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February 14, 2022

The Three Types of Short Films

A short film is exactly what it sounds like. It's an entire film, but short. There are a myriad of categories that short films could fall into, whether you want to divide by genre or by length. Still, the Academy only distinguishes between these three: live-action, documentary, and animated.

3 types of short films

1. Live-action short

A live-action short is a scripted short film shot with live actors. Sounds simple enough. There have been largely improvised shorts, so "scripted" is a bit loose. Still, this category is for original and adapted work that tells an invented narrative where actors play characters that are not themselves.

If you're saying to yourself, "So it's a live-action movie, but shorter," then you've got it!

Many filmmakers you know and love today began their careers by producing live-action short films. Taika Waititi was even nominated for an Oscar for his short film, Two Cars, One Night.

2. Documentary short

A documentary short is also exactly what it sounds like: a documentary film, but short. I'm sure you're asking, "Well, how short is short?" and we'll get into that later.

Unlike the other types of short films, which generally seem to be "stepping stones" for creators before moving on to other projects, many documentarians continue to work in the short space, as not all docs require the length of a full feature.

Famed documentarian Charles Guggenheim was nominated for the Academy Award nine times over his career and took home the Oscar for three of them.

3. Animated short

Animated shorts use animation for the length of their runtime, whether it be traditional 2D, stop-motion, computer 3D, or any other technique. It just has to be animated. And it has to be short.

Animated shorts, in particular, are passed around the animation community and can serve as calling cards for animators because, unlike live-action films, animated shorts can sometimes be easier for a single artist to produce. (A gross generalization, I know.)

But festivals like the Animation Show of Shows are a great way to check out a variety of animated shorts, even outside of the Oscar nominees. Want to check out a few of the most popular animated shorts ever? Check out this list.

Why make a short film?

There’s an infinite number of reasons that you should make a short film. A non-exhaustive list includes:

  • To practice your craft on a smaller scale
  • To pursue filmmaking as a hobby or side-hustle, rather than a full-time career
  • To explore an idea that you’re interested in
  • To prove to producers and collaborators that you can put a film together
  • The subject doesn't warrant an entire feature (Questioning if your idea should be short or feature length? Read this!)
  • It's cheaper than a feature-length version (though not as much as you'd think)
  • Because you want to!

If you are ready to start writing your short film, make sure you are following industry-standard formatting with your screenplay. Remember, simply because your film is not as long as a feature, doesn't mean the standard for quality is any lower. Feel free to make this process easy with Arc Studio Pro. Arc Studio Pro helps format your script on the fly, so you don't have to worry about the formatting, so you can focus on the writing.

How short should my short film be?

If you're worried that the short film you're making is too long, you're probably in the clear. The Academy allows a length of up to 40 minutes, including credits. But that doesn't mean it should be that long.

Most shorts are anywhere between 5 and 25 minutes, with that sweet spot seeming to be between 7 and 16 minutes.

A short should be long enough to cover the story you're telling, which means determining the story's focus is essential. Shorts are usually centered around one central idea, which allows them to stay tight and sharp, rather than a quickly edited and paced sprawling narrative.

So, my short film can be nominated for an Oscar?

Your short film can be nominated for an Oscar, and it's pretty easy to do.

All you have to do is one of the following:

  • Win a qualifying award at one of the ninety film festivals officially recognized by the Academy.
  • Screen the film for at least seven days in a row in a public movie theater in one of these major US cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, or Miami
  • Win a Gold, Silver, or Bronze Medal in the Student Academy Awards

Ok, so maybe it isn't easy. Simple to understand, but not easy.

The majority of nominated shorts gained their eligibility through the first one: the festival route. That's a whole gauntlet of its own, but if you can get in, there's no guarantee you'll be nominated, but you'll be eligible.

Keeping it short

A full feature can be daunting, and a tv pilot can sometimes feel open-ended, so a short is a great way to try out your craft on something "bite-size" with a finite end.
Not sure where to start? Check out this guide to coming up with genius short film ideas.


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The Three Types of Short Films
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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