The short film is an art form in itself. Many of its storytelling properties are different from those of the feature film. It is typically under 10 min. Long. The shorter the better. It should not be confused with the 25-40 min. Graduation films made at film schools that are truly miniature feature films. In Scandinavia, some call this longer form a Novell film. The advice given here relates specifically to the short film and is based on 30 years of teaching in practical university-level production courses.
1) No drawing sheet
In a short film, there is no time to convince a main character through a fundamental transformation – a character arc. At the end of a short film, the main character is the same person he or she was at the beginning, only his or her situation has changed. What you have instead are moments of character – moments when characters make decisions that change their situation. When you're trying to get a main character through a fundamental transformation, you're working against the form, not with it.
2) You don't need a conflict
Feature films and the short story film need conflict in their stories. However, short films are not necessarily conflict-driven. You need interaction between characters to capture and keep the viewer's interest. However, this interaction need not be contradictory. Beginners often have too little interaction in their films, resulting in a fatal lack of vitality in storytelling.
3) Let screen time and story time be the same
If the screen time (running time) of your movie is e.g. 6 min. Then let the events it represents – its story time – last the same 6 minutes. Make your movie an ongoing scene. If instead your action lasts for hours or days with fades at intervals to reflect each passage of time, then this is really a miniature feature film that you are making, not a short film. And you're working against the form.
4) Use as little dialogue as possible
Many great short films tell their stories without a word. If you are a beginner there are three good reasons for using little or no dialogue: 1) dialogue that sounds real is difficult to write; 2) spoken lines are difficult to deliver convincingly for the amateur performers you are likely to use; 3) Properly recording voice lines can be difficult. And only a really skilled filmmaker knows when and how to use voice over. So don't go there if you are a beginner.
5) About the direction of the actors
The biggest challenge is getting your actors to act too little to avoid theatricality, especially if they are experienced in amateur theater. If your acting is over the top it will be inadvertently weird and ruin your movie. But even after a really horrific take, you should extravagantly praise your actors' work. For example, say, “That was great. I loved it. But let's try another way just to see … "
The title is all you need to start a short film. Everything else can wait for the final credits. When actors and crew are mentioned in the opening credits, it's usually a sign that the filmmakers don't know enough about the differences between a short film and a feature film.
7) Your main character
As you write and cast, make sure you design a main character who will appeal to the viewer – who deserves and deserves elevated status within the film. And don't be afraid to give this character some strength. A common beginner's mistake is to design a central figure that is too weak or too passive for the viewer to care about. Your main character should be responsible for his own story and actively shape this story.
8) Opening recordings
Don't waste your opening shots on something just pretty or atmospheric. A good use of an opening shot is to signal to the viewer whose story you are telling. It is usually good for the viewer to see your characters' eyes. Don't keep the viewer waiting for a frontal close-up of your main character any longer than necessary.
9) Bring the viewer into your characters' experience
Beginners often spend too much time doing external things like transporting characters from one place to another. The viewer is more interested in what your characters are feeling. And be careful not to show this theatrically. Often times, it's best to keep a character's facial expression relatively neutral and let the viewer figure out what the character needs to feel based on the context. Filmmaker David Mamet calls this "unaffected shots".
It is important for the audience to experience the film as complete at the end. Help them let go of the fiction when the end approaches to feel like nothing more will happen. And if you include a symbolic gesture or event right before the end of the movie for viewers to ponder and interpret as the credits roll, there's a good chance they'll experience your movie as rich and complete, even if You got to the point, bones and killed your darlings to tell your story with breathtaking economy.
About Richard Raskin
Richard Raskin was born in Brooklyn in 1941 and currently lives in Denmark. His main interest was telling short films. For over 30 years he taught students at Aarhus University the art of making short films. He has served on juries and lectures at international film festivals, is the founding editor of Short Film Studies published in the UK, has written books and articles on short film, co-founded a school called Multiplatform Storytelling and Production, and wrote the screenplay for an award-winning short film, Seven Minutes in the Warsaw Ghetto.