5 Tips for Creating a Compelling Short Film from Jess Dela Merced

My RØDE Reel is live now with a massive $250,000 major prize to be won – the largest cash prize ever offered in a short film competition. All you need to do to enter is submit a short film that's up to three minutes in length, as well as a behind-the-scenes film.

The winner will be selected by our esteemed judging panel, Sunday Emerson Gullifer, Jess dela Merced and Ryan Connolly, who boast a wealth of filmmaking, writing and directing experience between the three of them. They will be looking for films that exhibit creative flair, technical expertise, and tell an incredible story.

Jess dela Merced is an acclaimed writer and director from San Francisco. She has made a string of hugely successful short films including ‘HYPEBEASTS’, which she made under Spike Lee's mentorship, and ‘PHONY’, which was executive produced by Paul Feig and is now in development as a TV series.

Check out Jess' top tips below on what she considers to be the essentials of short filmmaking.

Get In and Get Out

A short is called that for a reason. Yes, attention spans are dwindling nowadays, but more importantly, efficient storytelling makes the most impact. Instead of spending too much time setting up the lay of the land and establishing the main character(s) as you would in a feature-length film, throw the audience headfirst into the middle of the story where the action is.

Trust that they will catch on quickly. Try to remember that every aspect of the filmmaking is in service of the story. Don’t be precious about a really cool shot or an expensive camera move. Don’t be afraid to cut out the fat so that you can let the story breathe in areas where it’s needed the most.

Make Sure It’s a Story You’re Passionate About

If there’s anything I’ve learned over the years making films, it’s that they’re costly and time-consuming. So why not spend all that money, time, and energy on something you care deeply about? What matters most to you? What is the story that you can tell best that no one else could? Making movies is challenging and you’ll live with your film forever, so go and make something meaningful to you. 

HYPEBEASTS a short film by Jess dela Merced.

Get Specific

Going off the last tip, you might think that what’s important to you may not be so for audiences. This simply is not true. Don’t make something that you think other people will want. Audiences respond to personal stories – ones where they can really discern the voice and specificity of the filmmaker. Believe it or not, they will relate to the story even more. I find that the more specific you get in your story, the more universally received it gets. Specificity colours the world.

Use All of the Medium

Story is always king, but using all of the visual medium to execute the story is just as important. I find that you can find a lot of dramatic/comedic/absurdist opportunities in every aspect of the frame. For example, I like to have multiple storylines existing in a frame, making sure to not forget what could also be happening in the foreground and background.

Try to push the story forward in the most visually engaging way. Figure out clever or more elegant ways to move the camera, stage the blocking, and capture moments in ways that are interesting and unique. Embrace production and costume design to reveal more about your characters. Use sound and music to really immerse the viewer in this experience. To keep it simple, show, don't tell.

PHONY  A short film by Jess dela Merced.

Cast Real Actors

Take the time and effort to audition real actors. Using your friends and roommates is fine in a pinch, but not only will you get better performances from professionals, you’ll also learn how to effectively communicate with them as well. This is one of the more important muscles that constantly needs exercising in order to become a great director.

Use the opportunity with your short to get better as a filmmaker. Short films can be a wonderful calling card for yourself, but at its most practical, it is a stepping stone to your next film. Take note of what worked and what didn’t. You will learn so much about yourself as a filmmaker.

Entries for My RØDE Reel are open now and close 10am, Wednesday, October 20th, 2021. Head to myrodereel.com for more information. Get filming!