The short film is an art form in its own right. Many of its storytelling properties differ from those of the feature film. It is typically under 10 min. long. The shorter the better. It should not be confused with the 25-40 min. graduation films made at film schools and which are really miniature feature films. In Scandinavia some call this longer form a novellefilm. The advice given here is specifically for the short film and based on 30 years of teaching hands-on production courses at the university level.
1) No Character Arc
In a short film, there isn’t time to bring a main character convincingly through a fundamental transformation – a character arc. At the end of a short film, the main character is the same person he or she was at the beginning, only his or her situation has changed. What you have instead are character moments – moments when characters make choices that change their situation. If you try to bring a main character through a fundamental transformation, you will be working against the form, not with it.
2) You Don’t Necessarily Need Conflict
Feature films and the novellefilm need conflict in their stories. But short films are not necessarily conflict-driven. They need interaction between characters in order to capture and hold the viewer’s interest. But that interaction doesn’t have to be conflictual. Beginners often have too little interaction in their films, resulting in a fatal lack vitality in the storytelling.
3) Let Screen-time and Story-time be the Same
If your film’s screen-time (runtime) is e.g. 6 min. then let the events it represents – its story-time – last the same 6 min. Consider making your film one continuous scene. If instead, your action lasts hours or days with fades at intervals to indicate each passage of time, it’s really a miniature feature film you are making, not a short film. And you are working against the form.
4) Use as Little Dialogue as Possible
Many great short films tell their stories wordlessly. If you are a beginner, there are three good reasons to use little or no dialogue: 1) dialogue that sounds real is hard to write; 2) spoken lines are hard to deliver convincingly by the amateur actors you are likely to use; 3) proper sound recording of spoken lines can be tricky. And only a truly experienced filmmaker knows when and how to use voice-over so don’t go there if you are a beginner.
5) On Directing Actors
The main challenge is to get your actors to underact, to avoid theatricality, especially if they have experience doing amateur theatre. If their acting is over the top, it will be unintentionally comical and will ruin your film. But even after a truly awful take, be sure to praise your actors’ work extravagantly. Say, e.g., “That was terrific. I loved it. But let’s also try doing it this other way, just to see…”
The title is all you need at the start of a short film. Everything else can wait for the final credits. When actors and crew are mentioned in opening credits, that’s usually a sign that the filmmakers don’t know enough about the differences between a short film and a feature film.
7) Your Main Character
During scriptwriting and casting, make sure you design a main character who will appeal to the viewer – who earns and deserves an elevated status within the film. And don’t be afraid to give that character some power. A common beginner mistake is to design a central character who is too weak or too passive for the viewer to care about him or her. Your main character should be in charge of his or her own story, actively shaping that story.
8) Opening Shots
Don’t waste your opening shots on something merely pretty or atmospheric. One good use of an opening shot is to signal to the viewer whose story you are telling. And as a rule, it’s good for the viewer to see the eyes of your characters. Don’t make the viewer wait longer than necessary for a frontal closeup of your main character.
9) Bring the Viewer into your Characters’ Experience
Beginners often spend too much time on external things like transporting characters from one place to another. The viewer is more interested in what your characters are feeling. And be careful not to show that theatrically. It is often best to let a character’s facial expression be relatively neutral and for the viewer to work out what the character must be feeling by virtue of the context. Filmmaker David Mamet calls that using “uninflected shots.”
It is important for viewers to experience the film as complete when it ends. Help them to let go of the fiction as the end approaches, to sense that nothing more will happen. And if just before the film ends, you plant a symbolic gesture or event for viewers to think about and interpret as the credits roll, there is a good chance that they will experience your film as rich and complete, even if you have cut to the bone and killed your darlings in order to tell your story with breathtaking economy.