I often get asked since the cost of making films has decreased due to digital tools, why I bother to make short films instead of features, and can they really lead to anything bigger and better? Yes, thanks to digital technology it’s easier than ever to produce short films, but on the downside film festivals and the internet have become flooded with them. Some are good, some terrible. With all these shorts, it’s harder and harder to get your short seen, and get noticed. So why not just make a feature and create a bigger splash in a smaller pond?
Because you need the practice, and making shorts will make you a better filmmaker.
Some of our most celebrated directors started with short films, from Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson to Christopher Nolan and George Lucas. With the exception of Christopher Nolan’s short Doodlebug, all of these directors launched their careers off the strength of these short films, and then created feature-length versions of them. (Bottle Rocket, Boogie Nights, and THX 1138 respectively.) But these also weren’t their first films. No filmmaker bursts on the scene fully formed, even terrific auteurs like Darren Aronofsky had to make bad films first in order to learn to make good ones. Don’t believe me? Check out his 1991 effort Fortune Cookie.
Making short films before you make your first feature, is good practice. You’ll make mistakes and learn to avoid them in the future. With each film you’ll improve communication with actors, cinematographers, editors, and crew. You’ll learn to compose and shoot for the cut, but more importantly you’ll fail. You’ll make a comedy that’s not funny, a thriller with no thrills, a boring action film. It happens to all of us. All you have to do is watch Fortune Cookie again as a reminder, but don’t lose faith. Failure is crucial to growth. Instant success breeds complacency. Failure spurs you on to try again, to get better. Don’t forget filmmaking is expensive, and who wants to fail when your life savings are on the line?
By making shorts you’ll be taking less of a financial risk, which enables you to take creative risks instead. You can try a new shooting style or editing technique. Experiment with visuals like Kerry Conran did in his concept short for Sky Captain (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KqRvdm8jHz4 ), and Robert Rodriquez did for Sin City (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M17kHj-TNOc). Or you can force some constraints as an exercise, like trying to make a film with only a single prime lens, or experiment with deep focus techniques, or single take scenes.
As you make more and more films, they’ll get better and better I promise you. Soon, you’ll develop a voice and style unique to you as a filmmaker. That’s when the “How can a short film launch my career?” question is answered. Short films are great for marketing you as a filmmaker. They showcase your style. They’ll get you into festivals, where you’ll meet other filmmakers, distributors, and producers. Your shorts become your resume and calling card, and hopefully begin to open doors. So while it’s difficult to have your film find its audience in the glut of available content online, the upside of the internet is that there are more opportunities than ever before. Websites like Short of the Week and television channels like ShortsHD that curate content have become so important to short filmmakers. Getting your films seen whether they are short or long is the only way to mimic the success of those filmmakers above, and trusted curated content is crucial to getting the right eyes on your project, as these sites can help your film attract a lot of attention. Wes Ball who’s short film Ruin was featured on SotW went viral and landed him a deal that got him in the director’s chair for The Maze Runner. Dan Tractenberg’s short fan film “Portal: No Escape” lead to directing the Bad Robot (JJ Abrams) produced “Valencia.” Io9 posted an article about a recent spate of science fiction shorts being turned into features.
So when people ask, “Why make short films?” The real question should be, “Why not?” There’s really no downside. James Cameron has been quoted as saying,
“Pick up a camera. Shoot something. No matter how small, no matter how cheesy, no matter whether your friends and your sister star in it. Put your name on it as director. Now you’re a director. Everything after that you’re just negotiating your budget and your fee.”
So yes short films can launch your film career, in fact I believe they are essential, but it won’t happen overnight. You’ll need to try and fail and try again. Continue to make films that challenge you to hone your craft, sharpen your skills, and expand your knowledge. Then prep the next one, because when your films are good enough people will notice, and when that right person asks what projects you’ve got coming up, you’ve got to have an answer as this opportunity may only come once.
So let’s get out there and make some shorts. It just might be the project that changes your life.
In some of my research for this post, I came across a few posts compiling the short films that launched careers. There is some overlap with the films, but they are all worth checking out and being inspired by.