Is your short film idea destined for fame and glory at prestigious festivals? Or will it end up collecting virtual dust in some forgotten corner of the internet? The difference likely comes down to nailing one key filmmaking decision – the runtime.
Get it right, and you captivate audiences within concise constraints, leaving them wanting more. Get it wrong, and even the most artful idea can collapse like a house of cards, leaving viewers checking their watches.
So what hidden science lurks behind determining the perfect short film length? Is there an ideal formula to follow? And what happens if you throw caution to the wind?
To unlock the secrets behind short film runtimes, read on…
A short film is generally defined as a complete, stand-alone film that has a runtime of 40 minutes or less. But within that broad definition lies a wide range of potential lengths and categories that provide filmmakers great flexibility. Determining the ideal length for your particular story and audience is an important part of the filmmaking process.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll break down the standard categories of short film lengths, look at case studies and award eligibility based on runtimes, discuss best practices for determining the right length, and provide tips for maximizing impact whatever duration you land on for your project.
How Long is a Short Film – Short Film Categories by Length
While films up to 40 minutes all fall under the umbrella term “short film,” within that range there are more specific categorizations based on runtime.
Micro-Shorts (Under 2 Minutes)
Micro-shorts, also known as “nanometrages“, are complete short films under 2 minutes long. They are extremely condensed stories that rely on brevity and concision in their storytelling.
Some film festivals have special categories dedicated solely to micro-shorts. They have also become popular online, with filmmakers creating very short viral films designed to be shared on social media.
- For the Birds (Pixar) – 3 minutes
- Bean Cake – 1 minute
- Still – 45 seconds
Short Shorts (2-10 Minutes)
The broadest category is the “short short” which covers shorts ranging from 2 minutes up to 10 minutes in length. This provides enough runtime to tell a full complex story in condensed form.
Many festivals define shorts eligible for competition as films under 10 minutes. Short shorts are popular for independent filmmakers on limited budgets, as they allow the creation of a complete work with limited resources.
- Six Shooter – 27 minutes (Academy Award winner)
- The Lunch Date – 11 minutes (Academy Award nominee)
- This Way Up – 8 minutes 30 seconds (Academy Award nominee)
Traditional Shorts (10-40 Minutes)
The traditional definition of a short film is a live-action film ranging from 10 minutes up to 40 minutes in length. This category allows for a deeper exploration of characters and narrative. Shorts of 30 minutes still require concise storytelling but have breathing room to tell a fully developed story.
Many mass-market short film distribution platforms like ShortsTV define shorts in the 10-40 minute range. Various Academy Awards categories also use 30 minutes as the upper limit for shorts.
- The Silent Child – 20 minutes (Academy Award winner)
- Sing – 25 minutes (Academy Award nominee)
- Mum – 27 minutes
Short Film Runtime and Awards Eligibility
When aiming to create short films that qualify for specific awards or film festivals, it is important to consider their formal category definitions and runtime requirements.
For example, The Academy Awards has several categories under which shorts can be nominated:
- Live Action Short Film – Max runtime of 40 minutes
- Animated Short Film – Max runtime of 40 minutes
- Documentary Short Film – Max runtime of 40 minutes
Meanwhile, BAFTA Awards criteria specify that shorts must be less than 30 minutes to qualify for their awards. Other festivals will clearly define a maximum length such as “under 15 minutes” for shorts categories.
Before making your short film, research eligibility based on the target awards/festivals you are considering for your short film during pre-production to ensure your runtime falls into acceptable ranges.
Runtime Considerations for Different Genres
While most genres can work effectively in short format, some lend themselves particularly well to shorter runtimes.
For very condensed stories, genres like comedy, horror, and thrillers are a natural fit. The compressed runtime adds intensity and excels at delivering more visceral emotions.
Animated shorts also thrive with shortened lengths, allowing ambitious visuals and creative worlds to be established without the need for a full feature budget. For first-time filmmakers, animation can be ideal for creating an engaging 5-10-minute production.
Other genres like dramas and character studies may warrant longer runtimes around 20-30 minutes to provide adequate space for nuanced development. But brevity still forces tighter, more purposeful storytelling.
Ultimately creativity and compelling narratives can override genre limitations at any length. Use runtime strategically based on your storytelling goals.
Best Practices for Determining Ideal Short Film Length
So what final runtime should you target for your short film idea? Here are some best practices to help determine the ideal duration:
- Match runtime to story needs – The type of story and scope of ideas suited for a 2-minute experimental short will clearly differ from a 30-minute narrative. Let the needs of what want to express guide length.
