Short Film: An Art Form in Itself?
A visit to Sundance London 2014’s short film programme last month confirmed that Short Film as a genre is alive and well. Often thought of just as a calling card for budding directors, or used as timeslot fillers on late night TV, short film has enjoyed greater prominence and something of a resurgence in recent times – facilitated in part by incredible technological developments in the capabilities of online and mobile multimedia – which effectively make it possible for anyone with a half decent mobile phone and a YouTube or Vimeo account to make and market their own celluloid mini-masterpiece!
In the Q&a sessions after the screenings at Sundance London this was vividly illustrated by many of the film-makers, who confessed to much hand-wringing at the thought of having their films that had been shot solely with the intent of them being screened for online audiences, being blown up to the full size IMAX screens at the O2!
The variety of formats, topics, genres and performers of the films shown, speak of the incredible range and depth that is inherent in the short film field. We had animations of all sorts, searingly personal documentaries, mini-thrillers and of course a rich vein of comedy. Notable highlights included Cruising Electric (1980), this was a hilarious minute long animation using Ken dolls and action men. It’s a perfect parody of 80s adverts for the likes of Scalextric, Rase & Chase and similar electric car games – except with a ‘cruising’ undercurrent that the onlooking fathers in the ‘advert’ begin to realise may not be as wholesome as they’d expected!
Then there’s the superbly tongue in cheek Exchange & Mart, which gets the tone just right. This features a manic Ewen Bremner (is he ever anything else) as a P.E. teacher at an all girl’s Scottish boarding school who each year prepares the girls for a harrowing ritual in which he trains them in ‘rape defence’ and then attacks them in the woods, complete with Hannibal Lector style hockey mask and copious padding so the girls can really go to town and put the boot in. The tone of this is played just perfectly – as it juxtaposes the paranoia of the adult world of the schoolmasters against the naïve and optimistic romanticism of the lonely girl protagonist of the piece. A performance which perhaps slightly worryingly Screenwriter/Director Cara Connolly informs us is actually based on her own schoolgirl experiences!
Rounding off the comedy contingent we have Russian roulette, which was the winner of the Grand Jury Prize – Sundance London Online Shorts Competition 2014. This little gem truly reflects the hand-made, shoestring budget approach to filmmaking having been produced for a cost of under £50.
The set for Russian Roulette was created with offcuts of wood from B&Q, bin liners and spare cables, and the film was shot partly through webcam. This is a film that was inspired by the internet (specifically Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield’s YouTube videos), the setting was the internet (all of the action taking place via a Chat Roulette type site), and was intended to be consumed by an internet audience. See below for Ben Aston’s behind the scenes look at the production of Russian Roulette which is almost as entertaining as the film itself.
So we begin to ask the question – is the bitesize nature of media consumption via the internet paving the way for a previously somewhat neglected genre of film to come to the fore?
Admittedly most of the directors at the screenings did express intentions to go on to make feature films (with some, such as the directors of Exchange & Mart and Dawn even intending to develop their shorts into feature versions), there were however also a number of stand alone pieces. TV has always been a good place to see short films with both Channel 4 and the BBC featuring several short film strands such as Short Cuts, Filmshorts and Random Acts – which Channel 4 with Arts Council backing now plan to develop in to a much more substantial strand;
There’s an incredible world of short-form filmmaking online that has got detached from television and isn’t seen by nearly as many people as it should be. Random Acts already has a long and impressive track record in finding, showcasing and supporting those filmmakers, but with this expanded programme and partnership it stands a far better chance of getting them the attention their astonishing work deserves, and making sure that there’s a stream of new talent joining their ranks.’ (John Hay, Commissioning Editor, Channel 4).
There’ll also be a new 4od channel hub, 4Shorts which will allow online viewing and sharing of short film content. So we have a situation in which the internet is enabling more people to make and show short films, and this is in turn feeding in to mainstream media. But it’s not just online and TV.
Back in 2006 filmmakers Matthew Jones and MJ McMahon set up Bitesize Cinema. Their ambition was to carve a place for short film alongside features, making seeing a batch of top quality short films as good a reason to venture out to the cinema as the latest summer blockbuster.
‘For too long short films have remained the forgotten art form; a consistently underrated medium that has never been given the exposure it demands. Bitesize Cinema is about exposing that art form to the masses.’ By presenting the best of international shorts, we hope that these films will eventually ‘sit alongside feature films at cinemas. (Matthew Jones and MJ Mcmahon).’
Having started their screenings in pubs and bars the duo soon moved on to Soho’s Curzon cinema and subsequently spread their screenings to several cities including Cardiff, Newcastle, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Perhaps the boys were a little ahead of their time as they were quick to spot the potential of digital media, yet we still haven’t become a nation of cinema short film fans. Certainly efforts like this have had their influence though. Local short film festivals have sprung up all over, including the Aesthetica Short Film Festival (ASFF) here in my home city of York. ASFF screens at the Picturehouse, City Screen, York.
It may well be that very soon we’ll all be able to toddle of to the local multiplex or arthouse cinema to enjoy the very particular storytelling experience that short film as oppose to features affords. Personally I love short films – not just as promotional videos for up and coming talent – but as entities in themselves. Short form film can allow for a much more intense and personal narrative experience. They can provide wonderful snapshots of people’s lives, personalities or predicaments. They can provide a medium for artistic expression (especially animation), and can make for some of the most compelling mini-dramas you’ll ever see.
As short films become more popular and prominent (facilitated by the democratizing effect of digital media) I believe that filmmakers, screenwriters etc will begin to think in terms of focussing on short film as an art form in itself instead of just as a stepping stone to bigger things. Let’s hope I’m right, as this can only be good for film and cinema as a whole. And indeed can only be a good thing for us the audience, and the future filmmakers to come.