You have an amazing idea for a dazzling short film – a festival darling waiting to happen! Before you call up your cinematographer buddy and set a shoot date 3 weeks away, pause and take a breath.
Making an award-worthy short film is not a sprint…it’s a marathon. From writing the script to seeing your premiere on the big screen, quality short films demand ample time across all stages of production.
Most filmmakers severely underestimate the commitment involved. Overly ambitious timelines result in lackluster work; rushed shooting schedules paired with haphazard post-production rarely produce gems. Doing it right takes patience and discipline.
So what’s the realistic timeline needed to make your short film shine? Let’s examine the complete process from start to finish…
Making a short film is an exciting and rewarding endeavor that allows filmmakers to showcase their creativity and storytelling abilities in a more condensed format compared to feature films. However, many budding filmmakers underestimate the time commitment and planning required to take a short film from conception to final cut.
So how long does it really take to make a short film? The short answer is – it depends! The production timeline can range from a few weeks to several months depending on these key factors:
Key Factors that Determine Short Film Production Timeline
- Length of the script/run time
- Size of cast and number of locations
- Special effects, CG, and other post-production needs
- Experience level of the cast and crew
- Scheduling availability of cast and crew
- Production quality and scale (microbudget vs. well-funded)
As a general guideline, most short films under 30 minutes can be made in 4 to 8 weeks of concentrated production work. However, the entire process from early development through post-production and release can span 3-6 months or longer.
Here is an overview of the typical short film production timeline and process from start to finish:
Development and Pre-Production
This planning stage lays the groundwork for production. Rushing through development to get on set sooner often leads to more headaches down the road.
Script and Concept Development (1-3 months)
- Writing and revising scripts
- Hiring a script consultant or editor
- Developing storyboards and concept art
Crewing Up (1-2 months)
- Hiring a producer and director
- Recruiting key heads of departments – DP, production designer, editor, etc.
- Holding department head meetings
Casting (3-6 weeks)
- Hiring casting director
- Auditioning actors
- Callbacks and negotiating deals
Pre-production Planning (4-6 weeks)
- Locking locations, vendors, and crew
- Creating shot lists and storyboards
- Planning shoots schedule
- Budgeting and breakdowns
- Organizing production documents
This is when the cameras roll and the bulk of production occurs. The length of the shoot is dictated by script length and scale.
Rehearsals (1 week – optional)
- Table reads and rehearsals with the cast
- Blocking key scenes
Shooting (2-6 weeks)
- Principal photography days
- Amount of shots/pages covered per day depends on:
- Number of scenes
- Shot complexity
- Action sequences
- Special equipment needed
- Talent experience and availability
- Weather/unforeseen delays
After filming wraps, the footage is assembled into the final film through editing. Visual effects, sound design, and scoring also occur in post.
Picture Edit and Assembly (2-6 weeks)
- Organizing dailies and raw footage
- Assembling first cuts
- Director review and notes
- Picture lock
Visual Effects (4 weeks – 2 months)
- CGI, compositing, title sequences
- Sends shots to VFX vendors if needed
Sound and Music (4-8 weeks)
- Sound editing and design
- Scoring and licensing music
- Final sound mix
Color correction (1-2 weeks)
- Color grade with DP
Titles and Graphics (1-2 weeks)
- Opening titles
- Any other text/graphics
Rendering and Output (1 week)
- Final exports into delivery formats
Distribution and Release
With post-production completed, it’s time to share the finished film with audiences through film festivals, streaming platforms, social media, and other distribution channels.
Film Festival Strategy (2-4 months)
- Researching festivals and deadlines
- Creating press kits and assets
- Coordinating festival premiere events
- Booking additional festival screenings
Online and Social Media Release (2-4 weeks)
- Uploading to YouTube, Vimeo, etc.
- Organizing social media launch
- Pitching to online press
The Short Answer? Plan for at least 3-6 Months
As you can see, making a professional quality short film requires considerable time across every stage – development, production, post-production, and release. While you may be eager to get the cameras rolling, dedicating sufficient time for planning in pre-production will pay off immensely when principal photography begins.
For even moderately complex productions, plan for at least 3-6 months from your first script draft to having a completed film ready for festivals and distribution. Here is a recap of the typical timeframe for each phase:
- Development and Pre-Production: 2-4 months
- Principal Photography: 2-6 weeks
- Post-Production: 3-6 months
- Distribution and Release: 2-4 months
Let’s go into more detail on what happens during each of these major phases of the short film production cycle.
Development and Pre-Production
The development and pre-production phase is all about planning – nailing down your story, assembling your team, securing locations, and organizing all the logistics before principal photography begins.
This phase can span 2-4 months and is broken down into four key stages: script and concept development, crewing up, casting, and pre-production planning.
Script and Concept Development
Whether you’re working from an original idea or adapting material from another source, the script is the creative backbone of your film. Sufficient time must be dedicated to writing and refining the script before physical production can begin.
