How to Keep Your Short Film Small (But Make it Play Big)
Don't let your short become a runaway train; the best ones are modest, both in scope and budget.
These days, more short content is being produced than ever. What makes the good stuff stand out?
I can tell you one thing: it's certainly not the ability to cram a feature-length story into the confines of a short film or web series. The good shorts keep the scope small. Below, I outline various ways to do this in writing and production, based on my experience putting together award-winning short films (one of which won the top prize at Cannes).
When writing, less is always more
The most common foil of short films is when the writer tries to cram a feature film idea into a 10-15 page short film script. Don't do it! Short films are shorts films and features are features. In order to avoid this issue, always subscribe to the "less is more" model. If you’re making a short film as a precursor to a potential feature, don't try to fit your feature into a short. Instead, write the feature first, then shoot a contained scene from the script. Damien Chazelle did this masterfully with Whiplash; he shot a scene as a short film that played at Sundance and garnered enough interest to be made into its feature-length form.
Boil down your characters, setting, and story to only what’s absolutely necessary. Find your world and dive as deep as possible into a specific nugget of that world. If you master the specific, your short will feel bigger—even bigger than if you tried to deal with a grander storyline.
Keep it snappy
The most philosophically invigorating or emotionally captivating shorts are the ones that are the shortest and most subtle. You’ll often hear festival programmers say "the shorter, the better." I’m far more impressed by a 10-minute succinct portrayal of character than a 25-minute VFX-heavy piece. A great example of this is Noah, a short in which the entirety takes place on the titular character's laptop screen. That’s a highly specific story thread that, since it’s executed well, makes the film feel much bigger than it is.
Leave us hanging on an emotional thread
Even more so than features, short films must have emotionally resonant endings. You must leave your audience with something to chew on; even better, leave us wanting more. Due to the fact that we’re not with your character’s journey for very long, the most effective way to make your short memorable is to inject as much pathos as possible into the ending. Try to make your final shot dynamic. If you do this, your audience will feel for your character right as “the end” fades in.
The most effective way to make your short memorable is to inject as much pathos as possible into the ending.
Keep it to 1 or 2 settings
Challenge yourself to write a story that takes place in only one or two settings. It’s a way to ensure you’re creating a contained story and will keep the scope of your character’s journey extremely specific. As an added bonus, it’ll make the production of said short that much easier to produce.
Stay well under $10,000
The majority of the shorts that become disasters are the ones with ballooned budgets of over $10,000. All the shorts I’ve worked on have had budgets of less than $5,000; frankly, it’s not worth making a short with a budget more than $10,000. I’m always wary when I hear of shorts with budgets in the $50,000-and-above territory. In that situation, you might as well pivot to making a micro-budget feature and walk away with a feature-length film.
Be shameless in asking for favors
Shorts are truly a labor of love, so you’ll need a lot of luck and help from others to keep costs low and quality high. That may mean finding a crew of your friends who will work for low or no pay, or cashing in a favor from a family member who happens to have a perfect house to shoot in. Ultimately, you need to be as crafty as possible to cut costs. At the end of the day, the only way to keep your production in the lower end of the budget is to have zero shame when it comes to asking for big favors. Make a list of everyone you may think will be able to help out in any way possible—even if it’s something as small as donating a meal—and pursue every lead to keep your shoot as small in scope as possible.
Shorts or web series are great exercises in honing your writing and directing skills. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot and empty your bank account to get it done.
Here are some examples of shorts and web series that I love and think do a great job of encapsulating these strategies: