What We Can Learn About Making Short Films by Studying Neil Blomkamp

In a time where it so easy for anyone to get ahold of a camera, where short films are literally being shot on cell phones, it can be tricky to figure out where to start when you want to create your own short film. Short films can be a great way to get noticed, they can be the perfect way to get your foot in the door at film festivals, and they can be a whole lot of fun to put together! However, since there are thousands of people out there wanting the same attention for their film that you want for yours, it's important to think about what will really make your short stand out against all the others.

The other day, I stumbled across a newly released short film by Oats Studios, and I think that there is a lot that can be learned from taking a closer look at the short. You may not recognize the studio by name, but Oats Studios is the brainchild of the incredibly creative Neil Blomkamp. You've probably seen one of Blomkamp's movies on the big screen, he is the director of District 9, Elysium, Chappie, as well as a slew of incredibly well put together short films.

His short film, God: Serengeti, is an incredibly well put together little film. Though his main subject is definitely a figurehead in many religions, the film is anything but a commentary on religion. It's more a satirical way of telling the story of how God might spend his time. Well, how he might spend his time if he were to be featured in a Neil Blomkamp film. The following is a list of things that really stood out to me, about this particular short film and why it works so well.

  • The actual storyline is relatively simple. There aren't any complex twists, they don't introduce lots of characters, and the timeline of the story doesn't cover any more distance than the film itself. I think that's something worth noting. Short films that try to cover too much end up running the risk of rushing their story and losing the audience. Trying to pack too much into a short film also tends to feel like the filmmakers wanted to make a feature length film but just cut it down to make it a short. God: Serengeti was clearly written to be exactly what it was.
  • The two characters in this film are developed really well in a very short period of time. The wardrobe, the standing vs. sitting position choices, and the set of small mannerisms that each actor gives to the characters really clue us into what they are like as individuals. That is important because it helps us understand the motives, plot movement, and even the humor as the film progresses.
  • The cinematography isn't anything crazy, but it is clean, and it is clearly shot with skill. Poor cinematography is one of the first things that tends to turn me off from any short film. It's definitely worth taking the time and effort to shoot with skill instead of simply trying to fake it. In fact, pay attention to the first two shots in this film, those two shots clue us into the characters perfectly. By the time we have our second cut, taking us to the 3rd shot, we already have a pretty good idea what each character is like.
  • This really goes with the cinematography point, but it is used enough in this film that I thought it warranted it's own point. Racking focus shots are used multiple times in this short to great effect. It helps balance out short cuts from longer takes, by allowing more long takes that are broken up by a focus change. It plays a part in the edit, where they don't have to cut to new shots so often, it allows them to keep a slower paced edit that coincides better with the mood they're portraying. Basically, that means to me, edit to match your mood because that makes a huge difference.
  • This may seem like a no-brainer, but the use of music and sound effects in this short is an important part of how if works together. They use several different pieces of music that are subtle enough, but still help set the correct mood. I have seen too many short films that have action music that doesn't really fit with the action they're actually showing, or they use dramatic music that is simply too dramatic for the scene they're portraying.
  • Finally, what really impressed me was how much they managed to accomplish in a film that totals less than four minutes in duration. There's plenty of humor, there is solid character definition, the story is told from start to finish, and that is where it ends. It doesn't go any longer, or shorter, for any reason. There isn't a single shot, or line of dialog, in this that feels pointless.

In summation, what makes this short film stand out so well was it was kept clean and concise. Nothing felt wasted and, in filmmaking, that's not exactly an easy feat. Every line, character movement, prop, sound effect, shot, and every edit had its place. So when you start planning your next short film, consider using that paradigm as your rule of thumb, double check to make sure that everything in your film truly has a deserved place.

[via Oats Studios]

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