For many aspiring filmmakers, short films are the natural way to dip their toes into the world of moviemaking. But before you can start shooting, you must first come up with intriguing and interesting ideas for your short film. This article covers how to come up with ideas for a short film and strategies to help inspire your next great project.
Short films serve two primary purposes for an aspiring filmmaker: hands-on experience and proof that you’ve got what it takes.
- Develop skills: Short films are the perfect way to hone your skills in something low stakes with minimal investment. Use short films to practice your shot listing, cinematography, screenplay skills, or even set design. A short film might be your ticket to the big show, so make sure you display your skills onscreen. Take your time, plan it out, and put your best effort forward.
- Generate interest: Short films can act as your calling card as you transition into making feature-length films. Many people make short films to introduce the features they want to fundraise for or to entice studio interest. These proof-of-concept films are essentially your résumé and help show your talents to the bigwigs.
Succinct yet rich narratives that are personal, entertaining, and hit a specific genre or tone tend to make the best short films. Still, there’s no magic trick to coming up with great movie ideas, and ideation is one of the hardest parts of the business. The following techniques help create slivers of inspiration, which you can then refine from nebulous notion to fantastic film.
Consider what you know
A primary way people come up with ideas for short films is to mine their personal experiences. Make lists of what you care about and know about. What are some deep emotions you’ve always wanted to explore? Are there any situations that have happened to you that you want to extrapolate onscreen?
Try summoning your best James Joyce and let out your inner stream of consciousness—you never know what’s hiding behind a few mental filters. Spend an hour or two just writing down whatever comes to mind. You can also record yourself free-associating vocally.
Another way to brainstorm movie ideas is to look at artwork, listen to music, read books, and watch films. Write the story of what’s happening in them. Explore potential backstories and characters, infusing your take with as much imagination as possible. Consider side characters and untold narratives and see what you come up with. Of course, if you go down this path, be sure that your film won’t breach copyright. You don’t want to make an amazing short film and not be able to show anyone.
Get out and about
Physical activity can get your latent brain working while you concentrate on something else. Many writers say their best ideas come in the shower or while doing chores. So get out there, take a walk, and see what comes to you.
Take some time to reflect on the reasons you want to make a short film. Is it a launch pad to get an agent or manager? Are you trying to get into a specific contest or festival? Be upfront and clear about your reasons, and ensure that your ideas and budget match these reasons.
Keep the ultimate length of your film in mind while coming up with ideas. Feature length films are usually between 90–120 minutes in length. Alternatively, a short film usually runs for less than 30 minutes. To be festival-ready, your film will likely need to fall under this 30-minute timeframe.
Similarly, short films usually depict a slice of life—a brief peek into a character’s world. In contrast, a feature-length film usually focuses on a much longer period of time in characters’ lives.
It may be best to start with ideas that take place in a continuous setting, such as a car ride, an afternoon at the bar, or a day at the office. Keep your short film ideas succinct so that you don’t waste time with too much characterization or world-building. You want just enough to understand the people, place, and stakes.
Keep budgetary concerns in mind while brainstorming ideas. A CGI-heavy space film will likely be too expensive for a filmmaker who’s just starting out. Remember that depending on what it depicts, a short film does not need to be expensive. You can shoot one nearly for free using your smartphone, DIY lighting, and friends willing to act in your film as a labor of love. No matter your financial situation, be sure to create a budget that accurately reflects the needs of your short film idea.
Storytelling is crucial in a short film. You don’t have a long time to get people invested since everything is on a compressed timeline. Be sure to avoid the narrative cram—when you take a too-big idea and try to cram it into a short film. Make your audience invested, avoid the pitfalls of short film storytelling, and craft a compelling narrative in the brief time you have.
Your unique voice
The most important aspect of a short is that it feels “of you.” Ask yourself: What do you have to say, and how will it make you an effective storyteller? What are your passions and beliefs? Who are your role models? People want to know your unique perspective on the world. They want to see what you can do to make genres and storylines pop. Everyone welcomes a new way to see the world, and everyone gets excited by a fresh perspective. While you brainstorm, interrogate your own mindset as much as possible.
Now go dream up some film ideas—and get moving on your miniature movie masterpiece.