How to Improve Your Filmmaking, Find Your Voice, & Build an Audience

How to Improve Your Filmmaking, Find Your Voice, & Build an Audience

William Shakespeare once said that brevity is the soul of wit. Little did he know that he was giving one of the most important pieces of advice for filmmakers in 2016 and beyond.

About two weeks ago, I wrote an article that really ruffled some feathers. It was all about why I don’t think people should make feature films, at least not until they’re legitimately ready for the massive logistical and financial undertaking a feature presents.

In response to that article, many people argued passionately that making a feature early is the best way to really learn the ins and outs of filmmaking. And while I wholeheartedly agree that you can learn a lot by making a feature, I’d argue that it’s not the best or most efficient way to learn filmmaking and grow your skill. Far from it, in fact.

Towards the end of that article, I hinted at a strategy that could help aspiring filmmakers to drastically and quickly improve their skills, while also finding their unique artistic voice and building an audience at the same time. And today I’m going to share it with you.

That strategy: making micro-short films and a whole lot of them.

What on earth is a micro-short film?

While I’m not sure if there’s an official definition, for the purpose of this article, we’ll say that a micro-short is anything less than 5 minutes in running time. To be even more specific, I’d say the sweet spot for micro-shorts is right in the 1–3 minute range. 

Pretty short, huh?

I know, I know. “That’s way too little screen time for these to possibly be useful,” you’re probably yelling at your screen in complete horror. And a few years ago, I might have completely agreed.

So before we get to the reasons why micro-shorts are an insanely powerful tool, let’s sidestep for a moment and look at the mindset shifts that have caused me to embrace extremely short films. 

7 immutable truths about filmmaking, creativity, and the modern world

In the past seven years, I’ve been studying the craft of filmmaking relentlessly. And in that time, I’ve also been watching as the internet has become the dominant force in how we consume, learn about, and share films. 

In addition to that, I’ve been delving into the nature of creativity itself, trying to figure out not only how I can be more creative and productive on a consistent basis, but how all of us can. That’s what has fueled and inspired lot of the articles in the Mindset section of this site.

From all of this, I’ve drawn a few conclusions. None of these are original ideas, mind you, but taken together, they make a power case for why micro-shorts are an incredibly useful strategy for filmmakers working in 2016 and beyond.

So here are the seven truths:

  1. Quality is the result of quantity: We get good at things by practicing them deliberately and consistently. Filmmaking is no exception. If we’re being honest and not romanticizing it, making a film is a convoluted, multifaceted, and highly technical process that few people are naturally good at. It follows that skilled filmmakers get that way by practicing.

  2. Failure is how we grow as artists: The main reason that quantity produces quality is it accelerates our ability to fail, and then we subsequently learn from those failures. In all things, not just creative endeavors, failure is the engine that drives progress, and success is the inevitable result of failing until you get it right.

  3. We find our unique voices by trying new things: Creativity doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s all about taking inspiration from everywhere you can, trying new things, and experimenting with new ideas. Through this process, we inch towards having a voice and a style that is genuinely unique. The fewer new things we try, the slower our artistic maturation.

  4. Limitations force us to be creative, and true creativity breeds success: Many of us lament at the fact that we don’t have the same resources available to us as other filmmakers do. In truth though, most every successful filmmaker started off with few resources, but through their resourcefulness and work ethic, moved their way towards their current success. If you’re able to channel your restrictions and limitations into creativity, you’re well ahead of everybody complaining they don’t have the right camera or enough money.

  5. As more people start making films, it’s harder than ever to stand out: Inexpensive digital technology and internet distribution have made it so that just about anybody can make a film and get it in front of people. This means, somewhat paradoxically, that it’s easier than ever to make things and distribute them, but harder than ever to get noticed and gain traction.

  6. Attention spans are getting shorter and shorter: This is true regardless of whether you’re a writer, filmmaker, or any other kind of content creator. Whether we like it or not, the internet is causing us all to become more easily distracted than we’ve ever been, and that presents a major obstacle for people trying to stand out. Even if you’re immensely talented, it doesn’t matter worth a damn if people turn off or click away from your work in the first 30 seconds.

  7. Time is valuable, and it needs to be invested wisely: This one is pretty self explanatory. Time, unlike money, is a non-renewable resource. Once you’ve spent it, it’s gone forever. It follows that if you’re serious about becoming an accomplished filmmaker, you probably want to take the most efficient path instead of wasting time on things that won’t have a good return on the investment.

So there you have it. These seven points are the basis for my creative and filmmaking worldview right now, and I’m sure you can already see how these things, when combined, point towards micro-shorts as an effective means of improving your skills and getting noticed.

Now that you know where I’m coming from, let’s dive into the many specific and practical reasons why micro-shorts are a fantastic way forward. And a little later, I’ll be sharing a strategy for how you can use micro-shorts to rapidly improve your skills, find your voice, and build an audience.

So let’s dive into it.

The incredible benefits of making micro-short films (and lots of them)

It takes very little time or money to produce a micro-short

I talked about how time and money are one of the major drawbacks to making a feature in my last article, but the numbers are worth repeating here.

The production time for an independent feature film is often in the neighborhood of 2–4 weeks of full time work for a sizable crew of people. Just for production. When you take into account the time it takes for pre and post production, you’re looking at roughly half a year to produce an independent feature, and that’s on the low end.

That doesn’t even account for the costs of paying people (hopefully) for their full time commitment to a project. And let’s be honest here, when you’re demanding so much of people’s time, it really is unethical not to pay them, especially if they’re professionals. People have bills to pay, and almost nobody can “donate” a month or more to something like an indie feature unless they’re independently wealthy.

On the completely opposite end of the spectrum, a compelling micro short film can be shot in a single afternoon, or in a weekend if the film is more ambitious and has multiple locations. A micro-short can be pre-produced in a week and edited in a week.

If you’re diligent and you work at it, there’s no reason that you can’t make one really good micro-short film per month, even if you’re working a full time job.

And because the time commitments are so much smaller, you can also make them for significantly less money, or even no money at all. When people only need to commit to a few hours at a time, they’ll be far more open to working for free, especially if your project is cool and you promise to feed them well.

Remember before when I said that quality is the result of quantity? Well this is where the micro-short really allows us to grow and hone our skills. Even if you only make 6 micro-shorts in a year, there’s a very good chance that you will have learned more and tried more new things than if you had opted to make one or two longer short films, or even a feature.

Micro-shorts allow you to try new things quickly and efficiently (which is how you grow artistically and find your voice)

With a feature film, you’re committed to a single project, and a single story, for many months on end. That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you’re passionate about the story you’re telling, but it’s still not the best path if your goal is to accelerate your filmmaking skills and find your voice.

With micro-shorts, you’re free to go wild and experiment with new techniques and ideas in a low-stakes environment. They’re great for trying things that you’re uncertain of, things that you’d be hesitant to try with a feature film. Hell, if you’re feeling bold, you could challenge yourself to make 12 different films in 12 different styles and genres over the course of a year.

You can make dramatic micro-shorts, comedic micro-shorts, horror micro-shorts, documentary micro-shorts, experimental micro-shorts, serialized micro-shorts, avant garde mockumentary micro-shorts. You could make micro-shorts about your process for making micro-shorts.

And again, like I mentioned in that section about the immutable truths, we find our unique artistic voices by trying new things on a regular basis. 

So if you’re serious about improving your craft and figuring out your distinct artistic style, the strategy of making lots of micro-short films in lots of different styles will help you achieve that outcome in a more economical and efficient way than making longform shorts and features.

Failing on a feature can be debilitating, but failing on a micro-short can be liberating and useful

I know a dude who has completely given up on filmmaking because he tried to make a feature right out of film school, and then failed miserably at it. He invested well over a year into the project, and it just didn't turn out anything liked he'd hoped. What’s worse, he maxed out a few credit cards to get his feature made, and he’s never made a nickel off that film. Yet the leftover debt is still very real.

He approached filmmaking in a way that left him burned out, deflated, and in a terrible position to keep making films. So he quit.

I tell you this story not necessarily to scare you, but to point out that our culture of “just go make a feature at any cost” has some legitimately negative and scary consequences, especially for people who aren’t ready to make a feature. I also included it to point out that not all failure is equally useful.

While I mentioned earlier that failure is essential to growing and eventually succeeding, there’s an important distinction to be made here. Failure is only useful if you learn from it and use it as a tool for growth. If that failure instead cripples you and makes you want to give up, then it’s worthless and destructive.

That’s what makes micro-shorts such a powerful tool for learning. Unlike a feature, where failure can be completely debilitating, micro-shorts accelerate your failure in a way that is genuinely useful and completely low stakes.

You’re not investing tens of thousands of dollars and many months or years into a micro-short, so if you fail, it really is no big deal. It’s a bummer, sure. But it’s not the end of the world.

And if you're able to shift yourself into a growth mindset, those small failures on your small films won't even be a bummer. You'll see them as stepping stones towards becoming the filmmaker you want to be.

