Friday, October 3, 2014

How to Get Arturo's Stamp of Approval: Short Film Edition

Since we'll all be spending the next few days thinking up the project that will control our lives for the next 2+ months, I thought it'd be nice to do a "Short Films for Dummies"-esque post on how to make a great short that we'll want in our portfolio.

As I'm sure you all expect me to say, a great short is nothing without a great story. Choose a story that you have a personal connection with. When the writer or director has a connection to the material, it demonstrates a powerful point of view--something that's much harder to find when you tackle big topics like space travel, the meaning of life, or an entire relationship. Then take your personal connection and tell a story of one character's or couple's journey, but no more than that. In a short film, there is little room for subplots and secondary characters and montages. Just a single dilemma that will be resolved by the end in some way. Short films are not about events, but the people those events happen to. While plot and twists are important, your film will be forgotten without memorable characters that your audience can empathize with. So you want a main character with a strong personality, including quirks, desires, and goals.

All great stories have three things in common: a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even if it feels like the story could go on or become part of a larger story, every short needs some sort of closure or resolution. Sometimes the hardest part is deciding where to start your story. You have a very short window of time to create a world that grabs the audience in. Mapping out your characters' journey is a good way to figure out where to start. You need to find the most visual and quickest way for the audience to get to know your character. Whether it be an image or action or line that makes the audience get where the characters are starting from, let that be your opening shot and scene. In a short, there's no luxury of 10 pages to set them up and tell us about their hopes, dreams, backstories, and all that little stuff you'd find in a feature. You've really only got your first page to make them interesting to your audience. In that first page, you want your audience to understand, connect with, and root for your character.

The last thing you want is predictable story. Audiences like when you set up their expectations, then subvert them. There should be twists in the first and last minute of your film. It's easy and tempting to use your film to say something cynical about human nature or relationships or society, but if you find a way to leave your audience with even the slightest positive impression, there's a much greater chance of it leaving a lasting impression on them and remembering your work. So if at all possible, end with a positive spin.

Let's move on from story to other aspects of making a short film. It doesn't take a great amount of money to make a great short, but it does take great production value. So how do you guarantee great production value? You start by choosing great locations. You want locations that add a visual element to your story and allow for great shot choices. When choosing locations, think about the tone and mood that each place creates and make sure it fits the tone and mood you have intended. In shorts, it's not just what story you tell, but how you tell it. The writer and director should always be trying to get their voice and style across. That includes having visuals and moments that show off voice, style, POV, technical awareness, knowledge of shot composition, depth, etc. You absolutely, positively must be prepared before you get on set. You should know exactly what you need to get from every scene, including what emotion, what action, what shots, what tone, etc.

Back to budget. As I said earlier, short films do not require much money. To keep your production at a low cost and on schedule, start by writing a project with only a few locations and a few characters. The fewer locations, the better. As for characters, try not to have scenes that call for a dozen extras. The more actors you have to manage on set, the more difficult your life will be. Quick side note. I'm only going to say one thing about the casting process. When casting, don't cast your friend cause they bought you beer or your professor's son out of convenience. Hold auditions like the young professional that you are. That is all. Another tip for saving time on set (and budget, if you're feeding your cast and crew as you should be) is to try to keep the times of days in your scenes as consistent as possible. Having all day scenes or all night scenes will condense the number of shoots you can film your short in. And the last thing you want to do is have a scene focused around a specific hour, like sunrise or sunset. You're practically guaranteed to not get everything you need in time and may lose a whole day of production.

If you want this next short to be one that you submit to contests, then it should not be longer than around 12 minutes. 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. The average length is about 4-8 minutes, plus end credits, which could add a minute or so to your short.

In conclusion, keep your short, short.
It doesn’t take a great deal of money to make a great short, but it does take great production value. - See more at:
It doesn’t take a great deal of money to make a great short, but it does take great production value. - See more at:
It doesn’t take a great deal of money to make a great short, but it does take great production value. - See more at:

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