Thoughts on making a short film

In the comments on the Stranger Than Fiction post, one of my former AM students, DJ, asked some good questions about making a short film:

DJ: I think one of the problems I had (with doing a short film in classes 5 and 6 on AM), was that I was worried too much about time limits and story points that I overlooked clarity and authenticity in my character. I was also worried about animating it, since I was going for subtlety for the first time.

One of the reasons doing your own film is so hard is that there is a long list of things that have to be considered simultaneously.
It’s crucial, though, that one not edit oneself too severely at an early stages. Have some trust in the process. Clarity, for example, is rarely there in the first pass (or the second, or the 10th). Authenticity will come from the accumulated details and nuance, and also won’t be obvious in the early stages. Remember, writing is rewriting, just as drawing is redrawing. If you’re ruthless and relentless, you will carve clarity and authenticity out of a good idea or a good situation.

The desire to go for subtlety is more of a technical issue that naturally flows from your story choice. In the story-building process, keep issues of technique on the back burner. If you create a story that rewards subtle animation (as you did), then that issue takes care of itself. But also be clear about what your goal is. One can do subtle animation within a chaotic, broad story. So the first goal is to come up with a story you really want to tell, and when that story idea is strong enough to not be crushed under the weight of real production demands, then focus on technical aspects.

DJ: So, here is a question Kevin. What do you think about when you have to start doing a short film? Do you start with genre first, style next and then the story and characters? Or the other way round?

Definitely the other way around. If you’re assigned to do a film within a specific genre and style, then of course you start within those parameters. And sometimes that limitation can be the trigger for creativity. But generally you will be best served by coming up with compelling characters and/or a compelling situation first. Let the story flow from that situation and those characters. Genre and style can be applied to almost any story.

DJ: If we start with a story, I found that I was coming up with only long epics.

Look back at the Andrew Stanton lecture notes — think of story like a good joke. You need a compelling setup, then a payoff. That’s it. It can be as brief or as long as you wish, but length itself doesn’t have much to do with it.

DJ: If I start with characters, I find it hard to find interesting non-cliche situations and finding that I don’t have enough time on my short-film time budget to set up the premise and introduce the characters and situations.

Yes, avoiding cliche is difficult, whether it’s as a story artist, writer, or animator. If individual brainstorming doesn’t do it, find friends to brainstorm with. Riffing off someone else can be very useful for getting out of your own way.

The time required to set up your characters and situations is often far less than you imagine you need. Again, think of being clear and specific. Expect to do some hard work here. Hammer away at your ideas to come up with something so specific and definite that the audience understands immediately. This is why we find bad storytelling so annoying. It takes the creator so long to clue us in on the situation and character, or they keep inadvertently misleading us with useless information, that we disengage.

Let’s take your own short as an example (here’s DJ’s work-in-progress). In your first shot we see a bored, average-looking man opening a wardrobe and scanning a bunch of items, finally choosing one of them. We soon realize that what he was scanning was a bunch of prosthetic smiles, but what’s crucial at the beginning of the scene is that our focus is on him and his behavior. What he’s doing is something most people immediately recognize (the audience will trust that you’ll get to the why soon, and that it’ll be worth it). Every morning millions of people get up and open their closet or dresser and sleepily choose a shirt and a tie or whatever. It’s an utterly meaningless choice, but we do it. We stand there, blinking the sleep out of our eyes, and take a few minutes to decide between the white button-down shirt or the blue button-down shirt, then labor over which subtly different silk tie fits the day, and so on.

This staging and situation immediately tell us that we’re looking at a working stiff, one who’s not too excited about what the day holds for him, who’s going through the same motions he goes through every day. In just a few seconds your audience understands the general setting and character. The more subtle and specific nuance you add to that character’s behavior in this scene, the more interesting he becomes, and the better the audience understand him. That’s the hard part. But realize just how much you’ve already accomplished with that basic staging and basic action — the audience is right with you, already champing at the bit for more information, already starting to put the pieces together.

