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Master Class Takeaways: A Short Film Is Not a Trailer for a Feature

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An audience member attends the Sundance Institute Short Film Master Class.
Photo by Andy McMillan | © 2016 Sundance Institute

Kirsten Gordon

An unseasonably windy morning blows in Charlotte as an eclectic group of filmmakers enter the Bechtler Modern Art Museum. With a registration list cut off at 375, the Wells Fargo Auditorium inside the Bechtler fills up, and there are folks who have come hoping to fill a vacant seat. Filmmakers are networking prior to the start of the program, greeting each other with hugs and handshakes. When the door closes and the lights dim, there are more than 245 in the audience, several who have driven more than three hours to attend this Sundance Institute Short Film Master Class, a free educational workshop focused on the craft of short-form storytelling.


We’re All Just Making Movies

As an opener, Mike Plante, Sundance Institute senior programmer of short film, discusses some best practices for submitting work to the Sundance Film Festival. Each short film submission is viewed by a programmer, not just a first-round screener. Plante explains that it’s fine if there are some rough bits in the film. If the sound mix is not done or color correction is pending, but the story is there, that’s ok. But a short film should be a complete film, a complete moment, and not a trailer for a feature in development.

Plante also shares some industry insights and best practices (a most overt one: “Don’t be a dick!”). Although he recommends that short films have a press kit and website, programmers do not research the filmmakers and instead watch the submissions without bias. And finally, he reminds the audience, “We’re all just making movies. Film is an expressive art with very little return.” He continues, “Trust the audience. Hint at things, but don’t tell them everything.”

Exploring Is Worthy

With filmmaker Frances Bodomo

After the break, the audience watches two shorts, Boneshaker (2013) and Afronauts (2014). Both premiered at the Sundance Film Festival before going on to screen at other major festivals. Plante then introduces the films’ writer/director Frances Bodomo. Bodomo grew up between Ghana, Norway, and Hong Kong before moving to New York City to study film at Columbia University and NYU. She encourages the audience to try new things in their filmmaking. “Exploring is worthy,” she says. “Failure is a part of the process.”

Defining Your Own Image

With filmmaker Jennifer Reeder

We then see a provocative short film rife with raw emotion called A Million Miles Away. The director, Jennifer Reeder, constructs personal action films about relationships, trauma, and coping, and in this short she pushes the envelope juxtaposing adults and children with role reversals. She likes to create characters steeped in realism, warts and all. Her award-winning narratives borrow from a range of forms, including afterschool specials, amateur music videos, and magical realism. These films have shown consistently around the world, including at the Sundance Film Festival, Berlin Film Festival, Venice Biennale, and Whitney Biennial. Her awards include several that have qualified her films for Oscar nominations.

Plante and Reeder discuss short film production, writing and working with dialogue characters, and turning short film production into a career. Reeder acknowledges, “The first films people often make is in their own room, defining their own image.” The audience peppers her with questions. She talks about how, soon after her beginnings, she has only worked “on my terms.” Finally, Reeder describes how showing short films in festivals can add credence to your brand and get funding for your features.


Kirsten Gordon is a writer, photographer, and vice president of marketing and PR for the Carolina Film Community. She recently attended the Short Film Master Class presented by Sundance Institute. The program is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Additional support provided by Charlotte 48 Hour Film Project and the Carolina Film Community.

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