Film Crit Hulk and why shorts are meant for learning

I liked this Twitter thread from Film Crit Hulk about short films. Despite his name, Film Crit Hulk is one of the very best places to read film criticism and learn about storytelling and filmmaking. That’s why this thread is so good.

The thread made me think of is the place shorts have in our culture. Short fiction in any medium. Short stories, short comics, short films. The truth is people don’t seek out this work. The industry is too busy to seek them out. They might go a film festival. I don’t think audiences seek them out either. Yet, at the same time beginners are encouraged to make shorts. This gets to Hulk’s final point.

The purpose of most short films is to learn. Short projects are where you cut your teeth and learn. I encountered this situation earlier this week. Isaiah and I are in the middle of production our next short comic. It’s going slowly, we’re undermotivated so we had a call. We wanted to take a cold hard look at the project. What we came to is that we’re either making things to build an audience or we’re trying to make something good. It would easy to say that we’re trying to do both. When you’re trying to figure out your goals, stick to one. Having too many goals will split you in different directions. It became clear is that if we were interested in growing our audience we’d be working differently. One might make more content share more often. What we were focused on was making something good. More specifically it was about learning how to make something good. Getting better at storytelling, and finding a story we’re excited about. After we finish this project, learn from it and move to the next one.

Start with short fiction because it’s a great training ground. It’s a great training ground because you will falter and fail. The iteration, the feedback will make you better at what you do. It might seem ideal to start a big project now. Working on short projects gives you a taste of how much energy any project takes. When you have the experience of making many things, you can stare down a big project with a bit more confidence. Knowing you can see it through the other side.

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Cartoons that don’t speak down

I love cartoons. That’s not surprising, I got into this business because I love of the medium. Most of the time I prefer to watch good animation. Maybe it’s because there’s something uncomplicated or unpretentious about the storytelling. The problem is that I want animation to be even better. I want better shows to watch, lots of them. I watch a lot of animation waiting for them to go deeper, to be more impactful.

When we talk about the depth in storytelling I don’t really mean seriousness or adult themes. Those don’t really interest me. I mean depth as having meaning, a show that tries to say something. I know the creators and artists want to do this. They try so hard to make every show as good as can be. Animators have always taken their craft seriously in a system that doesn’t. They try to simplify the concept to appeal to the widest possible audience. The system might avoid continuity so the show plays better in syndication. This was the mass media system, and the system is starting to shift.

One way I like to think about it is that children’s television could come to resemble children’s literature. It will be diverse in its subject matter. It will also be able to delve deeper into meaningful stories. Longer series, telling unfolding stories. What’s changed is viewing habits. People are watching full series often many times over. Missing an episode and being out of the loop is hardly a problem any more. The kind of content has to be interesting enough that the viewer sees new things with each viewing. Where the complexity and the richness is part of the enjoyment. You don’t have to simplify or tone down your idea. If you want to tell a story that long, a story that’s meaningful, a story that reaches out and speaks to a group of people. Go do it. Choose the audience you want to reach and go make something important. 

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The making many things method

It’s almost 11pm and I haven’t finished this week’s blog post. This morning I was scrambling to find an idea. I ended up looking at some old posts I’d written. Posts I had written, thought they weren’t good enough and scrapped. This is one of those posts. It’s fitting too. It’s about making a lot of something. It’s about making things that aren’t good enough.

There’s an anecdote about making 10 000 bad drawings before you can make a good one. This is somewhat true, it takes time and practice to get good. Creating and storytelling are skills that have to be developed. That means we need the practice of creating and finishing projects. Your first pitch probably won’t get picked up. A first novel probably won’t be published. Part of the process is making lots of things that don’t connect, that don’t quite work on the path to making something that does.

“The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pounds of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.” Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland

Advice that I used to ignore was to create short content. I ignored it because I thought I was above shorts. I wanted to tell big important stories that had big deep meaning, stakes and action. I couldn’t do that in short format. The reason you make shorts isn’t because you can’t handle a big story, it’s because making something small let’s you fail faster.

You will fail, that’s the point. You will make stuff that doesn’t fit your intention or vision. You will make stuff that is cliched, simplistic, confusing, dishonest, and boring. These will all be lessons you need to learn. Making short content let’s you see these mistakes and missteps in clear focus. This will prepare you for the bigger work, and make that bigger work more successful.

The key is not to wait. Every week I write a lot of things that don’t make it to the blog. That’s part of the process. By making many we can learn with each one. We can revisit our ideas. Tackle a different aspect of what we are trying to say. The only way to develop your voice is by speaking.

 

2 kinds of short stories to simplify your big ideas

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Many of us want to make big, important things. You might be trying to figure how to get started on your next project. You might want to outline your epic, start world building your next saga but the fastest way to get to making big and important things is to make small things. I’ve written before about how to take your big idea and make a small version of it. Part of that process is choosing what kind of short to make. I’m not an expert but this idea has helped me. It’s help me wrap my head around story, and especially break down my big ideas into smaller more manageable ones.

