Short films are a tricky business. Developing short film ideas is even trickier. After all, 10 minutes, that’s all you’ve got. You have just 600 seconds to dazzle the audience with your ability to tell a structured and cohesive narrative which effectively communicates its story and themes in a short (get it?) space of time. The trouble I’ve historically had with composing short film screenplays is that limitation of time; I wonder how is it possible that I can tell a compelling story in such a seemingly restrictive manner? 10 minutes, however, is the average length of short films shown at festivals across the globe and the truncated time frame is a necessary restriction. Judges aren’t watching your short so that they might marvel at your talent of being able to compose an epic and affecting melodrama but rather your skill in telling a focused and succinct story. The success of short film ideas I’ve had is generally been dependent on the rule of time. I once made a 30 minute short film, filled with dialogue. The previous year I had visited a similar setting but made the film 20 minutes shorter. The latter of the two was arguably the more successful. I’ve learned that if your story requires the inclusion of additional length then you’re likely playing in the wrong sandbox. If this is the case, put aside the script you are working from. Don’t discard it, it may just be that you need to re-appropriate the story, use it for a feature where you will have more time to explore the themes and characters you are trying to relate. The purpose of a short isn’t exploration but efficiency and the classic filmmaking mantra, show don’t tell, has never been more appropriate. To learn exactly what this means and to dabble in the parlance of the industry then learn Film Making with Film School On Demand.
If you are developing some short film ideas and are planning on making a film for the 10 minute audience, then you should generally steer clear of incorporating too much dialogue into your screenplay. Traditionally short film honours and awards go to those that use visual storytelling to communicate their intention, not pontificating from the protagonists. A great example is “Lunch Date,” a 10 minute short film which launched the career of writer/director Adam Davidson. The piece perfectly demonstrates the effective use of visuals in a short film by featuring zero lines of dialogue, its success evident with its win of an academy award as well as the Palme D’ or a couple of months down the road. Another example of its triumph is the care that was put into its first 30 seconds. During this half minute we are offered all the insight necessary to decode our protagonists’ character through the use of her gestures and possessions. This illuminates an important lesson. If your short film is a character based work, which it likely will be, make sure you understand your character, know exactly who they are. This will make writing your script much easier because you will not spend time in the script trying to decipher who your character is and you will be able to translate visually their personality to the audience. For help mastering this technique try looking at some films from the silent era of cinema. I completed a short film which featured the ghost of a silent movie actor and through watching these classic works I learnt a lot about how to tell a story with visuals alone.
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Not unlike the films in question, the list of rules governing their productions is short. The first rule is the most important and must be kept on the forefront of everyone’s periphery during production – Tell a great story! Audiences for emerging artists can forgive lapses in quality concerning production, acting, sound and equipment as long as they are compelled by a story which engages them on an emotional and intellectual level. When developing ideas, most stories begin with the characters for me and then the plot can blossom around them. I’ve found this an effective way of working but it does mean that you might need to do a few drafts to get it right. I have produced a few short scripts which in which I knew who the characters were, but not the plot, and had to start over. This isn’t something I’ve considered detracting though as it has helped me learn who the characters are and thusly develop a better grasp of the plot that’s essential for them to play a part.
Another tip I’ve found helpful in constructing stories is, when developing your short film ideas, try to imagine that you are not conceiving a narrative for film but rather more something akin to a myth or fairy-tale. The authors dabbling in these genres often had to tell thought provoking and fantastical stories with very few words. Don’t think of yourself as the new Kubrick, but more the new Hans Christian Anderson!
The second rule of short film making is YOU MUST NOT TALK ABOUT SHORT FILM MAKING. Oh no, sorry, that was from something else. However the use of this well recognised movie quote does help to illuminate the true meaning of rule 2 – Destroy all clichés. Most short films walk in the muddy footprints of their forebears and serve to simply replicate the same exhausted plot devices and themes. There is always the danger of falling into this trap, but there are ways of calling its bluff, accomplished by taking traditional and recognisable narrative structures and turning them on their head. Let’s take Pulp Fiction as an example. The narrative is constructed around a group of interconnected short films whose plots echo the type of well-worn storytelling often detected in the types of Pulp stories native to the middle years of the last century. Director Quentin Tarantino revolutionised audience’s perceptions of such tales by structuring the narrative in a non-linear fashion, and thereby presenting the stories in a way which did not adhere to the rules they were supposed to follow. Take a page from Tarantino’s book. If you’re struggling with your story take the narrative and swap around the structure. You never know, you might transform your story from something ordinary, into something innovative.
Telling a good story lies at the heart of any narrative based creative endeavour and there is no exception for short films. The quality of the story you’re telling is the thing which will drive the focus in your film so you need to ensure you spend a good amount of time getting it right before you pick up a camera! The conventional wisdom in contemporary storytelling is that creating something original is a nearly herculean task, that all the good stories have already been told! Whilst its true there is difficulty in creating something from scratch, true originality lies in an author’s ability to take something which feels familiar and then subvert it to tell something new, exciting and, most importantly, speaking with your voice. It is a common rule in script writing that you should be able to communicate the basic plot of your script in a sentence. If you’re having trouble coming up with that original story then consider the following loglines, 6 short film ideas you could start developing today:
- What do ghosts do when they’re not haunting people?
- A mother and child fall from an airplane and survive.
- The Earth is a penal colony for lost souls.
- A dog tries to bury and defend the most desired bone on the block.
- A very odd sort of love develops among the users of the first anti-social media.
- A visual representation of synesthesia‘s delights and horrors.
Of course, composing the screenplay and stringing the story is just the beginning for the project. Your journey as a filmmaker will take you from writing, to pre-production, through production, into post production, before finally dipping your toes in the water of distribution. For a comprehensive guide to help you through the whole process, from scripting right through to distributing, take a look at Film School On Demand – How to Make & Sell your First Movie by David Basulto.
To limber up those creative muscles and get the brain juices flowing try some of the exercises offered in this course – Becoming A Writer – Warm-Up Exercises For Writers by Cathy Presland.
The world of the short film is primarily a visual medium. As such, by the time it comes to shoot, it is crucial that you understand the visual identity of your film through and through. The best way to achieve this is the completion of shot lists and storyboards. Storyboards are a particularly great way of communicating a films look and pace not just for you, but also your cast and crew, before the cameras roll. Lack of artistic talent may make storyboarding a daunting prospect for some but worry not! You don’t need to be Leonardo Da Vinci to make an effective storyboard. I myself am a terrible drawer, but even something as simple as doodles with stick figures can help you to construct the visuals of your film! So once you have completed a solid draft of your story start investigating the best way to tell it visually with Introduction To Story Boarding.
Lastly, if you are having difficulties locating a worthwhile story to tell, then why not revisit the work of your forebears? Narrative techniques have been lounging in the catacombs of storytelling since its inception and their presence is in no small way responsible for the success of some of our most enduring stories. Some myths have been with us for so long it feels as if they must have sprung to life with the earth and grown up around it. These are the types of story that still resonate, helping to increase our understanding of the world, their influence stretching across oceans and centuries. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is an analysis by William Lasseter, a study of one of a myriad of moving, fantastical and daring ancient legends which are available in the public domain.
Ultimately, the most effective way you will generate stories for your short film, or begin to understand the genre, is by watching them. Watch a bucket load! It is only through this process that you will really learn about the conventions understand the structure, see what works, what to avoid and, in the end, the mechanics you will need to employ to tell engaging and lasting stories which linger in the minds of its patrons beyond the walk to the car park. It’s crucial to remember that in this world you walk, ‘story,’ doesn’t always demand the necessity of plot, or even characters. There are non-narrative films which have weaved compelling stories using colour alone. Plenty of paths exist in the landscape of filmmaking, the few people tend to walk are well trod and familiar. Why not try something different, be a pioneer, learn Film Making with Film School On Demand and become accustomed to unfamiliar terrain!
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