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Arts & Entertainment

How to Brainstorm Short Film Ideas: 5 Tips for Generating Ideas

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: May 8, 2020 • 3 min read

Before directors like George Lucas, Sofia Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, and Wes Anderson made big-budget feature films, they chose to showcase their skills by making short films. A good short film can be an excellent calling card for a first-time filmmaker—or a fun side project for an established screenwriter who has a short story they’re burning to tell.

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What Is a Short Film?

A short film is a motion picture that doesn’t meet the time requirements to be considered a feature film. Generally, a film is considered ‘short’ if it is between one and 50 minutes long.

Short films can be live-action, animated, or computer-generated. Like feature films, short films tell closed-ended stories with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. The best short movies have a clear focus and are economical with their storytelling, utilizing only one or two locations and a handful of characters.

5 Tips for Finding Ideas for Your Short Film

Inspiration for short films can be found in a variety of places. Here are some tips to help you find your first idea:

  1. Watch short films. The best way to come up with interesting ideas for your short script is to watch what other short filmmakers (screenwriters, directors, cinematographers) are doing and use their work to inspire your own. Figure out what makes their short film appeal to you and transpose those elements into your own story. Watch shorts that have won awards at short film festivals, premiered at major film festivals, or were shortlisted for the Academy Awards.
  2. Watch feature films sparingly. Feature-length films are much more complex than shorts and may encourage you to overcomplicate your story. One of the best things you can do for your short is to keep it simple.
  3. Pull inspiration from your own life. Many filmmakers draw inspiration from personal life experiences in their work. Consider mining through your past experiences for potential short film ideas. Ask yourself: What images or events can you clearly remember from childhood? What is the strangest interaction you’ve had with another person in the last year? If you’re feeling devoid of your own interesting real-life events, maybe it’s time to head outside and interact with other people. For example, award-winning writer David Sedaris has never learned to drive a car—so he uses public buses, taxis, planes, and trains as opportunities to meet real people. These interactions can lead to diary entries and essays—or in your case, script ideas.
  4. Start with what you have. Creativity flourishes through limitation, so if you’re drawing a blank on ideas, you may be feeling overwhelmed at the number of possibilities. Combat these feelings by making a list of locations that you’d have access to shoot at (even if you’re just writing the short and don’t plan on filming it yourself): Is your backyard big enough to shoot a scene? Would your workplace let you film after hours? Setting your short within the restrictions of one of these settings can help you think of new possibilities for a good story.
  5. Have your characters evolve. The “turn” is the end of a storyline, the moment where something major changes (for example, when Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader). The turn is the most crucial moment in your short film script because it will leave audiences with their final impression. If you reread your story idea and the character ends up in pretty much the same place they started, your audience may feel as if your story falls a little flat. Don’t be afraid to let your character make a life-changing decision, stumble into a mistake, or close a door for good—these types of endings often tell the most powerful stories, and will make for a great short film.
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