Category: short films

Three tips for short film-makers

A bunch of lanyards from film festivals

I’ve been to a few festivals in my day, and have been rejected from even more. So listen up, son.

Oh crap, I wrote a listicle. Recently a university film student wrote to me with some questions about my short film New. One of his questions was “what three tips can you give to a filmmaker entering a short film in festivals?” This is what I told him.

1) Have you made your film yet? If not, I’d say, make sure the script is as great as you can make it before you do anything else. If writing isn’t your forté, find some help. Once you have a script, get opinions from people you trust. Listen to them. Get some decent actors and do a table read. Listen to them.

2) Keep it under 10 minutes. The longer a short film is, the harder it is for programmers to fit it into their schedules. Once you pass 10 minutes TRT, you’d better have a fucking awesome film if you want to see it screen at a festival. “Gosh we all really love it, we just wish it were a little shorter” is not the call you want to get from the programmers at Sundance. Trust me. (The film in question was my short La vie d’un chien. 13 minutes.)

3) And if the film is done: do your research about festivals. It costs money to enter them, and there are LOTS of festivals. You could spend a fortune and have little to show for it. Find festivals that show the kind of film you have. Beyond that, I always ask myself: is this a prestigious festival to play at? …and if not, is it in a city I can drive to and get home from in one day? …and if not, is it in a city I’d like to visit?

Our view stats on Vimeo during our busiest week to-date

Thousands of eyes on us

Our sci-fi short film NEW debuted online November 2, and the response has been very gratifying indeed. As I write this post, we’re coming up on our 15,000th view. For a three-day period in early November, we were clocking around 3000 views per day! Those might not be spectacular numbers for, say, a 30-second kitten video, but for a quiet, 17-minute drama it’s pretty damn great. Even better: the smart comments the film has received. More about that in a moment.

Vidsee postThe film has been featured at sites like Film Shortage and Alltop. And I particularly enjoyed the generous selection of screen caps and long, English-as-a-second-language plot summary over at Singaporean short film site VidSee. Fun… but don’t read it if you haven’t seen the film yet!

Last week, I did an interview for a TV station in Switzerland called BeCurious TV – they’ll be airing that interview soon, along with NEW and two of my other shorts.

Best of all, we’ve been covered at, the go-to site for all things science fiction. I’ve been trying to get them to write about NEW for over two years! They were my white whale. Back when we were crowdfunding the budget, I sent the editors emails brimming over with all the charm I could muster, detailing the sci-fi epic being cooked up in their very own backyard (the site is based in San Francisco). All to no response… until now. Fair enough. I imagine they wanted to have a finished film to show people before writing about us.

But write abOur review at io9out us they did, last month, with a nice review that declared NEW “pretty heartbreaking.” When their story was published, it shot our view count through the roof for a couple of days. A month later it’s still a major driver of traffic to the film. Thank you, io9.

Click the image to read the review, and then take the time to savor the hardcore sci-fi discussions happening in the comments. You can see the viewers digging in, debating story points and extrapolating on the future glimpsed in NEW. No one is discussing whether the film is any good or not – that bar has been met for them. Following what was a just-okay festival run, it’s immensely satisfying for me to see NEW really finding its audience like this.

Answering Joel’s Questions

A thrilling moment of discovery from "Zip and The Metel (sic) Box."

A thrilling moment of discovery from “Zip and The Metel (sic) Box.”

Subject: Hi, I’m a film maker and it would be great if I could interview you for my course?

Message Body:
Hi, I’m an aspiring film maker doing a course in Exeter college in England and I am making a short movie, for the course and we had to pick someone to research and I picked you because you make movies in the same style that I want to and it would be great if I could ask you a couple of questions?

guess that’s it? anyway, thanks for the help?

. . .

Hi Joel,

I’m very pleased my film inspired you to write to me.

1: What inspired you to make movies?
I’ve always had a vivid imagination and was drawing out adventure stories (with flying robots) pretty much as soon as I could hold a crayon. I made my first film in grade school for an extra-credit project. The teacher & class reacted so positively I was pretty much hooked. Also, it turned out film-making was a way to be the center of attention while simultaneously hiding in the back of a dark room, so it suited my personality to a tee.

2: Why do you make your style of film?
I’ve never been asked that question. “I gotta be me,” I suppose. Style or aesthetic, to me, comes out of what seems the right thing to do to execute the scene or idea I’m working with. It’s my personal solution & choices as to what stories to tell, and how to tell them. That equals my style, right? Then there’s the questions of influences. As I mentioned, I’m a visual artist first – I work as graphic designer and illustrator, too – and everything I see is an influence. Films of course, and TV, but also illustration and fine art, literature… everything, really. Life. It’s a lot of work making a film. My last one took me two years. So I have to love the idea – a lot – to commit to making it. It has to have a strong underlying idea, a good script, and also has to excite me on a visual level – it has to play like a film in my mind, so vividly that it demands to be made.

