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Indievelopment: Making a Short Film - Which Script to Film?

By Jeff Richards

A lot of writers are choosing to shoot their own short film scripts as a way to get their name out there. It's cheap (relatively), it's achievable (sometimes), and it's fun (except when it isn't.)

But, if you're anything like most screenwriters, you have ideas melting out of your brain. And a lot of them are features. So... where do you start? Well, here are five points to consider before you shoot that short.

A Short is not a Feature

Photo: Moritz Kosinsky / Wikipedia

Photo: Moritz Kosinsky / Wikipedia

Don't get confused as to styles. A short film usually doesn't have most of the heralds of a feature. There are rarely subplots. There's usually not a three act structure, at least not in any meaningful way. Some things are constant. You're telling a story, like a feature. It should resonate with the viewer, like a feature. Also, both are told in a visual medium. And you should always avoid the same tired old tropes (seriously; no more Heaven as bureaucracy, no more hit men, no more "hardened criminal gangs" played by twenty-somethings who look liked they'd crack if Starbucks got their latte order wrong.) But don't get caught up in telling a story you should tell in a feature. Shorts are often based on twists, or stunning imagery, or some other element that can be conveyed FAST. I saw a pretty good horror short hat basically only existed to show a monster jumping out of a chair. It was a good gotcha, and that was enough for an ultra-short.

You don't have time for an intricate heist plot, or a multi-generational epic, or a heartfelt journey to reconciliation. That's not to say you can't TOUCH on those concepts, but don't expect to EXPLORE them. You haven't got time. Because...

A Short is... well, SHORT

Don't shoot a 30-minute short. Just don't. I've seen quite a few, and they are without exception terrible. One of my best shorts was under five minutes long. Most of the good ones I see are 2-10 minutes. I've seen some AMAZING ones that are 30 seconds (although that won't give you much chance to show off your writing). But seriously, keep them SHORT.

Use What You Have

Do you know someone who is a VFX whiz? Someone with an awesome house? Do you live near stunning natural beauty, or a famous landmark? Do you know someone who owns a supercar? Or maybe you go to a great old church that is film-friendly? I'm not saying you can't shoot a great short that is people talking at a kitchen table; you can. But there are a LOT of short films out there, and you want yours to stand out. So use what you have access to in order to make that happen. One of my early shorts was a film built around a piece of music the composer let me use. I had the music before I had the script in mind, and it turned out great. So take stock of what you've got that is different from most; it'll help your project to stand out.

Watch Your Genre

Drama: great. Comedy: great. Horror: Can be great. Action: dangerous. Thriller: dangerous. Fantasy: Probably not good without major resources... Sci-fi: See fantasy.

You can see the pattern. Stories that are largely dependent on people and their situations work well as shorts. Stories that are largely dependent on environments, world-building, large numbers of cast or locations... all are dangerous. It can be done if you've got access to the right resources, or if you're really creative on how you introduce elements. But if you're unsure, stick with genres that focus on character, like drama and comedy, rather than cinematography and VFX, like thriller and fantasy.

After all, you're showcasing your writing, not your VFX artist, right? (But Jeff, you said a VFX artist was something to look for, like, ONE HEADING AGO! I know, I did; just don't make them take centre stage. It's your demo reel, not theirs.)

Be Memorable!

There are so many shorts out there. The explosion of digital is wonderful and empowering, but it means that there is so much content out there, it's hard to get heard above the noise. And I remind you of Sturgeon's Revelation: "90% of everything is crap." So don't be crap. Be brilliant; hone your script, use what you have creatively, find things that make you stand out. It's hard to get people to click on a link nowadays, because you can spend all day just clicking on things people ask you to click on, and at the end of the day, you'll get nothing done and still won't have clicked on all of them. So STAND OUT. Find what makes your project unique. If there isn't anything, then toss the script and find another one. For one of my shorts, it was massive production value (I'm talking six-figure look on four-figure budget). For another, it was the title alone. For a third, it was my lead actor's face. For another, a killer image. So find your hook.

And make your movie. It'll be fun. I promise*!

(*No, I don't. But you'll be glad you made it.)

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