I love short films and I’m always looking for more inspiration. While writing my next film I rewatched all of my favorite shorts and then I went looking for more. There’s a lot to choose from and it’s hard for shorts to stand out these days.
In the age of YouTube and viral videos, are short films relevant anymore? Does the public care about short films or just us film nerds? Thankfully, recent developments seem to indicate that there is a real appetite for short-form cinematic storytelling.
What follows are some of my thoughts on short filmmaking and my recommendations after watching as many shorts and anthology series as my eyeballs can handle. If you’re looking for some good short films I’ve made a playlist of my favorites.
They’re mostly genre films and animation. I’m a genre junkie myself. Science fiction and horror are my favorites. So that’s what I’ve been looking for. These also appear to be the two most popular and numerous short film genres on the web. That’s not surprising. I’ll also be reviewing a few different places where you can watch these shorts and which ones I think are worth your time. I hope this helps you discover a few new favorites.
These are some of my favorite shorts that are mentioned in this post and freely available online. But the playlist linked above includes many more of my favorites, including dramas and comedies.
- More (1998)
- Orbit Ever After (2013)
- Lights Out (2013)
- Attic Panic (2015)
- Cargo (2013)
- Uncanny Valley (2015)
- The Black Hole (2008)
- Prospect (2014)
- Wyrmwood: (2017)
- Rakka (2017)
- Firebase (2017)
- Zygote (2017)
- How to Be Alone (2019)
- They’re Creeping Up On You (1982)
- The Second Renaissance (2003)
- Nowhere to Run (2017)
- Black Out 2022 (2017)
- Harvest (2019)
- Alone (2019)
- Ore (2019)
Some of the shorts in this post are not available online. Some are from anthology movies and some are episodes of shows that are only available through certain streaming services.
My favorite short film of all time is More, a stop-motion animated masterpiece that I saw when I was very young and it’s never left my mind. I admire great animation, especially stop-motion. I’m looking for more live action narratives, but I love animated shorts too.
I think the most popular short films today that most people readily identify as a “short film” are probably the Pixar Shorts that often play before their features. You don’t need me to tell you that Pixar always does a great job with these, but I’d be a shame not to mention them. My favorite is still Geri’s Game, the one with the old man playing chess against himself, but Smash and Grab is a more recent sci-fi Pixar short that I also enjoy.
The films that I really want to see more of are short live action stories with special effects that can be achieved with a modest budget. Animation is certainly a part of that equation. I’m really interested in low-budget live action world-building, but I know that good storytelling and effective writing are more valuable than any special effect.
Because the truth is that most shorts are pretty forgettable, even when they have good production values. They have to look good enough to hold up against the streaming content thats competing for those same screens, but that’s still not enough. Viral videos and compelling vlogs can survive with limited production value, but a cinematic short story cannot. If it looks like crap they will tune out immediately, especially if they’ve watched too many shorts like jaded film festival judges.
Even if you manage to produce something that looks and sounds amazing it doesn’t mean that it will break through. Too many short genre films exist merely as visual effects exercises. Many of them are definitely somebody’s VFX homework and those artists deserve an A+ for their craftsmanship, but a good-looking spaceship or a scary-looking monster aren’t enough to make something that people will remember. Like the award-winning science fiction short Orbit Ever After.
I’ve seen a million short films and I’ve judged a few festivals so I know how rare it is for a good short to really grab your attention, especially after you’ve watched too many of them in a row. The market is extremely saturated. If you think getting your feature into top festivals is difficult, wait until you hear how many shorts are competing.
According to a study by Digipops, The top 100 film festivals receive about four times as many shorts as they do features. About 100,000 short films are submitted to those festivals every year. An average of 1,725 shorts are submitted per festival and 95% are rejected. Sundance rejects 99.2% of all of their short film submissions.
Those numbers came from a presentation at the University Film and Video Association conference in 2015 called Filmmaking for the 99%, referring to the majority of short filmmakers who’s work doesn’t get into festivals. It was very eye-opening.
The competition for attention online is even more ruthless. 500 million hours of video are watched on YouTube every day. It’s easier to make a short film than ever before, but having instant access to an audience of millions doesn’t guarantee that anyone’s watching. How do you stand out?
Decades ago there was a real barrier to entry. If you managed to get a short film shot and cut at all that meant you really had to put some effort into it. That doesn’t mean there weren’t terrible shorts, but it does mean that audience’s were much more forgiving and less inundated with videos constantly competing for their attention.
There are a few older shorts made by famous directors that I admire, but my love of those shorts is tied up with my knowledge that this is an early artifact from a beloved filmmaker, even if it’s not very good. James Cameron’s Xenogenesis (1978) is a good example. If you didn’t know it was made by him you wouldn’t watch it, but it’s interesting as a piece of special effects history.
If you uploaded something like that to Vimeo and expected a Staff Pick you’d be fooling yourself. It’s obvious if you pair one of these antiquated works up against the deluge of modern shorts that look almost as good as the films in theaters. It just goes to show you how much easier it is to make a good-looking short film, but it’s still as hard as ever to tell a good story that people will remember.
Some of my favorite older shorts by famous directors
- Vincent by Tim Burton (1982)
- Doodlebug by Christopher Nolan (1997)
- Electronic Labyrinth THX 1138 4EB by George Lucas (1967)
Today there are many filmmakers who’s careers began with a viral short, like David Sandberg’s Lights Out which he got to make into a a feature-length horror film. I actually prefer another one of his silent shorts, Attic Panic, but it was Lights Out that went viral.
I just love how simple and effective they both are. Lights Out (2016) received mixed reviews as a feature, but he still got to make it because of the power of a good short. Now he’s directing much bigger genre films like Annabelle: Creation (2017) and Shazam! (2019). It proves that a good short can definitely take you places.
James Wan’s short horror film Saw was good enough to secure the modest financing needed to make Saw (2004) into a feature. Now it’s a huge franchise, for better or worse, and he’s directing big budget films like Aquaman (2018).
Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan (AKA The Daniels) jump started their career by making ten music videos and several very strange short films in one year. Some of them went viral and that attention led to their first feature, Swiss Army Man (2016).
Shorts becoming features is nothing new and a good short doesn’t guarantee a good feature, but filmmakers now have the option of testing their ideas with a short that can look and sound just as good as the finished product. Feature films like Sin City (2005), Machete (2007), This Is The End (2013), Whiplash (2014), What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and Cargo (2017) were all based on a proof-of-concept short film.
Today filmmakers can have a much more direct relationship with their audience by publishing their own work, but I think that audiences are overwhelmed by their choices and rely more on word of mouth and curation. I know that I do. In my search for superior shorts I’ve been diving into a few different streams of sci-fi and horror content.
The two best places for short genre films that I’ve come to rely on are Dust curating science fiction shorts and The CG Bros curating computer animation, which ends up including a lot of science fiction but not so much horror. I’ve noticed that there aren’t a lot of live action fantasy shorts out there. Most fantasy shorts are animated.
Another good resource is Short of the Week which is less genre focused, but that means that the ones that they do share must have something special. And of course Vimeo Staff Picks are something to pay attention to, but they include a wide range of content such as music videos, documentaries and short videos of every kind.
Uncanny Valley is by far the best short I’ve seen from The CG Bros and one of their few live action selections. Nothing else from them really comes close, and it’s honestly one of my favorite shorts of all time. But other than that, I see a lot more from Dust that catches my attention, and obviously a lot more live action narratives.
My Favorite Shorts From Dust
- Orbit Ever After
- The Black Hole
It’s funny that for all of the elaborate bells and whistles of so many sci-fi shorts one of my favorites is The Black Hole. It’s an incredibly simple gag that’s just short enough and funny enough that it’s always worth rewatching. It’s a tight story that wastes no time, just like Lights Out and Attic Panic. Wasting time is the most unforgivable sin in a short film.
