A Long Story Short

Film ShootWhy would you want to make a short film? Here’s a reason; Steven Spielberg.

He’s not only the world’s most famous film director, he’s the world’s most famous short filmmaker.

The man who’s bought us some of the most influential movies in history was a small time TV director when he created 1968’s Amblin’ (after which his production company is named).

Hollywood’s (and increasingly Australia’s) best known film directors come from a variety of backgrounds – some from TV, some from assistant or second unit directorships and some from music video work (a highly visual style like in Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo is their hallmark).

But many are former aspiring filmmakers, camera owners or students who started out by making and submitting short films to the enormous worldwide festival market. It’s becoming even more true in Australia as more Aussie festivals get international exposure.

Gregor Jordan’s new feature film Ned Kelly is due to hit Australia’s screens soon. It’s as highly polished and smoothly produced as any multi-million dollar Hollywood blockbuster, and in 1995 he was just another of the hundreds of hopefuls who entered his short movie, Swinger, into the (then modestly sized) Tropfest.

So even if all you have is a camera and a cool idea, the same could happen for you. But how?

X Marks the Spot

There are two essential X’s to keep in mind when planning and creating your short film – experience and exposure.

Filmmaking isn’t brain surgery. You can study it at university or film school for the rest of your life, but until you pick up a camera and shoot or draw a storyboard, you’ll just be a well-educated novice.

Whereas most of us don’t have the time, resources or finances to make our own full length feature, a short film is just what the name suggests – the entire film making process in short form (although it comes with its own unique set of experiences).

Deep in a post-production studio vault somewhere, Gregor Jordan tells what the short film will do for you. “Short films are good practice with little or no pressure,” he says. “You get to hone your filmmaking skills and fuck up a little bit without disastrous consequences. Confidence is also a big factor and making a successful short helps give you that.”

Emma Freeman – Tropfest 2002’s winner for her dramatic short film Lamb, agrees. “It takes a long time to acquire the tools to make a great film,” she thinks, “a lifetime of discovering new ways of working. You learn from every project about how you can improve the process. I love short film because I love the form but also because I wouldn’t want to make a feature at a time where I lacked understanding.”

And in a demanding market (for films generally), Freeman warns that you need all the practice you can get early. “I don’t want to just make one feature but continue making films through my life,” she says, “one horrible feature and it’s rare you get a second chance.”

But even when you’re comfortable enough to put your skills into practice, making it is half the job if acclaim and riches are your destiny. Unless your project is a video of Gran’s 85th birthday party just for the family, you’ll want it seen.

Thankfully, we have one of the most vibrant short film festival scenes in the world here in Australia, and it’s exploding exponentially. The market is almost as big (and far easier to crack) than the mainstream feature-at-the-multiplex market, so short films are not only an easy way to start, they’re a sensible marketing choice.

Serena Paull, sponsorship and project manager for Tropfest, has arguably the best spot in the Australia from which to observe that national short film festival spirit. Her advice is not just get your work out there, but see what it can do. Because as she explains, the proof of a film’s success is in the pudding – your audience.

“Short films allow you to experiment and hone your craft,” she says, “but the most important thing is to see your film played in front of an audience. Until you’ve experienced your own film screening to a real audience, you don’t really have any idea what works and what doesn’t.”

Emma Freeman goes further. To her, making a film yourself and not doing your best to exhibit it is like writing a bestseller and never sending it to a publisher. “You make films so they’re seen,” she says, “A film has no value if it sits in a box under your bed. Films are made to be shown, and it’s wonderful to get the opportunity to see your work in front of an audience.”

Abstract Form

So what makes a good short film? Those of us who’ve been to one of Australia’s many short film festivals know they’re a very different beast to your average multiplex big studio feature, where a narrative-driven story presents us with a beginning, middle and end.

If you’re not sure what short film fans (or judges) are looking for, just look at a sample of films from any festival. You’ll realise that the typical short film doesn’t exist – there’s actually more variety among them than you’ll ever see down at your suburban cinema showing the requisite blockbusters.

And remember the first rule of all film audiences; they’re people too – first and foremost they want to be entertained. Also, the best kind of film you’re qualified to make is one you’d enjoy yourself (no differently than if you were writing a book or composing music).

Tropfest Winner Freeman also reckons you should cut loose with the freedom the genre gives you. “The wonderful thing about short film is you can tell a story in whatever structure you chose,” she thinks. “Some of my favourite short films have been a moment in someone’s life, a fragment, rather than a story. For me, short film isn’t a mini-feature but possesses its own unique form. It’s like comparing a short story to a novel.”

Suzanne Browne, from Sydney post-production house Zealot, has previously worked on short films. She reminds us there are inherent differences between the two (witness the many feature films that were dismal despite being great half-hour TV comedies); “Short films free you up to explore an idea that wouldn’t sustain a feature length project.”

How To

Without hordes of impatient investors, a penny pinching and constantly fretting producer and stars spitting their dummy over the size of their trailers, your short film project should be a breeze.

But the constraints and procedures of a commercial studio are also a working guide with established paths to follow. You’ve had a great idea, but if you’re going it alone, how do you start?

Planning your project down to every meticulous detail might seem a bit unnecessary when it’s your own self-funded, self-produced project, but Zealot’s Browne warns that you can never be too careful. “Low budgets should mean more planning,” she says, “you don’t have resources to waste anything or anyone’s time.

“Most people give their time, location, food or props for free or practically nothing and you not only owe it to them to be as prepared as humanly possible but more importantly make the absolute most of their time and resources.”

