Making Shorts in Today’s Film Culture

The results for the Aesthetica Short Film Competition 2010 have been announced. The finalists have their say on what it takes to make a great short and how that fits within the landscape of cinema today.

The mechanics of filmmaking have never been more accessible. In today’s internet driven world, sites like YouTube and Vimeo attract millions of viewers. The idea of do-it-yourself and user generated content has exploded. What impact has this had on the film industry? More and more people are making films, but the outlet for short films is limited. However, there are a number of festivals that include on shorts, which defines the infrastructure, such as: The London Short Film Festival (January), Glasgow Film Festival (February), Birds Eye View (March), Rushes Short Film Festival (July), Branchage Film Festival (September), Raindance (November) amongst many others.

Why should short film be celebrated? For many filmmakers, short films become a calling card, offering audiences a chance to see filmmakers as the impetus is rising. It’s a hard industry, with very little funding, and with the UK Film council being disbanded, and the strain on regional agencies enormous, it will remain this way. Much of the short film world is comprised of directors and writers who make these films because they have to; akin to writing short stories – many people say that market is dead, but it’s not, just as short film has its critics, the truth is these vignettes offer so much with regards to defining the craft. Limited space and time requires precision of story, and a good short offers immediacy, with a narrative that captures audiences’ imaginations from the start.

Earlier this year, we launched the Aesthetica Short Film Competition to support and champion burgeoning filmmakers. With approximately 1000 entries from over 30 countries, the competition attracted a wealth of international talent. We received films from nearly every genre, from the more experimental artists’ films to drama, documentary, animation and music video. It was an amazing experience to watch these films. Filmmakers are the ultimate artists; involving nearly every component of creative practice.

British filmmaker, Carol Salter was this year’s winner for her emotive documentary, Unearthing the Pen, while the American filmmaking-duo, the Varava Brothers were the runners-up with The Shadow Effect. Salter’s film is about a young Ugandan boy whose tribe has placed a curse on the pen, rendering him illiterate and limiting his understanding and knowledge, at one point he says: “I know nothing of this world.” We follow Locheng on his journey, when he enquires at the school and costs are discussed, the teacher asks him: “How will you afford this?” It becomes a moment that defines real emotion. Salter negotiates a very personal story, and working as a one woman crew she captures the humanity of her subject: “It’s crucial for me to build a close relationship with my subject. I don’t know if that would be possible with a larger crew.” Although she manages the technical aspects herself, Salter says: “I don’t work in isolation”, which clearly defines the medium: by its nature film engenders collaboration, between maker and viewer if nothing else. Locheng yearns for education, and through this film, we reflect upon our lives and situations realising how much we take for granted. Salter creates a relationship that draws out empathy in her viewers through her cinematography. She is a filmmaker who will, no doubt, grace the big screen in the future.

The Varava Brothers’ film, The Shadow Effect, is, in contrast, set in Hollywood. We meet a man, roughly 30-years-old, his life isn’t going according to plan, and he’s unhappy with a routine that never changes. In a self-obsessed culture, he sees an advert for a programme that will change his life. He’s meant to find someone to “model” himself after, but he lives alone, eats alone, and so he turns to the television, soap operas in particular. The cliché of American soap operas is that everyone is rich and beautiful, and the main character buys into that idea. He wants to exist in a fictional world, and by dressing and acting like a character from the soap, he discards his own life. This sense of isolation in contemporary society underpins a present-day dilemma. Throughout the film, the main character is anonymous, and never speaks. The brothers wanted to create, “a forceful sense of urgency with a smart and scathing sense of humour, seen through a beautiful, and unrefined aesthetic in hopes of really creating a deep empathy for the character in the narrative.” The Shadow Effect is essential viewing for anyone that has ever compared themselves to others, a phenomenon that has been fuelled by social networking and digital media.

Providing a cross-section of compelling narratives and beautiful cinematography, the following filmmakers were commended: Remi Weekes (Exhale), Timothy Melville (The Laundromat), Tatiana Margaux Bonhomme (That Sunday), Guy Ducker (Missed), Shaun Hughes (Mother), Thomas Canning (Foto), Daniel Wirtberg (Love Child), Oonagh Kearney (Her Mother’s Daughters), Matt Hammill (Hazed), Manuela Moreno (I Want to Spend the Rest of My Life with You) and Tom Werber (Losers: Flush).

What makes someone become a filmmaker? Carol Salter, Shaun Hughes, Tatiana Margaux Bonhomme and Tom Werber all came from an art background. Hughes did a Masters Degree in fine art, although his “first experiments were in the realm of video art” and he was “striving to express ideas or emotions that generally dealt with memory.” For filmmakers such as Guy Ducker, Thomas Canning and Daniel Wirtberg, they first got involved with film from a young age; curiosity driven by the family camcorder. In the case of Wirtberg, he grew up in rural Sweden, and it was his friend’s father’s camcorder locked away, which sparked the idea of making films. “When my friend’s father was out, we picked the lock, got the camcorder, went out into the night, and shot everything that moved. Step-by-step it developed into a sketch; there was a lot of playing around in the beginning.” There’s a big difference between those of us who dream about making movies, and those of us who actually do it, although these filmmakers come from different backgrounds and varying levels of experience, they are all active in making films.

But the process of making a film is daunting. How do you actually do it? Although some of our filmmakers started off experimenting to make a film that goes beyond a series of candid moving images, it involves meticulous planning and collaboration. Each finalist cites collaboration as one of the main aspects for getting any project off the ground, and nearly all of the films are self-financed. Finding locations and casting, to organising a crew and adequate equipment, are only some of the many tasks. A good idea is not enough to make a film; you must be dedicated and surround yourself with a team who believe in the project. For Canning, it was location that was crucial: “I learned an important lesson whilst trying to get permission to film on Brighton Pier. I called them and tried to sound like I was experienced and incredibly important. The price they quoted was astronomical. Then, I made the decision to be honest, and explained I was self-funded and it was a small film; they dropped the price and were lovely to me after I told the truth.” Whereas for Ducker, it boils down to casting, for him it’s essential “not just to get the best actors, but the right actors.” In a short film, there’s very little time “to flesh out a character, so the actor’s natural presence becomes an important tool in storytelling.”

Digital methods signify rapid production, and so the landscape of cinema is changing. According to Kearney: “Cinema culture is always shifting; on one hand we’re told audiences respond to what they know, but I think that certain modes of expression have ‘normalised’ and shaped audiences’ expectations. But audiences vary and times change.” Does this mean that there’s a place for short film? Projects like the Artists’ Cinema run by LUX and the ICO in London, present short films before mainstream films at major picture houses. Although, their project focuses on artists’ films, there is scope to explore this idea further, as the model for watching films is changing.

Filmmaking is about communicating a message. The 13 finalists radiate energy, courage and determination. In one of the hardest industries to break into on the planet, they continue to create and most commented that they “need” to create. This conviction is infectious and compelling. Hughes suggests: “We consume much more today. Shorts are a great device for delivery of a story that can retain the viewer’s attention. You could argue that there is more scope to experiment.” This prevailing attitude demonstrates the need for the short.

Cherie Federico