Ben’s Blog: Nothing Short Of Failure.

Posted September 13th, 2016 by Ben

Why are you making a short film? Shorts are not abbreviated feature films so as a training for your longer work they’re about as useful as preparing for a Grand Prix by riding in the Grand National.

It has always been the case that success in short films is hard to translate into other formats. Artistically and commercially a great short has never been a golden ticket to anywhere except a great short film festival. Indeed many directors who made shorts before features made the jump despite not because of their earlier briefer work. However, even a decade ago the cost and complexity of professional production meant that despite being no real parallel at all, a short remained the best most of us could hope for. It may have been a house built out of straw but it was all we had. This has changed.

Ten years ago my brother and I made our most expensive short using the then state of the art varicam – which captured a lower quality image than the camera likely glued to the other side of the screen on which you’re reading these words. The move from film to digital at the start of the 21st century may well be a key turning point in the history of our industry, but the arrival of 4k cameras in your pocket is a transformation beyond even that. When it came to features the question used to be “how can I ever make get to make it?”, soon it will be just “why are you not?”

However, the real answer to that question is a hard one. There was a quiet comfort to a world where a feature film required resources that were beyond you. Not being able to afford your film hid all the other reasons why you weren’t ready to make it. I’ve been watching a lot of sub (often very sub) half million pound movies recently and mostly they are disasters. Made possible by technology, but made in a rush, made in a way that makes it almost impossible for them to succeed. The digital revolution may have enabled us to make feature length films of good-enough-to-pass quality for £20k but even at £20k a disaster can kill your career stone dead. This is the one truly transferable lesson of the short film – failure.

Failure means many things and most of them are to be actively embraced, at least from time to time. No film succeeds without good luck, all fail through bad judgement. Failing is how you improve your judgement, so you can make better use of your good fortune. More importantly, a film that doesn’t do what you want forces you to think hard about what it is you actually do want. Sometimes you don’t even know you’ve failed until you watch it back and realise what you should have been trying to do. It’s a brilliant gift, a cruel one, but essential.

Short film may well be an arena where success is largely meaningless, but where better to learn the lessons of failure?

  1. Fred Casella

    excellent piece – and here, from The New Yorker from 2014 is piece that reaches similar conclusion from a different perspective

  2. Patrick Jeavons

    Really great reflection on success, Ben. Thank you.

  3. Robert Munday

    As Head of Programming at Short of the Week, three of my most dreaded words to read are ‘proof-of-concept’, so couldn’t agree more with your shorts are not abbreviated feature films point.

    I think in recent times, because of the success of a few, many have started to use the short film format as a way of introducing a longer narrative. For me this can really compromise the true power of the short format – the freedom to tell a story you couldn’t tell in feature length because of the restraints that come with it.

    More people need to embrace the format and its strengths.

  4. Shooting People » Ben's Blog » Being An Imperfectionist.

    […] Filmmaking always eventually teaches lessons about the value of failure. These are generally applicable to all areas of life, but failure has a special place in film. Learning to release your white knuckled perfectionist’s grip, just a bit, is not just good for your soul, it’s essential for your film. Like belief, something you can only have in the unproven, film works best when it doesn’t. […]

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