How To Make A Short Film
Finding An Idea
So you want to make your first short film…but you don’t know where to start. Or more accurately, you don’t know what to make a short film about.
Your first short film is ALL about learning. You’re figuring out how to use your camera to get the most interesting, evocative shots. You’re discovering how to direct actors and you’re understanding how to edit it together with sound effects and music.
There are TWO main points you should focus on when writing your first short film:
1) Keep it SHORT and SIMPLE
2) Make it ENTERTAINING
Short and Simple
Short because it’s your first film and the shorter it is, the less chance you have of losing your audience because they’re more likely to stick with it. If someone suggests I watch a short film, I always check to see how long it is. If it’s over 10 minutes I groan and skip, if it’s under 5 I give it a chance.
Keeping it short also means you have less to shoot, so you can focus your energy on making a strong story and nice visuals.
Here a few simple concepts:
- Trying to retrieve an important object that is in a dangerous place
- Dealing with jealousy or resentment towards a family member in the heat of the moment
- Re-living a painful memory in order to move on
- Taking an ordinary, mundane chore and making it really, really difficult for your character
- Tensions and unspoken hurts between a mother and daughter or two siblings or best friends.
These ideas can be short but very effective.
I’m not going to say ‘make it a strong story’ or ‘story is king.’ Those saying are true, but being entertained means your attention is being held. I've noticed over the years, listening to interviews with Spielberg, that he really differentiates between a film and a movie. From what I can gather, he considers a movie to be entertaining to the masses. And let's face it - his movie's often are. So make it sad, exciting, tragic…ANYTHING to keep your audience’s attention.
Whenever I screen my films, anywhere, I never watch the screen. I watch the audience. My only guide as to whether I’ve done a good job, is if the audience reacts. If they look bored, I’ve failed. I don’t care how many people come and say ‘It was great’ or ‘I liked this,’ if I saw them shifting in their seat and looking away, I know. I failed in that film.
What makes something entertaining? Well, I think that is something you need to discover by putting different ideas in front of people and filming short pieces and testing them on a small audience. You will now straight away if it's working or not.
Here are a few things that an audience might find entertaining:
- Shock factor - an unexpected turn of events or horrifying act by a character
- Humour - Getting your characters to do something ridiculous or hilarious can really lift the mood of a film. So many short films are depressing
- Other people's pain - not something I would enjoy writing or making, but it definitely grabs people's attention.
- How odd people interact. We are fascinated by oddities and people acting in an unusual way.
- Issues or topics that are not often dealt with. Some topics are too dangerous to discuss even with friends and seeing something you have often debated in your own head or been curious about played out on screen can be really cathartic.
Keep it simple
but make it entertaining
What Should Your First Film Be About?
Guess what? It doesn’t really matter! You can make your first short film about ANYTHING! Yes, anything at all. In any genre.
Here is my first short film. It’s called a Piece of Cake. I made it as an exercise in filmmaking and I followed a simple structure based on the book, Writing Short Films: Structure and Content for Screenwriters -
A hero who wants something and must overcome an obstacle.
Watch my film Piece of Cake and see if you can work out who the hero is, what they want and what their obstacle is.
What is something in your day to day life that you could draw on to do the same thing for your short film? Is there a rivalry with a friend over something or someone? Do you suffer from a fear of something?
Katie who has a fear of spiders wants to get her parcel that was left outside her house BUT there is a huge spider sitting on it…
My dad who wants his piece of cake must overcome my mother who’s trying to stop him.
My short film was born out of a real life situation - my mum wanted to keep my dad healthy so she would sometime suggest he didn’t eat certain cakes and sweets. I took that thought and made it more extreme and added more conflict.
Your Film’s Ending
My mum came up with the ending for Piece of Cake. I was struggling. I knew it needed a twist. A twist is what makes your film end with a punch which makes YOUR story stay with the audience. It’s the difference between ‘meh’ and ‘Oh!’
What if after Katie’s attempts to evade, destroy and coax away the spider, the spider picks up the parcel and drops it at Katie’s feet?
Find the twist. It could take hours, but it’s worth it.
To Sum Up
1. Short, SIMPLE and ENTERTAINING
2. It should be about a hero who wants something BUT encounters an obstacle
3. Your ENDING should have a great twist to give it that extra punch.
Write down who your hero is,
what they want
and what obstacle they must overcome.
I have a YouTube channel called The Director's Logbook which has lots of videos on how to make films and videos. You can also follow the making of our first feature film there too. If you liked this and found it helpful, please head over there and subscribe.