Thoughts on viewing short films — how I came to appreciate them more

“Almost anything can be justified as a style of filmmaking if it works.” — Doug Liman

by Vika Stankovic

Anybody can make a short film. I mean, how hard can it be to capture a good couple of minutes on screen? Especially in this day and age when decent equipment is more accessible than ever before?

Well, odd as it may sound – pretty damn hard!

A good short film filmmaker must deliver a lean, powerful story establishing character, world and conflict almost instantaneously since time and space are extremely condensed. Oh, and a satisfying ending, of course. This, my friend, is no mean feat.

I remember my english classes back in high school, when I’d be given a task to write a short story – you know the kind – the one that begins with a pre-set sentence like “It was raining heavily that cold November morning when John set off for work…” I have to admit, it was my favourite type of activity; creative – check; motivating – check EXCEPT that you had to write it in no more than 150 words. Other kids would happily and quite confidently hand in their stories of under 150 words but to me this was simply unfathomable.

How can you fit everything in such a limited word frame? To a bookworm like myself, this equaled fitting a whole library into a small suitcase. Needless to say, I would produce a story of around 500 words and would fail terribly at the task, even though I’d spend more time editing my story cutting parts and reshaping paragraphs, trying to reduce it to as close to 150 words as possible than I’d do writing it! 500. That was my best shot. Pff I got sweaty only reminiscing about it.

You see, imagination and creativity are wild by nature and the hardest bit, if you ask me, is taming that wild beast whilst, at the same time, letting it run free. Confounding, to say the least.

I doubt there being a single short film filmmaker out there whose imagination isn’t vivid and who doesn’t consider themselves creative. So, dear friend, let’s keep the above in mind before we even attempt to judge a short.

A good, compelling short is much like that story task – only a lot harder, since you need to take visual representation into account,too. Not to mention sound, music, sound effects, lighting and all that in such a way that it doesn’t stifle the main storyline. After all, film is entirely based on sight and sound, thus visual cues are of utmost importance.

Here’s what I found helped me view shorts more comprehensively and, frankly, satisfyingly. 

Here goes:

The first thing I notice is the title. Try not to jump to conclusions about the story based on the title alone, but do come back to it once you’ve seen the whole thing. How does the title tie in with the story? Does it add anything new? Do any new interpretations spring to mind based on the title?

Next I pay attention to the narrative and the script – does it effectively convey the message/story through action and dialogue?

Then, I focus on the central theme or dominant message – is the film’s theme successfully supported by the story,acting and other film elements? and is the theme original/ unique or a traditional one? If it’s the latter, does the film show it in any new light?

Finally, I take into account the film’s structure – how is the plot told? Through flashbacks, by voiceover? Chronologically or as a stream of consciousness? What about the transitions between the scenes – are they effective? Is there a climax and resolution? Is there a turning point in the plot?

I know I said ‘finally’, but there is one more thing I tend to notice automatically throughout the viewing and that’s music. It might come to you naturally, too, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask yourself the following: what does music do to enhance the actions of the characters? How does it impact the film’s overall mood? Are there parts where silence is employed, ie. no music or sound effects are present? What does this do to the scene?

After viewing a short, I like to come back to the film’s title, as I mentioned before, as well as to the director, main performers, supporting performers (although they’re rare in a short), studio and any awards or festivals mentioned in the credits. 

One might consider production values, too, whether it’s a high-production value with a glossy, expensive look or a low-production one, made on a low-budget and amateurish. For me personally, both kinds can equally add to the final feel and can both be beneficial for the final outcome.

So, dear friend, next time you catch a short film, consider all these before making a judgement, if nothing else, then because short film filmmakers have the most daunting task out there and thus deserve a little bit more in-depth viewing than just a fast-forwarding one. Besides, you will feel much better about yourself, having allowed yourself time to ponder over the aforementioned questions and, who knows, it may even bring you closer to your own conclusions about life.



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