Filmmaking 101

A Note To Students, Educators, and Filmmakers

One of the main goals of Freedom & Unity is to help students, educators, and filmmakers better understand the filmmaking process, so that students can make better films. To do this we’ve created this simple guide to filmmaking. In it, you will find tips about everything from planning films and borrowing gear for free to crafting good shots and obtaining clear audio. We’ve also included links to other reliable resources that can help.

Finally, check out our Resources and Tips page for even more suggestions.

If there’s anything else you need, please contact us. We’ll be glad to point you to other resources that can help!

Thanks, and best of luck in this year’s contest!

The Freedom & Unity Team


Step 1 Choosing an Idea for Your Film

Step 2 Planning Your Film

Step 3 Scripts and Storyboards

Step 4 Shooting Your Film

Step 5 Editing Your Film

Step 6 Formatting, Exporting, and Submitting Your Film



Step 1 Choosing an Idea for Your Film

(Or What is This Thing About, Anyway?)

If you are going to make films, the first thing you need are some ideas.

Start by going over the 2017 Contest Themes:

Arts and Culture

Vermont is home to a thriving artistic community, from writers and musicians to painters and digital artists. Abenaki and European cultures have long influenced life in Vermont, but new cultures, from Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East are adding their own traditions to the mix. Tell us how an artistic achiever or a cultural tradition is making life in Vermont richer for all of us.

Vermont History & Contemporary Issues

The human history of Vermont includes farmers and foresters, inventors and artists, businesspeople and community leaders. Pick a piece of Vermont’s history and tell us a story about it. Focus on your own family, people who lived in your community, someone you read about, or maybe the ancient Abenaki, who came to Vermont thousands of years ago. How did these people come to Vermont? What did they do to survive? How did they change life in the place we all call home? Take a look back, and share what you learned with today’s Vermonters.

Or perhaps you’re more intrigued by present day Vermont. You have a unique perspective. So let us know what matters to you. What contemporary issues should we be paying more attention to? Addiction and recovery? Climate change? Jobs in Vermont? Dating violence? Discrimination? The high cost of college? Tell us a story about an issue. Or better yet—show us how Vermonters are working toward creative solution to our biggest problems.

Personal Stories

VT is home to over 600,000 people, and all of them have a story to tell! Find a person, pick up a camera, and push “record.” Focus on yourself, or on a friend, family, or community member who is doing something amazing, like writing music, exploring new technology, or using his or her skills for the benefit of others. Or find someone who has faced a difficult struggle, show what it means to have courage and persistence in the face of hard times. Tell a story that focuses on one person, but can teach us all something about living.

The themes are designed to be broad enough to allow contestants a lot of latitude in choosing topics. However, it’s important to try to create films with a personal focus. How do filmmakers do this? By focusing on themselves and their own interests.

Next, do some Brainstorming:

Here are three ways to generate film ideas using our themes:

1) Ask Questions

To start a brainstorm session, begin with some open-ended questions such as these. You or another team member can take notes on a Google doc or whiteboard.

About Your State

  • What do people outside Vermont know about our state?
  • What do we know about Vermont that they don’t know?
  • What makes Vermont different from other states?
  • What parts of Vermont’s history are interesting or important?
  • What political and cultural issues in Vermont are “hot” now? (The VT Digger online news page is a great place to explore current issues, which include health care reform, racism, homophobia, green energy, jobs, opiate addiction, domestic violence, homelessness, Lake Champlain pollution, climate change, marijuana legalization)

You can talk about this list of Vermont firsts

  • First colonial victory of the Revolutionary War (Battle of Ticonderoga)
  • First state to outlaw slavery
  • First marble quarry (Dorset)
  • First canal in the US (Bellows Falls)
  • First African American to receive a college degree (Alexander Twilight, Middlebury, 1823)
  • First completed car trip across the US (Dr. Horatio Nelson Jackson of Burlington, 1903)
  • First ski tow (Woodstock, 1934)
  • First state to allow civil unions for gay couples (2000)

About Your Community

  • How would you describe your community?
  • How is it different from other communities in the US and in Vermont?
  • What are some of the important places here?
  • What do people do for work?
  • What do they do for fun?
  • Who are some “hometown heroes” or people doing interesting things?

About Your Friends and Family

  • What’s interesting or special about your friends and family?
  • What might people want to know about your ancestors, their accomplishments, and the way they lived?
  • Who do you know who is doing something really different or interesting?

About You

  • What are your hobbies or interests?
  • What goals are you working to accomplish?
  • What part of your past or present would be interesting to another person?
  • What does it mean to have a voice?

