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Wednesday 23 September 2020

Home - Academic - Top Ten Beginner Mistakes: For Making Your First Short Film

24Frames: This article is written exclusively for 24 Frames News by Professor Richard Raskin. In this article, he had listed the top ten beginner mistakes to avoid in short filmmaking. For a better understanding of the article, we suggest you watch the five shorts that had been listed in Mistake No. 1, as they will be further referred to.

 

 

1. THINKING OF THE SHORT FILM AS A MINIATURE FEATURE FILM

 

The short film is an art form in its own right and has storytelling properties that differ radically from those of the feature film. The typically 6-8 minute short film should not be confused with the typically 20-40 minute novellefilm – the form often used for graduation films at film schools and which is in fact a miniature feature film.

 

Watch some exemplary short films before you begin. Here are a few suggestions:

 

THE WAR IS OVER 1997 – Director: Nina Mimica (Italy, 7 min.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=euqZrtagiqM

 

DERAILMENT/AVSPORING 1993 – Director: Unni Straume (Norway/France, 7 min.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TbO-HcUudaA

 

SUNDAY 1988 – Director: John Lawlor (Ireland, 8 min.)

http://www.vimeo.com/10866510

 

KOM 1995 – Director: Marianne Olsen Ulrichsen (Norway, 5 min.)

https://vimeo.com/277044108

 

EATING OUT 1993 – Director: Pål Sletaune (Norway, 7 min.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUAuXzj9Ou4

 

I would also suggest that you design your film as one continuous scene, so that story time and screen time are the same. Avoid making a film in which you show a scene, fade to black, and show a new scene days later, then another fade, etc. That is likely to become a miniature feature film. If you stick to a single continuous scene, you have a better chance of making a true short film. Don’t use narrative models found in screenwriting books or websites, designed for making mainstream feature films.

 

 

2. NOT TRYING TO SEE YOUR FILM THROUGH THE EYES OF THE VIEWER

 

Don’t assume the intended function of a shot or scene is necessarily the same as the viewer’s experience of that shot or scene. During script development, shoot and post-production, try to dissociate yourself from your filmmaker perspective in order to see through the viewer’s eyes. This also involves controlling ego since you will undoubtedly have fallen in love with your own initial ideas. Kill your darlings. And remember that keeping things simple is likely to give your film greater depth in the eyes of the viewer while making things too complex, with clever twists, is likely to make the film seem superficial.

 

 

3. THINKING THERE MUST BE A CHARACTER ARC

 

A feature film must bring a central character through a fundamental trans­formation – a character arc. Instead, the short film works with character moments – moments when a character makes choices that change the situation. Trying to bring a character arc into a short film means working against the form, not with it. There simply isn’t time in a short film to establish a character’s initial status, to introduce a catalyst that could convincingly produce a transformation, to show the successive stages of the transformation, and to show the character in a final form. In the short film, the main character at the end of the film is the same as he or she was at the start, only the situation has changed. So in a short film, there are character moments, but no character arc.

 

In EATING OUT, the main character at the end of the film is the same person he was at the beginning, only now he has a girlfriend.

 

 

4. THINKING THE STORYTELLING MUST BE CONFLICT-DRIVEN

 

Anyone who has read standard works on scriptwriting may believe that conflict is the heart and soul of any story. This is true of longer narratives but not of the short film. The following is admittedly sexist. In my experience, male student filmmakers like conflict-driven storytelling and tend to think that an interesting story must involve spectacular things like murder or rape, with spurting blood and arms or legs chopped off. Female student filmmakers are generally more attuned to subtle things that happen between people, to their eye-contact, to things that are barely noticed. And short film storytelling is closer to the female than to the male sensibility. I would often tell my male students to let their female sides come out during the brainstorming for script development.

 

DERAILMENT and KOM are both directed by women film­makers and tell their stories with no conflict between characters.

 

 

5. THINKING THAT THE LONGER THE FILM IS, THE MORE IT IS LIKE A ‘REAL’ FILM

 

For a short film, the shorter the better. It’s important to cut out anything that isn’t necessary. Antoine de St.-Exupéry, best remembered as the author of The Little Prince, once wrote: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Serving as juries at short film festivals, I found that many of the films in competition were often twice as long as they should have been. The short film is the poetry of filmmaking, and a great definition was written by a Chinese master in a completely different context: “The writer’s message is like rice. When you write prose, you cook the rice. When you write poetry, you turn the rice into rice wine.” If you cut to the bone, kill darlings and eliminate all filler, there is a chance your film will have great density and will intoxicate us, take our breath away, and leave us feeling that we can’t get enough of it.

