What Can You Learn From Oscar Shorts? by Ruth Witteried

It is not easy to find the Oscar Nominated Shorts on Comcast Pay Per View. I found them once, then they seemed to disappear from cable and the internet. In fact, they had been pulled from the internet prior to the Academy Awards and a recent search turned up only their trailers. Fear not! They are still available on Comcast in time for your review as you polish your short script for the Friday WWC Script to Screen deadline. To find them go to: Comcast On Demand:

(HD) On Demand (if you have it)


Movie Collections

Oscar Films

Oscar Nominees

Best 2013 Live Action Shorts

Is it worth the $7.99 to watch 114 minutes of live action shorts, most of it subtitled? Absolutely. By doing so you so gain a sense of perspective about what can and can’t be done in a ‘contained’ short. The Film Lab budget comes primarily from entry fees so if you want to film sixty Afghan horse riders doing their version of a polo match (Buzkashi Boys)—that may be unrealistic. In fact, when you watch Buzkashi Boys and Asad, try to imagine filming something similar in the Portland Metro area, keeping in mind that every time cameras and lighting are moved costs increase. Most of the scenes take place outside at: village markets, busy streets, ruins, buzkashi grounds, mountain roads, the beach and ocean. Under the best writing conditions you don’t have to think about that; you just write your story. But this is a writing competition calling for contained scripts so it is to your advantage to keep these things in mind (and it is good practice for your feature as many companies will only consider contained scripts).

For good examples of containment pay particular attention to Henry, Death of a Shadow and this year’s winner, Curfew. Death of a Shadow does an excellent job in creating mood and tone and is limited to one primary location with interior and exterior shots. But it’s a great location with many options for scene setting that make it look like multiple locations. It has a single point of view; that of the main character and the cast is rounded out by three minor characters and very few extras. When you watch it, think about where they spent their money and if you would do the same. Then compare it to Henry and Curfew.

Henry, far and away has the most emotional heft of any of the nominees; twenty-one minutes inside the mind of a man losing his. The drama is heightened by its contained nature: single POV, three primary interior locations, one exterior scene, that serve to reinforce reality as Henry experiences it locked inside his mind. The speaking cast is larger and there are more extras.

What I found particularly useful (for our contest) were the seamless transitions between past and present, and the use of light and sound that allowed the audience to feel what it was like to be Henry. Techniques both effective and powerful that can be included in your script:


Henry opens the door into the long empty hallway, disoriented. He stares at the double doors at the far end and startles, shaking as overhead lights go out like a shot, panel by panel advancing darkness.

(Normally I advise against the use of simile or metaphor in screenwriting, but in this case when the lights go out they are accompanied by a sound that is very much like a shot.)

The winning short, Curfew, is the most economical in many ways and I don’t just mean budget. The story is about a man with no reason to live. At the end of nineteen minutes, he has one. It’s loaded with interior scenes scattered between two apartment buildings (but in theory they could be the same with different set designs), and a bowling alley. There’s an exterior shot outside the apartment, and a short interior/exterior on a bus. Even those short exterior scenes help advance the story and keep the audience from feeling claustrophobic.

The story is told through Richard, whose character is revealed when he babysits his niece, Sophia, a terrific supporting role. There is a third minor character (for one scene), and the rest is taken up by extras who are put to excellent use in the bowling alley scene, a lovely juxtaposition between the world weary Richard and his innocent, full of life niece.

If you only have time to watch one short, make it Curfew. The lessons in it translate very well to this particular contest: brevity of dialogue, limited sets, good supporting characters, clean story and character arc, layered subtext, good use of props (red phone, anyone?) and effective use of extras.

We’re in the last leg of the first round. Judging begins Saturday. Yet, it is still not too late to begin your story. Five days is plenty of time to get your cat up a tree, throw rocks at him, and get him back down. Or, to use another David Mamet gem (fill in your own blanks):

Once upon a time: there was a lonely boy …
And then one day: he met a stranded alien …
Just when everything was going so well: the alien wanted to go home …
When at the last minute: the boy saved the alien and helped him get to his spacecraft…
And then everyone: learned that love is letting go.

Let go of your fears and dream big. Risk having your short script read by Zach Cox, Manager at Circle of Confusion (Walking Dead), and judge of this year’s competition.

Best of luck!

Ruth Witteried is Film Coordinator for the Willamette Writers Conference and Executive Producer of last year’s winning short, “Alis Volat Propriis”. She teaches Introduction to Screenwriting at Clark College in Vancouver, WA, with her next ten week class beginning this April. You can follow her on Facebook at SitYourAssDown, or on Twitter @sityourassdown1.

Why Short Film? Film Lab Blog #2

Twelve days and counting till the March 15th Script to Screen deadline. Have you submitted your short script yet?

While there are lots of short film festivals, you may very well question the benefit of writing a short or producing a short film. After all, do you attend short film festivals? Do you know anyone who does?

Aside from the inherent entertainment value, the short film serves two functions for the feature film writer: it serves as a learning exercise, allowing you to experience filmmaking without all the overhead; and acts as a calling card to highlight your abilities as writer, director, producer, etc. With the unique Script to Screen Film Lab Competition, Willamette Writers will pick up the tab on production costs leaving the winning entry with a mere $25 ($20 for members) outlay for the entry fee.

