Sitting in the back row of a dingy theater, I settled in to watch the latest short film festival in town, eager to discover some emerging young talent.
However, as the night wore on, it became clear that the quality of films being shown varied wildly. For every polished gem screened, there were at least three clips that elicited groans from the audience. Glancing around, I could see the disappointment on the faces of my fellow viewers.
This experience mirrored many short film screenings I’ve attended lately. While the past decade has seen an explosion of short films and easier access to video creation tools, it seems that overall quality hasn’t kept pace with quantity.
So why are so many short films so bad? In this article, I’ll examine the main factors that lead to subpar shorts and provide tips to help new filmmakers avoid these pitfalls. Making great short films is challenging, but being aware of common mistakes can help you improve your craft.
Lack of Character Development and Arcs
One of the most common issues plaguing short films is a lack of character development and properly defined character arcs. Constructing a compelling arc for even one character over the course of a full-length feature is difficult enough. Attempting to pull this off in a short film of 10 minutes or less may seem downright impossible.
Without the luxury of time to gradually reveal a character’s personality and slowly turn them from a nobody into a hero that the audience is rooting for, short filmmakers often rely on shortcuts.
They introduce thin characters that seem to change emotions or motivations at the drop of a hat just to serve the plot. But characters need to be grounded and properly motivated in order to resonate emotionally.
Tips for developing characters efficiently in shorts:
- Start your story as close to the end as possible. Avoid lengthy introductions and get right to the pivotal moments.
- Cast actors with striking personalities or interesting faces that immediately grab the audience’s attention.
- Use visual cues like costumes, props, and settings to subtly convey backstory and personality traits.
- Have characters make difficult choices that reveal their motivations and values early on.
- Limit yourself to 1 or 2 principal characters to focus development on.
- Write economic but potent dialogue that conveys character perspectives.
Reliance on Cliches and Stereotypes
Pressed for time and ideas, many short films resort to tired cliches and stereotypical characters. The bullying jock, the nagging housewife, the bumbling cops – these worn-out tropes may elicit some cheap laughs but they demonstrate lazy writing. Without the space to develop nuanced characters, shorts often reach for these familiar caricatures.
Similarly, many shorts feel derivative because they follow thoroughly played-out plot lines. The surprise birthday party gone wrong, the nerdy girl removing her glasses to suddenly become gorgeous, or the criminal who has a last-minute change of heart – these cliche stories usually induce more eye rolls than engagement.
Subverting expectations and avoiding stereotypes:
- Brainstorm fresh perspectives or ideas on familiar characters or situations. Add a twist.
- Draw from real-life experiences or current events to create complex characters.
- Avoid stereotypical casting. Go against the grain.
- Introduce unexpected obstacles, complications, or motivations to steer clear of cliched plots.
- Research storytelling techniques and study films with creative narratives.
Believable dialogue is one of the hardest elements for novice short film writers to master. Conversations between characters often sound stilted or unrealistic.
Some filmmakers try to compensate by overloading their scripts with endless chatter between characters. But more dialogue doesn’t equal better dialogue.
Weak short film dialogue usually stems from two issues – lack of experience writing conversation from the writer and awkward delivery from the actors.
It takes time and effort to hone the ability to craft crisp, natural-sounding dialogue. Guiding actors to perform it naturally also requires directing skills.
Tips for writing and delivering authentic short film dialogue:
- Read your dialogue out loud to catch awkward lines or unnatural phrasing.
- Listen carefully to real conversations to learn authentic speech patterns and cadence.
- Let actions and expressions convey emotions and backstory rather than spelling everything out verbally.
- Limit exposition dumps. Draw out information naturally through believable exchanges.
- Choose actors carefully not just for looks but for ability to deliver lines well.
- Read through scripts extensively with actors to refine line delivery before shooting.
Little Story Structure
Constructing a compelling narrative with a clear beginning, middle, and end seems intrinsic to quality filmmaking. However, many short films completely disregard traditional story structure. They are essentially just loosely connected scenes with no driving plot or purpose.
