The Anatomy of a Short

Ten years ago two witty gents from Colorado, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, made a riotous animated short called The Spirit of Christmas (aka Jesus vs. Santa). The film was originally commissioned by Fox executive Brian Graden as a personal holiday card but was ultimately turned down due to its explicit content. It did not hit a single festival or win any awards, but it did form the prototype for a television phenomenon, thus launching the careers of the duo now affectionately known as The South Park Guys.

While many of cinema’s earliest films were short in length, as the medium expanded and became more narrative-based, shorts were relegated to the dual personae of experimental work (think Un Chien Andelou, 1929) and star vehicle (witness Sofia Coppola’s 1998 film, Lick the Star). But today, the short has become a venerable art form with a plethora of festivals and awards devoted to the genre, not only reinforcing its earlier legitimacy, but also establishing precedents, aesthetics, and benchmarks for its success. Whereas a director’s greatest hope may once have been to see her short preface a festival feature, she can now have her work seen on a far vaster circuit of solo screenings.

On a daily basis, shorts are screened at DIY (Do It Yourself) microcinemas in cities everywhere—from IFP/New York’s Buzz Cuts series at the Two Boots Pioneer theater in Manhattan to San Francisco’s backyard Cole Valley Film Festival. And shorts are all over TV. The short, once interstitial filler between longer programs, is now taking center stage on cable channels like Sundance or Movieola (see page 34), the world’s first digital cable channel dedicated to shorts, which has now begun its fourth year of broadcast in Canada. In addition, IFC occasionally showcases shorts and in November Comedy Central began a weekly half-hour series of comedic shorts called “Jump Cuts.”

Joel S. Bachar, founder of Microcinema International and the Independent Exposure screening series, says that even if a filmmaker doesn’t net a distribution contract with a channel or some other “Hollywood-based bottleneck,” there is a glut of emergent independent distributors ready to pick up short films. His Blackchair DVD division is a good example. “We are going out there and finding all of the under-represented feature films and short film compilations available on DVD and pushing them into the mainstream marketplace,” Bachar says.

he early shorts of then-music video star Spike Jonze have suddenly made their way into the glossy The Work of Director Spike Jonze and packaged together with the works of colleagues Chris Cunningham and Michel Gondry. These titles sit beside compilations ranging from censored commercials to Stan Brakhage animations. DVDs seem to merely scratch the surface of the distribution channels offered by new technologies. Today one can watch shorts almost anywhere, from their cell phone to their airline’s in-flight programming. And then there’s the web. There, viewers can download countless short films ranging from the Library of Congress’s digitized catalogue of early actualities to the shorts commissioned by BMW and Amazon to lure art-savvy consumers.

“The short film is increasingly becoming respected as an art form in its own right,” says Shane Smith, artistic director of the Worldwide Short Film Festival at the Canadian Film Centre. “And in some ways, the internet can take some credit for that.” Smith is thankful to the web for “increasing the awareness that short films actually exist—before the internet, short films were that category at the Oscars that you had no idea about.” Now, he says, “the prevalence of shorts on the internet has, at the very least, put the words ‘short film’ into many more people’s vocabulary. Of course, those people often think that a short film is a three-minute piece that has a funny joke at the end, but at least they’re aware of shorts. And that’s a step forward.”

In the nanosecond world of computers, that awareness has the potential to spread quickly. Take the example of 405, the 2000 short by Bruce Branit and Jeremy Hunt in which police block off a section of the freeway to allow an airplane to make an emergency landing. The film is approaching five million hits on—directors of indie shorts could never reel in such audiences before the internet.

“The audiences have changed because people expect more choice,” Bachar says. “The internet has done a great job of turning people on to all sorts of choices for information, entertainment, and shopping.” Bracketing the refinement of one’s palate that comes with so much sampling, film programmers seem to think that the increase in supply has generated an increase in demand.

Genevieve Villaflor, one of three members of the selection committee for the New York Film Festival Short Films program of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, believes that audiences have become more appreciative of short films. “I heard someone in the lobby of Avery Fisher lament that there was no short film with the New York Film Festival Opening Night film,” Villaflor says. “No longer are short films there so that you can arrive late to a film.”

Still, festival staffs that balance features and shorts regret the obstacles of luring “the mainstream” into making short programs a viewing priority. The growing sentiment is that theater-goers find features a better bang for their buck. And at the same time, Smith points out, “people love shorts when they see them, but there are so many marketing dollars being thrown at features, video games, and other forms of entertainment that shorts can’t cut through the clutter of advertising and options that bombard us.”

Somehow, this seems in keeping with what Smith sees as the core audience for shorts: the younger demographic. “They’ve grown up with the internet and are comfortable watching shorts on their computer, and emailing them to friends. They watch MTV, email video clips to their friends’ cell phones and PDAs, and make shorts on their computers at home.” Smith finds that short films are perfect for the short-attention-span generation because they are “all killer, no filler.” Still, he warns, “Short film is an industry, but it’s a small one—you’re never going to get rich, and most of the people in it are in it because they’re passionate about the work.” As it turns out, the work itself has changed with the shifts in the short genre.

