People arrive at making or working with shorts from a variety of places. Perhaps you are a seasoned shorts filmmaker, or this is your first go at the form. You may be someone who has come upon a story that you know is ideal as a short, or you may be a feature documentary filmmaker who has decided to make a short piece to precede the release of your longer film. You may have had a successful run with your feature length doc and realised audiences want to know more about a theme or a character in your film. Why not cut a piece that lets them dig in? Perhaps you’ve been commissioned to work with a journalist. Or you’re a team member who is tasked with building an impact plan. Or an advocate who wants to integrate film into your public engagement.
No matter the pathway that led you to a short, or the shape it takes, let’s take a moment to ground ourselves in two key characteristics of the form: style and length.
Shorts - generally meaning anything 40 minutes and under - offer a great deal of creative flexibility to get their point across. They can include everything from: traditional story and character-driven documentary shorts to journalism (news and art-styled) to data-driven presentations (with infographics and data visualisation) to comedy films (sketches, routines, stunts) to evidence-based films (wrongdoing captured on camera) to straight-up advocacy films to interactive and VR projects to branded content and, of course, series (which can be any of the above). In this chapter we limit our examples to shorts projects and campaigns that explicitly aimed to advance some kind of social impact.
Impact shorts can be story driven. The Girl and the Picture, by Vanessa Roth, tells the story of Madame Xia, who as a young girl witnessed the murder of her family in the Nanjing Massacre and lived to offer testimony. Now, at 88, she passes down her story to her granddaughter. But it’s a delicate process and there are those who wish to erase this history. Audiences walk alongside her as she fights to defend the truth.
Impact shorts can make the news. Journalist Carole Cadwalladr & The Guardian worked with Doc Society and director Mark Silver to produce the documentary short released alongside its Cambridge Analytica exposé, revealing the identity and motivation of whistleblower Christopher Wylie.
Impact shorts can be character driven. Take for example, the Oscar nominated 4.1 Miles by Daphne Matziaraki. This 21-minute film about refugee arrivals in Europe is profoundly moving. The Syrian crisis was the biggest news story of the year when the film came out, receiving endless coverage. However, 4.1 Miles offered something unique: it presented the situation through the eyes of a powerful and compelling protagonist - a coast guard captain who lives on the Greek island of Lesbos. Through his seemingly endless efforts to rescue people, viewers are forced to confront the need for a humane solution.
Impact shorts can communicate difficult ideas, elevate little known facts or unknown information in digestible ways. Take the Brookings Institute, for example, which launched the Brookings Creative Lab in 2015 to tell the stories behind the research they produce, from understanding the elections to illustrating economic policy using infographics and interviews.
Impact shorts can be emotionally compelling. Extremis by Dan Krauss and End Game by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman both offer a compassionate and steady look at a subject that most people prefer to avoid: dying. The former follows a doctor, and the latter a series of families and palliative care teams as they move through sensitive conversations and decisions. In so doing, each film asks viewers to consider what it means - and what it will take - to die well.
Impact shorts also tell the stories that are not being told. Venezuela: Smuggling Dreams is about a father in Venezuela who swaps fishing for smuggling in a bid to provide for his family amid an economic crisis in Venezuela. It drives home the tough choices and dire risks that people take to provide for their families when there are few alternatives - and it tells the story from the perspective of someone who mainstream media might otherwise write off as “smuggler” or “criminal”, thus missing important layers of the story.
Impact shorts can offer surprising perspectives in non-traditional ways. My Deadly, Beautiful City by Victoria Fiore is about Arctic Russia. It has no character and no story. It’s an 11 minute visual postcard from a specific place that is eye-opening with respect to the level of pollution one community experiences, and the surprising perspectives they hold.
Style you say? Shorts have got bags of it.
'The major question I always get is “do you have a shorter version of this film?”'
Often, filmmakers want to know what the ideal length is for a short. And the short answer is (pun intended): it depends.
If you dare to investigate this question, you’ll get a range of responses. Marketers will tell you to keep your film to 30-60 seconds for Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. For YouTube it jumps to 2-9 minutes. But these numbers mainly have to do with the stickiness of a film and its likeliness to capture a viewer’s attention. But as we know, views do not necessarily denote impact.
Senior Short Film Programmer for the Sundance Film Festival, Mike Plante, once said that the average length of the shorts submitted to Sundance is 12 minutes and that anything over 15 minutes must be especially impressive for them to consider it. But the reasoning for this largely had to do with the festival’s programming needs (because it’s usually easier to pair a piece that is under 10 minutes before or after a feature). So that’s not necessarily the best determinant either.
A grassroots organiser may tell you that 30 minutes is better than 90 because this leaves them with ample time for discussion. When we’re talking about impact, discussion is good. But talk to some creatives and they may say something like: “It’s about telling the story the way the story wants to be told.” In other words, length may not be the best driver either.
The truth is, they are all kind of right. First and foremost, it really does depend on the story. If you can tell the story you want to tell in 10 minutes, then why make it 20?
And, in the end, it may come down to how you hope to get a short out there and how you want people to engage with it.
Just remember that the marketplace and distribution platforms change rapidly - yesterday’s sterling rules are tomorrow’s dust.