Sunday, June 10, 2018

Animation 101: Constructing a Story for a Short Film, Part 1: Introduction..

The Short Film is a very different beast from it's more long winded counterpart. A short doesn't have the time to tell intricate details about characters, back stories, or environments. We have our audience for a very brief, very precious period of time, and we can't waste any of it. A short film is like living in a tiny New York City apartment, you own very little, and what you do own has it's place. Within this apartment there's very little room to indulge in anything that isn't vital, and often you are forced to get rid of a lot of stuff, in exchange for clarity and a de-cluttered living space. The art on your wall has to be chosen carefully, because, well, it's your only wall. The filmmaker must be brief with his/her short and stick to the idea and not stray, yet cannot rush anything or cram info in at all. Often times shorts use symbols more readily than features, symbols have preconceptions attached to them already, thus one more thing the filmmaker doesn't have to worry about, or spend precious time divulging. It can be a challenge to express a clear idea in a matter of minutes, but it can also be a very clear and concise vehicle of communication.  There are several types of "Stories" you can employ in your short, some don't concern story at all. In Nick Parks short "Creature Comforts" we see a collection of interviews from elderly care homes translated to animals living in a zoo. The interviews themselves are so interesting and filled with character that the story becomes a simple exercise in recording, hence the film begins with the levels of a recording device, that's all the information we need to get going.

It can be suggested that where a feature tells a story, a short expresses an idea. This idea is packaged in a complete manner, and wraps up in a satisfying way. People that know me know that I'm not a big advocate of story in general, or at least I don't share the obsession of overstating it's importance, I believe it is purely one of the key elements to making a short, but shares this importance with character, design/aesthetic, overall appeal, technique, as well as execution of that technique. Many of the cliche chunks of advice filmmakers hear all the time are even more important with a short. "Show don't tell", "Get in late, get out early", "The medium is the message", etc.. all even more important when we only have a handful of minutes to express our idea. The medium is truly the message, so choose your medium well. The content will likely dictate your medium, for example, JJ Villards epic piece "Son of Satan", features the gritty poem by Charles Bukowski. JJ employs a raw, gritty, and awkward line art as if out of his sketchbook. The style and medium matches the equally raw words of the voice over.

When I first started making shorts, over 15 years ago, I was hesitant and worried about my skills as a story teller, animator, and lots of other things, so I kept things simple, brief, and based on the idea. I didn't realize it back then, but I was on the right track from the start. Humility can help you in many ways! understanding your limitations and working inside those limitations is key. There's a world of creativity that lives and breathes inside your limitations, in other words, there's limitless ideas within your limitations of skill.

I knew I couldn't' draw that well, but I also knew I had a knack for weird abstract action, like morphing, and twisting. My first film was called "Drink", based on the simple premise that we have many personalities in us all. To express this I illustrated different people crawling and stretching out of each others mouths.

We see incredible short films all the time, but rarely do we slow down and ask ourselves "Why" they work. What mechanics behind your favorite shorts contribute to their success? I love asking the question "Why!" There is so much to learn and benefit from others victories. There are so many ways to do things, and of course you don't have to follow the techniques I've outlined below. These are methods I've found useful, as well as many of my colleagues. I've written this more for the struggling idea maker, the person having trouble getting started or wrapping it up. These are not rules, they are suggestions, and suggestions are designed to be twisted, torn apart, chewed up, and spit out. So with that attitude, let's begin. In the following days I will post a 4 part series on Constructing a story for a Short Film. Most material is drawn from my personal notes while teaching the graduate thesis program at NYU Tisch-Asia from 2009-2014.


  1. Great read, Patrick! I'm very much looking forward to what you have to say in this series. You've got a wealth of experience and knowledge to share, and I'm excited to take it in. Cheers!

  2. I am eager to read your coming posts. This one on is own is very educational and interesting. Thank you.

  3. Great and insightful writeup, I enjoyed this! If you like the weird and morphing animations you'll probably love Miyazaki stuff so much, as do I.