The short film formula

The most engaging short films are made by people who understand story.

Technology doesn’t matter. It’s not about the camera you have or the editing software you use. Stop for a moment and consider that your smartphone is far more powerful than any of the filmmaking tools Alfred Hitchcock used.

If you want to become a better filmmaker you need to become a student of story.

To cultivate the storytelling instincts of a successful filmmaker, start by watching short films. Top Screen, a collection of the best films from VCE Media that is screened every year at ACMI and the Melbourne Museum, is a good place to begin. Check out other student films as well. Think about what works and what doesn’t.

After watching a few hundred short films, a pattern will start to emerge: the most successful short films demonstrate a sophisticated understanding of stories and how to tell them. As Robert McKee notes in Story: “Your goal must be a good story well told.”

What is a good story?

Making an effective short film requires an understanding of what stories are and how they are structured.

At its most basic, a story is the tale of a character who overcomes obstacles in the pursuit of a goal. As David Howard notes in How to Build a Great Screenplay: “Somebody wants something badly and is having difficulty getting it. This dramatic circumstance is at the heart of every well-written scene and is a significant element in every well-told story.”

Stories have a beginning, middle and end. This three act narrative structure is a fundamental storytelling concept. Screenwriters call these stages Act 1, Act 2 and Act 3. In How to Build a Great Screenplay, David Howard uses the following analogy: “…in the first act you tie a knot, in the second act you tighten that knot, and in the third act, you untie it again.”

While a short film won’t slavishly follow the beats of a ninety minute screenplay, this structure provides useful ideas for making a compelling short.

Act 1

  • Opening shot. The opening shot of your film helps to establish the tone, style and genre of your story. The opening and closing shots of a film can be used to bookend your story. Remember stories are about change. What better way to show that change through the opening and closing shots of your film? As Blake Snyder notes in Save the Cat: “The opening and final images should be opposites, a plus and minus, showing change so dramatic that it documents the emotional upheaval that the movie represents.”
  • Establish genre. The genre of your film should be absolutely clear in the first shot. This sets up audience expectations. Feature length films have the luxury of expensive marketing campaigns, trailers and posters that establish genre and audience expectations before you even get to the cinema. Establishing your genre early on means that audiences are primed to laugh along with your jokes or grip the armrests in suspense. The genre of your film is a promise to the audience. If you don’t deliver on this promise, the audience will be dissatisfied and disappointed.  If you’re making a horror film, for example, you’re promising the audience that there will be suspense, a few scares and a hefty dose of gore. As a storyteller it’s your job to deliver on these promises in a fresh and surprising way. As Robert McKee notes in Story: “The genre sophistication of filmgoers presents the writer with this critical challenge: He must not only fulfil audience anticipations, or risk their confusion and disappointment, but he must lead their expectations to fresh, unexpected moments, or risk boring them.” Anyone who has ever seen a film that is too formulaic or cliched will understand how tedious slavishly following genre conventions can be. Another issue with short films is trying to combine too many genres or styles into a single film. In a short film, it’s best to identify your genre clearly and set about telling that story.
  • Establish character. Establish your character, their traits, motivation and goals within the first thirty seconds. If the audience doesn’t know what your character wants and sees them go about getting it, you have lost them. Developing a good sense of character means you understand how they tick and how they are likely to respond to the challenges that exist before them.
  • Build empathy. Your audience must empathise and identify with your main character. Show events through their eyes, throw us into their world and show them grappling with problems.
  • Engage the audience. You can engage the audience in a number of ways. You might encourage them to emphasise with your protagonist. You could throw them into the action by starting your story in medias res or in the middle of things. In television, episodes often begin with a pre-credit teaser that acts as a hook for the audience. In some cases, this hints at something that will happen later in the story, encouraging the audience to speculate about how the characters reach this point. Breaking Bad is one television series that excelled at the pre-credit hook.
  • Inciting event. Get to the inciting event quickly. Something must happen in the first thirty seconds of your film. If it doesn’t you’re boring your audience.

