Character Building: with Kevin Tenglin

Kevin Tenglin is an expert in telling stories quickly. He created Apple’s Mac vs PC advertising campaign, and short films such as The Gunfighter and The Heist. Natasha spoke to him about how to develop the best characters in the little time available in short films.


A short film is often less than 10 minutes- how do you maximise your character impact in that amount of time?

My short films haven’t been super character driven, more conceptual in nature. But even starting from a place of high concept you need some character development. And I’ve approached this in a few different ways.


With The Gunfighter, our comedy was entirely based around revealing little bits of character development that the actual characters did not want to be revealed using the omniscient voice over. So while it might not have been a character driven piece, we were constantly revealing little bits about each person in the bar, which was the backbone of the joke.


For Werewolves (with Geek and Sundry), we had a couple of main characters and we tried to establish in the first exchange where they were coming from. One was dimwitted, the other super smart. It was basically “sane woman in a crazy world.” For something like that, you spend a lot of time crafting the first exchange so the viewer gets it right away.


With The Heist, we are parodying the clichés of movie making, so each character is based on something the audience is familiar with. You know exactly who these people are. It’s a lot more jokey than my first two shorts, so there is very little real character development. It was more about using these clichés to make people laugh quickly and then move on to the next one as fast as we could.


In my advertising work, specifically the Mac Vs PC campaign, you’re dealing with thirty second chunks of time, so every exchange had to be incredibly pointed and correct for their character. But we also developed those characters over some 70 commercials. It was one of the most fun things I’ve ever gotten to work on, and some of that character development you don’t even know you’re doing at the time, it’s only when you look back at the entirety of the campaign with hindsight that it takes shape.


Do you think that attention to detail is more important in short films than feature length films as you have a more limited period of time to tell the character’s story?

I don’t know if it’s attention to detail or if it’s more about losing some of the atmosphere and establishment that you can do when you have more time. In a short you do have to cut the fat. And if you’re creating a character driven short, you do have to sweat every exchange, and every bit of dialogue to make sure it’s advancing plot and developing character. I recently sold my first feature length script and it was such a great learning experience in writing that versus writing a short. You need to take into account all sorts of things that you don’t have to within a short. Things like character arcs, act structures, inciting incidents. So in some ways you have to be more dialed into the details with a feature than you do with a short just because there’s so much more going on.


When you’re writing a new character what are the first things you want to tell the audience about them?

I think there are lots of philosophies on this. But I think my favorite character introductions make you feel some emotion for them right off the bat. Love them, hate them, laugh at them, or be intrigued by them. I don’t necessarily need to know everything about this person in the first minute, but they should make me feel something. They need to start connecting the viewer emotionally to the material.


What tips would you give to a writer starting out about how they approach characterisation?

Everyone tells me to write what you know off the bat. How I manifested that was to start with a storyline then fill it with actors I admire, or people from my life that I could picture in that role. So you’re starting with a base level of who that person is, what their voice is, and how they will react in a given situation. I then learn a lot more when I start writing scenes between these characters, they might say something you don’t expect. You may never use these first scenes, but they really help you define who the characters are and how they will interact with each other. For everything I’ve ever finished writing I have about fifteen unfinished documents in a folder somewhere that are really just experimentations on tone and who the characters are.


My other advice is to not give up on the overall project even if it takes you fifteen of these experimentations to zero in on it. Maybe you are brilliant and you nail it right away, but I know that for me it’s a lot of work.


Is there anything else you’d like to add about character development in short films?

One thing that has really helped me is focusing on the big theme of the project. Sometimes that comes first. Sometimes it comes later or it changes. But when you get that nailed down it really helps you figure out the characters, because they will all be in service to that bigger theme. With The Gunfighter it’s about honesty and having your worst impulses revealed to the world. With The Heist it’s about lack of originality in Hollywood films. And with both of those we didn’t have the theme right off the bat. We started with “hey, I want to make a joke about western (or heist) film tropes.”  But then as they both developed, we got to these bigger themes, and that was when everything really came together. Keep coming back to the question “what is this movie about?” throughout the process, and allow that question to be open and flexible, until it’s not.

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