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D.U.M.P.S.: Directing Unsuccessful Motion Picture Shorts

Contributors: Waldo, Keir, & Steve

"I've made it a point never to watch anyone's student film. I usually tell people, 'I'll hire you--as long as I don't have to watch your student film!' Most student films feature two things--a not particularly attractive girl running towards the camera, and a suicide. If it's a comedy, it features a not particularly attractive girl and a dog. I should know. I made one, and so did my son. But these kids are stealing jobs from me, so they must be doing something right."

Chuck Workman
Chairman of the Director's Guild of America's Academic liaison subcomittee
(As quoted in Billy Frolick's What I Really Want To Do Is Direct)

How dare we?

On the whole, student short films SUCK!.
D.U.M.P.S. contains not the usual advice you get in film school about the elements of good screenwriting. No, no. Rather, it is a very specific list of common mistakes and trends which we've seen in crappy student films again and again at screening after screening.
Before you even think of making a student film, read this list.
If you're a genius, then go ahead--- break these rules.
But let's face it, if you think you're a genius, you're not. So play it safe and spare your audiences the uneasy task of having to lie when you ask, "So- what did you think?"

Let the list of sucking begin!

Dolly/Zoom

No question. This is the most egregious, blatantly non-creative, non-cool, total student film red flag. Sure, Hitchcock used it in Vertigo, Spielberg used it Jaws, but enough is enough. It's cliched, overused, goofy, and overall a bad idea. By the way, what we're talking about here is a simultaneous Dolly-in/Zoom-out or vice-versa which compresses the background while keeping the subject at a fixed size during the shot.
A student-film no-no. (The dolly/zoom is such a mark of a student film, it's a joke in the opening of THE BIG PICTURE.)

The Tortured Artist Film

The story goes like this. A struggling artist (writer/painter/sculptor/musician -- 90% of the time, it's a writer) grapples with some sort of inner conflict, (a dead relative, writers deadline, religious confusion, etc). Our tormented soul encounters a muse (beautiful woman, endearing older character, magical artifact, etc) who helps the protagonist come to a sort of realization which ultimately opens the creative floodgates and allows the character to succeed (finish the novel, paint the painting, sculpt the likeness of the muse, or perform at the big recital).
The Tortured Artist Film usually involves a so-called "man vs. himself" struggle which is guaranteed to put you to sleep in the first two minutes. Related to this is the "introspective shot" which usually features the main character staring into space for a good minute (usually smoking a cigarette). File this under "Pretentious as Shit."

Dream Sequences

If you don't want your student film to look like a friggin' episode of Kung Fu, stay away from dream sequences, Grasshopper. A dream sequence generally says "I couldn't think of a better way to reveal information about the character than this." So-called "funny" dream sequences are usually not.

Time-Elapse Montage

You've got say, 15 minutes to get your point across in a short film. Every second of screen time should be treated like gold. A time-elapse montage not only demonstrates an inability to structure your film pacing-wise, it makes the audience wait unnecessarily. Try to find a simple and efficient way to indicate the passage of time without resorting to this too easy narrative device.

Bad Audio

You can have a real nice looking short film, but if the sound is bad, the film itself comes across as bad. Nothing gives away a student film like the soundtrack. Budgets are tight, sure, but many student directors simply don't place any importance and give any thought to what their film sounds like. The result is often a beautiful picture with a badly mixed, distracting audio experience. In the same vein, if you're making a 16mm film, be aware of how crappy the 16mm optical track is going to sound (which is REALLY bad) and try to prepare for it.
And now, free of charge, a canonical list of BAD musical soundtrack instruments:
  1. Synthesizer (the "porn" soundtrack)

  2. Your friend's band (trust me, they suck)

  3. "the lone, slow piano"

  4. "the lone guitar" (flamenco esp.)

  5. The "impish" clarinet

  6. The cello dirge.

  7. The "spirited" piccolo.

  8. Any kind of wood blocks.

"Look at me, I'm a director!" shots

Examples include-- the gratuitous "fishbowl in the foreground" shot, the "overhead for no reason 'cept we're shooting in a soundstage" shot, the "we think it's cool canted dutch angle shot" and perhaps most insidiously the "fridge POV shot", otherwise known as the "put the camera inside the trashcan/toilet/mailbox shot". Ok, maybe you need to get this stuff out of your system, but just be warned, it's total cheese.

Ultraslow Dialogue

A film professor once told me that on a film set, one second of "real" time equals three seconds of film time. Something to remember. Watch a student film and notice how often there are long pauses between lines of dialogue.
Why is this? I don't know, but if you watch the average "real" film, you'll see that the dialogue often occurs ultra fast. Maybe it's because we can hear faster than people normally speak. Who knows. A side note-- these pauses also extenuate bad lines of dialogue. A poorly written line is going to hang in the air like a fart if not closely followed by a fresh line to cleanse the air like a gentle breeze...

Blatant Miscasting

  1. The audience can tell when you cast your significant other as the romantic object of desire.

  2. Don't try to pass off someone who is shall we say, "fugly", as a supermodel.

  3. In the same vein, why do so many student films cast SAG boy wonders as the "computer nerd" who can't get a date?

  4. Mismatched couples. Be honest: "Do you believe that SHE would go out with HIM?" Make sure the answer is "yes." The audience can only suspend their disbelief so much.

  5. Don't have your friends play "older characters." The baby powder grey hair trick doesn't work. Neither do the fake beards.