3: Do you have a mentor that got you into film?
No, though at times I’ve wished I had a mentor, for artistic and career reasons. But I just got a camera and started doing it. That’s the best way to learn.

Good luck with your film,


PS: offering one piece of writing advice for you, Joel, unsolicited: it’s OK to use question marks at the end of actual questions. For statements, regular old periods are a great choice as well. 😉

Just a second: My 2014

In observance of Throwback Thursday, today I’m posting this. 365 video clips, all exactly one second in length, each one representing one day of my life from the year 2014. That was the plan, at least. In actual fact, there are in total 336 clips here, representing all the days when I didn’t forget to pull out my phone and shoot something.

I got this idea from a fellow named Cesar Kuriyama. He’s been doing this same thing since 2011, and even did a TED talk about it. Like Cesar, I’ve always had trouble remembering events in my life. For the record, this exercise does help. But I think to some extent my memory of watching and re-watching these video clips comes to replace any recollection of actual events.


7 – trips to the movie theater

6 – scenes featuring cakes

8 – curses

29 – days I forgot to shoot video

33 – appearances of my dog. I’ve become one of those people.

13 – shots of a computer monitor. I’ve been one of those people for a long time.


July 15: Really, I don’t know what that explosion was.

September 14: Cat bitten while fighting neighbor’s cat – in the clip we’re cleaning the wound with peroxide.

November 14: The band is called Tennis Pro. They were playing the Napa Valley Film Festival, doing a pretty cool cover of A Hard Day’s Night. Here’s more of it.


checking the USA Projects campaign total while on location shooting NEW

Pausing to check on incoming donations while on location shooting NEW. Oh, modern life. Photo by Skot Christopherson.

Yesterday, around noon, we hit our fundraising goal for our film, NEW.

Our heartfelt thanks goes out to everyone who has donated and helped spread the word. Because of you, we’ll now be able to make a film we’ve been burning to do for a year now! We plan to be shooting soon, and have a movie for you all to see before the end of the year.

USA Projects has extended our campaign through May 24, so if you’ve not yet supported us with a donation, you still have time! The $22K goal represented the minimum budget need to make the project – any additional funds will be put to good use. That’s a promise!

Our deepest appreciation, from me, Sheila Harden, Don R. Lewis, Skot Christopherson and the entire NEW crew.

John Harden
Writer/Director, NEW

The End is Near

A poodle shills for a desperate filmmaker. It's sad, really.

This photo may serve as damning evidence that 7 weeks of crowd-funding has taken its toll. Then again, people DO like puppies.

These are the end times, friends: the campaign for our sci-fi film NEW concludes Wednesday night, May 15, at one minute to midnight, PST. If we fail to reach our goal of $22,000 by then, all shall be for naught. Everyone will have their donations refunded. And We. Get. Nothing!

That would be, as they say, a bummer.

To sweeten the pot and (for some reason) reward the procrastinators out there, we are now offering a choice of two BRAND NEW PERKS to anyone who can donate $200 or more! Please view the video above to learn more about how donating to the NEW campaign will bring total fulfillment to your life.

Once again, thank you for your support! Now, please share the link to this project with someone today. No, really, like, right now. Here’s your cut and paste:

And check back for more updates soon!

: : :


Many people have stepped up in many ways, to give of their time and money and effort to support our cinematic aspirations. Here are just some of them:

The Arts Council of Sonoma County
We would not be here on USA Projects at all, if not for the seminal support of our local arts organization. Thanks to John Moran and Jennifer Sloan and everyone at the council.

USA Projects, and Rose Kuo from the Film Society of Lincoln Center
It’s a honor to be invited to use the USA Projects platform to promote and fundraise for my work. USA Projects has supported us in many ways, notably by choosing NEW to receive April’s Creative Vision Award: $5,000 in matching funds that have helped us immensely in approaching our goal. The guest judge who selected us to receive the award was Rose Kuo, so our deep appreciation goes to Rose as well.

Armstrong Creates
My boss, Tom Armstrong has been generous with his time, money, and resources to help me realize my dream of making NEW. It’s all really quite counter-productive, because he knows if this project takes off in a big way I might have to quit working for him to go make the feature film version of NEW. That’s just the kind of guy he is.

The American Cryonics Society
Is cryonic preservation right for you? If you’ve been thinking it over, these are the folks you want to talk to. Edgar Swank, president of the society, has read the script for NEW and ACS has been a supporter of our efforts from early on. An article about NEW will be forthcoming in the next issue of their magazine, Long Life.

David Brin
Deep appreciation to this friend of NEW, the noted futurist and Hugo-award winning science fiction author, for great endorsements on his Facebook page and his blog, Contrary Brin. You should totally buy all his books. In hardcover!


