If you’re an aspiring filmmaker looking to make your mark, or just a movie buff curious to learn more about the industry, chances are you’ve heard the phrase “short film” thrown around before. But what exactly is a short film and why would anyone want or need to make one?
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the professional organization responsible for protecting and perpetuating the art of motion pictures, defines any film as “short” if its runtime is less than 40 minutes, including credits. In every other way creatively and professionally, a short film is indistinguishable from its longer-running “feature film” counterpart.
Aesthetically there are no technical differences between a short film and a feature film, meaning they’ll use the exact same processes for casting, production design, lighting, photography, and so forth. The run time is simply shorter!
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There’s a variety of reasons filmmakers opt to make short films rather than feature films, but it nearly always boils down to budgetary constraints. The old adage “time is money” is more relevant in filmmaking than just about anywhere; after all, each page of your script constitutes roughly one minute of screen time, and each minute of screen time necessitates longer casting contracts, longer crew hires, longer equipment rentals, and so forth.
Short films, however, play an incredibly vital role in Hollywood beyond simply cost-savings — they also help identify rising or undiscovered filmmaking talents. That’s why you’ll often see film festivals dedicated to short films, or dedicated short film competitions within larger festivals: for up-and-comers on a budget, it’s the best way to increase your visibility and provide Hollywood suits with a sample of your filmmaking prowess.
What is the Purpose of a Short Film?
Whether a short film is funded by a government grant, out-of-pocket by an aspiring filmmaker, or by a network or studio themselves, the overarching goal is the same — to create a concentrated piece of storytelling at a significantly lower cost than a full-length feature film.
Another term regularly tossed around in the moviemaking world is “proof of concept” or a “proof of concept short film,” which is largely synonymous with a short film but has a specific intention or use-case. A “proof of concept” short film is often used by executives or established filmmakers as a way of testing various technologies or styles.
They can also be used, however, as “samples” for what a filmmaker’s vision of a feature film may be. Think of them as extended trailers or prologues, or very high-quality teasers. Amateur or yet-to-be-discovered filmmakers use them in the same way to showcase their talent, eye, and interpretation of a concept or story.
For up-and-comers, short films are also an efficient way to build a bigger portfolio of past works much faster. At the end of the day, the purpose of any short film is simple: to showcase your talent and make the case that you should be entrusted with a larger production that carries a larger budget.
3 Types of Short Films
Like its feature-length motion picture counterpart, short films come in all shapes, sizes, and colors, meaning they’re just as versatile and accessible as the medium itself. From drama to comedy, animated to live action, short films contain as much wide-ranging potential for style and genre fluidity as the larger medium.
Short films can also range dramatically in their runtimes, just as feature films do. To be considered “short” they have to be less than 40 minutes long (including credits), but otherwise they can be as short as 2 minutes, as long as 40 minutes, or anywhere in between. Whatever best suits your story and/or goal!
Similarly, short films typically fall into three major categories, just as feature films do:
1. Narrative Short Film
This, like any traditional plot-based piece of storytelling, is often fictional and scripted to present a dramatized version of a story. In other words, it is a “normal” movie with a shorter runtime. The best examples of these would be the live action and animated short film categories at the Oscars each year.
2. Documentary Short Film
A nonfiction and subject-focused film that presents an authentic exploration of a topic, person, place, or theme, just as feature documentaries do. Great examples of these are also featured as part of the annual Oscars nominations.
3. Avant-Garde Short Film
This is a very “film school” way of describing a more experimental, stylistic, or abstract motion picture that’s less focused on story or themes and more focused on mood, tone, and aesthetics. Although “avant-garde” is a largely subjective term, this type of short film is typically reserved for teasers, sizzle reels, proofs of concept, and other needs within the industry.
These are simply labels, however, and like everything in the arts, they’re best thought of as general definitions rather than hard and fast rules. There’s ultimately no “wrong” version of a short film, so long as it helps you accomplish your filmmaking goals and stays under a 40-minute runtime. The rest is up to you!
The Bottom Line
A short film is defined first and foremost by its brevity. Although they come in many sizes, use cases, and genres, their goals are almost always the same: spend less than on a feature film, gain professional visibility, and practice telling smaller, more concentrated stories before graduating into feature films.
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Whether you’re a seasoned professional looking to present a unique vision or win over a competitive project, or you’ve just gotten your first camera and are looking for a way to hone your skills and get noticed, short films are an essential part of the filmmaking lifeblood no matter your age, credentials, or experience.