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4 storytelling tips for making 6-second short films with Vine from the folks behind

Posted by Andrew Tran  February 4, 2013 03:05 PM

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Some people have wondered if six seconds is too short a time span to take videos in Vine, Twitter's new video social sharing app. Is there anything beyond taking short clips of cats or babies within that timeframe?

The folks behind would say six seconds is plenty of time to tell a story. They've been releasing six-minus-one second-length comedy shorts on their site and on their YouTube channel daily since 2008.

There's not much to the series of popular mini films, which has starred actors like Patton Oswalt and Juliette Lewis. No heavy plot or character development. Just a setup, punchline, done. Like why 9 out of 10 scientists say guns are okay or why someone should crabwalk at their own risk.

For tips on how to shoot Vines that tell stories, we spoke with Brian Firenzi, one of the site's filmmakers (and also the guy who hilariously explained why MTV doesn't show music videos anymore).

If you're feeling inspired after reading these tips and Q&A, check out #beanstalk,
our daily video challenge community.

1. Use titles smartly:
Half of the jokes we shoot at 5sf have no right being only 5 seconds long. Let's just say we've gotten very good at talking fast and throwing out words that don't cut to the chase. Now, Vine is thoughtful enough to give you an extra second, but in case that's still not enough, you should take a look and see if your title (i.e. whatever you see fit to type in the tweet that accompanies your Vine) is setting up the joke effectively. For example, in "Stay Out of Bad Pun Neighborhood," you need the title to let you know where the 5sf takes place and who these people are - without it, it would be just a touch too random. When we're not sure whether people can effectively hear the punchline in our fast-paced talking (a common problem), we sometimes put the important dialogue right in the title, like in "Engaging the Enemy" (and Vine lets you add captions, just in case you shot your Vine in the middle of a wind tunnel and all your audio is bunk). In other cases, like "Straight Shooters," the title is actually part of the joke. In case you can't tell, we sure do love our puns - the last refuge of the witless, as Samuel Johnson would say, but also the last refuge of the online comedy makers who are operating on an absurdly tight schedule.

2. Reaction shots are the meat in the (non-vegan) comedy sandwich.
The best acting is reacting, and the best comedy acting is someone watching someone else fall into an open manhole cover and scream all the way down for 6 seconds. Trust us, we used hard science to determine that one.

3. Throw a few curveballs.
We've always said that if people can see where the joke is going before our 5-second film finishes unspooling, we've failed. That goes for your six-second Vines, too. Even a spin on an expected punchline, or a funny turn of phrase or oddball performance from an actor, is all you need to give your Vine a unique voice, that shot of quirkiness that's inherent to almost all good comedy. If it's got to be a pie-in-the-face gag, why not do a pie-in-the-face gag from the point of view of the pie? Poor pies. They never asked to be hurled in the faces of important, dignified lords and ladies.

4. Don't be afraid if no one gets it the first time.

5-second films are so short that, even with our three seconds of titles, if you rewatch one you've only wasted 16 seconds of your time at work/school/mass. And believe me, lots of our 5sfs have so many little in-jokes or background easter eggs that they often demand to be replayed. Luckily, Vines are set to auto play your short, so people don't even need to be prompted to watch it again - like a .gif, your Vine will just repeat and repeat until everyone finally nods their heads in understanding. That's all a comedian ever wants - the silent nod of recognition that someone finally understood your weird joke.

How did 5-second films begin? How has it grown?
5sf began in the dorms of USC film school - a fertile breeding ground of Del Taco bags, moldy shower sandals and 6 AM midterm benders. Many early 5sfs are lost to time, but others, such as "Ass Party," "Face Stomptacular" and "Ending to a Bad Teen Romantic Comedy" still exist on the site as relics of that weird, sleepless time. Eventually we refined the concept a bit, placed compilations of them in film festivals, watched people laugh their butts off, and realized hey - we could take this global, and be Nerdy Comedy Troupe #573,421. We officially launched the site on October 30, 2008, and have since been featured on "Tosh.0," "Attack of the Show!," screened at Comi-Con and SxSW, and have worked with people like Patton Oswalt, Dave Koechner, Peter Stormare, Juliette Lewis and Weird Al. I came so, so very close to telling Weird Al that he was the first concert I ever attended, but thankfully I restrained myself.