And as Gregor Jordan agrees, it’ll also be more practice for when you hit the big leagues – if that’s where you’re going. “The process is the same only smaller,” he explains, “You still need a camera and someone to operate it. If you’re shooting inside or at night you still need lights. If you want to hear what people are saying you need sound. If you are the type of person who likes to storyboard (I am) you should do that too. It’s good practice doing a short film because at the end of the day a feature film is just a bigger version of all the same principles.”

So don’t think you don’t need a schedule, someone ready to make the sandwiches at lunch, or storyboards of your script. In fact, some short filmmakers have claimed that professional feature filmmaking is easier. Retaining the services of everyone from actors to caterers who show up (and stay) to perform paid work is a lot less stressful than having half your cast or crew leave mid shoot because of other commitments when they’re only doing you a favour.

Of course, some styles of film making (or the film maker, or even the individual film in question) call for little or no planning, but for a newcomer, too much is better than not enough until you realise what works for you.

Guerillas in the Mist

They’re part of film making folklore – the directors/producers/camera operators who turn up at a location, point and shoot.

Want a shot down the side of a building over which you’ll superimpose your villain falling to his death? Just find your way onto the roof of a city office tower, lean over and start filming. Of course, an actor, bystander or you yourself might get killed. You might be up for millions in damages or prison, so approach guerilla film making the same way you would anything else in life; don’t take stupid risks.

Guerilla filmmaking can also simply mean an irreverent method. In schlock director Larry Cohen’s cult classic Q, The Winged Serpent, the heroes hunt down a giant dragon-like creature living among the tops of New York skyscrapers.

During filming, Cohen ignored the required city government filmmaking bodies and permits – simply taking his cast and crew to each location and letting them fire M-16’s in the air until the cops came.

A more recent example is 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. Directors Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez — as they explained — ‘played the Blair witch’, settling their actors down for the night in their tents, then cajoling them with horrible cries and assaults in the dead of night, leaving the witch’s talismans for them to find in the morning. The three cast members simply filmed the adlibbed results – footage that became a great deal of the movie.

And in the short film world, the guerilla style comes with its own street cred. As Emma Freeman notes; “I’ve spent years shooting films without permission and they wouldn’t have been made if I went through official channels. Often, the lack of budget is the defining matter.”

Tropfest’s Paull says that doing it commando style is great for maintaining output in the field. “At Tropfest we encourage first time and emerging film makers,” she says, “Often the realities are that you need to just go out and shoot and make the most of the resources available to you. People having a go is what we’re about.”

Choose Your Weapon

By the time you reach Spielberg’s stage, it’s likely you’ll have used film. If you reach George Lucas’ stage, you’ll be convinced that film is dead.

The practical reality is that with a household standard computer, affordable software and a DV camera, you’re your own producer, director and editor. Even digitising your footage for manipulation on screen after shooting on film or video is easy – all you need is an analogue capture card.

There are small differences in the expense of lighting, recording and producing film or video versus DV, but the really big costs come if you need your project cut from digital or video back to film for distribution. At a standard commercial post-production house, you’ll pay around $5 per frame.

And as the upcoming feature from the Trainspotting and Shallow Grave team of Danny Boyle and Alex Garland – 28 Days Later – shows (just as Blair Witch did), sometimes the format is a good creative choice. In 28 Days Later, DV was not only easier and quicker to set up to capture scenes of central London completely deserted (with police holding traffic back off camera for only five minutes at a time), it gave the film’s sense of violent, confused movement a powerful extra thrust.

Most short film festivals won’t restrict the format of your submission – Tropfest’s Paull applauds it, in fact. “We’ve had 723 entries this year, a lot of them from people with a DV camera and home PC but not much experience. They’re able to experiment editing it themselves and that’s great because it encourages people to tell stories in different ways.”

Planning your format and post production needs is as important as securing your cast or storyboarding the script. If you have to change formats after or throughout your project, make sure you find out the costs from your post production facility.

Now Cut That Out

It’s hard to get rid of something we love – a perfect shot, fantastic delivery of dialogue, a cool special effect.

Learning to make the break is the heart and soul of editing. Tropfest’s Paull warns of an even greater danger in the short film world; “Often in short film making, there’s a lot of favours being called because of a low budget,” she says. “You might have an sequence or shot which you feel you owe it to someone (or yourself) to include or which looks amazing but doesn’t contribute to the story and doesn’t need to be there. A lot of film makers get seduced by the need to include it because they’ve shot it – not because audiences need to see it – and that’s a problem we see a lot. Films could be edited a lot more ruthlessly.”

Editing is getting easier all the time in the home PC/digital age, but if you have only your camera but no access to any computer equipment, editing suites are as varied in price and quality as the films processed in them.

The resources to help you find them are as mind boggling as the range of facilities themselves. Industry directories such as Encore and online directories (like filmtvbiz.com.au or sna.net.au – an initiative of the Australian Film Commission) have more information than you’ll possibly need. Otherwise, check your local university or TAFE college film schools or just look for Film Production Services in your Yellow Pages.

Eat My Shorts

Short films are not only a great way to build up experience (not to mention a name for yourself), they’re great fun.

In talking about the power politics of the studio system, Gregor Jordan expresses the frustration inherent in trying to stay true to your vision; “Many filmmakers get overwhelmed by the concept of a ‘money’ person wanting to have a say. The more money involved the more of a fight you have on your hands to get what you want.”

It’s been a few years since his quirky self-financed short Swinger took out the top Tropfest prize, but if you’re just entering that stage now, be prepared to learn a lot and have a great time. You’ll be fighting producers and accountants alongside Spielberg and Jordan in no time.