- Give proper setup & payoff – Ensure adequate time for setup so payoffs feel earned. Abrupt or rushed endings can be frustrating.
- Know your constraints – Be realistic about limitations with budget, timeline, and other resources. It’s better to concise and coherent at 8 minutes than dragging at 20 minutes.
- Consider distribution goals – Are you aiming for social media sharing? Film festivals? Knowing where you want the short to live will factor into runtime considerations.
- Hook quickly, exit purposefully – Shorts should connect with audiences right away. And leaving viewers satisfied yet intrigued in a short timeframe takes skill.
- Pack maximum emotion & resonance– Shorts thrive when delivering an emotional gut punch or poignant themes that resonate. Prioritize this emotional power and intensity in a concise runtime.
- Pace briskly without rushing – Shorts feel energized by brisk pacing. But allow important moments to breathe. Don’t cram everything in so tightly that the audience can’t process each story beat.
Finding the intersection between concision, compelling emotion, and proper story development results in an impactful short film.
Tips for Creating a Satisfying Viewing Experience Within Your Runtime
Here are some additional tips for creating the most satisfying, high-quality viewing experience possible within the runtime constraints of your short film:
- Refine through testing – Gather feedback through rough cuts and test screenings. This allows for improving pacing and identifying areas that may need added time for proper story clarity.
- Keep things moving – Look for opportunities to trim any fluff or unnecessary dialogue. Every second counts so don’t let scenes drag.
- Flawless sound and editing – With no room for error in shorts, invest heavily in sound design, color correction, editing polish, and overall technical quality.
- Make endings matter – Nail your ending. Whether for shock value, emotional resonance, or to seamlessly tie narrative threads, endings carry huge weight in shorts.
- Maximize performance – Strong performances connect quickly. Direction and cinematography should focus intensely on showcasing great acting.
- Heighten with score – The right original music or soundtrack selection enhances the viewing experience and deepens emotional engagement within the short runtime.
- Trust your audience – Don’t over-explain. Allow viewers to interpret meaning from well-constructed visuals and filmmaker choices.
Making every second of your short film count and work in service of the story, experience, and emotions you want to create for an audience is the key to executing whichever runtime you deem ideal.
Short films provide tremendous flexibility in runtimes, from micro-shorts of under 2 minutes to traditional 30-minute shorts. Consider your story needs, distribution goals, and resources when deciding on length.
Ideal short films use concise runtime to deliver maximum emotional impact and resonance. Whichever category you work within, focus on refining pacing, performance, sound, and editing to create the strongest viewing experience possible.
Runtime merely provides the boundaries – your filmmaking skills provide the satisfaction.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the most common short film length?
The most common length for a short film tends to be 10-20 minutes. This provides enough time to tell a full story while still remaining concise. Many festivals and distribution platforms look for shorts in this range.
What is the best length for a comedy short film?
For comedy shorts, generally, 5-15 minutes works well. It provides enough time to establish comedic premises and deliver satisfying punchlines without dragging. Brevity helps keep the humor heightened.
How long can you submit films to film festivals?
Film festival submission requirements vary, but most look for shorts under 30 minutes, with 10-20 minutes being the sweet spot. Always check individual festival guidelines, as some go up to 40 minutes max for shorts.
Why are shorter short films becoming more popular?
With social media and the internet, very short films under 5 minutes can easily be shared online. Their condensed length works well for digital distribution. Filmmakers also appreciate the creative constraint posed by micro shorts.
What is the minimum length for a narrative short film?
There is no set minimum, but very short films under 3 minutes make full narratives difficult. Generally, 5 minutes is seen as the minimum threshold for establishing characters and a complete, if simple, story arc.
Should I aim for a specific short film length before I start writing?
It’s generally better not to get attached to a runtime until you have a full draft. Let the story determine what length it naturally requires. You can then refine it to shrink or expand as needed.
What if my idea would work better as a 60-minute short rather than 30 minutes?
If your story requires a runtime longer than the standard short length, it may be better suited as a feature film. Be open to how the idea evolves and whether its needs exceed short film constraints during development.
How strictly do I need to stick to a short film’s planned length?
You should aim to be within 5 minutes plus or minus of your target runtime. Festivals and distribution platforms expect shorts to be within certain runtime ranges. Going significantly over risks issues.