Breaking Down the Oscar-Winning Shorts 2024

By: Laura Huie

 

Short films are compact narratives that wield immense power in storytelling. Their brevity demands precision, forcing filmmakers to distill their message into a concise yet impactful form. But beyond their visual allure lies a trove of inspiration and education for writers. Just as dissecting novels or screenplays can sharpen one’s craft, analyzing short films offers unique insights into the art of storytelling.

 

In this article, we’ll dive into the core storytelling elements of Oscar-winning short films from 2024, delving into their narrative techniques, characters, themes, and more.

 

Live Action: The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar (written and directed by Wes Anderson)

 

 

Based on the 1977 short story “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar” by Roald Dahl, this short film revolves around a rich man who learns about a clairvoyant guru who could see without using his eyes through the power of a particular form of yoga. The titular character then sets out to master the skill in order to cheat at gambling.

 

Wes Anderson’s 39-minute adaption of the short story is a unique and whimsical portrayal that aligns perfectly with the writer/director’s body of work. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch, alongside Ralph Fiennes, Dev Patel, Ben Kingsley, and Richard Ayoade. We’ll dive into some of the key elements that made this an Oscar-winning short.

 

PLOT

 

Henry Sugar, a wealthy bachelor, funds his gambling habit with his inheritance. Upon discovering a book detailing the extraordinary abilities of Imdad Khan, who could perceive without sight, Henry witnesses Imdad’s remarkable feats in a circus act. Through a doctor’s interview, Imdad recounts his life story, revealing how he acquired his powers from a guru known as The Great Yogi.

 

Our contests have helped over 100 writers kickstart their screenwriting careers

See how our  Feature and TV Pilot Contests, Script Development Fund and Short Film Fund can help you break through as a screenwriter

 

 

Inspired, Henry diligently practices Imdad’s meditation techniques, eventually gaining the ability to see through playing cards. Using this skill, Henry wins a significant sum at a casino but feels unfulfilled. Encouraged by a police officer, he adopts a new approach, traveling the world, using his abilities to win money for charitable causes. Despite his foresight into his own demise, Henry continues his philanthropic efforts until his death from a pulmonary embolism.

 

The plot feels quick and light for an almost 40-minute short film. Replicating Dahl’s original, the story is presented in a nesting doll structure, with each character’s story opening onto another’s. Through Henry’s journey, the film explores the potential for growth and change within individuals. Henry evolves from a self-absorbed gambler to a compassionate philanthropist, motivated by a desire to make a positive difference in the world. His story serves as a reminder of the importance of empathy and the capacity for individuals to transcend their own selfish desires to contribute to the greater good.

 

DIALOGUE

 

Similar to many of Wes Anderson’s films, the dialogue is fast-paced but amazingly meticulous. The dialogue swirls around, serving as a backdrop that contrasts sharply with the notion of slowing down and focusing solely on one thing, which seems to defy the chaotic nature of the world. While this concept may seem straightforward, Anderson and his ensemble cast infuse it with such enjoyment that it feels entirely novel and innovative.

 

Characters frequently address the audience directly, using phrases like “I said” or “he said” in an aside. While this fidelity to the source material occasionally leads to rushed or cumbersome dialogue as characters navigate through intermediary narration to describe visual events, it ultimately adds to the storybook-like quality of the film. Breaking the fourth wall enables viewers to forge a deeper connection with the characters, as each distinct personality shares their individual experiences.

 

 

CHARACTER

 

One of the standout aspects of the short film is the cast’s portrayal of the unique and quirky characters, distinguished by their expressive performances adeptly delivering dialogue-heavy lines. Cumberbatch’s animated facial expressions charmingly depict Sugar’s evolution as he navigates his pursuit of wealth. Ralph Fiennes, portraying Roald Dahl, expertly bookends the narrative with his expositional narration, creating the illusion that Dahl himself is recounting his tale. Each actor seamlessly appears in various layers of the story, akin to a theatrical troupe, prompting viewers to ponder the thematic connections between the different moments.

 

The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is available to stream on Netflix. If you’d like to watch the trailer, click here.

 

Animated: War is Over! Inspired by the Music of John & Yoko (written and directed by Dave Mullins

 

 

Set in an alternate reality during World War I, a heroic pigeon delivers messages across a battlefield. The messages are exchanged by two soldiers on opposite sides, who, unaware of who their opponent is, are playing a game of chess against each other. As the fighting and the game both escalate, they continue to exchange their chess moves, delivered by the brave pigeon.

 

The 11-minute short was inspired by and features John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s peace anthem “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).” The film was written by Pixar alum and founder of ElectroLeague Dave Mullins, with story by Mullins in collaboration with Sean Ono Lennon. Let’s break down some of the core successful elements of this moving anti-war short.

 

PLOT

 

The game of chess is a key element in this story which revolves around two soldiers, Winston and Abel, during an alternate reality of World War I who find themselves on opposing sides playing a joyful game. “After a couple of meetings, Mullins wrote the script in one night, focusing on the two chess players, Winston and Abel, and Icarus, the pigeon. As they worked on the story, the Ukraine war got into full gear and made the film even more important to them,” according to IndieWire.

 

Throughout the film, the cerebral clash of chess is used as a metaphor for humanizing the soldiers and as a way of communication. As the pigeon flying does its best to avoid bullets, mortar, and violence on the battlefield to reach the opposing side, we can’t help but view the bird as a symbol of peace. But whoever wins the game in the end, what’s made certain by the message in the short film is that there are no winners in war.

 

 

PACING

 

One crucial factor contributing to its success is the pacing of the short film, maintaining an uninterrupted rhythm that builds up perfectly, culminating just as the titular song begins its first few notes.

 

Director Dave Mullins and editor John K. Carr deserve commendation for their skillful blend of ethereal and urgent scenes, which infuse the narrative with tension and potency, even though it conveys familiar anti-war themes akin to other films.

 

CHARACTER

 

Despite the absence of dialogue throughout the entire short film, the characters remain remarkably memorable. Winston and Abel, the two soldiers, embody the poignant experiences of normal people thrust into the chaos of war, forced to fight others who are more similar to them than they could’ve ever thought. From the outset, the narrative captivates with its deeply emotive portrayal of the characters, conveying the raw and authentic emotions synonymous with the battlefield experience.

 

War is Over! is currently not available for streaming. However, we recommend watching this behind-the-scenes video to learn more about how the film came to be!

 

Your Turn

 

Hopefully, this breakdown of Oscar-winning short films will encourage you to continue writing your own best draft possible. As much as we love to read scripts, too many excellent shorts never progress beyond the written word, which is why we established the Short Film Fund — to help take those compelling stories off the page and onto the screen. We will help finance and produce two short films in 2024.

 

Previous winners have gone on to gain representation, sold screenplays, and been staffed on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, & BBC shows as a direct result of winning and producing their shorts with us.

 

Learn more about our Short Film Fund here!

 


Laura Huie is a writer and editor involved in comedy-drama screenwriting, fiction editing, and full-time marketing copy. Laura is also a freelance article writer for Shore Scripts and has worked with Script Pipeline on their live Symposium series. She is one-half of the screenwriting duo, Bloom & Huie. Together, they have written multiple television series as well as a feature-length film. Their mission is to write honest and witty female stories wrapped up in unbelievable worlds.

 

Don’t miss a deadline. Download our Contest Calendar!

.