What Can You Learn From Oscar Shorts?

by Ruth Witteried

Ruth Witteried, Film Coordinator

Ruth Witteried, Film Coordinator

It is not easy to find the Oscar Nominated Shorts on Comcast Pay Per View. I found them once, then they seemed to disappear from cable and the internet. In fact, they had been pulled from the internet prior to the Academy Awards and a recent search turned up only their trailers. Fear not! They are still available on Comcast in time for your review as you polish your short script for the Friday WWC Script to Screen deadline. To find them go to:

death of shadow

Comcast On Demand >

(HD) On Demand (if you have it) >

Movies >

Movie Collections >

Oscar Films >

Oscar Nominees >

Best 2013 Live Action Shorts

Is it worth the $7.99 to watch 114 minutes of live action shorts, most of it subtitled? Absolutely. By doing so you so gain a sense of perspective about what can and can’t be done in a ‘contained’ short. The FiLMLaB budget comes primarily from entry fees so if you want to film sixty Afghan horse riders doing their version of a polo match (Buzkashi Boys)—that may be unrealistic. In fact, when you watch Buzkashi Boys and Asad, try to imagine filming something similar in the Portland Metro area, keeping in mind that every time cameras and lighting are moved costs increase. Most of the scenes take place outside at: village markets, busy streets, ruins, buzkashi grounds, mountain roads, the beach and ocean. Under the best writing conditions you don’t have to think about that; you just write your story. But this is a writing competition calling for contained scripts so it is to your advantage to keep these things in mind (and it is good practice for your feature as many companies will only consider contained scripts).

For good examples of containment pay particular attention to Henry, Death of a Shadow and this year’s winner, Curfew. Death of a Shadow does an excellent job in creating mood and tone and is limited to one primary location with interior and exterior shots. But it’s a great location with many options for scene setting that make it look like multiple locations. It has a single point of view; that of the main character and the cast is rounded out by three minor characters and very few extras. When you watch it, think about where they spent their money and if you would do the same. Then compare it to Henry and Curfew.

Henry, far and away has the most emotional heft of  any of the nominees; twenty-one minutes inside the mind of a man losing his. The drama is heightened by its contained nature: single POV, three primary interior locations, one exterior scene, that serve to reinforce reality as Henry experiences it locked inside his mind. The speaking cast is larger and there are more extras.

What I found particularly useful (for our contest) were the seamless transitions between past and present, and the use of light and sound that allowed the audience to feel what it was like to be Henry. Techniques both effective and powerful that can be included in your script:

henry

INT. HOSPITAL – DAY

Henry opens the door into the long empty hallway, disoriented.  He stares at the double doors at the far end and startles, shaking as overhead lights go out like a shot, panel by panel advancing darkness.

(Normally I advise against the use of simile or metaphor in screenwriting, but in this case when the lights go out they are accompanied by a sound that is very much like a shot.)

The winning short, Curfew, is the most economical in many ways and I don’t just mean budget. The story is about a man with no reason to live. At the end of nineteen minutes, he has one. It’s loaded with interior scenes scattered between two apartment buildings (but in theory they could be the same with different set designs), and a bowling alley. There’s an exterior shot outside the apartment, and a short interior/exterior on a bus. Even those short exterior scenes help advance the story and keep the audience from feeling claustrophobic.

curfew

The story is told through Richard, whose character is revealed when he babysits his niece, Sophia, a terrific supporting role. There is a third minor character (for one scene), and the rest is taken up by extras who are put to excellent use in the bowling alley scene, a lovely juxtaposition between the world weary Richard and his innocent, full of life niece.

If you only have time to watch one short, make it Curfew. The lessons in it translate very well to this particular contest: brevity of dialogue, limited sets, good supporting characters, clean story and character arc, layered subtext, good use of props (red phone, anyone?) and effective use of extras.

We’re in the last leg of the first round. Judging begins Saturday. Yet, it is still not too late to begin your story. Five days is plenty of time to get your cat up a tree, throw rocks at him, and get him back down. Or, to use another David Mamet gem (fill in your own blanks):

Once upon a time:   there was a lonely boy …

And then one day:   he met a stranded alien …

Just when everything was going so well:   the alien wanted to go home …

When at the last minute:   the boy saved the alien and helped him get to his spacecraft…

And then everyone:   learned that love is letting go.

Let go of your fears and dream big. Risk having your short script read by Zach Cox, Manager at Circle of Confusion (Walking Dead), and judge of this year’s competition.

Best of luck!

Ruth Witteried is Film Coordinator for the Willamette Writers Conference and Executive Producer of last year’s winning short, “Alis Volat Propriis”. She teaches Introduction to Screenwriting at Clark College in Vancouver, WA, with her next ten week class beginning this April. You can follow her on Facebook at SitYourAssDown, or on Twitter @sityourassdown1.

Ruth Witteried

As Visual Media Director, Ruth Witteried works with all programs based in the visual arts, including screenwriting and film production. As Executive Director of the FiLMLaB competition and project, she produced the 2012 FiLMLaB short, Alis Volat Propriis, winner of the 2013 OIFF Best Comedic Short; 2013′s Coffee.Table.Book.; 2014's Unwelcome Guests, and in 2015, The Return of Bug Eyed Bill. She acted as Film Coordinator for the Willamette Writers Conference from 2011-2013 and occasionally teaches screenwriting at Clark College. She currently is Executive Director of Willamette Writers' FiLMLaB. You can follow her on Twitter @sityourassdown1 or Facebook at FiLMLaB. Contact her. (visualmedia@willamettewriters.org) 

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  2 comments for “What Can You Learn From Oscar Shorts?

  1. March 13, 2013 at 1:48 am

    Thanks for the great post, Ruth. For me, writing a short is like taking the challenge of condensing and multiplying it by a thousand. A great exercise and a fun challenge. I say, don’t wait until the last minute, get those submissions for Script to Screen in today ~ jane

    • WW_Film
      March 15, 2013 at 4:14 am

      Thanks, Jane. It’s a great exercise, be it a short script or a short story. Limitations force you to think outside the box. Good luck with your short script!

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