A great return on investment, by any calculation. Not only will you see your written words and characters come to life, you may find yourself racking up awards at Austin, Tribeca, Stockholm, Nashville and ….. Hollywood? We are nothing if not dreamers. A more likely scenario may be that experience in the short film format allows you to refocus your efforts into markets with great need for content: internet web series, apps, and corporate sponsored internet television. Think of the Netflix show, House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey. This critically reviewed show was aired entirely on the internet and may be the first show of its kind to win an Emmy. But very few Netflix subscribers are aware that the 50 million dollar show was paid for by Samsung. You will hear Luke Ryan and Seth Jaret speak more to this topic as they explore writing for transmedia this summer at the 44th Annual Willamette Writers Conference. Suffice it to say, Samsung, Netflix and Google aren’t the only ones reinventing film and television programming. As writers, we all have to adapt to the needs of a changing market. Trying your hand at short scripts may be just the ticket to reinvent and reinvigorate your writing.

AND ... Luke Ryan, Executive VP of Disruption Entertainment, has agreed to be one of our contest judges! He will judge the final round and help choose the winning script. Who will the other judges be?

Tune in next week. Same bat time. Same bat channel.


Ruth Witteried is Film Coordinator for the Willamette Writers Conference and Executive Producer of last year’s winning short, “Alis Volat Proprils”. She teaches Introduction to Screenwriting at Clark College in Vancouver, WA, with her next ten week class beginning this April. You can follow her on Facebook at SitYourAssDown, or on Twitter @sityourassdown1.
Script to Screen Tips and Trips

As the Willamette Writers kick off their second Script to Screen short screenplay competition, several writers have requested tips for creating successful entries, or at the very least that we share the ‘trips’ of previous submissions; the avoidable errors that we ran into most often when judging.

Tip #1
Use professional script formatting. If you don’t have screenwriting software, such as Final Draft, or Movie Magic, you can usually go to their website and get a free, two week trial. Your printed script may have a watermark across it (Final Draft Trial Copy), but is perfectly acceptable for our purposes, and will insure the proper formatting.

Tip #2
Read the submission guidelines carefully and follow them. You can find them on our website at http://www.willamettewriters.com/wwc/3/inf-filmcontest.php. Pay your fee electronically when you can, or far enough in advance that it has cleared the bank by the time the first round judges get your script (usually within two days of the deadline). If there is no record of your payment being processed your script will not be read. Likewise, if the page length is set at 7 and you turn in 14, it will be judged only on the first 7 pages.

Tip #3
Be creative in your use of theme. This year’s theme for the conference is Fresh Brewed. What does that mean to you? How is it unique to our part of the world? Does it conjure images of coffee, microbrews or Distillery Row? Does it leave you thinking of metaphors, synonyms or wild nights with your Muse? The tighter the constraints the more we are forced to innovate. Run with it, explore it, and layer it into your script.

Tip #4
Study one or two short films. Read short stories. Be mindful of the point of view in each. Typically, there is only one perspective represented; one set of eyes through which we experience the story. If you have more than one POV you may want to have a friend look at it and see if it reads as well to them as it does to you. Similarly, there isn’t room for subplots to fully develop, so limit yours to one, if any.

Tip #5
Maximize the use of subtext to amplify your message. Is your character lonely? Is that reflected in the space they occupy (a room with minimal furnishings), the car they drive (an enormous old station wagon), their patterns of speech? There are many ways to include subtext in your script that will elevate it from routine to extraordinary.

Trip #1
Even a short story must have a beginning, middle and end. Every scene you write should have a beginning, middle and end, so there’s really no excuse not to close with a proper ending. That was the number one mistake we saw during last year’s judging: scripts that just stopped on page 7; the story didn’t end, it just stopped. If it takes you ten pages to tell your story, write ten pages as your first draft; write nine as your second draft and seven as your final draft. Be brutal in your editing. If it’s not essential—cut it.

Trip #2
If the contest guidelines indicate no more than four characters and you have a scene with a packed courtroom, the odds are not in your favor. Focus on what is most important about that scene. Is it the reaction of the crowd, or the testimony of the witness? Rewrite the scene to take place in the Judge’s Chambers or in an elevator and focus on the message.

Trip #3
Keep it simple. There were some very promising stories in last year’s submissions that tried to say too much. Unless you are an expert in this medium, seven pages will not allow you to fully express multiple, meaningful messages. Stick to the most important theme and give it all your energy.

Trip #4
Dialogue cannot save you. Overuse of dialogue will be seen for what it is: an attempt to mask a poorly executed story. Film is visual. Give your characters something to do while they talk (or better yet, instead of talking), and your audience something to look at.

Trip #5
Not submitting a script because you’re afraid to fail. You’re a writer—of course, you’re going to fail! You will fail more often than you will succeed, but you keep writing. Take a risk and put something out in the world; declare your intentions and as Captain Picard says, “Make it so.”

Ruth Witteried is Film Coordinator for the Willamette Writers Conference and Executive Producer of last year’s winning short, “Alis Volat Proprils”. She teaches Introduction to Screenwriting at Clark College in Vancouver, WA, with her next ten week class beginning this April. You can follow her on Facebook at SitYourAssDown, or on Twitter @sityourassdown1.