I know many writers (myself included) who find short films a good bit harder to write than features. They’re by no means quicker to write, but pulling together a really great short film written requires a deft touch, and an understanding of what short films must accomplish to be successful--and what should be avoided altogether.
My own journey with short filmmaking began right after college. I didn’t attend film school as an undergrad, but after wrapping up my super-bankable degree in Anthropology, I deciding it was about time to get down to business and actually make something. My first short film was called In Arizona, and featured a distraught couple trying to move on with their lives after losing a baby. I wanted it all to take place at night--so rather than throwing a blanket over the set’s three windows (easy) I asked the cast and crew to stay up all night for four nights in a row (hard). They did it, and after a very long, very stressful production--I had wrapped production on my first (terrible) short.
The adventure began In Arizona, but picked up speed quickly. I made three more short films while working as an in-house pitch editor at National Geographic, each just a bit better than the one before it--then a couple years later, returned to UCLA to get an MFA in film directing. And here was where I really learned how to make shorts... Not through instruction received at the school, which was flimsy, but through sheer trial and error--and spending a lot of time watching what worked and didn’t work in the films made by my peers. Made most apparent were three mistakes that must be sidestepped at all costs while setting out to write a great short film--and it’s probably best that I start by sharing them:
SHORT FILM PITFALLS
- FEATURITUS: This is the biggest downfall of short filmmaking, and must be avoided. So many of us make short films as stepping stones to the long-form films we hope to make in the future, and many of us try to SKIP that process altogether and jam an ENTIRE FEATURE FILM into our 5-15 minute short film. And it never works. If you have more than 10 (or so) locations, 5 (or so) actors, or skip time more than twice--you, my friend, most likely have a lousy short film on your hands. Short films should bite off an appropriate amount of story for the medium, then deliver it competently. Don’t suffer from the delusion that someone will see your over-ambitious short film and think, “wow, this filmmaker should be directing features!” Instead they’ll think you have no sense of pacing or rhythm. Shorts that suffer from featuritus are also unnecessarily expensive and complicated to produce, and therefore hurt you on many levels at once. The simpler and more cohesive your short can be--less characters, less locations--the better your chances will be for making a great short.
- THE UN-SHORT: This often goes hand-in-hand with featuritus, but an un-short is any short film longer than 15 minutes. I’m not saying you can’t make a 25 minute short and also make it good--but I am telling you that your chances of making it good will be exponentially lower, and that your chances of getting a festival to program it are almost non-existent. The best possible length for short films is 4-11 minutes. This is the length that nearly all festivals want, because they program well against other movies and more can be fit within a short-film screening block. Many new filmmakers think a longer, 20-25 minute short film is going to be more impressive and show off their feature-ready skills better. The exact opposite is true. The filmmaker that can tell an effective, well-rounded story in 5-8 minutes is the one who will receive the most professional attention, and do best at festivals.
- SEEN IT A THOUSAND TIMES: The third biggest blunder in short filmmaking is doing something cliche, or something that is clearly derivative of a recent big-budget Hollywood film. Sometimes filmmakers are caught up in the excitement of a recent release, and end up copying it, either intentionally or unintentionally. Other times, filmmakers don’t realize they’re walking down a well-beaten path. There have been many fun/funny articles and blog posts written about short film cliches, but in my experience, the worst are storylines that deal with suicide, religious faith, drug use or someone being stalked. The worst technical/directing cliches are the overuse of props (lists, clocks, computer screens) to structure the story, piano music, looking in the mirror for reasons other than hygiene, and timelapse photography. Any rule can be broken, but you are absolutely making it harder--not easier--to create a great short film if you rely on any of these well-worn cliches, or copy a famous filmmaker (Tarantino, Burton, Coen) too closely.
So, that’s what NOT to do when crafting your next short film. Next up, Part 2: What your short film script SHOULD include. You’ve dodged all the potholes--and now it’s time to make a little magic.