 

 

6. ASSUMING THAT THE VIEWER WILL AUTOMATICALLY LIKE YOUR MAIN CHARACTER

 

The main character has to earn the viewer’s respect and affection, has to deserve to be the main character in a film. Otherwise, the viewer won’t really care what happens to him or her. So invest your main character with qualities that will appeal to the viewer. Let him or she do things that will win the viewer’s respect.

 

The main character should remain consistent throughout the film – no character arc – but his or her behavior should never be predictable, should always take the viewer by surprise. In EATING OUT, you can never guess what the characters will do next, though they remain consistent with their initial definitions.

 

The sooner the viewer knows whose story you are telling, the sooner the viewer will begin to feel at home within the film. Don’t waste your opening shots on something pretty or atmospheric. Use them to signal whose story you are telling.

 

Give your main character enough power to make things happen. A character who makes things happen is more interesting than a character things happen to. Beginners often design the main character who is too passive.

 

The relationship between the beats of your story should be causal, not just temporal. If your story goes “And then,… and then…,” without one thing making the next one happen, your story won’t be interesting. And the causality should flow from what characters want.

 

The main character should be in charge of his or her own story, should shape his or her own story. And that doesn’t necessarily mean a ‘feel-good’ ending. In THE WAR IS OVER, Marco is shaping his own story (by using a strategy to find out whether or not he can return home) but there is no happy ending. The main character in KOM knows what she wants and how to get it. She is constantly setting the agenda for the couple. This is the kind of character viewers love to identify with.

 

 

7. FOCUSING TOO MUCH ON EXTERNALS, NOT ENOUGH ON BRINGING THE VIEWER INTO WHAT CHARACTERS ARE FEELING

 

Transporting characters from one place to another may be necessary but should be done quickly. Those shots are uninteresting. The main thing is to bring the viewer inside the characters, to experience what they are feeling. Do what you can to connect the inner with the outer. And without using voice-over. Voice-over isn’t bad in itself, but when beginners use it, it’s usually because they don’t know how to tell their story cinematically. It’s only when you have been making films for maybe ten years that you know how and when to use voice-over. It is also important to avoid theatricality when letting the viewer know what a character is feeling. If a character is sad, don’t have a tear roll down his or her cheek. Let your characters touch each other in a way that enables the viewer to work out what the characters must be feeling.

 

 

8. HAVING TOO LITTLE INTERACTION WITHIN THE FILM

 

It is the interaction of characters with one another that gives a short film its vitality. Beginners often design a story with too little interaction. The interaction doesn’t have to be conflictual. It can be very subtle. But unless you have characters inter­acting with one another, it will be difficult to capture and hold the viewer’s interest. A character’s interaction with an object probably won’t be enough to do that.

 

The interaction doesn’t have to run from the first to the final shot. In THE WAR IS OVER, for example, there is no interaction in the opening sequence or the final shot. These are framing pieces, while the whole central portion of the film involves the interaction of the main character with his family members over the phone and with the people waiting on line behind him.

 

 

9. NOT USING SOUND AS PART OF THE ACTION

 

Ideally what happens in your film should be as interesting to the ear as it is to the eye. When designing the action, try to think up situations in which characters make sounds or respond to sounds, so that sounds are part of the action and not just a backdrop for the action. You want to avoid discovering in the editing room that too little is happening on the soundtrack, when all you can do at that point is to add background music.

 

 

10. ENDING THE FILM WITHOUT GIVING THE VIEWER A SENSE OF CLOSURE

 

You want to avoid ending your film abruptly, in a way that leaves the viewer thinking “What was that?”. Prepare the viewer for letting go of the fiction by signaling in time that nothing more will be happening. Good idea to plant maybe 10 seconds before the ending a symbolic gesture or event that will give the viewer something to interpret and to replay in his or her mind, as the credits run. This will also help to leave the viewer feeling that your film has depth.

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