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Originally published March 19, 2014 at 2:38 PM | Page modified March 19, 2014 at 3:30 PM

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3-Minute Masterpiece 2014: Tips for digital filmmakers

Seven tips for amateur filmmakers planning to enter the 3-Minute Masterpiece digital-filmmaking contest, presented by The Seattle Times and Seattle International Film Festival.

Seattle Times features editor

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How do you get a claymation rocket to blast off?

The answer involves a needle, some fishing line and a whole lot of experimentation.

The rocket in question was one of the set pieces that my 11-year-old and I Jerry-rigged recently in the process of making a stop-motion film titled “Operation Relocation.” It’s one of three short films my son has fashioned in the past year, starring two intrepid clay blob-creatures named Oq and Qwerk.

Each movie has been a learning experience, schooling both of us in screenwriting, set building, filming and editing. Here are just a few of the most important things we’ve learned along the way:

1. Start with a story. It might be as simple as boy-meets-girl (or blob-meets-alien), but having some sense of what you want to transpire will make your project go much more smoothly.

2. Make a storyboard. Whether it’s a list of scenes or a comic-strip-style series of sketches, your storyboard lets you “see” all your shots in advance. You can then group similar scenes and shoot them in bunches. You can diverge from the plan if inspiration strikes, but having an outline to return to keeps you from getting lost (and keeps your collaborators from mutinying).

3. Vary your shots. Mix long shots with close-ups, eye-level shots with bird’s-eye views and perhaps even still shots with video. At times, my son made miniature versions of set pieces or characters to feign very long shots. Changes in perspective add texture, visual interest and, sometimes, an element of surprise.

4. Don’t rush. Moviemaking is painstaking, even at the amateur level. Each of my son’s three claymations took six to eight hours of set-building; four to six hours of shooting; and four to eight hours of editing. Trust me: Every time you slow down to reshoot a scene, polish timing or perfect lighting, you will be glad you did.

5. Wait for the right conditions. If the scene is supposed to take place on a sunny day, don’t shoot in the rain. You might also have to wait to shoot retakes on a day that matches the original.

6. Keep scenes short. You never know how painfully long three minutes can be until you watch a bunch of homemade shorts in a row. It takes surprisingly little action to telegraph simple plot points.

7. DIY. You don’t have all the fancy lighting and cameras and editing tools that professional filmmakers have, so don’t expect your space adventure to look like “Gravity.” The more you embrace a handmade aesthetic (hand-painted sets, perhaps, or music you record yourself) the more unified your movie will be.

Now that you know enough to get started, let the countdown to your 3-Minute Masterpiece begin.

Lynn Jacobson:

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