Short Formats: Narrative Film

Hey, sorry for taking so long to come back and write down the last part of the Short Formats series. I await for this article to be a really special one, hopefully it won’t burst your expectations, nor confirm your disappointments. This is the moment of truth: does your idea fit into a narrative short film? If you have simply ignored that your concept might be a better music video or interactive film than a classical short story until now, you must remember that the story gonna pick its format. Ignoring the evidence right in front of you would be your first mistake, even before developing your idea. Open your eyes and don’t insist into making your idea a different film than it applies.

In my article, Allowing the idea to talk, i’ve said that a story needs a LIFE CHANGING EVENT, a OBSTACLE and a GOAL, yet you obviously will also need a CHARACTER and a LOCATION.

LIFE CHANGING EVENT doesn’t mean you should bring all the catastrophic hollywoodian crap to your story. People can change on simple things. This is more of a STARTING POINT. Why your story begins now? Something must have changed and from that point your story cracks open. A good short will often open in a break of routine.

This leads us to CHARACTER, the target for the LIFE CHANGING EVENT, and two sub-divisions of short film scripts: SITUATION-DRIVEN and CHARACTER-DRIVEN. I shall repeat myself, but it is really hard to make a character-driven short film due to the insufficient time to develop the inner-changes in our characters, still, some people try. For a character-driven story to work out, you must introduce a character and he is required to come along a adjective attached, since the most important is that you develop your character enough under the life changing incident that they’ll present a VALUE CHANGE. In the length of your story, the LIFE CHANGING EVENT will force your CHARACTER to change in order to bypass the OBSTACLEs hindering him to reach his GOALs.

APRICOT, by Ben Briand, is the closest i can remember on a purely character-driven short film. Besides being wonderfully well shot, it is confusing. Is it Marcel her first love trying to connect the memories he has left in order to find out if she was the one? That’s never clear. Even if he convinces her that he’s the boy she gave her first kiss, why should she kiss he in return? It’s poetic and cute, yet Marcel could be only a psycho driving her into his seduction game. What lacks in this film is the confirmation that Marcel IS the one. Possibly if we started in the same place, however with the man telling her his torn pieces of memory after her reluctance to answer to his questions, she would low her guard and fill his incomplete puzzle. Still not convinced, she would refuse to stick in the game, then Marcel would show her one of the SEVERAL elements for a possible ellipsis the film introduces, like an apricot or even one of the pictures he’d have taken of her. Then she would kiss him. This character change from negation to affirmation is the core of a character. Negative to positive, this is a common sort of VALUE CHANGE. The character whom must overcome their fears to attain the award.

Even with the changes i suggested, the film would possibly be still too hasty and the third act, the twist, could feel precipitous. Here lies the huge red river between short films and feature films, the latter are always character driven, even a movie like TRANSFORMERS has a main character whom must overcome his cowardice to save the world and get the girl. Meanwhile, situation-driven stories seem to have a cozy spot at short films.

SITUATION-DRIVEN short films explore an event and the finests will squeeze the situation until the story gets the last drop. One of the first shorts i shared in this blog is a great example for a 100% situation-driven short film:

LUCKY, by Nash Edgerton, has a tool-character, which is the typical main character through which the story simply pass by without any inner change, since he has no interior value or depth. The tool character is just an action figure. In LUCKY you get the full package. A guy frees himself from a trunk only to find out that he’s in a high speed car, with a rock in the accelerator pedal, rushing in the desert with an uncertain destiny (LIFE CHANGING EVENT). Now the guy must fight his way into the pilot seat (OBSTACLE) in order to stop the car (GOAL) before it hits something and kills him (URGENCY and STAKES, two things we’re going to check more carefully in another article). Actually, the narrative cinema began in full-situation-driven films in the silent era. Life of an American Fireman, by Edwin S. Porter, is an example from 1903 of how a short film can be well done. You’ll sooner or later find out that most of our tool-characters are still mute :)

Still, not all situation-driven short films are so explicit into their natures and with that i mean that you don’t actually need a tool-character to develop this kind of narrative. Sometimes characters have some sort of interior value, but its change is irrelevant in comparison to the possibilities of the situation. These characters are not complex, they just follow up a very straightforward characterization, like the goofy boyfriend and the pissed off girlfriend from our next example, another one by Nash Edgerton: Spider.

We begin the film with that quite ordinary situation of the girlfriend angry with the boyfriend, it’s easily identifiable. Yet this is good, we start the film with a conflict and if you need to show your cards only later in the film, you should always put some conflict in the beginning to keep us tied to the story. They stop by a gas station and the guy seeks for reconciliation. We see the spider for the first time around the 3-minute mark. She disdains, but gaves in at the chocolate. Even though there’s a change in the conflict here, it is as shallow as plate, we know that he placed the spider in the car and that she’ll find it and that’s what keep us waiting by this point. She finds it right before the 6-minute mark. They desperatelly stop the car. She leaves, scared as fuck. The guy explains and throws the spider at her, she instinctively jumps back and is hit by a car. The movie could have ended here. But the paramedics arrive and while preparing an injection one of them finds the spider and in the fright stick the syringe into the goofy boyfriend’s eye. That’s squeezing a situation into all prospects. It doesn’t have a clear GOAL, neither the other elements a story often requires, its just the LIFE CHANGING EVENT and its consequences explored.

This means that if you only have a strong event you may still create a good short film and that’s the reason why everyone should initiate in the short film world with a movie of this kind. Spider is not the story about a couple trying to reconcile, however of a toy-spider and its repercussion into the couple’s quotidian. OBJECTS are the best friends of a short film screenwriter and i’ll soon dedicate an entire article for them.

To close this article, is worth noticing that sometimes the LOCATION is the elements that domains the idea and whenever your WORLD is too complex to fit only as background from a plot, you have the alternative to create a WORLD-DRIVEN short film. Or a WHAT IF? film, as i illustrated before using Neill Blomkamp’s Alive in Joburg. This kind of film is going to show an excerpt of a fictional world and it doesn’t necessarily requires a LIFE CHANGING EVENT because it is normally already included into the LOCATION. There you have a less serious approach in PIXELS, by Patrick Jean.

Now that we have the formats cleared from our driveway, we may proceed exclusively in the narrative short film and all its possibilities.

This is the sixth and last article of the Short Formats series. You may check the others by clicking here.

Hope to see you next time (not taking that long to write my next post, by the way).

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