According to the Merriam Webster Dictionary,
a phrase or expression that has been used so often that it is no longer original or interesting; something that is so commonly used in books, stories, etc., that it is no longer effective
We watch a lot of films here at Raindance HQ, and of which many are short films. I would even hazard to say that the majority of films that the good people of Raindance watch are of the short variety. We love short films- what kind of independent film centre wouldn’t? They are a great way for new filmmakers to get their feet wet, and also a chance for more experienced film folk to break out of their usual genres or roles and shake things up a bit. Or maybe short films are the filmmaker’s area of expertise. No matter the circumstance, short films are a fantastic exercise in efficient, effective storytelling. We are huge proponents of the lo-to-no budget approach to feature filmmaking, and short films present the perfect opportunity to test out those skills.
After you have watched as many short films as we have, you begin to notice a few trends of the medium. Maybe you start to keep a little mental tally of all the films that fit into a certain category or take advantage of similar schtick. Then one day whilst you are having a cup of tea with your cinephile friend (or, in my case, my fabulous fellow Raindance interns), you begin to casually chat about the short films you’ve been watching recently. Ten minutes into the conversation, you and your friend realize that while you may have not watched any of the same titles, you have essentially watched all of the same films. Those “trends” you had noticed earlier, they now morph into glaring clichés. Of course, clichés are, arguably, clichés for a reason. We might roll our eyes when a loved one, in a desperate and well-meaning attempt to quell our disappointment, assures us that“when one door closes, another door opens; but we so often look so long and regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.” However, Alexander Graham Bell’s words of wisdom have remained in the collective conscious for a century now. There is something to many clichés, including the ones of short film I have listed below. By no means am I condemning all short films that fall into one or multiple of the following categories. I will, however, maintain that if you are going to use a cliché, you need to do something pretty extraordinary and fresh to it.
So, to use a time-tested cliché myself… Without further ado, here is my ever-growing list of short film clichés:
Clowns. Why is it always clowns? I am beginning to believe that filmmakers love getting a rise out of people suffering from Coulrophobia (that’s the fear of clowns, in case you didn’t know). Luckily, I am only borderline coulrophobic, so it’s manageable. Honestly, I am almost impressed that so many short films are able to wedge clowns into their story. In reality, there are not too many occasions when you would meet a clown, much less situations where clowns are an integral part of your life. My advice? Skip the clown unless your character a) works at the circus, b) has a clown in the family AND is relevant to the story, or c) is a clown his/herself who has to deal with over-dramatic coulrophobics like me to the detriment of their self-esteem.
2. Black & White Films
What is black and white and screams artsy all over? Besides a tattoo of a zebra… A black and white short film. I know, I should leave the clowning around to the professionals above. Nevertheless, many filmmakers seem to have this conception that black and white films equal art. This, my filmmaking friends, is unfortunately a non sequitur. Black and white films can absolutely be brilliant; Woody Allen’s Manhattan springs to my mind, for example. The film is beautifully set-up, with Allen’s voice narrating over Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue , “he adored New York City… To him…this was still a town that existed in black and while and pulsated to the great tunes of George Gershwin.”
This represents a similar phenomenon to the black and white films. I’m not referring to “silent” films like those of the early twentieth century, but aggressively modern films that forgo the use of sound. Just because there is no dialogue does not mean that your film is deep. Then again, film is obviously first and foremost a visual medium, so sparse dialogue to sheer silence could really work. If thou shalt have silence, ensure thy silence is motivated.
Or a film within a film. I’m actually a sucker for this particular cliché. I was a bit delayed on boarding the Christopher Nolan Inception train though. The more confusing, the better I think.
5. Films about Filmmakers
Filmception of a different flavour. It’s not a huge shock that filmmakers are fond of examining their own existence through the medium of their choice. After all, writers are persistently pestered by that the old “write what you know” cliché. Here’s a great article from The New York Times, weighing in on whether the praise is to the benefit or detriment of writers.
6. The Older Generation
We are not ageists, or anything. This is simply an observation that there does seem to be a fair few films floating around that chronicle the cruel crusade of time on the human body, and the relentless burden of age on the mind. But good things come with age too, right? Like wisdom. In fact, I would quite like to see a short film that takes a positive look at age. Get thee to it, short filmmakers.
Now we really sound like ageists. If old folks and little kids are both clichés, I guess that leaves young adults to the middle-aged to make films about? Perhaps this is common theme because the narratives of childhood are more accessible than the increasing complexity that advances in proportion to our years on Earth. Or maybe we should just fall back on the old proverb of “it’s always the parents fault.”
8. Dysfunctional Families
Almost everyone has some level of dysfunction in their family, or at least that is what I tell myself… Short films, at least, would seem to support my theory. You see it all in short films, from harmless family bickering, to selfish absent parents, and to the horrors of domestic violence. Dysfunction in the family will never become a cliché. It is an unfortunate fact of reality, and I believe filmmakers do have a moral duty to shine a light and raise awareness on issues that humanity needs to come together on. However, it is equally important that filmmakers do justice to the topic they choose to represent, and it is unfortunate and dangerous if it comes across on screen as a tired short film convention.
So this is actually a rather niche subject. I, however, seem to have a knack for unsuspectingly watching films that deal with this subject matter. And I am surprised and squeamish every time.
The human race has now survived numerous promises of certain destruction and predictions of apocalyptic doom. Notable scares include Y2K and December 21st, 2012. And we’re stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive. Ah, ha, ha, ha. Stayin’ alive. In the world of short films, however, the fate of the human race perpetually hangs by a tenuous thread.
11. Cheesy Scores
Now, I kind of understand this one. If you were allowed to put The Beatles “Hey Jude” in your film, you would, but you can’t. Unfortunately, independent short films do not have the budget for that business. The high cost of the rights to music is limiting, but there has got to be a better option than a distractingly naff score. We understand just how crucial musical scores are to a production, and we have already shared our thoughts on it here at Raindance.
12. Very Long Short Films
The Academy Awards defines short films as an original motion picture with a runtime of 40 minutes or less. Raindance Film Festival accepts short films that are 45 minutes or less. While short films can technically be well over half an hour long, what ever happened to all of the truly short films? My favourite short films are the ones under ten minutes. I think a film really shines if it is able to move us through a beginning, middle, and end; and a whole range of emotions within a matter of mere minutes.
13. And all around despair and/or death.
I appreciate the fact that short filmmakers are brave enough to take on heavy subjects. Some films take these dark subjects with edge, while others employ a softer, melancholy approach. However, I would also love to see the triumphs of humanity and joys of human existence celebrated in short films, as well.
Want to avoid these clichés? Take our class: