Making Short Films: The Complete Guide from Script to Screen

By Nancy Harrison


Increasingly, unprecedented accessibility to moving image technology such as DV cameras and simple computer editing programs, and even mobile phones, coupled with an unsurpassed sophistication in the understanding of images and visual culture, has fuelled our willingness to engage with and employ these easy technologies to express ourselves. Just as it once used to be said that everyone had a novel in them, the contemporary take on this is that everyone has a film in them. And though many would-be directors daydream about shooting a cinematic masterwork, only a fraction of those will actually act on their desire, and then almost exclusively in the form of a short film.

After falling out of favour with exhibitors (as commercial ads usurped the pre-feature short in valuable screen time) the short has, in the past few years, once again been rediscovered as a learning tool, a professional calling card and a distinct art form of its own. Television (3 Minute Wonders), the internet (FourDocs) and dedicated festivals (Brief Encounters) have all taken up where cinemas left off. With this renewed interest in the short film form, and the very real possibilities for each of us to make our own films, comes the support of industry advice (the New Producers Alliance), filmmaker’s organisations (Shooting People), filmmaking courses (Raindance) and books. How-to guides, How-not-to guides, Just-do-it guides. Clifford Thurlow’s Making Short Films: The Complete Guide From Script to Screen is one that, although informational, could more accurately be described as inspirational.

Reading almost like a novel, the book weaves together anecdotes and film history to illustrate the filmmaking process, citing examples from both classic cinema and contemporary films. The early section outlines what he identifies as the three key people in the process- the Producer, the Director and the Editor. And with these choices he reveals where his primary interest lies - the Story.

Understandingly, as someone whose background is firstly as a writer, and more recently a filmmaker, the book places a great emphasis on story and scriptwriting. Two large sections of the text are devoted to writing for the screen. The first of these covers the basics of scriptwriting early on, with the second section including 4 original short film scripts. These shooting scripts highlight a range of productions and presentations, including an original comedy short film script; a storyboarded and summarised silent surreal short; an ambitious ghost story short; and finally an adaptation from an original short story, including both the short story and the subsequent adapted script, together with an invitation by Thurlow to the reader to envision their own adaptation of the story before reading his version. Each of the scripts highlighted comes from an actual recently made short, and all are films that received either film fund backing or industry support. Thurlow traces, through interviews and anecdotes, the journey that each of the films followed, from the initial inspiration through to the finished film.

Appendices include an excellent glossary of Film Terms, with straightforward, concise explanations of technical, financial and general filmmaking terminology ranging from the basic (‘boom’ or ‘auteur’) to the more specialised (‘Chain of Title’ or ‘holdback’). The Film Festival listings are good, particularly in relation to Short Film and Online festivals, although heavily favouring (and listing in the premiere position) the American festival circuit. The UK listings are grouped in ‘Europe and Worldwide’ section.

Ultimately, Thurlow’s book is meant to inspire. He emphasises that short filmmaking is primarily a creative and collaborative exercise, not a financially profitable one, and should be considered a chance to learn skills and stretch your imagination. His emphasis is not on technical advice, but on the creative and artistic considerations of short filmmaking. As one of the directors that Thurlow interviewed in the book comments “People try to formalise the process, but it is not about formulas, it's about communication... it is your emotional input, your veracity, that will make a film work.”

For more information on the book from Berg Publishers

During the past 3 years, Nancy Harrison has collaborated on twenty 16mm, 35mm and HDV short films, most often in the position of Production Manager or Producer.