Horror Short Films

I can’t remember what I was browsing when I came across a link to a horror short called Lights Out. Needless to say I was pretty spooked. I then had to watch all of ponysmasher’s videos, including his very informative how-to’s. Of course that led to watching many more horror shorts.

This may be my favorite format for a true horror experience. A longer film rarely succeeds in building tension over the course of 1.5-2.5+ hours. There are some notable exceptions, such as The Shining and Session 9. The same is true with books. Except for perhaps House of Leaves and The Haunting of Hill House there aren’t many books that can build and maintain a sense of horror, dread and even mystery. Like film, a horror novel must not only leave the reader/viewer in agony, but also have her constantly asking “What was that? How? Why”.

In order to start even thinking about creating a horror short, I would naturally start with a script. Now I’m sure perhaps ponysmasher and others may not start that way, or maybe not even have a written script at all; but I can guarantee they are still working from a “virtual script” in their mind. Screenwriting already has to be much much more brisk than a novel or even a play, and it’s even more critical for a short. You have between 2-10 minutes to get it done. There’s no time to screw around with scene setting, and most won’t even have any dialogue. So it’s really about noting the locations you want to use, the shots you know you want to get in, and the actions of the character(s) and the monsters/ghosts/etc. to up the ante.

Next comes the time to film the horror short. As these are very low-budget, there’s both more and less to worry about. First, you need to find and decide on where to film it. There can be both indoor and outdoor locations to consider, and even locations such as in and around a car or other “mobile locations”. Then there’s the 3 pillars of equipment: lighting, sound, and cameras.

  • Lighting: For outdoor locations, is it supposed to be daytime, nighttime, or both? For a short film, you shouldn’t need more than a day or two shooting on location, so it’s unlikely (but still possible) you’ll have to worry about the weather interfering. With the advent of CFL and LED lighting it’s much easier to have powerful lighting both on a budget as well as minimal power usage. Along with bulbs consider any needed stands, hoods, screens, etc.
  • Sound: Will you need to record any audio on-scene, or will it all be in post? If the former, you’ll need to consider how to control ambient noises, especially in outdoor locations. There may be some you won’t really care about, or actually want to have recorded, such as birds and the wind. For any dialogue it may be better to record in post; the actor(s) can either read along while watching the film to sync their lips, or you can record them talking and then match up in the editing software. You’ll need to consider choice of microphone. For on-set recording you’ll likely need a shotgun mic, such as the very popular Rode NTG series. If you’re not mounting it to the camera you’ll need a pole and/or grip, along with a wind protector (lovingly called the Dead Cat by Rode).
  • Cameras: Depending on your budget and needs, there’s a wide variety of cameras you can choose from. These days you may even be able to get acceptable quality from your phone’s camera! Some entry- and mid-level video cameras will have a built-in lens while other mid- and all high-end cameras will need a separate lens. In this case you may want to purchase at least 2 lenses: one to use in close-ups, and another to use for panoramic shots.

After you’ve filmed everything, next comes post. Not only will you need to edit your video into a tight and cohesive cut, this is also when you’ll record any sound effects and voice-overs, dialogue re-takes, etc. If you’re talented you may even want to record or synthesize a soundtrack and/or some effects. Along with the editing you may need to consider correcting or customizing your color grading.

What about effects? Some talented filmmakers such as ponysmasher are versed in the use of software such as Blender to create any needed creature effects as well as any prop and lighting adjustments or additions.

Finally it’s time to share your film with the world. The 2 most popular sites are Youtube and Vimeo; I greatly prefer the latter, but for sheer number of viewers there’s no doubt Youtube is the de-facto. If you make enough films and start to get more attention, you may want to try to enter any number of short film contests and shows. That along with online exposure may take you further in the film world than you had ever anticipated.

Writing in Fountain

If you are a screenwriter or at least like to dabble with writing movies you’ve probably heard the controversy surrounding Final Draft’s latest update, if it can be called that.  Called out by the Scriptnotes podcast, Final Draft even came on the show to attempt to refute the criticisms… and failed miserably.

