The Short Film: What Works?

Hammer Open Projector Night

Last week I was lucky enough to attend another Open Projector Night at the Hammer at UCLA. In case you haven’t heard how this event works, directors submit videos and they are played on the big screen for two minutes. At any time, the audience can shout down those videos and at the two minute mark, they get to choose (based on applause) whether to keep the tape rolling. I won’t talk about how my film did, suffice it to say I was unfairly judged.
Many of the videos were voted down, and some weren’t. After analysis of the ten or so successful films and the other thirty that didn’t make it, I drew some conclusions about how to make an enjoyable short. So, here goes:

1. Suspense. No matter what the subject-matter, if a movie had a hint of suspense in the first two minutes, the audience would vote it on. However silly it may sound, even an unopened box will lend enough mystery to merit an additional two minutes. Audiences love to play detective, if you keep them asking why they will watch your video.

2. A Unique Perspective. I keep thinking of one film, Kelp for this example. The movie told the story of a man falling in love with, well, kelp. This may sound odd and a little unjustified, but it had the audience riveted well past the two-minute mark. Audiences will feel compelled to watch if you can introduce something different into your movies.

3. Good Production Values. A good script only goes so far in safeguarding your film from rejection. If it is well-lit, shot smartly, and edited tightly, the audience will want to watch. Think about it this way: how many people are going to check into the seedy motel versus the five-star Four Seasons? Not everyone has a multi-thousand budget, but if you do, use it. There are ways to prettify the Best Western.

4. Humor. Make the audience laugh and they will love you forever. We’re not talking funniest-film-in-the-world-better-than-the-Marx-Brothers but if you inject some humor into your script, and it is meaningful and uncontrived, the audience will appreciate your video that much more.

5. Brevity. Remember you are making a short video. If you have something important to say, find a concise way to say it. For me, some of the funniest and most profound videos have been less than two minutes.

6. Animation. Trust me, it doesn’t matter what the cartoons are doing, (even juggling knives, eyes, and assorted limbs as in one video) people will want to watch it. I don’t understand why or how this is, but just trust me, it’s kinda scary.

Now let’s move onto what never works:

1. A lack of conflict. I think my video suffers from this. Ultimately, conflict drives narrative. When there is no central struggle, the movie drags and the audience gets bored. I agree, audiences are more impatient in the age of cellphones than ever, but that’s still not an excuse. Why else would a teenager sift through seven-hundred plus pages of the final Harry Potter if not to know what will happen to Harry and Voldemort?

2. Grossness. Guess what, it’s 2010 and thanks to the internet, audiences have seen everything. If your purpose is to shock your viewers, the only thing you need is a time-machine. I prefer intelligence, elegance, humor, and solid filmmaking over anything “truly shocking” and so did the audience that night.

3. An agenda. There was one terrifically horrendous video shown that night whose sole purpose it seemed was to spread racist hysteria. The audience quickly shouted it off. We write and direct films because we do have an agenda, but that is not reason enough to make a film. If your purpose is merely to make a ridiculous point, then hand out fliers instead.

Anyway, those are my ideas. Let me know what you think; what is a short movie you liked and why? Post a link or just let me know. Before I make my next short, I need to know.

A Trailer for Kelp

6 responses to “The Short Film: What Works?

  1. Unfairly or unfavorably? Just curious.

    I think those are some good observations, and conflict is what I would call “the bigg’un.” It’s what drives any story, on screen or on paper. That’s one thing I’ve been working on: learning how to make the most out of my conflict (i.e., turning conflict into plot).

  2. Good points. Sorry your film didn’t do so well. But it’s a learning experience, as evidenced by your summation here. Just gotta keep at it.

  3. Pingback: IMAP | Daily Digest for February 16th

  4. @ Kristan–Agreed. Conflict is what makes life/novels interesting. How else do you stay invested in a story?

    @ Kevin–Yes, this time I’m upping the budget from $1 to $25. It’s gonna show on screen, I swear!

  5. I dug the video. I think if I had to levy critique, it would be along your conclusion #5 — brevity. If you revisit your footage and VO on this project with the aim of trimming out all excess I think you’d come up with a more compelling result.

  6. Yes, brevity is key. I think comedy may be the hardest job in editing, too.

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