Notes on Short Films
I spent a year and way too much money to make a 15-minute sci-fi short film.
It was a demanding, stressful experience that I thought would give me a movie career. It didn’t! Although—it might yet. And did I say “way too much money”? Not kidding!
The short in question is Sky Fighter, which was released by the DUST sci-fi channel (on Facebook, YouTube, Roku, etc.), from Gunpowder & Sky, where it has performed pretty well. (Here’s our Facebook fan page for the project.)
Forgive me if you’ve heard me talk about this before. This isn’t meant to be a “how I made my short” piece—or, worse, a “look at how great I am” piece (oy!). But I did learn some things that I wanted to pass on to others.
I produced my short as a proof-of-concept for a feature, as people often do. Mine was even more specifically a “proof-of-director,” in that I already had a producer interested in the script, and I made the short so I would be approved as director, too.
In my career at the time (2016–18), I had secured management on the basis of a sci-fi TV pilot that I cowrote with my friend, Robert Nathan, a veteran television writer and showrunner.
I told my newfound representation that I also wanted to be a writer–director of features, and I had written what I thought would be a cool, low-budget sci-fi debut: a two-hander on a spaceship.
They said, prior to my signing with them, “Great! No problem! Love the script!”
After I signed, they said, “Uh…you know what? Nobody is going to let you direct anything without a reel. How would you feel about making a proof of concept?”
I said I felt very bad about it, because the same thing that made it a very inexpensive feature—it needed one set—would make it a very expensive short: that one set needed to be really cool ($$$), and there would be VFX, too ($$$$!!!).
So I forgot about it.
Later, my manager was able to interest a producer in the script—at which point I said, “Wait, I want to direct.” And I was told, in no uncertain terms—fine, but you need a reel.
So I bit the bullet and decided to self-finance and produce the “proof.”
WE INTERRUPT THIS PROGRAM…
A sidebar into the seductive world of crowdfunding, which seems like free money, but it’s really NOT! Crowdfunding is creating your own, pop-up mail order business—and it SUCKS!
The only way crowdfunding makes you real money is if YOU are famous, or the THING you’re raising money for is famous (like a Star Trek fan film). If you’re just a person, and the short is just a short, you’ll have to beg, scrape and plead your way to $5K, let alone $10K.
You may find all the administration and fulfillment such a hassle, it’s not worth it.
In my case, I was lucky to have a pre-existing fan base: I created Film Score Monthly, a magazine and record label devoted to film scores, as a high school student in 1990. I had a built-in audience of soundtrack collectors from 25+ years of work, and I was reasonably sure they would back a creative venture of mine—ONCE.
So I created an Indiegogo campaign tailored to my peeps (love you guys!), where instead of offering them a bunch of nonexistent junk related to my movie (mugs, posters, signed scripts, etc.), I asked for favors from boutique record labels and gave away CDs and coupon codes. It was, in essence, a “pop-up CD store.”
It worked, and I raised $31K in May 2018.
BACK TO THE PROGRAM
I don’t know who makes short films. Probably, in most cases, it’s people at the entry level who are not in L.A. or New York. This means they must rely on cast and crew who are also at the entry level to “put on a show.”
The “blind leading the blind” can lead to wonderful creativity—but also a lot of amateurish mistakes. Consequently, most shorts are learning experiences that maybe play at a few festivals...but that’s it. (There are very few ways to monetize a short film.)
I live in Los Angeles and am fortunate to be surrounded by creative, generous people in the entertainment industry—so that gave me an advantage as far as production value.
Time and space will not permit me to credit and thank everybody who worked on Sky Fighter, but I do want to name our three producers: Levi Smock (the line producer) and his prod-co. partner, Daniel Marks (who was also our fantastic D.P.)—and Christine Sheaks, who came from casting (she cast Boogie Nights, you might’ve heard of it) and found our actors.
This is how little I knew about cinematography on set: Me: “Hey, Dan, when he says that line, can you zoom in?” Dan: “Lukas…we don’t have a zoom lens.” (He ended up walking closer.)
I don’t know how much money people usually spend on their shorts. Because I am an idiot, I spent so much money BEYOND the $31K I raised that I am mortified to reveal the true amount.
The biggest cost overrun were the VFX of the holograms inside our spaceship. For those, I outsmarted myself: “Hey, I know how I’ll save money on a spaceship movie: I’ll have the spaceship be enclosed and the characters fly it using holograms. And I’ll just shoot it so the holograms aren’t in frame.”
Well, upon getting into the editing room, the holograms were constantly in frame. I am not a VFX guy, so I had to hire a firm to animate them: The Light Works in Germany. They gave me a great rate, but there were over 80 shots.
