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Why Do Student Films Look Bad?

Having served on student film festival critic panels for almost 10 years now, Spling has graded and evaluated a few hundred student film projects. From amazing high-end student films to tough solo projects, the film critic has seen it all. In judging these short films, there are a few trends that he's noticed - some that raise the question, why do student films often pale in comparison with industry standards.

student films

While it's often the student filmmaker's desire to include guns, someone smoking and shoot in black-and-white, this arsenal of cliches is often for good reason. While it may not always be feasible to have a smoking gun in your film, many of the better short films find a legitimate way to justify the inclusion beyond it looking cool. Budget is typically one of the main reasons that student films don't look as good as their feature film counterparts. Being on the cusp of going professional, this a strong indicator but these short films are also constrained by other elements.

Being a student, this is the proving ground... the time in your life when you still have to work with people you may not ordinarily choose to work with. It's an opportunity to take risks, make mistakes and hopefully learn from them with a view to not repeating them in your blossoming career. The visual aspects of filmmaking are typically where most films gravitate these days with animation and superhero movies dominating the box office. This is usually where student films get things right in the age of Instagram and all things photographic. Here are some of the spaces where things could improve.

Copycat Tendencies

Being inspired to create by contemporary greats, it's only naturally that filmmakers of tomorrow are led to copy certain styles. Even some of the greatest directors are magpies... look at Quentin Tarantino who even cites where he borrowed from. In that desire to replicate, student filmmakers should rather try to add their own spin to create something new. It's all been said and done before but not by you.

Characters and Story

The fundamental building blocks of a film are its characters and story. These should be a priority, mapped out before any thought of shooting the short film takes place. You can have a $100 million budget but your project will be lost if you don't have these elements in place. While "invisible", these critical storytelling elements become visible when your film enters a state of arrested development, where the characters cease to evolve and all that's left to fall back on is style.

Mind the Gap

Then, another classic error (even with feature films) is that the story's golden thread can easily be lost along the way. When you've worked very closely with a project you can lose perspective and story gaps tend to be filled in automatically by the time the 5th draft rolls around. Get feedback, try to get a fresh take and make sure your audience is along for the ride.


While some pretty ambitious works are landed successfully, remember to work to your format. A short film has different rules, so rather keep it laser-focused than find you've bitten off more than you can chew. Some student films with a decent budget can pull off small miracles. Yet for the most part, it's a case of trying to ensure a consistency and quality.

Sound Design

Sound is a huge component of filmmaking. Having several different departments dedicated to your soundtrack, it's crucial and monumental in the creation of atmosphere, mood and suspense. Enhancing performances, visuals and world-building, it's often where student films are severely lacking. Not having the right music or not giving the necessary time to Foley work, these missing pieces can be hugely distracting to the lush reality student filmmakers are trying to create. Poor music choices, missing sound effects... make absolutely sure there's nothing that will lift your audience out of the world you're crafting.


When it comes to student films, the final product is often the primary focus and with good reason. However, it's important to realise that you can have the best "product" in the world but without a distribution or marketing plan to get it seen... it's dead in the water. This extends to peripheral marketing tools such as the movie trailer. These trailers are often afterthoughts, only attended to late in the game. Be careful to treat your short film's trailer with the necessary respect. Slapping together a few snippets and a title isn't enough and could damage expectations around your film's perceived quality. Give the trailer some thought, try to create a mini movie in the allotted time and pique interest with your trailer's concept.


These days, there's a propensity for student films to have titles that seek to add more gravitas to the short film. While this can be used effectively, it can be borderline pretentious. While it's cool to have an understated title, be careful it's not too bland or vague. Also be sensitive to naming conventions for when it comes to keywords for search and pages across social media platforms.

What Makes Student Films Look Good

Being a film student, you're typically operating with a shoestring budget in trying to convert your dreams into reality. Most kids watch films that inspire them to be the next Steven Spielberg or Christopher Nolan, expecting to perform miracles in a short space of time. After a few years of film school, they will have a much stronger grasp on the craft and language of film, but what's theory without practice. Everyone's got to start somewhere and even the greatest filmmakers of our time haven't always got it right. Getting your first film made is an accomplishment of note, no matter how small or bad it is. Thankfully, these films often become a stepping stone to much bigger and better projects.

what makes student films look good

Having adjudicated at student film festivals for almost 10 years now, Spling has managed to see some of the highs and lows of what it means to get graded on your film project. From amazing high-end student films to one person animation that was always going to be a tall order, he's seen just about everything you could throw at a silver screen. In judging and serving on critic's panels, there are a few trends that he's noticed. Coming in from an external examiner point-of-view also presents a unique opportunity since it's often difficult to get a grounded view when you're in the thick of things.

It obviously depends on what resources are available, where your film school's strengths lie and if they allow you to use their technology, but given a good starting point, here's what many student films seem to be getting right these days.


