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By Varun Raman · March 13, 2012
It’s a sad fact that many short films leave an audience feeling that they’ve wasted ten minutes of their time. Rather than displaying the talent that is out there, short films are often derivative, unambitious, inefficient and poorly executed. The source of this disappointment is usually the script.
Short films are the perfect medium for screenwriters to start with. However, it’s often the wannabe director that launches a short film project, without possessing a fleshed-out idea. Often, their eagerness to add another credit to their resume overcomes the patience needed for a story to be effective.
Increasingly accessible and affordable equipment supported by easy-to-use and high-speed software appear to have invited a bedeviled haste to the entire production process. Equally, with many of these short films now being hosted online, audiences can start watching them with the click of a button and stop watching just as easily.
The Audience’s Attention Is A Prize To Be Won
A short film is a delicate exercise in grabbing and sustaining the attention of the audience. Without having seen any of a filmmaker’s previous work to be instilled with faith in their abilities, a viewer begins watching a short film in a skeptical disposition. If a short film is going to be seen through to the end, the viewer will have to be constantly convinced to continue watching. And this means intriguing them from moment to moment to the point of not wasting a single frame.
Limitations Are Your Friend
To do this successfully, a screenwriter should first address every limitation in terms of budget, expertise and resources, allowing them to dictate what story can be told. Knowing what resources are available avoids any compromise later on in the production of the film. Don’t reach beyond the skillsets available to you. An explosion executed badly can make a good short film laughable in a matter of seconds.
If you happen to know of any gifted actors, write a part that specifically works for them. If the actor knows any other languages or has any rare talents, utilize them. Are there any interesting locations you have access to, such as a boat, or even a dead celebrity’s house? If so, base the story there. When you think intelligently, it really can be surprising what resources are at your disposal.
Know Your Intentions
To captivate a viewer from one moment to another, the intention of the short film should be clear. It could be any of the following:
Based upon a theme – Atomic Tabasco by James Cox:
A self-contained mini-plot – Six Shooter by Martin McDonagh:
You can watch it here.
An effective gimmick – La Jetéeby Chris Marker:
The aforementioned short films are the epitome of economic writing. The filmmakers knew exactly what their intentions were, and didn’t resort to diluting them with superfluous themes and backstories. Every shot serves to strengthen the ideas displayed in the films and to further engage the viewer. Find your intention, stick to it, and exhaust it.
Open your short film with a promise, bracing the viewer decisively with what’s to come. As early as possible, establish the environment, tone, and for characters – their uncertain predicaments, goals and anxieties to get the viewer to empathize and anticipate what happens next. These foundations will equip your short film with a potential to either surpass or defy the audience’s expectations over the course of the film.
Continually restate your promise by refreshing the film with the development of story and character, and the introduction of new elements. The viewer will be forced to readjust, and warned to keep up with a story that forebodes of more to come. The neglect to refresh the film results in the stagnation of an audience’s interest.
New elements can be locations and characters. A central protagonist’s goals can prompt a change of location, which will provide a much-needed overhaul of the film’s aesthetic. The introduction of a new character helps change the dynamic. They can be tied to the already established plot or theme, or can even represent a catalyst for the escalation of a protagonist’s anxieties. Every new element should add to your original intention.
If your short film ends with a twist, ensure the journey there is worth it, and that the necessary seeds have been planted along the way for it to make sense. If a twist brings the entirety of the film prior to that point into disrepute, pertains to actions uncharacteristic of the protagonist, or most tragically, is the only thing of note that happens in the film, it will seem forced and manipulative.
Things To Avoid
Cheap tricks, such as children in danger and people crying, shouldn’t be needed to create drama and to elicit emotional involvement from the audience. It’s common to hear collective groans in screenings of short films that execute these poorly and unnecessarily.
Fights, verbal and physical, and the use of guns become meaningless when the audience doesn’t care for the characters involved, or how that escalation occurred. Scenes of conflict can become gratuitous if not enough time has been spent raising the stakes for it to seem logical when characters finally do reach their breaking points.
The last thing people want to see are imitations of films they’ve seen before. Be aware of trends that a lot of short-filmmakers can be unwittingly guilty of subscribing to. Watch a lot of short films, good and bad. A lot can be learned from seeing a bad short film through to the end. Director Kevin Curtis addresses trends rife in the British short film industry, with a video that recently went viral – Kevin Curtis Is A Dead Man:
If you’re not directing yourself, make sure you find a director that compensates for budgetary limitations with a meticulous attention to detail. Talking to a cinematographer far in advance of production and deliberating over a camera plot can help emphasize your story’s intentions and highlight other possibilities of where it can be taken.
Sound is often neglected in short films, and it’s one of the first aspects that audience members pick up on, distracting them from the experience of the film. More importantly, poor sound disqualifies the film you’ve written from being shortlisted at festivals.
Above all, challenge yourself and challenge the story you’re writing. Plenty of writers and directors have forged careers on the back of short films, so be ambitious, and don’t waste any time playing it safe. An inspiring source for short films and an exhibition of the medium’s versatility is Cinema 16. Watch them. And don’t forget to watch the bad ones too.