Subjected to Short Films
Why your short film is gonna suck like all the others....Trust me.
Have you ever heard the expression "Opinions are like @$$holes, everyone's got one"?
Well, if you ever go into writing or movie-making, you'll find that the number of people with story ideas are about the same. You may think that that cliché about someone saying "I have a great idea for a movie, it's about...." is fake. While, they're not always that obvious about nor do they always phrase it that way, but you begin to recognize it when you hear it.
Truth is, most of these people should be stopped.
First of all, I want to know at what point did it become necessary for all directors to think that they were writers as well. In the world of shorts, I very rarely see a movie that was directed by someone who didn't have some credited part in the writing of it. From my own experiences with this stuff I've seen directors who couldn't put a story down on paper to save their lives, and I've seen writers whose visual skills extend no farther than the words to describe them.
Once upon a time there was a distinction between the two. Some directors can of course do both, as there are some writers who can. There are also plenty of directors who are just great at visualizing someone else's ideas. Give them a good story, and they'll show it to you in vibrant colors.
Ok, wait, I gotta change gears. I'm merging back into my realm of who should not be allowed to write. Briefly, I don't think anyone without writing experience (and by that I mean 3-4 scripts, a novel, or some other substantial body of written work) should be allowed to have much if any say in the creative process of a movie. I don't mind multiple writers taking a crack at something, but I think that producers, studio executives, and actors should keep out of it. However, in a case like Robert Shaw writing much of the U.S.S. Indianapolis speech in Jaws, it makes sense because he was already an accomplished playwright. See?
So back to short films.
First of all, short films are like most any other story in the respect that you should write what you know. I'd like to add a further proviso to that. You should also write what you understand. If you want to write a far out crazy story about a heist and a drug deal gone horribly wrong, I'm not saying go out and join a drug cartel to get some experience. Basically you have one of two paths: 1) write what you understand about it from the hundreds of movies you've already seen on the subject, or 2) research: books, interviews, documentaries, etc. Ultimately though, at just about every short film fest I've sat through, everyone seems to ignore the fact that they don't know or understand what they've chosen to talk about.
Well, that's unfair. A lot of times, they might know it and understand it, but have no other tools with which to communicate that subject. How's that?
Short films' next biggest mistake is would be category. There's usually two: comedy or high drama. Sure you get the occasional horror short, or what have you, but most times it's either "A" or "B".
Well, there's the problem.
Let's start with comedy. Why does everyone think that comedy is easy? How many genuinely funny people do you know? I mean, funny all the time, joke a minute, laugh till you throw up kind of folks. How many? Not too many huh. And sure, you can tell a joke, but could you tell half-an-hour worth of jokes? Do you have charisma? Do you have timing? Do you have an eye or an ear for it? In a film situation would you understand how and where to use a 'foil' or a 'straight man'? My guess is that you've said a lot of no's during this. So what would make you think you can do comedies? Truth is, even if you did know all that stuff, that still doesn't mean that you could or will be funny.
That's not to say you couldn't learn to direct it, but chances are you got no business writing it.
Then there's high drama. I've been subjected to far to many shorts about alcoholism, drug abuse, rape, child abuse, etc. The first problem is usually that it's highly unbelievable (ie. the writer having no idea what they're talking about, or more common, wildly unbelievable actors). The second is that their usually never enough time to help you to care about or understand the situation. The third is that if there is a resolution, it's too quick and too trite, and if there isn't, it's unsatisfying as a film. Anyhow, the basic problem is that anything that's not a public service announcement usually just doesn't play.
Notice, I didn't say anything about murder in there. I hold a special place for that garbage. I'm not talking about horror, or thrillers. I mean movies about mercy-killings or just poor misunderstood murder or muder because of any of the items listed above. Again, these are usually the victime of triteness, bad acting, and/or having no purpose.
(What's funny about a lot of these would be high dramas is that they would play better as exploitation cinema but they always go for for some pretentious poorly executed art piece.)
To me, the shorts that work best are those that play like a joke (but aren't necessarily comedy). They're a short quirky (but not necessarily funny) slice of time with a beginning, a middle, and a punchline. Like a good comedy sketch without necessarily any of the comedy. Not too silly/funny, and not to down and dark. I'd rattle off some examples, but in the realm of shorts, unless they're the outstanding few, we haven't seen the same stuff.
So you've written your little piece and it's a zinger. You've shot it with your non-actors, would-be actors, and maybe an actor or two that you actually did dig up. Now you've got to put it together....the next trouble phase.
Ok. Ok. I know somebody out there's gonna argue about the art of actually shooting the thing, and how many people suck at that. Well, that's true too. But then again, if the script is crap...well, what's the other famous saying? "You can't polish a turd." I would think that Hollywood movies have proven that just because something looks good doesn't mean anyone'll like it if it has no story. On the flip side, there's a good number of movies of questionable technical quality that still stand out because the ideas behind them are sound enough. So I agree, it should look good, but that's getting into a whole visual aestethic that would work better with pictures than words.
So back to editing...
Again, why do so many shorts' directors edit their own stuff, or involve themselves way too much? Editing is an artform all it's own, and unless you have a significant background in it...if you've found the right person... leave'em the hell alone. Sure you should get some input, but boy, it's iffy.
The best for instance is cutting around performance.
If you've got mostly non-actors, then they're not gonna have the kind of presence that you're gonna want to leave them lingering on screen. Hopefully you did a lot of takes, and you pick out the ones where they nailed it, or mostly nailed it. Then you just start cutting around it. Keep it tight. Again, I've seen so many of these things where someone was on, but they were left up on screen for to long. Proportionally, the longer they lingered, the more their believability dropped through the floor. At the same time, you've got to find the beat and the rhythm to keep the scene moving, and moving realistically. That's another editing failure, total lack of natural dialogue patterns without having the style to pull off Eraserhead.
The next questionable phase of short film post production hell is music. Since most people don't know any composers or bands, they tend to use source music (ie. the stuff in their car and on shelves in their house...CD's). All I'm gonna say about this is....Just because you really love a song, doesn't mean it belongs in your movie. That's usually for two reasons: 1) it's inappropriate and it steals away from what you've presented visually, or 2) it's obvious and overstates the point of what you've presented visually. So choose wisely. On the other hand, I've also found that those who do manage to wrangle a composer don't always fare well for the same reasons. Again, unless you have a musical background, if you hired this person, then you should probably trust them some. On the other hand, if you don't like it or don't think it fits...don't use it.
Important with music: get 2nd opinions. Lots of 'em. And not just your friends. Find somebody who knows something about movies or music.
Anyway, chances are, your still gonna fail...but I guess if you waste thousand of dollars and hours of your life on something your proud of...crap or not...it was worth it.
"Know thyself." That means your limits too.