Filmmakers make shorts for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes it’s to showcase their abilities on a small budget or win festival awards in a shorts category. It may even be because they have a compelling story, but it simply can’t be stretched out to 120-minutes. Still, some filmmakers use shorts as a way to pitch a potential feature-length film to audiences and investors by presenting it to them as a short for a fraction of the price. This can prove to be quite effective in that it allows viewers a chance to get a better feel for the full film by presenting it in the medium it’s intended for. Films like Saw have used this method of pitching to much success as their original short film has spawned an entire franchise.
One of my favorite horror movies of the last year was Oculus, directed by Mike Flanagan. The film particularly struck a chord with me because it relied heavily on psychological fear and suspense, a la The Shining, rather than the blitzkrieg of gore and jump-out-of-your-seat moments common with horror films nowadays. Even more impressive is that it’s a wonderfully shot film made for the low, low price of $5,000,000.
Much like Saw, Oculus started out as a 30-minute short entitled “Oculus Chapter 3: The Man With the Plan” (and yes, I did search for chapters 1 and 2 to no avail. They don’t appear to exist). Although it was never Flanagan’s original intention to pitch a feature film, the short managed to create enough buzz to attract studios interested in turning it into a full-length film.
The film is simple enough, using a simple white room as its only location and really only starring one actor (if you don’t count the pair of delivery guys who are on-screen for 30-seconds). Much like the feature, “Oculus Chapter 3: The Man With the Plan” relies on psychological fear and clever usage of audio to create tension. The rest of the film is purely expositional as the main character, Tim, tells us the history behind the mysterious Lasser Glass as well as his history with it. By keeping things simple, Flanagan managed to keep the budget of “Oculus Chapter 3” to around $1,500.
Those familiar with Oculus the feature will see similarities in plot in “Oculus Chapter 3”. What’s interesting to note is what was changed in its transition from short to feature. Originally, studios wanted Oculus to be a “found footage” film not unlike The Blair Witch Project or VHS, but Flanagan felt that route would destroy the concept of the film.
He had this to say:
“And kind of immediately, as it got out into the festival circuit, people were enjoying it and there was interest in expanding it into a feature — but everybody wanted to do the found footage thing because there was cameras in the room. And I didn’t think that worked for this story because the only thing that really is going to make it work is if we can say that what you’re seeing on the screen isn’t objective. Found footage has to be objective. You have to believe the frame.”
I couldn’t agree more with this. One of the most original things about this film is the ability to create fear around, what essentially is, an inanimate object that you can coincidently buy for $409.90 here if you want to scare the piss out of your visiting guests.
As the short film shows, by incorporating a sense of distortion by the use of editing and sound, the fear in “Oculus Chapter 3” comes from the journey the audience has with the protagonist as our senses are tested and we begin to lose faith in the objective. The fear of “found footage” films is quite the opposite. We trust modern-day audio and video equipment to show us the objective truth that can sometimes be clouded be the limitations of our own senses. “Found Footage” films count on this reality to reveal to us “reliable evidence” to give us physical proof to something that was previously considered metaphysical.
What may be of most use to filmmakers looking to use shorts to pitch a bigger features is how Flanagan manages to expand on “Oculus Chapter 3” in an interesting way without making things seem repetitive. Although films like Cast Away and Buried managed to build a feature around one character and one location, it would’ve been very hard to keep a horror film like Oculus interesting under he same conditions. I mean, mirrors are only so scary to a point.
Flanagan had this to say about the transition:
“The idea was always that we could take these two stories, braid them in a way that the transitions are getting tighter and tighter and tighter and we’re bouncing back more and more frequently, hopefully to the point that the two stories bleed together into a way that we can’t tell the difference any longer and the characters can’t tell the difference any longer. Especially dealing with a monster that’s an inanimate object, it’s the only way you can sustain tension over a long period of time, which was a big concern coming off the short.”
Shorts clearly can be made for a variety of reasons. Although most filmmakers don’t get into the shorts for their money-making potential, that doesn’t mean they can’t lead to bigger projects. Keep that in mind when writing your next short. Perhaps the life of your short can extend beyond the 120-minute mark and on to the box office.