Written by Elliot Grove from Raindance
When I wrote this article on how to Brainstorm Short Film Ideas way back in 2015, I had no idea that this would become one of the top pages on our website. I think it shows how the film industry is changing. It also demonstrates how short film content is storming back into vogue. Enjoy
– Elliot Grove, London, COVID-19 London
There are three things different in the film industry from when I started Raindance Film Festival in 1992. But nothing has changed really. Great ideas and great stories are what it is all about. Brainstorm short film ideas and your career will prosper.
In the early 90’s every film was shot on expensive celluloid. Now it’s all shot on digital. Back then (remember that John Major was still Prime Minister and Princess Diana was alive) films were distributed in cinemas and on heavily regulated broadcast television. Now internet distribution rules supreme. When I started Raindance I bought expensive newspaper and magazine ads. Now it’s all web adverts.
Everyone is screaming for content today: visual content. The other fact is that people’s attention spans are dropping meaning that short films get the kinds of eyeballs that feature filmmakers dream about.
An understanding of short film idea generation is almost a carte blanche to become known as a filmmaker of short films with the kind of pedigree associated with Oscar™ nominated feature filmmakers. What is more, your short films can be seen by a huge number of people.
Here are the tips I have collected while working with filmmakers I meet at Raindance:
1. Seat of the pants to seat of the chair
I learned this one from Michael Hague. His Writing Screenplays That Sell was the book that got me interested in writing. A little bit every day is better than a bank holiday weekend blowout. A bit every day becomes a habit. I’ve found that a few minutes every day on my current creative project reaps more rewards than when I have to go like smoke towards a deadline.
2. Write it down
Do you remember the last time a great idea for something popped into your head? Was it when you were walking to the tube or bus stop? Or hoovering up dust bunnies? If so, it’s because you were most likely in Alpha State – those sweet daydream moments you slip into while you are doing something mechanical or familiar.
Do you remember what happens if you don’t immediately write those great thoughts down? Don’t they vanish into thin air? Make a habit of shoving a notebook in your pocket so the next time you have a great idea you can simply write it down.
3. Write about yourself
Have you ever been in a situation where you sit and remark to yourself that ‘this could’ve been a movie?’ Sometimes our own lives are as interesting and entertaining as the movies. Make sure you write them down.
4. Bad granddad jokes
I was once in Sweden when a Norwegian filmmaker asked me to watch his short – in Norwegian. Of course, when it was over he asked me how it was. I told him it was beautifully shot but I had no idea what it was about because I don’t speak Norwegian. He then translated the movie and it was sweet, tender and very funny. It was, he explained, based on a joke his granddad had told him.
Maybe those bad granddad jokes will inspire you too. The beauty of these jokes is they have a setup, e.g.:
- Have you ever had a …
- Then a story arc: Let me tell you about a friend of mine…
- And a punchline at the end.
These can make great storytelling hooks.
5. Opposites attract
Why not take an iconic story and flip the characters around. Instead of the beautiful princess kissing the frog, why not make it the handsome prince? Another flip on this would be to take a well-known movie and reverse the characters. In Witness for example, rather than having Harrison Ford going to the Amish community as he is pursued by the Mafia, why not make it the story of the 12-year-old boy who travels to Philadelphia and is corrupted by the Mafia.
6. Reverse budgeting
Robert Rodriguez did this with great style when he made El Mariachi – his famous first film. He made a list of all the stuff he could get cheap, the actors he knew and the locations he could get for free and then he cooked up the story based on the fact that his actor had a dog and could play the guitar.
7. Confinement stories
Create two characters and put them in a location they can’t leave and see what happens.
8. Look it up, then make it up
Research is a great way to find ideas. Make a list of your favourite theories or ideas and research them. I’m sure that some great ideas will pop up.
9. The ‘What if…?’
I use this tool a lot. I take a simple everyday thing, like the keyboard I write this on, and add the ‘what if ?’ and see what happens. So I could say something about my keyboard like this:
What if the newest and deadliest virus is transported on the internet and what if you can get it by connecting to the intent with your keyboard?
10. Watch movies to brainstorm short film ideas
Watching other peoples shorts is a sure fire way to get inspired. Watch great short films and then see if you can use their ideas and approaches to come up with your own ideas.
Here are 10 x 15-second shorts our community made for Nokia to demonstrate the fact that their phones could take video.
11. My day
Don’t we each wake up, get ready and leave for work? Do you arrive as planned? Or leave as planned? What are the types of incidents that could change your normal day or your life? People would find this interesting.
12. Read the newspaper
The newspaper is full of incidents which can make it into the ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ category. Often these news snippets can be combined and interchanged to come up with refreshingly original ideas.
When Roger Corman, the King of Independent Cinema visited Raindance in 1996, he would show up at my office with the morning newspapers. He tore keywords out of the headlines and scrambled them up on my desk until he saw what would make a good headline for a movie. When he saw one he liked he would handwrite the title out and fax it to his graphics honcho in LA. A few hours later artwork would appear on my fax which he’d take and show local British distributors. If enough people liked it, he’d go back to LA, find a screenwriter to write the script represented by the poster and make the film.
It was such an exercise he conducted in 1955 that spawned his feature The Fast and the Furious from which an entire franchise was born.
13. National or religious holidays
In a short film, you don’t have time to set up the scene. The advantage of using an iconic moment like Christmas, the Christening, weddings and funerals are everyone knows exactly where you are. You can use this tool to kick off just about any story idea and add in a twist that takes it out of the ordinary and clichéd.
Keep It Simple Stupid. Especially on your first few shorts. Attempting the complex and complicated is a great goal. But if you set a goal like that and fail it could destroy your confidence. Remember too that some of the world’s best ideas are the simplest.
15. Spoof and parody
Making fun of people or entertainment icons is another way you can come up with ideas. What is core is that your parody film is generally free from libel and defamation actions from politicians, business leaders or celebrities that you are taking the mickey out of. If you think you are walking near the legal line please consult an entertainment lawyer.
16. Local legends
Rory O’Donnell, our film course director gave me this and the next tip. He has sometimes made short films documentary style about the local legend. And local legends don’t need to be international giants. They can be known in their own community, no matter how small, as the guy or gal who can do something well.
17. Press random article on Wikipedia
Rory also writes and shoots short films regularly. Sometimes he pushes ‘Random Article’ on Wikipedia to see if anything useful or inspiring pops up.
18. Brainstorm short film ideas by news jacking
This is one of my favourite ploys to create click bait and interest in something I am doing. There is no reason why you can’t do this too.
For example: A year before Donald Trump became president I wrote Donald Trump’s 6 Brave Lessons for Independent filmmakers.
Can you think of a trending topic that would inspire you?
19. Office Pranks
Do you remember the last time your office mates pulled a fast one on you? Maybe this is a situation that you can recreate as a short film. Here are 10 classic office pranks that never age. Why not re-stage one of these and film it as a short film.
Now a word about writer’s block.
When you are jammed remember that there is no such thing as lack of talent. I want to explode the talent myth.
When you are jammed it is solely down to your confidence. Or lack of it. How do you build confidence? Stop moaning. Stop hanging around feeling sorry for yourself. Just do it.
Submissions are now open for The Write Project!