P:O.V. No.5 - On the Art of the Short Fiction Film

What Makes a Short Fiction Film Good?

Bevin Yeatman

Issues of quality and value accompany the burgeoning production of short film and these are usually centred around the vexing question: what makes one short film better than another? There is another question however, and that is why are short films made at all? If we step back from discussing short film as autonomous texts and begin to address short film as a type of cultural practice, the question - what makes a short fiction film good? - introduces a differernt series of concerns.

Recently I asked a number of New Zealand directors, producers, funders and students involved in short film practice, What is a short film? The following is a representative sample of their responses.

  • 'Drama, Experimental, Personal, Documentary, Animation, etc. which is produced on film or video up to 15 minutes in length, or 30 minutes in terms of short featurettes.' David Reid (producer).

  • 'Probably anything sub 30 minutes narrative/non-narrative designed to entertain/challenge a theoretical audience.' Paul Swadel (film maker/video artist).

  • 'For me a short film is a piece of work under half an hour which tells a story - narrative is very important to me.' Jeena Murphy (film maker).

  • 'What is a short film indeed? I have never actually read a definition of "short film" apart from various film festival criteria, i.e. "less than 30 minutes,""less than 60 minutes," etc. The times vary quite widely. I suppose short film defines itself as "other" to the accepted feature format ("longer than say 120 minutes"). Apart from that, I imagine there are as many short film definitions as there are short films. They can be anything, but not a "feature" film.' Stephen McGlashan (film maker/ producer).

  • 'A film shorter than a feature film - usually then, shorter than 70 minutes. Recently the focus has been on theatrical short films which tend to be less than 15 minutes, preferably under 10 minutes.' Catherine Fitzgerald (Director of Creative and Industry Development for New Zealand Film Commission).

  • 'A short film is strictly speaking any film of shorter than feature length, made for the exhibition on the cinema screen (as opposed to video or television). In reality, one can define it more flexibly to include dramas such as those made for the 1995 Montana Sunday Theatre series,[1] where the most likely distribution is television and video, but where the artistic impulse nevertheless is more cinematic than televisual.' Christina Milligan (Ex-chair, Short Film Fund[2] , New Zealand Film Commission).

  • 'A film that isn't a feature film in terms of length of time. Has to be able to get the message/ideas etc. across a lot faster.'

  • 'An idea that is created and lasts for 2-15 minutes.'

  • 'A simple, self-contained story, no great development of characters, enough to know who they are and their role in story. Usually very few characters introduced.'

  • 'An opportunity for a film maker to communicate their ideas concisely. By that I mean there is no extra information. Everything is there for a reason and there is no "padding".'

  • 'Similar to a short story. Sometimes with a surprise ending.'

  • 'An intense piece of time - usually deals with one idea and expresses it fairly directly.'

  • 'An expression of an idea on a shorter scale. Often expressive and tends towards the abstract. An idea that is complete in itself.'

    (Responses from Waikato Polytechnic Students, Hamilton, New Zealand.)

Stephen McGlashan's statement - 'I imagine there are as many short film definitions as there are short films' - seems very apt when these definitions are listed together. There are, however, some similarities. For instance, half the first group of professionals define short film in relation to feature film. Those who don't tend to be either new at the 'game', or else have more experimental than mainstream interests. Conversely, the students, except one, don't mention feature film as a marker, but focus on what they perceive a short film does. It expresses an idea and does it concisely.

Both groups overlap their positions. What I find interesting though are the two different perceptions. Those established in the mainstream tend to define short film in terms of what it is not, while those who aren't established in the mainstream perceive short film as a particular practice.

These two approaches to short film are also reflected in the agenda of the Film Commission's funding regime; namely that their funding is to encourage the production of short films as entities in their own right, and to encourage the development of creative talent toward feature film making. Attitudes to short film then seem to shift between short film as a particular form and short film as a means to an end. What might be "good" as an entity in its own right, however, might not necessarily be "good" as a means to develop feature film talent.

I am interested in asking the question what makes a short fiction film good?, but qualifying this to mean "good" in the light of its role as a means to encourage creative development. This is a very common role for short film. For instance, Cooper and Dancyger state that:

the commercial viability of the short film is at best modest, limiting its usefulness to the apprenticeship phase of the filmmaker's career, except in those countries where considerable public subsidy is available to support the production of short film (xiv).

