There are no hard and fast rules as to what makes a good short; as with features, different audiences love different films and an award-winner in one viewer's eyes will be a dull cliché in another's. Obviously there is an element of subjectivity to any short film programme as different exhibitors will set their own criteria as to what they think makes a good short, which they feel their audience will enjoy. Whilst this can be frustrating for filmmakers it isn't necessarily a bad thing, as, what one exhibitor rejects another will love and promote – so it is important not to get disheartened by rejection. In many ways it is an exciting time to be making shorts in the UK as there are wealth of different festivals, screening organisations, websites and content providers looking for short films to exhibit. Our advice would be to submit your film to as many places as possible.
However, having said that, here are a few basic tips for what exhibitors might look for in a good short film:
An Exciting & Original Idea
Original ideas are not easy to come-by but a good way of avoiding clichéd ideas is to watch lots of other short films, look out for any trends and stay clear of them (See our Related Links: Recommended Watching for places to watch shorts). Even if your idea isn't completely original try to look at the subject matter from a different angle or using a different style/technique. If you're struggling for ideas, you could try to find inspiration in your experiences or those of the people that you meet or through the stories that you read in newspapers, magazines and online.
A Strong Script
A good script is key to narrative-based short films and in many ways it's harder to write a short than a feature because you need to condense your story and develop your characters in a very short space of time. All too often films are let down by weak, overwritten or underdeveloped scripts. Before investing money, time and effort into shooting your film, it's a good idea to test your script out on friends and strangers (as friends might fear offending you) and get as much feedback as you can. See our Filmmaking Guide: Writing a Script for more advice & our Related Links: Writing for scriptwriting organisations, resources and communities. If you write and direct your own films, it's a good idea to consider where your strengths lie. It's great if you can do both but if you think you're stronger at direction/animation then why not consider collaborating with a talented scriptwriter and see what results come of it?
Unless your friends are actors or demonstrate acting talent, it's a good idea to avoid casting them in your film. Even one bad actor in a film can really let it down and destroy the viewer's belief in the reality that your film is seeking to create. There are lots of great actors out there who are willing to work for reduced fees to learn their trade and make a name for themselves. You can find actors through advertising on the message boards of filmmaking communities (see the Filmmaking Communities Section in our Related Links: Filmmaking Organisations & Communities or via online casting sites such as The Spotlight. For more information on finding cast see our Filmmaking Guide: Cast & Crew or see the casting section of our Related Links: Production
High Production Values
Whilst digital filmmaking has had the positive impact of making the process more accessible and affordable, it's important to ensure that you still apply the same production values that you would if you were shooting on film with a crew. Many low-budget shorts are let down by poor sound, lighting, camera work and editing and/or by directors who are trying to do it all by themselves without anyone else's input. Filmmaking is predominantly a collaborative process and it's much better to find crew who are specialising in these areas who can offer different skills. You can use the message boards of filmmaking communities (see the filmmaking communities section in our Related Links: Filmmaking Organisations & Communities) to find crew to collaborate with. If you're new to filmmaking, one of the best ways to learn the skills required is to assist on other people's films. Also check the message boards for call outs for volunteers from filmmakers. However if you'd like more formal training you can find out about training or film schools in our Filmmaking Guide: Training & Development and find links to organisations and resources in our Related Links: Training
Make It Short
As a general rule, the longer your short film is, the harder it is to keep the viewer's attention. This is especially true of online viewing – for instance on Film Network the average time that a viewer spends watching a film is 4 minutes. Note – exceptions to this rule is documentary, which viewers will often watch for longer. Many festivals don't accept short films that are over 30 minutes long; a long film will really have to impress the programmers for them to include it in their screening, as it means they will not be able to show so many films in their short film programme. One filmmaker told us about a film he made that was 26 minutes long. He applied for festivals all over the world and was rejected by them all. A year later he re-cut the film to 10 minutes and resubmitted it. His 10-minute cut was shown at numerous festivals worldwide and was broadcast on a digital channel. Very short films, especially romance and comedies, can be popular with distributors and buyers as they are easier to programme and can be sold to multi-platforms e.g. online, mobile, VOD etc.
Most programmers/distributors will be inundated with submissions and so your film has to grab their attention from the very first shot. The harsh reality is that if your film doesn't pique their interest within the first two minutes, in all likelihood they may not sit through it till the end. Don't waste time on lengthy introductions and credits – spark their interest in the story as quickly as you can. Credits at the start can distract the viewer (especially if the direction, production and editing are all by the same person!) so leave them out unless you have it written in an agreement with one of your cast. Similarly if your film starts with a long establishing shot where nothing really happens, viewers may switch off before you get to show them your great plot and idea. If the pace of your film is naturally slow and ambling, make the shots as rich and enticing as possible to draw the viewer in. Note – a good editor can really transform a film. If you're directing and editing your own film you might be too attached to certain shots to know which bits to chop out to make your film a stronger, more coherent piece. In big blockbusters, scenes that have cost thousands or even millions can be chopped if the studio/filmmaker feels that they are not integral to the final edit of the piece.
Avoid Repetition & Punchline Twists
Whilst sometimes a repetitive scene can be used for comedy/dramatic effect (Groundhog Day being a classic example of where this can work), if you are not careful it can end up being repetitive and predictable. Comedy is notoriously difficult to pull off in short films – if you're looking to make humorous shorts then it's a good idea to test your idea on an audience (why not post a short clip on a site like YouTube or MySpace and see what feedback you get?) or to cast your film carefully and get a funny actor. Be careful of one-line gag/punchline films. Some shorts can do this to great success but many often fall flat. If you've got a great punchline twist then consider making it short and snappy as viewers might be disappointed if they sit through 7 minutes for one joke at the end, especially if they've already seen it coming.
Exciting New Techniques & Style
Even an average plot can be made intriguing by an exciting new technique or style - whether it be a new kind of animation, camera work or art direction. Try experimenting and developing your own style. Note – having said that, beware of style over substance.
For an alternative viewpoint on what makes a good film, see the Short Film Manifesto written by Philip Ilson, short film programmer for London International Film Festival and London Short Film Festival (formerly Halloween).