Generally-speaking, there seems to be a plethora of cinematographers rising up through the ranks. This may simply be due to the proliferation of smartphones and the impact this has had on photography along with the advent of image-heavy social and video platforms. Cines and directors are realising that one needs to keep one foot on the ground and bowing to the needs of the overarching story.


Based on the power that image has in today's society, it's not surprising that visuals and their esteemed importance has been elevated. With animated features and superhero blockbusters reigning supreme, the spectacle of cinema has been prioritised. Costume, makeup, hair, production design... young filmmakers are eager to help audiences escape into new worlds and dimensions. From dreamscapes to gritty realities, there's a comprehension of how to paint audiences into another time and place.


Being relegated to a micro budget forces filmmakers to call on favours if there isn't anyone suitable for the job. This is particularly true when it comes to casting, an obvious overreach when done poorly. Instead of having a student dressed like an octogenarian, why not get someone more suitable or avoid crossing that bridge altogether in the script development. These days students seem to have a better grasp of these limits and just how distracting a miscast character can be to the overall production.


Filmmaking is a funny business, which has come to shape rules within rules. One of the best example of this is the use of genre. A romantic comedy operates differently to a crime caper and there are many guidelines that keep these film genres in their place. It's fun when filmmakers toy with genre, creating hybrids or defying expectations altogether, but not realising what's come before or foolishly falling headlong into tired tropes can be detrimental. In some ways easier and in others harder, picking to make a genre film does give you a blueprint or formula for success but can also be very limiting. Students are often eager to prove their abilities by recreating, which makes the prospect of an inspired genre movie more comfortable than going for something fresh and original. It's all about having a clear comprehension and an appreciation for form and purpose.


Tone is sometimes one of the most difficult things to master. While it's easier to keep in check with shorter films, it's still about pulling all the pieces together in such a way that tonal consistency is established. While there are obvious exceptions when the desire to be the next Quentin Tarantino sometimes threatens to take over completely with wild flights of fancy, this momentum is often maintained with a levelheaded approach.

Jeff Goldblum: Where Science Fiction and Horror Collide

Jeff Goldblum is Jeff Goldblum. It sounds like a strange thing to say but the screen legend has carved out such a strongly defined niche that it's almost impossible to separate the actor from his self. A versatile and charismatic actor, whose distinct facial features and sheer size make him difficult to miss, he's featured in a multitude of films and series over the years. Now a Wes Anderson regular, featuring in ,em>The Life Aquatic of Steve Zissou, Isle of Dogs, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Asteroid City, the association speaks to the resonance he shares with Anderson's delightful and quirky world. In on the joke, eclectic, somewhat campy, dedicated to the pursuit of happiness and there to playfully amuse - there are a number of crossovers.

Jeff Goldblum Where Sci-Fi and Horror Collide

Having become synonymous with the fringe, he's managed to stay in frame, continuing to develop his craft and cult fandom. While his star has found him flexing his celebrity, he built a name for himself on the back of science fiction and horror, specifically films that hybridised both genres. While Goldblum has become famous for being Jeff Goldblum over the last few decades, he's left behind a legacy of performances that stand the test of time. When you consider the actor's film career, it's difficult not to think of his performances in movies such as The Fly, Jurassic Park and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. All within the realm of science fiction and horror, it seems that this is Goldblum's sweet spot, able to leverage his Goldbluminess to maximum effect.

Goldblum stars as Seth Brundle in The Fly (1986), a science fiction horror film from David Cronenberg. Playing a scientist who accidentally fuses himself with a fly during an experiment, this chilling and provocative premise questioned the danger of unchecked scientific ambition much like Splice. This grotesque transition from man to monster was a critical and commercial success thanks to the film's unforgettable special effects and Goldblum's full-fledged performance, which effectively captured the character's intelligence, desperation and shock.

In another groundbreaking science fiction horror, Goldblum plays Dr Ian Malcolm, a mathematician who once again is concerned with the dangers of unchecked scientific ambition with a possible recall to his iconic role in The Fly. Warning of the possible threats to bringing dinosaurs to life, the visually captivating film is Steven Spielberg's masterpiece, Jurassic Park (1992). Seamlessly blending adventure with sci-fi horror, this impactful film found Goldblum in his element as the witty and memorable Dr Malcolm, ushering in a turning point in cinematic history as lifelike brachiosaurus, velociraptors and a tyrannosaurs rex were brought to life through the power of special effects anf VFX illusion.

Ranked as one of the best movie remakes, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) found Goldblum in a starring role alongside Donald Sutherland, Brooke Adams, Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright and Leonard Nimoy. Directed by Philip Kaufman, this chilling and thought-provoking sci-fi horror finds Goldblum as Jack Finney, whose slow-burning paranoia and deep concern over the state of his friends and neighbours made this a cult classic. A remake of the 1956 film of the same name, it's based on the novel 'The Body Snatchers' about a group of friends who begin to notice strange changes in their circle as an alien invasion turns humans into emotionless replicas.

