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How to develop characters for short film.

Posted: Wed, 9th Dec 2009, 12:36pm

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RodyPolis

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Hey guys, I know there is a thread similar to this on the General Chat forum, but it mostly talk about developing characters for feature length stuff.

My question is, how do you develop a character, make the audience feel for them, when all you have is 5-10 minutes. For a feature length project I know it's easier since you can take you time to make the character interesting, but I just can't really find a way to do that in a short film.

So any ideas?
Posted: Wed, 9th Dec 2009, 12:47pm

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Simon K Jones

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In long form storytelling it's crucial to have character development - ie, the character starts out here, and ends up here. That might be a physical change of location, or an emotional change, or a philosophical change - whatever. The audience goes along for the ride and hopefully shares in that change.

In short form stuff it's trickier, because you don't have much time to show a progression from A to B. But even if you do show that progression, is anybody going to care when they only met the character 5 minutes ago?

Personally I'd move away from character development and instead look to character archetypes. Go for easily recognisable elements, then use them to explore an idea. Whereas long form stuff can be about the characters, short form stuff needs to be about central ideas, with the characters there to explore it.

This is generalising, of course - there's plenty of exceptions.

Also, make everything count, even more so than in feature stuff. Every line of dialogue, every facial expression, every movement, every decision needs to illuminate the character.
Posted: Wed, 9th Dec 2009, 1:37pm

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Rockfilmers

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Another thing you want to think about is to not rush and make them do something heroic or have any strong changes on them. If you rush it, the audience won't grow attached to the character, they will just see something happen to a person. Let the audience get to know him/her first. You know when you have known some one for a while, you can predict how they act? Same thing here.
Posted: Wed, 9th Dec 2009, 2:33pm

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The Chosen One

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I have always started my short films with and action scene of some kind, an example of this would be:

A young mother is walking in the woods with her two small children, a pack of wolves are stalking their every move. Just as the wolves are about to attack, our unknown hero leaps from the trees and battles the blood thirsty animals. After a few minutes of violent fighting our hero defeats the wolves. Blood soaked and out of breath he bids the young frightened mother and her two child good day, vanishing into the forest without asking anything in return.

Using the above example, you already have feeling for both the good hearted hero and also for the mother and young children. This is just the method I tend to use, I’m sure there are plenty of others.
Posted: Wed, 9th Dec 2009, 2:48pm

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davlin

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TCO says it perfectly, that's just the type of story telling which is perfect for short movies.

dave
Posted: Wed, 9th Dec 2009, 2:49pm

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Simon K Jones

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Chosen One - is that synopsis the start of a short movie, or the whole short movie? Where would you intend to take that story example next?

Another issue, of course, is what you determine to be a 'short film'. The length can still vary hugely from a couple of minutes to half an hour.
Posted: Wed, 9th Dec 2009, 3:20pm

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The Chosen One

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Tarn wrote:

Chosen One - is that synopsis the start of a short movie, or the whole short movie? Where would you intend to take that story example next?
My example was just that “an example” point being its hard to acquire feelings for anything or anyone in a 10 or 15 minute short film. I tend to use or should I say miss use action in order to stir feelings and emotions.
Posted: Wed, 9th Dec 2009, 3:26pm

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Bryan M Block

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A couple of things.

1. Conflict- If you read short stories, such as Hemingway's short stories you will see that he immediately "gets his fighters fighting" (Kind of Janet Burroway term) - Drama THRIVES on conflict and resolution. So, placing people in conflict or in DANGER creates an emotional climate for the piece. Someone in DANGER has the audiences sympathies- people in conflict have the audience's attention- they want to stay engaged and figure out who's side they are on.

2. Epiphany- the device of "epiphany" or a sudden realization of truth, regardless of whether it is "good" or "bad" is immensely satisfying for the audience in a short piece. It can be thought of as "the payoff of the premise" of your idea. Watch old TWILIGHT ZONE episodes for short arcs that really pay off (I love Rod Serling & the Twilight Zone)

3. Dialogue- dialogue should be used to provide characterization, and to reveal exposition.
Posted: Wed, 9th Dec 2009, 4:54pm

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pdrg

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Personally, I think 15 mins is plenty time enough to develop an empathy for a character - rather if I don't have any empathy for the characters 15 mins into a feature, I'll walk out, knowing the film isn't going to get any better.

That said, it relies on excellent writing, acting and direction, so good on you for wanting to work it out.

My thoughts are that you really need to see the humanness of the character, so you can't just go all-action, you need to spend a lot of time with him/her and watch their reactions and responses to real-life details. The tricky part is keeping the audience entertained at the same time, and that's where the balanced line is. Good luck!
Posted: Wed, 9th Dec 2009, 5:06pm

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Simon K Jones

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pdrg wrote:

Personally, I think 15 mins is plenty time enough to develop an empathy for a character - rather if I don't have any empathy for the characters 15 mins into a feature, I'll walk out, knowing the film isn't going to get any better.
The difference there is that you can spend 15 minutes getting somebody interested in a character very easily: but can you also show development, conflict and resolution at the same time?

A movie can get you interested in characters in 15 minutes, certainly, but it than has another 80 minutes+ to do horrible/nice/amusing/exciting things with them.

A short film, on the other hand, would have to do all that within those 15 minutes.

I'm not entirely convinced that you can sufficiently introduce a character to a degree that the audience will care much about them by the end. Certainly not compared to long form stuff, anyway.

I've always felt that short form stuff needs to be (primarily) about setting/ideas, while long form stuff can be (primarily) about characters/plot.
Posted: Wed, 9th Dec 2009, 6:16pm

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davlin

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The problem is that we are all looking at movies from different perspectives.
What kind of movies are we talking about....are they professional works or are they amateur movies by hobbyists.
If we talk about amateur films then I would'nt want to watch one more than 10/15mins in length,with that in mind ,TCO's story is a perfect example of pure cinematic story telling ,even without narrative ,were
the camera and editing tell it all.
For the hobbyist ,a great way of improving your skills is to try and create a 5/10 min film with no narrative at all and make your camera and editing tell the story.

sorry if I went OT.

Dave
Posted: Thu, 10th Dec 2009, 9:07am

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Simon K Jones

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I'd partially disagree with that - how long I can tolerate a film has nothing to do with whether it was made by professional or amateurs. The only factor is the overall quality. The primary difference between amateur and professional is that professionals are getting paid to do it - that doesn't prevent amateurs from creating great stuff too.

And I'm sure we've all seen many professional movies that would have benefited from only being 15 minutes long. razz

I can easily forgive amateur production values if the artistry is there.
Posted: Thu, 10th Dec 2009, 9:51am

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Atom

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Tarn wrote:


In short form stuff it's trickier, because you don't have much time to show a progression from A to B.....

....look to character archetypes. Go for easily recognisable elements, then use them to explore an idea. Whereas long form stuff can be about the characters, short form stuff needs to be about central ideas, with the characters there to explore it.
I feel like a proud mother here, Tarn. You've taken, almost word-for-word, what I've used as a defense of my films' characters for years and put it into advice. smile

Those comments aside, Bryan is right on the mark for my money. Epiphanic moments in a character, be it an action or revelation, are really crucial to building a caring point with the audience in a small timeframe like 5-10 minutes. If you want something that builds on emotion or offers a cathartic conclusion, as...well.....I always like to do- you've gotta acknowledge that in order to invoke an audience response and demonstrate some aching humanity in your characters you have to put something game-changing in front of them.

This, of course, is also all highlighted in the pre-production section of the Atomic Guide. wink
Posted: Thu, 10th Dec 2009, 9:58am

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Simon K Jones

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Having watched a lot of amateur short films over the years, the key failing of many of them is to presume that they've earned empathy from the audience. There's nothing worse than having a climax that is meant to make us feel something about a character, but to have absolutely zero emotional reaction because we only met them 5 minutes ago.

Short prose fiction is slightly different because it affords you an opportunity to get closer inside characters' heads. Even then, though, they tend to revolve around key ideas rather than characters. Short films, though, don't have that luxury - especially if you avoid going down the voiceover route.

