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The history of film is littered with first attempts that are deeply flawed. Name any famous director, and chances are you won’t be able to name their first film.
Few people can name Stanley Kubrick’s or Ingmar Bergman’s first films, and fewer people have actually seen them. As classic as “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Seventh Seal” may now be, those films were the culmination of years upon years of practice and perfection of craft. There are directors whose first works became classics, such as Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” and Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” among them, but such stunning debuts are rare indeed and are the exception rather than the rule.
All of this discussion of first films is one way of saying that the art of film making is just that: an art, and one that requires extensive practice and meditation on form to perfect. Few directors starting out the process of creating their first short film are aware that the project will serve better as practice for later work rather than a representation of their total potential. If one’s first film isn’t as good as one of Kubrick’s classics, in other words, don’t worry: neither was Kubrick’s.
When making a short film, it’s imperative that the audience is placed foremost in the director’s mind without also compromising the director’s vision. Van Gogh’s vision as a painter was profound, but his work is successful because it also deeply connects with its viewer. Van Gogh understood art because he understood other people. Therefore, while maintaining an interior vision and retaining artistic integrity are extremely important, the key to making a successful short is to create an idea of an audience you’d ideally like to show the film to. What age is this ideal audience member? What are their interests? Why are they watching your film? Is it to escape a hard day’s work or enjoy a weekend’s respite from home? Questions like these can help make your film coherent and expressive, and many directors fall into the trap of creating incomprehensible first works. What effect would you like your film to have on this ideal person? Watching your film, would they be able to escape into the cinematic world you’ve created? If they’ve paid five dollars to see your work, would they feel their money had been well-spent?
Formally, directing a short film requires decisions that can be difficult to organise. Making a film is not like writing a novel, with a writer tucked away in a study and a notebook; nor is it like composing a symphony, with a composer spending hours a day at a piano. Although writing a screenplay may be a solitary process, with film makers like Woody Allen resembling famous writers as much as famous directors, making a film is much more like performing a symphony, with a room full of people with a variety of specialities: actors, lighting crew, and cinematographers, all in need of a strong conductor. Having social skills and an easy time settling disputes is thus absolutely imperative to being a good director. When writing a novel, you may become angry with yourself when a scene doesn’t work; when a sound-operator argues with a cinematographer, however, the situation takes on a different dynamic. A director is more like a CEO than a rugged individualist, and being both a director and a leader is important.
Unlike writing a novel, directing a short film also requires a knowledge of what different equipment will best express your vision. Digital film making is popular now, but many directors prefer analogue equipment for its warmth. Digital sound is becoming the norm, but like analogue film equipment, there are those who prefer an older-style production sense. Knowledge of lighting actors is also key, and can be confusing for those who don’t know the main tenets of three-light shooting, wherein actors are back lit, side-lit, and lit from the front.
Finally, and most importantly, a director absolutely must understand the art of storytelling. The word “drama” comes from the Greek word “to act.” This is the art of storytelling in its most compressed form: Characters must act on their environment. They must solve a problem. They may philosophise about society; they may engage in interesting dialogue; but above all else, they must act to solve a problem. Charles Foster Kane, of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, desperately acted to keep his life together. Shakespeare’s Macbeth struggled to please his wife by taking power in a Scottish court; Romeo and Juliet struggled to maintain their relationship. All main characters must act upon their environment. Understand this, and you’ll take the first steps towards understanding how to one day direct a classic film.