More Than a Stepping Stone
Long seen as the crudité to the blockbuster’s entrée, the short film is about to morph from a stepping stone into the main presentation.
At the advent of film’s creation, every single story committed to celluloid was short. Feature films simply did not exist in the minds of filmmakers, scriptwriters or audiences. A tale had to be told concisely within the confines that the time’s technology would allow, typically eclipsing at 20 minutes. Early shorts like the Lumière Brothers’ audience-wowing Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895) intrigued and shocked without being elongated beyond their need. With its wondrous projection of a train, the film captured the attention of new cinema-goers. As technology evolved, production values changed and studios had to satisfy the demand of an ever-hungry public wanting longer features.
Over a century later, public demand and the buck chasing studios have remained the same, and while the money-making machine of the film industry continues to thrive in one way or another, it has left little room for the low profit returning short film. Consequently, the creation and purpose of the form have changed entirely. Rather than being bodies of work conveying a message succinctly through clever construction within the time that has been allowed, shorts’ reason for existence seems to be as calling cards for upcoming directors. The evolution of the role of short film is a fascinating journey from producing a work of art for its own creation to doing this as a means to a final, bigger end for new filmmakers. The beauty of having a short film concept that simply would not work as a feature is not as popular as it was. The idea of a temporal medium encased perfectly within time constraints is now not viewed as romantically as before. Even the 2013 Oscar winning short Curfew struggled to find funding to become a feature at the time of its nomination for an Academy Award.
That said, many of these necessary, stripe-earning stepping stones are fascinating, entertaining tasters of what’s to come from extremely talented new filmmakers. As pocket-sized previews, some testing and wonderful cinema is created without the constraints of big studio budget concerns or worries of returns. Part of the road to success or not, short film has proven that, creatively, it deserves appreciation in its own right.
With this in mind, BAFTA has issued a collection of nominated live action and animated shorts, grouped as a feature presentation, with a UK cinema release to give them the platform that they fully deserve. From the animated, floating opener, Here To Fall (2012), the package of shorts darts in a refreshingly disjointed manner across the globe, flying through genres and transcending filmic styles and media with seamless ease.
BAFTA-winning producer, and Chair of the Short Film Jury, Lisa Bryer helped to bring this enlightening project to the table, and believes that short film is, now more than ever, “incredibly important for championing new talent”, primarily due to the difficulty in finding funding for those entering into the industry for the first time. Bryer says: “These days if you’re trying to make a feature, finance is almost impossible, and often making a short first helps you to track finance, which in turn teaches you how to make a longer film.”
Today, shorts can win awards in their own right, and have begun to re-carve their own artistic niche in the way that music videos did at the inception of music television. This owes partly to the fact that directors are realising that short films are one of the most viable options for raising funds. Bryer comments: “One of my directors, Nick Love, started out as my runner, and now he is one of Britain’s top directors. I remember that when we were trying to get Goodbye Charlie Bright (2011) financed, no-one would give it a look-in because he’d never directed before, so we raised the money to make a short film. He learnt his craft through that, discovering exactly how to work with actors, and then he was ready to move on to make features.”
A theatrical release is part and parcel of the empowerment of such upstarts, giving a platform and goal where the short film itself is the focus. Bryer explains: “It makes filmmakers feel that they are actually being taken seriously, and that it’s not just a BAFTA audience – an industry audience – that is looking at their work critically, but it’s actually your everyday person on the street who wants to watch a good film regardless of length. It’s fantastic because, at the end of the day, it’s the punters – the filmgoing audience – who are important.”
In a world occupied by blockbusters, opening week figures and achieving the bottom dollar in filmmaking, it seems that the short film still has some kind of role to play: “I think the filmmaker is able to experiment with short film and have more control, which can sometimes be a good thing but at other times isn’t.” Scanning through a great selection from the vast troves of potential nominations, it is hard to deny the variety of quality exhibited by the entrants at both ends of the scale. “I mean, not every short film is good. I’ve seen a huge amount of shorts in my time. But I have to say, without question, that each year the overall quality of shorts is generally getting better and better,” says Bryer.
With more established names opting to produce short films, such as Plan B and Paddy Considine, it has been argued that short films have been used as promotional tools, even limelight-hogging vanity projects, rather than as pieces of art in their own right. Bryer disagrees: “More recognised directors want to make short films because they haven’t got the same major distribution or monetary pressures that they have on features, and they can tell a story their way without taking two or three years making something to do so. Also, I think short films are now attractive to more recognised talent because there’s a bigger audience for them. This is why it is incredibly important for us at BAFTA to have this theatrical release, as it’s an opportunity for audiences across the UK to watch short films that they really will enjoy.”
However, known talents are not the ones to benefit directly from this theatrical release. Bryer believes that pushing new talent like this evens a playing field otherwise filled with potholes and obstacles for a new director: ‘It just gives filmmakers so much more of a chance of getting into the industry. It’s always been about the idea. It’s never been about the look, it’s about the content: the ability to tell a story. These days, with technology, you don’t need a 35mm camera, so, if they have a really good idea, anyone can go out and make a short film. You don’t need all the equipment and I think that’s really exciting.”
Bryer has an excellent wealth of experience to bring to discussions on the subject, with her own company, Cowboy Films, producing the excellent short film Wasp (2003). Said film propelled the career of actor-turned-director Andrea Arnold, who has since gone on to make Wuthering Heights (2011) and Fish Tank (2009). Bryer says: “Andrea’s a wonderful filmmaker and great storyteller. I love directors who are based in reality. She produced and directed Wasp; we were just the company that helped her put it together. It was a pleasure to have Cowboy associated with such a talented woman. Wasp is still my favourite short film and it wasn’t hugely expensive to make.”
Having that additional push has helped short films exist in their own right in recent years instead of being sidelined as industry tasters or hints at a future body of work. In addition, the form acts as a refreshing reminder that audiences can be satisfied by a film that hasn’t been unnecessarily stretched out over nearly three hours. Bryer says: “These days there’s so much interest in short films, because I think you can say a lot in less than 40 minutes. One of my big beefs at the moment as a producer, and also part of the film committee at BAFTA, is that I find that a lot of the feature films we are seeing today are too long. I’ve got 15-year-old twin boys and they watch the DVDs with me for the BAFTA Awards. The one consistent comment all the way through is ‘Mum, every film is so long!’ I know they are 15 and may have a shorter attention span than me.” She laughs, but is quick to admit that she has “noticed that too.”
There is certainly an appetite for films that can tell a coherent, all encompassing story in a short amount of time, without being bogged down by filler. It provides a creative cinematic challenge, and can tease out stories that would otherwise never have suited a feature. Bryer concludes: “When I started my career making music videos, you had to tell a story in three minutes. I think it’s fantastic training to be concise, and wonderful for an audience to watch something that can be three, 15 or 30 minutes, because you can say so much in that time if you are creative. What you sometimes don’t get in short film is a director’s vanity. And a lot of the time, in features, that vanity can cause a film to go on a lot longer than it should.”