2) Use a Word Web

Using a word web diagram like the one found here, brainstorm. Have individuals or teams copy the word web on paper, or recreate it on a chalkboard, whiteboard, or digital projector diagram.

On their own or as a group, filmmakers can put one of this year’s themes at the center of the diagram, then quickly move outward, adding words, phrases, or even names of people related to the theme. To get started, you can use some of the words from the theme descriptions above. The idea is to associate freely and say anything that comes to mind.

Once the web is filled, filmmakers can use the words, names, and phrases in it to try to come up with a film topic.

3) Choose an Idea

Once you have generated a list of ideas, choose one. When you do, check it against the theme description to make sure it matches one or more.

4) Talk About Your Idea

Once each group or filmmaker has chosen an idea, ask them to share their ideas with the larger group or with you. Invite questions and comments:

  • How might the idea work in a film?
  • What changes could you make to help it work better and be more personal?
  • What kind of information will you need to create a film about it?
  • What kinds of footage, images, and audio would you need?
  • Who would be in the film?
  • What would be the hardest part of making it?
  • What gear would you need?
  • How many people would you need to help you?

NEXT: Planning Your Film!

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Step 2 Planning Your Film

Or Don’t Just Wing It, or You’re DOOMED!

Now that you have chosen a subject for your film, you need to plan the shoot. This is a step that many beginning filmmakers often skip, and the result is films that are weak, unfocused, and not much fun to watch. But if filmmakers do the work up front to create a solid filmmaking plan, it will pay off. They’ll have more fun making their films, spend less time arguing with their fellow filmmakers, and create films that are a lot more interesting to watch.

Start by asking some questions:

What is The Film About?

Every film tells a story. But often, when students (and professionals) begin a film project, they don’t clearly understand what that story is. But if they can define the story now, they will have a goal to shoot for. That doesn’t mean that they won’t change their focus later. But it does mean that they’ll be starting to think about the film in concrete terms. “Just winging it” is a recipe for disaster: disengaged filmmakers, wasted time, and meandering films that bore audiences.

To avoid this, start by completing the sentence below.

This film tells the story of ____________________________.

Here are some sentences that describe past films in the competition.

  • Our film tells the story of the St. Albans Raid, a Civil War battle fought in Vermont.
  • Our film tells the story of two friends who magically fall into the pages of a book, and go for an adventure in another world.
  • Our film tells the story of how LGBTQ youth in Vermont work to gain respect and fair treatment.
  • Our film tells the story of my battle with depression, and how I survived.
  • Our film tells the story of how my brother, who has learning disabilities, found friendship with members of my rugby team.
  • Our film tells the story of how a young woman’s life changed after someone else stole her identity on Facebook.

Who Will Be in The Film?

Most films, whether fictional, documentary, animated, or experimental, include characters. To plan a shoot, filmmakers need to identify the people who will be in their films, and what their roles will be.

To do this, they can use the Film Characters Tracking Sheet.

Sample: Nonfiction Film

Here is an example of a Character Sheet from a film about the Vermont Area of Snow Travelers (VAST) snowmobile trails in Vermont. (Note: the characters are fictional, and are used for example only.)

Character Role
Dr. Charles Anson, professor of sociology, UVM He will tell us about the role of winter sports in Vermont.
Tom McArdle, member of VAST He will discuss the history of VAST, including how the trails were built and are maintained.
Susan Cooper, owner, Cooper’s Quick Mart, located beside the VAST trail She will talk about how snowmobilers stopping at her store for food and supplies help her business be successful.
Ann Larson, Vermont Chamber of Commerce She will talk about the financial impact of snowmobilers, including people from out of state, on the Vermont economy.
Loretta Canfield, snowmobiler She will take our cameraperson for a ride on the VAST trail to shoot trail footage.
Tom Whittle, meteorologist He will talk about the impact of climate change on the VAST trail and snowmobiling.
The Bahic Family, snowmobilers They will talk about why they enjoy riding on the VAST trails.

Sample: Fictional Film

This sample shows characters for a fictional film about a struggling Vermont dairy farm faced with going out of business.

Character Role
Arlen Terle Owner of Red Hill Dairy for 50 years. He wants to keep the farm running as long as possible.
Karen Terle Owner of Red Hill Dairy for 50 years. She doesn’t want to lose the farm, but is tired of milking cows every day.
Glen Terle The Terles’ only son. He wants to leave Vermont for a job in Boston, but doesn’t want to let his parents down.
Bruce Delton The banker who holds the mortgage on Red Hill. He is owed money and threatens to take the farm if the Terles don’t pay.
Anna Lo She works on the farm, and comes up with an idea to save the farm by installing solar panels on an unused field and selling electricity.
Rial Jameson An elderly neighbor who vows to fight against the solar farm plans.
Kia Jameson Rial Jameson’s granddaughter, who is visiting Vermont for the summer and is a green energy activist.