Act 2

  • Scenes cause change. According to Robert McKee, every scene in a story is a ‘turning point’ that changes the emotional charge of a character’s life from positive to negative or vice versa. These shifts in values causes conflict and drama. If the scene doesn’t cause this type of change, if it is neutral, then it probably lacks drama, is too boring, doesn’t push the narrative forward and should be cut from your story outline. Don’t even bother filming it.
  • Scene structure. Every scene is about your character pursuing their goal. As Robert McKee notes in Story, in a scene:
    • Your character will take action to achieve their goal.
    • The world reacts differently or more powerfully than they expect
    • This causes a change in the character’s circumstance, knowledge or emotion.
    • What is their next step? What do they have to risk to achieve their goal?
  • Scene transitions. When you are planning out the structure of your film, think about how you will transition from one scene to another. In ‘Scott Pilgrim: Make Your Transitions Count’, Evan Puschak explains how director Edgar Wright uses stylised transitions that contribute to the story. In Story, Robert McKee suggests cutting between scenes based on a similarity or difference in characterisation, action, objects, words, a quality of light, sound or an idea. From a technical standpoint, consider how you can use establishing shots, bridging shots, pre-lap and post-lap sound to smooth out these transitions.
  • Rising tension. The order of the events in your story also matters. Characters will typically face obstacles of increasing difficulty that lead towards the climax of the film.

Act 3

  • Climax. The most emotionally charged and dramatic scene in your film. The character takes action to achieve their goal. What will your character do to triumph? As McKee notes in Story: “If this scene fails, the story fails. Until you have created it, you don’t have a story. If you fail to make the poetic leap to a brilliant culminating climax, all previous scenes, characters, dialogue, and description become an elaborate typing exercise.”
  • Resolution. Your story is wrapped up neatly.
  • Closing shot. By contrasting or mirroring the opening shot of your film, the closing shot can illustrate the change that has occurred in your character’s life.

This might seem like a lot to achieve in a ten minute film. Keep in mind that you don’t have to include all of these elements. The skill in making a short film involves selecting which elements you will use in Act 1, Act 2 and Act 3. Remember: “Your goal must be a good story well told.”

Of course, the classic three act narrative isn’t the only way to structure your short film. Some short films often follow a joke structure: a setup that culminates in a payoff. This form of short film has more in common with sketch comedy than traditional three act narratives.

[Insert Child’s Name Here] is a short film selected for Top Screen, a festival celebrating the best work from VCE Media students. The film supposes that a child’s thoughts are more complex than we might think. Using this premise, it delivers a series of increasingly witty gags, culminating in a memorable payoff at the end.

How do you tell a good story?

Film is a visual medium. Remember that you are telling your story through a combination of:

  • camera techniques (including shot composition, camera movement, camera angle, shot size and focus)
  • acting (including moment, gesture, body language, facial expression and tone of voice)
  • mise en scene (including set design, props, costume, make up and colour)
  • editing
  • lighting
  • sound (including sound effects, dialogue and music)

One of the weaknesses of many student films that there is often too much focus on dialogue. How do you convey an important fact about your character without having them talk about it?

The answer is visual storytelling: a combination of camera, acting, mise en scene, editing, lighting and sound.

Let’s just say that your main character’s father died and it has taken a huge toll on his life. Using dialogue is the lazy way to establish this for your audience. “I’ve been finding it really tough since Dad died,” he tells his friend. A more sophisticated filmmaker will show this to his audience. Perhaps you have a whole sequence where the character is alone at home, wan light spilling in through the kitchen window. Cut to a framed photograph of the character and his father, pull focus to reveal a vase of flowers in the foreground, then cut to a handwritten card with the words ‘loving memory’ visible. A sombre piece of piano music plays in the background. Sure its a little cliched but it’s definitely a more interesting way to establish this for the audience than simply conveying it through dialogue.

When you’re first starting out as a filmmaker, it’s very tempting to show everything. Let’s imagine that in the opening sequence of your film, your protagonist meets a girl on his way to school and falls madly in love. An inexperienced filmmaker would feel compelled to show every aspect of the character’s morning routine: the alarm clock, feet hitting the floor, turning on the shower, taking a towel off the rack, toast popping up in the toaster, getting a jar of peanut butter from the pantry, spreading the peanut butter on the toast, pouring a glass of orange juice, grabbing his schoolbag and heading out the door. All of this is utterly unnecessary. It has nothing to do with the story. It’s irrelevant. A much better way to do this would be to start with your character picking up his school bag and leaving for school. While he’s walking down the street, we cut to a point of view shot of a girl walking in the opposite direction. Cut to a close up of his gobsmacked expression. Throwing the audience directly into the action is a much more engaging way to start your film. Some screenwriters suggest entering a scene late and leaving early. What does this mean? Basically start the scene in the middle of conflict. End the scene before it gets boring. If you find yourself falling into this trap, consider revisiting the ways that filmmakers can manipulate time.

Things to think about

When you are making a short film, here are ten things to think about when you are crafting a good story.