The short screen time forces you to be creative and efficient with your storytelling

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over my years studying the craft of filmmaking, it’s that the technical aspects of filmmaking really aren’t that difficult once you’ve spent a little time studying and practicing them. What’s tremendously difficult however, is using those things to tell a story in a way that’s compelling, engaging, and efficient.

When you’re making a micro-short, your one and only job is to make the audience care (or laugh or cry or think deeply) in a very short amount of time. I kid you not when I say this is incredibly difficult, and it forces you to be creative. It forces you to think of new, extremely economical ways to communicate ideas and stories.

The upside here is that storytelling efficiency is an incredibly valuable skill, and it will go a long way once you’re ready to start working on longer shorts, series, and feature films. If you’re able to use 3 minutes of screen time in the smartest, most creative way possible, then you’re much more likely to be able use 90 minutes better than you would otherwise.

Making lots of micro-shorts can help you find and build your filmmaking tribe

I’m really passionate about this idea of building a tribe. This is a group of people who enthusiastically support everything you do with filmmaking. These are the people who will actually read your scripts and give you great constructive feedback. They’re the people who will gladly spend a weekend being your cinematographer or sound recordist. And you’d do the same for each of them.

The idea of the tribe is all about finding a team of people with whom you can form a symbiotic relationship, where everyone is invested in helping everyone else reach their goals. Basically, it’s all about finding a group of stellar friends who share your passion for filmmaking.

“That sounds great, Robert,” you’re probably saying to yourself, “but how do I actually go about finding my tribe, and what do micro-shorts have to do with it?”

Well, dear reader, you find your filmmaking tribe by working with lots of people and finding the ones you click with. It really is just that simple. It’s a volume game.

And it just so happens that making micro-shorts and enlisting new people to help with them is a great strategy to achieve that. Because of the small amount of time that people have to commit, it’s significantly easier to find new people to work with you on micro-short films, especially if you’re asking that people work for free.

Over time, as you work with more and more people and build your network and your list of filmmaking contacts, the great people, the ones who will form the base of your tribe, will rise to the top.

Micro-shorts are far more likely to be watched in full and shared by online audiences

Remember the two points I made earlier about how it’s harder than ever to stand out in a crowded market and how attention spans are getting shorter and shorter? Well this is where micro-shorts can be an incredibly effective tool for actually getting noticed and using your films to build an audience.

You see, the micro-short format practically begs to be watched online, whether it’s in people’s social media feeds or on sites like YouTube and Vimeo. The short running time signals to people that it’s way less of a commitment on their part to watch your film. It signals that it’s a small investment of time that could have a huge potential upside if the film is good.

Just consider this: if one of your filmmaking friends posts their new film on Facebook, with the obligatory message asking everybody to watch it and share it, which are you more likely to actually watch in full? A 90 minute feature, or a two minute short?

The vast majority of people are going to choose the two minute short and watch it in its entirety. And if it’s actually good — if it’s funny or sad or surprising or thought-provoking — then people are going to share it. And because it’s so short, the people with whom it’s shared are more likely to watch it in full and share it themselves. And the cycle continues.

By creating content that’s short and easily digestible, you’re basically optimizing your films not only for the way the internet works, but for people’s psychology and fear of commitment.

If you produce good micro-shorts consistently, you will build an audience around your filmmaking

Most of us want to be successful with our filmmaking. And while being successful means something different to all of us, I’d say that one of the things that success means for everybody is having people watch our films.

Success means having an audience.

This is the key to how someone like Don Hertzfeldt can be so successful. Despite the fact that he works independently and only makes the films he wants to make, Don is kicking ass. Not only has he made a name for himself at prestigious festivals, he’s got an incredible amount of people following him online, all of whom know and love his work. 

For example, when he launched a Kickstarter last year to bring his films to BluRay, this is what happened.

Don’s audience loves his work, and they’re willing to pay for it. I bought into this compilation, and it’s one of my favorite BluRays of all time. Honestly, I would have payed double for it, not only because I love the content, but because I want to support Don and the incredible work he does. 

That’s the power of having a dedicated audience, and if used properly, micro-shorts can help us achieve this outcome for ourselves. Since these bite-sized pieces of content are more likely to be watched and shared (see the section above this for details), your micro-shorts have the power to reach far and wide and get your work in front of a huge amount of people.

How you actually convert these viewers into a tangible audience that comes back again is another story, but I’ll get to that in a little bit.

How to use micro-shorts to skyrocket your filmmaking abilities, find your voice, and build an audience

Now that I’ve outlined the basic reasons why micro-short films are such a powerful tool for filmmakers, I want to spent just a little bit of time talking about the best way to use them to accomplish the three things in the headline: drastically improving your filmmaking skills, finding your unique voice, and building an audience around your films.

