When things are going well, film ideas lead one to the next. You’re working on one project, and something sparks an idea for another. A perpetual motion machine. But sometimes that machine breaks down, and you’re left trying to pedal your bicycle uphill. Every once in a while, we all need a little boost.
Annie Dillard tells this story in her great little book The Writing Life:
One bad winter in the Arctic, and not too long ago, an Algonquin woman and her baby were left alone after everyone else in their winter camp had starved. Ernest Thompson Seton tells it. The woman walked from the camp where everyone had died, and found at a lake a cache. The cache contained one small fishhook. It was simple to rig a line, but she had no bait, and no hope of bait. The baby cried. She took a knife and cut a strip from her own thigh. She fished with the worm of her own flesh and caught a jackfish; she fed the child and herself. Of course she saved the fish gut for bait. She lived alone at the lake, on fish, until spring, when she walked out again and found people. Seton’s informant had seen the scar on her thigh.
The point being: When you have nothing else to use, use yourself. Oftentimes our own lives and experiences are that small bit of kindling we need to spark a fire. But before you start cutting off your own legs, we asked a few of our friends to send some project prompt ideas that might get you started. If you’re looking for a bit of inspiration, consider the following.
We couldn’t put together a post of prompts without including one from the patron saint of the modern short film, Richard Raskin. Not only is Richard an expert in short-form filmmaking, but he’s an expert in teaching it as well. Check out his prompt below, or read our full conversation with him here if you want to completely rethink what a short film is.
Begin with a 90-second exercise with these ground rules: (a) one location; (b) one character must nod to another in a way the viewer will understand as meaningful; (c) maximum of one word of dialogue, no voiceover; (d) there must be a POV figure; and (e) an entire story must be told with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Making a great film is not about having excessive resources, beautiful locations, or even audio. Amazing stories can be told right outside your front door, silently. Here are two minimalist prompts from Ryan Booth and Ryan Koo.
Let’s say, you have to make a film that takes place entirely in your neighborhood. Or on your block at least. Basically, you don’t need to go to some far-flung amazing location to find or make a compelling film. Go find it in a place you pass by every day.
Make a film with no sound. Tell the story entirely with visuals.
Or maybe you’re of a more psychological bent. A Charlie Kaufman fan, perhaps. Check out these suggestions from hybrid filmmaker Lily Henderson and directing coach Adrienne Weiss ⎯ prompts that will take you out of the mundane and into the metaphysical.
Think of an inanimate object ⎯ a chair, a pen, a piece of lint. Tell a story through the “eyes” of that inanimate object. It could be an animation, or you could interview the object like it’s a documentary, or it can be a totally abstract interpretation. But test the waters ⎯ see how much you can personify an everyday object so that we feel it is a living, breathing, emotional thing!
Our main character is trapped somewhere.
Outside is the thing he really wants and needs.
The obstacle is someone or something that is not outside his mind.
The task is to get him out and to what he needs within three and a half minutes, with a beginning, middle, and end.
And finally, leave it to Eliot Rausch to encourage us to find inspiration beyond the boundaries of our comfort zones. Once you’re out there, you’ll have no choice but to abandon your creative ruts and find something new and worthwhile.
My simple advice would be: Go after an idea, story, or concept that absolutely terrifies you — something that the medium would help you work through or get closer to. The sweaty palms, sleepless night, heart palpitations kind of risk. Also make sure it has a large chance of failure.
It’s an old creative truism: Limitation = Inspiration. Like a bomb, you need constraints. If you’re having trouble coming up with your next project, you might be thinking too broadly. Experiment with the constraints described above. Even if you don’t produce a film, think through the prompts. See where they lead you. Can you tell a compelling story with one word of dialogue and a nod? Can you turn an inanimate object into a sympathetic character? Can you find inspiration in your own neighborhood? The problem is rarely a lack of inspiration. It’s a surplus of possibilities. Box yourself in ⎯ see what you do.