I’m floating on air

Concept art for science fiction film NEW

The fabulous world of tomorrow: concept art from my film NEW

As you may or may not know, I’m making a sci-fi movie called NEW, set a couple of hundred years in the future. The particular future that you’ll see in my film is not perfect — because nothing is — but it’s darned close. All the big problems have been solved, and the whole human race has pretty much checked into the Hilton, metaphorically speaking. They’re all just basically chillin’.

There are no post-apocalyptic wars over food or fuel. No bullet-time kung-fu battles against evil robot overlords. My future is gentle. This allows me to tell the story I want to tell, challenging my main characters (thawed-out cryonics patients from the present day) with softer, more internal conflicts. Like culture shock. And identity crisis. You know, the kind you might suffer when you suddenly find yourself to be a healthy 20-year old rather than a cancer-ridden 70-year-old.

Riot scene from Soylent Green

The monochrome set: Soylent Green is… green!

Depicting a utopia also suits me because I’m just so utterly bored with dystopia. It’s become the stock solution for Hollywood sci-fi movies. Over and over, we are presented with bleak, dreary, and interchangeable futures. It’s always crowded, everything’s dirty, and everything’s blue. (Or sometimes, olive drab.) And often, for some reason, everybody lives in what looks like a big factory. Why does everyone live in a fucking factory?!

Not in my future! In my future, people will live in gleaming white buildings, under bright blue skies, surrounded by gardens and trees. And furthermore, there will be airships. Yes, I definitely want airships in my future. Not preposterous Victorian steampunk zeppelins. No: we must have something hi-tech, something plausible. And I’ve recently figured out the technology-slash-justification for having them.

WARNING: The remainder of this blog post will be completely devoted to a discussion of sci-fi airships. The proceedings have been pretty geeky thus far, but from this point forward we are ratcheting things up exponentially to unprecedented levels of dorkitude. Buckle in.

OK: we know the design for your standard blimp or dirigible is about 95% big bag of gas, all for lifting that wee payload underneath. My airships will keep the ratio, but the big airtight lifty spheroid part isn’t full of gas: it’s completely solid, filled with some futuristic nano-fiber foam stuff – like styrofoam, but way stronger and waaaaay lighter. See, it’s a lattice, composed mostly of empty space – but unlike styrofoam, where the empty space is filled with air, this is vacuum. It’s a solid that’s mostly nothing. So per-cubic-foot, the stuff has way more lift than hydrogen, the lightest element. It’s a super energy-efficient way to travel. You expend zero fuel for lift, and unlike helium, you don’t have to use power to compress and store and ship the nano-fiber. And, unlike helium, it never need replenishing. Once it’s manufactured it lasts pretty much forever. You just chain it to the ground until you need it, so it doesn’t float away.

A super-light aerogel, developed by NASA

A super-light aerogel, developed by NASA

Superlight materials already exist, and they are pretty cool. Check out this recent article on, touting the latest-and-lightest development, a carbon nanofiber called graphene.

The idea of using a confined vacuum for lift is hardly new, either. My good friend and sometimes writing partner Skot Christopherson pointed this out in an email to me:

“The idea of a vacuum lifted vehicle is over 300 years old! It would take some powerful sci-fi materials to solve the pressure barrier problem, but it’s conceptually sound.”

He sent along the wikipedia link to 17th-century plans for a “vacuum airship,” as first proposed by Italian monk Francesco Lana de Terzi. In this craft, lift would be provided by hollow spheres of thin copper, evacuated of air. The flaw in the design is one of material strength. A metal “vacuum balloon” thin and light enough to be buoyant would also be crushed flat by external air pressure.

I responded to Skots email: I had known of Lana-Terzi’s design. I’d seen that drawing somewhere when I was a kid, and thought of it again when thinking about my airships. Yes, my super-foam would have to be super-duper-strong to resist being crushed by the air outside it, and of course, sealed somehow, since it would be by nature porous.

Francesco Lana de Terzi's flying boat concept, c.1670

Francesco Lana de Terzi’s flying boat concept, c.1670

As often happens in these exchanges, Skot got the final word:

“As long as we’re running this gedanken* experiment, we’re making a foamed substance with vacuum in the voids. You’d want to make it in outer space (lots of free vacuum there, no gravity making the foam settle) and out of a very light alloy, like lithium or beryllium. The PROBLEM here is you need to inject something to make this alloy “foam.” You’d probably end up using very low-pressure helium (it lifts all by itself, is inert) unless the alloy is so radical it makes vacuum voids as it cools or something.”

“The fun part is getting the large vacuum lifting body you made it back down to Earth. De-orbit it, and in vacuum it will fall FAST– then it will gently skip on the upper atmosphere and settle at it’s own buoyancy level like a cork in water. Somebody will need to grab it and tie weights on.”

Cool! Kudos to Skot, for some good gedanken.

*If you, like I, tried to suss the definition of gedanken from Skot’s context, you might very well have decided it to be some kind of German epithet. As it turns out, it actually means “thought.” A classic example of a gedanken experiment, in physics, is the one that has us imagine a man in an elevator accelerating through space in order to explain relativity theory.