For an experienced writer, an initial draft of a short film script can take 2-4 weeks. However, most shorts will require multiple drafts and rewrites over several weeks or months to hone the story, characters, dialogue, and pacing.
Structural edits and improving the narrative flow are best done early before you become too attached to certain scenes or bits of dialog. Bringing in experienced script consultants or editors to provide feedback can greatly improve the script.
During this phase, you may also want to create storyboards, concept art, and mood boards to establish the visual style and help communicate it to your team.
Once the script nears completion, it’s time to assemble your core creative team. The top leadership positions that must be secured are:
- Producer – Manages the entire production and keeps everything on track and within budget.
- Director – Leads overall creative vision and directs cast and crew during production and post.
- Director of Photography (DP) – Heads camera department and establishes the film’s visual aesthetic.
- Production Designer – Responsible for the overall look of sets, locations, props, costumes, etc.
- Editor – Assembles footage into narrative flow in post-production.
Take time to interview qualified candidates and look at sample work to ensure good creative alignment. Depending on experience level, some crew may work for reduced rates or even free for the experience and opportunity.
Hold production meetings with your department heads to discuss the script’s creative needs and start developing plans for how to execute your vision while staying on budget.
Casting is crucial – the right actors can elevate your material, while the wrong choices could ruin otherwise great material. Auditioning and selecting your cast takes significant prep work.
First, hire an experienced casting director if your budget allows you to coordinate auditions and provide recommendations. If not, the director, producer, or filmmaking team will manage the casting process themselves.
To maximize chances of attracting talent, have sides (select scenes from the script) professionally formatted along with a one-paragraph synopsis that can be shared. Create online casting calls. Reach out to actors directly through agents and other resources like Backstage.
In major markets, expect to receive 50-200 submissions for each role which then must be narrowed down to a short list of actors to audition.
Schedule sufficient time for audition sessions and callbacks to make the best choices. Be clear about compensation and filming dates up front to properly set expectations. For micro-budget productions, actors will often work for free or at reduced rates, but it’s good practice to try to pay something.
Aim to wrap up the casting process 2-4 weeks prior to the shoot dates to allow time for table reads, rehearsals, contract signing, and other prep for your newly booked cast.
Pre-production planning is about tying up all the logistical details before the cameras roll. Here are the main tasks:
Finalizing locations. Nail down all location contracts, permits, insurance, etc. Locking ideal locations often takes longer than expected. Have backup options ready in case your first choices fall through.
Securing crew and vendors. Bring department heads onto a production management system. Confirm all crew, equipment rentals, insurance, and other production services required.
Creating shot lists and storyboards. Your DP will make detailed shot lists. Visually plan how you intend to block and cover each scene.
Production schedule. Using your shot lists and location availability, the producer or AD will create a final shooting schedule. Figure out the optimal order to shoot scenes.
Budgeting. Create a detailed production budget including all cast, crew, and vendor costs. Determine contingency amounts needed to cover overages and last-minute expenses.
Production documents and paperwork. Secure rights releases, contracts, permits, insurance waivers, etc. Organize scripts, call sheets, storyboards, and other docs into a production binder.
Wardrobe and props. Source, purchase, or rent all costumes and prop items needed.
Solid preparation and organization during pre-production allow the shoot to flow smoothly and avoid costly surprises down the road.
Aim to complete the bulk of pre-production 4-6 weeks before your targeted first day of shooting. Any less than 4 weeks of prep is risky for more complex productions.
This is what it’s all about – bringing the script to life through the camera. The length of your shoot will vary based on the factors outlined earlier like script length, number of scenes, and complexity of the production.
Here are some typical timeframes:
- Micro-shorts: 1-5 pages – Can be shot in just 1-2 days.
- Short shorts: 5-15 pages – Usually 3-5 day shoots.
- Traditional shorts: 15-30 pages – Average 2-3 weeks of shooting. Up to 6 weeks for especially complex productions.
- Proof of concept scenes for features: Just shooting specific highlights from a longer script – Can usually be done in 1-2 weeks.
For productions on the larger end of the spectrum, allot 1 week prior for table reads, rehearsals, and blocking key scenes with your cast. This allows actors to get more comfortable with the script and characterizations.
For smaller shoots with minimal dialogue and basic blocking, rehearsal time may not be needed. But for more dialogue/performance-heavy scripts, adequate rehearsal can make filming much smoother.
Your completed production schedule will dictate the number of actual shooting days needed. More complex productions will average just 3-5 script pages filmed per day. Lean, dialog-driven shorts may achieve 7-10 pages a day.
Variables that affect pages covered per day:
- Number of scenes/locations
- Complexity of blocking and camera moves
- Action sequences or special equipment
- Experience level of talent
- Availability of cast – short shoots vs. scattered days
- Weather/unforeseen delays
Build a bit of buffer into your schedule to account for potential delays. You don’t want to come up short if locations fall through or the weather intervenes.
