Why Are Many Short Films Bad?

Why Are Many Short Films Bad?

There's yet another short film in your feed. You play it, and a few minutes later, you wonder why it ended in such a meaningless and abrupt way. Sound familiar?

This is what many short films look like to me. When I find one that's really well made and moving, I share it wholeheartedly. The truth is that there are so many shorts and there's no IMDB rating to judge if it's worth losing a few minutes of your fast-paced daily life. Here are the reasons I think many videos fail to be likable.

Young Guns

There are many inspiring filmmakers that show an example that many inexperienced video producers try to follow, but using a shortcut, not walking along the long-winding road. Video-recording devices and editing software are such a low-hanging fruit that anyone today can call themselves "a filmmaker." This results in a lot of mediocre video content, which is usually easily spotted from the first seconds. The other beginners are those who work the right way, and many times, their early attempts are all overwhelmed by the technical difficulties that frequently void their good intentions to tell an intriguing story. The proper way is to keep working on the craft, keeping your audience fairly limited.

Technically Savvy, but Nothing More

Those are the filmmakers who know how to make a short film look and sound good. They may produce films will great lighting, great VFX, great stunts, great audio, but still the film is not satisfactory to the viewer. Lots of those films are starting with an idea similar to "I like robots and explosions, and I'll make a film about that." And indeed, we watch a piece that's full of robots and explosions, but the more proper title would be "Robots and Explosions Demo Reel" instead of "Last Robot Standing" (sorry if I nailed a real film title; it's not intentional).

Most people watch films only to be told a story. We like stories. We are used to being read stories when we were children. We are used to listening to stories when we talk with friends. This is why just a raw technical brag won't fit the majority of viewers' expectations.

Maybe the Film Is Not for Me

Sometimes, you just don't get it. You might have a different cultural or social background than the expected movie audience, though most stories are universal in any language and culture.

Conclusion

Hollywood also makes bad movies: badly lit, badly shot, with bad stories. That doesn't mean you have an excuse to make a bad film though. If you want to entertain your viewers, tell them a nice story. There's nothing wrong with bragging about your technical skills or making a film with just a smartphone, but don't send those naked into the open. The story has to cover them just like a good lawyer covers your rear.

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33 Comments

There's yet another short article in your feed. You read it, and you wonder why it ended with such a meaningless conclusion. Sound familiar?

Marcus Joyce's picture

∆∆∆∆∆ this ∆∆∆∆∆

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

So, the conclusion that the story has to be first is meaningless. I see.

Do you really see?
People making videos are not thinking, let’s tell a crappy story just like people writing articles don’t have the intention to be meaningless.

You say:
«Lots of those films are starting with an idea similar to "I like robots and explosions, and I'll make a film about that."»

How do you know? Did you talk to those people? Did you do any research? Did you give us any examples? Do you have any data to support your conclusions?
I can say something similar about writing articles on the subject and that will be meaningless too without research and some proper analyses to base my conclusions on.

Professional journalists write bad articles. That doesn’t mean you have an excuse to write a bad article.
These are your own words, just like my first comment was your opening statement rephrased to fit “writing articles” instead of “making short films”.
You can say something similar about any profession. It’s stating the obvious, just occupying white space, therefore pointless.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I watch short films on a regular basis. When I find a filmmaker I start to examine their interests and what they like or don't like. There's nothing wrong with that. What I like is visible in my work too. I go and watch all of their short films to make a conslusion on the fact if they are good storytellers or they are just technically good. I prefer technically good filmmakers but I watch the films as a child who listens to a story.

Every child can tell you if they liked a story or not. There are good stories, there are bad stories. You don't need to ask someone to tell you if the story was good. You just listen to it.

Many times I watch a film and make a conclusion to myself and I want to see what others say about the film to see if I am wrong. I could be wrong. As I said in the article, sometimes it's not a bad story, but it's not matching my social and cultural background. In almost all cases my conclusions are the same as the feedback from the viewers who commented under the film.

The whole process takes me a lot of time. I have probably about 100+ tabs with films and filmmakers to watch that sometimes stay for months until I have time to watch some of them, but I do and I pay attention to how they do it and what emotions this film triggers and how well a story is told. If I like the story, I pay attention to the technical part too. Otherwise I don't even care about the technical execution.

Judging a story does not require scientific measurements or specific "story judgement education." It requires common sense which is present in every one of us.

This is how I know that many well-looking short films (i've watched thousands probably) are only based on the technical execution, whether it's robots, relationships, light sabers, car chases, guns, explosions, horror story, or whatever else. Most of them don't tell nice stories. They are just demonstrating a technical execution.

It's the same as books. There are thin books, there are thick books. There are good and bad thin books. There are good and bad thick books. Not every literate pencil owner is a good writer although they can write an essay on "what I did last winter." The same for journalists. The same for photographers. The majority of photographs are also boring and mediocre just as the majority of short films. The percentage of feature films that is bad films is smaller, because there are lots of people involved and the decisions are based on buget and return on investment not just showing off. In such a case story comes into a greater consideration than in short films where the film doesn't cost that much.

There was a commentary I saw recently that I agree with and it was about the action scenes in feature films where it is like a pause of the narrative. During that pause time passes by and we are just looking at some action scene. When the action scenes are too many, there's almost no narrative, just a series of pauses, and I agree with that conclusion. It's not just the action scenes. It's about everything that can be described with 1 sentence like "the guys are fighting and one of them wins."

Put all that experience in the article. Show some bad examples and explain why you think they are bad, show some good examples and explain why you think they are good.

«You don't need to ask someone to tell you if the story was good. You just listen to it.»

What’s the point of writing an article if we all instinctively know if a film or a story is good or bad?
I don’t think we do. Sure, we all have opinions based on gut feelings but in an article the author should dig a bit deeper than that. Let’s say the target audience for a story are 4-year-old girls. Do you think a 16-year-old boy will think you told a good story? Probably not, but if the 4-year-old girls like it, it must be a good story. You need to know the target audience of the filmmaker before judging if it’s good or bad. If the creator underestimates his audience they will be bored, if the creator overestimates his audience they won’t be able to follow the story. This is just one consideration you need to take into account before judging, there are many more.

«It's about everything that can be described with 1 sentence like "the guys are fighting and one of them wins." »

Boy meets girl, they fall in love despite a family feud, they get married, they get separated and they end up killing themselves because they both think the other has died.
That’s Romeo and Juliet in one sentence. The fact that you can compress something into one sentence says nothing about the story itself or some part of it. Even action scenes can be layered and contribute to the narrative. I’m not saying they all do, just that you have to look at individual cases and explain the difference between them.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

There's a whole paragraph entitled "Maybe the Film Is Not for Me" where I talk about the different target audiences. I am talking about why a film intended for the target audience where I belong won't be likeable.

The article doesn't aim to defame or glorify short films against each other. The whole point of the article is that not everyone is a good storyteller. Sometimes it's better to let someone else write the story and you to make a film based on it.

The debate about good and bad (short) films is a debate about people who can and cannot tell stories in a good way. I'm specifically discussing short films here, because it's where most of us are budget-wise, but the topic can be apt for feature films too. The story of Romeo and Juliet can be told well and not so well. This is where the difference is.

There's also an importance how a story is told using the moviemaking tools we have. It may be a good story but told in a very bad way. But for most short films I've seen it's just a rushed story without much depth in the narrative (a story for robots can be nice too, don't get me wrong).

«The article doesn't aim to defame or glorify short films against each other.»

If you think that’s what I wanted, then you don’t get what I’m saying.
Filmmakers only learn from their mistakes if someone tell them what those mistakes are and how they could be avoided, or how things could be done better. Objective criticism will help, and that means you have to explain what works, what doesn’t work, and why that is in specific cases. Examples will help people gain more insight in what you mean and how certain techniques can help them to grow as a filmmaker.

«But for most short films I've seen it's just a rushed story without much depth in the narrative»

You can say something similar about you article because you can’t (or don’t want) to go beyond platitudes about stories en storytelling.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Keep in mind the article is not about "All mistakes that can ruin a short film," but emphasizes on the most common one which is often ignored, because of the enchantment of the abundant technology: nice cameras, cheap lights, cheap editing software.

Films are stories. Bad stories mean bad films. Nice stories can be made as bad films too, no doubt about that, but I don't want to go beyond that in this article. This is why it's not 10 pages long, but just a few paragraphs.

I don't think there are many things to argue about here. We all know that bad story affects a film. Your complaints are mostly that I don't go beyond that and it's true. Another complaint is that judging a story is a subjective thing which I agreed partly with (in the article) and didn't agree, because there are universal truths. "How to make good films" is a library of books, not an article. What we write here are small crumbs.

I can give examples, indeed, but I'd rather do that in a personal blog. Here I try to keep it relatively "balanced" and "neutral," because this is not my personal blog where I can give personal opinions on films I don't like and why I don't like them. In the current article I just give guidelines which most people can use and make a judgement about films they watch.

It's not about being the first story to say this but about throwing a stone while standing in the middle of a glass house. Yes, a film - in general - needs a story. But also an article needs to do something other than repeat what everyone bloody assumes any way...

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I find it normal for someone on the internet to say it. If it's not true, arguments have to be accompanied with that statement. If it's true, why arguing it? There are lots of other articles (by me and by other writers at Fstoppers) that talk about the right things for making a good film. We both point at the problem and give advices to make things better.

>> If it's true, why arguing it?

Because you're complaining about other people being trite while being trite yourself. Double standard. At least people who have made a boring film have made an effort.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Next time I'll ask a caprenter to write an article about filmmaking :) An anonymous one.

If he has something to say, that would be a great idea. Why shouldn't he or she? A carpenter is no less qualified than you to make a generic "Other people's short films lack story" comment.

The point is that you while complaining about other people had nothing to say, YOU had nothing to say.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

"The point is that you while complaining about other people had nothing to say, YOU had nothing to say."

Obviously what I said was clear and the very truth. If I said nothing, there wouldn't be an article neither comments. Your last sentence says it all which I'm thankful for.

>> Obviously what I said was clear and the very truth

I think you need to look up the word "trite" in a dictionary.

michael buehrle's picture

at least it was not an article about shooting bad videos on your iPhone.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Honestly, the article is the same as a few others back in history that emphasizes on the same thing over and over again: tell me a story please, don't show me you can record a footage and edit it.

I think that's more of a whinge than an article but I would agree generally that short films are, by and large, pretty terrible. When I started making films I skipped shorts altogether and skipped straight to features. My thinking was, shorts are harder. It's an almost impossible art form. You say you need a good story to cover your arse. How do you tell a good story in ten minutes? It's basically impossible to get a staisfying beginning, middle and end in that period of time. So you see filmmakers reusing the same tricks over and over again, like ending their films with a mobius loop device, to somehow hit on an ending that is satisfying. Or worse just ending like a comedy skit.

I think it's a form in which you can't really think in terms of story. There's just no room. You have to go abstract. It has to instead be about an idea. You have to be communicating something sepcific while still being entertaining. Damn it's difficult. I'd say it's the single most difficult form going if you want to be good at it.

Here's what I'd say is a great example of someone getting it right: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SC7YsHWoX5A

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

It all depends on the story. There are stories that can be told in 5 sentences, just like a good joke. There are dramatic stories that can't be told for less than 1 hour, because there are so many important details that in order to make the right conclusions you may have to know several points of views and see the situation from different sides.

Big budget films have a big budget and this makes the people involved in the movie to take the matter more seriously. The reason is that this film has to have a return on investment. This will happen only if people pay for the movie and if they tell others the movie was good. The movie has to be likeable by as many people as possible. This is why they tend to think more about stories that are universal in every language and culture, because this will give them more profit if a broader audience likes the film.

Short films, on the other hand, are made with less money and without thinking much of returning your investment. Professionals make them for a portfolio, but the investment is not always big and they don't risk much if people don't like it. They will make another 5 films as personal projects anyway.

It's all about the pencil and paper work.

Look at the commercials. Sometimes you have the feeling that a 15-second commercial is way too long while a 2 hour film goes by in a blink of an eye.

Not all stories fit a short film duration. Not all stories fit a feature film duration. This is the good thing about filmmaking, that it requires way more skills than just lighitng, recording a scene, and editing it. A good filmmaker can easily outrun the competition if they know what more skills they need to have.

Or how about the "we won a competition and made a short film!" but it's really just ad add for coke and popcorn in the movie theater..i hate those

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Most of these indeed look like a cheesy in-your-face ad, but there are film commercials that are great. One of my favorites is an ad for Lincoln wrapped in a short film called "Bloom". If you search for BMW films you will find several action short films that are quite well made.

Here's Bloom:
https://vimeo.com/128259653

Jeff Bellantine's picture

Having made a few, I can tell you that it's very difficult to make something in that short a period of time to capture the audience and wrap a story. It's a very slippery slope. With leaving an open ended short film, I've been asked numerous times if this was a teaser to pitch a feature in Hollywood. That's always been my thought, as a short is the perfect medium (if done properly) to pitch a feature idea to "studios" ... if it doesn't suck. Just my 2 cents. In general, yes I agree most shorts are trash, and for the reasons listed in the article and more.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I agree. Making short films is hard, because not all stories are apt for a short film, because not everything can be well-told in a short period. You can tell a joke that lasts 5 seconds and have a good laugh with friends. This can be a short film of 5 minutes. You can try to tell a dramatic real-life story which could take you 20-30 minutes and then discuss it with friends for 2 more hours. This is probably not for a short film. Of course you can make a feature film for the five-second joke, but you have to think of many more accompanying stories.

Short films are like short books. It needs a good author to write a good short story. It also takes a good author to tell a nice and interesting long story.

The secret for success is always back in the good ol' pencil and paper.

Short thinking about short films is even worse ...

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Can you explain yourself?

Short films are not good or bad per se. The intrinsic quality of a film is NOT linked to its length. Short films are a genre that cannot be placed in the same basket as long form films. It’s like saying apples are better than oranges. And you are trying to put an objective spin to a totally subjective realm. I do hate Hollywood films, but that does not mean they are objectively bad, It means I dislike everything about (most of) them. I’m a huge fan of experimental short films, some people despise them.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

The reason short films are bad in the majority is that usually they don't require a big budget to be produced and people make them without polishing all the needed details. It is like working as a photographer at a ridiculously low rate, because you have a day job. Feature films usually cost a lot and they are made with the return on investment in mind. In order to have more profit from those films they have to suit a broader audience and that audience has to tell their friends and families how good the film was so more and more viewers would pay to watch it.

You are right that short or feature films are just different genres. My point of view is based on the facts in the previous paragraph: neglecting the details, because you can always shoot 5 more short films the next month, throw them against the wall and see what sticks.

Of course, there are short films made with diligence and I admire that. I'm speaking in general. It's the same with photography and photographers.

“The reason short films are bad in the majority is that usually they don't require a big budget” Well, after that ‘conclusion’ there is nothing to be debated .... sorry

The problem with many short films is that they are too long. Well, too long for the story that the filmmaker is trying to tell. Many have long intros that have lost me before the first word is spoken.

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