There are three things in film industry that are different than they were when I started Raindance in 1992:
– In the early ’90s, every film was shot on expensive celluloid. Now it’s all shot on digital.
– Back then, films were distributed in cinemas and broadcast television. Now internet distribution rules supreme.
– When I started Raindance, I bought expensive newspaper and magazine ads. Now it’s all web ads.
Everyone is screaming for content today: Visual content. The other fact is that people’s attention spans are dropping, meaning that short films get the kinds of eyeballs that feature filmmakers dream about.
An understanding of short film idea generation is almost a carte blanche to becoming known as a filmmaker of short films with the kind of pedigree associated with Oscar-nominated feature filmmakers. What is more, your short films can be seen by a huge number of people.
Here are the tips I have collected while working with filmmakers I met at Raindance:
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1. Seat of the pants to seat of the chair.
I learned this one from Michael Hague. His Writing Screenplays That Sell was the book that got me interested in writing. A little bit every day is better than a bank holiday weekend blowout. A bit every day becomes a habit. I’ve found that a few minutes every day on my current creative project reaps more rewards then when I have to go like smoke towards a deadline.
2. Write it down.
Do you remember the last time a great idea for something popped into your head? Was it when you were walking to the subway or bus stop? Or hoovering up dust bunnies? If so, it’s because you were most likely in Alpha State — those sweet daydream moments you slip into while you are doing something mechanical or familiar.
Do you remember what happens if you don’t immediately write those great thoughts down? Don’t they vanish into thin air? Make a habit of shoving a notebook in your pocket so the next time you have a great idea, you can simply write it down.
3. Write about yourself.
Have you ever been in a situation where you sit and remark to yourself that “this could’ve been a movie’? Sometimes our own lives are as interesting and entertaining as the movies. Make sure you write them down.
4. Bad granddad jokes.
I was once in Sweden when a Norwegian filmmaker asked me to watch his short — in Norwegian. Of course, when it was over, he asked me how it was. I told him it was beautifully shot but I had no idea what it was about because I don’t speak Norwegian. He then translated the movie and it was sweet, tender and very funny. It was, he explained, based on a joke his granddad had told him.
Maybe those bad granddad jokes will inspire you, too. The beauty of these jokes is they have a setup i.e., “Have you ever had a…” Then a story arc: “Let me tell you about a friend of mine…” And a punchline at the end. These can make great storytelling hooks.
5. Opposites attract.
Why not take an iconic story and flip the characters around? Instead of the beautiful princess kissing the frog, why not make it the handsome prince? Another flip on this would be to take a well-known movie and reverse the characters. In “Witness,” for example, rather than having Harrison Ford going to the Amish community as he is pursued by the Mafia, why not make it the story of the 12-year old boy who travels to Philadelphia and is corrupted by the Mafia?
6. Reverse budgeting.
Robert Rodriguez did this with great style when he made “El Mariachi,” his famous first film. He made a list of all the stuff he could get cheap, the actors he knew and the locations he could get for free and then he cooked up the story based on the fact that his actor had a dog and could play the guitar.
7. Confinement stories.
Create two characters, put them in a location they can’t leave and see what happens.
8. Look it up, then make it up.
Research is a great way to find ideas. Make a list af your favourite theories or ideas and research them. Here’s a great research tool our MA/MSc partner Staffordshire University has compiled.
9. The “what if…?”
I use this tool a lot. I take a simple everyday thing, like the keyboard I write this on, and add the “what if?” and see what happens. So I could say something about my keyboard like this: “What if the newest and deadliest virus is transported on the internet and what if you can get it by connecting to the intent with your keyboard?”
10. Watch movies.
Watching other people’s shorts is a surefire way to get inspired. Watch great short films and then see if you can use their ideas and approaches to come up with your own ideas.
Here’s ten 15-second shorts our community made for Nokia to demonstrate the fact that their phones could take video. Here’s 28 brilliant shorts you can watch in the time it takes to eat lunch.