by Keram Malicki-Sanchez
Let me begin by paraphrasing and adapting Rainer Maria Rilke:
“I cannot discuss your [work]; for any attempt at criticism would be foreign to me. Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.
With this note as a preface, may I just tell you that your [film] have no style of their own, although they do have silent and hidden beginnings of something personal.”
Of course you may not have made a film yet, but take the words above to heart: the people to whom you wish to present your ideas have seen a many great things. They come from all corners of the world and have experienced things that would knock the wind out of anyone who would listen. So it is not your duty to attempt to artificially dazzle them with contrived scenarios or so-called surefire blockbuster methodologies.
Instead, it is up to you to get out of your own way and allow your inner voice to speak on your behalf. One of the problems with students of film school is that they have learned how to do things correctly and have become too careful and didactic. The problem with those who haven’t is that they lack the vocabulary to solve problems in advanced ways. So there is a certain awareness of form that must be present; to acknowledge and respect visual systems, sound and color design, story form that impact viewers at the level you would desire.
Conversely, there must be a spirit of freedom in your work – a way of creating something that will engage the audience on a visceral level and this can only happen if it stems from your own amazement, audacity, curiosity and spirit of play.
I once read an author giving advice on writing (perhaps it was the great semiotician Umberto Eco) who said that in order to write something exciting, the writer must, themselves be excited when writing it, losing sight of time, space and causality, and simply channeling the words. Then the words will be picked up by the reader in a similar fashion. But if the writer is working at a passage laboriously, cleaning up phrases, revising and revising the life out of it, then that passage will likely be received by the reader as a “longeur” – a tedious stretch over which the eyes will glaze over and attention will turn to daydreams or preoccupations with other things.
So how to avoid hitting these doldrums and instead striking those rich, fast moving sections? By preparation: preparation of the mind, body, soul. Knowledge, experience, wisdom, honesty, boldness, courage. You must always be learning, experiencing new things, witnessing, opening up your heart. This way, you become a vehicle for the things experienced in a unique way by your eyes, nose, ears, nerves, mind and heart. And then speak from where you are. From who you are! The closer you get to you, the more universal what you say will actually be.
This is of course counter-intuitive, and the mistake of many a novice; we typically assume that to speak to everyone, we must speak in broad, generic terms. But upon further consideration, we realize the futility in this endeavor. No one in the world see things in broad and generic terms, so you would in fact be speaking to no one directly. However, when you speak about the experience of being human, as YOU know it to be, you have a far greater chance of touching upon those things that the rest of us would otherwise consider too intimate, personal, or unknown to others.
And this is EXACTLY where you want to come from. This way, you use the rich medium of cinema to bypass the decorum, the protocol, the ego, and impact the viewer. In other words: “write what you know.”
So what does all of this have to do with advice for a short film subject filmmaker? Everything! The short film is a beautiful form in that it affords little forgiveness for excess baggage and diplomacy. It begs that everything introduced pays off. It urges you to concentrate the very best so as to maximize the little time you have.
And what a great pairing this is with the fact that you will likely not have the same resources as you would to make a feature-length, because it engenders innovation, ingenuity and enthusiasm.
Having shared these basic philosophical tenets, here are some things I can share with you that will help you bring it from mere understanding, and into manifestation:
There is infinity between 0 and 1 if you keep dividing the distance between them.
What this means is that if you are always THINKING about making your film, you are not actually MAKING it. You MUST start. Get a camera. Borrow it. Ask for a camera for a couple of hours if you must. There are more cameras in the world than ever before. You can get a camera.
Now shoot something. What, you ask? The very thing that led you to read this paper! The urge, the notion, the observation, the person, the color, the moment, the sound. Write/shoot what you know!
IT’S A SHORT, STUPID.
In other words, keep it short. The biggest mistake first time writers, screenwriters, directors, painters, dancers, jugglers, make, is that they want to include EVERYTHING they have ever experienced into their first project.
Rather than think of this as your first (and maybe last) think of your life as the work of art, of which this short film will be a magnificent first brushstroke on the canvas. And KEEP IT SHORT.
Now that you have shot something, get it into your computer. It only requires a firewire cable.
Now get familiar with some editing software, or ask your friend who is, to cut it.
Put the pieces together. Step back, look at it as a whole. Sleep on it. Dreams help. Come back, refine. You have your own time to do it. No one can rush you. Make it great.
(This does not come from me exclusively, I do not yet consider myself a bona fide pro, but it does come with my strongest recommendation as I have studied with pros and it reflects their advice)
Never send in your work before it’s ready. Don’t rush the project to meet a deadline.
Conversely: the greatest artists in the world are those that know when to stop painting, and sign their name.
You can always add more paint, but at a certain point, it will result in diminishing returns. Learn to step away, and say – this is beautiful, flaws and all. Learn to find the balance and not get lost or mired in unnecessary details.
Now that you have a short film, it’s time to actually manifest it in the real world. “But I already manifested a short!”
Sure you have something that looks like a short film, but until the world can access it, it does not really exist. Tolstoy may have written manuscripts, but unless they were seen by others, they don’t really exist do they?
