9: Short films are cool

Shorts by Riot Studios

This episode is all about short films. We offer four reasons filmmakers should consider making one. Plus, we tell the story behind our latest short film, “The Get Together,” including how it almost became a total disaster.

4 Reasons to Make a Short Film

1. Proof a Concept (3:04)

Proof of concept films are like bite-sized samples of feature-film concepts. A few examples of well-known proof-of-concept shorts are:

  1. “Whiplash” which became the feature film, Whiplash
  2. “Peluca” which became Napolean Dynamite
  3. “Alive in Joburg” which became District 9
  4. “The Customer is Always Right” which became Sin City

For more examples of famous short films, check out Joel Deeter‘s article, “5 Bad Short Films From Great Directors.”

2. Career Stepping Stone (5:03)

Shorts are a great way to advance a film career by proving your voice and talent. Once a director is able to successfully deliver a polished short, financiers will trust that he or she has what it takes to manage a larger scale project. Shorts are also a great gateway to networking with others in the industry online or at film festivals.

SIDENOTE: Short shorts (5 minutes or less) are great for festival programmers because they’re much easier to plug into small schedule gaps.

3. Real Experience (7:03)

Shorts are a great, lower-stakes way to get a taste of the pressures involved with directing or producing a film. Will reads a quote from Michael Lukk Litwak referencing his short, “The Life and Death of Tommy Chaos and Stacy Danger.”

Shorts give you a lot of time to find your voice as a filmmaker. There’s a lot of pressure. If you make a ten million dollar film and you mess it up, no one’s ever going to give you ten million dollars ever again. Whereas if you make a short for a thousand dollars and it’s a bust then it’s the only thing you’ve lost is maybe five or ten days of time and $1,000.

Beyond the practical experience behind the camera, publishing shorts and getting feedback is also a great way to understand what people like most about your work.

4. Freedom to Take a Risk (9:13)

Shorts allow filmmakers to go out on a limb and experiment with their voice without the pressure of needing commercial or critical success. Will talks about how most filmmakers’ ideas for shorts sound terrible. But, with the right voice attached, a risky concept could pay off big.

The Making of Our Short Film, “The Get Together” (10:00)

Our new short film, “The Get Together” (available to watch FREE online here) was an attempt to master some technically challenging filmmaking methods. It’s a 9-minute unbroken tracking shot. Michael discusses how we conceived the idea for “The Get Together.”

Will talks about our initial mistake in writing the story of trying to over-complicate it for “cool factor” in hopes to live up to some of our favorite all-time oners like Touch of Evil and Children of Men. Eventually, we realized our error and scaled everything down to a simple story of an introvert who meets a fellow wallflower at an obnoxious party.

Once we’d locked down the location, we spent some time walking the house to find a route that worked for our story. It was a great exercise in always being intentional about what’s in the frame and why.

Casting “The Get Together” (16:30)

We ran all of our casting process online. We reached out through social media, backstage.com, and a couple of local casting agencies to request video auditions. In the video auditions, we asked each actor to improvise a monolog chosen from a selection of characters and conversation topics. We wound up with a talented cast of actors from all over the country. The talent we were able to find with a low budget is a testament that there are a lot of people out there that are motivated to make a movie, even for little or no pay.

NOTE: We only feel okay about not paying our cast on this project because we knew from the beginning our short had no chance of making money. We aren’t saying artists aren’t worth paying well, only that, even if you aren’t rolling in the dough, you can still probably find people who will collaborate with you.

Crew, Production Design, and Food

The first person on our crew mostly was our incredible cinematographer, John W. Rutland. Because we spent most our money on camera equipment, we only had enough to pay our Steadicam operator, gaffer, and 1st A.C (thank you to all our amazing volunteers). We also may or may not have taken advantage of several big corporate stores’ return policies to complete our production design under budget.

Since we weren’t paying most of our cast and crew, food was extra important. We emailed nearly 200 local businesses asking them to “sponsor” our film by providing free catering or snacks. In the end, we didn’t have to spend any money on food or drinks. Special thanks to our awesome Austin sponsors!!!

Production (22:44)

As we jump into the production phase of “The Get Together,” we recommend everyone download our super-helpful (and FREE) Ebook, “How to Shoot a Great Oner.”

Right before we jumped into production, we shot a test version of the short on our iPhones, which we called our “video storyboard.” This helped us easily communicate our vision to the cast and crew. We started by teaching our principal actors and camera crew the blocking. Then, the next night, we brought in our extras and began working on their choreography.

The biggest problem with our first night of production is that we realized our original plan of having the actors improvise the scene was not working. So, we immediately started writing a script. By the time we arrived at night two, the screenplay was ready to go.

How “The Get Together” Nearly “fell apart” (32:33)

Halfway through our camera rehearsals, rain started pouring down. It was one of the worst thunderstorms in Texas history! For a while, it seemed unlikely we’d make it through the shoot. But finally, around 4am, the rain let up, and we started hustling to put the set back together in order to capture a few takes.

We raced the sun to get some footage we might actually be able to use and were lucky enough to capture three complete and usable takes. The very last take of the shoot, just before the sun started to rise, ended up being “the one” which you can watch at riotstudios.com/thegettogether.

As a sign off, we challenge you to send us any short films you’ve made via riotstudios.com/contact. And as promised, here are a few of our favorite short films: