At one of the Science Fiction + Fantasy Short Film Festivals, I overheard somebody say that the best shorts for film festivals are the ones that are either high concept or humor based. His justification was that film festivals are a special situation where most people will only have the chance to watch the short once before the next short or feature film is immediately placed in front of their face. Unless the short ends up online somewhere, most audience members won’t ever get a chance to see the short a second time. Ultimately, the short has to be distinctive enough to separate itself from the pack, or have such an impact that it becomes memorable. In that fashion, humor is the easiest way to be distinctive.
He has a point, especially in the context of a program of shorts dictated by genre. To make your mark on an audience in the midst of 4 hours of science fiction shorts, your short has to have that something special that isn’t necessarily a high budget. To wit, the short movie that most stood out in 2016 was Gary H Lee’s Aden, a high concept (and high budget) film about a child whose imagination creates city destroying robots out of toys. It didn’t have a beginning, middle, or end…it was a snippet of an action movie that hinted at something larger than itself. It helped that it seemed to have a large budget, but that’s not always what makes something stand out. 2015’s animated short We Can’t Live Without Cosmos was one of those little shorts that nail every emotion right on the money and I still can’t see the little guy jumping on the bed without tearing up a little.
Watching a short in a film festival is a completely different experience than watching a film at home. At home, there’s always the risk of distractions – you can look at your phone, check your e-mail, play Solitaire or some other game, read an article, surf the web, etc – and the short really has to grab you. In a film festival, you’re focused on the short itself…period. At a film festival, there are few distractions (there might be a bad audience member), but there are no taco breaks in the middle of a short. At home, the short has to work to grab YOU, personally. At a festival, laughter can be very infectious (though, I’ve seethed at a comedy while everybody else thought it was funny). But, most importantly, at home, a short can be watched multiple times. But, at a film festival, it only has one chance to hit home.
Last year, we featured Brian and Karl‘s Putting On The Dish, a short film about gay men speaking in Polari, an old dialect that was prominent in old British gay society. I’ll admit, I had to rewatch that a few times before I got what was going on. At a film festival, I might have been lost. This year, Brian and Karl released a short, very NSFW (like, really…18+), music video for Brendan MacLean’s House of Air, also about gay coding and signals in the context of cruising. It’s short, smart, dense, and witty…all hallmarks of what I’d consider a great short film. Better yet, it plays so well the first time, that you still want to go back and pause just to read all the different codes…making a great short film for home as well as for festivals.
After having watched HOURS of short films over the past couple of months…I still can’t tell you what makes a good short film. Anytime I start getting fixated on looking for connecting tissue to what resonates, it always gets thrown out the window in a few shorts. High quality cinematography, editing, and production values will always help your short; but there are punk as fuck shorts that do a lot without any of those. Irony is alive; honesty is alive; romanticism is alive. Originality is always refreshing, but sometimes a well done take on a familiar formula can be good too. I have no helpful comments other than…you know something is good when you see it. And, what works for you may not work for somebody else.
What makes a good short for you? Is it the story? The cinematography? The formula? Does it have a specific genre? Or, is it just a “I know it when I see it” situation?