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Ask the Documentary Doctor

Dear Doc Doctor:

Is a short film the obligatory starting point of a filmmaking career? If so, what can I do with it when it’s finished? It doesn’t seem to make financial sense to make a short.

Some filmmakers start with a short either while in film school or out on their own, and that initial piece sometimes becomes their calling card for future unrelated documentaries. Others use their short as a sample or sort of fundraising trailer to raise money for the full-length version. And many others make shorts and continue making shorts just because that’s the format they want to work on.

In all cases, a short is a great chance to learn and experiment. That short will also tell investors and producers that you understand the overall process of filmmaking from camera shots and sound to editing and post. However, a short cannot teach you the story structure demands of a full-length film or how to navigate the distribution maze of long-format documentaries, because the procedure has no parallel.

That’s why attorney and producer’s rep Innes Smolansky recommends: “In my experience, most of the filmmakers that approach me to represent them have done a short first. However, if a filmmaker has the means and resources to make a feature-length film, I would suggest they do that.”

And that’s what filmmaker Leslie Shearing did with her film Unscrewed (2003). She went for the feature-length film first, while keeping her expenses within a moderate budgeted short—only possible thanks to new technology. “It was easier to raise money for a feature-length film because it has more potential for financial return, and fortunately the subject lent itself to that format.” So after a successful film festival run, her film is opening theatrically—a less likely possibility for a short.

If you are not ready to make the big feature-length jump, or you feel your topic can’t stretch that far, go with the short. But don’t forget to have a long-term plan. Your career deserves high expectations.


Dear Doc Doctor:
Is there a story structure specific to short films? I’m told my documentary should be a short, but I’m not convinced yet
.

There is a widespread misconception that a short is the abridged version of a feature-length film. To some degree, it is indeed a smaller-scaled version—the budget and schedule are compressed in most cases. But for everything else, the short is a format in and of itself with its own demands, different and at times as challenging as any other format. Remember the quote attributed to Blaise Pascal (and also Cicero): “I didn’t have time to write you a short letter, so I wrote a long one.”

The misconception is born out of faulty analysis of the story structure. There are two axes in story structure—the horizontal axis and the vertical axis. The horizontal refers to the structure curve, the order of the scenes, the unfolding of the story, and subsequently its length. The vertical axis of analysis refers to the cross cut of each scene, the amount of characters and subplots, and layers of meaning.

With a short, most filmmakers place the emphasis on the horizontal axis, making sure all elements are condensed, or expanded to a certain length, disregarding the fact that modifying the horizontal axis will inevitably affect the vertical axis. A short can rarely sustain more than one or two story lines and a couple of main characters. Polysemy, or multiple layers of meanings, is rare, and when it is possible, most often each layer of the film tends to lose its strength.

When you are advised to make something shorter, in whatever length you are working, that is code for: “the structure is not working as it is.” You will find that the “make it shorter” directive doesn’t mean whittle away to a two-minute piece. Shorter pain does not mean less pain. And ultimately you don’t want your audience to suffer any pain at all.

Many embrace the short format as a safe haven, but the consequences are visible. Competition coordinator of the Chicago International Film Festival, Philip Bajorat, can attest to those consequences after seeing 1,100 shorts this year, 152 of them documentaries. “The most common mistake is not to have a focus in the story. There may be an interesting subject, but the film doesn’t go in an interesting direction. Sometimes there’s no theme or narrative or investigation, and instead it feels like the filmmaking involved doesn’t go much further than setting up the camera.”

Going for the short format, in a documentary that you trust has the potential for a full-length, will bring a whole new set of issues. Instead, why not deal with the foundational problems first and then see if the solution leads to a shorter format? And even if you skip the short format now, remember that sooner or later you will have to shrink your work for the educational market. Think big now while you can. N

Want to ask the Doc Doctor a question for a future issue of The Independent? Write to her at info@documentarydoctor.com

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