Shorts According to Curly

What Makes a Good Short Film? ☛

My last blog on short films provoked a few debates – I’ll stick with that subject. In fact shorts have been much on my mind of late: I started editing a short for artist filmmaker Daria Martin, worked with Lucy Hay on the finishing touches to her script of our short and have been asked by a drama school to write and direct a short film for their post-graduate students. For this last project in particular I’ve been trying to remind myself: what makes a good short film idea?

This question partly depends on what you want it to do. Ben Blaine and I had a debate on his blog about the culture of ‘calling card’ short films. I don’t want to rehash that, save to say that I believe that as long as you’re telling a story you truly want to tell, there’s no harm in choosing a project that might help your career. I’m going to assume that if you’re looking to make a short it is at least partly because you eventually want to make something longer; artists aside, I’ve not yet met anyone who only wants to make short films.

Carine Adler's "Under the Skin"

The most obvious advice here is to make sure that your short is broadly in the genre of any longer project you might have in mind. No matter how successful your slapstick comedy short, it’s unlikely to help your pitch to make a Bergmanesque angst-piece. Some people embrace this idea by making a condensed version of their feature as a short. This can work, as with Carine Adler’s Fever and Under the Skin; most of the time, however, it falls flat. The short ends up feeling like too big an idea squeezed into too small a space – a story that works well in 90 mins is unlikely to work so well in 10 mins, and vice versa. The most outrageous example of a true calling card short has to be Argent Content – not an all-time great, but impressive for the sheer cheek of its conclusion. Eleven years on, however, the debut feature at which the makers were so clearly aiming has not yet appeared.

But enough about the filmmaker, what about the audience? Short films are difficult partly because they’re not a form that’s developed a comfortable relationship with the viewer. There’s consensus about the various things we might expect from a feature film; not so with shorts. Too few people watch short films and those that do often watch them as if they were features and come away understandably disappointed. However, there are ways of approaching shorts that will make them a rewarding watch.

Curly, the aged cowboy in City Slickers, claimed that the secret of life is just “one thing”, work out the one thing most important to you and the rest don’t mean shit. As with homespun Hollywood cowboy philosophy, so with short films. Simplicity is the key: pick one guiding idea and don’t stray from it. Make sure everything in the film speaks towards that idea. If you find other interesting ideas along the way – great, you can put them into other short films, but don’t get distracted in this one. Know what you film is about and make it just about that one thing.

Similarly, you only really have time for one thing to happen, one significant event that has potential to change things in a big way. Many good shorts show a moment in which a character’s life changed forever. You may not have time to show that change, however; short films don’t give characters the time to develop a full emotional arc. If, however, you can suggest that the event has hit home we can imagine what effect it had on the protagonist thereafter.

Michael Sheen in "The Banker"

In other shorts, including many with twists in the tale, little or nothing actually happens – they use reveals instead. Hattie Dalton’s The Banker is a good example of this: we see an average day for the characters; for them nothing unusual happens. However, that day is far from ordinary when seen from the outside and, as it progresses, we gradually learn the full truth of the situation. There’s a lot of potential in this strategy, and Hattie executes it beautifully, but I’d generally rather see characters being confronted with something new.

Finally: short means short. Alexander Mackendrick once claimed that student films come in three sizes – long, too long and much too long. Never let your short film be a second longer than it needs to be. There’s no hard and fast rule on how long a short should be, it depends on too many factors. Just remember that short films can have the magical ability to take an audience from 0 to incredibly bored in less than ten minutes. You’ve been warned.

Shorts are best looked at like a macro lens on a camera: they won’t give you an epic landscape, in fact they won’t show you much, but they’re great at focusing on something small and turning it into something grand. Focus your lens close in on a piece of wood or the surface of a rock – it looks like a landscape in its own right. Your lack of budget and tight timeframe can be turned to your advantage – they can force you to tighten your focus. The macro view that a short gives you can allow you to see a world in a grain of sand.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite short films. Enjoy and be inspired.

Copyright © Guy Ducker 2011

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6 Responses to “Shorts According to Curly”
  1. JOHN LEESON says:

    Yet another great and well-considered blog on the subject of shorts, Guy.

  2. Mahmut Akay says:

    Fantastic blog. I love the notion of sticking with “one thing”. It’s easy to get lost with other possible statements you’d like a film to make, eventually forgetting what the film is really about.

    I think by focusing on the fundamental core/idea – the rest will naturally unveil anyway.

  3. Paul says:

    If I see that a short film is longer than about 6-7 minutes, I get put off, or at least think “This better be worth it”. More often than not, it isn’t.
    I find many shorts are either a joke ‘borrowed’ from somewhere else, or some dreary relationship piece which – as you suggested – takes me from 0 to bored in less than 3 minutes.
    Quite often I see a short and think “That wasn’t even worth making”. But I do believe there’s no reason you can’t have an engaging story in a short film, it just takes good writing.

  4. Dave Herman says:

    Thanks for a timely reminder to keep focused during the writing of a short screenplay. It is indeed very tempting to digress. I personally find, much like a scientist doing research, that exploring one question in a short leaves me with a ten new questions to explore in subsequent scripts! However, deciding beforehand isn’t always an option. Sometimes, digressing during the writing is the only way to find out what you really want to write about. That’s the moment when you have to clear the decks and commit to that “one thing.”



  5. Gavin Boyter says:

    Nice one Guy. I think a good test of your short just being about “one thing” is if it can successfully be pitched in one simple sentence. Possibly in the form “this is a film about XXX who YYY but ZZZ”. XXX = the protagonist, YYY = the protagonist’s goal and ZZZ = the obstacle to the achievement of that goal. The 4th element, which you can’t pitch, is the conclusion, which should ideally contain some element of surprise, if not an actual twist.

Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Short films can genuinely help your career. Come up with a strong idea, get the script right, cast it well and get good performances and your film will soar above most of the competition. Plaudits in international film festivals and other prizes can make you a much more credible candidate for gaining support for your first feature. I’ll write more about what makes a good short film in a future article. […]

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