To me, a pontificating Internet blowhard of questionable character, it’s not hard to differentiate a good short film from a bad one. There’s a very easy litmus test, and it usually works. It works so well that I click right on out of there when a film fails this test, and I have a strong suspicion that I’m not alone.
Perhaps festival snob judges use different criteria (a probability). Perhaps the masses use this one.
Here is the magical secret to a short film that is truly worth spreading:
A good short film feels too short, and a bad short film feels too long.
That’s it. That’s the whole ballgame. I can stop writing now. It’s the same criteria for longer works as well, but this basic characteristic, this essential and fundamental property of good film vs. bad is usually the last thing that most amateur filmmakers consider. They obsess over every other aspect of making a movie, the nuts and the bolts. They don’t even consider the editing of the thing until everything is shot. Then they don’t want to cut the excruciatingly boring stuff, because a lot of work went into filming it in the first place. These decisions should have been made at the script stage, in pre-production, thinking about why every shot actually is needed or isn’t. But more importantly: why the shots they have written are boring and don’t convey enough story in a short enough amount of time.
Craft shots that give multiple channels of information to the viewer, instead of leaving viewers waiting, and waiting, and waiting for your God damned pretentious piece of shit to actually start.
That means an inciting incident right at the beginning that can hook people and set up an interesting story. Without front-loading your film with a unique and meaningful opening scene you’re dead. You are done. I have already clicked onto something else, and I have no regrets about leaving you behind.
Now these are general principles, and building it is easier said than done. How does one craft an opening scene that can hook people and ensure they keep watching?
Well no one can tell you that. It’s subjective, entirely dependent on the story. Each story has its own trajectory, its own unique set of parameters, unless you’re copying others and basically stealing (in which case a career on Wall Street might be more appropriate rather than in the arts). Art is supposed to take it to the next level, to build, to make connections that others simply hadn’t made before. Even working in a genre, new situations and consequences can, and must, present themselves. Remakes of popular films tend to innovate new twists. Or else what’s the point? What is the point of shoveling the same story? Why are you, the filmmaker, required at all? A machine can rehash the past, and probably with better efficiency.
But the main problem in most short films I come across (and that is quite a lot) is that they are boring as fucking hell on ice. The opening scenes don’t portend anything at all. They aren’t intricately thought out situations, and they aren’t much of a story. They are banal, trivial, pointless and not worth watching.
Perhaps I’m jaded, not wowed by the ability of twenty-somethings to press record on a DSLR. Perhaps even with filmic visuals the pretty pictures’ complete lack of meaning and drama registers most with me.
Film is dramatic if it is anything. It needs the conflict of opposing ideas (and an educated writer). It needs the spark of antagonism. Something must be off and the resolution unclear. That’s what compels us to keep watching. A camera can meander down all the long boring hallways of the world, but who cares? Each second and each frame of film must be justified: why are you wasting the audience’s time?
When one looks at a photograph he or she can look for a second or for a minute. The choice is up to them.
When one looks at a movie, the duration of every image has been decided by someone else for them. They are powerless, stuck, trapped, helpless, at the mercy of the editor now. Film exists in time. Time is a factor that is a basic fundamental aspect of every shot, every scene, every sequence, and the work as a whole. Time is unique to moving pictures and needs to be considered as an important aspect of the process. It needs to be considered at various stages and reconsidered over and over again until the finished film doesn’t waste the audience’s time at any point.
Wasting a minute of screen time on scenery may not seem like an egregious sin. But with 1,000 people in the audience, you’ve wasted 1,000 minutes of people’s lives on the scenery. That’s not a formula for success, I’m sorry to say, but it happens all the time. Economy in the presentation is paramount.
That means giving people more and more of the story through as many channels as possible. This is where amateurs and professionals tend to diverge.
Reveal vs. conceal is the eternal struggle for writers of all media. When is the correct moment to show something, and will showing it reveal too much, making the story predictable? This is where experience and knowledge make all the difference. Apparently most of these boring films err on the side of concealing everything. They don’t want to give away the ending, and so they keep it all hidden until the last scene. Unfortunately, no one is watching by then. The problem needs a more nuanced approach, a way to reveal a larger truth in tiny increments. These stages of revelation are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that come together and suddenly jump to life at the end. Figuring the correct sequence of incremental revelations (and getting it moving soon) is the crux of the game.
A good film will hit the viewer with sound and imagery in abundance: background sounds, foreground sounds, music, specially chosen sound effects that are relevant to the story, foreground imagery, background imagery, the perfect location, the perfect lighting, the perfect camera motion, a perfect transformation as the drama unfolds during a take. While the student film lingers on some background scenery, the more accomplished film has already conveyed a dozen things about the world, the characters and the conflict to the audience. The interplay of background to foreground in visuals and in audio keeps the watchers watching. Shots should be mined for opportunities to give clues in the background as well as in the foreground, by the first frame as well as the last frame of a shot. The action that unfolds during a shot can convey many different pieces of information, if one abandons linear thinking.
Front-loading, providing sufficient story information up front to set up the narrative through to the end, is the major missing ingredient in bad shorts. The boring films just exist on a simple linear line. The amazing films exist on multiple lines of storytelling, weaving a tapestry. Boring films focus on a single, obvious and unremarkable element, and hope that people will wait for something interesting to happen later – maybe. Films need to start interesting and accelerate from there. Life’s too short.