No Movie Too Small – Short Films and Why they Should Matter

world of tomorrow

We all go to the movies either for entertainment, or for escape.  The business requires a consistent flow of titles to choose from, and at the very least, they must hold our attention for an hour or more.  Given the complexities of production, it’s really a miracle of the industry that full length features have become the norm.  Anyone in the film industry will tell you that it’s a long process getting a film made, and the fact that they have to produce a minimum of 90 minutes of content that feels cohesive is quite daunting every time they do it.  It’s probably why full length features are the most valued form of entertainment made today, and it’s not an undeserving distinction to have.  But, what does that say for a different kind of market that specializes in shorter, more compact films.  The Short Movie market is somewhat undervalued in the film industry compared to it’s bigger counterpart.  They are usually little seen by the public at large and really only get spotlighted at the various festival screening or rediscovered many years later in some university’s video library.  Sadly, this leads to a reputation that Short films are worthless in the grand scheme of things and are better left out of the conversation when discussing the extensive work done by filmmakers and actors.  But, I would argue that Short films are not just worthy of the spotlight, but are even more deserving of praise than most full length films.  In Short Films, you see an exciting burst of creativity and experimentation that is rarely seen in Hollywood today, and that’s why they are much more than the scant few minutes in total that they run.

We all know the kinds of movies that we classify as a short film.  These are the films that usually run a half hour or less, were made on a shoe-string budget, and tell an intimate and sometimes unusual story.  Because of these elements, short films have a decidedly non-Hollywood feel to them, and that partially contributes to the lack of prestige that they usually get.  The Academy Awards try their best to give some of these films their due, but even then, most people dismiss that part of the show as the “who cares” awards.  But, honestly, people should care.  If it were not for the hard work and thought put into these short movies, the big ones would cease to be relevant.  Many of the innovations made in cinema over the years got it’s start in short subject features, including advances in CGI technology and camera techniques, as well as being the incubator for rising talent both in front and behind the camera.  Some of the most successful filmmakers today got their start making short films before they advanced to feature length, and it’s usually the shorts themselves that propelled them forward.  Short films allow people a bit more freedom than what the industry allows and in this industry that is something that is valued highly among artists.  Not only that, but the short film market that runs through multiple channels like film festivals and streaming services also opens up the door to multiple diverse voices that normally would not be heard or seen in the more restrictive full length market.  So, while the movie going public might show apathy towards Short Films overall, these same movies could be among the most important made today, and should be valued more as a result.

Short films haven’t always been a niche market in Hollywood however.  For a time in it’s early history, short movies were just as common as the full length features.  When people went to the movies in the early days, they weren’t just paying for one film, but an entire program filled with newsreels, cartoons, and yes, even short subjects played along side their featured presentation.  The short movies (or two-reelers, as the industry called them) were not particularly geared for narrative purposes.  More often they were part of on-going series, either for light entertainment or for educational purposes.  This was the realm of the Three Stooges and Laurel & Hardy; vaudeville acts that allowed their patented routines to play out in quick, hilarious sketches.  Serials were also present in those days, allowing for on-going, feature length narratives to play out over several weeks, giving theaters an extra reason for repeat business with their audiences.  These films were popular, but far from unconventional.  More often than not they were cheap to make and were often taken for granted by the industry.  As long as they filled a program lineup at the movie theater, Hollywood cared little how they looked or sounded.  Once television took hold, viewing habits changed and the short film disappeared from the local theaters.  Over that time, a short film more or less evolved into the experimental, closed off market place that we know today: cut off from the machine of Hollywood and somewhat liberated at the same time.

There is one area of Short film that did remain a part of the Hollywood system, at least some of the time, and that’s the animated short industry.  Today, when we look at the short films that gain the most attention, it is usually the ones that are animated. In fact, the only time you will see an short feature shown in theaters across the country nowadays is when it’s attached to an animated film; a small little call back to the early days of theater programming.  Disney and Pixar are two animation giants that still practice this today, and it’s not hard to see why; both studios built their foundations on the success of their early shorts and would not be here had those been a failure.  In fact, both Disney and Pixar’s mascots are characters that were born and popularized out of short cartoons; Mickey Mouse for Disney and Luxo Jr. for Pixar.  But, it’s not just these giants that continue the practice of keeping short cartoons in the spotlight.  Dreamworks and Blue Sky have recently gone into the practice of promoting their upcoming features with introductory shorts released in advance, such as the “Scrat” shorts that are released in preparation of each upcoming Ice Age movie.  Animated shorts are also the best way for up-and-coming animators to make a name for themselves.  Aardman Studios gained notoriety in the stop-motion world through their critically acclaimed Creature Comforts (1987) and Wallace and Gromit shorts, long before they started making features.  And an independent animator named Don Hertzfeldt is making some of the boldest and unique films today solely with the use of hand drawn stick figures, such as his recently nominated World of Tomorrow (2015).  So, while short films have been closed off for the most part from the industry, it’s in the animation field that we see the most continued interaction and spotlight between the two markets.

