What It Takes to Make a Short Film

In the words of this year’s Oscar nominees

It’s Oscar Week and we’re sharing lessons every filmmaker can learn from this year’s nominees. Here, the artists behind the Animated and Live Action Short Film contenders discuss their inspiration and process.

Make It Personal

A common theme among this year’s short film nominees was how they stemmed from personal stories. “‘Fauve’ came from a nightmare from when I was a little boy. It came also from my relationship with my best friend at the time,” director Jeremy Comte said. With his short, he addresses the toxic masculinity that pushes young men too far.

Domee Shi’s Pixar short, “Bao,” draws inspiration from her childhood. “Ever since I was little, my mom has treated me like her precious little dumpling.” As an only child with an overprotective parent, Shi decided to explore that relationship in a style unique to animation. In “Bao,” a Chinese mother whose child has left home gets a second shot at parenthood when one of her dumplings comes to life.

The film also draws from the personal lives of its crew. For example, a turtle sculpture spotted in the mother’s bedroom came from an actual sculpture in one of the artist’s own home.

From left: Jeremy Comte and Maria Gracia Turgeon, “Fauve”, Guy Nattiv and Jaime Ray Newman, “Skin”, Marianne Farley and Marie-Hélène Panisset, “Marguerite”, and Vincent Lambe and Darren Mahon,“Detainment”

For Trevor Jimenez, the idea behind his animated short “Weekends” came from a drawing he made in 2007 while trying to get an animation job, depicting a child walking from his mother’s home to his father’s car. It generated a lot of response and conversation, which made Jimenez realize “how common that is in society and not really talked about in animated film.”

“I really wanted to capture the childhood perspective on divorce in animation.” -Trevor Jimenez

For “Late Afternoon,” Louise Bagnall hoped to “explore a woman’s inner life onscreen.” In her film, Emily, an elderly woman with dementia, wanders through her childhood memories in an attempt to reconnect with the present.

“My own grandmothers were inspiration for the main character, trying to remember what their lives were like before they were my grandmothers.” -Louise Bagnall

Don’t Be Afraid to Take Risks

Alison Snowden, director of the animated short “Animal Behaviour,” said the idea for the film came when “it occurred to us that animals have similar issues to humans, but they don’t get judged for it.” What if they did?

“A group therapy session was the best place to show that.”

“Animal Behaviour”

According to her partner David Fine, “Alison and I hadn’t made a short in 25 years, so coming back to that now is a really gratifying thing. We wanted to have the pen in our hand and be actually acting the characters.”

Another husband-and-wife duo, Guy Nattiv and Jaime Ray Newman, felt a strong impulse to create their own story. So much so that they emptied their retirement fund to make the project a reality.

Along with writer Sharon Maymon, they completed a feature script of “Skin,” based on a true story, in 2016. But, according to Newman, “no one, back in 2016, wanted to make a film about the alt-right.”

As the global political climate shifted, Nattiv said, the movie became “a reflection of what we’re experiencing right now in the world. In every dark time, there’s expression from cinema.”

Right after the release of the short film version of “Skin,” Fox Searchlight picked it up and turned into a feature.

Marianne Farley and Marie-Hélène Panisset took a different, lighter approach to the times with “Marguerite.” For Farley, the state of the world motivated her to tell a more positive story of youth and friendship.

“It was my way of saying that the only thing that can counter [violence] is human connection, compassion and empathy.” -Marianne Farley

Step Outside Your Comfort Zone

For Shi, stepping into the role of director — and “not being able to rely on my superpower, which is drawing” — was the biggest challenge.

“Ever since I was little, that’s how I was able to communicate with people — through drawings. But as a director, you are tasked with being able to communicate in a very succinct way to a large group of people with words.” -Domee Shi

For Becky Neiman-Cobb, producer of “Bao,” the most exciting part was taking risks as a team. “It was the first time a lot of us held these particular leadership roles and I’m really happy to share that many women were in leadership roles on this short.”

“To try on these big people shoes for this format was super exciting and encouraging.” -Becky Neiman-Cobb

Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas, directors of the animated short “One Small Step,” faced a different set of practical challenges. Their startup company is based in Los Angeles and Wuhan, China. “Most of our crew speaks Mandarin. Bobby and I only speak English,” Chesworth said. They relied on their producer, Shaofu Zhang, to mediate between the teams.

According to Pontillas, the cross-cultural experience was humbling.

“You lose that ego and it’s not about the work that you create. It’s about the work the team creates. You want to shepherd that.” -Bobby Pontillas

Filmmaker Vincent Lambe made Super 8 films as a child, casting his parents in his projects. After film school, he turned to a career in casting and producing for years. “I always wanted to get back and direct,” he admitted. With “Detainment,” an Irish short film about the murder of James Bulger, he made his return.

Commit to the Format

“Some ideas are shorts,” Bagnall said. “That’s the best format for those ideas. It’s nice to be able to commit to that.”

She added that, “as much freedom as you get with shorts, you also get serious limitations: limitations of time, money, energy, people and passion. In a way, those limitations can make a project better because you have to be really clever about what choices you make.”

“It makes you really focus in on what the short is.”

For Chesworth, the beauty of shorts is that they allow filmmakers to take risks. “With shorts, specifically, you can try things that people can be more skeptical of… You can be very efficient with your choices and make a bold decision to not have any dialogue. You get to really embrace the strengths of imagery and brevity.”

For all the nominated filmmakers, the short format allowed them to follow a particular vision. “As an individual, you can find your own voice and perspective, and it’s not the size of a feature, which takes hundreds of people to make,” Jimenez said. “I love shorts personally because you get these potent perspectives that are all done uniquely. I think they’re really fascinating.”