But The Black Hole isn’t unique to Dust. I’ve seen it in a lot of other places. It’s very popular. But my second favorite is Orbit Ever After, an original short exclusive to Dust. It was made in collaboration with the British Film Institute and nominated for a BAFTA award. There are many other Dust Exclusives.
Now their even producing feature films based on their shorts. Prospect (2018) is their first feature based on one of their better short films. It premiered at South by Southwest and even played in select theaters. The short and the feature are both decent and with mostly positive reviews I think we can expect more features from Dust in the future.
The same thing happened in reverse to this pretty crazy zombie short called Wyrmwood: Chronicles of the Dead. Even though gruesome zombie shorts are nothing new, this one stands out just because of its relentless pace and bizarre ending.
This time the feature film came before the short, Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead (2014). It’s described as Mad Max meets Dawn of the Dead and it’s just as ridiculous as it sounds. The short film was made afterward to hype a ten episode sequel series, but there haven’t been any updates since the short was released.
Neill Blomkamp is another genre filmmaker who really knows a lot about the power of a good short. His big-budget sci-fi feature District 9 (2009) was based on a short film called Alive in Joburg (2006) and Chappie (2015) was based on a short film called Tetra Vaal (2004). These shorts have very little plot and they’re really more about establishing the look and feel of their future features. I loved District 9 but these shorts don’t do much for me. They’re less about the audience and more about testing VFX.
Once upon a time Blomkamp was going to direct a Halo movie too, but all we got to see were some similar conceptual shorts. All of them are really more like trailers, but they manage to do a lot of world-building in a very short period of time. That’s something that many short genre films need to do more effectively.
Blomkamp has really invested himself in the short film market with Oats Studios, an ambitious project that’s brought together top-of-the-line effects artists and A-list talent to produce some truly bizarre and beautiful shorts. You’ll recognize Sigourney Weaver and Dakota Fanning in the selections below.
My Favorite Shorts From Oats Studio
However, even the best of these are incomplete preludes to something bigger instead of being complete stories of their own. Some are very experimental and others are just VFX demos, but even the longer narrative shorts just feel like extended trailers.
And it turns out that’s exactly what they are. One of the stated goals of Oats Studios is to produce these shorts as a way of testing audiences before producing a feature. This is becoming a more viable strategy for filmmakers, but unfortunately their crowdfunding campaign for their first short-based feature, Firebase, didn’t raise enough money. Still an admirable endeavor and I look forward to seeing their future work.
Then there’s CryptTV and Alter, two brands that curate and publish short films like Dust except that they do horror films. Alter is actually owned by the same parent company as Dust, Gunpowder & Sky. I honestly watched a lot of horror videos from these two. I watched their most popular ones and I searched for other people’s favorite picks.
So what do I have to recommend from these two? Unfortunately nothing really stood out for me. Nothing surprised me. I found nothing unique to these channels that I needed to add to my list. But you may find something you like. Many of them are adequate little horror vignettes, but they won’t be haunting your nightmares.
Alter definitely has better content than CryptTV. How to Be Alone is an excellent horror short that you can find on Alter, but I already saw it on Short of the Week. I haven’t found anything great that you can only get from Alter or CryptTV. There are some shorts that are Alter Exclusives and a few of them are okay. I can’t say the same for any CryptTV exclusives, but if you’re really into makeup effects and gore then you might find something interesting there.
Horror shorts seem to be stuck in a rut. Most of them are almost exactly the same setup with different gimmicks. Somebody’s in a spooky situation. There’s lots of patient creeping around until, after spending most of the runtime on suspenseful buildup, the only payoff is the one thing you came to see: the monstrous reveal, the gruesome death, the twisted punchline, or whatever image makes the best thumbnail.
Then it’s over before you know it and you’re left with nothing to think about except ‘Well, that last bit was pretty cool.’ I suppose the same could be said of the genre itself.
I would still be proud to work on any of these shorts and I would congratulate the crew on their monsters and gore. I know how much work goes into those scenes and even if it’s not Shakespeare there’s something to be said about good execution. Many of these people will go on to do great things, but there’s a reason that nobody will remember these films.
Their fine filmmaking exercises but they’re not very good stories. They need better characters and better ideas, like the incredible feminist horror short How to Be Alone written and directed by Stranger Things writer Kate Trefry. I first saw it as a Short of the Week and now it’s on Alter too.
It’s got plenty of entertaining genre conventions, but it’s also got a unique point of view and something to say. It’s not that everything needs an explicit message. I like ambiguous endings too. It’s just nice when a story gives you something to think about.
The genre shorts that stick in my head and bring me back are the ones that use their genre conventions as a way to explore interesting ideas or ask interesting questions. They don’t even have to be new ideas. It’s what separates an effects demo from a good story. And don’t get me wrong. I love a good effects demo, but they don’t move me.
Horror anthologies are making a comeback. Shudder is a streaming subscription service for fans of horror and they’ve produced a new anthology series based on Creepshow (1982), a schlocky horror anthology film that’s a lot like Tales From the Crypt (1989 – 1996). It’s campy and silly but it can also get under your skin, unless you’re watching the very disappointing sequels. The Creepshow anthology trilogy covers thirteen horror shorts in total, but the sequels are a real waste of time. Just watch the original.
My two favorite shorts from the original Creepshow are The Crate and They’re Creeping Up On You. No joke, even though it’s all very campy, that last one really terrified me when I saw it as a kid and I couldn’t go to school the next day because I didn’t sleep. It’s all about bugs, so if you’ve got entomophobia, you’ve been warned.
Creepshow was originally directed by George Romero and written by Stephen King, but this new series has Greg Nicotero as its show runner. He’s one of the producers of The Walking Dead and one of the planet’s greatest living makeup effects artists. AMC owns both Shudder and The Walking Dead.
However, after watching the entire series I’m sad to report that it’s a real let down. All that it has going for it are horror genre cameos and name recognition, but there’s nothing to see here. It won’t make you scream or laugh although it’s desperate to do both. I had high hopes for this series but I found nothing worth recommending.
The lackluster animatronic mascot is uninspired and done so much better by the Crypt Keeper. Animating the comic book panels as a framing devices is really distracting, especially when it’s done in the middle of a story, robbing it of what little suspense or tension that it may have had.
Despite the poor quality of Creepshow it was seen by half of all Shudder subscribers. Like most streaming services the viewership numbers are a proprietary secret, but the response has been enthusiastic enough to green light a second season of Creepshow.
The return of the anthology series is an interesting development for lovers of short films. I’m talking about shows like Black Mirror, Electric Dreams and the recent CBS reboot of The Twilight Zone. Every episode is basically a long short film, and the growing popularity of this format is good news for short filmmakers. Some might say that these are really short features and not short films. That’s a valid point, but I still think that there’s a lot that short filmmakers can learn from these stories.
In an era of peak TV where committing to another show with so many episodes and so many characters is too much to ask, it’s really refreshing to sit down and watch one story in one sitting that demands less time than a feature film. Even when they’re disappointing there’s always hope for the next one and no continuity to keep up with. With so much serialized content to choose from a single-serving story is a real treat.
My Favorite Episodes of Black Mirror
- USS Callister
- The Entire History of You
- 15 Million Merits
- San Junipero
- Striking Vipers
- Black Museum
After catching up with all of Black Mirror I decided to branch out and see what their competitors were doing. Electric Dreams is a science fiction anthology series loosely based on the writings of Phillip K. Dick and it’s Amazon’s attempt to compete with Netflix for that Black Mirror audience. It does not succeed. All I have to say is that despite some great actors and lots of money being spent, none of it grabs my attention or my heart strings like Black Mirror. Some of them are interesting though.
Okay Episodes of Electric Dreams
- Kill All Others
- The Commuter
- Impossible Planet
Then there’s the much anticipated reboot of The Twilight Zone by CBS. I really wanted to like it and I absolutely love the old show, but this has all of the same problems as Electric Dreams. It’s very ambitious. It has a lot of great actors. Everything looks really good and they spent a lot of money, but it’s still disappointing and it won’t be haunting anyone’s dreams.
