to make the next short film.

And the next one…

Can we collaborate?

If you’re an actor, screenwriter, or DP and think maybe we should collaborate on a short film, let’s talk.

I’m on Instagram (@ralstonvaz) and LinkedIn. You can also contact me on my portfolio site.

This photo was taken by Cadence moments after wrapping principal photography on By Five.