When I have asked directors who made short films financed by the Film Commission, New Zealand's government film organisation, what film projects they would like to do in the future, they have all said "I want to make a feature". Short film, especially for those who have gained some kudos in the screen industry, is often a transitional stage, a game to pass beyond to the 'real' business of feature films.

Catherine Fitzgerald, the director of industry and creative development for the Film Commission explained that, in her view, short film develops creative talent in two ways, first by having the experience of working in a professional environment and second by attracting international interest.

Christina Milligan, ex-chair of the Short Film Fund, states that:

it is difficult to convince funders at the feature film level to take a punt on a director without what is regarded in this currently auteur-driven industry as a "calling-card"... short films have become defacto the very obvious way of practising and displaying one's artistic, technical and storytelling skills in the cinematic area.[3]

I am not denying there are film makers who are willing to defy the powerful pressures to make certain types of short film. Probably all of those active in making films think that they are telling their own stories in their own ways.

There are pressures, however, to make short films for reasons that go beyond telling stories, and although the value of the short films made can be judged through a reading of them as narrative texts, foregrounding, for instance, aesthetic structures, or an analysis of motifs, themes, images and ideologies, using whatever theory is suitable, they can just as appropriately be judged on their effectiveness at furthering the director's likelihood to get future funding for a feature. One very important story inscribed[4] in short film is the shaping of short films by these extra-textual pressures.

Film making is a collaborative practice involving numerous relationships between individuals and groups. These include the relationships directly involved in the actual production of a film: producers, directors, actors and crew for instance, as well as those involved on the periphery of production, for instance, the politicians, funders, processors, agents, marketers, distributors, festival organisers, programme managers, accountants, students, audiences, critics and academics.

It is an analysis of these relationships that can give us some of the clues about how short film is actually shaped and valued. These different relationships can be understood by establishing the contexts in which they operate and by looking at the processes which occur in those contexts[5] to influence the types of decisions made.

These relationships can be both formal and informal and are determined by combinations of structural, discursive, economic, and personal alliances. For instance a relationship between the producer and the Short Film Fund was necessary for a funding application to occur. This was a formal alignment dictated by the rules of the Fund. However, this was only significant in terms of a cluster of other influences such as the agenda of the Film Commission, the cultural kudos of the producer and creative team, the perceived quality of the application documents, and the economic constraints imposed by the available funds. Other considerations might also have a degree of influence, such as the personality of the producer, the actual membership of the Fund at the time of the decision, or the current perceptions of what might constitute a 'successful' short film.

Informal relations occur through the strategy of establishing cultural kudos and by getting known to the 'right' people. These informal relations are aimed at developing alliances which will make formal relationships more expeditious and are shaped by such elements as film making experience, reputations enhanced through the media, through networking or other forms of alliance.

The definition of a short film I want to pursue would suggest that short film practices are part of these complex and continuing cultural relationships and the short film itself is never at rest. It is never one thing, since it is always on the way to becoming something else, or being deployed for some other goal. This process is conceived as a dynamic one established through different contexts. Short film becomes something that we define because of the context we place it in and there are a myriad of contexts to choose.

Through many of these contexts short film acts as a form of currency in an economy of exchange - an exchange of influence and support, of kudos and opportunity. This currency is 'spent' by various people in various roles (director, script writer, producer, magazine editor, politician, academic) to 'finance' their ongoing survival in their cultural games. I believe short film is shaped by the demands of these ploys and this economy of exchange is very influential in dictating what types of films are made and how they are valued.

Many short films are not produced simply to be seen by the public - public viewing access in New Zealand is at best limited anyway[6] - they are an investment used as a form of exchange to establish, maintain and develop strategic alignments in the film industry. Successful alignments result in the legitimation of certain types of films and this legitimation process develops through the discourses and structures that have been established in the film culture.

For instance if shorts act as a "calling-card" then I would suggest a significant part of many New Zealand Film Commission funded films are used by the director to present what s/he can do, and often result in a spectacle of style, genre reference and high production values. Their work is future oriented, shaped by a strategy of adding value, not usually to their bank account, but certainly to their prospects.