Someone can finally OWN a guitar, they might even play it in the bathroom in the dark at night, but unless we can HEAR them, they were never really a guitar player, were they.
So make sure your paperwork is good. If you used SAG actors, make sure you had a SAG new media contract. If you used someone’s music, make sure they signed a release form saying you could use it. Create the paper trail. You will need it to go all the way.
DO NOT POST YOUR SHORT TO YOUTUBE.
Not yet. Maybe not for a long time. “But YouTube is the best viral marketing tool, and I am so excited to show off what I did!” That’s nice.
But making your work available for free this way means that no distributor will ever touch it later. Have faith in yourself, your work, completed, original and fresh and virgin to the internet is far more valuable, than once it has been exposed to the masses. By keeping it away from YouTube, and thus having well crafted, unreleased original content, you have a valuable asset in the eyes of buyers. That said, when you have exhausted all avenues, the fact that Google has since opened up its ad-revenue participation to all original content means that at the very least you can hope to make some coin should you finally choose to make your work available on their platform.
Go to Withoutabox.com (free) and register your film. This will prompt you to fill out the long questionnaire about the project and thus organize your thoughts. You will have to input a logline, a synopsis, a director’s statement and a lot more, but you will come away knowing exactly how to speak about your film. Or at least a lot better than when you started.
ALWAYS KEEP THE END-USER IN MIND
Too often, first timers think they have to save something from their audience, the keep things private or secret, or they assume that audience will understand. Perhaps they will, but if you read what you have written about your film, as a stranger, would you care? Always ask yourself this question and approach your materials from the AUDIENCE perspective.
Read, ask and study those who have come before you!
Take an online course (I highly recommend Kim Adelman’s online course at UCLA extension), read books about Short Film and Film Festival marketing and distribution, go online and see how others have marketed their short films. This will save you hundreds of hours and resources by informing you what works and what doesn’t and how the system runs and how it doesn’t. Remember we are but short film people standing on the shoulders of giants.
EXPECT HALF, ASK FOR DOUBLE, SETTLE ON THE FULL AMOUNT
Keep your expectations in check, but shoot for the moon. This means that if you get rejected after submitting to festivals or otherwise, you will not fall to pieces and be mean to yourself. Rejection is a wonderful gift that makes you consider how to improve your work or better focus your targets. But also, don’t short change yourself. Be brave, take chances, amazing things can happen when you ask. If you never ask, you can never get a yes. If you ask and get a no, you are no worse off than when you started. Buyers change, distributors change, and, to paraphrase painter Nathan Spoor “what may be a ‘no’ here, today may, may be a yes tomorrow, somewhere else.”
Be grateful, and don’t forget every once in a while to look back and see how far you have come. Sometimes it may feel as though you have nothing left to give, that no one cares, that you are all alone, crazy, a foolish dreamer, and you can’t pay your rent and are sick of living off Ramen noodles. Good for you. Join the club. Now do the gratitude prayer and be thankful for the number of fingers you have, toes you have, that you can read this article, that you can breathe, that you have x friends or x family members. The list will grow quickly and you will stop feeling sorry for yourself.
Look back at before you even read this article! Just by taking on the act of reading it, you have demonstrated a certain commitment to filmmaking. That’s a lot! You could have just been rolling around in bed feeling sorry for yourself (see above)!
UNDERSTAND YOUR RESPONSIBILITIES
To be real in the world of filmmaking, you have to understand that it isn’t all just playtime. In addition to having your papers in order, you will have to present what are called Deliverables: copies of your film in different formats that the festivals, distributors and others will require to shop, project, distribute, store you film. Get educated on this. It’s a little more scientific and on-negotiable, but we have an Internet now, so there are no excuses. And if Wikipedia comes up with nothing helpful, start asking questions. Be Sherlock Holmes – and eventually you will be a lot closer to getting answers.
NEVER BE AFRAID TO ASK QUESTIONS
Even if the person you are asking looks at you like you are a moron and shoots you down. Remember that if you ask, they might say yes. They might say no in which case you are no worse off. But if you never ask, you have nothing more than you did before. ASK!
I am going to close with what I feel is one of the most important keys for opening the doors to opportunity:
BE NICE TO EVERYONE YOU MEET AND TREAT THEM WILL EQUAL RESPECT
That doesn’t mean that jerks deserve to hang out with you all night or get your phone number. It just means that you should never make assumptions about people, discriminate, or otherwise based on look, dress, location, circumstance. You NEVER know who you are talking to, how they may figure in your future or how they got to be in that body, position, place or otherwise. First of all, you must do this, because it is what is right. Secondly that person might be your next boss, the clue to the next riddle, the breadcrumb that helps you pick up the trail, the best friend of your champion. Heed this rule and then:
Have self-respect. Don’t talk down about yourself. Present yourselves to others as the miraculous, unique being that you are. Your voice matters. Your ideas matter. Your efforts count. No one is better than you. Perhaps they are more connected or got here before you did, but they are not worth a drop more than you are. Believe in yourself. Maintain you dignity. Don’t let others take advantage, debase or mistreat you. Have confidence. You are divine. So are your ideas. Now go put that in a movie. (Ten minutes or less is recommended!)