The predominant creative struggle these days is between the short film as an artwork and the short as a means of achieving greater Hollywood success. Writers, directors, performers, programmers, and audiences all seem complicit in this struggle. “I’d love to see the day when short films are as accepted and exulted as an art form in the way that short stories are,” Smith says. “No one accuses short story writers of wanting to write novels. But because so many short filmmakers do want to make features, it’s not an entirely fair comparison.”

Smith sees at least half of the shorts being produced as “calling card” vehicles. “Look what I can do,” he says with mock enthusiasm. “Please let me make a feature, direct TV, or shoot a music video or commercial.” But ultimately Smith sees no real problem with this relationship. “Unless the short is the first act of a feature and doesn’t stand alone on its own merits,” he says. “Then it’s not a short film, it’s a trailer.”

The quasi-complete/quasi-trailer phenomenon is a trend with a legacy. Villaflor notes that each year’s submissions to the IFF seem almost to have their own theme, with 2002 bringing in the post-9/11 patriot acts and this year offering numerous meditations on the concept of time. But, in general, she says, “I have noticed there are more short films that are studies of longer films that directors are hoping to make. It allows them to test the waters in terms of characters, etcetera.”

What have not changed in the world of short films are the genres that artists and audiences find compelling. Economic shifts and the development of network technologies just haven’t proven mighty enough to sway whatever it is in human nature that led to the rise of a sci-fi geek culture, to a fascination with coming-of-age pics, or to the weakness for readily available goods that finds war shorts cropping up in every major city with an army surplus store.

The radical changes we have seen are due to technology, says Kim Adelman, author of The Ultimate Filmmaker’s Guide to Short Films (Michael Wiese, 2004). “DV filmmaking is more democratic, allowing more than just film school students to make films. Also, desktop filmmaking means something like the computer-generated jet landing in 405 can be made by two guys on their home computer.”

“Animation,” Adelman says, “has obviously been radically liberated by computer programs.” And manifestations of this liberation proliferate. Among the most noteworthy is the experimental Canadian film, Ryan (2004), Chris Landreth’s animated biopic of celebrated Canadian animator Ryan Larkin. The piece won awards at Cannes and Toronto’s Worldwide Short Festival and has been swarmed by Oscar buzz, largely for its success in pushing the animated medium to tell a story about pushing animation in an earlier era of technological innovation.

“All in all,” Bachar says, “I still say that short films tend to be very personal films.” Nevertheless, new technologies have affected the means by which individuals tell their stories—and even the time that it takes them to do so. Smith recalls that shorts about 9/11 were out in a matter of hours, whereas it took a year for the first feature film about the events of that day to reach audiences.

But if directors are no longer bound by the constraints of production time and money, they are still beholden to a few formal standards. The most binding of these are the unspoken laws of length. Adelman, who also teaches “Making and Marketing the Short Film” at UCLA, advises filmmakers to be aware that “what Hollywood and indie financers are looking for is a unique voice and true talent.” She believes that it’s easier to “show that spark” in a shorter film than a longer one. Once upon a time filmmakers were called on to make short films that clocked in at around 30 minutes, she says, “to prove that they had the chops to handle shooting a feature film.”

Adelman says that this is no longer true. “Most of the impressive and original shorts are truly short,” meaning less than ten minutes. She adds, “It’s a rare Hollywood bigwig who has 30 minutes to invest in watching a short. They’ll only watch the first few minutes and they can tell from that if the filmmaker has talent.”

The author has worked out a whole matrix of dos and don’ts in the length department. “As for the marketplace, short—10 minutes or less, or best five minutes or less—is the way to go.” She says many distributors won’t even look at a short that is 15 minutes because they don’t believe it will sell. The demand for shorter interstitials does also persist and, of course, bandwidth issues mean that smaller is better for the internet and wireless devices. Still, Adelman concedes there are exceptions to every rule—memorably, Two Soldiers, Aaron Schneider’s 40-minute short film that won the Academy Award last year for Best Live Action Short Film, after collecting a slew of festival prizes.

In the end, the million-dollar question becomes that of how a short can come to be considered a success, especially in an era of shifting benchmarks. Smith observes, “Making a profit on a short film almost never happens, so monetary benchmarks don’t really figure into the success-o-meter for shorts.” Nonetheless, Adelman recalls that, in 1999, Joe Nussbaum seemed to have hit the elusive mark with George Lucas in Love, a funny spoof about Lucas’s days as a struggling film student in the 60s. The film was a smash at festivals and became a legend when it outsold the newest Star Wars chapter on Amazon when it was released on video. It garnered lucrative distribution deals, more than broke even, and yet it took years before Nussbaum made it to major theatres with the teen flop Sleepover (2004).

The key, critics advise, is to stay focused on personal success: making a work of art, telling a moving story, even meeting the ambitious goal of finishing a film in the first place. The new markets and technologies simply help people do this. “That’s probably the most beautiful thing about short film,” Smith says. “It’s one of the most democratic, accessible ways to create moving images and to share your story—that, and the passion. That’s why so many people make shorts—they’ve got something they want to say.”

About :

Marisa S. Olson has written for Flash Art, Wired, Afterimage, Art on Paper, Mute, Planet, Surface, and many other publications. She has curated media art exhibitions at SF-MOMA, White Columns, Camerawork, and is an internationally-exhibiting artist whose work The New York Times recently called “anything but stupid.”