Filmmaking best practices

Every year, the AIA Film Challenge receives an impressive roster of submissions—films that inspire us about stories that need to be told. We’ve compiled a list of tips and best practices, including advice on the new format, to help with your submission.

Finding inspiration

“Look for places where architecture and people intersect. Maybe it’s someplace in your community that you’ve noticed already has improved the quality of life for people, or maybe it’s someplace where you see an opportunity for architecture and design to improve people’s lives. Ultimately, it’s about where that design element and people interact. That’s where your story is.” – Hana Waugh, architect & 2019 grand prize winner for “The EastPoint Project”

Check out dozens of films by past AIA Film Challenge finalists. If you’re looking for existing projects that will make an impactful film, visit the AIA website.

Selecting your story

“The prompt pushed me to find new subjects and look at architecture from a humanistic perspective, and the strict time limit forced me to make interesting creative decisions. Participating in the challenge didn’t just help me create work that I am proud of, it gave me the opportunity to see what other filmmakers and architects did with the same prompt.” – Jake Catalanotto, filmmaker & 2020 runner up for“From Ruins to City” 

  • Focus on community impact first and tell a story of the positive change that architects and their work have had in a community. Ground your story with the perspective and anecdotes of community members and relate it to the human experience.
  • Introduce architects as part of a solution. Make the role of architects clear in creating a Blueprint for Better. Rather than portraying architects as solo contributors, think about them as thought and action leaders who are a vital part of creating solutions.
  • Support your story with civic/community leaders to highlight the partnership between architects and civic leaders to build healthy, sustainable, and equitable communities.
  • Go beyond the building and connect with the people and communities they serve. Don’t be afraid of the everyday stories. There is real power and purpose in small but mighty moments.
  • Highlight diverse voices surrounding your story. A strong film should capture the various people and perspectives involved in bringing projects to life.

Creating your film

Creating your film – Replace Sharon Samuels’ quote with: 

“The goal is not to promote any one individual, your firm, or the work that any of you do. Instead, the goal is to share a meaningful story that positively impacted the community in some way.” Ashley Veurink, 2021 third place winner for“Two Pieces of Plywood”  

Tips on concepting 

Tell a simple story. Develop three to five potential stories to tell. If you’re partnering with someone else, run your concepts by your team. If you’re working with a filmmaker, they can offer a perspective on the storyline and visual approach.

Filmmakers may want to become familiar with other inspiring projects and of course previous films to get a sense of what works and what doesn’t.

Storyboarding your short documentary before the filming begins can save you time in the long run. Map out the basics by having a clear beginning, middle, and end. With only 1:30-3:00 minutes, outlining the key points is important. When it doubt, cut it out! Keep your story short and concise.

Tips on filming 

Film during the day. Capture a variety of angles: close, wide, and even drone shots. Capture footage of people engaging with the architecture. Leverage old video footage and photography that might add context to your story. Virtual renderings and graphics can also add a nice touch and help tell the story in a more dynamic fashion.

If you’re filming on a personal device, like a smartphone or tablet, shoot in horizontal landscape mode, not vertical portrait mode. Bring in stock footage when necessary to help fill visual or story gaps. Make sure to use royalty-free images or make appropriate purchases. Use sites like Adobe Stock, Pexels, or Stock.

Tips on equipment

Use a tripod to keep the video steady. A couple of good, inexpensive options are:

Capture quality audio. With so many accessible tools, it’s easy to record well.

Use as much natural daylight as possible, or use a light kit to ensure the subjects are properly lit.

Tips on interviewing 

Stay relaxed whether you’re in front of or behind the camera. If you’re being interviewed, repeat the question in a sentence when answering. Share colorful details and anecdotes to enrich your story and make editing easier.

If you’re the interviewer, allow the interviewee a bit of silence to formulate and complete their thoughts. If you notice the interviewee has an important point to make or capture, allow them to repeat it a few times so that you get the perfect take.

Tips on recording virtual interviews

To record a virtual interview you can use a video-conferencing platform like Zoom, but you may get higher quality results with tools like Screenflow (Apple) or Screengrabber pro (PC). Both will allow YouTube to export the video and audio files, and import into editing software. For more on this process see here.

Tips on editing 

Organize footage by date and subjects. Reference the storyline developed during the concepting phase so you can sort through what to keep and what to cut. Remember that with such compelling content, you can create shorter cuts that can support your longer film.

Examples of films shot on phones

If you need some inspiration, or if this is your first time filming content on a smart device, here are some examples of short-form and long-form videos shot on phones.

Short films:

Also, check out YouTube’s robust library of short documentaries. It’s amazing to see how far phone shooting and editing has come! Two great long-form films are High Flying Bird and Unsane.

Additional resources 

Free/inexpensive music: Epidemic SoundPremiumBeatPond5Marmoset, and Audiojungle. You can also reach out to the artist directly if you really want a specific song.

Free/inexpensive editing software: Adobe PremiereiMovieFinal Cut Pro.

Free/inexpensive platforms that can be used to shoot and edit videos between your cell phone and laptop: iMovie (Apple), Power Director (Android), Adobe Premiere Rush, Splice. Check out this article for more details.

Visit these sites for more information and filmmaking tips:

Amplify your reach

After you’ve submitted your film, create a community engagement plan to promote your film and leverage your audience on social media during the public voting period. Here are some ideas to get started.

  • Share your film across social media channels using the hashtag #aiafilmchallenge and encourage people to vote for it!
  • Submit your film to local publications for them to share your story. This will be particularly important during the public voting phase of the Film Challenge, but more importantly, it’s a chance for your community and network to learn about and support your work.
  • Submit your film to film festivals for additional exposure.

But before you do any of this, be sure to register!