The last two months I’ve been doing a little sunbathing but mostly I’ve been watching short films in a dark room (my skin is thankful). We will be filming our short Two Strangers Who Meet Five Times in September, and I am writing my own short in the hope of directing it next Spring. I’m therefore really keen to get to grips with what makes a short film work: what type of stories best suit the format of short film? What do my favourite short films have in common? I’ve watched all of the short films from Film London’s London Calling, all BAFTA and Oscar nominated films of recent years, and I am a frequent visitor to Short of the Week – I’m slowly versing myself in the unique language of short film.
But despite all this I’m finding it hard to really pinpoint what I think makes a great short. I therefore asked a few industry friends for their views on what makes a powerful short.
Writer, producer, and director Caroline Bartleet won a BAFTA for her first short film Operator. Caroline told me that she thinks you can tell when a filmmaker has a passion for their story. This is the first ingredient. A filmmaker must know why they’re telling this story. Caroline went on to explain that a lot of shorts fall down because they don’t have a clear beginning, middle and end. And it needs to be short. Squeezing a bigger story into 10 minutes isn’t going to deliver a satisfying short.
Playwright and development executive Annabel Wigoder produced the short film Blue Borsalino by Mark Lobatto. Annabel says that the most important thing is that something has to happen! ‘So many short films are really well executed - good direction, great performances - but nothing happens. Something, for somebody, has to change, or else the film will be completely forgettable. I read somewhere that a film should always be about the most important moment in the main character’s life, or else there’s no point telling the story - and although I don’t think that’s always true, it’s a good rule of thumb.’
Playwright and script writer Stephen Laughton explains that a short should be ‘sharp… a joke almost, pointed, with one direction; there’s set up, pay off and BAM!’
Writer and director Rebecca Panian said that she loves films where ‘I leave the theatre with a smile because I learned/realized something and/or because I experienced a great roller coaster ride of feelings’. She also likes films that ‘play around with perspective (assumptions and prejudices)’ and she says ‘I love films that show compassion’. Rebecca, like me, values films that make you think and feel.
I agree that a short film must have visible passion; you only have 15-20-minutes max to convey to an audience what your short is about so the short should have energy and focus. I also think the ending of a short (as with any film) is vitally important – your short should lead to an ending that delivers the message of the film. I found that a lot of the shorts I watched were over long; they took a long time to build up and then their ending was abrupt. A short film should get to the heart of the matter quickly; you don’t have the luxury of slowly introducing your characters.
I also thought about the short films that have had a lasting impression on me. They’re often warm and funny, or deliver a real emotional punch. I remember a short from years ago (I have no idea what it was called) about a young girl who loses a brother, in her parent’s grief her own grief and confusion is overlooked – the only one who notices her pain is her brother’s best-friend, who had previously teased her. I was weeping in the cinema; it was only 10-minutes long but it said so much about the connection between siblings and grief. That for me embodied what a short film can achieve. I also remember Lynsey Miller’s short film Colour which combined a moving story about friendship with brilliant visuals. Recently I really enjoyed Eddie Sternberg’s film I Used to Be Famous; this film is fun and feel-good but also show’s a character learning to let go of the past and finally doing something for someone else. Again, it said a lot very quickly, and was stylistically bold and colourful. I also enjoyed Alicia McDonald’s short film Domestic Policy; this was a tongue in cheek comedy but under the humor is a powerful message about how women were/are overlooked and manipulated.
My short film viewing won’t stop anytime soon; I love short film. And of course, the films that I most respond to will connect with me on a personal level. However, I also think there are some key elements to a successful short. A short must engage its audience quickly, and get to the message of the film without convoluting that core message with too much extra, irrelevant info. The short film should take the viewer on a journey (a short one) that makes you feel something, and think about something. In Caroline’s Operator you are taken on the phone operator’s journey as she receives an emergency call, you feel fear, responsibility and at the end, relief. It’s a physical and emotional engagement to the drama unfolding in front of you.
All of this I will keep in mind as I write, produce and perhaps, one day, direct my own short films. But there is no-one right way to make a short film, and passion seems to be the only essential ingredient.