Short Filmmaking and Overcoming Long Odds- Producer Week

By Matthew Waters

Photo courtesy of the Vancouver Film School.

Short filmmaking is a pursuit that one could easily associate with hope. Within the realm of movies, the driving force propelling short projects is usually either an attempt to establish oneself, or garner experience. It is a genre practically designed for experimentation. Where a certain percentage of feature-length films may be devoid of spontaneous energy and risk averse, most short films owe their existence to those exact two commodities. The short film has recently made a roaring charge into the mainstream consciousness, thanks to an astounding proliferation of projects. Michael Ordoña detailed the frenzy for The San Francisco Gate in a February article:

“And now short films have entered the Oscar horse race, albeit on the Shetland-pony track. It’s just one sign of the growth of the short. With their availability all over the Internet, the ease with which a dude and his PC can make them, and the gradual retraction of attention spans (thank you, MTV), short films are becoming all but ubiquitous. Dedicated channel ShortsHD is available in 40 million homes and offers downloads on iTunes. Attendance of its annual theatrical exhibition of nominees (“The 2011 Academy Award-Nominated Short Films, Live-Action and Animated” is playing at Bay Area venues) has grown by 800 percent since 2005. Shorts International’s chief executive, Carter Pilcher, says each program has topped the last’s box office gross, surpassing $1.35 million for the 2010 edition, a portion of the profits being shared with the filmmakers.”

The increased volume of short films being catapulted toward audiences shouldn’t obscure the toll required to create a quality one.  Last October, Gregory Keras, an NYU film and television production graduate and assistant editor at Half Yard Productions, led the production of a short film entitled ‘The Bad Days.” The dark project intelligently blends psychological themes within a seemingly traditional zombie narrative. While making the film, Keras and his crew were forced to confront and overcome obstacles both intellectual and logistical. And it begins even before the cameras roll, and continues from there.

“Regardless of what sort of production you are running, be it a film, a play, a news broadcast, or a game of Trouble, the two most important elements are the script (or, in the case of Trouble, the rules) and the personnel,” Keras says in an email with BTR. “One of the most fulfilling aspects of filmmaking is its collaborative nature; I would, in fact, posit that it is the most collaborative of all the arts.”

The great difficulty of filmmaking, especially short filmmaking, often rests in logistics. It’s difficult enough to churn a quality script from hours of rewriting and collaboration. “Essentially, regardless of the length of the piece, a work should feel as if it has communicated everything that it needed to divulge,” says Keras.  “Sometimes that takes 30 seconds, sometimes that takes 14 hours, but if the thoughts and characters involved are engaging, the piece will be called “successful.”

Kaleem Aftab seems to side with Keras in an article he wrote for The Independent, published October 2010:

“It’s also time to put the standard rap about short films being a steppingstone to feature films, or that they are to feature film what short stories are to the novel, to bed. It’s too simplistic a way to look at a format that, in the past decade, found a new identity, and is able to connect to a youth audience in a way that feature films do not.”

There certainly is enough evidence to accept short films as a thriving, independent genre, not an appendage. But that independence does not come without responsibilities. And managing a budget could be the most important of those responsibilities, for those involved with the project.

“The Bad Days was initially budgeted at $3,500,” Keras wrote. “When all was said and done (and it is still in post-production), the final numbers will be closer to $6,000.  Now, I did not do the Kickstarter thing, instead, while working my night job as an assistant editor, I worked as often as I could as an assistant camera-person.  I took the AC money and socked it away, knowing that I wanted to make a film and that it was going to cost, as these things do.  Also, a good deal of the crew worked pro bono, for which I am deeply grateful and, obviously, I owe a considerable amount in terms of favors.”

Keras cited unpredictability as a factor capable of derailing the budget. For instance, during ‘The Bad Days’ production, a backyard generator, which was providing the set with electricity, required consistent refills. It was nearly a budgetary nightmare, but shooting was uninterrupted.  “I learned that, when making a short, having double the budget stashed away just in case is a savvy idea… Just as in life, filmmaking is 50 percent planning and 50 percent luck because even the best laid plans of producers and men…”

Working with a lesser budget also requires the director to be even more aware of the visual messages being sent to the audience through the film, and how those images are conveyed.

“The challenge when you are working on a very limited budget becomes how does one make the world of the film feel real and full of life without the resources of major studio backing or a particularly wealthy investor.” Keras elaborates.  “When my partner (co-producer and cinematographer John Murphy) and I sat down to hammer out the shot-list for this picture, we planned for each and every shot to communicate something specific, using lens choice, angle, lighting, and motion to say exactly what we wanted to say about the character in that moment.  If you approach storytelling in this way, not only can you get into the psychology of the film you are making (which is a different animal than the psychology of a character, but related), but, if you are limited by a tight budget, you can figure out methods to make the same points in ways that may be more cost-effective.  Or you can rob a bank, but that’s been a professional that’s gotten somewhat riskier over the last 150 years.”

Pulling off a short certainly shouldn’t be confused with robbing a bank. Sometimes though, to pull off the job, a director and his crew must hold up reality. It’s a team effort. And the effort required for quality will probably never change, no matter the quantity of short films being made.