Friday, February 10, 2012

How To Create A Short Film

What makes a good story for a short film?

Compelling characters.
The temptation when you write a short film, and have less time to develop complex characters, is to write your characters in short-hand. If their behavior is simplistic and predictable, your story will be, too. Characters, particularly your hero’s, is the force that drives your story. Do not shortchange your characters! Give them the full range of human characteristics:

Physical: the character’s height, weight, gender, age, clothes they wear can all influence how your story develops.

Behavioral: there can be unexpected contrast between expected behavior and actual behavior (for instance, a psychiatrist who is obsessively re-arranging the pens on his desk). This disconnect between what is expected and the actual behavior of  he character is immediately intriguing –and often humorous.

A strong need: Character is ACTION. An action is what the character DOES in order to get what he WANTS. Energize  your story by making the hero’s need extreme. What the character wants, he wants passionately. He wants it more than  anything in the world. The need of the character must be immediate and urgent, especially in a short film.

The element of conflict.
Conflict is the result of what a character “want” (his goal), and the obstacles he must face to get what he wants. Those obstacles can be another character, nature, society, community. Those are called external obstacles. Sometimes, the obstacles are purely internal –an addiction, psychological issues resulting from a trauma, for instance. Watching the hero struggle against those obstacles is what makes a story interesting. Your job is to make the life of you character difficult! The character says: “I want this!” Say “NO!” to your character!

In the famous short film The Lunch Date, the worst possible obstacle for this wealthy, bigoted, hungry woman takes the shape of a homeless man eating her lunch. The more you intensify the pressure on your hero, the more fun it will be for the audience to watch your movie.

Structuring your story
A story, any story, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In a feature film, each part has a specific function: you have  about 30mns of Exposition (the beginning) to introduce the characters and their world. The middle, called Confrontation, is about 60mns long. The hero goes on his quest to get or achieve something, encounters a number of obstacles that become harder to surmount as the movie progresses. In the third act (also called Resolution) hero must come faceto-face with the antagonist for the final showdown (or Climax). Then the world returns to a new order, and we get a glimpse of the future for the hero in this new world (the resolution). This can  take 10-30 minutes. A short film follows the same basic structure in which to organize all the elements of your story, and each “act” must accomplish the same function as in a feature. Yet, you do not have only  minutes to do the same job.

The first and most important rule-of-thumb: KEEP IT SIMPLE!

Start your story as late as possible: Start your story at the moment something is about to happen to the hero. In other words, choose the last possible moment to enter the story and still have it make sense.

• Create your hero and another main character. Everybody else is an extra.

• Use polarities to create your protagonist (hero) and your antagonist: think of personalities that are polar opposites in terms of values, age, tastes, social position, sexual inclinations, abilities, behavior, etc. This is a simple way to create conflict as you pit one character against his opposite, and let the situation play out between them.

Use Characterization: This means that you externalize the temperament, profession, social status, attitudes, thoughts and feelings of your characters through character behavior. In other words, you make their Backstory and internal life visible –visual- on screen. In The Lunch Date, the lady wears a fur coat, brushes past begging homeless people, speaks imperiously to the short order cook, polishes her fork before using it. All these elements are telling clues to the lady’s personality. Note that characterization is not caricature: although certain attributes allow the audience to identify the lady’s “type”
immediately, the details of her behavior reveal her unique personality.

Give your hero one Goal: Keep the character’s goal clear and simple. What the hero wants (or needs) to accomplish must be conveyed quickly.

Throw one major obstacle in the hero’s way: The hero faces one major external obstacle, and/or one internal one. In The Lunch Date, the lady must confront the homeless man  (external obstacle), and conquer her own obsessive cleanliness (internal obstacle) to get what she wants (the salad). What makes the scene compelling and funny is the attention paid to the details of both characters’ behavior and on the development of an improbable relationship.

Surprise us: The resolution: there is often a twist at the end of a short film, something that adds interest, or humor to a conventional ending. Its purpose is to make the audience think, or to make them laugh (or both). In The Lunch Date, the woman realizes that her salad –the one she really bought- is left untouched in the next booth. This makes her –and us- think about prejudice: we never doubted that the homeless man had stolen the lady’s salad when, in fact, he was generously sharing his meal with her. Beware the twist that solves the hero’s problem! If the lady had noticed the other salad (her own) sooner, the conflict would have come to an end without her having any active role in it. The lady would not have struggled to overcome her social and personal aversions. The story would be flat and uninteresting. The Lunch Date could have turned into another boring morality tale instead of winning an Academy Award!

Choose a few locations and choose them well. Remember for MMM filmmakers will only have twelve hours to shoot, therefore, when you write your scenes, keep the following parameters in mind for your locations:

     o Think of access and control: remote locations requiring driving for miles, or busy locations with a lot of traffic and noise will create insurmountable challenges for the teams.
     o Choose locations that are interesting yet practical: Dorm rooms tend to all look the same, but sets requiring extensive design will use up a lot of precious time to dress. You know campus and the immediate environs. Use your imagination!

