Short films are a great, low cost way to start making movies and show off your talents. It’s a tried and true art form that many hopeful producers use as a launchpad to bigger budgets and box-office hits. But over the years I’ve noticed several pitfalls that can ruin a short film after so much effort, heart and soul has been poured into it. Film is subjective, story is subjective, but there are some processes that are not. Here are 10 ways to make your short film better.
- Short films should be short
Goes without saying, right? Don’t over indulge in your art. If the story can be told in 6 minutes instead of 10, do it. People are busy and attention spans are getting shorter. Grab their attention in the first 1-2 minutes and try not to linger on a poetic shot if it doesn’t progress the story or set the tone.
- Pre-Production is important
Pre-production is pretty dadgum important and if you think you can roll onto set and just “wing it”, then I promise, your film will be horrible. Shot lists and schematics help prepare your crew and ensure everyone is on the same page. Actors should meet each other and rehearse prior to filming. This also allows you to adapt the script based on actors’ strengths. Take advantage of the time in pre-production to collaborate because it is cheaper than time on set and it will save you money.
- Substance over style
Did anyone else see the movie “The Last Days” and think, ‘Man, that would have been a great short film?’ It would have been a great short film, but nobody watched it (all the way through at least) because there wasn’t enough substance. It looks pretty and there are some well composed shots, but substance trumps style. If there’s no story, then you don’t have a movie or an audience. It’s the reason a poorly shot documentary from the late 90’s about Biggie and Tupac is more entertaining than a beautifully shot movie like, “The Last Days”.
If your goal is to show off pretty shots, then make a showreel instead.
- Take criticism
When it comes to the script, you should share it with everyone. Now you’re thinking, “What if they steal my idea?” In my professional experience and honest opinion, your idea isn’t worth stealing. The value from having many people read your script and give feedback is worth the risk of someone stealing it. Implementing their suggestions is optional, however it is critical to acknowledge their feedback as it allows you to understand how your audience will perceive and react to your story.
- Don’t fix it in post
“Fix it in post” is never the answer. The more time an editor is working to fix something the less time they spend making the movie look better.
There will be more people on set during production than editing, and since you’ve done proper pre-production, there’s no excuse to not get the shot right on set. If you take the risk, chances are it can’t be fixed in post and if it can then quality, money and/or time will be sacrificed.
- Half of a movie is in the ears
Trust me, what separates a good short film from a bad short film every single time is audio, so have a dedicated audio person on set (with experience).
In pre-production, remember to allocate some money for music. Don’t assume you can barter “exposure” to an independent musician for free music, they’re probably more popular than you anyway.
- Set decoration
In your short film, never leave a pure white wall behind someone in a scene. It’s not flattering. It is better to fill the frame with something other than the subject, even if it’s just a light streak on the wall. Leverage the frame to help tell the story and/or suggest emotions by using set decoration.
- Shorter titles
Keep your opening titles brief. If the viewing audience hasn’t heard of the actors and crew, then don’t put their names in front of the movie, just leave them in the credit roll. In my opinion, short films should remove the title sequence from the beginning all together and just have the title slate.
Also, never put “a(n) (insert your name) Film” on your short film. If nobody knows who you are, then nobody cares. Subjectively, I disagree with this kind of titling because many people contribute to a film and I feel it undermines other people’s contributions.
Chances are, on a low budget film, you’re writing, producing, directing and editing. If you have the money, hire a true editor, because you’re not as good as you think you are. Editors are experts at understanding the pacing and can add a new perspective to scenes that you’re not seeing.
By definition of their title, editors know what to get rid of and what to use to tell the story. A good editor’s mission statement is to make the best product possible with what they have.
- It’s just art
Don’t take your art too seriously. Your short film might tell a great story and win some awards, or it might be a total flop. What is important is that you remember to have fun, learn from your mistakes and try again. As I always say, “it’s better to have something in my portfolio that sucks, than nothing at all”.