On Friday, July 28, 2017, during the 13th annual Traverse City Film Festival, I attended the workshop “Anatomy of a Short” at the festival’s film school. Led by Lesley Tye and Andrew Hiss, instructors of Motion Picture Arts at Interlochen Arts Academy, the workshop of about 30 participants screened and discussed a variety of films. The workshop served to demystify the short film genre and to examine the essential elements of a compelling short. Here I summarize the workshop leader’s advice, direction, and inspiration for aspiring filmmakers.
Films viewed in this session include The Black Hole (2008) directed by Philip Sansom, Lights Out (2013) directed by David Sandberg, Gasman (1998) directed by Lynne Ramsay, The Lunch Date (1989) directed by Adam Davidson, 7:35 in the Morning (2003) directed by Nacho Vigalondo, An Exercise in Discipline: Peel (1986) directed by Jane Campion, and I’ll Wait for the Next One (2002) directed by Philippe Orreindy.
Tye and Hiss led us through thoughtful discussions after each viewing, focusing our attention on five essential elements of short film production.
1. A short is short.
A narrative short is a unique story form within cinema. With most shorts falling in the 3 to 15-minute range, there is not a lot of time for development and exposition. Beyond the 15-minute mark, a film starts to feel more like a feature in structure. Novice filmmakers might try to cram too many things into too short a time frame, which will start to make the film feel (cringe) melodramatic.
2. It is often a single event.
Whether it is fiction or nonfiction, most narrative shorts emphasize a single, focused event. Tye and Hiss recommend that novice filmmakers might begin with a single protagonist and a linear narrative of one experience told through time. Since there is limited time for development and exposition in a short film, focus is the key. Tye and Hiss also advise that a short film need not be too complicated; it can work well featuring a single event in a single location, such as a subway, train station, or diner.
3. It matters.
While a short film might be focused on one single event, that event has to matter. In Philippe Orreindy’s short film I’ll Wait for the Next One (2002), the action takes place primarily on a moving metro train between two stops. A young woman listens intently as a man explains that he is simply looking for love. With his every word, we watch the woman’s hopes rise, leading her to take a bold move at the next stop. As she exits the metro, she indicates to the man, and all of the passengers, that she too is looking for love. Only then do we realize the cruel deception that the man has woven for her—she was merely the latest victim in his panhandling scheme. As the train pulls away, we watch her facial expression transform as she too realizes the trick. The short is just a single moment, but it is a moment that matters. It is a moment we can feel—rich in detail. Short doesn’t have to mean simple. In fact, a successful short can be complex and nuanced, warranting many viewings.
4. It needs a joke-like structure.
In a feature film, it is common to use a three-act structure or story arc. A better structure for a short is a joke. That is to say, a short is a story that feels more like a joke with a set-up and a punchline. Of course, more often than not, “the joke ain’t funny.” The joke, however, should be meaningful. For example, at the beginning of Lynn Ramsey’s Gasman (1998), the child protagonist clearly idealizes her father. She believes she is daddy’s little girl. The rest of the short film takes us on a journey where she discovers that her father is not the perfect person she thought he was. Every shot is working to set up this ending—the moment when she loses the quality of innocence.
5. It takes passion and mistakes.
According to Tye and Hiss, no one who is interested in film starts out making features—everyone starts with shorts. Shorts are an important form for filmmakers to master as they think about making stories with a camera. A short is a training ground, a sandbox, a place for play. The instructors advise that a short film should not be a technically perfect film. The audience should feel our passion for storytelling and all the mistakes that go along with that. It is okay if the boom pole falls into the frame, as in Jane Campion’s An Exercise in Discipline: Peel (1986). Campion still won a Palme d’Or for the short. Shorts are not about getting a movie deal. A short should feel like it was made over the weekend with friends. The key is having fun, taking the pressure off, and figuring out how to tell a story with a camera.
To conclude the workshop, Tye and Hiss were full of helpful advice for aspiring filmmakers. They suggest that if there is a filmmaker we love, we should go back and look at their early shorts. Usually the filmmaker works on themes in their early shorts that will be more fully developed in their later work. This demystifies the process and can be encouraging for those just getting their start. Other recommendations included viewing the Shorts of the Week website, Vimeo Staff Picks, and the Academy Nominees for inspiration. Lastly, they recommended joining a filmmaking community or a writing group for feedback and accountability.