Follow is the best example of a film short that I can think of. It is a Japanese anime short called Kigeki Comedy OVA You are welcomed to watch it. 

 During Ireland's War of Independence, a five year old girl set out to save her village from the English army, by trying to find the rumored skilled swordsman living in a nearby castle, who only takes books of a certain genre as payment, only known as the Black Swordsman. Watch the video:

Comedy (OVA)

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Making A Compelling Main Conflict

Tell me a good story!

What's the main conflict of your story?  Is it a powerful force that engages the emotions of your reader or does it leave them feeling flat and let down?

THE MAIN CONFLICT is one of those areas where a minor improvement can often make a huge difference in the quality of the read.  So it is well worth reconsidering that conflict. Let's see if we can make this easy. First, a definition.

1.  Opposition between characters or forces in a work of drama or fiction, especially
opposition that motivates or shapes the action of the plot.

2.  A state of disharmony between incompatible or antithetical persons, ideas, or
interests; a clash.

Basically, whatever your main character wants or needs most is opposed by some "incompatible person or interest" and your main character is motivated to action to fight for their goal/need.

In JOHN Q, John's son needs a heart transplant, but their HMO won't pay for it.  John's need is to save his son's life.  The opposition is an insurance company with a loop hole. That is the main conflict.

BTW, I'm not interested in debating the legality or morality of the situation.  This is solely about focusing on the conflict of a screenplay.

First, notice how it is already a strong conflict.  It has "opposition that motivates or shapes the action of the plot" in that John must take action or watch his son die.  Second, notice the stakes -- not John's life, but his son's life.  Third, notice the injustice that sets up "disharmony between incompatible interests," an insurance company that John has been paying who refuses to cover this important operation.

Finally, I won't tell you how the movie ends, but in the 2nd Act, John takes a hospital hostage and demands that they do the transplant. They took this to an interesting extreme that was born in the original conflict, but took it to a new level.

Since your main conflict is so important, you may want to try a variety of different ways to elevate it.  Here are a few techniques you could use to turn an average conflict into an amazing one.

A.  Raise the stakes: Increase the value of the conflict.  What will be lost if the main character doesn't succeed?  For John, it was his son's life. Other stakes could include love, money, property, respect, a lifestyle, a person's honor, family, a dream, a set of beliefs, etc.

Whatever it is, simply brainstorm new levels.  A simple football game becomes the champion game.   Add some gambling and suddenly, the entire town is on the edge of losing their savings if the team doesn't win.  Want to take it farther?  The quarterback is threatened with death if he loses.  Etc.

B.  Make the opposition more incompatible: When the antagonist is a group of terrorist, it is usually because the writer is trying to take the opposition to a completely incompatible edge.   But you don't need a terrorist to do that.   In fact, someone really close might do a much better job.

From an emotional point of view, it may be that a twin brother who was considered "perfect" by everyone, but had constantly berated and physically abused his brother, might be the best opposition.

In HAPPY GILMORE, Happy was opposed by Shooter McGavin, the top golfer, who was everything that Happy wasn't.  As the media became more interested in Happy, Shooter got more hostile.  When Happy actually learned to golf, Shooter hired a crazy guy to harass Happy.  Shooters primary focus turned into getting Happy off of the golf tour, any way he could.

Remember, here you are just looking for incompatibility.  Who would be the most incompatible with your protagonist?  Find that person or group and you have added to your conflict.

 C.  Have us totally buy into the main character's goal or need: This is important.  You need to sell us on the value of that goal or need.  We need to see/hear/feel the goal/need.  In KARATE KID, the new kid in school doesn't just want to take karate.  If that was all it was, most likely, that movie would never have been made.

Instead, the writer has the bully's girlfriend become interested in Daniel.  Then, the bully beats Daniel up in front of the girlfriend.  If that isn't enough, the bully and four friends surround him in a field and begin beating him... until Mr. Miyagi steps in.

By then, we've bought into the need for Daniel to learn karate. Notice how we saw the need, heard the need, and felt the need.

D.  Try on different extremes: Even if you've done the first three, brainstorm this one, also. Why?  Because movies are about extreme situations.  But, they don't all have to be life or death extremes...

John Q took the hospital hostage.  Daniel agreed to fight the bully in a karate tournament in front of everyone.   Happy Gilmore bet everything on his ability to beat the top golf professional.

You are simply looking for the best extreme that fits your story. Any one of those four methods can elevate an average conflict to an engaging conflict.   But don't just take my word for it. Write down your main conflict and see if it is compelling. If it isn't compelling by itself, go to work using the four methods above to elevate it.  You, and your readers, will be glad you did.

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