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How To Get an Academy Award While Still In Film School

5 Student Academy Award-Winning Short Films To Inspire The Incoming Class

“It is with great pleasure that we accept you…”

It’s that time of year again. The world’s top film schools are sending letters of acceptance to a new batch of filmmakers! And the months of blood, sweat and tears over the portfolio have finally paid off.

However, the incoming classes of USC, NYU, Chapman and more are still a few months away from starting actual production classes, meeting other filmmakers that are sure to become lifelong friends, and getting hands on that sweet camera equipment!

So what to do in the meantime?

Watch award-winning short films, of course!

Here are five to get started. Each film on this list has won or placed in a Student Academy Awards ceremony (yes, that Academy) from the last four years. That means award-winning films made by people who, not too long ago, were just being accepted to their film programs, and chomping at the bit to get started.

Watch these stunning short films for inspiration, and who knows…maybe you could see your name at the Student Academy Awards for your thesis project.

Chiaroscuro, dir. Daniel Drummond

Chiaroscuro may be the most captivating Windows screensaver ever made. All joking aside, Brazilian director Daniel Drummond proves just how much one can learn at Chapman University’s prestigious Dodge College of Film and Media Arts under the Digital Arts banner. This glorious seven-minute piece of minimalist animation is said to be about “a discover[y] by a mysterious entity” which “sets in motion a chase through abstract space,” though the story’s simplicity and lack of human characters leaves much up to personal interpretation. Despite being a completely digital environment, it is in the film’s tactile, almost analog, sense of space and framing that makes this a standout debut for a director who has only continued to find success at the Student Academy Awards.

Above The Sea, dir. Keola Racela

It’s 1930s Shanghai, with all of its beauty and corruption. A worker for a high class brothel looks to exact revenge upon the killer of a pre-adolescent. Not the easiest subject matter (or time period) for a short film budget, but director Keola Racela proves up to the challenge. Above The Sea won the top Narrative prize in 2014, and it’s not hard to understand why the jury picked it. With great command of voice and style, Racela interweaves different directorial influences (Scorcese’s roving camera, Wong Kar-wai’s nostalgic romanticism, Park Chan-wook’s polarizing imagery) without ever feeling imitative.

For those who still believe short films can’t look like Hollywood features, watch Above The Sea and be amazed at the level of detail and period-specific production design taking place on a small-budget scale. It’s clear Racela used the might and depth of resources that a place like Columbia University can provide. Best of all, the film’s story matches the richness of the cinematography. Though it’s clearly a revenge story from the beginning, you’ll never guess the ending.

4.1 Miles, dir. Daphne Matziaraki

In many ways, 4.1 Miles is the opposite of Above The Sea. It’s an often quite un-glamorous documentary following a Greek coast guard officer as he picks up Turkish refugee families risking their lives on the choppy seas. Yet 4.1 Miles is as gripping and unexpected as either of the fiction films already described. Director Daphne Matziaraki used the holistic film education given her at University of California, Berkeley to tell a harrowing but necessary story in her home of Greece. The 20-minute running time cuts back and forth between actual footage of the rescues and a direct interview with the film’s main subject, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, recalling the events.

Like a top-notch Werner Herzog doc, the camera operators are quick to catch, and linger on, awkward and uncomfortable moments. And like all of the best feature documentaries, each new development proves multi-layered. 4.1 Miles is about the heroic compassion necessary to save lives that are in trouble, whether it comes from the coast guard or the European vacationers forced into a moral quandary. If you want to be challenged, check out this 2016 Student Academy Award winner.

In a Heartbeat, dir. Beth David and Estaban Bravo

At 35 million Youtube views and counting, In a Heartbeat is far and away the most popular short film on the list. It’s easy to see why. Directed with great energy and “heart” by Beth David and Esteban Bravo, In a Heartbeat is a 4-minute short film in the style of a typical Pixar short. A school boy gives his heart quite literally to another boy. The heart eventually brings them together, leading to the inevitable question…Will society accept their love? And should it matter?

Kudos to this talented duo in making an animated film for the entire family that advocates the tolerance and normalization of homosexual attraction at any age. It’s easy to take for granted any CGI animation that is well done these days, but give it to these animators-in-training at the Ringling College of Art and Design for having the talent and the story-telling chops to win Gold in Animation at the 2017 awards. This viral hit proves that you don’t need to go to the most recognizable school to get a great film education.

The Last Will, dir. Dustin Loose

The Last Will, a 2015 Silver Place finalist at the Student Academy Awards, follows a son sent to a psychiatric ward by his mom’s dying wish for him to tell his father a most uncomfortable truth. The majority of the film’s running time is a deep, dark two-hander between the son and the doctor of the ward. Unexpected emotional truths are revealed fast and furiously, all while still taking place in one room. A final twist which ingeniously redefines the arc of the movie perfectly cements this short film as an early triumph for the director, Dustin Loose.

He made this film on the last years of his studies at Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg. This German film academy is far from the only international school picking up Student Academy Awards over the last few years, proving that there are amazing film school opportunities around the world. The Last Will certainly feels like a director working up to his thesis film. The haunting and Gothic locale is used sparingly but effectively. Each lighting setup feels earned, and right for the scene. “The Last Will” is a classic case of getting more with less, both in money and time.

If you want a high-value short film experience that goes beyond the standard American fare, check out The Last Will now.



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