How did you guys come up with the idea for these types of films?
The idea stemmed from an old commercial contest that Chrysler put on, almost 8 years ago - but while we had no intentions of entering the contest, a friend and I did see the potential in micro-comedy. As an acting exercise, an editing exercise and a writing exercise, 5sf stretched our mind muscles and made us work harder at being funny and cutting away the fat than any attempt at a short film or sketch ever did before.

What have you guys discovered about these mini-movies over time?
Early on, we figured five seconds would be a silver bullet when it came to convincing a newbie to watch - how could you refuse wasting five seconds of your time, even if you don't laugh once? But it honestly took a lot of convincing people in the beginning, that, well, anything could be remotely funny in five seconds. These days, rather than answer the question, we just show them a 5sf favorite like "Magic Show Volunteer" or "Robodog" (both NSFW). Even from a commercial standpoint, most advertisers we've spoken to are hard-pressed to see how their product information could be cleverly delivered in five seconds - though curiously, most pre-roll ads on YouTube allow you to skip them after…wait for it…five seconds have passed. Not to toot our own horns, but we could get in and out before people have a chance to click away. Imagine it: no one could escape our warp-speed shilling! No one!

We've also discovered (or perhaps always knew) that consistency is key. Everyone has a favorite webcomic that they wish would update more frequently, and we knew that in order to build a steady fan base, we had to be the most reliable "webcomic" there is - and ever since October 30, 2008, we've posted a new 5sf every single weekday without missing our window once. Yes, we're a little insane.

That consistency has allowed our fans to get to know us more as people - when we expanded to longer-form sketches, behind-the-scenes videos, gag reels and comments-of-the-week videos, it gave us the opportunity to be funny in different ways, and share a bit more of our wacky little world. That's for the best, really - if hardcore fans want, they can dive into that stuff, even start a dialogue with us, and feel more connected. Others can strictly watch the 5sfs and keep us at arm's length, because frankly we're overbearing weirdos and we'll raid your fridge in a heartbeat.

What works best and what doesn't?
We've been doing this for four years now, going on five - and as a result we've trended towards pushing the limits of what 5 seconds can do. But all it takes to really connect with someone is a simple idea, that's relatable to the human experience, and cleanly delivered. That's what works best. Some of the best examples I can think of are: "Missing" - no dialogue required, no unnecessary comedic beats or angles; and "Late For Work," our most successful 5sf, which is so successful because it connects directly with anyone who's ever slept through the alarm. Ironically, it's Not Safe For Work, so maybe wait 'til you get home to watch that one. Or, if you don't care what anyone thinks of you at work, go ahead. Hell, watch our whole site.

As for what doesn't work in a 5sf, gags that involve too much reading or too much dialogue tend to succeed less. I can't imagine everyone perfectly understanding what the heck is going on the first time they watch "Post-Interaction Smile Reduction Quantifier," "or "Richard Bitter's Favorite Joke," even if those are some of our personal favorites. I call those types of gags "Wait-Whats," for the reaction they tend to first inspire. Actually, no, I don't call them that.

What do you guys think about Vine, Twitter's new video service?
We're tremendously excited about Vine. Tremendously! The tremendousness cannot be overstated. For a long time now, we've gotten e-mails and tweets and phone calls and smoke signals from fans who want to submit some funny ideas of their own - and we've always responded by challenging to them to pick up a camera and do it themselves. Sort of like teaching a man to fish instead of giving him a fish, except we're also not teaching anyone to fish, so I suppose that's a terrible analogy. Anyway, in most cases, the fans feel like they don't have the tools to make a short video, but now with Vine there's almost no excuse. We're looking to create a space on our site where fans can submit their Vines to be embedded and linked to on our site, so everyone can finally get in on the fish.

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