Here's Why Your Short Film Script Isn't Working

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I really enjoy working in short films. Over the years I've written, directed, and edited close to 20 shorts. I've read many short film scripts. I've seen dozens of shorts at various festivals. I've judged short film screenplay competitions. The more I see, the more I read, and the more I create, the more I start to see and understand why certain short films succeed, and why others fall short.

Here are a few common denominators I've seen among those short films (including my own) that just don't work. If you avoid these while writing your next script, the finished film will be a lot stronger.

Too much backstory

Short films offer audiences brief glimpses into a world. We don't necessarily need to know how we got where we are. What's most important is what's happening right now, in this moment. Eliminate anything that has to do with backstory. 

Too much set up

Have you ever listened to people at a party try to tell a joke, but they get so bogged down in the details of the setup, that by the time they finally reach the punchline you've lost interest? The same is true for short films. If you take too long to get to the core essence of what you're film is about, then viewers will lose interest.

Too much exposition

Christopher McQuarrie, writer and director of Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation and Mission:Impossible - Fallout, said (in an interview on The Q&A Podcast with Jeff Goldsmith) that "Information is the death of emotion." Don't have your characters tell each other exactly what they're thinking or feeling. Use subtext. Don't tell the audience exactly what's going on. Convey that information visually.

Too much voice-over

In my opinion, voice-over is often unnecessary for one main reason - it doesn't add anything to the story that can't already be ascertained by what's happening on screen. When executed correctly, voice-over can provide the viewer with necessary context. It can also be used for comedic effect. But if you're thinking about using voice-over, I would recommend first writing your script without it. See if the story works. If not, then carefully introduce voice-over in very strategic spots.

Too many flashbacks

Flashbacks are dangerous in a feature-length film because they can completely kill the forward momentum of the story. So they should definitely be avoided in a short film. But hey, we've all used them before. I know I have. However, I've since learned my lesson. Remember, you want your short film to get straight to the point. Flashbacks only add to the time it takes to get your audience from A to B.

Too on-the-nose

One of the great things about art, be it paintings, books, or films, is that it's always up to interpretation. It's fun to discuss art; its themes, emotions, motivations, etc. So it's disappointing when I see short films or read scripts that tell me exactly what it's all about. It feels like some kind of after-school special, where characters tell us the main lesson just before the credits roll. "See Timmy, good friends make all the difference." Don't preach to your audience. Be subtle. Don't be afraid to be ambiguous. Life is messy. Some things are better left unsaid. If your character motivations are clear, and the story lean and concise, the themes will be evident.

As you read through these tips you may have noticed how many times I used the phrase "Too much..." That's because the best short films are the ones that keep everything simple.

What other tips do you have for creating a really strong short film? Leave them in the Comments section below.

The Benefits of Vertical Video

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Vertical video. Among video professionals, the term may provoke feelings of frustration, anger, or disgust. Often it's been mocked and ridiculed as an invalid format choice (see below).

But vertical video is a preferred format for platforms like Snapchat and Instagram Stories. Already, vertical video has been added to my list of deliverables. Whenever I finish editing a project, I'm asked to create different versions, including one oriented vertically for social media. 

Last night I came across a thread on Twitter from Anthony Monteleone, a video editor I follow. He made some very good, rational arguments regarding vertical video I felt they were worth sharing and discussing. 

One immediate ramification I've seen in my own work with vertical video is that footage needs to be acquired in 4K. If you need to deliver vertically, it's nice to have that extra resolution to play around with when you have to scale up and crop in. Otherwise, the video can start to pixelate rather quickly.

What are your thoughts about the validity of vertical video? Continue the discussion in the Comments section below.

Can You Say 'No' to a Client?

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There you are, sitting in a meeting with your client, listening as she reads a list of revisions she wants for the video you are currently producing. With each item, you can't help but cringe a little on the inside, because you're really proud of where the edit stands. When she finally finishes the list she looks up at you, asking for your input. What do you say? Can you tell your client "No?"

The short answer is, "No."

Never come right out and tell your client you refuse to do something. That looks bad on you and you can really damage the relationship you have with your client by doing so. No one wants to work with a difficult person. However there are a few things you can try the next time you're faced with a challenging approval process:

  • Let the client say "No" for you. It's incredibly important that you have a written contract with your client before work starts. And that contract should always include a clause about how many rounds of revisions you're willing to do before the price of the video goes up (usually three). After all, you've budgeted a certain amount of your own time in the original price of the video. If no revision limit has been set, you might find out that you're spending a lot more time on the video that you originally thought. When your client knows ahead of time that she only has three rounds of revisions, she will be more strategic about edits she wants you to make. Then, after those rounds are used up, she might be the one telling you "no," when you politely remind her that any more revisions will cost more money.
  • No, but... There's a central idea in the world of improv acting. It's called "Yes, and..." It means that you should always take what your improv partners give you and run with it, adding to it, building from it. Never close yourself off to your fellow actors, or the scene will have nowhere to go. I would say that when it comes to client revisions, turn this concept into "No, but..." If a client asks you to make an edit to a video that you know for certain won't work, don't just say "No," but instead offer up an alternative. Find out what the central problem is and come up with a solution that the client will like. "I can't do that, but I can do THIS..." For example, you might not be able to crop in on a shot like the client is asking you to do, but you may have another camera angle with the right composition that will work to the client's satisfaction. Always offer up an alternative. After all, you and the client both want the video to be its best.
  • Show, don't tell. Sometimes it's difficult for clients to understand why a certain edit choice won't work, until they see it on the screen. So, if a client is insistent that you make the changes she wants (and you know that it won't work), make the edit anyway. Then when the client sees it on the screen, she'll understand why it was best to leave it alone.

These are three ideas that might help you the next time you're facing a challenging approval process. But, here's one last thing to remember:

You are working for the client.

Ultimately, they are the ones paying you and they are the ones you need to please. Don't take their notes as an attack on your personally, or on the caliber of your work. Revisions come with the territory. Take it all in stride and always maintain a professional, courteous attitude. It will help you a lot in your career.

Do you have any post-production stories to share? What challenges have you faced when working with a client? How did you resolve them? Leave your thoughts in the Comments section.

Two Ways to Build a Solid Reputation in Your Local Film Community

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There's one thing ALL low/no-budget short films have in common: most everyone is working for free. It never ceases to amaze me how many talented people are willing to donate their time and their talents to work on a film project, just because they believe in the material and genuinely enjoy the craft. And it's remarkable what you can achieve if you simply ask.

But "nice" will only get you so far. In addition to being nice, you have to be respectful. Your cast and crew have given up their nights and weekends because they a) love the process of filmmaking, b) believe in you, c) love the material, or d) all of the above.

If you want to maintain a good reputation in the local film community, always do the following:

  • Come to set prepared. Be respectful of everyone's time. Show up to set with a solid schedule, a clear vision, and a thorough shot list. A short film set is not a social club. You aren't there to hang out. You're there to work. Believe me, your cast and crew will have a fun time on set if you provide clear direction throughout the day. Having fun is the result of being prepared. If your set is chaotic and disorganized, people will be less inclined to help you in the future.
  • Finish the film and get it out there. Nothing is worse than when talented actors and crew members donate their time for a short film project only to find out months later that the director a) didn't even finish the film, or b) finished it but doesn't want anyone to see it because he/she is too displeased with it. Let the cast and crew see the fruits of their labor. You don't have to submit it to film festivals. You don't have to post it online. But at least coordinate a private viewing party so everyone can see the final product.

Have any other tips for building a solid reputation as a low/no-budget filmmaker? Leave them in the Comments.