Monday, June 14, 2010

How Much Shorter Should a Short Film Be, if a Short Film Should be Shorter?

So we’re very slowly editing The Dungeon Master - meanwhile, we keep getting pulled away for other projects. And creating new ones for ourselves.

While I was working on something in New York last week, I visited a friend and he asked me for details about Dungeon Master. I told him he should check out this blog and he said, “No, I’ve read the blog, I mean the basic stuff - like...how long is it?”

Which made me realize that perhaps we have neglected some of the most fundamental questions about this project. Obviously, we don’t want to give the actual story away (we’re hoping some of you will come out to festivals and see it), but we also don’t want to be too tightlipped. We started this blog because we realized that we would love it if filmmakers whose work we admired talked more openly about the actual craft - sometimes it seems like Hollywood is so damn insecure that it doesn’t want people to know what goes into making movies.

Or maybe this stuff is just incredibly boring.

Whatever...we’ll keep writing about it anyway.

So how long should a short film be? There are all sorts of technical definitions of a short - Cannes only allows under 15 minutes - but usually a short film is anything under an hour. Our first one, Irish Twins, was 20 minutes long.

Which was kind of a mistake.

Once we started going to festivals, we came to a very basic, mathematical conclusion: because they tend to program short films in blocks of two hours, for every 20-minute short that gets accepted into a program, there are four 5-minute shorts accepted. Or two 10-minute shorts. Or ten 2-minute shorts. You get the idea.

On really basic level, you make it harder for more people to see your film the longer it gets.

Simple, I know. But it didn’t occur to us. Like a lot of first time filmmakers, we tried to make something that resembled a feature as much as possible, which meant it kept getting longer and longer.

There are all sorts of tastes out there: some festivals want mind-bending experimental films, others want sweet comedies, some want children’s films, or only documentaries...

But if you’re a long short, then you’re putting a given festival’s taste on the line: they have to love your long film more than they even kind of like a whole group of shorter ones. But if your film is only 2 minutes long, it’s no skin of their back to include it and see if people respond to it.

Which is why comedy shorts under 5 minutes play a gazillion festivals. If you want a lot of people to see your movie, make it 30 seconds long, and really, really funny.

On the flip side, a lot of 40 minute dramas get nominated for Academy Awards.

So it all depends on what you want. Shiloh and I want people to watch our movies as a cinematic experience - not something they could just see on TV. Which means more than a comedy skit, but less than an epic. Something that feels like you should see it in a theater. Preferably with us there. So we can have a drink with you afterwards.

Our goal is to keep Dungeon Master at - or hopefully under - 10 minutes.

How do we do that?

The rule of thumb is that a page of a screenplay is a minute of screen time. And it usually holds true. But you also learn exceptions to this rule.

Shiloh and I tend towards fast dialogue: with quick pacing, and characters cutting off each other’s lines. So Dungeon Master was a 13 page script, and we figured that should end up just around 10 minutes.

Then again, we told our actors to feel free to improvise. And when your cast includes someone like Chris Wylde, that means a lot of improvising. There was one scene - 2 pages long - that he, Adam Busch, and Alexandra Barreto kept riffing on. They didn’t do a single take the same. Which was awesome, but our first cut of the scene was 3 1/2 minutes long.

And then even more complicated is the process of visualization, an area where Shiloh and I work really well as a team to make everything way too long.

This is an oversimplification, but I tend to think in terms of dialogue and character beats while Shiloh tends to think in events and visual dramatizations.

Here’s a good example. A major turning point in Irish Twins is when the character I played, Michael, is getting confronted in a bar. He gets punched in the face - in the process accidentally breaking the urn filled with his dad’s ashes.

So in the script the exchange read like this:


You gonna call him?



SHMACK. Danny HITS him across the face. Michael stays on his feet, barely.


Ok, come on, get out of here!

Danny holds a finger up to him.


Not a word, Murphy. This is justice.

You gonna call him?

Michael holds up his phone. He DROPS it to the GROUND.


(almost smiling)

If that's how you really feel, how

about the other --

SHMACK, he's hit again. This time, the punch sends him into

the bar, knocking over the URN and SMASHING it. Ashes FLY

into the air and SPILL all over the bar.

That’s it. Following the rule of thumb, that’s not even half a page and should be no longer than half a minute in the movie.

