Dear Doc Doctor:
I’m in my first week of editing, and I have this horrible feeling that my 100 hours of footage won’t be enough even for a short. How can I stretch my film beyond the short format?
Most likely you are suffering first week editing jitters rather than a real short versus long format dilemma. Sometimes we wonder: “Do I have enough to tell the story?” Other times: “Oh my God I have so much amazing material, I need a six-part series.” Neither reflects the reality of the situation but more a projection of what the story structure could be.
The decision between short and long format shouldn’t be based on how much footage you’ve shot but rather on the story elements evident in that footage. Some questions to ask yourself, preferably much earlier than the first day of editing, are: How many characters do I have? How many of those characters have a story arc? And how many aspects of that arc can I explore? How many of those aspects can be expanded and revisited? Many characters with strong story arcs call for long format, while portraits with fewer angles are generally better suited for shorts.
You might have gone into your project with the intention of shooting a long format film, and the topic or character wore thin. Although the opposite scenario is more common, going from long to short can be tough to accept and even tougher to explain to investors. Maybe you can wait and shoot more, or just embrace the great possibilities and rewards of a short.
Cynthia Close, executive director of Documentary Educational Resources, a non-profit organization that produces, distributes, and promotes ethnographic and documentary films from around the world, assures us, “Length has never been a deciding factor for us in evaluating any film for distribution. The defining factor is the content. Festivals, our marketing platform, welcome shorts of various lengths, and we got awarded with both short shorts, Suckerfish (8 min) by Lisa Jackson and longer shorts, Cheerleader (24 min) by Kimberlee Bassford.”
She also sees a bright future for shorts on the smallest screens: “With digital technology making it possible to deliver content to hand-held devices—cell phone, iPod, Palm Pilot—short films are reaching new venues and markets as audiences hang by a strap on the subway on their way to work.” In the very near future, jitters over whether or not you have enough footage will be replaced by the question of how all the footage you do have can be streamlined and downloaded to a million cell phones.
Dear Doc Doctor:
People tell me the fundraising trailer for my feature length doc is more like a short film. Should I submit it to festivals as a short to start a buzz for the feature length?
Maybe you made a short film and decided to make a feature length film on the same topic. Rather than use your short to create a buzz for your longer film, I strongly suggest you spend a few days re-cutting that short into a real fundraising trailer, which is not very hard to do. After getting rid of the credits, cut the definitive end and replace it with something that hints at what you will explore in the long format film. That hint is called a cliffhanger or a hook.
If you don’t change the ending, investors and grant organizations will ponder, and with good reason: Why invest in or finance something that works already as a short? What is the point in making it longer? Even if your proposal explains ad infinitum all the details that were left out of the short, it’s hard to counteract in writing what a film conveys in imagery.
If you set out to do a trailer and ended up with a short, don’t let your enthusiasm to attend festivals override marketing common sense. After a successful run at festivals, it would be hard to convince audiences of a longer encore. Besides, your trailer can take you on the road too. Virgilio Bravo and Loira Limbal makers of Estilo Hip Hop gave wings to their demo: “We visited over 20 colleges and universities with our fundraising trailer and a presentation on the topic of the film—hip hop in Latin America as a grassroots organizing tool. That started a buzz among our target audience. We raised enough money to start the editing, and now we are expected back in all those places with the finished film.”
So embrace your trailer; it’s not wasted time or money if you know how to use it. Although cross-pollination between shorts and fundraising trailers is sometimes possible, it is hardly ever advisable. The financial and marketing risks are not worth whatever little you save in re-editing one to create the other.
Fernanda Rossi, author of Trailer Mechanics: A Guide to Making your Documentary Fundraising Trailer.