While shooting is exhilarating, it can also be grueling. Make sure cast and crew are fed and rested adequately so energy stays high. Morale and teamwork on set make a big difference in productivity.
With production wrapped, you likely have hours and hours of raw footage that needs to be sifted through and assembled into a coherent finished film in post.
Post-production involves picture editing, sound editing and design, visual effects, color grading, and final output. Depending on needs, this can take 3-6 months.
The first step is ingesting all the camera footage and backing it up to ensure no lost data. Organization at this stage is key.
The editor will then assemble the first rough cut using selected takes. The director will review and provide edit notes.
For most shorts, expect to go through at least 3-5 rounds of rough cuts and revisions before the picture is locked. If needed, pick-up shoots can be done during this phase to get any missing shots.
Editing itself can take 4-10 weeks depending on runtime and complexity. Finding the right pacing through editing is crucial.
Nearly all shorts require at least minor visual effects these days – whether green screen compositing, set extensions, or other post-work.
If the VFX needs are minimal, the editor may tackle them directly. For more complex shorts, especially with sci-fi or fantasy elements, you’ll want dedicated VFX artists and/or to outsource VFX shots to post houses.
Allocate at least 4-8 weeks for visual effects to be completed depending on the quantity of shots.
Sound Editing and Design
Good audio post-production is just as crucial as a picture for immersing the audience in your story.
First, all production sound and dialog must be cleaned up through editing. Walla and ambient sounds are added to the scenes. Digitally created sound effects are mixed in – either from libraries or Foley effects recorded in the studio.
The final sound mix layers in music, dialog, and SFX at proper levels and pan positioning. Professional sound designers will have the ears and equipment to really polish the audio.
Expect sound design and mixing to take around 4-6 weeks.
If you can, have your composer create the score early so it can inform the editing rather than be dictated by it. Licensing great music tracks can make a big difference as well.
Even if shot digitally, some level of color grading is essential to achieve the desired look for your film.
Your DP should take the lead on supervising the color grade. The colorist may do an initial automatic pass to balance shots before the DP selects hero frames to set the look.
Allocate at least 1-2 weeks for final color correction, though an experienced colorist can usually grade a short in just 1-3 days.
Release and Distribution
With your film complete, it’s time to get it out into the world. A release strategy centered around film festivals is a common approach for short films
Research relevant film festivals and submission deadlines. Often shorts play at niche festivals centered around specific genres or themes.
Prepare your deliverables – DCP file, high-resolution QuickTimes, press kit, film stills, etc. Market the premiere to local press if premiering in your city.
Plan for the festival circuit to take 2-4 months from first submissions to final screenings. Use any momentum built through festivals to firm up online distribution plans.
Online and Social Release
While most shorts won’t receive theatrical distribution, they can find an audience through online platforms.
YouTube and Vimeo are great options that allow you easy social sharing. Pitch your short to online film sites and influencers for reviews and publicity.
Time social media announcements and PR pitches to align with major festival premieres or awards for maximum impact.
As you can see, making a truly great short film takes time – from crafting the script to assembling the right team to perfecting each stage of production and post-production.
Filmmakers eager to shortcut the process often end up compromising quality and polish. By dedicating sufficient time across all phases – especially development and pre-production – you allow yourself the space to make smart creative decisions.
While every production faces unique needs, follow these general timeframes as you budget your next short film:
- Development and Pre-production: 2-4 months
- Principal Photography: 2-6 weeks
- Post-Production: 3-6 months
- Distribution and Release: 2-4 months
Add adequate buffer for unforeseen delays and challenges. If you stick to this disciplined approach and collaborate with committed artists as passionate about the work as you are, you’ll be rewarded with a short film that does justice to your creative vision.
Frequently Asked Questions
How long does it take to write a short film script?
For an experienced writer, a short film script can be written in 2-4 weeks. But most shorts require multiple drafts and rewrites over 1-3 months to refine the story, characters, and dialog.
When should I start casting actors for a short film?
Begin casting 2-4 weeks before your shoot dates. This gives time for table reads, rehearsals, and contract signing once actors are booked.
What is a reasonable shooting schedule for a 15-page short film script?
Most 15-30 page shorts require 2-3 weeks of principal photography. Plan for shooting 3-5 script pages per day depending on complexity.
How much time should I budget for editing a 10-minute short?
Picture editing alone will take 4-6 weeks for a rough cut. Total post-production including VFX, sound, and color can take 3-4 months.
How many film festivals should I submit my short to?
Research relevant niche festivals and plan to submit to 5-10 over a 2-4 month festival run to maximize acceptance chances.
Is it better to release a short film on YouTube or Vimeo?
Both are great options. YouTube offers easy social sharing. Vimeo is oriented more toward filmmakers. Release on both for maximum exposure.
How can I fund my short film production?
Look into film grants, crowdfunding through sites like Kickstarter, deferred pay agreements, local arts funding, and investments from friends/family.