If anyone reading this is following me on social media, then you might be aware that the main project I’m working on right now is a short film entitled ‘Runner.’ It’s a thriller, and is currently at the pre-production stage.
It’s also under five minutes long, and as such it represents a strategy that I’m actively pursuing to develop short films that are truly ‘bite size’ in length. Part of it is pragmatism, in that a shorter running time is more accommodating for a smaller (or no) budget. The thinking is that if you only have restricted funds, then it makes sense to scale as much back as possible, including the number of characters, the locations, and, of course, the running time.
However, if I ever thought that a shorter script would mean it’s either easier to get the project off the ground, or even to come up with the idea in the first place, then I was wrong! Filmmaking is a challenging business, especially when you’re at the micro-to-no-budget end of the scale, and that’s true even when your screenplay is only a few pages long.
One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced is sticking to the scaled down approach that I’ve set myself. What often happens is that I come up with an idea, I start jotting down a few notes, and before long the potential of the concept has grown, with more possibilities, more characters, locations, etc.
This is why discipline is an important skill for a low budget filmmaker. You have to set the boundaries in terms of the scale of your project, and stick to them. Be realistic. I find it helps to remember that it’s far better to do a less ambitious idea well, than do a more ambitious idea badly. The latter means you don’t do your idea justice. Worse still, it means your work, and that of your cast and crew, is wasted.
Another effective strategy is to look at what you’re trying to say, and see if you can distill your idea down to the bare essentials, but without losing any of the strengths of the material. That’s a common problem that all low budget filmmakers face: how to truly do justice to the material, but be pragmatic when it comes to knowing not just what you want to do, but what you can do.
I once read that the best scenes are like parties: arrive late and leave early. I try and remember this when I’m writing, and on a smaller scale project like ‘Runner’, I apply it to the whole screenplay.
This means I approach the project as I would a longer short or a feature, except I then try and tell the story in far fewer scenes. Of course, there are some elements that might have to be sacrificed along the way, and it’s hard when you’re emotionally attached to a project to make those cuts, but they’re necessary if your project is to ever get to the production stage. You have to be realistic, and appreciate that even in the realm of big budget Hollywood blockbusters, there are challenges and limitations. It’s part and parcel of filmmaking.
Being adaptable is a useful skill for anyone involved in filmmaking, and doing shorts is a good way to develop that attribute. Even more so when you add in a low budget. As hard as it is to make these tough calls about what to leave out, it doesn’t have to mean your short film project is any less ambitious. There are feature length films that have very little ambition despite their running time, so a small running time need not mean a film is low on ambition.
There is even the chance that you may be able to gain enough funding to allow you to ‘scale up’ the project to match your most vivid imaginations of where the story could go. As with every creative decision though, don’t do it just because you can. Everything must serve the story.
As well as this, a really short film could be expanded to a longer short, or even a feature film. Another possibility is that your short film could form part of a larger, connected story. I’m actually at the very early stages of another project that does just that. I’m still having to reign in my imagination at times in order to match the means that will likely be available to me, but that’s not dampening my enthusiasm for telling these stories.
That’s because the most important thing, regardless of the money you’ve got to spend, or the equipment you have, or the flashy effects you add in post production, is your story and your characters. A brief running time doesn’t have to mean a diluted story, because a good story is a good story, whether it’s told over three hours or three minutes.