Long form = plot is used to explore characters

Short form = characters are used to explore ideas
Posted: Thu, 10th Dec 2009, 11:29am

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Rockfilmers

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I have always started my short films with and action scene of some kind, an example of this would be:

A young mother is walking in the woods with her two small children, a pack of wolves are stalking their every move. Just as the wolves are about to attack, our unknown hero leaps from the trees and battles the blood thirsty animals. After a few minutes of violent fighting our hero defeats the wolves. Blood soaked and out of breath he bids the young frightened mother and her two child good day, vanishing into the forest without asking anything in return.
But see, you just showed the hero as being heroic instead of just flat out telling the viewrs he is heroic which is my point. You develouped the hero enough for a short film, but now you need his peronality.

I'd partially disagree with that - how long I can tolerate a film has nothing to do with whether it was made by professional or amateurs. The only factor is the overall quality. The primary difference between amateur and professional is that professionals are getting paid to do it - that doesn't prevent amateurs from creating great stuff too.
Agreed.
Posted: Thu, 10th Dec 2009, 1:47pm

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The Chosen One

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I believe the point behind my generic example is being missed, I feel I need to make the audience have feelings for my characters in order for them to care if they live or die.

Using my (example) again, first off you meet four characters in the story, not on a personal level but rather a distant character level.

A.A young Mother
B.Two small children
C.A stranger

Right away you kind of get the feeling that the young woman is not a warrior in any way and in fact, my be the Mother of the two small children that she is with. Now you see the wolves stalking them, is this the end of the woman and her two children? You start to feel for the safety or her and the children.

Whats this?? A stranger leaps from the trees, what kind of person is this?
Is he also after her or the children?
No!
It seems that the tides have turned; this perfect, kind hearted, stranger seems to be helping her. A feeling of hope is in the air. He defeats the wolves, which gives the feeling of relief and safety. He speaks the only line of dialog in the scene “Good Day” and leaves just as mysterious as he entered.

Now scene 2 is where I would get to know these characters on a more personal level.
Perhaps the young mother returns to her village to tell her story, and you find out she is a queen's daughter.

or

Perhaps the stranger returnes to his village, only to find out he is a king

Anyway, this is how I go about writing. It may not be the right way or the wrong way, but its the way I have done it and it works for me.
Posted: Thu, 10th Dec 2009, 10:11pm

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RodyPolis

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I don't know what to say except thanks guys. All these 15 posts helped me a whole lot with my problem so I thank all of you. You guys are great!
Posted: Fri, 11th Dec 2009, 12:29am

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Terminal Velocity

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I think dialogue is critical for character development. If the character talks like a bum, the audience will think he's a bum. If he talks like a high-and-mighty hero, the audience will feel "outclassed" and completely unable to relate to him. I think a film series that develops its characters perfectly is Rocky. The dialogue is natural--not forced or overblown--characters are very average people, and very importantly they're not godly good-looking. Since most of us don't look like Superman or Prince Charming, we can connect with people who are equally plain. But Rocky has the courage many of us don't, hence we admire him as well as relating to him. For my part, I found I didn't particularly like Adrian till she was gone (Rocky Balboa). Same with Mickey. Apollo...his death was a bit rushed, but still fairly shocking.

I don't think in 15 minutes you can develop a character enough to make something dramatic (e.g. a death) tragic as you might want. But it can be quite effective in some cases.
For example: A and B are obviously great friends (or in love, if you prefer). They're helping each other out and generally selfless towards each other. Then B gets shot. B does NOT go into a massive monologue as he dies (unlike Yoda, maybe Theoden), but dies quickly and painfully. You can evoke much more emotion by making death harshly brutal than a "angels-in-the-background-long-love-dialogue" moment. These take away from the making-sense factor, in my opinion. If you've been shot, you'll 1) be already dead, 2) screaming in pain, or 3) comatose. I can't help thinking of it that way.
Maybe I helped, maybe this was a useless ramble. But forgive me.
Posted: Fri, 11th Dec 2009, 4:25am

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Merrick

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Richard MMIX wrote:

You can evoke much more emotion by making death harshly brutal than a "angels-in-the-background-long-love-dialogue" moment.
...The Godfather...

Anyway, exactly 15 minutes into WALL-E is when Eve first appears, and I was almost in tears at that moment. So yes, you can develop a character in a short time. It is true that you may have to sacrifice some plot, but it's well worth it.

Character is about a lot more than writing though. Your script is a blueprint. The real character will depend on the acting, the makeup, the acting, the music, the acting, the cinematography, the acting, the editing, and the acting. And, again, don't forget THE MUSIC!