I like a lot of the things that the show is trying to say, but the heavy-handed messaging is sometimes cringe-worthy. The same is true of Electric Dreams. Black Mirror is clearly the superior heir to Rod Serling’s canon of the uncanny because it genuinely disturbs people.
The only two episodes of The Twilight Zone reboot that are kind of interesting.
- Point of Origin
But CBS also has the anthology series Star Trek: Short Treks which is pretty self explanatory. It’s got the same production values as the main shows and it has the advantage of not having to explain a lot of standard Star Trek tropes. There’s only four of them and they’re all less than twenty minutes. If you like Star Trek you’ll definitely enjoy them. It’s also been renewed for a second season.
Love Death and Robots is another anthology series created by Netflix and produced by David Fincher. It’s eighteen very different animated short films from around the world. They range in quality but the diversity of styles and storytelling is really refreshing. Audiences seem to agree and the series has been renewed for a second season.
My Favorite Shorts From Love, Death and Robots
- Sucker of Souls
- Blind Spot
Fincher had wanted to reboot the animated science fiction anthology film Heavy Metal (1981), which also features a variety of animated short stories, but it never happened and Love Death and Robots is what we got instead.
My favorite short from Heavy Metal, a quirky little film that definitely hasn’t aged well, is the World War II horror story B-17 which was written by Alien (1979) co-writer Dan O’Bannon. Most of the other shorts in Heavy Metal are silly, stupid or misogynist, but B-17 is the only one that’s sincerely spooky.
Love, Death and Robots also reminded me of another animated anthology series from my youth, The Animatrix (2003), nine animated short films from the world of The Matrix (1999). It was shown in select theaters and played many times on television, including Adult Swim. I was a big fan when it came out and I wish more franchises would do this. I would love to see an anthology of Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) shorts.
My Favorite Animatrix Shorts
- The Second Renaissance
- Detective Story
- World Record
Blade Runner 2049 (2017) produced a few supplemental shorts, but they’re really more like deleted scenes from other directors. Nowhere to Run is my favorite, not because it’s a great standalone story but because it gives some more insight into a character who doesn’t get much screen time in the actual feature. However, they did make a more standalone anime short, Black Out 2022.
Prometheus (2012) and Alien Covenant (2017) tried to pull the same trick, but they’re also just bonus scenes released ahead of the feature and not standalone short films.
Since 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of the Alien franchise 20th Century Fox produced a series of short films set in the Alien universe and some of them even played in select theaters. Six lucky filmmakers were selected from over five hundred pitches and given incredible access and resources to make these shorts.
I’m always happy to see more xenomorphs, but you don’t get a whole lot of them in these shorts. They’re very economical with their effects budget. These shorts are adequate and enjoyable, but they don’t really stand out either.
They look and sound great as a nice homage to the franchise, but I doubt anybody will remember them unless they end up as a special feature on a Blu-ray someday. But they’re not bad, especially if you’re fond of the Alien franchise. It’s tough to compete with those films. But the Alien franchise is uniquely suited to the short anthology treatment which is what has fueled years of great short storytelling in the Alien comics and graphic novels.
My Favorite Alien Shorts:
Those are some of my short film recommendations. I maintain a few curated playlists on YouTube and Vimeo with many more, and I’m always looking for more suggestions. So hit me up on Twitter or Letterboxd and let me know what your favorite short film is.
Full disclosure: I’m also a frustrated filmmaker and my last short film doesn’t measure up to my own standards either. So I mean no disrespect to my fellow filmmakers. I’m just trying to figure out what works for myself and I’m anxious to try again.
Favorite Short Films on YouTube.
Favorite Animated Short Films on YouTube.
Favorite Short Films on Vimeo.
Favorite Animated Short Films on Vimeo.
List of Favorite Short Films.
List of Features Based On Short Films.