Notes from the Margins: Elements of Great Short Films

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If you’re a filmmaker or writer/director trying to break in, chances are you have thrown away your business cards and are just using a short film as your calling card. The question is – is that calling card dialing the right number for you?

Short films are basically good for three things; practice, as inspiration for a larger project, or as a sample to show off your talents.  But if you’re going to use them as the latter, they better show off your talents in great ways. And no matter what genre you write, there are some elements that a short film should contain to get attention.

short filmsIt doesn’t take a great deal of money to make a great short, but it does take great production value. If you’re a director or producer, then you need to make your short look like it was made for at least 5x what the actual budget is. So if you have a $5K budget, it should look like a $25,000 short.

How do you ensure great production value? Choose great locations that add a visual element to your story and allow for great shot choices. A great location can make or break your movie. It can be the key to creating tone and mood and can make your story look much more expensive – or it can make it look small, cheesy and like you shot it in your bathroom.

Next, a great DP, lighting designer and audio engineer is worth their weight in gold. If you have money, spend it on these positions – and craft service. No matter what size production, a well-fed crew is a happy crew. But without a great DP who really can visualize each scene and take your vision and make it happen within the shot and without a lighting designer to make it all look good, it doesn’t matter how good your script is.

Aside from the technical aspects, a great short is obviously also about telling a great story with a beginning, middle and end. While it is fine for your short to feel like it could continue and there could be a larger story to explore, it still needs some sort of finality to it. It needs resolution. Often the hardest part is deciding where your story should start so you can create a world in basically ONE page that grabs us immediately. The easiest way to figure it out is often through a character. If you map out your characters’ journey or arc for these few pages, it will help you figure out where to start. What’s the most visual and quickest way for us to get to know your character. What image or action or line will make us GET where they are starting from? That’s your first shot and scene.

With a short, it’s not just about the BIG idea. It’s about the big idea that can be told concisely.

Creating compelling characters in a short is difficult as you don’t have the luxury of 10 pages to set them up and tell us their hopes, dreams, goals, backstories, fears, and motivations like in a feature. You’ve got about 1 page to make them pop. There’s no time or room for lengthy flashbacks to show us their childhood. You need to be able to boil your whole character down to about 4 lines that are going to have a huge impact and make us connect and understand them. Make the audience experience the world with your main character as much as possible. Don’t make us feel like spectators, make us feel like participators. Give us the character’s major goal, issue, obstacle, and dilemma. And keep the dialogue tight and concise. There’s no such thing as overwriting in a short film because you don’t have the time.

When casting, don’t cast your friends just because they bought you beer. If you’re using this as a real calling card or entrée into the business, then hold real casting sessions and cast the person best for the job (that will work for free or within your budget).

Along with the ability to tell a complete and original story in very few pages, a writer and director should always be trying to get their voice and style across. It’s not just what story you tell, it’s how you tell it. Have visuals and moments that show off voice, POV, style, technical awareness, knowledge of shot composition, depth, etc. Know what your trailer moment visuals would be even though you’re not making a trailer for your short. Be prepared before you get on set. Know exactly what you need to get from every scene – what emotion, what action, what shots, what tone, performance, etc.

To keep your production at a low cost and on schedule, there are some things to keep in mind;

–          Write a project with only a few (great) locations. The fewer the better.

–          Write a project with only a few characters. I read a lot of shorts that have huge scenes that require dozens of extras. Try to cut scenes like these unless you have a ton of unemployed best friends.

–          Keep the times of day in your scenes as consistent as you can. Try to write either all DAY scenes or all NIGHT scenes, etc. If you have to do day AND night shoots, that’s going to be extra time and breaks which will increase your budget. Try not to focus your scenes around a specific magic hour or sunset, as you will only get one chance and if something goes wrong (as it naturally will), you may lose a whole day of production.

–          Don’t include too many visual effects, sound effects, animals, children, etc. Unless you are an FX whiz or know how to do that yourself, or have an editor who does.

–          Keep your short, short.

If you’re in school and creating a short for class, then perhaps a 15-30 minute short is okay. But if you’re creating a short film to put on a reel or submit to contests, then they should not be longer than about 12 minutes. No executive wants to watch a 25-minute short, and festivals need to fit numerous shorts into 90-minute slots, so they can’t program a short that takes up one-third of their time. Average length is about 4-8 minutes plus end credits. Keep in mind that you don’t need titles at the beginning, but your end credits will add a solid minute or more to your short.

If you really want to test your short skills, join a 48-hour film project, which is given in many cities around the country. Here’s their website.  There are tons of short film festivals around the world and they can be a great way to network and get seen. From Sundance, Slamdance and Cannes to Austin, South by Southwest, Telluride, Tribeca, LA Film Fest, LA Shorts Fest, AFI, Raindance, and dozens more around the U.S. and abroad. And for examples on how to do shorts right, check out Film School Rejects’ Top Shorts List that they do at the end of every year. Here’s the link to 2012’s list.

And remember, just because you’re short doesn’t mean you can’t pack a punch.

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For invaluable advice on short film ideas, download the 1st chapter of Roberta Marie Monroe’s book How Not to Make a Short Film! and create inspiring short films today.


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