Shorts without a structured story often feel meandering and pointless. Key elements like an inciting incident, build-up, climax, and resolution are missing. Audiences need these touchstones to become invested in the story.
Basic story structures that work for shorts:
- Traditional three-act structure – Establish key conflict by 10% mark, build tension to climax by 80% mark, resolve by 90% mark.
- Bookend scenes – Open and close with strong scenes reflecting a change or revelation in the protagonist.
- In media res (start in the middle) – Begin at a pivotal moment and use flashbacks judiciously to reveal the backstory.
- Pattern structures like AABB or ABC – Intersperse related scenes to build the arc.
- Frame story – Open and close with a narrator or character introducing and then reflecting on the main story.
Poor Production Values
Some short filmmakers mistakenly believe that strong writing and acting alone are enough to carry a film. But poor production values like bad lighting, low-grade cameras, amateurish editing, and sound can make even the most imaginative shorts seem cringeworthy.
The limited budgets and resources of shorts are no excuse for completely shoddy production values. With some creativity and planning, shorts can look reasonably professional.
How to elevate production value on a short film budget:
- Use the best camera and microphones available, even if it means borrowing or renting.
- Learn basic three-point lighting techniques for a polished look.
- Pick interesting locations that help establish mood and character.
- Add simple production designs like props, furniture, and wardrobe to bring the world alive.
- Use dynamic editing techniques like match cuts and montages.
- Take time to color grade and audio-sweeten footage.
- Bring in crew members with expertise in lighting, sound, or editing if needed.
Conclusion – Why Are So Many Short Films So Bad
As this article illustrates, common mistakes like poorly constructed characters, derivative plots, stilted dialogue, nonexistent story structure, and shoddy production value all contribute to the abundance of lackluster short films.
Avoiding these pitfalls requires dedication to the craft from script to screen. Mastering quality short filmmaking demands time, practice, and learning from peers and mentors. Filmmakers should analyze both good shorts and bad to continually improve their skills.
For those aspiring to hone their abilities through short films, persistence is key. Not every short will be amazing, or even good. However, the limitations of shorts can help teach the discipline required for feature films or other long-form projects. They provide a valuable opportunity to experiment and learn.
So while bad shorts may disappoint in the moment, they need not discourage budding directors, writers, and crew members. Rather than giving up, leverage every weak short as a chance to respond to feedback and upgrade your skills for the next one.
Use limitations and failures as inspiration to think more creatively. Channel that disappointment from the rowdy screening into motivation to defy expectations on your next short.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do short films fail?
Common reasons short films fail include weak characters, cliché plots, bad dialogue, no story structure, and poor production value. Inexperienced creators often struggle with the limitations.
What are the disadvantages of short films?
Disadvantages of short films include limited time for character development, difficulty sustaining plots, and lower production quality due to small budgets. Distribution can also be a challenge.
What is the point of short films?
The purpose is to tell compact stories creatively. Shorts help filmmakers experiment and develop skills on a small scale before tackling features. They can launch careers.
Why do student films fail?
Student films often fail due to inexperience writing scripts, directing actors, handling production, and editing. But they provide valuable learning experiences.
Is it worth doing short films?
Yes, shorts are worthwhile to gain experience and test different styles of filmmaking before committing to larger projects. Festivals can help get exposure.
Why do low-budget films look so bad?
Small budgets lead to technical flaws like bad lighting, sound, and editing. Limited access to high-end cameras and post-production tools also degrades visual quality.
Why are older movies so much better?
Many claim older films had superior writing, acting, and originality compared to formulaic blockbusters. But nostalgia also contributes to perceiving old movies as better.
How long is a typical short film?
Most short films range from 1 to 40 minutes. Very short films under 5 minutes are sometimes called micro-shorts. Different festivals have varying length requirements.
How do short films make money?
Shorts themselves rarely make money directly. But they can serve as calling cards for filmmakers to get backing for lucrative feature films or advertising work.
Why do people like short films?
Viewers enjoy shorts for showcasing creativity despite constraints. Shorts tell quick, engaging stories that can be watched comfortably in limited time.