Fun fact! If you want to make a short film, a good first step is to watch short films. It’s a great way to see what cool things other filmmakers have come up with, and also to see just how endless the possibilities are for what short films can be. You’ll see so many different ways of opening a short, of setting up a story, of telling and resolving a story, all within the space of a few mins (sometimes shorts are more like 20-30 mins, but most are 15m or under). And you’ll realize, you can do anything! Yay! Also? You can do anything! Argh! What will you do??!
We’ll cover what makes a great short movie story next time, but for now, let’s focus on seeing what’s out there, and how some great directors got their starts.
Eric Kripke, creator and showrunner of CW’s Supernatural, got his start with short movies. His second, Battle Of The Sexes, was at the higher end of the short movie budget spectrum ($28,o00), but it showcases what short movies can do best: the reversal. We start with a low key situation (man hitting on a woman in bar), which partway through is flipped entirely into a more sci-fi comedy direction. Many short movies depend on a twist/punchline/reveal of some kind, since they are more in line with short stories, or even jokes. Your time and space are generally limited, meaning you have to deliver a setup and payoff, fast. In this case, the payoff is the super-elaborate and over the top scenes in the restroom, as compared to the sedate atmosphere in the bar. Check it out:
One filmmaker who has had a meteoric rise is Colin Trevorrow. His first short was Home Base. This led to his first indie feature the much-loved time-travel romance Sundance hit, Safety Not Guaranteed.
And that? It led to FREAKING JURASSIC WORLD (not the official title, although that would be really cool if it was).
And what did that lead to?
FREAKING STAR WARS EPISODE IX, BITCHES!!! (again, oddly, not the official title…)
The power of shorts, huh?
Home Base is a more classical short is some ways: establishing shots, a quick set up, and an extended payoff. It’s more domestic than Battle Of The Sexes, although that could be Home Base’s subtitle, since it deals in a darkly comedic way with the fallout of a breakup. Take a look at how Trevorrow sets up his scenes, and how he uses the majority of his 8 minute running time to develop the payoff of the promise made by the guy in the first couple of lines. Fair warning: it’s completely NSFW!
These shorts are both somewhat elaborate in the way they payoff their twists. But there are other ways to do this, simpler, more low budget ways. Julia Stiles gives a brilliant performance in Neil LaBute’s short, Sexting (also probably NSFW). Here’s the trailer for it:
It’s very, very simple, one scene, mostly one take close on Stiles, and has a brilliant reveal right at the very end. It’s the reverse of Home Base — the entire short is the set-up to one quick sucker punch of a twist at the end. It’s a fantastic example of how a short can be incredibly simple — one locked off camera on one actress for one take. It’s a great way to showcase an actor (Stiles is excellent in this), and potentially an incredibly cost effective way to make a short that has real impact. It’s only available as part of the bundle of short movies called Stars In Shorts, which is available on iTunes; however, watching that bundle is highly recommended, since it contains a huge variety of different styles and approaches.
These are just a few examples of different shorts. Take some time to watch as many as you can; it’s eye-opening, inspiring, and lets you know — anything is possible. You just have to think of it.
We’ll focus on that next time: finding your story, and writing it!