After such a long wait for a lackluster improvement, others have stepped in to fill the void and actually utilize the growing ubiquity of smartphones, tablets, cloud syncing, etc.  From John August and Stu Maschwitz, a new markup syntax, Fountain, allows you to write a screenplay in any plain text editor.  There are also programs that will take those Fountain files and output a formatted screenplay in PDF format, perfect for sending off to LA!

As I’ve mentioned in my post about plain text (holy crap was it really that long ago?), I am now a huge proponent of any system that doesn’t tie me to one program in order to work on something.  Like any other plain text file/format, Fountain allows me to work on a script on any device in any text editor, as well as keeping that file synced and backed up via Dropbox, iCloud, OneDrive, etc.

As the Scriptnotes podcast pointed out, while Final Draft may have made it look like someone had to use their program and FDX file format in order to send out a screenplay, that’s complete bunk.  A reader wants a screenplay, period.  They want it in the correct format, traditional Courier font, etc. and that’s it.  It can be printed out and mailed old-school, a PDF, a Word file, FDX, it doesn’t matter.  PDF is nice because you can lock a PDF down except for printing.  If they wanted to make changes, well that’s when you and/or your agent should be getting a call or email.

So, is it hard to learn to write in Fountain?  No!  Far easier than Markdown and even basic HTML, there aren’t too many specific keywords or symbols needed when writing a basic film screenplay.  Now if you’re writing for the stage or an animated TV show, you might have a little more work to do.  But, like any other writing or even programming, the point of Fountain is to write now and worry about formatting later.  If you’re writing a long dual-dialogue scene, then just write the character names and their dialogue.  Then when you’re finished you can look on the Fountain syntax reference page and find out exactly how to set it up.  But don’t do that while you’re trying to get the words down.  Remember, the formatting only matters at the end when you’re ready to send it off.  Until then, write with a large sharpie on paper towels for all I care.

Goodbye to the Frenzy

I recently received an email with some bad news: Script Frenzy will no longer be held.

It was hard for me to to digest, though somewhat ironic: every year that I’ve tried it I never wrote anywhere near the required number of pages.  But still, it was easy to get excited to be starting on a script with many other people in the same situation.

Apparently that number wasn’t very high.  According to their website, far more people participate each year in NaNoWriMo, the annual contest for writing a 30,000-word novel in 30 days.  To me, it’s hard to imagine that so many more people would attempt to write a novel rather than a script in a month, let alone in any amount of time.

Why do I think that?

First off, simply the length.  It’s really not that hard to write a screenplay (at least to me).  The structure is more defined than a novel, and the formatting is far more rigid as well, but the fact is there’s far more whitespace on each page of a script, and the total length (both pages and words) is far less than a novel (normally 1 page = 1 minute of screentime).  So for so many eager novice writers, shouldn’t attempting a script be far more tempting?

Second, consider the era that we live in.  Movies are as popular as ever (although video games seem to be on the cusp of edging it out).  Nobody really reads novels anymore (for the most part), and those that do seem to be taking up eReaders and leaving behind the dead-tree form (please note the slight sarcasm I inject into this sentence).  With so many people going to the movies (and even now the advent of online streaming), shouldn’t they be far more motivated to try to write one?  In the past everyone had a great idea for the next Great American Novel; aren’t we now in the time of looking for the next Great Hollywood Blockbuster?

I don’t know if any other website or community will pick up where Script Frenzy left off. I do think there’s plenty of aspiring screenwriters out there. Maybe it really is the structure and formatting that kept alot of people from trying. Even though some software is still expensive (Final Draft) there are far more cheaper and free alternatives available now (Scrivener, Celtx, Trelby, etc.) that can allow people to get into writing. The increasing popularity of streaming services (Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and Apple) and the rise of the indie pictures should surely encourage writers, as well as trying to break into the traditional Hollywood system. If and when an alternative does turn up, I’ll gladly become a part of it.