We’ve had enough people watch Sky Fighter to know that it’s basically watchable. The film has garnered over two million views across DUST’s different platforms, with lots of likes and engagements. Comments are usually positive, with a few nitpicks. (Some people hate the retro 1980s synth score—which was my idea, so please blame me and not our composer!)
The short didn’t win any awards. It played at exactly one festival (I didn’t bother to submit to many). It is far from perfect and I don’t claim that it is. It didn’t lead to my directing the feature, or not yet anyway (more on that below).
But in general—it plays. It’s interesting. It’s engaging. The cast is good. The shots make sense. The ending pays off.
There’s one metric I’m proud of: The folks at DUST told me its “watchthrough rate” was around 45%, which is extremely high for YouTube. (Curiously, this was almost exactly the same as in our private link, pre-release.)
Which means that once people started watching—and got past the first 5 seconds (when most people click away), then 30 seconds, then 60 seconds—they typically watched through to the end.
I thank the cast and crew for that—but I’ll take credit for it, too. (Hey, I would take blame if the short stunk.)
I made some assumptions as to what would work in a short film—and I think I was right. And frankly I am surprised at how few people seem to understand these basic principles.
THINGS TO DO IN YOUR SHORT
1. START FAST!
How many short films start with some ambient shot of a landscape for 20 seconds, ominous music…and then, “Awesome Productions Presents…”
Aaah!!! NOBODY wants to see your vanity credit!
In fact—NOBODY WANTS TO WATCH YOUR SHORT!
Just like—NOBODY WANTS TO READ YOUR SCRIPT!
They want to be entertained. We all do. What would you rather watch, right now? The Empire Strikes Back—or Sky Fighter? Yeah, me too!
Something I have observed is that the best, most successful filmmakers—world-famous, household names—are always thinking about the audience. ALWAYS.
“Is this entertaining?” (Or as J.J. Abrams asks, “Is it delightful?”) “Is it clear? Is it interesting?”
We hit the ground running in Sky Fighter—again, I am not saying it’s perfect, but we don’t linger on anything thinking we’re Kubrick or Malick.
And actually, I realized after the fact, our spaceship chase preamble probably goes on too long. The film doesn’t really become engrossing until the two actors start to talk.
2. AT LEAST TWO CHARACTERS, PLEASE!
A two-hander is easier to make than a one-hander.
Drama comes from conflict. Interpersonal conflict needs—at least two people! Mike Nichols said every scene needs to be either a seduction, a negotiation or a fight. Trust Mike Nichols!
Having a solo astronaut trapped on an alien planet—or a lone hiker in a mysterious forest—sounds great, right? Spooky cinematography, an acting showpiece?
It’s the kiss of death!
We watch Robert Redford in All Is Lost because he’s Robert Redford. The chances of you discovering an actor with the skill, presence and allure of Robert Redford—pretty low.
Your storytelling needs a lower bar. You are a novice and you don’t have any money. So please, don’t do that to yourself.
Because, I guarantee, when your lone character starts recording a voice mail to his girlfriend (because it’s the only way to get out exposition)—everybody in that film festival audience is going to be praying for a quick and merciful death.
3. THINK ABOUT YOUR STRUCTURE!
Short films are boiled down to the two hardest parts of moviemaking, stuck together: the opening and the climax.
We think of shorts are easy…because they’re short. That’s true, in a sense. You don’t have to construct all that second-act fun-and-games. It can be simple and contained.
But what’s the single most important part of any script? The opening!
We, as audience members, are such jerks at the beginning of a film: Entertain me. Don’t be boring. Please be good. Who am I watching? Why do I care?
You can’t blow off your opening just because it’s a short. In fact, you have to put more effort into it, because it’s anywhere from a third to half of the film!
(A quick aside: if you want film festivals to program you before a feature, make your short as short as possible. If it’s over 10 minutes, it’ll have to be in a shorts program.)
As for the ending: lots of scripts sell and get made even though the ending sucks. Executives figure, if it’s a great concept with great characters, we can fix the ending.
Lots of movies have endings reshot—even famous ones—because endings are hard.
Rod Serling said his half-hour Twilight Zones are, in essence, the third act of a play/movie.
What is the third act? Usually, in a genre or action movie, it’s a real-time chase.
But it also contains the entire point of the story—the final fate of the protagonist. Please refer to Michael Arndt about endings.
So your short isn’t just a miniature movie. You are taking the hardest part of a movie to get right—the opening—and forcing it to segue into the second-hardest part, the ending.
Your short needs to somehow elegantly connect the two.
