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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Q & A: Who Wears Short Shorts?

Anyone else remember that old Nair commercial from the '70s, or am I dating myself again? (And yes, I know it was a song back in the '50s, before the commercial.)

Anyway, this recent question had nothing to do with hair removal or the Royal Teens. But Leif wrote to ask me about writing short films:

I was just wondering if you could write some articles about short films and their scripts if you have any knowledge of them at all. I've recently decided to try writing a short film script with the ultimate aim of making it myself and would love to hear your thought on them and how they might provide a stepping stone towards becoming a screen writer.
The truth is, I don't have a lot of experience with shorts. And I told Leif that. But I think his response also leads into some of the topics I'd like to discuss here.

Likewise I don't know much about short films either, so I'm kind of just treating it like a film, thats short! Basically starting off with something that's smaller and more manageable then a full feature, while at the same time still giving a good opportunity to tell a story and do some writing.
Interesting. Okay, let me start with a brief account of what my shorts-related history is. When I was in grad school I did two shorts, but unfortunately never finished either of them. I shot both on 16mm, and actually cut them on flatbeds (both Moviolas and Steenbecks), not Avids or another non-linear system. Old School all the way.

Why didn't I finish them? Well, like the fool I am (or at least was), I started the second before the first was completely done, and then I ran out of money. At this point, I could conceivably finish the first one sometime, since it was 100% edited. All it needs is a sound mix, negative cut, and print. The second one, however, will likely never be finished. Though I had edited about 50%, I had only finished shooting 90%, and I suspect I will never shoot the rest. So be it. But that's okay. I liked the first one better anyway, though I had grown as a filmmaker by the second. The first was simply more my style, and I was exploring other things in the second to see if I'd like them.

Beyond that, however, I did work on a number of other short films, both for classmates, and other people around the NYC production community. And I watched plenty, either in class, or on TV. Be aware that channels like IFC show short films regularly, and if you're thinking of making one, you'd do well to watch many.

My most important piece of advice would be this:

Great short films are not just shorter versions of feature films.

Think about it for a second. In most shorts, you can barely get a set-up and resolution in there, let alone a full three-act structure. Forget about serious character development. There's just not enough time. This likely is the reason that such a high percentage of short films are comedic. Humor is something that takes a split second. Drama and pathos take time to develop.

By the way, there really are two different types of short films. There are the 5-15 minute ones (shorter than 5 minutes might actually be a micro-film), and there are those that approach the 45-60 minute range. I am speaking primarily of the former in this post. The latter is a different beast that may, in fact, be something of a short feature, but they serve a different purpose. If they are docs, they might find an outlet on TV. Otherwise, there are really very few venues for them, and I wouldn't suggest (in my limited knowledge) making them. If you're trying to make a "calling card" film, my feeling is that few people will watch a 45 minute film. They want a feature, or a true short. Maybe William or Andy can say differently, but that's my impression.

Okay, so getting back to things. If short films aren't just shorter version of features, what are they? They are typically self-contained, and rely heavily on a joke-like structure (even if they aren't comedic in tone). Set-up and punchline. Ever notice how a short story is different from a novel? Same thing here. Plenty of short films are more open-ended than the typical feature, but to my personal taste, they are not very pleasing. Mind you, that's just my tastes. I have distinct memories of some excellent short films I've seen, and typically they provided some entertaining and moderately perplexing images or actions, then eventually resolved the confusion with a humorous and/or thought-provoking climax.

All that being said, should someone who wants to write feature scripts write a short (if they want), despite the differences? I would say, unequivocally, yes. There are definite benefits. Firstly, writing anything is beneficial, and seeing the process of how the written word translates to the screen, in practical terms, is invaluable. Furthermore, it will give you the opportunity to become a produced writer, as opposed to just a writer. Certainly, if you want to be a writer-director, then making a short is absolutely essential. But even if not, there are plenty of people who are looking for good short scripts to produce, and it will always be nice to have something produced to show people.

It will, of course, be something of a crapshoot when you write a short for others to produce. Particularly in the short film world, many of the filmmakers are less experienced, so you never know what they will do with your work. But should it fall on the positive side of the crapshoot, you could gain some nice exposure that you wouldn't have already had. I've tossed around the idea of writing some more shorts myself, and may at some point.

