May 7, 2018

Short films vs features

What is moyen metrage? It’s a French term for mid-length films, like a one hour tv special perhaps. Shorts we tend to think of as under 30 minutes, and features as over 80, so I think the English language needs a word for mid-length films.

Now, there’s a huge difference between shorts and features, and I call it the Hanna Barbera vs Disney test.

The old Hanna Barbera cartoons could be done on Flash or any other 2D computer program. They were almost like South Park in their simplicity, and to some, they became a byword for low quality. But, the creators were very talented, geniuses perhaps even, who ended up winning awards. It’s just, the audiences expected a lot less of a short cartoon.

Disney, on the other hand, with his features, delivered complete squash and stretch, each character drawn by hand.

Now, watch some short films. You’ll notice that there are some things you wouldn’t tolerate in a feature. Perhaps it’s the lack of angle changes. Perhaps it’s the lack of complexity in the plot.

Another difference is Wayne’s World test. Compare the feature with the short SNL skits. In the short skits, they guys never leave the couch. If you have the DVD, watch the making of for more clues.

If you want a British example, see what Richard Curtis says about Bean in “Story and Character: Interviews with British Screenwriters.” With the feature, they needed a much more complicated plot. (The show, by the way, is mid-length, so it’s still much more intricate than a seven minute short.)  A book “Writing for Television” makes the same argument about TV specials verses shorter tv shows.  The longer the show, the more plot needs you have.

And, my favourite example is when you watch the old masters of shorts turn to features. Some took to it like a duck to water, but most had a bumpy start. Laurel and Hardy’s first feature was comparatively boring, long winded.  Despite being comic geniuses, they just didn’t get the pace of a feature right.

Creatively, audiences expect more from a feature. If you don’t believe me, watch a music video of three girls walking down the highway, Peppa Pig, or other popular shorts, and ask yourself, would you sit through this for two hours in the cinema?

These raised expectations mean you have to do more.  Your planning, shooting, and post production schedule are longer.  So, budget wise it’s very different. A two million pound feature is now called microbudget by academics like Stephen Follows. However, if you had a short that was one fifth that length, that cost 400,000, no one would think it was low budget (unless of course, it was an advertisement.)

Another difference is that a short film might be shot in a couple days.  You can go a couple of days with very little sleep.  If it’s shot in one day, then it doesn’t matter if no one who showed up the first day can show up tomorrow.  A feature takes a least a month.  You’ll probably need time off work.  You probably want to retain the same crew and director and team for a while.  And, how many feature films have had trouble because the star died halfway through?  (Don Quixote, Plan 9 from Outer Space…)

Making a short film is like serving dinner for a party at home. Making a feature is more like running a restaurant. If it’s a one off, then it’s much easier to organise than if it’s something that has to last.

Another comparison, football. Making a short is like having a pick up football game. It doesn’t matter who comes, or which team they play on today, because you can move it around next week.  But, if you run a football team, you have to organise proper matches, and it’s much more complicated to organise.

Finally, features take up a lot more RAM.  If you’re editing digitally, you’ll need a more powerful machine with a longer film.  I don’t care how many hard drives you have, the longer films will slow down an old computer.  (Of course, it also depends on the number of effects, but remember, feature audiences have raised expectations.)

Perhaps for some crew members, a short is like a feature.  But, for the writer, actor, director, editor and producer, these are two very different animals.

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