Over the course of several festivals I’ve seen many people – even festival runners themselves – asking the following question quite openly, ‘What makes a good short film?’
Well first of all, as with any art form, any ideas as to what constitutes a good short film are, by definition, subjective. However, after writing and making shorts for a while now, I’m going to share with you my personal philosophy as to what I believe will make your short film a good watch, and more likely to be accepted into multiple film festivals.
KEEP IT SHORT
A short film should be short. Keep it under 15 mins – preferably around the 10 min mark. The length of your film will dictate key structural and plot decisions. For example, if your film is under 10 minutes, you risk not having the time required to take your protagonist on an emotional journey where they want something, overcome a goal to get it and learn something about themselves in the process. This is why a lot of films shorter than 10 mins feel like ‘sketches’ rather than films.
Equally, you risk losing the audience’s attention by making your film longer than 10 minutes, as we have been trained to view anything longer than that as episodic in nature (TV) or epic in nature (feature).
Although the best reason for keeping your film short is that festivals often program screenings to accommodate 10-minute time slots for films. This way they get to show more films.
HAVE A MESSAGE
Some filmmakers will abandon the notion of message or character altogether when faced with the medium of short film. Perhaps they feel the short time frame is better used to show off their mastery of camera and lighting technology or to create an artistic ‘mood film’. That’s all well and good, but if you look at the feature films nominated for Best Picture alone this year they all have a core message that they express through story within their runtime:
‘Dunkirk’: War is capricious on any level you experience it.
‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’: Revenge leads to more violence.
‘The Shape of Water’: True love conquers all and knows no boundaries.
Audiences will subconsciously seek out the message of your film regardless of its length, make sure you have something to say, and not simply something pretty to show.
MAKE ‘EM LAUGH AT LEAST ONCE
There is a limited range of emotions you can expect your audience to go through in the space of a short film. Not to mention that you have no idea in which direction the film scheduled to play before yours will have pulled the audience in. Laughter is the most involuntary of emotions – use it to your advantage, make ‘em laugh at least once. They’ll trust you and lean into your narrative all the more if you’ve made them chuckle and fidget in their seat. And if you can’t make ‘em laugh – scare the shit out of them!
DEFINE YOUR STRUCTURE
Famous Hollywood story guru Robert McKee dismisses short film as a form that is in only effective as a learning tool for filmmakers, as it only leaves room for one major reversal in your story and therefore only one act.
This approach to short film will render your films just that – little more than a useful learning exercise for you, that are ultimately of little interest to a wider audience.
But, from visiting many short film festivals, it’s clear to me that short films do find their audience. So how can your short be more than just a one-act student film?
Craft a structure that is right for your story, have a minimum of three acts (most Features have at least 5), and inject each scene with conflict in the same way you would in a longer film.
Your protagonist must want something, an obstacle must be placed in their way, they must make a decision to overcome it (only one obstacle is necessary for short film) and they must succeed or fail with greater ramifications than the success or failure of their initial goal.
An easier way to ensure you do this is by choosing to place your story within a specific genre e.g. horror or sci-fi, as these genres dictate their own individual plot points that are universally recognisable and easier to hit when crafting your short film.
Short Film is a hard medium to write and direct for. It’s temperamental, highly artificial, and leaves you little room with which to craft effective story and character. But, it is also story and character that will get your film accepted and ultimately watched at festivals.
To a certain extent, all short films are a stepping stone on a filmmaker’s path to write or create for a longer form. But when your film is lucky enough to play at festivals and people spend their own money to come and see them — you have a non-verbal agreement to place something in front of them that has been crafted with the best of story intentions in mind. I believe if you do that, your short film will find it’s audience.