But, that’s not to say that live action shorts have no connection with today’s film industry.  In fact, the short film market is where the filmmakers of the future are often cutting their teeth and finding their voice.  For many, the short form is where most filmmakers begin, either shooting home movies with their friends when they are young, or working with a collaborative team during their studying at film school.  Film school movies sometimes can feel like it’s own class of film in a sense, because it shows the filmmaker’s learning curve documented in bold experimentation.  If made available, many of you should check out as many student films as you can.  In them, you see how filmmakers, writers and actors that are still learning the trade make use of their limitations and tell their own story their own way.  Having gone through the film school experience myself, I saw first hand the value that a film short has in developing a filmmakers skill.  It teaches you how to manage a story due to the shortened time frame, makes you rethink the stories you want to tell and find new avenues to present them, and above all, it teaches you how to manage expectations.  Sometimes an idea might be too big to contain in a short, but small ideas can also expand beyond what was these limitations as well.  Sometimes we see student filmmakers turn their shorts into features after making a name for themselves, sometimes based on their own works from school.  Fresh new filmmaker Damien Chazelle took his low budget short Whiplash and turned it into an Oscar-winning feature.  Neill Blomkamp likewise took his experimental, resume builder Alive in Joburg (2005) and expanded it into the box office hit District 9 (2009).  So, short films can often be the place where small beginnings can turn into huge possibilities.

And that’s why Short films tend to be where you see the most exciting and diverse stories told on film today.  Looking at the live action shorts nominated this year at the Oscars, you see a wide array of stories told, some that Hollywood itself seems to shy away from too often.  You have Ave Maria, a culture clash comedy set in one of the most war torn areas of the world (the West Bank); Shok, a story about two boys caught up in the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo during the 90’s; Everything Will Be Okay, a story about child abduction told through the eyes of the abducted child; Stutterer, a story about a man who is unable to express himself because of his speech impediment; and Day One, the story of a female interpreter for the US Army starting her first ever tour in  Afghanistan.  And these were only the five finalists selected out of the many that were eligible for the Academy Award.  I try to watch all the nominated shorts every year and it always strikes me how these films are so unafraid to tackle harder issues in a subdued and honest way, as compared to the way that Hollywood would take these issues on.   Perhaps it’s the independent nature of the market that allows for the creative freedom, but the amazing thing I always find is the boldness of the stories told.  These are films made by filmmakers who clearly believe in what they are doing.  They are not cynical or commercial; they are the kinds of movies that make us think afterwards.  And in these shorts, we see the ultimate purpose that all filmmakers want to have, which is to tell stories that matter.  They don’t always have to have a message, but they still need to resonate and that comes out of a full investment on the part of the storyteller.  That’s why I often look at the Shorts as a film-making safe haven, where the industry nonsense is stripped away allowing pure film-making to blossom.

But, at the same time, the short format is not entirely disregarded in the industry.  There are many avenues taken by filmmakers to work in a short film form, and its not always related to story.  Sometimes great film-making can rise out of little things like music videos and even commercials.  Yes, even these can be classified as short movies, though certainly worlds away from the awarded ones we see in film festivals and attached to full length features.  Though they come out of a different industry all together, music videos do require the same level of film-making skill behind them, and sometimes even require a more complex level of production.  While many filmmakers never rise out of the music video world, a couple have made a name for themselves in this market and have since developed into acclaimed filmmakers on their own.  Few remember this, but director David Fincher developed his very unique style while making music videos like Madonna’s Vogue and George Michael’s Freedom, long before he brought it to the big screen with movies like Seven (1995) and Fight Club (1999).  Spike Jonze likewise gained notoriety for his experimental videos for the Beastie Boys and Fatboy Slim, before Hollywood allowed him to make Being John Malkovich (1999).  Sometimes even established filmmakers can turn to these shorter experiments as a refresher for their own styles.  Michael Jackson was noteworthy for attracting big time filmmakers to make his music videos, like Martin Scorsese who directed his Bad video, or Francis Ford Coppola, who directed Captain EO, which played in Disney parks around the world.  And I’m sure that many of you probably never realize that some of the commercials that you watch everyday on TV had been crafted by the likes of the Coen Brothers or even David Lynch.  It shows that the short form is a highly valued format of storytelling for all filmmakers and is often where many of them find the freedom to try new things.

So, despite seeming small compared to their full length brothers, short movies should not be undervalued.  In many ways, it’s the short film market that enables the feature film industry to flourish at all.  In it, we see the emergence of new voices and well as new techniques, and the creative freedom to let these elements flourish.  Short films are certainly valued in some way by the industry, who do look at Shorts for inspiration or new talent, as well as venue for established pros to get experimental, but audiences still seem to disregard the short film format a little too much.  I don’t know if it’s because they view short films as not worth their time because in their eyes length means quality, or if because short films have just developed a reputation over time as being pretentious fare.  Yes, there are some short films that are a little full of themselves, but no more so than any other form of entertainment, especially full length features.  I think presentation has affected the way short films are viewed by the public over time.  Animated shorts are thankfully still widely seen, but that’s only because they have the benefit of their full length brethren to carry them.  Live action shorts don’t have that kind of support and are only seen when you seek them out.  Sadly, quite a few great shorts fall through the cracks and fade into obscurity.  One wishes that Hollywood would bring back the kind of programming that they used to have, but that is unlikely because viewing habits have changed.  For those who want to see the great short films that have yet to be discovered, there are many that have thankfully ended up on places like YouTube or Vimeo.  Itunes and other streaming services also make newer shorts more widely available as well.  And in the rare cases, I highly recommend trying to see these shorts on the big screen whenever possible.  Though short in length, these films do end up having a big impact, and it’s sometimes in some of the most unexpected ways.