But let's talk about the short film as a "calling card." For writer-directors, they can work well. I'd love to hear if anyone knows otherwise, but I'm not familiar with too many straight writers (as opposed to hyphenates) who have been able to parlay a short film into a pro writing gig. I assume it has happened, but I can't think of any. I'm sure there are plenty examples of the other type, but the first three "calling card" shorts that come to my mind are Some Folks Call it a Sling Blade (turned into Sling Blade), Peluca (which became Napoleon Dynamite), and the virally-spread The Spirit of Christmas (which famously grew into South Park). All writer-directors. There was also 405 a few years back, and that was used as a calling card for visual effects people. I believe it has helped them on that front.

Perhaps shorts aren't popular as calling cards for writers because the business still looks down on us. Directors and visual effects people create visuals, so they need to show what they can do. We "just" write words. So they can just read our stuff to see if they should hire us. Once it is committed to film, in many producers' minds, whatever is up there is divorced from its written source, and has moved into the realm of the producer. That whole possessory credit issue, y'know? Still, maybe I'm wrong, and it can be used as such. I hope so!

Ultimately, however, I think it is definitely worth writing shorts. If for no other reason than the final point Leif made in his question: it is "a good opportunity to tell a story and do some writing."

(How do you like that? A long post on shorts.)

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Blogger writergurl said...

Intersting that you should be writing about wirters and "shorts". I've just been notified (last weekend) that a short I had written and thought the director had dropped is now being shot. I wouldn't have made the casting choices he did, the male lead is NOT what I had in mind as far as looks. But since I'm just the "writer" I am having to learn to not rail against the director's choice. Interesting lesson for me. Could be valuable one day. For links to the project, and a few more details, check my blog.

8:24 AM  
Anonymous Lucy said...

Great comparison between short stories and short films. Lots of new directors I've spoken to recently insist they want to make short versions of features - one even said a three minute short should have the set-up on the first page, confrontation on the second and resolution on the third, Syd Field stylee - or else. I went cross-eyed and turned the job down. Interestingly, all the people I made short films with in Film School wanted the protagonists to commit suicide at the end. Literally 12 of them. Maybe it's a UK thing.

10:58 AM  
Anonymous Leif Smart said...

Hi Joel!
Thanks for taking the time to answer my question. It definatly provides some more insight into what I was doing, and helped illistrate some mistakes I was making. The short film script I am currently working on was definatly running into problems where the story centered around the audience building an attachment to the characters, but there wasn't really enough time to build up that attachment. Of course I have built it up having gone over the story again and again.

Hopefully restructuring it a little and moving away from the 3 act system, and into something closer to the setup - punchline example you gave will make it more workable.

I do enjoy the process though and it seems to provide a good experience in movie making overall. Let me also assure you, that when you consider that everything needs to be payed for out of your own pocket, you really stop and consider what is absolutely necessary to the story!

PS, its probably a sign of the ages that the title of your post reminds me of something that occured in a simpson's episode, rather then the original reference.

2:30 PM  
Blogger Webs said...

This prompted a longer entry at my blog. I actually have experience at this sort of thing....

7:59 PM  
Anonymous Rosco said...

Film Contest
Hi there,
This is Rosco of roscoland.com and I was doing some searching for film makers to inviter to our new film and video contest. I found your site among some others and want to extend you an invitation to enter. Please take a minute and look at http://www.roscoland.com/contestpage.html I am not trying to advertise. Go ahead and erase this comment, but if you have something to enter please take a look and strongly consider it. Thanks for your time Rosco of roscoland.com

11:59 PM  
Blogger a very short short said...

I made a short film last week and have just uploaded it. It's a great motivator for anyone wishing they wrote more often.



11:44 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

One of the guys in my writing group started a production company to produce his own shorts. He's been encouraging me to write them for a while, and I'm just now getting to the end of my first feature length, where I can begin thinking about something new.

Having come from a background of writing short fiction (including flash fiction), I have to say there's a certain appeal to the style. I don't know if I've watched enough to really have a handle on what others are doing, but I've been increasingly thinking about what could be done.

This, of course, gives me even more to think about.

11:14 PM  

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