Production The Film Business

Top Ten Helpful Hints for Creating a Short Film from Sharon Badal

SHARON BADAL is Tribeca Film Festival/Short Films Programmer; NYU Professor/Producing for Film; and author of Swimming Upstream: A Lifesaving Guide to Short Film Distribution

Navigating the film festival labyrinth…for most new producers, entering their project into the film festival circuit represents their first foray into the “real world” of the entertainment industry. Most of these initial projects involve the short film format, that is less than 40 minutes. As one of the Programmers for the Tribeca Film Festival, I have watched literally thousands of short film submissions over the past several years, in addition to the shorts I watch from my students at New York University, where I am a full-time faculty member of the Tisch School of the Arts Undergraduate Department of Film and Television.

film festival labyrinth

photo by flickr user Richard Due

With my eyesight still intact, I offer the following Top Ten Helpful Hints for creating a short film in both narrative and unscripted formats:

  1. Avoid the overuse of voice-over narration to carry your vision. Think about narration as a means to introduce your story, or express salient points, but do not allow the focus of your project to be the voice-over.
  2. The first few minutes of your project are integral in creating the tone. Think about your opening very carefully, and stay away from traditional and oversaturated openings, such as “alarm-goes-off-character-wakes-up” or “pan-across- a-mantle-of-photographs,” for example.
  3. Consider the running time of your project while it is still in the concept stage and have a clear idea of content vs. running time. The longer your project, the stronger your story should be. Remember, it’s all about the story, regardless of whether it is narrative or documentary.
  4. Particularly with documentary projects, think about your story progression. You still should have an idea where the film is “going.” Twenty minutes of talking heads interspersed with archive footage does not a documentary make. What is your viewer going to learn/experience by the end of the film and how do we get there?
  5. Montage sequences serve a very specific purpose—to move the story ahead in an expedient manner. Regurgitating previously viewed shots simply for the sake of putting them to music is not in your best interest, and detracts from the overall impact of the film.
  6. Speaking of music, the use of songs should not undermine the visuals, but enhance them. Too many filmmakers who grew up as part of the MTV Generation cavalierly use song lyrics to express their vision. This is not a music video.
  7. Your main credit sequence should not imitate a feature film. A ten-minute short with a two-minute main credit sequence is unnecessary. Give “credit where credit is due” in the end credits! If you produce a lavish opening credit sequence, make sure it matches the style of the film, and does not jar the viewer when it goes from credits to first shot.
  8. The one-character documentary has its own set of challenges. A producer may think someone’s life is unique by the hurdles he/she has overcome or something in his/her life that warrants capturing the experience, but others should as well. Before you produce a film about a friend or relative, keep your audience (and objectivity) in mind. Is this person interesting enough on-camera to sustain a viewer’s attention for 10, 20, or 30 minutes?
  9. One of the most exhilarating aspects of short-form filmmaking is that “there are no rules.” Don’t feel confined by the structure imposed by features. Programmers are looking for creativity, new voices, and a captivating story supported by visual imagery.
  10. Finally, be aware that you’re not going to get rich from a short film. Your goal should be to produce a project that accurately reflects your talent and the ability to create and complete a vision. A common and accurate descriptive is that a short film is your “calling card.” As a producer, you are the ultimate creator and decision-maker on the project. Make certain that the decisions you make result in the best film that you can create.

Excerpt from Producing for TV and New Media, 3rd edition by Catherine Kellison, Dustin Morrow, and Kacey Morrow © 2013 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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