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Classified as a drama, animation or documentary that runs for over a minute to under 40 minutes, short films are a great way to get noticed at festivals, showcase your talent as a filmmaker and create some compelling work to engage an audience. The short film is a rite of passage with many feature films growing out of a short film such as Tyrannosaur, 12 Monkeys (Le Jette), District 9 (Alive in Joburg) and Napoleon Dynamite (Peluca), launching the careers of some successful filmmakers.
Encapsulating a story into a few moments takes a great deal of creativity and love. It's unlikely you'll receive any financial return on your film, but that's not why filmmakers make short films, they make them for the career progression and pleasure of storytelling. As production costs are getting cheaper due to the advent of digital cinematography, it’s become increasingly possible to shoot a short film for very little money and keep production value high. The upshot is the quality of short films have risen, so has the demand from the consumer. VOD websites dedicated to short films such as www.shortoftheweek.com, www.filmshortage.com, and www.filmsshorts.com are all devoted to showcasing the work of short filmmakers.
Short film challenges such as the 48 hour Film Challenge, 48 Film Project, Tongal and The Guerrilla Film Challenge, can be great to add to the showreel. As can the new mobile phone festivals such as the iPhone Festival and the Toronto Smartphone Festival which are also open to anyone to apply, and can demonstrate your creativity when working in the short film format. Directors who have been spotted by commercial production companies have come with a back catalogue of successful, often award-winning, short films.
Many shorts are self-funded, or filmmakers can host crowdfunding campaigns to get enough money together for kit and crew. Just like the short films big brother features, the process is roughly similar when looking for external sources of funding. Filmmakers are going to need:
A story. This can be influenced by a short film competition, a specific topic, or an idea that's been in development for a while. While formulating your concept, watch other short films on a similar theme to see what has worked for them, and get a feel of what doesn't work. Too much dialogue, too many twists, trying to convey a complex issue in 2 minutes - decide what serves your story best.
A treatment. When applying for funding, you are going to need a good workable treatment that sums up the film you wish to make. Researching what is a ‘good treatment’ is invaluable, make it brief and compelling, you are going to want the reader to be reaching for the script on the third line.
A script. The next evolution of your treatment. Some funding organisation may only wish to see the treatment initially; if you are shortlisted, you’re going to need to produce a script for would-be investors. It sounds all too obvious but make sure your script is formatted correctly. If you're not ready to invest in Final Draft, you can always use one of the free formats like Celtex and upgrade at a later date.
Apply for funding. This is where it gets interesting and you can apply for financing like you would apply for jobs. It can be all-consuming, each application needs to be tailored to the specific fund and the competition is going to be fierce.
Anyone can make a short film. Students, friends who share a passion for filmmaking and storytelling, professionals already working in the industry, looking to progress their career or gain experience in another department. If you're looking to gain more experience working on someone else's short as a PA, look for productions that have members of the industry at the helm.
Short films can be varied in their budget. Most crew work on short films to either gain experience or as a favour for a friend. The main cost of your production will be actors, expenses (such as travel, fuel, food, etc.), kit (camera, lighting, sound, grip), locations and post-production costs. If you have amassed a decent budget paying the crew should be at the top of your agenda. All of these things can be budgeted on a shoestring (begged and borrowed) or have a healthy amount of funding behind it. If you have the passion for a project, filmmakers find a way of making it work.
How long is your script? The length of your script will dictate your shooting schedule so keep this in mind if you're the one writing, directing and producing. A film shot during a weekend, is often the best way to get experienced crew involved.
Some shorts made with a few friends can go on to win awards at festivals, giving the filmmakers a calling card to use as they navigate their way into the industry. Short films shot by established filmmakers use their contacts to pull together a crew. Goodwill and the knowledge that the shoot will be run properly are often a draw for professional crew.
If at stage 1 of your career plan, working on a short film can be a great way to get to know how it all works, and more importantly whether it's for you. Watching the DVD extras is very rarely an accurate representation of life on a low or micro-budget film, which will be your bread and butter for those first few years of your career. There is also a very real difference between watching films and making films. The joy derived from watching a film isn't how you're going to feel when you've had to pull over on the hard shoulder at midnight, having worked a 16 hour day, only to have your satnav break. Working on films is hard work, it is fun, but it's physically and mentally demanding. This increases as you move up the ladder and assume more responsibility. So if you like the idea of working in the film industry, try your hand at a few shorts first.
Look on the MFJF collaborations board for crew callouts, also look at the MFJF resources section to find out what your other options are. If you have never worked on a film and live in an area that has a university with a good film/media programme, check out the university collaborations board where student productions advertise for help.
None! If you are picking up a camera for the first time, working on your own short film project, or offering to do some PAing for a student production, short films are the industry training ground for professionals and newcomers alike. If you want to make films and call yourself a ‘filmmaker’ you are going to need to come up with the goods. You can film it on your mobile phone, you can borrow or hire the kit, what matters are the clarity of your ideas and how you use film as the medium to convey them. So get to it, and go create!