Tips to making a successful short.
I am been a filmmaker for a long time and a storyteller since I was a kid. This is what I love to do more than anything. And some months, it’s what I love to do more than paying rent or eating, apparently. It’s a passion and a love.
The best thing I have ever done for my storytelling education is work in film festivals. I helped found one in Hollywood would called the Feel Good Film Festival in 2007. I worked on that film festival practically fulltime while also working on the LA Film Festival, as a Panel Producer on AFI Film Festival. After FGFF got up and running, I left to help found the Catalina Film Festival, which is where I currently hang my hat. Catalina Film Festival is a remarkable festival with programming comparable to Sundance and Tribecca. With my own films, I have gone to many festivals. Over the course of the past 5 years I have seen no less than 4000 shorts, probably more. I know there are programmers who have seen 100 times more than that, but 4000 shorts is a good cross section of what people are doing and I can see three common mistakes filmmakers make that could be preventing them from getting accepted into festivals. There is one thing I have learned, without a shadow of a doubt. Almost every short is too long.
1. No beginning, middle and end. A short is a short film. Not a sketch (a set up for a punch line.
2. Not a scene (Part of a bigger piece of story), although some brilliant shorts have taken place in one location. It should have a full story arc with a “beginning” that sets up the story and our character. A “middle” that shows the character going through conflict, being faced with change. And an “end” in which we see a resolution. Maybe the main character changes, maybe the world around him changes but there needs to have been a change/exploration/journey, a reason for making us watch this story. The arc can be different based on the story. It can be recovering from a break up or the desperate need to learn how to fly. This is an example to me of a perfect short film in terms of story, arc and resolution.
Another great short (animation)
3. A feature story crammed into a short. A short is not a trailer for your feature. A short story is a very specific type of story. It is very challenging to tell a compelling/entertaining full story in under 30 minutes (ideally shorter). It is a story that couldn’t be expanded into a feature. It is a story that needs to be told in short form. You might be able to use characters from that short for a feature. You might be able to use the story line as a B story or a side story but if is not possible to extend into a feature, then it’s as strong as a short as it can be. A feature has breathing room to figure out it’s journey, not much but some. It takes a special skill to distill your short story down to the bare bones, to craft it and tell it in as little time as possible and keep it full at the same time. Mark Twain said “I didn’t have time to write a short letter so I wrote a long one.” The Pixar shorts have been an amazing example of very short films that are complete and shouldn’t be expanded into a feature film.
This short was later made into the SAW feature movie. While it’s a well done, compelling story, I don’t feel it stands on it’s own. It leaves you wanting more story. Which is why is was so good for the filmmakers, who got funding for their feature from it. It served their purpose but it was clearly meant to be a feature.
4. Not matter how short it is, it’s too long. I have seen 3 min shorts that are too long and 23 min shorts that aren’t long enough. This observation is not something you can quantify. It is not possible to say a good short is exactly 12:33min. It’s something you need to trust a good editor with. Someone who can watch your movie and tell you where you are getting redundant, where you are being obvious and where you are losing your audience. If your short is about two people lost in the desert and one of the those people is singing “100 bottle of beers” on the wall the whole time, you do not need to show us her counting the whole time. I know you shot it. I know there are some amazing shots. I know you want us to truly GET how long they have been stuck but you do NOT want the audience to feel like they’ve been tortured in your movie. You want your audience to see the poor person stuck with the singer be tortured. Have her start to sing, then cut to her hitting 99 bottle of beer. We’ll get it. I promise. Give your audience, and your festival programmer, some credit. And please don’t torture your audience because you really like that shot of a lizard you got.
Another shot on this topic, just from a mathematical point of view, the shorter your movie, the easier it is for you to get accepted. I know that seems that a crazy generalization but I have found that it stands uncorrected so far. Programmers get between hundreds and THOUSANDS of submissions each year and they have limited time to fill. If a short is pretty good but is 25 min long, it’s chances are much lower than the short is which is also pretty good but 7min long or the one that is 3min long. Its just math. The smaller festivals want as many films as they can because that’s more filmmaker that can come and more audience per movie the filmmakers can bring. The more good movies that they can fit in, the better. Now if you have an exceptional movie like The Butterfly Circus, you have no problem getting into any festival even at 21mins long. However, if you watch that movie, there isn’t a frame I would cut out. There isn’t a single shot or line that doesn’t movie the story and the characters forward. That is a short that is exactly the length it should be.
Fairly Criminal is a short that I directed. We spent a lot of time on in the script development period. We wanted a clear and strong blue print for our short. However, even in post, we trimmed and cut and trimmed and cut so it would be as tight and lean as we could make it. And there are probably still places where we could make it shorter. Although, we have had a lot of luck with this short in the festivals.
There is no accounting for taste. Different people respond to different stories, ways of filming, production values, themes, symbolism, drama and comedy. You cannot please everyone. But if your short is the length it should be, if you honored your vision and your story within the time frame it should be told, then you did a big part of your job.
America is currently is in preproduction for fun, witty sci-fi heist movie called Quantum Theory.
She is also in pre-production to direct a comedy The Concessionaires Must Die! which will be lived streamed.
On the brink of their beloved single screen independent movie theater being shut down forever, a misfit band of nerdy theater workers face the evils of corporate theaters, foreclosure and even scarier, having to decide what they want to be when and if they ever grow up.
America Young (www.americayoung.com) has really been sinking her teeth into the web community. She has not only created her own show “”Geek Therapy”” but has also worked on “Goodnight Burbank” (now on HDNet), “Mask and Cape” (On Stan Lee’s World of Heros) “General Elevator” (directed by Jerry Zucker), and Felicia Day & Kim Evey’s “The Guild.” She was the Executive Director & Programer and one of founders of The Feel Good Film Festival (2007-2011), Panel Producer for AFI Festival 2009, and Director of Operations of The Santa Catalina Film Festival (2011-current). She has stunt co-odinated the feature films “April Showers”, “Nuclear Family,” and music videos such as “Hot and Cold” (Katy Perry), “Outta My Head” (Ashlee Simpson), “Scream” (Chris Cornell), and “Pocket Full of Sunshine” (Natasha Beddingfield). She is one of the executive producers and directors of feature film anthology called Girls! Girls! Girls! that required each short film be written, produced, directed, shot, and edited by a woman.
Follow America on Twitter @America_Young
Also check out Season 2 of a webseries about Larping with America!