2 Crucial Writing Tips for Adapting Short Films into Features at Film School

By Robert Chomiak

Film Production School

One of your shorts would make an excellent feature. You’re convinced of it.

But the task of writing a full-length screenplay can be daunting—which is ironic, because as a screenwriting instructor at the InFocus Film School, I have encountered film school students with feature-sized ideas that needed paring down in order to make an effective short.

Now one must unlearn this skill of simplifying and instead expand one’s thinking to match a feature film’s vision and scope.

Adapting a short has launched several careers. David F. Sandberg with the horror film “Lights Out,” Neill Blomkamp with the sci-fi doc “Alive in Joburg” (District 9), and Wes Anderson with the crime comedy “Bottle Rocket.”

These three writer-directors came up with creative solutions that can serve as lessons for a filmmaker, like yourself, who wants to follow in their footsteps.

#1: Film School Teaches that An Entirely New Obstacle Must Often be Invented

“Bottle Rocket” had enough material to form most of Act 1 for the feature Bottle Rocket. Had Anderson and company stuck to the premise of small-time hoods pulling off jobs, though, the story would get old fast. So they introduced a new obstacle of a road trip in Act 2 that has the group going on the lam where they have a falling out. Even that wasn’t enough to sustain the rest of the film, so in Act 3 the friends reunite for a grand heist.

Blomkamp had a mere kernel of a story in “Alive in Joburg.” The world is fully fleshed out, but the style is in documentary format and the lead character, Wikus, is only seen briefly. For District 9, a new obstacle was created: Wikus is sprayed with a fluid and slowly turns into an alien. This provided the spine for the entire story.

“Lights Out” required even more invention. The incident in the short and its lead actress appear as part of a teaser in the feature version. An entirely new character was created—an older sister who tries to save her younger brother from their mentally unstable mom. The new obstacle had to do with uncovering the mystery of the shadowy killer.

#2: Film School Grads Know the Arc for the Lead Character Requires a Broader Trajectory

“Bottle Rocket” is a two-hander, but the feature version highlights Anthony more so than Dignan. In the short, Anthony is satisfied with his life of petty crime. But in Bottle Rocket, Anthony questions the criminal life while on the lam, which puts him in conflict with Dignan. Ultimately, Anthony rejects his lawlessness and embraces his recovery.

Wikus in District 9 is an uncaring bureaucrat who suppresses the slum-dwelling aliens. During his transformation into an alien, he undergoes the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. By the end, Wikus is helping a pair of aliens to escape Earth.

In Lights Out, the older sister only believes in saving her brother, but once she accepts the supernatural entity, her focus shifts to destroying it. She goes from hiding out from the world to tackling a problem bigger than herself.

Following these two tips—a new obstacle and broader character arc—will help you to expand your short film into a satisfying feature experience.

Want to put these tips to use and learn many more through film production training?

Contact us for information about attending film school in Vancouver!

4 Film Festivals to Check out While You Attend Film School in Vancouver

Vancouver hosts a wide range of great film festivals

Vancouver hosts a wide range of great film festivals

It’s every film buffs idea of heaven: days of endless new movies, appearances from famous directors, actors, and other film pros, and even workshops and networking opportunities. Attending a film festival could lead to you discovering your new favorite filmmaker, meeting your personal hero, or even catching your big break.

Fortunately for those considering film school in Vancouver, the city has no shortage of excellent events. With such a vibrant movie industry presence, the area is the ideal backdrop for a range of festivals both large and small, taking in a number of genres and styles and filling their own particular industry niches.

So where should you go first? Read on to find out more about just a few Vancouver’s best film fests.

1. Every Film School Student in Vancouver Should Attend VIFF

Let’s start with the granddaddy of them all. Now in its 35th year, the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) isn’t just the biggest in the city, it’s also one of the five largest film festivals in North America, playing host to over 300 films, highly regarded international guests, and countless compelling workshops and lectures for industry insiders and aspiring filmmakers alike.

This year’s festival will take place from September 29 to October 14, but film school students might have a hard time fitting everything into just over two weeks, with new features including an interactive hub, a sustainable production forum and the return of their ‘Power to the Indie Program,’ a special workshop for budding indie filmmakers to explore strategies in direct distribution and audience engagement.

2. Students in Film Courses Can Get the Real Stories at DOXA

With the recent success of the likes of Making a Murderer and The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, we’re very much in a golden age for documentaries, with filmmakers creating some of the most daring, provocative pieces ever produced in the genre.

Film school students can see provocative documentaries at DOXA

Film school students can see provocative documentaries at DOXA

With that in mind, why not check out the latest groundbreaking work for yourself at DOXA Documentary Film Festival? Held each May at various locations around the city, DOXA showcases both local and international films that tell real stories designed to educate and inform, and features appearances from some the leading filmmakers in the field.

3. Film Students Can Get Involved at the Vancouver Island Short Film Festival

Just a few short hours away, the Vancouver Island Film Festival is a veritable treasure trove of mini cinematic gems, with somewhere between 10 and 20 films with a running time of twelve minutes or less screened over two days in Nainamo.

Best of all, the judging panel accepts multiple submissions from filmmakers, with an entry fee of just $30 per film! There’s even a specific category for student work, making it an ideal avenue for students looking to get the work they complete during their film courses out there.

4. Vancouver International Women in Film Festival: A Fresh Perspective for Film School Students

A smaller festival, but one that’s definitely worth a look, the Vancouver International Women in Film Festival, held every March, showcases the best work from women both at home and abroad. The festival screens around fifty films, taking in a number of genres and styles, and is run by Women in Film and Television Vancouver (WIFTV), a not-for-profit society that also offers professional development services for women in the industry throughout the year, including workshops, mentorships, and a monthly networking breakfast.

WIFTV provide a range of services for female filmmakers

WIFTV provide a range of services for female filmmakers

What else will you discover while you attend film school in Vancouver?

Contact InFocus Film School today for more information about our courses!

Cinematography Spotlight: 3 Lighting Tips for Film Production School Students

film production schoolLet’s talk about lighting! An often underestimated aspect of filmmaking and production, film/TV lighting has a major impact on the look and feel of every scene. Think Amelie’s warm tones, Citizen Kane’s dramatic high-contrasts, and Pulp Fiction’s vibrant neons. Thanks to stylistic lighting choices, these iconic films are anything but flat.

Setting up lighting on a film set takes practical savvy, creative flair, and even some time management skills. As industry pros can tell you, achieving the perfect lighting for every scene can be a time-consuming process of trial and error.

If you’re considering making your mark on the film production industry, these three tips can help make lighting a perfectly painless process.

1. Never Underestimate the Standard 3-Point Lighting Technique

A trusty standby you’re sure to encounter throughout your career in film production is the 3-point lighting technique, so-called because of its placement of light sources in—you guessed it—3 distinct spots.

3-point lighting involves a key light, fill light, and back light (often called a kick light). The key light is the main light illuminating the subject of the scene. The fill light does the important work of lighting up the rest: filling in the harsh shadows created by the key light on background objects/scenery. The back light is placed directly behind the subject of a scene, which might seem counterintuitive, but is completely necessary for separating the subject from the background in the eyes of your viewers.

Though this 3-point lighting method is far from the only way to effectively shoot a scene, it is a quick, basic, and accessible way to create crisp, clean shots on any film production set.

2. Experiment with Mixed Colour Temperatures When You Study Film Production

If you’re interested in the film industry, chances are you have an appreciation for the artistic side of the movie medium. At a film production school like InFocus, you’ll be encouraged to fine-tune your creativity by experimenting with a range of filming and lighting styles.

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Tinted strobe lights add a vibrant dynamic to this dance club still

One way to step up your lighting game is to experiment with varying tones, shades, and colours. One great example of colour play is the steel mill scene in Terminator 2, wherein ‘The Governator’ is lit by a mix of blue and orange colour temperatures. James Cameron says this combo was inspired by “moonlight and molten steel,” adding a dramatic touch to his film’s climax.

Using colour to its full effect in lighting and film production requires the expertise in colour-matching, using chrome film and gels, and more industry-specific skills you can develop when you study film production. Though it can be trickier than your standard 3-point shoot, colourful choices can lead to more interesting and dynamic cinematography.

3. Shoot in the Order of Your Lighting Setups in Film Production School & Beyond

You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again: in the film industry, time is money. The time it takes to set up and test optional lighting for each shot is vitally important to the polish of the final product, but it should be done as quickly and efficiently as possible.

In film production school and out on set, it’s best to practice shooting scenes in ways that minimize your need to take down, relocate, and reassemble lights. Wise directors, cinematographers, and film production crews often choose to shoot scenes and shots in the order of the lighting setups.

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Indoors or out, lighting is a major factor impacting production schedules

It’s “lights, camera, action” in that order for a reason! With the right skills, you can ensure film casts and crews aren’t kept in the dark for longer than necessary, and help every shot look its best.

Are you interested in taking film production courses in BC?

Visit InFocus Film School to learn more about getting started!