"Eyebrow acting"

It may work at the Golden Tugboat Dinner Theatre, but it don't come off on film. What's eyebrow acting? It's an overly expressive use of facial muscles more suited to miming than screen acting. This acting technique is only acceptable in films where the characters have sex within the first four minutes.
The "Nothing Happens"
short film

A very common bad student film. Usually consists of a main character who spends his or her time talking to people about nothing of consequence. Nothing happens for up to forty-five minutes. At the end, some contrived "climax" comes out of nowhere and tries to wrap everything up, but because there has been no conflict of any sort for so long, the audience is asleep and misses it. Common threads of these films include the "personal discovery/epiphanies that go inside the main character's head" film, the "warm remembrances of my childhood that no one cares about" film, and the "Slice of Life that is more uninteresting than real life" and "funny people I know come to life on the big screen." Nearly 50% of these films include an alcoholic single parent.

The Feature Film Masquerading
as a Short Film

If you've ever sat through a screening of student films, you'll notice that often the ones that are best received are the shorter films. Now it could be argued that this is due to the simple fact that they suck and less sucking is better than more sucking. It could also be because the audience is sitting through many many student films in one evening and appreciates the shorter ones because it means the whole thing will end sooner. In the short narrative film genre, every moment is precious. It's to your advantage to make your film short but sweet-- for one thing, shorter films cost less, take less time to edit, and allow you more time to focus on making your film as tight and well designed as possible. Ask yourself when writing (and editing) the film-- is this scene necessary? Is this moment necessary?
What does it do for the audience? We call this The "Get In And Get Out" Principal. Don't cram a full length feature into the short film style. Do what your film needs to do and then get the hell out. Remember, longer isn't necessarily better. Less is more.

The One Joke Film

A good short film has got to be a collection of good ideas, not one good idea stretched out for fifteen minutes. In any event, at least make an attempt to fill your time with stuff that's actually interesting to someone other than yourself. I don't know how many bad student films I've seen that are actually about the filmmaker's uninteresting life or contain vignettes that go on and on and on. Before you shoot, make a list of all the "good ideas" in the script.
You should have lots of them. How's that for a generic tip?

The "Walk into the Camera"
Transition

This one is zany. A character walks INTO THE CAMERA LENS! And then we fade to black, or more commonly, cut to the reverse-- someone walking AWAY FROM THE CAMERA LENS! OOOooo!
What a good idea...

The zany "Slacker with a Gun" film

You're not Quentin Tarantino.
Stop trying.

Overused video effects

Keep dissolves to a minimum. They are not synonymous with cuts. Same goes for wipes, keys, etc. The 80's are over. Video effects suck.
The "Dramatic Cigarette"

A character is having a dramatic crisis: So what does he/she do? Whips out a smoke and puffs dramatically as if to say, "Look, this is so serious I'm smoking." YES, people do smoke when they are nervous or excited, or under pressure. But there's no excuse for using the long, boring "drag 'n puff" scene as a lazy alternative to finding a more original way to express the same thing.

Ramblers: The "Quest for Truth"

There are several permutations of this theme. #1. The Puzzled Scientist. The "story" deals with a puzzled reclusive scientist who learns to forgo cold, hard science for something warm, gushy and intangible, like love, god, morality, religion or free will. Films in this genre are usually condescending to the audience and set up bogus sounding explanations of scientific principals (look for glossed over references to Chaos Theory, Grand Unification Theory, Relativity, etc.) and far-fetched reconciliations of the two. Filmmakers, please: if you must write one of these and want to be taken seriously, at least do a little research so you don't insult real scientists in the audience. #2. The Venting film. Broke up with your boy/girlfriend? Please, don't make a movie about it! It's dangerous-- These self-examinatory "why my ex dumped me" films that turn into long diatribes about the nature of love, the nature of mankind, etc. are rarely insightful and usually about as interesting as listening to a friend complaining about a relationship gone bad. In short, philosophical examinations of human existence and relationships, when discussed on an abstract level, will almost guarantee that the audience will become bored and/or confused.

Shooting into Mirrors

Now don't get me wrong, shooting into a mirror can be used to great effect when used at the right time and for the right reasons. But like so many narrative devices abused by student filmmakers, the "reflective" shot has become a staple of the bad short film. "Cool! So she puts her hand mirror right there and then we can see her boyfriend yelling at her behind her and it's all in one shot. Man, I'm a genius!" -- .niaga knihT

New! Interminable Credit Sequences

We know you're excited about your film and you have a lot of people to thank, but please consider the poor audience member who has to sit through ten films. We've seen credit sequences that last longer than the film itself! Here're some things to think about: (1) Scroll fast. Real fast. (2) Small fonts are great. (3) Title cards are fast but not every crew member needs one. (4) Must you really thank your entire family tree by name?

New! Scene One: The protagonist wakes up.

There's nothing INHERENTLY wrong with starting a film with the buzz of an alarm clock, a hand slapping the snooze button, eyes fluttering open, followed by a yawn or an "oh my god, I'm late!" - But why so much of this? We see it all the time. It's as if the writer/director woke up one morning, looked around and said "Wow. This is cool!" Uh yeah. Better go back to sleep.

Why aren't zooms in general on this list?

Often in film school, the only aesthetic advice you will get is "Don't use zooms." Screw that.
Zooms are NOT on this list. That's because zooms, while potential cheese, can be used even at the student level effectively and are much cooler than most film schools even understand.