A friend of mine best described a short film as: “A man blows up a balloon, and it pops.”
Make sure you have a good concept—and think long and hard about the form and structure—before you start writing, let alone shooting!
4. THE RIGHT KIND OF INVESTIGATION
A tip about mystery writing, in case you are doing a short that is, like mine, “Somebody wakes up in a strange predicament and tries to figure out what’s going on.”
Have your protagonist investigate the same thing that the AUDIENCE wants to know, at the same time the audience wants to know it!
This goes for any mystery. Sounds obvious, but usually, amateur scripts and shorts don’t do that. The protagonist is preoccupied with something else—which might be perfectly reasonable, like a family relationship—but we, the audience, are like, WHO CARES! GET BACK TO THE THING WE WANT TO KNOW!
We’re watching Alien because the characters are actively trying to kill the alien! Not because they are, to give a bad example, fixing the ship and the alien keeps killing them. “Hey, did somebody else die? Wow, that’s weird.”
That’s how you end up with repetitive scripts, and movies.
5. IT’S THE STORYTELLING, STUPID!
This one’s vague… Are you a storyteller?
When I was directing my short—I had never directed anything, and had barely even been on sets—I felt like the guest conductor of a symphony orchestra. Here were all these great musicians (the cast and crew) who were super talented, diligently doing their work based on years of practice—and I was in charge of them? Seemed backwards!
What’s more, I was also the composer, in this analogy—so if something wasn’t working, it was my fault for having written this piece of shit.
Weirdly, there was nobody to help me! I could ask somebody if it was in focus, somebody else if the sound was clean, if we were making our day, if the actor said the line right.
But I couldn’t ask anybody if, when all those things were put together, it was any good. That was my job!
Fortunately—and this part of the essay is, with apologies, revoltingly self-serving—I can do the only two things that truly matter for a director:
1) Cinematic ideation.
Cinematic ideation is storytelling. It’s getting inside the audience’s head to anticipate what piece of information they need next, and to give it to them in the most exciting, dramatic, delightful way possible—with all the moments connecting and paying off and making sense.
Performances, casting, sets, lighting, sound, music—they all come down to your judgment and taste as the director.
Watch Spielberg, because he’s Mozart.
Communication is not just telling people what to do—it’s finding out their needs, their workflows, their problems and solutions.
Let’s say a lighting effect looks cool, but it’s taking forever—maybe we drop it?
There might be a great shot, but it hinders the performances because of the blocking—so let’s use a less-interesting angle, to get a more natural performance?
One of the hardest things to do as a director is figure out how to get the most out of each actor. You are judging them as performers and as people. How hard you can push them to get what you want? I recommend this book: Directing Actors.
Communication is more than just talking clearly about what you want. It is learning from your cast and crew, judging from their behavior what they are capable of, and managing your own behavior so you are the best possible leader.
I do think I’m a good director, and we made a good short, but I am quite sure I talked too much, especially to the actors. Apologies!
6. WRONG HUMAN BEHAVIOR IS UNRECOVERABLE
I have watched a large number of sci-fi shorts. By and large, I am sorry to say, I am not impressed.
I’m not trying to be unkind. In fact, I risk blowback from the filmmaking community for being critical. I definitely would not single out any one film or filmmaker. And, of course, we all have our own taste.
But the truth is, so often what I see—especially in sci-fi shorts—is dazzling production value…ruined by amateur storytelling.
It’s not really the performances—the actors do what they can—it’s the writing. The lack of clarity. Lack of goals. Lack of a single clear concept. Lack of forward momentum.
And, above all: lack of realistic, relatable human behavior.
When you are writing a script—any script—you can make up ANYTHING in the story…so long as the human behavior is real and relatable. This behavior can be quite different from our cultural norms, based on the setting—but it always has to be human.
The instant characters behave in a way that is false—running into a burning building without establishing why that character would do that—the audience is GONE.
This last point is really about screenwriting more than making short films.
If there’s anything that we got right on Sky Fighter—thanks to cast and crew—we were able to build a real relationship between the two leads, with moments of humanity to ground all the hardware and sci-fi malarkey.
In order to improve your writing and directing, ask yourself two questions about any moment:
1) What would this character do in real life? (True, a movie is NOT real life—but you may think of an emotion that will inspire a more relatable action or reaction for your character.)
2) What would the audience make of this moment? What would your Aunt Mary think? You know, Aunt Mary who doesn’t watch movies and doesn’t understand anything?
Make every little piece of information so clear (and ideally: visual and not in expository dialogue) that it cannot be missed.
And also—look for the emotion. The real emotion. Honest emotion.
Ultimately, this can be learned, but not taught.