Sample: Nonfiction Film

Here is an example of a Character Sheet from a film about the Vermont Area of Snow Travelers (VAST) snowmobile trails in Vermont. (Note: the characters are fictional, and are used for example only.)

Shot Needed Location or Source
Snowmobilers on the VAST trail Vast trail near Danville, VT (shoot on weekend, so there will be more snowmobilers)
Truck hauling snowmobiles on trail Susan’s dad will let us shoot his truck hauling their snowmobiles
Photographs of early snowmobiles in Vermont. Vermont Historical society collection
Photographs of early skiers in Vermont Vermont Ski Museum, Stowe
Building a bridge on the VAST Trail Tom McArdle of VAST will provide
Signposts on VAST trail Off Center Road in East Montpelier
Chart showing how recreation impacts the Vermont economy From State of Vermont economic development web site

Sample: Fictional Film

This sample shows characters for a fictional film about a struggling Vermont dairy farm faced with going out of business.

Shot Needed Actual Location or Source
Red Hill Farm Grant’s Dairy, Worcester VT
Interior of Terle Farmhouse Susan’s house, Montpelier
Bruce Delton’s office at the bank Maria’s dad’s office in Barre.
Rial Jameson’s farm McCollister farm in East Montpelier
Rial Jameson’s kitchen The kitchen in Mrs. Harris’ house.
The solar farm Solar farm near Exit 6 in Northfield.

NEXT: Scripts and Storyboards

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Step 3 Scripts and Storyboards

OR Put It On Paper First, and Avoid Hours of Agony!!

For documentary films, filmmakers don’t need to write a “script,” but it is still helpful for them to think about a three-act structure for their film.

Act 1: Story Set-Up (How will you introduce your characters, story, conflict?)

Act 2: Story Development (How will you build upon your Act 1 set-up?)

Act 3: Story Resolution (How will you close your film?)

If you think through your set-up, development and conclusion before shooting, you are much more likely to create a complete (and interesting) film!

In a fictional film, once filmmakers have done their planning, it’s time to move forward with scripts and storyboards. Doing this helps shoots run smoothly, helps avoid missing critical scenes, and helps identify extra scenes that can be cut out. In other words, it’s the key to avoiding hours of agony.


Shot Descriptions This part of the script tells the set designers what is in the scene, the characters how they move and where they are on the set, and the cameraperson how to set up the shot.

Scripts can be pretty simple, but any script should include

  • Scene titles
  • Descriptions of the action in the scene
  • Names of the characters
  • Dialogue 

This page contains a sample script page and great tips for writing a script.


A storyboard is a sequence of boxes sort of like a comic book. In each box is a sketch that shows one scene or action in the film. Next to the box, filmmakers can write a description of what’s happening in the scene.

As you can see from this sample, you don’t need to be a great artist to make a storyboard. The sketches can be really simple.

Anytime the camera moves to a new place or position, or any time characters move to a new place, a new box, complete with sketch and description.

Storyboards help filmmakers plan their shoots. It also helps them see if they have missed any important scenes or included scenes that they don’t really need.

For more on storyboarding, see this great short video from the YouTube Creator Academy.

Next: Shooting the Film!

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Step 4 Shooting the Film

OR IF We Can’t See You and Hear You, We Will IGNORE You!

Now it’s time for the real action: shooting the film. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Choosing Gear

Current video and audio technology offers a wide range of quality and flexibility for young filmmakers.

Professional Gear

Middle and high school arts and vocational programs and college film departments offer high-quality digital cameras, microphones, lighting kits, and other gear to young filmmakers.

The Vermont Access Network has 26 cable access stations that loan gear to aspiring filmmakers and offer free training in lighting, shooting, and editing films. To find out more about VAN, visit their website.

Home Video Gear

Many people own small digital video cameras. While the quality of their lenses and microphones are not as good as those used by professional filmmakers, they can still be used to make films

Smart Phone Filmmaking

Many young filmmakers use Apple and Android smart phones to shoot high-quality digital video. You can find some tips for smart phone filmmaking using an iPhone here. 