This process seems to work for some directors at least. When Gregor Nicholas, was asked if his short film Avondale Dogs affected his ability to make a feature he replied:

Oh, absolutely! Internationally it was recognised and acclaimed, and people in the United Sates, in particular, became very interested in me. I mean, Steven Spielberg saw it. I was actually getting feature offers after the success of that film. But I wanted to make Broken English.

I think what happened in the end though because of my relationship with Robin Scholes, who of course produced [Once Were] Warriors, we were perceived as a fairly promising double act - with the success of my short film on the international festival circuit and likewise the critical acclaim of Warriors (Amos: 1997).

Maybe these short films funded by the Film Commission regime are "good" for some directors, but how "good" are they for the rest of those involved in the production process? Simon Raby, an experienced director of photography,[7] suggests the experience might not be so positive.

Certainly, short film making provides a valuable tool for fledgling crew to garner experience and to showcase their work, but the vast majority of a short film crew is made up of industry professionals who usually charge half and up to as little as five per cent of their daily rate.. I believe this is a form of philanthropy, because film crews are proud of being creative people and are interested in making good drama in this country. But mostly this kind of behaviour is intended as another form of currency exchange; an unspoken hope that should the director graduate onto greater things, then s/he will take those crew with them and the rewards will be shared.

However I feel like the exception to the rule as time and time again I witness first time directors demanding huge amounts of effort from budget crews, only to abandon them when the time comes to move onto greater things or fall by the wayside as so many wannabe directors do... There have been repeated efforts to address this issue, most notably the call for more careful attention to reality at the budgeting stage of the film for which the producer is responsible prior to submission of the treatment. However, because short film offers no financial reward: only kudos within the infrastructure, most producers who submit short film treatments are as ambitious as their directors to make something that will truly be a great calling card.[8]

Further debate can be generated with the question how "good" are these short films in terms of giving the director valuable experience for future feature production?[9] Andrew Bancroft, a short film director, expresses reservations when addressing the merits of his experience of short film.

It's obviously calling card driven, but look at the skills base required. Those skills can't be learned entirely in short film, it just doesn't work. My understanding of the Short Film Fund is that they fund shorts primarily as an investment in future feature film directors, which suits me fine because I am interested in features not shorts. I find shorts extremely difficult and rather unpleasant to make because I conceive of film as a dramatic medium and short film is not a dramatic medium. I think it is much more of a visual medium. I feel very cramped.[10]

Bruce Sheridan, a New Zealand producer and film maker, also questions whether there is much "good" to be had from a regime which creates films with high production values, but doesn't give the directors adequate experience for feature films.

When you go overseas and talk to distributors about getting a feature film off the ground and they want to know who might direct them and you start mentioning New Zealand short film makers, they are not interested. They are more interested in someone who has done an hour of television than someone who has done a short film.

In New Zealand if you are lucky enough to get funds from the short Film Fund you can probably shoot on 35mm or 16mm and blow it up. You can make this pretty good looking film and most people overseas assume that you therefore have a body of work behind you because you couldn't have got access to that level of production without the body of work. So what happens is most of the directors get found out. When they are funded for features or drawn into the international context their lack of experience shows and the once bitten twice shy attitude operates overseas.[11]

My problem then with the question: what makes a short film good? is that there are probably as many answers as there are contexts of short film practice and that even in each context, for instance, the Film Commission funded short films, the idea of "good" becomes a problem. "Good" for directors and not for crew, "good" as a calling card, but not necessarily that "good" for future feature film experience.[12]

Everyone has his or her own perspectives on what makes a short film "good", and these are dependant on the roles we play in the contexts that define short film practices. The 'top down' pressures coming from economic and political forces which are reflected in funding regimes and commercial opportunities are no more important than the 'bottom-up' pressures coming from teaching, networking, and experiments with form. New possibilities such as digital technologies, which are becoming easily accessible, and the Internet, which offers possibilities of new formats as well as new audiences, cable and satellite transmission, which are exploding television options, and even CD ROM technologies, which offer new ways of combining and storing information, as well as new possibilities for narrative form, suggest that the idea of a "good" short fiction film might undergo rapid change.

