How to Make a Short Film with SAG Actors (and not kill yourself)

This post is based on my personal experience dealing with SAG-AFTRA’s Chicago local. Most of the information I got from attending a seminar for producers, run by Kathy Byrne, Director of TV/Theatrical here in Chicago, and from actually going through the process while making The Deadline.

This is meant to be a primer for working with SAG under the Short Film Agreement to address the most common questions that come up and demystify the process.

It’s not a complete explanation of every detail of the contract1 Read the contract before you sign it!

Disclaimer: Some of this information may have changed since last year and while I tried my best to get everything right, I may have misunderstood some things. This is not legal advice and is meant to give you an overview and a basic understanding of how things work. Consult your SAG-AFTRA local for questions and guidance.

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  1. For example, I’m not going to talk about how you’re not allowed to require an actor to be completely nude at an audition and that you must permit them to wear pasties or a G-string. 

The day before production

I feel like a child before a 3-day Christmas.

When I get excited with nervous anticipation, everything slows down and I have trouble focusing on one thing at a time.

I’m running around getting bottled water and snacks for set, withdrawing cash to pay for the lighting truck, buying a clipboard, reviewing tomorrow’s shooting schedule, taking notes on what I need to remember to tell the actors during their scenes tomorrow, passing out flyers to the businesses and residents that live next to the location so they know we are filming and have the producer’s contact info in case of questions, prepping the location with the art department, cooking a big batch of food so I don’t have to worry about breakfast and dinner for the next 3 days, and laying out clothes so I don’t have to make decisions about what to wear, and moving anything in my to-do list to after the shoots so my mind is uncluttered.

And playing tennis to spend the nerves so I can relax and will be able to fall asleep tonight.

Total commitment to a single project is an interesting thing, almost a religious practice.


Notes on Pre-production and Planning for a Web Series

For me, pre-production starts with planning and planning starts with a spreadsheet.

Some people use MovieMagic software for managing pre-production but that is expensive (~$750) and it’s designed to work with a script. You upload a script and then break down the schedule and budget based on the actors, locations, equipment, and crew that you need for each scene.

I didn’t have a traditional script and $750 is too damn expensive anyway. Maybe there’s a better, cheaper, version of the same thing out there somewhere. Spreadsheets were good enough for what I needed this time around.

I basically use a two-pronged organization structure for all big projects that I work on. It consists of two things:

  • A master spreadsheet where all the important information and tasks are stored.
  • A to-do list that contains day-to-day tasks that need to be completed.

For the spreadsheet, I use Excel but you can also use OpenOffice Sheets, which is a free open-source version of Excel.

For the to-do list, I use Remember the Milk, which is probably the most life-changing app that I’ve ever used. It’s free for the web app and $25/year to use it on your phone. Not everyone needs a to-do list (children, monks, drug addicts, etc.), but I do, and this one is essential to keeping on top of what I want to do.

In Remember the Milk (RTM), I had a task that repeated every Monday and reminded me to update the web series spreadsheet and assign any tasks for the week to RTM so that they would get done.

This two-pronged approach is effective because it allows me to keep everything organized in one place (the project spreadsheet) but only the relevant tasks are in front of me during the week in RTM. That keeps things manageable and has a psychological benefit – I don’t feel overwhelmed when I look at my to-do list because it only has a few items that are actionable that week, i.e. I’m not worried about color correction when I’m still in the process of casting.

The spreadsheet becomes a repository for all the tasks necessary to complete the project (and there are a LOT of tasks that have to be completed from start to finish, even for a relatively small project!) and keeps my brain uncluttered.

If, for example, I think of a great location idea or meet a freelance sound editor while I’m in the middle of writing the script, I just drop a note somewhere in the spreadsheet so I don’t have to worry about remembering it.

None of this is sexy at all but it does help me get things done and keeps my mind clear. I love spreadsheets for organizing many aspects of my life. Learn to love spreadsheets!

Or, if you’re lucky enough to have the money to hire a producer (or have a volunteer to co-produce with you), then you might not have to worry about all this stuff. I prefer to do most of the producing the first time around. That way, I can learn what I prefer to delegate and what I don’t mind or even enjoy doing.

Here’s a link to the spreadsheet I used in Google Docs: Sample Production Checklist Template.

I started with something like that, although it grew a lot to fit Words Fail Me’s specific needs. Each item in the checklist has multiple sub-tasks but those are too specific to write out in the template. You’ll probably want to customize it for yourself, depending on your needs.

Make a copy and put it in your own drive or download it to your hard drive as an excel file. If it helps you, great. The point of all of that is not to overwhelm you, it’s to lay everything out so you don’t feel overwhelmed.


Another note: the spreadsheet is generally in sequential order. For instance, the item for “send script to actors and crew” comes before casting. Obviously the casting has to be done before you can send the script to the actors, but I like to group things by category and jot down little reminder in bold to remember to come back to them later.

Scheduling is the part that gives me fits, because there are so many moving pieces that you have to juggle. A spreadsheet helps with that, so you’re not trying to use your email inbox as your project management center.


grubstake: Supplies or funds advanced to a mining prospector or a person starting a business in return for a promised share of the profits.
n. Money, materials, tools, food etc. provided to a prospector in return for a share in future profits
n. An amount of money advanced to someone starting a business in return for a share of the future profits

File this under “words I wish people used in everyday conversation,” as in “lookin’ for some grubstake to get this film off the ground.”