  1. Developing an idea. Coming up with an idea can be one of the most difficult stages in the film production process. Remember that ideas don’t just appear from nowhere. You need to watch films and experiment with technical equipment. Since film production can be such a long and difficult process, you need to decide on something that is going to sustain your interest. Make sure you also settle on an idea that is achievable. Limiting the number of characters and locations is a good way to reduce the complexity of your film. After all, there are a bunch of terrific films that occur in a single location, such as LifeboatBuried, Phone Booth and Devil. Recognise the possibilities of the locations and actors that are available to you.
  2. Pre-production. Because filmmaking is a time consuming process that requires the collaboration of many different people, planning your film is vitally important. For everything to run smoothly, you have to be extremely well organised. This means writing a treatment, developing a screenplay, completing a shotliststoryboards and call sheets. Going through this extensive planning process means that you have a clear sense of what you are going to make and you’re more likely to see your film through to completion.
  3. Casting. Selecting actors is one of the most difficult stages for amateur filmmakers who often rely on the generosity of their family and friends to act in their films. When you’re developing the idea for your film, think about available actors and the roles they could play. It’s no use planning to make The Godfather if your cast is composed entirely of your school friends. A seventeen year old boy in an ill-fitting suit is not going to make a convincing Vito Corleone. Maybe your parents or your grandparents would fit the role perfectly. Inappropriate casting is one of those things that will take your audience out of the moment and remind them that they’re watching a film.
  4. Opening credits. Don’t bother with opening credits. In the last few years, there’s been a trend away from opening credits in films. Indeed, there are a whole bunch of films – including Batman Begins, Pirates of the Caribbean, Vanilla Sky, Jurassic Park and The Ring – that don’t have a credit sequence at all. If you’re creating a short film, it’s much more important to dive straight into the story. In most cases, a simple title card will do. Fictional studio logos and lengthy credits are unnecessary and slightly self-indulgent.  You can give credit to your actors and crew at the end of the film. And, if people enjoyed it, they’ll be keen to sit through the credits to know who worked on it!
  5. Footleather. Footleather is a phrase used by screenwriters to describe unnecessary journeying in films. Most of the time, it’s not necessary to show a character going from location to another. You can use establishing shots, bridging shots and sound bridges to achieve these transitions. Remember, if it’s not important to your story it should be left on the cutting room floor.
  6. Too much story. The best short films acknowledge that shorts are different to features. Don’t try to squeeze a ninety minute story into ten minutes. Settle on a contained idea with a small cast of characters.
  7. Cliches. Cliches are those things that turn up again and again in student films. Sometimes your first impulse or idea might not be the most original or appropriate. Some of the cliches that are commonly used in student films include: guns, alarm clocks, people waking up in forests, masks, clowns,  swearing, dreams, melodrama and car accidents. There are a number of videos dedicated to these cliches, including videos from 72 Film FestBoom Shot, Premium Beat and The Film Look.
  8. Sound. Successful films featured polished soundtracks. The students who created these films showed an awareness of sound throughout the production process. During development and pre-production, they selected locations suitable for recording clean audio. On location, students used a range of microphones to capture audio and, more importantly, positioned these microphones close to their actors. Find friends who can take responsibility for sound while you’re behind the camera. In post-production, successful students use a combination of location audio, foley sounds and sound design elements to create polished soundtracks. Sound is an area that all students must continue to focus on if they want to increase the production value of their films.
  9. Lighting. Lighting makes an important contribution to shot films. You don’t need expensive three point lighting kits. Use a combination of natural light, practicals and lamps to illuminate your scenes. Successful lighting is always planned in pre-production.
  10. Acting. You don’t need amazing actors to make an effective short film. When you are directing actors, always keep in mind the importance of underacting. According to film theorist Bob Foss, the most convincing actors are those who have “mastered the language of the body, a subtle combination of outward appearance and underacting. What we should aim for is economy of expression, the greatest possible effect with the least possible effort. A glance can express much more than a violent gesture.” When it comes to film, consider the important contribution that editing makes to a performance. The Kuleshov Effect is an editing technique demonstrated by pioneering Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov. In the experiment, Kuleshov took a closeup of an actor with a neutral expression on his face and cut it together three different ways. In the first, he cut from the actor to a bowl of soup. People who watched the scene said he appeared hungry. In the second, he cut from the same shot of the actor to a child in a coffin. People who watched this commented on how sad and pensive he looked. In the final experiment, Kuleshov cut from the same shot of the actor to a woman reclining on a divan. Not surprisingly, viewers described the look of lust on the actor’s face. This technique is brilliantly described by Alfred Hitchcock as “pure cinema”. Keep this in mind when making your short film, a good performance can be achieved through a combination of underacting and editing.

Beat sheet

Use the Short Film Formula Beat Sheet to help you plan out your film.

Must watch films

Here are some great examples of what you can achieve in a short film. Each of these films draws on elements of a three act narrative structure to tell a compelling story.