I was primarily interested in the line that Michael says before he gets hit. It’s an important callback to an earlier line - he’s repeating something his father used to say. Which I thought was essential before he breaks his father’s urn. For me, the moment was all about that line, and so when we were doing the scene, I actually completed the whole phrase: “how about the other cheek?” before getting punched again.

Shiloh was more interested in the visual action of the urn breaking.

When we were story-boarding and creating our shot list Shiloh took one look at this moment and said, “Rider, this is the moment in our story. This is what turns it all around for Michael. The urn can't just break on the bar. We need ashes flying through the air like snow, we need him on the ground - literally hitting his lowest point.”

And I knew he was right. So we re-staged it, and we shot it that way. We used slow motion and even rented a special spinning-fan camera mount to be able to throw ashes directly onto the lens.

And then, after all was said and done, we showed our rough cut to some folks. They pointed to this moment and said, “Indulgent.”

Which meant, too long.

So we shortened it again in editing.

This whole tug and pull process resulted in something that we’re both happy with.

Which is about a minute long.

Here it is in the finished film.

Irish Twins Clip on Vimeo.

We’ve been going through a lot of the same back and forth with Dungeon Master. You may have noticed that a lot of our entries on this blog have been about our shoot up in Los Padres National Forest. That shoot involved a whole bunch of make-up effects, costumes, weapons, set construction, prosthetics, and steadi-cam work. It was one long day. It consumed most of our energy, was a full 2/3 of our budget, and took up all our pre-production time.

Guess how much of the script it is?

1 page.

Right now, that sequence is only a minute and a half in the edit.

We’ll keep editing. It will probably end up only being a minute of the film.

But hopefully...a really cool minute.


  1. Wow, I really like the finished product of that scene in Irish Twins. It's such a compelling moment; I can really sense the moment of surreality as he watches his father's ashes fall around him. I definitely need to find a way to see the full short. Can't wait to see The Dungeon Master!! By the way, your work is AWESOME.
    - Gianna

  2. Go back to your comedy roots. It's all about the timing. Those 40 minute Academy flicks are a rarity. Lighting in a bottle. It's a crap shoot. You gotta be reaalllly sure of your project to push it all the way like that.
    Yes, I too made the 20 minute, first short film mistake. 5 days shooting, celeb cameo, great equipment, rights to a Lita Ford track, T&A, $15k later (not counting submission fees, = twenty minutes of what I felt was great quality story-telling...not one festival bite. Ouch. And I'm convinced it was because of the length.

    Like you, I learned the hard way. Festivals needs 5 - 15 minutes flicks to create a decent program. And it usually is about the program. If yours is 20+, it better be damn good!

    I digress.

    How short should a short film be? In my opinion, if you're trying to reinvent the wheel? Then as long as your heart tells you it needs to be.

    If you're going for pure entertainment, to showcase your chops as a writer/director, or your particular short is a possible film pitch. Then short and sweet and tight.

  3. Do y'all have a po box or other "fanmail" type address?

  4. Hey Rider!...How are things?
    It may sound cheesy and preachy, but... I think the length really depends on the movie itself. I mean, let's face it, when you make a short, you don't expect to make money. Your only concern is serving your story in the best possible way, including length. You need to shoot your movie and cut it in a way that makes it, in your mind, the best viewing experience ever, regardless of festivals consideration for length. If it feels it needs to be shorter, make it shorter. If it feels it needs more time, make it longer. I really think it's as simple as that. And if it's a good movie, it will get shown.
    For example, another "freebie" I worked on in 2002, was a movie called "Last Stand", about a native American boy who helps an enemy soldier after the battle of the little big horn. It was a labor of love for all of us because we loved the script and the director involved. The movie was 22 minutes, which, according to the theory, is poison in the festival circuit. Still, the movie was accepted and screened in a bunch of festivals and won a ton of awards. Now if the movie was cut down to accomodate the festival's "sweet spot" for length, it might have not been as effective.
    So, just do what you feel right!

  5. Hi Rider and Shiloh Glad to hear your making another short my daughter Jamie and I went out to see you guys when you were in New York we loved Irish Twins keep us posted and let us know when your new short is finished and where it might be showing take care you guys are the best Joanne Massachusetts

  6. i know nothing about making movies but i have a feeling that to make a really short movie but with great content is hard. but it's challenging and i like it. and the irish twins looks great!