Exploring the art of the short film
People are funny — huge audiences flock to sit through three-and-a-half hours of terrible actors hamming their way through an abysmal script, while the fat cats responsible for the belch of a film lounge on yachts made of fifty-pound notes…maybe. And yet the overwhelming majority of amazing and critically recognised short films fail to break even, let alone turn a profit.
“When my brother and I were really young, we made a kind of Pythonesque, 10-minute version of the entire Bible — we actually turned a profit on that one, selling it on the playground,” recalls critically acclaimed filmmaker and one half of the prolific Blaine Brothers, Ben Blaine: “The money we get now nowhere near covers everything though — it’s just not a viable economic activity.”
The Blaines’ latest film, Hallo Panda, was made for 50K, “It’s more than the budgets of all our other films combined. But really it’s not that much money when it comes to making a film — most of it went on the animatronics.”
The coming of YouTube et al has brought it to a wider audience, yet at the same time it has encouraged the practice of filmmakers giving away their work for free. As Blaine puts it, “I think the freedom the Internet provides is great, but it stops people thinking that shorts can be important and beautiful when they are shown next to videos of people falling over.”
Quite. But there’s no denying the buzz around short film at the moment. Music videos are increasingly blurring the line between promo and art, and are being directed by short film artists like Paul Fraser (Arctic Monkeys’ When the Sun Goes Down) and Ken Wardrop (Robbie Williams’ Bongo Bongo). Cobravision offers aspiring unknowns the chance to have their 50-second shorts screened before blockbuster movies on ITV4. Channel 4’s 3 Minute Wonder follows a similar format as part of their daytime schedule. Propeller TV (sky channel 195) devotes huge swathes of its schedule to short films. “Seven years ago you’d be hard pressed to see a short film unless you went to a festival,” Tricia Tuttle, editor of The Shooting People Short Directory, explains, “but now there are great sites like the BBC Film Network and Shooting People that you can really trust to have great films.”
The multi-talented Shorts Directory, which was out in September, has everything you could possibly need to make a short film, from broken down sample budgets to the pros and cons of different cameras on the market. It’s also full of interviews and essays with successful film-types like BAFTA-winning short filmmaker Daniel Molloy and the UK film council’s Rebecca Mark-Lawson. Each section comes with an exhaustive contacts list, putting budding filmmakers in touch with funding schemes, sales agents and just about anyone else they might need a leg-up from.
“It’s unique — the first of its kind,” says Tuttle, “it’s a compendium of ideas about short film. It brings together all that knowledge in one place, so you don’t have to re-invent the wheel every time you start a project.”
The Shooting People of the title is a community of filmmakers, sharing resources, skills and experience. They send out daily email bulletins to members covering all aspects of filmmaking. Set up in 1998 by Cath Le Couteur and Jess Search, its raison d’etre is to provide an online network for filmmakers, aiming to enhance the collaborative process. Now boasting almost 30,000 members, www.shootingpeople.org is, as Morgan Spurlock puts it, “a necessity for anyone who works, lives and breathes independent film.”
Whereas the Internet has only had an impact on the world of short film relatively recently, the film festival has been the natural home of the short for many years: “The festival model hasn’t changed since I got into it in the mid-nineties,” says Philip Ilson, director of the London Short Film Festival (formerly the Halloween Short Film Festival).
Now in its fifth year, the festival combines new shorts with live music and retrospectives. Ilson co-founded the festival with Kate Taylor in 2002, aiming to create the generic short film festival that London lacked at the time, but with a DIY, punk-rock ethic. “We’re passionate about short film, and about getting the work we like out there to an audience.”
The festival showcases new and established names in short film, according to the tastes of the two co-founders. “That’s what makes [the festival] quite autre, because it’s all put together by just two people.”
Andrea Arnold’s 2005 Oscar-winner Wasp is typical of the kind of film you’d expect to see at the LSFF. “It’s very gritty, very rough and ready,” says Ilson. The pair have nothing against big budget films either — an attitude that is refreshing in an industry where getting proper funding is a tremendous struggle and many filmmakers have to max out their credit cards to see their vision made.
“If people are being passionate and genuine we’ll screen it,” says Ilson. So, from 50p films to 50K films, talking pandas to pop stars, the short film is a stronger and more diverse medium than ever before.
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