When I first heard the term ‘storyteller’, I hated it. I thought it was way too pretentious and self-important – we’re not novelists; we’re copywriters and art directors. But the more I work on film scripts, copy and even short videos for social media, the more I understand the importance of telling a story. We can’t just throw a bunch of words and images at people and expect them to buy our product or service. We need to make sure that they understand and experience our story in the way we want it to be told.
So where do short films come in?
There’s probably an analogy somewhere about short films being the ads of the cinema world, but, since that’s not the point of this article, I’m not going to pursue it. The real wonder of short films, as with short stories, is their ability to trigger strong emotional responses in very short spaces of time. To make someone feel love, sadness, disgust, joy, fear or distress in a matter of minutes is no easy feat. And in an industry where we often work within similar time parameters, we would be ignorant not to try and learn from that.
Now, if you’re expecting to take five or six learnings out of this article, neatly wrapped up with little bows of ribbon, you’re sadly mistaken. It’s just not that easy. Instead, what you should get is a desire to explore for yourself – only by regularly immersing yourself in short films will you really start to see the benefits.
To get you started on that journey, I feel obliged to offer some encouragement in the form of a demonstration. Before reading any further, please take a moment (3 minutes and 22 seconds) to watch the short film here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WjqiU5FgsYc
Unless you’re a robot, you’re probably starting to understand what I’m talking about. Within a space of time that’s not much longer than today’s brand films and cinema ads, you’ve experienced a powerful emotional reaction. And that’s not by accident. It’s by design.
Before we’re even 30 seconds in, we’ve decided that we don’t really like the boy’s character. He’s too busy playing video games to say hello to his mum or ask how her day was. This dislike grows stronger after around a minute when the boy throws the disabled dog aside, but we don’t have time to question why that might be. Instead, we see him tapping away on his Xbox controller and we start to ask ourselves: ‘Is this really what kids are like these days?’
This dislike develops into a kind of hatred over the next minute; our emotional reaction is only heightened by the cute expression of the dog and the way it bumbles around the living room floor. Then comes the twist. Suddenly we understand. Now we feel sorry for the boy and question what kind of life he may lead. We guess that he’s probably very lonely. We wonder whether he resents his mum for thinking that a disabled boy should have a disabled dog. We’ve experienced dislike, anger, hate, sympathy, sadness, relief and happiness. And that’s all happened in 3 minutes and 22 seconds.
Up until that point – the twist – your emotional reactions were probably all very negative: dislike, disappointment, frustration, hate, sympathy, sadness. Now, if you imagine an emotional scale where -1 to -10 is negative and 1 to 10 is positive, you were probably at -7 or -8. So when the twist suddenly takes you up to a 9 or 10, the positive feeling is intensified. The bigger the swing on that scale, the more dramatic and powerful the emotional reaction will be.
As short film’s go, The Present is probably one of the more accessible ones. Some can be challenging, with themes and genres that you would never come across in a feature film, but there’s something you can learn about storytelling from every single one of them. And at the very least, you’ll be immersing yourself in stories that, just like books, music, TV and film, have the power to inspire your creativity.
Another reason to watch more short films
They say great artists steal. And short films are a goldmine. You’ll discover filming and editing techniques that you’ve never come across before; you’ll see documentaries on topics that you previously knew nothing about; you’ll see interesting animation styles that could be adapted to fit your next project. As an art form, short film is an endless pool of inspiration. Don’t ignore it.
If you’re hungry for more, check out www.shortoftheweek.com for some of the greatest and most diverse short films from around the world.
Ethan Lott, Copywriter