IN CONCLUSION: I’M STILL PAYING OFF MY MASTERCARD
So don’t listen to me, I’m a fool.
I thought as soon as people saw Sky Fighter, I’d have a career overnight.
WRONG! People were generally complimentary. It’s been watched a gratifying number of times. It’s a “pretty good” short. But “pretty good” doesn’t move the needle.
“Super-awesome-fantastic” moves the needle. “I’ve never seen that before” moves the needle. “Winning Sundance” moves the needle…but sci-fi shorts seldom get into Sundance, let alone win it.
In a way, I was a victim of my opportunity. I didn’t need to make the best short ever made—I just needed to prove myself as a director. Which I did. But I didn’t appreciate how hard it would be to get the feature version made, even with a “pretty good” proof of concept.
After we made Sky Fighter, the producer I was working with made several offers to legit talent to make the feature, with me attached as director. Very grateful for that.
But no actor said yes. And when COVID hit, the producer and I went our separate ways. (I still like him. A stand-up guy.)
Here’s what I learned:
My feature script was not nearly good enough. Not even close! That’s on me.
The script I was trying to get made was an amateur script. I had written it several years ago. Ultimately I rewrote it from scratch—almost a page one rewrite—more than once, too. Probably I’m now on the sixth draft of the third entirely different version of it.
It’s finally good, and I’m talking to a new producer about taking it on. But it won’t be easy…
For one thing, it’s simply not a studio film. It’s too heady and unique—it’s not a horror film for teenagers. Which means it has to get made with the indie/foreign sales model, or with a streamer.
In both cases, you need to attach talent even to have the conversation.
The indie sales model works best with actors in their forties, fifties and up, who are famous worldwide, but on the downslope of their careers—and happy to trade on their names to be in your movie. It’s a business transaction.
But Sky Fighter needs young leads—and doesn’t have any other parts significant enough for Nicolas Cage or that kind of name who would move the needle for financing.
It’s beyond frustrating, because there are so many great actors who could do it, and do it well, but they don’t mean enough for financing.
As for the young leads who would mean something—they’re getting offers left and right. And they choose projects based on the director, not even the script! They want to work with Ridley Scott or Denis Villeneuve—not yours truly, who has made exactly one short film and then blogged about it. (Adam Driver is not doing Sky Fighter no matter how much we offer.)
None of this is meant as a pity party—I just want to share my experiences. If you choose to make a short film as a stepping stone to directing a feature, be aware of the immensely high bar—and the financing models that you would need to get people interested in the feature.
As for me: I finished the revised, final Sky Fighter feature script only this past summer, and am in talks with a new producer. And, for that matter, seeking new management—but I learned that most lit managers shy away from representing writer–directors.
The reason makes sense: an entry-level director will be lucky to make $100K for the script and direction of a debut feature, but could be occupied with it for a year or two. That means, for two years of hassle helping that client, the manager makes…$10K.
It’s a “long game” that client and manager are playing—and they really have to be in love with each other to want to play it.
So I’ve been writing other scripts that I do not need or even want to direct, in the hopes of attracting a lit manager who will want to sell them—and then want to help Sky Fighter as well.
BUT BACK TO YOUR PROBLEMS…
Having been at this more years than I care to admit, I’ve convinced that all of us—aspiring screenwriters and filmmakers—are going about this backwards.
Most of what I see on the Screenwriting discussion groups are “How do I get a manager?”-styled business questions—as well as emotional/personal feelings about the struggle.
I can’t speak to all the emotional problems, because I’m pretty locked-in and diligent and self-regulating. Lucky me.
As for the business questions—your problem is almost certainly not that you don’t have access to managers. Your problem is that your work is not good enough!
Every time I’ve thought my work was good enough, and I stress-tested it (via coverage or a read from a professional), I’ve realized—whoa. Not even close.
The more I’ve gotten feedback, the more I’ve directed my focus into the things I’ve discussed above: storytelling, structure and human behavior.
Those are the things, I am 99% sure, YOU need to improve. In my own case, the only thing that let me make major creative leaps in my storytelling was doing iteration after iteration—and having them fail, to the point where I began anticipating what I was doing wrong, and thinking of better concepts and better ways to execute them.
If you make a short film, unless you’re a genius, I’d recommend doing it at school or in an environment where people will help you and, importantly, pay for it.
I’d keep the costs down, and the scope simple.
I’d work on the script over and over again to make sure it’s good!
Good luck and thanks for reading.
By the way, want to watch a sci-fi short that’s really good? Check out the Spear Sisters’ Alien short, Ore. Look for the relatable human behavior—these filmmakers really get it!