The key to using micro-shorts as an effective tool for learning and growing is, not surprisingly, making them consistently. However, there are a few caveats here that you should keep in mind if you decide to adopt this strategy.

First and foremost, if your goal is to improve your skills rapidly, it’s only an effective strategy if you’re more ambitious with each subsequent micro-short. If you just make some variation on the same thing over and over, sure, your body of work will grow, but your skills will not. Nor will you really grow in any meaningful way as an artist.

As we discussed before in the worldview section, failure is the engine that drives progress and success, so you’ve got to be bold, trying new techniques often and experimenting with ambitious ideas as often as you can. This is how you accelerate failure, and therefore accelerate growth.

In addition, for you to grow artistically, it is really important that you try things that push you outside of your comfort zone. Each new short should be a laboratory for challenging new things. This could mean making films in genres that you’ve never tried before, combining two genres, playing with an idea or a technique that seem too crazy to work.

If you have self-doubt about whether a new idea or technique will work, that’s a good thing. It means you’re pushing and challenging yourself, which is the best thing you can do to grow as an artist.

Through this strategy, I guarantee you that you will not only start to build an impressive body of work, but you will learn a lot about what kind of filmmaker you are. You’ll have a great understanding of which genres you prefer, which techniques you want to be part of your signature style, and what types of stories you want to tell.

But what about audience building?

Through this process, you will absolutely hone your filmmaking skills and start getting a better sense of your style, but what about the audience building portion of this? How does that work?

Well, this probably won’t come as a surprise, but if you want to use your micro-shorts to help you build an audience, you have to put them out into the world and try to get them into places where people will see them. That’s the first step. 

The second step — and this is something that warrants significantly more detail in its own article in the future — is that you have to convert those viewers into subscribers or followers. It’s really no good if people watch your films once, but then they never see your work or hear from you again.

So, I recommend taking a series of steps to accomplish effective and sustainable audience building in 2016 and beyond. Here are a few of the most important.

  • You need your own destination on the internet: I know some people are happy to just have a YouTube channel or a Facebook page, but I don’t think that’s enough. Sure, those places come with built-in audiences, but ultimately, you don’t control them. This means that if YouTube or Facebook changes their rules in ways that makes it harder for you to reach your audience (which they’ve both done in the past), you’re out of luck. However, if you have your own website and a means of direct communication with your audience, you and only you are in control of that relationship. Which brings me to the next point...

  • You need to build an email list: For the reasons stated above, you run a risk by allowing your means of communication with your audience to be controlled by a third party. If the rules get changed, you could get hung out to dry. Email lists, however, are something you own. And it’s easier than ever to communicate with your lists through services like MailChimp.

  • You need to connect with your audience on their preferred channels: This is where social media comes into play. It’s imperative that you connect and interact with your audience in a variety of places, as that’s how you maintain the relationship, build good will, and drive people to your website and email list. This doesn’t mean you have to be on every social media channel out there, but it does mean that you should be thinking critically about who your audience is, where they hang out online, and what kinds of content they like to see. If you can figure out those three things and build a smart strategy around them, then you’ve got a good shot at having an engaged audience.

As you can see, this list is far from exhaustive, but it should be enough to get you started with building and interacting with your audience. We’ll dive deeper into the specifics of building and maintaining that engaged audience in a future article, but for today, it’s about time to wrap things up.

Wrapping up

There’s a very good chance that the strategy in this article will conflict with just about everything else you read about filmmaking on the internet. There are a lot of opinions about how to become skilled in filmmaking, and one of the prevailing ones is that you should just go make a feature, come hell or high water.

For instance, just the other day I read an article from Dov Simens (one of those old-school dudes who’s been teaching the logistics of filmmaking for some 30 years), saying that short films are literally the dumbest thing filmmakers can do with their time.

While I obviously disagree with Dov on a very fundamental level, it just goes to show that there are different paths through the world of filmmaking, and that there’s no one-size-fits-all way to get to where you want to be.

And that’s the important thing here. You have goals and aspirations that are unique to you. Some people want to be the next Spielberg. Some people want to be an indie darling. Some people just want to make cool films for their family and friends.

Whatever your filmmaking goals, it’s your job to craft the best path to reach them. And it’s my sincerest hope that this article gives you a strategy that may help with that.

Best of luck.

-Rob Hardy

If you enjoyed this article, you'll love Filmmaker Freedom Weekly. Each week, I share my latest writing, curated stories from around the web, a short film that I love, and a healthy dose of filmmaking inspiration.

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