One of the reasons I felt the need to reply to this topic was the dialogue issue. PLEASE don't use dialogue to develop a character unless you absolutely have to! That stuff is for plays, not movies. Make your dialogue interesting and realistic, but never rely on it. A good moviemaker can make loud, wordy movies, but it takes a great one to direct a moment of silence.

Most importantly, it's YOUR movie! You must especially remember this if you, like me, are a young director who hopes to work in the industry. You have the rest of your life to make other people's scripts, make money for studios, and make other people's dreams come true, so why not make your own projects wile the door is open? Your movies will be much better if you make them to your own standards.

People will give you all this junk about knowing your characters' every thoughts, writing sketches of their personalities, and detailing arcs for them to follow, but it will only give you writer's block. Perhaps the best writing advice I've heard came from a certain playwright I spoke to after one of his productions: "Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair, and start writing." You don't think about your friends' personalities when you talk to them; don't think about your characters' personalities when you write about them.

Let nothing limit you - archetypes, screentime, plot - nothing. The written word is your slave of unlimited power, and with it can do anything.
Posted: Fri, 11th Dec 2009, 9:19am

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Simon K Jones

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Merrick wrote:

One of the reasons I felt the need to reply to this topic was the dialogue issue. PLEASE don't use dialogue to develop a character unless you absolutely have to! That stuff is for plays, not movies. Make your dialogue interesting and realistic, but never rely on it. A good moviemaker can make loud, wordy movies, but it takes a great one to direct a moment of silence.
Indeed. Over-use of dialogue is another problem with a lot of amateur and fanfilm movies. They spend ages telling you everything through dialogue, with characters standing in a single location talking at each other with absolutely nothing actually happening.

Cinema is a language of action.
Posted: Fri, 11th Dec 2009, 12:25pm

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davlin

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Ahhh!...at last.
Posted: Fri, 11th Dec 2009, 2:19pm

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Fxhome Dude

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Merrick wrote:


Anyway, exactly 15 minutes into WALL-E is when Eve first appears, and I was almost in tears at that moment.
I find that rather disturbing.

But I think Richard MIVX (or something) put it perfectly. 15 minutes just isn't enough to bond to a character. Heck, I didn't feel all that sad when Theoden died after following him for two movies. But Will Smith in i am legend was rather gripping because of the way he died to save humanity. You best bet in a 15 minute short would have to be a dramatic love triangle of sorts. And maybe a sacrifice by one to save the other would no doubt be the closest to what your looking for for. Of course if you don't/can't have a love triangle, then TCO (the chosen one) has the idea.
And on the over dialogue line, they say no iron ever pieced the heart as a well placed period. OK maybe that was a little off topic...
Posted: Fri, 11th Dec 2009, 4:30pm

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Simon K Jones

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By positively mentioning the film ending to I Am Legend, you have instantly failed in your argument. wink

(hint: read the book)
Posted: Fri, 11th Dec 2009, 4:32pm

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Fxhome Dude

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Tarn wrote:

(hint: read the book)
The one where he accepts that vampirism will be normal and dies in the end thinking, "I am legend." That one?
Posted: Fri, 11th Dec 2009, 7:12pm

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Bryan M Block

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I'm going to vote again in FAVOR of dialogue as a characterization tool, although I will say that SHOWING the audience is much more powerful than TELLING them with dialogue, and dialogue used just for exposition seems unnatural.

For a prime example of NOT using dialogue and being able to give you a character in less than 15 minutes, I point you all to the first 15 minutes of "There will be Blood" with Daniel Day Lewis. No dialogue.... brilliant.
Posted: Sun, 13th Dec 2009, 12:35am

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Merrick

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Agent 702 wrote:

Merrick wrote:


Anyway, exactly 15 minutes into WALL-E is when Eve first appears, and I was almost in tears at that moment.
I find that rather disturbing.
Okay, now that I think of it, I had already seen Wall-E a couple of times at that point. It's one of my favorite movies ever anyway... smile

But if you think that characterization can't be established in a short time, look up "My Name is Lisa." Also, the Youtube Screening Room has some great shorts.

Yes, dialogue can develop characters to a point. I was trying to word myself strongle because I knew my message would be diluted.