General Shooting Tips

Group Scenes by Location

In general, the goal of any shoot is to use time and people-power efficiently. That means grouping shots whenever possible. Imagine, for example, a film with three locations: a restaurant, a living room, and a city park. Rather than shoot scenes in order, moving back and forth among these locations, a filmmaker would shoot all the restaurant scenes at the same time, all the park scenes at the same time, etc.

Pay Attention to Lighting

Contest judges—and audiences—enjoy scenes more if they are lit well so characters and actions can be seen clearly.

Shooting Outdoors

When shooting outdoors, plan the shoot around the natural light and the weather. If it’s too sunny, the footage might look washed out and overexposed. If it’s too dark, the footage might look too grainy, and people and their actions will be hard to see. Whenever possible, it is best to shoot some test footage and replay it on a computer screen or monitor so you can see how it looks before doing the shoot. The most beautiful time to shoot outdoors is “magic hour”, which is a period shortly after sunrise or before sunset during which daylight is redder and softer than when the sun is high in the sky. If you’re shooting a nature-oriented film, filming at “magic hour” will be especially important for making your footage pop.

Shooting Indoors

Shooting indoors can be difficult, but these guidelines can help.

Using Three Point Lighting

Most filmmakers use three-point lighting to light an interview for a documentary or an indoor scene for a fictional film. This lighting scheme uses a strong main light to light the subject from the front and two weaker lights to provide depth and eliminate shadows.

  • To create a three-point setup, filmmakers use a light kit, which can often be found in high school arts and vocational programs and college film departments. Light kits are also available from Vermont Access Network.

This web page shows a good example of how to light a scene using three point lighting.

Without Three Point Lighting

If a light kit and three-point lighting is not available, filmmakers can use overhead lights and lamps to create usable lighting. This will usually involve some trial and error. It’s best to do some test shooting and review the footage on a laptop screen or monitor, adjusting light as necessary. If at all possible, avoid using fluorescent lights as they can flicker and also look unflattering. Halogen worklights, which can be found in many shop classrooms and purchased inexpensively at big box stores like Home Depot, offer a great lighting option at a reasonable price.

Get the Best Sound You Can!

Lighting is important in a film, but sound is even more critical. Viewers will usually tolerate some dim or overexposed lighting. But if they can’t hear clearly what the characters in the film are saying, they will just give up.


There are a number of types of microphones. To get the best sound quality possible, filmmakers should use the best quality microphone they can borrow or buy.


These microphones are built into home video and smart phone video setups. They are usually of a lower quality, but can get decent sound if the set is kept quiet. Be sure to check for and minimize background noise, such as air conditioners, heaters, and other running appliances, and for outside sounds, such as car traffic. Try to position the mic as close as possible to the person speaking. Home video cameras and smart phones can often be used with plug-in microphone setups that offer better quality.


Handheld microphones work well for news-type broadcasts, where viewers are used to seeing a reporter holding a mic in his or her hand. But they look odd in a fictional film or a documentary interview.


A lavalier is a small, clip-on microphone that can be attached to the shirt of an actor or speaker. A small wire runs inside the person’s clothing to a wireless broadcasting unit that is usually clipped to the back of the speaker’s clothing. A wireless receiver attached to the video camera picks up the sound.


A shotgun mike is a long, tubular microphone that picks up sound from a distance. It is controlled by a sound person, and aimed at the speaker.

A Word About Wind

When shooting outdoors, even a gentle breeze can create a loud, roaring sound on a video recording. To protect against this, use a mic cover. Most mikes come with cheap foam covers that will protect against a light breeze, but in order to stop real wind, you’ll need a cover with long furlike material.

Documentary Interviews

If at all possible, filmmakers should use a lavalier microphone or a hand held microphone (held outside the camera frame) for all interviews as the built in camera microphone simply cannot provide good enough sound for an interview situation. Lavalier microphones which work with nearly all cameras and smart phones can be purchased for as little as $30 (Lavalier Mic with Smartphone).

If purchasing is not an option, you should be able to borrow microphones from your local public access station (Vermont Access). Another option is to borrow a microphone from a school’s AV department.

To find out more about microphones and how to choose them, look here.

Next: Editing the Film!

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Step 5 Editing Your Film

Or How Not to Bore Viewers Senseless with Scenes That Are Too Long!

Now that all the footage is shot, it’s time to edit the film.

1) Review and Log the Footage

Watch all the footage carefully, taking notes. Make note of scenes with good image and sound quality. Make note of scenes you may have to reshoot.

