Short Film Structure: Characters

I started posting earlier this week about the structure of short films – something that is less discussed and talked about when creating films. I find this quite interesting as short films are a great way of getting your work out there – especially with great platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo kicking around on the internet and such a wide range of short film festivals going on across the world these days.
See my previous post below (or click here) on good ways to start your short.
Enough rambling. On with it!

+ The characters in a short film should be easily recognisable. 

In order to not waste precious minutes on the setup, the characters need to be easily recognisable. In ‘Spider‘ (see earlier post), it’s a man apologising to an unimpressed girl. In ‘Mulitple Choice’ (directed by Mike Goode, written by Ian Thomson), it’s a group of boys with a clear group structure:

You can understand each ‘type’ of character immediately. You’ve got the Nerd – the one who is panicking about being late and is willing to do whatever it takes to get the grade; you’ve got the Leader – the one who comes up with the hair-brained scheme and is calm in any emergency; you’ve got the Follower – the one who doesn’t really want to go along with it but has no other option and, of course, the Teacher – the one who is smarter than we all think. This character dynamic is set up from the first thirty seconds of the film.

Nerd is screeching at his friends and racing out of the flat, panicking.
Follower wakes up, blearily but makes no real contribution.
Leader is totally disinterested, more focused on something totally random instead of the matter at hand.
All these character types are easily recognisable and the audience immediately knows who the characters are and (most probably) how they’re going to act and are willing to go along with their story.
Of course, not all characters in short films have to be archetypes. For the short films that are more of a Coming Of Age or Loss Of Innocence themed, the focus is solely on how the character changes over the course of the film. That being said, they still generally start off as an easily recognisable ‘type’ of person and evolve from there.
But the starting point for most characters in a short film should be a person that the audience can instantly understand. This way, the film can instantly kick off and get going instead of spending the first three minutes in setting things up and then running out of time for the important bit – telling the story.


Short Film Structure: The Beginning

Happy Saturday everyone! I thought I’d kick off the weekend talking about what I’ve learnt about short film structure. Now, this doesn’t apply to every single short film ever made, but it’s what I’ve noticed about several short films that I really love and have tried to apply to my own shorts. I’ve decided to break it down into the main points that I’ve found and will post them over a couple of days, otherwise the post becomes huge.
I’ve decided to start with the beginning. It’s one of the most important parts of any story and it’s crucial to a short film as it sets up everything you need to know in the opening seconds of the film.
+ Start the film in a moment of high tension or stress and start the story immediately.

This doesn’t mean high-budget action stuff. You don’t have to have a building exploding, a car chase, a gunshot – bring it right down from that. Watch this short ‘Spider’ written by Nash Edgerton and David Michôd and directed by Nash from Blue Tongue Films for a great example (A/N: Safe for arachnophobes):

It’s a great film in general and one of my favourites. Did it make you jump?

Perhaps it’s clearer to say start the film in a moment of want. That way the first thing the audience is introduced to is what the character wants and instantly knows the motivation.

Jack (the protagonist in Spider) wants Jill to forgive him. Jill doesn’t want to forgive him.

The atmosphere as soon as you start watching the film is tense. You’re not sure what’s going on, but it’s a moment that we’re all familiar with so the audience can instantly relate. The story then becomes about the protagonist doing whatever they can to get out of this moment (Jack apologises, buys flowers and chocolates to persuade Jill otherwise). The twist that appears in so many short films is often the reveal that they haven’t or they’ve made the situation entirely worse.

This tension is done really well. It’s not tension in the ‘traditional’ sense – sitting on the edge of your seat in an action movie tension – but something is wrong and the protagonist wants to try and make it right. It’s a simple thing – he wants his girlfriend to forgive him. It’s not about saving the world or beating the bad guy, it’s an every day, real life moment. Think about other real life moments like that: waiting for a job interview, psyching yourself up to propose to someone – could even be something as simple as wanting the last piece of cake but politely waiting for someone else to claim it first.

Don’t waste time on the set-up. Get straight into it and set it up as you go along. ‘Spider’ starts off silent. We’re being given the silent treatment along with Jack. We instantly know Jack’s in trouble when he turns on the radio and she flicks it off and he confirms it with the first line of dialogue: ‘Babe, it was a joke.’ We know it happens regularly from Jill’s line ‘Always, Jack, you go too far.’ This is all the set up it needs. There’s the wonderful sinking feeling of dread when he picks up the spider, because we know what he’s like. We know it’s all going to go wrong somewhere and it goes wrong in the worst way possible.

The other really important piece of setup in ‘Spider’ is the quote at the beginning.

‘It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.’
– Mum

This quote sets up the entire plotline of the film. We know that the story will have something to do with the theory behind it – that everyone’s laughing and everything’s fine until someone gets hurt. So as soon as Jack picks up the spider, we subconsciously connect the two which intensifies the feeling of dread.

And, of course, there’s the double twist at the end. But that’s the end, not the beginning.


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