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.