Broad

There are two ways your can look at short stories. Broad and Narrow. The Broad story is a story that takes a very general view of the entire story you want to tell. I think a great example of this in animation is The Reward:

“Driven by greed, two young boys venture out on an epic treasure hunt across the world, but to reach their goal they will need to conquer greater dangers than flesh-eating totem-poles and transvestite angels.” IMBD This short is essentially a montage of the journey the characters take. It gets across this big picture epic feeling. It’s funny, and action packed but you don’t that deep with any themes or characters, and that’s okay. I think the point of it is to be fun and exciting.

Narrow

Now if you wanted to go more narrow maybe the short Borrowed Time:

The description from IMDB, “A weathered sheriff returns to the remains of an accident he has spent a lifetime trying to forget. With each step forward, the memories come flooding back. Faced with his mistake once again, he must find the strength to carry on.”IMDB It’s deep, it’s harrowing, and it’s emotional. It’s also contained, it focuses on the main character, his memories. We don’t know how the characters met, we don’t know how the chase started but again that’s not the point. The point is to get across a specific emotion, and it does that beautifully.

In the system called Dramatica, this concept is called slicing and dicing. The way that it works is that every story has 4 parts. An Overall Story, Main Character Arc, Impact Character Arc* and a Relationship Story**.  To slice is to take a little thin piece from every part of the story, getting every layer of a cake in one slice. This kind of story will feel big, but sort of general. Dicing takes a one piece, focusing on one section, just scraping off the all icing and only eating the sponge. This kind of story will be deep and specific, but most of the broader context will be omitted from this narrative.

What’s useful about this approach is that you can take parts of your narrative and split them into short stories. You don’t have to be bogged down by your big ambitious story, you can start small. You can tell as big or as contained of a story as you want and begin the learning process.


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*Impact Character is a secondary character that the main character comes into contact with. Think of all your favourite films/stories there’s usually an important secondary character.

**Relationship Story is a story about the relationship between the Main Character and Impact Character. It’s the ‘heart’ of the film. Story of how they grow to closer or fall apart.

The Compound Audience

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This past week my writing partner Isaiah and I were having this big discussion about our strategy. We’re making a bunch of short comics, but it’s going slowly, and we don’t know if it’s connecting how we want it to. What always comes up in these conversations is how we don’t have the audience or platform to promote what we make. So if you are someone who feels like they don’t have enough followers, fans or audience, I know exactly how you feel.

How do you build an audience from nothing?

I am obviously speaking as someone who is figuring this out, so help yourself to the grains of salt. Building an audience is a powerful thing. That’s why we want to do it, because if you have an audience, even a small one you get to make things for that audience. To make the things you want you need the audience to show up. The thing is you can wait, hope or pray the audience will show up but it probably won’t unless you start building your platform now so when you do have something to share you’ll have a few people to share it with.

Building an audience can be a little like saving for retirement. Putting in a little bit of money over a long enough time and you’ll have enough to retire on. The more money you put in the more interest is earned. Compound interest is an amazing thing. I’m not here to tell you to save for retirement (but you really should). I’m want to talk about the compound audience.

Your audience will start small. Everything starts small. That’s okay and it’s no reason to give up. Just know that it’s going to be small for awhile. Early on when things are compounding the look almost linear but it will grow with time. The first people who will follow you will be your friends and acquaintances. They like your work not because it’s good but because it’s yours. The important part is that we need to start contributing. It will start with your immediate network then grow from there.

Contributing to your audience by sharing your work, work in progress, learning, and ideas. Posting your work can be uncomfortable and vulnerable. It feels like a lot to ask people to look at your work. When you release your work it becomes real, and that is frightening. This is something I could be better at. I always feel like the work could be better. I need to remind myself that sharing work the benefits outway the risk. Nothing truly bad will happen. Nothing we cannot handle.

The hardest part about contributing to your audience will probably be consistency. This is hard because it takes discipline. It’s easy to post something for a week then disappear for a month. Constantly contributing early on will pay dividends later on. Including making sharing part of your routine and a habit you can rely on. I’m not the best at consistency. One area where I’ve been good is with this blog. Every Friday I release a post and my newsletter goes out. I trust that by showing up every week people will start to notice.

You might not think your ready, but you are. You don’t need to be ready because right now the stakes are low. Start building slowly, one person at a time. Then when you are ready you do have something to promote, the audience you’ve put work into will be there. What you post doesn’t have to be pretty or perfect. It’s probably best if it isn’t, choose something that’s easy to follow through on. Start early and contribute often and your little nest egg of an audience will grow.

PS. Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work is a great resource for learning how to share your work.

Other posts about audiences

Where did the general audience go?