Most beginning filmmakers don’t realize how much exposition they can cut. Audiences are smart. How often have you started watching 5 or 10 minutes into a TV show or movie and not had any trouble enjoying it and understanding what was happening? In fact, I’ve frequently had the experience of enjoying a film or TV show MORE for having missed the opening. For example, when I saw The Incredibles, I got to the screening late and missed the entire first sequence. I started watching at exactly the moment we first see Mr. Incredible as a miserable working schmuck. And I found the movie to be completely clear and compelling. There wasn’t a moment where I was the least bit lost. On the way home, I made a point of guessing to a friend what we’d missed. When I saw the whole film a little later, it turned out I was exactly right. I was easily able to derive the opening set-up sequence from what came later. In fact, I thought the opening sequence undercut the film in a way.* Regardless, you can almost always pare away much more from the beginning of a story or a film than you imagine, and the result is usually the better for it. The exception might be a novel like Moby Dick, but then that’s why it’s a great novel that’s never been made into a great film.

DJ: And, considering my STUDENT/VICTIM efforts, I was worried about learning particular things in animation while doing so (like animating a face and subtlety) and also about having a message in it.

The message should emerge from the story. I’ve seen naive storytellers try to start with message (or theme, which is pretty much the same thing), and try to build a story from there. It’s a trap. Many great writers talk about theme and message only becoming clear well into the writing process. Now, that doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant. It’s crucial. By the time you’re well into your short film, you should be able to summarize it’s theme very clearly. Your theme/message, DJ, might be summarized as “We’re little more than zombies if we lose our spontaneous, true selves,” or “Life becomes pointless if we get too good at faking our emotions,” or something like that. Now, if you started with one of those messages, you’d have nowhere to go (or, rather, you’d have everywhere to go, and you’d be lost in the possibilities). So accept having a vague sense of your message at the start, and make one of your goals to clarify and refine that theme so it’s crystal clear by the time you’re ready to animate.

DJ: Oh.. as always.. one last question.. hehe.

What do you think about the authenticity of my character in my short film?

I think your character is about half way there, which is pretty good. Imagine basing a character on a real, specific, memorable person. Would your friends and family be able to immediately recognize that person, and would they marvel at how you had clarified and revealed something about their nature in your animation? That would be the gold standard. That would be 100% success. We rarely get there, and you did pretty well.

DJ: I am finding it more and more sterile and generic the more I read about this stuff.

Now here’s some crucial advice — at the same time you’re being relentlessly honest and self-critical, don’t destroy yourself! Honor what you’ve accomplished. The more you aspire to create something worthwhile, the higher you set the bar, the more you will fall short. I saw a documentary on Charlie Chaplin in which he would do over a hundred takes on a given shot, trying every possible variation, until he got something that satisfied him. Then he’d go back and reshoot earlier scenes again and again to maintain the new continuity (he was constantly changing the story as he went along). You could say that he failed with 98% of his effort, but he was relentless, and he would finish the project. The audience never saw those thousands of unsuccessful shots, only the final work of “genius.” Someone else may have quit film-making after the 100th retake that didn’t work. Chaplin just kept right on going. Be like Chaplin. Be the Energizer Bunny. Each time you fall short, you’ve learned something not to do next time, so keep charging forward.

DJ: Honestly, if it was not a student short film, what would you think I should have done differently?

Frankly, your film works. Finish off the set, do the animation polish pass and address those final notes, light it, render it, and put it out there. It should be seen. Get audience feedback. You deserve that reward. You’ll have done something many people talk about, but few accomplish.

DJ: Man.. 12 weeks with you guys is just not enough. You know so much but we can’t get everything down in 12 weeks! I’m gonna bother you with questions on this blog, Kevin. Ignore if you find it annoying.. :)

Fair enough, DJ. Keep at it. Be an inspiration to current class 6 students!

*Regarding The Incredibles, the fact that I grew up loving superhero comics may have made that opening sequence unnecessary for me. Probably a more general audience needed to know have far the heroes had fallen to appreciate what came later. But I enjoyed the “audience work” of deriving all that information from the film, without having seen that opening sequence.

4 Responses to “Thoughts on making a short film”

  1. DJ Says:

    Superb! Thanks for answering my questions.

    For anyone who wants to see the work in progress of the shortfilm that kevin is talking about, here it is :

  2. Kevin Says:

    Thanks for putting it on YouTube, DJ. I’ve amended the post to include the link. Readers are encouraged to give DJ feedback and comment on how successful this film is at this point.

  3. My Shortfilm Work in Progress « DJ Animator Says:

    DJ’s Work-in-progress blog here.

  4. Mike Says:

    Thank you Kevin for offering up such great tips. I have been trying to brainstorm ideas for a short film and came across this site. I thought I’d share it. The link has soem great questions and exercises to help when trying to come up with funny ideas

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch