The short film is, in my opinion the most precious of cinematic jewels. How does a director make a good short film?
Before I start on general advice I wanted to take you (and me) back to the day I discovered the wonder of the short. At the time I was working in the BBC Drama dept in Northern Ireland and randomly met a short film director. He told me about a short he had made recently. It was an experimental film which he had filmed using an old Russian wind up camera.
I knew and appreciated film, but this lit a spark in me. The more short films I read and worked on, the more interested and passionate I became about the medium. Every short I have worked on has taught me something about the medium.
One of my favourite elements of the process is casting actors. One of the best things I observed was an auditioning process for a short. Before that I had to contact the agents to get the actors along and that was an interesting process. I learnt then, although I knew it already, that filmmaking is a people business. It’s not just a passionate writer or director; it’s the actor’s agent, the caterer, the location owner… A team of people working towards a collective goal.
Even though there is a definite push on commercialisation in cinema, the beauty of the short is it can be visually impressive and artistic as well as being a calling card for a filmmaker.
So here are some of my tips on making shorts:
1. Think about your story
At short level, as at feature level, telling an interesting and coherent story is really important. A fancy camera, VFX or lovely music won’t act as a form of cinematic concealer hiding the mistakes and plugging the holes in the narrative. Obvious stuff yes, but too easily forgotten in shorts.
The short film sees more resolutions in the form of a death, a suicide, bereavement and after a while, even though these themes contain drama and emotion, if they are used as a quick fix ending they will lose their effect. If tackling a “usual” theme, my suggestion would be take that theme and look at it from a different perspective, providing a way of looking at we haven’t seen before.
A short film doesn’t have to have a defined structure. There doesn’t have to be a beginning, middle and an end as standard to keep the audience in a filmic safe haven with a guaranteed happy ending. The nice thing about the short is that its visual elements can say more than words ever could — and that can be at the beginning or the end. Or somewhere else!
4. Experimental/Conventional Narrative
Experimental shorts can be **anything**: the sky is really the limit if your imagination is game enough. Of course the conventional narrative still works at short level and ican prove a good safety net for your first or second short in that you can plot your story clearly and know where it’s going.
Short film often suffers from stock character overload. The girl whose ex is a bit of a prick; the teenage boy running away from home; the dying grandparent; the young child on their first rites of passage journey… I always like to advise people to look at their characters emotionally. They can be going through any major event, but how do they feel and how does this affect their life at that time? That means it doesn’t become a blow by blow account of events: “when this happened and then that happened”.
Why am I mentioning the audience at this stage? It’s never too early to think about audience, that’s why! The audience has to buy into your film from the very first frame: you’re taking them on a journey with characters that they need to be able to either relate to or understand on some level. Ideally, you want to the film to stay with your audience beyond its duration. That’s a serious challenge for a filmmaker and much harder than it looks. Again however, we’re back to this notion of emotion: your film needs to resonate. But you don’t have a hope of resonating with anyone, if you don’t know who your audience is from the offset.
7. Keep It Simple!
There’s no doubt that writing and making a short film is difficult. Ultimately it teaches the discipline of filmmaking (both short and long form), so there is definite skill in learning the craft. I’m a great believer in simplicity of storytelling, that doesn’t mean the story is simple or without drama. It’s still possible to tell a complex story simply. If you think about it in every day life, you can argue with a friend or a family member in a kitchen over a cup of tea and really fall out. So you end up with a simple domestic setting with two people potentially resulting in potential emotional devastation.
I think the important thing to realise is that each short can teach you something new.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of tips or answers. My biggest piece of advice is to watch lots of shorts that inspire you from directors you respect, see how they did it and learn from that. Most importantly though, don’t shy away from telling a story you are passionate about. You can write about your own experiences, observations, people you know and have a strong story. I think that writing from the heart will never go out of fashion. The best cinema is a love letter to an audience in a way, like a celluloid hug, I encourage you to embrace it fully.
BIO: Christine Morrow has worked in the short film sphere for a decade in Northern Ireland. She has worked on four series of Digital Shorts, a short film initiative which was run in partnership through Northern Ireland Screen and the UK Film Council and continues to run a short film development scheme called Short Steps with emerging filmmakers. Follow Christine on Twitter and for more info visit her page/links here.