Films are a brilliant way to bring your messages to life. Done well, they make what you are saying believable, and they’re probably the closest you can come to a face to face conversation with your audience. Films are a particularly emotive medium because they involve real people, and that can make them powerfully persuasive the most popular reason is to create a calling card to shop around to agents, managers, and distributors.
Some filmmakers believe that if you can show your talents in 15 minutes you can find someone (like an agent) to find you feature film or television work. But let’s look at the numbers. At any given time, there are roughly 10,000 directors with a Shortfilm under their arms shopping it around to the perhaps 500 legit agents and managers. You need to know how to make yours stand out from the masses.
Then there are the people for whom short format work is a stand-alone artistic Endeavour. Generally speaking, these filmmakers create visual art that is meant to appear with other creative work (e.g., spoken word). Confident that this work will garner them a career, these artists hope to be courted by museums, art shows, and galleries. Curators seek out this work at film festivals, self-designed installation art shows, as well as through submissions. And then there is that rare breed of short filmmaker who has no desire to be a writer/director but instead plans to produce. Their foray into the Shortfilm making world is solely for the experience.
Most filmmakers make a Shortfilm before they go on to longer-form projects. The first time they sit down to write, they may write a feature-length script but, with few exceptions, filmmakers first practice their craft in the short-format genre. There is a structure to the story, the script, the casting and crewing up, the length, and the post-production of your film. This is not only true for films that go on to festivals or make it onto television but also for the do-it-yourself type who, camera in hand, red light flashing, drives his family and friends running for the kitchen broom closet at every family. You’ll learn that, yes, even your dad can make lasting and entertaining Shortfilms of your family.
A great short begins with a solid story and characters. You need to know who these people are, what they look like, what they wear, what you’d like to happen to them, and most importantly, what they want and what they’d like to happen to them. Yes, you should make sure the wardrobe matches the character—often a simple outfit tells us who this character is in that first ten seconds we meet them. As does the job they do, the person they’re sleeping with (or not sleeping with), the language they use, and the breakfast drink they choose. People are not stupid. If your character walks out of his bedroom in boxer shorts and ratty Rolling Stones T-shirt, makes coffee, and lights up a cigarette, an audience member will understand the essence of this setup. When you know your characters you’ll understand exactly how to get “who they are” across to the audience.
“Sometimes the most universal stories are those small stories. It doesn’t have to be a big massive issue-related story; it can be small as long as it has that larger resonance. There are a lot of personal stories out there that may not work as films because they are simply too personal, too myopic. If you want to tell a family story, that story has to transcend your specific family relationships. You have to look at the body of work that exists and as [Roberta] indicated there are many films about a grandmother who survived the Holocaust.
Story and structure are equally as important in experimental filmmaking as they are in live-action narratives and straightforward documentaries. The main difference between narrative and experimental is that experimental films are often more poetic than dialogue driven, have certain aspects of filmmaking that are outside the mainstream box (repetitive editing, non-linear storytelling, lengthy shots with minimal movement or action), and “Also, while it is changing to some degree, there seems to be more of a satisfaction with making short works [within the animation filmmaking community]. In live action, the Shortfilm is generally just the stepping stone, the farm team along the way to the big league of features.
In animation, short works are viewed as a legitimate art form—like the short story. Most notably, an emphasis on sound design. Animators, at least the Indies, are working directly with their art. They’re often alone. So, they’re confident about who they are and what they’re doing. Their film, good or bad, is their film. Once your short film is successful, many of you will turn your attention to getting your feature made. Your understanding of what works and what don’t in a Shortfilm script is great preparation for a feature film career—because if you’re ready to take on a feature, it’s your feature script that’s going to get you in the door. Know that writing a short script that you are in complete control of is very different from writing a script you want to pitch to studio executives.
By carefully researching your story you will save yourself time and money during production. This is critical. No matter what genre you’re working within, when you thoroughly understand your characters and story, you’ll be able to make the best film you can—even if it’s not exactly how you originally envisioned it. It’s a phenomenon that occurs in film all the time. You’re making one film, yet another, different in many ways from your initial concept, emerges. If you’re able to be flexible in everything from the plot points of your story to assembling the right cast and crew to last-minute changes in locations, to edits in post-production, it can often mean the difference between success and failure. Flexibility and adaptability relies heavily on knowing your story inside out.