The Enigma That Is Nicolas Cage

The world would be more dull without Nicolas Cage, or Nicolas Kim Coppola. Born into the equivalent of Hollywood royalty, the actor decided to go with the stage name, Nicolas Cage in favour of coasting on the coattails of his esteemed uncle, Francis Ford Coppola. Ironically, opting to forego the family name long associated with the crime epic, The Godfather, which has firmly rooted itself in pop culture... who would have imagined that the young actor would create his own legacy in the process.

This stage name adoption may be key to unlocking the enigma of Nicolas Cage, whose decision to do it his way and unassisted may have been the schism that would inform his trajectory and decades-long film career. Identified as a promising talent early on in his career, the actor's devil-may-care attitude has found him leaning into the good, the bad and the ugly of Hollywood. No wonder David Lynch wanted him for Wild at Heart. A veritable ambassador and cautionary tale rolled into one, the actor has a viral quality that forces a reaction from those who come into contact with his performance style.

Enigma of Nicolas Cage

Channeling the gung-ho bravado of star-spangled dreams, in some ways Cage is a poster boy for the American dream with a "hell yeah" attitude that seems geared towards chasing down impossible dreams. Maybe it's just because he likes Elvis? A self-reflective pursuit in many ways, modelled on his own unflappable life force and gambler's attitude when it comes to risk and reward, Cage has made himself supremely watchable. Whether playing a version of himself up for laughs or trying to access a more grounded personality from within the jukebox, he's a chameleon of an actor on a ceaseless quest to entertain.

This life-of-the-party desire is what makes him magnetic, one of the most polarising actors working today. Attention-seekers and thrill-seekers will be able to identify with everything Nicolas Cage, who rarely holds back. Giving his all, whether cranking the throttle on an absolute clanger or trying to restrain his Cage factor for more serious and thoughtful roles, he's created a sense of unpredictability and excitement around his performances. Never quite sure what you're going to get but knowing that whatever he's doing will be full tilt, the actor has become a film brand of sorts.

While his choice of roles often leaves much to be desired, the actor's perceived versatility, originality and x-factor has made him a secret weapon... able to bridge a number of genres. Typically a headline act... with the exception of starring opposite himself in Adaptation, his Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas adds mantlepiece clout and a sense of dormant potential, which has been resurrected in numerous critically-acclaimed roles that serve to remind us that he can act when the stars align.

Having starred in a plethora of films over the years, what's quite surprising is that the famed actor has opted for paydays over producer credits. Many actors who have built a name for themselves typically move into producer roles in the latter part of their careers, often splitting payment into short-term and long-term remuneration schemes. This often ensures their best work to maximise the product and its longevity, but can also become more problematic in tracing these earnings in the long run. Travelling lightly, Cage appears to have gone the upfront route, meaning that when he's not working, he's not earning... living between gigs.

When you're operating from this basis as an actor who's simply getting paid from one gig to the next, you are going to run into the problem of quality and quantity... even if you're a former Coppola. In Cage's scenario, living a celebrity lifestyle and trying to maintain the illusion can land you in quicksand if you don't have the necessary margin when it comes to finances. If his risk-taking in his performances is anything like his financial acumen, then chances are that the man who wanted to relocate a castle to the United States may find himself in a tight spot every now and then. To alleviate this, much like John Cleese would attest to after a costly divorce, one has to pick up a few odd jobs beneath one's station to pay the bills.

Enjoying every moment, Nicolas Cage is only beholden to Nicolas Cage, meaning that he's invulnerable to film criticism and not held to the same account as other name stars. Much like Ricky Gervais and Joan Rivers developed a reputation for inappropriate no holds barred comedy, the same license has been afforded to Cage, who plays by his own rules. Able to ham it up with Werner Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans one day, he's equally adept enough to channel head-turning nuance in a well-weighted performance as a savant in Pig. It seems that his only rule is that he remain entertaining whatever he's doing, which serves as a welcome fallback, where he's trying to add a sense of wink-wink fun to a martial arts fantasy movie or elevating a more prestigious drama.

While Nicolas Cage can't get away from the idea of a performance with "Nicolas Cage as"... he ensures that a sense of passionate authenticity is always bubbling beneath the surface. If he's having fun, then it makes sense that the audience is picking up on this infectious vibration. This inherent quality enables the actor to salvage some films of questionable merit as well as transcend others by upscaling good moments into great ones. "Amuse thyself" may seem like a self-indulgent and self-serving attribute but in the case of people like JP Sears, Jack Black and Nicolas Cage, it's permission for us to take a load off, not take ourselves so seriously and take a walk on the wild side.

Once you understand the enigma of Nicolas Cage, his wild-eyed charms and full throttle spirit may be less antagonistic, countercultural and detrimental in the grand scheme of things. Cage's full-fledged ego, showmanship and over-the-top tendencies may still make him stick out like a sore thumb but his catalytic presence is almost always welcome in an age where star power is on the decline. Not a conventional film star by any stretch, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a living testament to the actor's unmeasurable powers... inspiring a new generation to find the fun, lunacy and passion of life by watching the actor breathe it all in.

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