The two fears of audiences


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Why I was wrong about short films

I was going to write a post about why I don’t like making short films. As I was writing I realized my reasons were kind of garbage. I had all of these misconceptions about short film production that weren’t true. I haven’t been thinking about short films in the right way. Here are the reasons I thought short films weren’t worth the effort they take.

“Short films are too short for my stories.”

Animation takes so long to produce it’s often in the best interest to make the film as short as possible. I thought that short films had to be so short, you couldn’t fit a full narrative. I want to tell stories that are long and deep. This isn’t a good reason to not make a short film. There’s no reason you can’t take your bigger idea and simplify it to fit the format. I used to think that short films work better when they were funny, and you couldn’t do epics. I think this was fear, each time I tried to make a short film I tried to game the system. I’d make something that I thought would work. In the end I always ended up with something that wasn’t honest to what I wanted to say. This was my lesson from those films. I tried to hard to make a good short film, instead of trying to make my own short film.

I convinced myself that self contained short films were better. I didn’t like the idea of making trailers, or a short that was clearly a pitch for a series. I thought it was more pure to make a film that could stand on it’s own two legs. This is silly, if you’ve put all the work into designing the characters and building the world why not tell more stories. Why not make a long story told in installments. I had this idealized version of what an animated short film was and it prevented me from making the kind of films I wanted to make.

“Short films take forever to make”

Many of us only made short films during school. In school the way you make a film is you start in September and you (hopefully) finish in April. I was lucky in that I started working on my first short film at the end of my second year of animation school. I got funding and worked on it on top of doing coursework. After I graduated and finished my thesis film I had to return to animating this film. The process was excruciating, this is where I get my negative feelings around short films. It took me two and half years to finish it. From that experience I thought animated films took forever to make. At least a year of hard work, for maybe a minute of animation. You can make a short film in however much time you like. When you make the film on your own, you can set the schedule, and the deliverables. I’m probably not going to spend a year on a film again. I’ll manage the scope differently so I don’t have to spend another 2 years on one film.

“Short films are lonely experience.”

The two films I made I animated entirely on my own. Animated filmmaking is unique because you can make a film by yourself. I don’t endorse this, for my money, animation is the best when it is collaborative and a team sport. When working on your own project its common to use yourself, you are the cheapest person you know. Everyone else costs money. I think there are interesting ways that you can raise money or call in favours. Making animation with other people is one of the great benefits of making cartoons.

“Short films have no market.”

I was under the assumption that nobody watches short films. That there wasn’t much success outside of film festivals, and I don’t really get film festivals. What I realized is the struggle of getting people to see your work is hard no matter what your selling. Getting people to watch a short film is as hard as getting someone to read a blog post, see your drawing, read your comic or buy your product. This is a marketing problem and the medium isn’t what’s holding you back. It’s true that there is a very small group of people who are looking for animated short films. They are probably not your audience. What you really need to do is to make something that is for a specific group of people who are looking for what your making. You want to find a group of people who like to share what’s interesting to them. It doesn’t have to reach everybody it just has to reach the right people.

I wrote this post to try and explain why short films are a waste of time. I don’t think that any more. I’m actually kind of excited, I want to start making one. It’s a whole new perspective. I think we all have an idea of what a short film is supposed to be. Often we make it to hard on ourselves. This gets to the point of Indie Animated. You choose the terms of what you want to make. Question your assumptions about the proper way to do things. Don’t wait for someone to approve your idea, or funding to come through, or the perfect story. If you see an audience waiting for a certain kind of story, and you want to make it, start making it. Get it out in whatever crude version you can. It might not work, but try to have the bravery to make something better next time.

When you finally have the time to work on your project

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Last week I caught a cold, I was at home for five days and I didn’t get much done except catch up on a lot of TV. A lot of the time was resting, or going to the clinic and pharmacy. I couldn’t get myself to do 20 minutes of writing, or an hour of drawing. I think it has something to do with routine and structure. We can sometimes be more productive when we’re busier because we have to be. When you have to squeeze in your personal work in the few hours before and after work you find that time. When you have ample free time, you wait for the right time when you feel like working. We almost never feel like working. You can have week off, or a holiday weekend and still struggle to get things on your to-do list checked off.

Now that I know this, I think I can plan for my day off or free weekend. One option is to schedule your personal work. If you have a free week and you want to work on your project treat it like work. Have a start and end time, and at the end of the day put the work down and relax. Another alternative is to recognize that this is a break. Allow yourself to relax fully, don’t worry about getting work done and absolve yourself of guilt.

I think to myself about all the things I’d get done if only I had the time. Often that’s not the case, even when I get the time I can’t sit down and do the work. The truth is we have the time now. There’s no use waiting because there’s never the right time. If you have a project you are dying to make start chipping away at it. Evenings, weekends, any time, you can afford to start doing it now.


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