My only conclusion is that everyone is implicated in the value of the short fictions films made. There is a need for inclusive research that considers many more of the contexts of short film practices, as well as new ways to research the audience, approach film pedagogy and enhance critical pleasures for a greater range of people. I believe that academics as much as anyone have a stake in making short fiction films "good" and as much energy should be given to research which considers the policies, the financing, the production and marketing of film as has been given to close analysis of the films themselves. We all should collaborate in more dynamic and pro-active ways and help shape the films that could be made, just as we help shape the films that have been made.


Amos, Lindsay (1997), Family Ties' inCinema Papers August 1997, no. 119, pp.24-27.

Cooper, Pat and Ken Dancyger (1994), Writing the Short Film, Boston and London: Focal Press.

Golding, Peter and Murdock, Graham (1979) 'Ideology and the Mass Media; The Question of Determination', in Peter Golding and Graham Murdock (eds.), The Political Economy of the Media, Vol. 1, Cheltenham, UK and Brookfield, US: Edward Elgar, 476-506

McRobbie, Angela (1994), Postmodernism and Popular Culture, London and New York: Routledge. Onfilm, Sept. (1997), pp. 1 and 9.

Wakefield, Philip (1997), 'Son of Five for Five', in Onfilm, November 1997, pp. 22-23.


Short Films
Avondale Dogs (1994),director: Gregor Nicholas, Producer: Stephanie Bauer.

Feature Films
Once Were Warriors (1996), director: Lee Tamahori, Producer: Robin Scholes.

Broken English (1996), director: Gregor Nicholas, producer: Robin Scholes.

[1] A series of television hour long dramas written, directed and produced in New Zealand.

[2] The Short Film Fund, set up in 1985 was disbanded in 1997. A new funding regime has been established and consists of three production companies each having tendered for and being allocated $NZ250,000 by The New Zealand Film Commission. The expectation is that each company will produce at least three films in the year of allocation. This regime has been created to return decision making to the industry as well as develop talent for feature film making.

[3] Questionnaire response, 1996.

[4] I don't believe however it is possible to articulate the material and social processes, supporting the making of a short film, through an analysis of short films themselves, although I think it is necessary to accept that any short film is shaped by these same processes. See also Golding and Murdoch, who state:

it is one thing to argue that all cultural forms contain traces of the relations of production underlying their construction, and of the structural relations which surround them. It is quite another to go on to argue that an analysis of form can deliver an adequate and satisfactory account of these sets of relations and of the determinations that they exert on the production process. They can't. In our view the sociology of culture and communications has been seriously incapacitated by the tendency to over-privilege texts as objects of analysis. Textural analysis will remain important and necessary, but it cannot stand in for the sociological analysis of cultural production. (484/485).

[5] This implies a strategic response to the study of short film. The shaping of this cultural formation cannot be reduced to a singular deterministic focus but demands a consideration of the different effects of each of its contexts and their respective mix of influences. It supports McRobbie's call for a more inclusive cultural analysis.
This would involve reintroducing to the field of cultural analysis more institutional voices, more ethnography, more participant observation. It would also mean turning away from the temptation to read more and more from cultural products and objects of consumption, readings which invariably are of most enjoyment to our own interpretative communities. Such a turning away does not mean being against interpretation, rather it means examining all of those processes which accompany the production of meaning in culture, not just the end-product: from where it is socially constructed to where it is socially deconstructed and contested, in the institutions, practices and relationships of everyday life around us (41).

[6] "The irony of Kiwi shorts is they can be seen more readily on overseas channels - Channel 4 in Britain, for instance, has bought every short film the New Zealand Film Commission has helped to produce over the past four years" (Wakefield: pp. 22-23).

[7] Simon Raby has been professionally involved in the screen industry since 1981, a full time freelancer since 1988, predominantly as a cinematographer.

[8] Personal communication, 1997.

[9] This problem has been recognised by The New Zealand Film Commission with the implementation of its "no-budget" feature programme. Four "no-budget" feature films have been funded by the New Zealand Film Commission over the next two years. These will be delivered to lock-off. New Zealand Film Commission chief executive Ruth Harley states that "The Film Commission wants to make more feature films and develop writing, producing and directing talent through people working on larger stories than short films.' Onfilm, Sept. 1997, pp. 1 and 9.

[10] Interview, 1996.

[11] Interview, 4th December, 1996.

[12] This obviously can also be said for other contexts such as audience reception, critical interpretation, exhibition venues, festival competitions, film teaching, experimental films, and the list could go on.