A Sample Log Sheet Looks like this

Time Code Description Comments
0:00-1:35 Luisa and John meet outside the post office Footage a little dark, but audio is great!
1:36-3:10 Take 2: Luisa and John meet outside the post office. Image and audio both great. Use this one!
3:11-5.15 John and Luisa walk along the river, talking about their problem at the pizza place where they work. This is a long scene. People might get bored. So we just include enough for them to get the idea that they know Carla has been stealing money from the cash register.
5:16-7:45 Luisa confronts Carla, but Carla denies stealing. Sound and audio both bad. We may have to reshoot. But we can put this footage in the rough cut for now.
7:46-8:10 Carla takes some money from the register, and gets caught by a customer. This is a great scene! Short and punchy.
8:11-9:50 John lectures Carla. This scene is too long and boring. The audio is terrible. We won’t use it.

2) Build a Rough Cut

After reviewing your footage, start putting clips together in a rough cut. To do this, you cut clips from the footage and paste them into a video timeline using your editing software.

Don’t worry about cutting clips to their exact length. In fact, it’s a good idea to leave a little extra footage at the start and end of each clip. The idea here is to put the clips in order in one long rough cut.

3) Using Software

In order to assemble a cut and edit the final film, filmmakers need to use software such as iMovie, Final Cut, Adobe Premiere, or WeVideo. Most software comes with online tutorials that show you how to use the video editing tools. Be sure to review these tutorials before editing. This will save a lot of time, and a lot of stress, too!

4) Review the Rough Cut

Once your rough cut is assembled, watch the whole thing and make notes. Where does it need cut? Where should scenes be added?

TIP It’s always good to bring in an outsider to review film cuts. They can provide a more objective opinion. Because they aren’t familiar with the film, they might find something that you would never notice.

5) Make the Final Cut (And Avoid the Biggest Mistake All Beginning Filmmakers Make!)

Now it’s time to trim the rough cut down to a final cut.

And to do this, filmmakers have to CUT!


How do filmmakers avoid this?

By following a simple guideline:

Run a scene until viewers will get the point.

After that point is made, CUT!

Example 1

Imagine a scene in which a person talks about how important the granite industry is to Barre, Vermont. Now, if you know anything about Barre, you know that it’s one of the most important producers of granite IN THE WORLD!

People could talk about this for hours.

But the job of an editor is to find that one moment, that one line of dialogue, that one 10-second clip that explains it the best. Once they’ve found that clip, they can cut the rest, and move on to the next scene. Viewers will get the point—and they will appreciate not being bored by a long lecture.

Example 2

Imagine a story about hiking Mt. Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak. This hike takes hours, and if you filmed it, you would probably have a LOT of footage on your hands.

So how could you create a final cut?


  • Pick ONLY the most interesting sections of footage, the ones that
  • BRIEFLY introduce the hikers and the challenge ahead.
  • Tell a bit about the experience of each hiker.
  • Show ONLY the highlights of the hike: the toughest parts, the most interesting scenery, and that moment when the hikers reach the top and get that panoramic view.

IMPORTANT: If filmmakers are going to use transition effects between scenes, they should be sure to leave a few seconds of footage at the start and end of each scene for the fade-in and fadeout.

6) Add Transitions, Titles, and Music

Once filmmakers have footage cut down into a final form, they need to add the polish.

  • Put transitions between scenes.
  • Add titles for scenes or characters as needed.
  • Add music (and remember, you get extra points from our judges for using original music.) MAKE SURE TO NOT ‘WALLPAPER’ the film with music. In other words, don’t use music through the whole film! This is very distracting. Also, don’t use music with lyrics when a character in the film is talking. Have faith in the story. Music will not improve it. It can only add an emotional component when it’s needed.
  • Add credits for the film, including credits for any music used and the names of people who helped make the film.
  • Make sure the audio levels are consistent throughout the whole film. Some clips you may need the audio to be a bit louder, and some clips may need the audio brought down. The idea is to have all the audio at the same level. If this doesn’t happen, then the projectionist will have to constantly bring up or down the level when showing your film, and some projectionists may not bother, resulting in a very poor viewing and listening experience.
  • Same with color correction and exposure: filmmakers may need to do some fine tuning to even out the color and light/darkness of scenes.



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Step 6 Formatting, Exporting, and Submitting Your Film

OR To Enter, You HAVE to Do This the Right Way!

At this point, you have done a lot of work. But you MUST format, export, and submit your films correctly in order to participate in the contest. If you DON’T complete this step, your films will NOT be entered, and will NOT be eligible for prizes.

The good news is that we have a complete guide to formatting, exporting, and submitting films, and to find it, all you have to do is click here.

Also, if you have any questions about the contest, we will be glad to help you. Just email us and we’ll be glad to help!

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